Category Archives: Memory Meanderings

Collections of memories, whether real or imagined I’ll never tell.

Signs of Things to Come

The most affecting place in my life has been Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. One year I hiked—well it was more like breathily walked—up that 2700 feet elevation of humped hill the Phoenicians call a mountain.

camelback 1

I was fresh off a divorce, and I was at that place in the aftermath where I began to process events in my life as new beginnings. I had a sense of optimism towards a fresh start. I was looking for signs and omens, portents of a visceral change in my being, in my personage, in the essence of ‘me’.

In short, I hated the way I was and thought a new me might be the way to go.

That was one reason why I hiked Camelback. I had come to visit a friend who was working in Real Estate there. He was working on this particular day and we had planned some nightlife action for after his workday was over. We also had planned a road trip to Bryce and Zion Canyon for the weekend, so this morning and afternoon were mine to spend, waste or cherish.

I was enjoying the dry heat of the desert and had thought little of preparations; after all, I was in the best shape of my life thanks to the discipline of karate. Slowly I was regaining confidence. The vivisection of betrayal and sudden separation from a person whom I thought had loved me had effectively sliced that attribute from my personality, but the wound was scabbing over.

I set off, physically armed with ordinary running shoes, outdated shorts, an Orioles ball cap and a small bottle of water. Mentally, I was fortified by the New Age ideas to which I had recently subscribed—I thought they were true-isms at the time—thus was alert to any external manifestations of spiritual interventions, omens and signs.

I walked along the dusty concrete sidewalks, observing all the things of nature as they interacted with man’s presence. I hadn’t gone but a mile before I felt a nagging pain in my right foot like a small pebble had lodged under my arch. Every step caused ever-increasing stabs of pain. I pondered: had this occurred to make me focus on myself, on my own comfort by stopping and removing the stone? On the other hand, was it serving to help me see the value of overcoming small obstacles in the quest to the bigger goal, simply by leaving it in my shoe?

I stopped walking and looked down at my foot, to see that I had almost stepped on the squashed carcass of some sort of small snake. A faint odour of decay arose from its scaly desiccated body.

A sign?

I left the pebble in my shoe. Clearly, it existed to clarify the reality of life and death and pain.

Walking once more, I tried to take in my surroundings: the warm dry kiss of the wind, the buzz of insect life, the thirsty brown landscape, but it wasn’t long before all I could think about was the pain in my foot.

Far from helping me to focus my mind, to existentially reach for my goal, the stone simply became more irritating to me in this reality, to the point where I could only think of my next step.

Wait … was that the intent: one step at a time takes you to the end of your journey?

Satisfied that I had discovered the true meaning behind the pebble, I carried on until, soon limping heavily, I came to a small bridge over the Arizona canal. The canal was a concrete sluiceway the city had built for flood control—an unpleasant fact of life seemingly incongruent with the desert setting—and provided irrigation sources for the residential and commercial subdivisions that had sprung up. Here I rested with my arms folded over the blue steel railing and right foot up on the bottom rung, searching the brown water as it rushed fervently below the span in its own little journey of discovery.

The sun’s heat burned the back of my neck, so I turned the ball cap backwards to afford some protection. I hadn’t thought about using sunscreen. Where I lived in the Pacific Northwest rainforest climate, the sun never shone so intensely and there was plenty of shade from tall lush trees. Here, trees were short and more like brambly bushes. The only real shade was in the city itself where there were some taller buildings to provide angled shadows of relief. The sun was relentless, even in the late spring. During the summer, my friend told me, people did not spend much time outside unless it was at poolside.

I understood that now.

The mangled mass of a large dead bird floated into my view from beneath the bridge. I did not know what kind of bird it had been, but it was the size of a raven or bigger; perhaps, it had been an eagle. Its feathers were bedraggled and sticking up at all angles. The eyes were gone completely from above a hooked yellow beak. I watched it in silence as it caromed off a log—also caught in the maelstrom—and spun lazily into the distance.

Another omen?

I pondered. This carcass had once been a proud raptor, circling far above the earth, oblivious and uncaring of the humans scurrying frenetically below. This had been a king of the air. Now it was at the mercy of the river current. Now it was food for fish, crabs, eels, and whatever else lived in the waters, above which it had once soared. It had been high, now death had brought it down low.

