One Woman's Memories
There are a few portraits of Jesus in Louise’s home. In all of them, Jesus’s gaze is both sincere and unspecific and, because of this, it evokes whatever the onlooker needs it to, but always with deep seriousness. Today, it reflects back Louise’s sombreness. Because it feels good to have your emotions reflected back to yourself, she hasn’t ever taken down the portraits. Jesus represents for her life as a kind of quality, something not equivalent to biography though certainly bound up in it. It is like motherhood, Louise has thought once or twice. To be a mother is to represent for someone else life as an abstract quality.
Louise isn’t a practicing Catholic, but she does believe in heaven and the transmutability of suffering. Louise might say that suffering doesn’t exist for the sake of itself. She wouldn’t use the word suffering, however. It’d go by the name of something more identifiable, like a headache or fatigue or joint pain or, more ambiguously, the past. Typically, Louise has treated the past with ambivalence. The past is an empty house; we can wander through it but we don’t need to drag furniture inside, she thinks. It might seem ironic, then, that her walls are cluttered with photographs of her parents and siblings and late husband but especially of her son, Paul, tracing his childhood to the near present. But what really is a photograph? A photograph is a way of representing the past that doesn’t bring it to life. A photograph gives shape to history, allows us to fashion a landscape of feeling at the expense of other more ungovernable feelings. A photograph is a ladder that goes backward in time—we can push the ladder away whenever we want. In other words, a photograph can obscure the past as much as it can illuminate it.
This afternoon, the house is silent and cold. Louise is sitting on a large floral couch beside a telephone receiver. The receiver is grey and hard and unattractive in the way that all new technology seems ugly to Louise. A green light glows from the receiver. She picks up the phone in one hand and dials Paul’s number with the other. She never has to think about his number; it exists inside her like a heartbeat. They have had countless conversations over the phone, but Louise continues to be struck by how close his voice sounds when they speak. It is as though they are talking from across a room and not across hundreds of kilometres and a quarter of a province. The ringing drones on and on. Paul doesn’t answer. Louise considers leaving a voicemail but decides against it, not wanting to appear needy or disrupt the rhythm of his day. After she hangs up, it occurs to her that she is lonely. She looks over at Jesus again. She reassesses her feelings. Yes, I am lonely, she confirms. It is winter and I am lonely. Louise doesn’t tend to consider herself a lonely person. That would mean confronting aspects of the past she’s ignored. Lately, though, the past has welled around her in all its glistening clarity.
Against her nature, she wants to discuss the events of her life. It is a new urge. She has lived through so much and yet has discussed so little about that living. Maybe it’s because a new century has begun and she still feels like a part of the preceding one. She belongs to the twentieth century, she is indivisible from it. However much longer she lives, however greatly the world changes, that fact will remain unchanged.
People don’t really expire, Louise thinks. People die, but even in death they continue aging in crooked photographs along a wall in someone’s house.
What does it mean to be a living monument? The question hovers around Louise all night.
It is the middle of February in the subarctic. Snow has fallen over everything like history. The aspens around the reserve lost their leaves months ago. Now their branches jut out frailly toward the sky, as if in prayer. The blue is so expansive it is unreal; it is the opposite of human consciousness. Louise is shovelling snow off of the path that leads to her car. Her car has been idling for thirty minutes to melt the ice covering the windshield. She is sweating despite the frigid temperature. She pauses to wipe her forehead. She looks over at the forest. It elicits in her a kind of sympathy, not the cruel kind, but rather something akin to closeness. She identifies in both the forest and herself a state of wavering. That is, like the boreal forest, she too has endured season after season of loss. Without foliage, the trees don’t tremble. This morning, it is Louise who does the trembling. It is as if some part of the winter she is currently living through has embedded itself inside her. Does she have a use for her sadness, which feels so much like winter? Yes, in that it is also a homeland, a place where she is never in exile.
