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ISSUE:  Spring 1994

Often, now, I wake in the night to the distant whistle of a train, and for a moment it is the deep, mournful call of the foghorns off the coast of Nova Scotia. And the memory of those foggy days leaps at me whole, those days when downtown Halifax smelled of salt and fish, and it seemed as though the sea had swallowed the city, and we would be suspended forever in a limbo of sunless brine. Now the morning fog that hangs in the hollows of these Virginia hills, that rises through the trees in little, wispy fingers, that hovers eerily over the river, holds that memory taut—keeps it from slipping back to its old, hidden place.

I do not know why I am so haunted. Those were years of hardship, struggle, aching joy; Halifax a place I could hardly wait to leave. Perhaps it is the passing of my 40th birthday, the taking stock, the confusion of self that comes from a life now lived in equal parts there and away from there. I only know that I must return.

My mother, who has been pressing me for a long time to come, is elated. “I can hardly wait,” she says, warbling into the phone. “Four years is much too long between visits.”

Soon I am sorting through my drawers and closets: what to bring for walks, for picnics, for the visit to my old Convent School. I pack something for all kinds of weather, for I no longer remember what June is like there.

The trip is a long one, with hours between flights to wander through airports. Hours to tumble through memories from the first half of my life, memories that now cascade around me like rain. Though I leave my house at seven in the morning, it is ten at night before I reach the Halifax airport. As I walk through the terminal gates I see them: my mother and Sammy, her longtime friend; my brother, Pascal, and his wife, Vera; my sister, Jeannette, and her son, Louis. For a moment they are framed there, their faces, eager, expectant. They have come to claim me. Watching them, I feel a piercing sense of separateness: all these years, their lives have gone on without me.

Sammy is the first to spot me, waving a wiry arm, and suddenly there is a flurry of excited cries, of hugs and kisses, of how-wonderful-you-look. We smile and pat each other and balance on the balls of our feet, measuring the differences since we last met. Louis has grown a foot since I last saw him and now towers over my sister, who seems shorter than before, her face and body becoming more and more like my mother’s. It is the old, shared memories that bind us—and the kinship—for in many ways our present selves are strangers.

“You talk like a Yankee now,” my brother grouses.

“Down there they say I talk like a Canuck,” I return, tweaking his beard, grown long and luxuriant since our last meeting. We go to the airport cafeteria where we drink mugs of hot tea and make rough plans for the days ahead: when and where to have our traditional lobster boil, which dinner I will eat at whose house, what I would like to do while I am there. Then the others return to their homes, and my mother and I return to hers.

Now begins a careful journey through each room of my childhood home. My mother follows me, touching my arm and hand: “See, those are the new drapes I got since you were here last. And I had that chair recovered. Do you like it?” “Yes,” I say, “the house looks great.” The living room is bright and attractive, not at all like the shabby room I remember from my girlhood. Thick carpets now cover the linoleum floors my mother used to scrub and wax on her hands and knees every Saturday.

Next comes my father’s old bedroom, the one that sometimes haunts my dreams with its cluttered dresser and dusty piles of books, its smell of old age and the cheap cologne my father used to mask the smell of urine, after he became incontinent. But every trace of the old room and my father is gone. Now it is a cozy den, where my mother keeps the mementoes of her travels. The tiny bedroom next to the bathroom, where we four children once slept, is now my mother’s dressing room. I stare at the two dressers and single bed that now fill the room. How did we all fit? Yet I was 11 before there was money enough to build an upstairs, with rooms for Jeannette and I, and my mother.

Except for a few new things, a few rearrangements, everything is much the same as it was the last time I visited, four years before. How is it, then, this is not what I remembered? Why do I feel vaguely disappointed?

We pause at the kitchen door. The old wringer-washer no longer dominates the kitchen; it has long ago been replaced by an automatic now in the basement. I flash on the many, many Saturday mornings my mother and Jeannette and I stood by the wringer, feeding load after load of sheets and long underwear through its hungry rollers.

“Do you remember the old washing machine, Mom? I’ll never forget hanging the clothes on the line in winter. I thought my fingers would fall off from the cold!”