I, too, had been master of my own little kingdom. At 25 years old, I had been in a loving relationship, fit and strong, both physically and mentally; ready to take on the world.  I had been soaring high in my own ego.

Now I was floating aimlessly at the mercy of the currents of life. Others had control over my life. My employers had plans for me, my friends had suggestions and my family had guidance. Traveling to Scottsdale had been the first proactive decision I had made since the separation.

I took a deep breath, and let it out slowly through my nose, as I had learned from self-hypnosis tapes, and tried to focus on nothing, clearing my mind. The images of the dead snake and the dead bird surfaced onto the empty black board I had set up in my imagination. Accompanying the images was a sentence written in mind-chalk: “There will be 3!”

I considered that for a minute.

Certainly, both good things and bad things could descend in 3’s according to all clichés and old wives tales as well as water cooler talk. However, did I really believe that? And of what significance was the fact that these things were dead animals? Did it mean that my former life was dead to me? That I was dead to my former wife? That the third dead thing would be me? Alternatively, was the pebble in my shoe the first of the three, instead of simply an irritant between two portents?

The cooling of the layer of sweat by an arid wind blowing in my face made me shiver unexpectedly. I mustered up a wry smile, chastising myself for being an over-thinking idiot. I decided that the hot breeze was actually welcome, and took a rejuvenating swig of water. Took my foot off the rung, bent over, undid my sneaker to shake out the annoying stone. Except that it wasn’t a rock or a pebble that rolled out of the shoe … it was a mung bean.

I had taken to sprouting my own vegetable seeds. Mung beans were a staple of Chinese food of which I was very fond. Perhaps not so surprising then, that one might fall unnoticed into my running shoe, and make the flight to Arizona with me. As delicious as the sprouts were, their mother bean in my shoe had been truly annoying. Plus, I had brought a non-native plant to Arizona. I was now a mung bean smuggler.

My search for meaning was devolving into farce.

I set off again, alternating between the discomfort of baking in the sun and the worship of its cleansing heat. I was increasingly thankful for my water, as dust clouds were churned up by passing cars and gusting wind, and my mouth dried out.

The base of Camelback mountain had plenty of warning signs for errant hikers and foolish tourists, of which I was both so I read them carefully, cognizant of the fact that it was too late to do anything about it, but fascinated with the idea of a mere hike turning into a death-defying feat.

I headed up the first incline.

Soon I was in one-foot-in-front-of-another mode—a Zen-like state came over me. My fevered brain spiraled down into three thoughts caught in a loop: Would I reach the top? Would I make it back down? Why had I done this?

There came a break; a flat section between two inclines, where a massive rock wall overhung the trail and afforded a shaded stone bench back from the fenced edge of the path. I sat, drank some water and stilled my rising fear by looking about me and noting minutiae: a tiny tumbleweed rolling across a scarred vermilion rock, a piece of molted snake skin, a black hole in a thorny green cactus.

The spectacular view over the valley distracted me.

camelback 2

I noticed the relative silence. There were few hikers at this time of the day. (Another of the warnings on the signs at the head of the trail had stated it was best not to hike in the afternoon hours.) The noise of the bustling humanity in the valley below dissipated long before it reached this height. In the desert, the perpetual hum you hear comes from the wind and animal life, not cars and electricity. The thrumming undercurrent vibrates with life.

I had sought to attain some sort of peace; in truth, I found it even more distracting to be amongst such beauty and energy. Would I have to go into a sensory deprivation chamber to find true peace and happiness?

Pushing myself up to continue my hike, I discovered that my inappropriate apparel choices had chafed my thighs, butt and ankles.

Ten minutes later, I hobbled onto another small plateau, surprisingly populated by larger bushes and thicker scrub. As I stopped to take a small swig of water, I froze as a healthy looking fox came into view, trotting up along a trail only it could see near the edge of the plateau.

The fox froze as soon as it became aware of my presence either by smell or by sight.

