Slipping Sliding back into Autumn in Montreal

Golden Birch from our Window

Golden Birch from our Window

It snowed last night. Not the pretty first snowfall of early December, with the promise of seasonal lights and festivities, but a thick layer of wet slush. Glad my snow tires are on, since we will be traveling to Montreal, where Andy will undergo two weeks of teacher training workshops.

Here autumn, which lasts scarcely a minute, was spectacular. The yellow larches and birches glinted between the black spruce. No reds at all, but the yellows varied from green-yellow to deep, tarnished gold depending on the state of transformation. But I still I miss the reds and russets of southern Quebec’s maples.

I also miss the preparations of the season, putting my garden to sleep, pruning straggly bushes, digging up the last carrots and potatoes, and placing green tomatoes on the kitchen windowsill to ripen further.

I miss crunching a freshly-picked mac at Quinn’s Farm, the garden displays of orange pumpkin people and tubs of mums, the scent of woodfires, and the crunch of leaves …

There’s lots to do for the two weeks I am back home, aside from various necessary appointments, as Andy will be occupied for the most part of the day.

Plans:

  1. Walk around my old neighbourhood in the West Island to look at people’s fall displays of pumpkin people, straw bales and tubs of mums.
  2. Crunch a freshly-picked mac at Quinn Farm and breathe in the scent of Mrs. Quinn’s deep dutch apple pies and muffins.
  3. See an English movie or two – in a cinema, with popcorn. Of course we have legally downloaded films and shows, but the velvety darkness of a cinema, the buttery popcorn smell, the excitement of previews beckon me.
  4. Take out Indian food from our favourite restaurant at St. Anne de Bellevue to share with my cousin and his family (with cold beers and topped off with his girlfriend’s special Brazilian coffee).
  5. Take my mom to Costco so she can stock up with nuts and dried fruits for her legendary stollen, spritzgebak and spice cakes for Christmas.
  6. Meet up with a couple of girlfriends who have moved to Toronto at Kingston or Gananoque to walk, talk and shop.
  7. Have a Harvey’s all dressed burger (no onions) and side of onion rings with colleagues from my former workplace.
  8. Have a foamy, steamy coffee with a design etched into the froth (even though I don’t like coffee, they are so pretty to drink).
  9. Spend time with my son, whose birthday coincides with our trip.
  10. Visit with my lovely step-daughter.  Hope she can make it down from Ottawa.
  11. Squeeze in some lunches and dinners with friends and former colleagues.
  12. NaNoWri?  sigh …

I’m exhausted already!

White Geese that Fly with the Moon on their Wings

We stopped the car at a beach, where a boardwalk followed the shoreline of Lac St. Jean, dipping into nearby marshes and woodlands. It was a warm October afternoon, probably one of the last, before winter descended. We wanted to enjoy every minute of it.

A seamless sky met the large body of water. Large crescents of white tufts seemed to be floating on the lake.

As we came closer, we realized that the white fluff were actually birds. Without prelude, the birds began to call, their fierce honking rising to a deafening crescendo. Flocks configured and rose to form ‘U’s, ‘V’s and letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. Other groups appeared and sank gracefully, with scarcely a splash into the lake, blending in with other birds.

They were the size of Canada Geese, sounded like Canada Geese, but they were white, with black-tipped wings.

I stopped a woman walking along the boardwalk with headphones in her ears, oblivious the orchestra of geese.

“Bonjour!” I said. “Quels sont ces oiseaux blancs?” I gestured towards the lake.

“Les oies blanches,” she shrugged.

Oiseaux blancs? White birds?  It took me a moment to realize she meant “white geese” and recalled a short story by Paul Gallico called “The Snow Goose”, that all Canadian school children had to read.

We spent the afternoon walking the shoreline watching geese, forming, swarming, teeming, screaming …

I didn’t have a camera, but found a clip on youtube and some pictures that confirmed that these were, indeed, snow geese.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxVMaAd1mog

Snow Geese Swarming

Snow Geese Swarming

A quick internet check revealed that the geese arrive from Arctic regions at the end of September and stay about three weeks, feeding in the St. Lawrence and its tributaries on grasses and grains. In March, they stop again before their migration back north.

According to Martine, our hostess at the Bed & Breakfast we were staying at over Thanksgiving, the geese have been around longer than the usual three weeks. It’s been almost four weeks.

