This past summer I took my boys with me on an important homecoming of sorts.
I hadn’t been back to Alberta since my father passed away four years ago today. It’s not that I didn’t want to connect with that side of my family. But between limited holiday time and some serious avoidance, I just put it off in favour of visiting my mom and sister on the West Coast.
Truthfully, even the prospect of landing at the Calgary airport felt heavy to me, since my previous few arrivals there had been under duress. And just like Joan Didion explores in A Year of Magical Thinking, there’s a lot of pretending a psyche can do in order to distance itself from grief. If I didn’t go to Calgary and experience his not-thereness, part of me could imagine that he was still alive and well in Cow Town, selling real estate, telling corny jokes and faithfully attending the Calgary Stampede.
But earlier this year I decided we would make the journey at last, flying to Vancouver and staying the week, then driving slowly across B.C. and into Alberta. With this plan we’d avoid the quick drop into the Calgary airport and instead approach slowly from the west, adjusting internal barometres along the way.
I was a little anxious ahead of the trip, in part because of unanswered questions about his illness, and in part due to some fairly average family drama. Also, I wouldn’t be seeing his former home on this trip — no running a hand over the knobs of his antique radio or the piece of driftwood he had carved, no chance to show the boys my grandfather’s paintings on the walls. The little white kitchen dad had painstakingly made for my brother and sister and me had long been lost to a garage sale. All of this really highlighted my near total lack of objects by which to remember him.
Happily, I got more out of the trip than I could have imagined, winding our way along the Crow’s Nest Highway, listening to dad’s favourite CBC radio show, Quirks and Quarks, my nine-year-old rapt in the backseat. I heard myself echoing dad’s explanations of how glaciers formed the mountains he loved so much. We made important stops as we went to reconnect with family members; the boys especially loved seeing their cousins in charming Rossland, B.C. When we reached wee Elkford in the Rockies, not far from the Alberta border, we stayed with my Auntie Kay and Uncle Paul. It was there that I tearfully mentioned some of my conflicted feelings, and then my aunt miraculously produced a cache of paintings by my grandfather. Would I like to choose one to take back to Toronto?
My heart lifted when I found among them this painting that we believe was created from a photo taken by my dad. It’s not a masterpiece. It’s simply a piece by a hobby painter who happens to be my late grandfather, and it’s enormously valuable to me. I left Elkford feeling better than I had in some time, knowing I had a little piece of my dad’s side of the family to take home.
The next day we reached our final destination at my Auntie Connie and Uncle Don’s home in in High River, just south of Calgary. My Auntie Rena arrived from Saskatchewan later that evening. It was a great reunion. I produced my grandfather’s artwork from the back of the rental car and Auntie Rena insisted she take the painting home to ship so it wouldn’t have to make the trip as my carry-on. I was so delighted when it arrived. Our journey was complete.
I’m determined to give the painting pride of place in my living room. I’m not crazy about the grainy oak of the frame, though, so I’m thinking about painting it black (carefully removing the painting first, of course!).
This is what it looks like hastily added to the mantel. What do you think? Will the black frame work?
How have you displayed sentimental objects in your home?
1-5. Brandie Weikle