The grocery store is normally a twenty-minute drive east, though in snowy conditions it can take twice as long. Louise’s winter tires are several years old; their treads have flattened considerably. And so, she is moving slowly along the icy highway. Since the death of her husband, the car has gone mostly unattended to. They hadn’t actually married, though she thinks of him as her husband all the same. In Louise’s mind, marriage is for the young. When they met, he was a non-status Indian because his mother had married a Métis man (this gender-biased clause in the Indian Act wouldn’t be amended for several more decades). It was Louise’s mother who advised them not to marry. It made total sense, a kind of Indian common sense at the time. When Paul was born, he was given Louise’s surname as well. Minor manipulations of colonial law shaped everyday life. It was too late when her husband’s Indian status was at last restored in the late eighties. It seemed silly to them both to have their love, which was already so instilled with truth, codified by the government.
This is what she is thinking about as she pulls into the town in which she does her shopping. The town is what some historians call a “railway town.” As the railway was etched into the prairies like a tear, creating “the prairies,” this town came into being. For decades, there was a de facto mode of segregation in place. White families, tied first to homesteading, then to the railway, and then later to lumbering in the area, ruled the town. Indigenous peoples came and went, because colonization meant that they were implicated in the settler economy, but they rarely lingered. Horror stories abounded. People kept away. Louise is a part of this history, as are her loved ones, though she has never thought to describe it as racist. The idea was that it was simply the way things were, which is, of course, a function of racism.
In the grocery store, Louise puts more into her cart than she needs. Some white people stare at her rudely, but she doesn’t notice. She runs into a distant relative in the produce area and they catch up for a few minutes. She desires a fuller conversation, but their location runs counter to that desire. It’s as if everyone is listening in. She promises to stop by the relative’s place later in the week and they part ways. When she returns to her car, it’s become freezing inside again. She blows into her hands and listens to the radio while the heat blares. It’s a song she’s never heard before.
The drive back to the reserve is more slow-going than the drive out. The snow is heavy and affecting Louise’s visibility. About fifteen kilometres from her house, she pulls onto a dirt road and puts the hazard lights on. She grips the steering wheel after putting the car into park. She closes her eyes and rests her head against it. The heat cascades over her face. She remains this way for a long time.
When Louise arrives home, she checks to see if she has missed any calls. She hasn’t. She will have to wait until the evening to call Paul again. He lives in Edmonton where he works in student support services at the university. He is the first person in their family to have earned a post-secondary degree. When he convocated, Louise sobbed in her seat in the large auditorium. It marked for her a subtle break from history. He would live a better life. It was a thought undercut with the whole of a generation’s hope. As Paul rooted into the city, built his better life down south, fell in love with a Cree woman from a nearby reserve, he grew distant from his parents, from the north of his childhood. Louise wonders how it is a son and a mother cleave apart; it betrays what she knows about being a person. The cleaving was so gradual and mysterious it was almost as if it were in the end an inevitability. Suddenly, her son had become inscrutable. Her grief over this inscrutability feels so private that she doesn’t give it outward expression. Perhaps this only adds to the air of disconnection between her and Paul, Louise thinks. Does she wish she had had more children? Sometimes. Mostly, though, she wants to undo time or to live the same life over again. To make small adjustments that would, of course, change everything.
She looks at the photographs on her wall, at the derelict ones of her father. He was a quiet man; his large stature was its own kind of statement. He was born years before any of the towns along the lake were even imaginable. He predated the railway but came after the beginning of a Catholic missionary presence. He had memories of the signing of Treaty 8, on the eastern shores of the lake, as well as nightmares about being unable to leave the reserve without the permission of the Indian agent, but he never spoke about them to Louise. He didn’t talk much about himself. Not many of his generation did, Louise observes. They lived through land loss and famine and the inception of the residential school system. They were the first set of parents who had to endure the seizure of their children. Louise thinks about the reserve today and shudders at the thought of it being suddenly emptied of children. Children, in a way, are from the future, she thinks; they ensure futurity. Twice, Louise’s father considered enlisting in the Canadian army to fight in Europe. To do so, he would’ve had to be enfranchised, to give up Indian status. Some native men were doing so, perhaps with the dream of escaping the violence of colonization. Something in her father knew this dream was an impossible one, that Europe would only plunge them into a different kind of violence and return them to the old one if they survived. He had to defend his own children, his own people, he decided.