Our Bed & Breakfast was a restored rectory, overlooking Lac St. Jean at Roberval, the western shore. Normally, Roberval has been a place we pass through, grab a Tim Hortons coffee on our long drive to Montreal. This time we had the opportunity to explore the area and visit the Ursuline Convents; their recreated gardens and walkways where nuns may have walked a century ago, in twos, or threes or alone, in deep contemplation, when not busy in the gardens, teaching, caring for orphans …

I wondered why that order of nuns may have chosen that spot for their convent. Maybe they thought the geese were able to carry their prayers more swiftly to the heavens on their strong white wings.

Anishinabe Ancestors and Stepping Back into Time

Anglican Church dedicated to Andy's ancestor

Anglican Church dedicated to Andy’s ancestor

In some traditions, after a wedding, the “young” couple travels for the first year of marriage to visit family. We spent our summer just doing that.

We visited cousins, aunts and uncles, and found ancestors in graveyards and hidden pockets of Canada we never knew existed. We traveled from the Okanagan Valley to the Peace River Valley, from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island to Gimli, on the shores of the large inland sea, Lake Winnipeg.

At family dinner tables, we enjoyed stories and exchanged histories.

The most poignant of these stopovers, was the journey to the Key Reserve, at the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, to see Andy’s birthplace and hopefully find some of his ancestors.

Andy was adopted at the age of two by English-Norwegian-Scottish parents. His adoptive family consisted of many relatives, with a family tree as twisted and entwined as the branches of an old oak. He didn’t feel a need to find his ancestors, but now that we were living on a reserve, he had many questions.

On our way back to Mistissini from BC, we planned a layover at the Key Reserve. Preliminary research on the internet proved futile. Numerous e-mails to the band office were unanswered. We were able to glean some information from the band’s rather generic website.

Heading towards the reserve, we spotted a small sign indicating “Key Reserve” and a dirt road leading into cultivated fields.

“Should we turn in?” I asked Andy.

“No,” he said. “Let’s set up camp first and wait until morning. I want to be fresh.”

According to our map, Duck Mountain Provincial Park was the nearest promising campground. We pulled into the visitor centre and reserved a campsite by the lake.

While I was wandering about the displays of the wildlife representations and educational items at the visitor centre, Andy asked the park employee what the best way was to get to the reserve.

Barbara, as she introduced herself, expressed interest that we were looking for the small band. According to her, there were two other bands on the other side of the highway, in constant state of feuding, but the community at Key pretty much kept to itself.

“We are passing through and I want to see where I was born,” he told her.

Barbara smiled. “I can help you with that. I am the town librarian and have access to reports from all over this area.”

She promised to make photocopies for us of anything she could find, including reports by the Department of Indian Affairs dating back to the late 1800s.

We were up early the next morning.

“How do I look,” I asked Andy. I was in my comfortable travel wear. We were both nervous.

We had sketchy directions and traveled several miles on dirt roads, set in a grid pattern. There were no distinguishing landmarks, just copses of poplar and fields. We continued on the deserted roads, reminiscent of the endless lost landscapes of Stephen King novels. Finally, a cloud of dust arose and a car appeared.

“Flag them down, so we can find out where we are,” I tell Andy.

The car stopped in a choking brown cloud of silt. Andy rolled down his window. I couldn’t see who he was talking too, but it was a woman’s voice.

Andy:  I am looking for the Key Band Office.

Female Voice (“FV”):  Who are you?

Andy:  Andy Anderson.

Hesitation

Andy:  Well, Earl Brass was my birth name.

FV:  Oh Yes!  I know YOU! You have a brother named Leon and two other twin brothers named Joe and John and your mother’s name was Alice. Come! Follow me to the band office so we can talk.

We followed her dust and parked at the band office situated at a small lake. Here we were welcomed into a meeting room.

It turned out that the female voice was Terry, Andy’s second cousin.

Terry had short, spiked black hair. She told us that she had retired two years ago, but at 67 she is still working as a mental health counsellor for the band.

Erin, the receptionist, popped into the room. She was also a cousin. As Andy, she had been adopted out into a non-native family. Interestingly, the term used during our conversations was “apprehended” not adopted. Andy questioned Erin about her experience and she replied that she had a good relationship with her adoptive parents. When she made connections with her biological family, they heartily endorsed her quest; however, they were worried that it might affect their relationship they had with her.

