Thursday, April 24, 2008


The buzz of several fat loud flies is in the room. Insects in the house. There have been ants too the last few days. A minute ago it was winter.

The fly buzz makes me think of my aunt’s ranch in British Columbia. I was only there 3 or 4 times in my life, all within the first 16 years of my life. It looms large.

Hot days that smelled of pine needles and grass as if rain never fell in this place. A place where cows wandered in the shade of woods and there were no buildings on the horizon, no buildings anywhere except a few ranch ones. That was the first time I went, a little girl, and the ranch was a huge place where one aunt panned for gold wearing a two-piece bathing suit. I’d never seen anyone do that before but here in this British Columbia world of my mother’s family you panned for gold when you took the kids swimming in the river. I see my aunt, a woman with dark hair and a face like my mother’s, crouched over the water, a metal screen in one hand. She is looking for gold in the water. She didn’t find any that day.

There were a lot of adults at the ranch, always people I didn’t know, men and women. My father didn’t come on that trip. I never saw my father there. He went once before I was born, and maybe once more when I was a baby, and he never went again. It was not his kind of place. It was a rough place. The ranch was anyway. It had no softness at all.

My aunt’s house, plopped in the middle, a few steps from the barn, from a corral, from a sludgy pond, was a gray kind of house, unpainted, no porch. You stepped right into a room that served as a living room – dumpy chairs, an old sofa or two, dim light, books and old newspapers scattered. This was not a place where people cleaned and tidied.

My aunt wore jeans and men’s shirts and her hair was short like a man’s. My mother said this aunt was beautiful when she was a girl, but “beautiful” didn’t seem to go with this person who was my mother’s sister. Her voice was full of cigarette smoke and coughing. She sat at the end of the long table in her house where everyone gathered to eat. She said she’d just gotten a book out of the library. “It’s called Below the Salt,” she said. “I got it because I thought it would be about the ocean. Turns out it’s about the Middle Ages, and if you weren’t rich enough you had to sit at a different table, below the salt. Rich people sat near the salt.” It made sense that my aunt had chosen a book, thinking it was about the ocean. My mother was like that too, always thinking about nature.

The adults hung out around the table a lot. They were noisy. I didn’t hear my mother’s voice amongst theirs. She kept quiet. They teased her. “Hey, Gin, get your nose out of that book!” They called her “Gin” since she was a kid. Most of her brothers and sisters had nicknames. They called her “Gin,” she said, because she had a laugh like a ginny hen. I didn’t know what that sounded like.

At night I slept with my sister in my grandmother’s little house which was also on the ranch, just beyond the barn and the corral. My grandmother’s house was not a scrappy house like my aunt’s. It had a blue front door that was split in two so you could close the bottom and keep the top open, and there were flowers outside, and my grandmother’s home-baked bread and the water that came out of her kitchen sink you had to pump it. It felt more peaceful and normal and less scary here. Not so many people. Just my grandmother in her housedress and apron and another aunt who lived with her. Just them. It was quieter here. At night though I knew my mother was over at the other house with her brothers and sisters. They didn’t all live there, but they gathered there easily. They came to the ranch from different parts of B.C. to be together. We were the only ones who don’t live in Canada.

My grandmother sat at her kitchen table and smoked cigarettes. The tobacco came in a tin. She plucked the brown shreds and rolled the cigarettes, her eyes looking out the window. She had glasses and light eyes and gray hair pinned up, a wide face and many wrinkles. When she laughed there was the sound of many cigarettes smoked long ago in her throat. You could hear them when she spoke too, her voice was deep. She didn’t want to be bothered with details. She baked bread and took care of things, was kind to me without being too gentle. Children were all right here. There were many children at the ranch. My grandmother was the kind of person to whom two or three children more or less didn’t make much difference.

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