They had lived on the same expanse of land until he died from heart disease. Louise used to say that he had died of a broken heart. The metaphor consoled her, but it was, in a sense, also true. The heart was the first of his organs to falter under the pressure of so much structurally induced trauma. Louise thinks about him all the time. She felt close to him her whole life. He helped build the house she lives in now. Sometimes she touches the walls as though to do so is to touch him. It is an act of mourning. More than that, it is how she collapses the past into the present. It is a way of staying alive.
Later, Louise at last gets Paul on the phone. After they exchange pleasantries, Louise tells him she’d like to discuss her life. She doesn’t want to ignore the urge, to allow it to dissipate. She is already tired of waiting. Paul doesn’t understand.
“What do you mean? Did something happen?” he asks, concerned.
“No, no, nothing happened,” she says. She laughs gently. “I want to talk to you about my past.”
It is a foreign sentence. Neither of them has heard anyone utter it before. It occurs to Paul that he knows very little about his mother’s past. What he knows is limited to images, brief anecdotes, old family jokes. He feels a pang of shame about this state of unknowing.
If a mother is a shape of unknowing, then perhaps a son is a bit of dying light. It is never that simple, of course.
“I’m listening, mom. You have my undivided attention.”
She does. He has no plans this evening. His girlfriend is out with friends.
Louise laughs again. She’s nervous. She doesn’t know where or how to start. She fidgets with the cord in her right hand.
“The summer after my last year at the mission,” she says finally.
Paul hasn’t heard that word in a while—the mission. It’s the colloquial way people refer to one of the residential schools on the shores of the lake. Louise was forced to attend one for the entirety of her primary and secondary schooling. Some years she wasn’t able to leave the property. Other years, luckier ones, she was able to visit family on weekends and during the summer. The fact that it was never certain when she’d be able to leave was its own kind of torture. Louise hasn’t said much about her time there before, nor will she tonight.
“I had befriended a girl named Sue from a reserve to the east,” she says. “We were inseparable. It was more than a friendship, more than sisterly. We were all we had. We were all we had of one another. We vowed to go on an adventure right after we left the mission. It was all we talked about. It saved us, in a way. We wanted to traverse the valley to the north, maybe even follow the river back to the mountains in the west. Most of that was dreaming, naturally. What ended up happening was that we would meet halfway between our reserves and find the water from there. We would sit in the lake and talk about the world as though it was what was owed to us. The love I felt for her was familial but also more than. We held hands sometimes and something in me ached when we did. I didn’t know that two Cree girls could fall in love. I didn’t think to ask Sue if she loved me. That possibility was unthinkable, really. We were still caught in the shadow of the school, but we tried to live as though we were free all the same. We spent our summers that way until I met your father.”
“Did you ever talk to dad about Sue or did those feelings ever come up later?” Paul asks plainly. He isn’t sure how sentimental he should be about the conversation.
Louise thinks. She can hear Paul’s breathing, his soft inhalations.
“No, it never came up. He was as straight as can be.”
They laugh. Paul thinks the same could be said about him. Maybe it is even an inherited defect.
Louise continues, “My attraction to him never wavered, so I didn’t think too much about it myself, to be honest. It wasn’t until recently, now that I’m alone so much, that I’ve begun to reminisce about Sue. We lost touch sometime in the eighties. We wrote letters back then. Simple dispatches about our lives. They didn’t seem special then, but I sift through them nowadays and feel a great deal of nostalgia. In one of them, she told me about her children, all ten of them. Her family must be multiplying, getting bigger and bigger.”