The tableau was set: a gray fox versus a very red human on the plateau of a mountain at high noon.

fox 1

The fox looked straight at me. I decided it was a male for some reason. He lowered his head, and then raised it back up. Then began a dance. Head down, then up. Down, up, repeat. Bobbing time and time again. As his reluctant partner, I stayed still, not wanting to scare him away, attempting to memorize every detail of his beauty.

Too small to be a coyote, the animal wore a light gray coat shot with ruddy fur highlights on his ears and neck. His long bushy tail, which was black-tipped and had a dark streak all along the top stood fully erect and curved like a sail behind him. The wind blew the tips of his fur back and forth in a gentle rhythmic unison, like closely planted wheat on a prairie. His furry ears pointed straight up when his head was at its zenith and laid down towards his back when his head was at its lowest. Bob up, sink down. Ears up, ears back.

I assumed he was reading the wind, catching all the scents and sounds, trying to determine if I was enemy or food.

I felt as cooked as food might be.

Apparently, the fox disagreed, as he whipped his tail down and trotted off, quite unconcerned.

Another sign?

Had the fox been sent as the second warning? Third warning? I had lost count of the portents. Should I count the dead things or only the live things? What did it mean that a fox had visited me? Many cultures knew the fox as a trickster. If someone outfoxed you, it meant she had outwitted you. Had I made wrong choices already … again? Should I be wary of future tricksters, another devious woman, perhaps?

Shaking my head, I closed my eyes. Felt the heat on my eyelids, my face, and my neck. Trickles of sweat ran down my back and pooled in crevasses. Should I keep going or head back?

I opened my eyes to yet another sign from nature transfixing me.

A small green lizard lay on a rock formation in front of my face. It was staring directly at me, its small pointed hood splayed out against its shoulders and its leathery skin looking dry but somehow cool. The bulging eyes glared without blinking. Its tail curled behind it in the shape of an ‘S’.

I was mesmerized as it began the same ritual that the fox had danced seconds earlier. Head down, hood back, tongue flick. Head up, hood splayed out, tongue flick. Down, up, repeat. Bobbing time and time again.

This time I made the first move, by resolutely turning around and retracing my path down the mountain.

About halfway down, I met a tall stringy man with a curly mop of hair running up the trail. In the full heat of the sun in the middle of the day.

“G’day, mate … crikey, don’t you look half-knackered? Hows about some water, then?” An Australian … of course. Crazy enough and already used to the heat in any case. He held out a bottle.

I accepted his offering with gratitude. It was cold and divine. He motioned that I should keep the bottle, grinned and bobbed his head and resumed his upward run.

As I limped out onto the road, not looking forward to the long trek back to my friend’s house, a taxi drove up and turned around right in front of me, as if on cue.

This was a sign. The only one actually sent to me; I had no doubt.

I hailed the cab, collapsed on the back seat in air-conditioned comfort, and directed the driver to my friend’s address.

lizard1

 

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The Sins of the Father

The most frightening person in my childhood was my own father. His black intensity thrilled and scared me. He always seemed to carry a dark cloud around. Not that he was verbally mean nor could he ever be physically threatening—he was 4 inches shorter than me—but his presence was always overwhelming.

I was scared of his intense anger.

I had been spanked determinedly with ‘The Belt”—as we called it—and so had my other two siblings at one point or another. That usually had happened when Dad had come home after serving on the Great Lakes for months at a time. It was never undeserved, as far as I can remember; we knew we were going to get it for some transgression or another committed against our mother or sister during his absence, and it usually had to be very serious indeed for Mum not to deal with it herself.

So, anticipation of my father’s arrivals were not necessarily the joyous occasions for which one might hope—for either party in retrospect.

Oh, I do remember that most of the time we were not in for it; that most of the time he brought something nice home for us: a sweetie, a small toy, or a book. Perhaps odd then, or perhaps not surprising at all, that my childhood memories surrounding him—the ones that stuck hard—are the ones involving pain and the felonies that incurred his wrath. Too bad, really.

Dad’s dark passion had no doubt sparked from his own love-starved childhood with bitterly-separated parents, burbled up through the tribulations of the Second World War and then boiled out through the turmoils of emigration. They had hurriedly moved to an anticipated Shangri-la, where Dad had promised—to please his bride—never to go to sea again. Instead he was forced by circumstance to take a job as engineer on the ships plying the Great Lakes. The darkness finally had burst out from the ultimate tragedy of that very bride contracting lung cancer to die at age forty-seven.