“As a mother, myself, I can understand your adoptive parents,” I told her.

We met so many people, who greeted us with gentle curiosity and warm welcome. Cousins, second cousins, cousins several times removed, great aunts and uncles … we had many conversations. By the end of the day, we were both quite overwhelmed.

“It’s almost like they’ve been waiting for you, that it was completely natural that you would just show up one day,” I said on the way back to the campground. The relatives could have contacted Andy, as they did have information, but chose not to. I feel that this was out of respect.

I cannot possibly recount all the conversations that went on and the information given to us. There was just too much. Meeting Elder Campbell Papequash is one I will tell.

At the band office, I asked Terry, “Who do you think would like to meet Andy most.”

She made a quick call to Campbell, Andy’s first cousin once removed (his mother was Andy’s grandmother). A few moments later, we were following a puff of dust to his home.

Campbell sat on his porch on a metal office chair, the wind-music of the poplar trees wafting around him. His steel-grey hair was tied in a long braid. He observed us coming up the wheelchair ramp with penetrating black eyes.

Terry made introductions and left us to attend a meeting at the band office. Campbell and Andy spent the afternoon on the porch talking, while I wandered about with two neighbouring dogs and played with a ginger cat, occasionally listening in.

Campbell’s wife, Terisita, came out of the house and offered us glasses of water and returned into the kitchen to prepare lunch. We felt it was time to leave, but that was not to be. The table had been set for four.

After lunch, Campbell drove us to the area where he sets up an annual camp, a reunion and meeting place of sorts. Sweat lodges had been erected for ceremonial use. He showed us the teaching circle with the tree of life planted at the eastern portal.

While I was photographing, Campbell walked the large teaching circle, clockwise, and I heard an ancient hum, a melody, resonant to the earth emanating from him.

We visited an abandoned Anglican church, the second oldest church in Saskatchewan. Campbell had a key so we could see the plaque dedicated to Andy’s ancestor, Margaret Brass, from the Orkney Islands. Here is another beautiful story, but for another time to tell. The church was maintained, the grounds freshly mowed, the small white crosses and gravesites tended to lovingly. My favourite picture is of Campbell and Terisita walking away from the graveyard to their old truck, into the boundless prairie and popular parklands.

On the way back to Campbell’s home, we drove by Campbell’s grandfather’s sacred space, colourful prints hung in trees, creating a cloth garden.

One of Campbell’s remorses is the loss of language and culture of his people, often lost when children were taken to residential schools. He set about to learn the Anishinabe (antonym for Ojibwe and Algonquin) language in his later years, from listening to tapes. He is one of the few people on the reserve that can still speak it. At this point, Andy discovered his heritage to be Anishinabe, not Cree, as he had always assumed.

Campbell also wrote a book, one of which he signed, and presented to us as a gift. The book is about his experiences in residential schools, on skid row, and how after a spiritual awakening, he returned to his roots. More can be found on his website at http://theyearningjourney.com/

We decided to extend our visit another day. There was still so much the men needed to talk about. Campbell had an appointment the next day, but we agreed to come at dinner time.

The next afternoon, we headed back to the band office for more information. It was a long afternoon of looking at family trees, registered births and pictures. More cousins filtered in. Terry mentioned that she had ordered Chinese food for lunch. By late afternoon, we felt quite hungry and craved Chinese food, which, we were told, could be found in the nearby town of Norquay. We decided to have a quick dinner before heading back to Campbell’s.

“Do you mind if we come?” Merle, one of Andy’s cousins asked.

We were delighted to have a small entourage into town. At least we didn’t get lost this time.

After dinner, we all headed to back Campbell’s home, where more relatives and Campbell’s brother Clarence, the current Chief had gathered. Terisita prepared cake, and sliced my humbly offered banana bread from our RV freezer, and offered refreshments.

We had to return home before Campbell’s annual camp in late August. Vision Quest takes place in the spring and maybe we’ll make it back then.

We both know this is a place we will return to. It has called us and we will be back.

Photos of our trip to find ancestors:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/94352555@N08/sets/72157635403678361/

Elder Campbell Papequash

Elder Campbell Papequash