This remark is imbued not with envy but with a tinge of melancholy. Paul hears it and he winces. He thinks about how unpresent he’s been, about how alienating his unpresentness must be. Why has he stayed away? Truthfully, he isn’t entirely certain. Life on the reserve is too compressed, he thinks. He feels that he begins in his mind and not in his body. To be on a reserve is to be beholden to your body in a way that he struggles with. At the university, he deals with policy and numbers and ideas and emotions. It is his job to ensure Indigenous students are supported and make it to the ends of their degrees. He aspires one day to go to graduate school, to maybe even do a PhD, teach at a local college. Nothing in him necessarily yearns for Northern Alberta. Sometimes he feels that this is a kind of personal failing. Worse, a social one. When he’s especially self-loathsome, he feels that he is failing to be a good son as well as a good Indian. Visiting the reserve is a duty he’s happy to carry out; he enjoys spending time with Louise. It’s in the city that he feels most at peace, though.
“Now on to your father,” Louise continues. “As you know, we met when my aunt married his uncle. I thought he was the most handsome man on the reserve…”
As she makes this comment, Louise glances over at a photo of the man. It is in black and white, he is wearing denim and a cowboy hat; his aura of goodness is clear, she thinks. After all these months, she can still detect a glimmer of his goodness. She still feels good by extension.
“I knew I would be with him for as long as humanly possible. When I had you, when we moved into this house, I knew I didn’t need anything else. I would be happy for a long time.”
Something suddenly feels heavy in both Louise and Paul. The subject of her husband and his father hadn’t come up since the funeral in the fall. He died of a heart attack in the night (a family of Indians with bad hearts isn’t uncommon). Louise woke and he didn’t. She always thought that she’d depart first, so his death fractured her frame of reality, made her feel lopsided and blurry. Ultimately, they were both overtaken by the blurriness of grief, just not in the same place. To grieve apart from one another is itself a minor tragedy.
“When he died,” Louise went on, despite her voice breaking, “I had to figure out how to continue to live. I had done everything with him. We had never slept in different beds, not once. We were together for so long and yet I still wanted more time with him. He was what I knew about the world. Without him, I feel lost, I don’t have as sharp a sense of purpose anymore.”
Some people don’t take to the singular I. It isn’t anyone’s fault.
Paul thinks about his father. He was loud and energetic and he loved fishing and gardening. He regrets having missed out on so many of his father’s last days. No one knew they were his last, but he wasn’t around anyways. He doesn’t talk to the dead. It doesn’t come naturally to him. He wishes someone had taught him how to. Instead, he’s listening to his mother on the phone, picturing her, visualizing her small body; he hasn’t seen her in person since Christmas. For the sake of the holiday, they didn’t talk about the past or the dead. Perhaps they should have. Perhaps that task is always more urgent than anything else, he thinks. Maybe it is all they can do.
“I suppose the main point of this conversation is that I miss him so much,” Louise says.
“I miss him too, mom.”
Silence. Wind rustles outside both of their windows. It’s expected to be one of the coldest nights of the year.
Paul continues, “Hey, maybe you could come stay with us for a while. We’ve got plenty of room. A big house and just two of us in it. Yes, please do. I can come pick you up whenever.”
Louise considers the proposition. Through the window she can see that the snowy field across the road is shimmering. There are many weeks of winter ahead but at least the earth is shimmering, she thinks.
Louise’s sense of self is tied to where she is. She can’t leave the reserve. All of her memories are here. Gratitude washes over her as she realizes this.
“I’ll think about it, dear,” she says, and this satisfies Paul.
“Ok, mom, I’ll call you tomorrow, how’s that?”
“I would like that,” she says, before saying goodnight.
After she hangs up the phone she goes to her bed to lie down. She is tired; it’s been a long day. For a moment, she swears she can smell her husband. His earthy aroma is whirling around her once again. It disappears as soon as it appears, but she understands just then that he hasn’t left her entirely.
Sometimes to remember is enough, she thinks, and then she says it out loud. ⁂
Billy-Ray Belcourt is a writer from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize for his debut collection, This Wound Is a World, which was also a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. His memoir, A History of My Brief Body, won the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Governor General's Literary Award. His debut novel, A Minor Chorus, was published this month by Hamish Hamilton.