He had no chance to be happy.

It left him with no love of his life to be with. It left him with a grown up daughter living with her own family faraway in the interior of BC. It left him with a teen-aged son about to blow his own pressure cooker fueled by hormones and ambition, to soon depart amid tumultuous fisticuffs.

It left him with one sad-eyed little eleven year old that was at first internally mystified by the yo-yo nature of life and by the loss of his beloved Mum, but who would soon condense all those feelings and fear into two single mantras: “Everybody leaves”, and “I don’t care”.

Gullivers Travels in a Little Sepoy Town

So many houses, farmhouses, and cottages were on the impossibly straight and infuriatingly narrow two-lane road that led out of the town of Lucknow, Ontario—‘Welcome to Lucknow – A Sepoy Town” was its greeting sign—towards Lake Huron. I had remembered the gray asphalt road itself, having spent many hours as a child gazing down into what appeared to me to be an infinite distance towards the lake. Oftentimes dark and equally infinite thunderclouds would roll down that same road towards me in grim forewarning of the torrential rain and terrifying lightning storm to come.

I also recalled the approximate location of the little house where I had spent most of my formative years, but after 30 years, things change.

Sometimes, everything changes.

Certainly no one here knew me or would remember my family. We had never been part of the Scottish ‘cliques’, some of which had been there since the 1800’s. We had made no mark on the town itself. Paul Henderson—the famous hockey player who had scored the winning goal in the 1972 Russia-Canada series—had been almost everyone’s grocery delivery boy, not just ours, although our family  happily claimed him.

Our neighbours of the time had either since died or moved on—to the city or to other provinces—much like we had.

I drove west along the road, and checked to my right each time I reached a separate plot of land, hoping to find some familiar landmarks or houses. The Thompson’s house next to ours had sported a very long, very steep driveway down to their stable. There had been a wide river running behind both of our properties. Many a day saw me wandering to their house to ride their pony, play with Bill Thompson, or go adventuring with my dog Prince into the fields and forest out back, dodging black snakes and spooking frogs and other creatures.

These were my memories.

Suddenly I spotted a house that just might have been ours! I turned into its circular driveway—a feature I did not recall—and parked. It was smaller than I remembered, but it matched. There was the white front door, with its accompanying screen in aluminum thistle motif, leading out to mottled gray cement steps. There was the matching storm screen door on a mudroom that jutted out on the east side.

Strange … on both doors hung an official-looking piece of white paper. It reminded me of eviction notices I had seen pasted on city apartment doors.

Intrigued, I exited my car and walked along the gravel driveway towards the mudroom door. It had been the only allowable entrance for me as a kid all grimy and dirty from outdoor frolicking, and I was drawn automatically to it.

As I neared the door I turned and looked to the next property.

Yes, this was it!

I could see the Thompson’s house now, exactly as it had been, except their driveway was wrong. Its slope was very mild, and its length quite mundane. I gazed into the back portion of what had been our property. I could see a small copse of trees, and the barely noticeable cut of a very small creek just beyond the fence demarcation.

I was Gulliver among the Lilliputians; everything had shrunken so greatly compared to my memory of it.

With a sigh I turned again towards ‘my’ house and walked to the mudroom door. Would anyone hail me before I reached the door? I reviewed my planned explanation for my arrival: “Hello, I used to live here when I was young, would you mind if I just walked through really quickly to see what it looks like now?”

I needn’t have worried.

As I came closer to the door, I could easily see from its large black-lettered header that it was actually a notice of condemnation from the township of Lucknow.

No sense in knocking then.

I studied it. The date of demolishment was two weeks hence. Suddenly my memories had begun fading and were as discolored as the paint on the house. Childish recollections had been all that remained of this part of my life before, and now that I had seen the reality as it was, I would not be able to keep that reality from overtaking the cherished memories. Rust was forming. Wood was rotting. The garden was wilting.

Not only the house would be demolished, but so would that period in my life.

I was condemned to forget, just as the house was condemned to be destroyed.