“Gosh, yes!” She shudders. “Sometimes the clothes were still frozen stiff when we brought them in at night. Too bad I didn’t have these nice appliances when you children were little.” She pauses for a moment, then adds, “Remember the old oil stove? We’d scrub it for hours with steel wool to get it clean.”

“I sure do!”

But it is hard to picture now, with the sparkling, white electric stove that stands in its place. I try to recall the winter mornings, when my father got up at six to light the stove, so it would warm the kitchen before the rest of us arose. When he called from the bottom of the stairs, Jeannette and I would rush down from our frigid room, open the oven door, and hold out the bottoms of our heavy flannel nightgowns to let the warm air flow under them. None of that remains now. Not a trace in this bright, modern kitchen.

My mother stands beside me, hugging my arm, thinking her own thoughts, while I think mine.

“Oh, I have something special for you!” She draws me to the counter and opens a canister of home-made date squares and molasses cookies.

“These were your favorites when you were little,” she says smiling. I grin, grab a handful of cookies, and give her a hug.

“It’s nice to have you back,” she says.

“It’s nice to be back.”

In my old bedroom upstairs, only the white wrought iron bed remains unchanged—the bed that came from my father’s Cape Breton home, the bed that saw my transformation into womanhood. On the pillow I find a sheet of paper with a poem my mother has written to welcome me home. Though it is almost embarrassingly sentimental, it is heartfelt, and I am touched.

Later, while I am lying there remembering the old sufferings of this house, my mother comes in, in her nightgown, to kiss me good night. Always, I remember, it was this way. She would come up carrying a glass of water and pause at my room to open my window, tuck me in, and kiss me good night.

“Aren’t you going to open my window too?” I ask as she begins to leave.

“Oh, do you want it opened?”

“No, but you always used to open it, whether I wanted it opened or not. Remember?”

She laughs, opens my window, and goes to her own room. It is very late by now, and I fall asleep instantly.

The next morning I awaken to sun streaming through the windows. For a moment I am jarred. I had expected fog, or overcast skies, for this is what I remember most. The air is cool and fresh, full of bird song.

Downstairs, my mother is preparing French toast and sausages. We take our plates outside and sit at the picnic table on the tiny patio, both new since I left home.

“The yard always looks so small now, when I come back,” I remark. “And so lush.” I remember scrubby weeds and patches of bare earth.

“Look how big your apple tree has grown,” my mother says. “Remember when you planted that apple core? You were 11, and we all laughed at you, saying it would never grow. Now just look at it!”

I had forgotten the apple core soon after planting it, and the small seedling that miraculously sprouted went unnoticed for a long time. After I left home, my mother discovered it and quietly watched it grow. It bloomed for the first time well into my adult years; now, each spring, my mother reports on its progress. I am pleased that she cherishes the tree and the memory of that little girl, yet I do not recall the event itself, only her telling of it.

Since it is Friday, the rest of the family must work, so my mother and I drive around the city, hunting out the places I long to see. We stop at the Public Gardens and walk for a while. The peacock cages are gone. “They got rid of those years ago,” my mother says, surprised that I am looking for them. “Of course,” I say, “I remember now. They weren’t here the last time I came either.”

The Convent School across the street has also changed. The high, wrought iron fence has disappeared, as have the somber figures in long black habits who once paced the borders of their cloister clicking off prayers on trailing strings of rosary beads. A handful of women come and go through the main entrance, but nothing identifies them as nuns. Ten years ago they exchanged their habits for regular clothes; now they come and go as they please. I stand at the sidewalk, staring at the familiar red brick building, straining to recall the feeling of this place, how it was during my five years there—the hushed corridors, the spartan, disciplined life, the sense of journey. But the feeling will not come. In my study 1500 miles away, it came in great nostalgic waves.

“Halifax has really changed since you lived here,” my mother says. “People are more prosperous. There are lots of things to do and see.” This is true. I remember a stolid, gray city, muffled by blue laws. Now I find it charming, lively—a city I wouldn’t mind living in. Why, then, do I feel this odd disappointment?

Over the weekend there is a good deal of visiting with my family, and I become absorbed in my sister’s herb garden, the large workshed my brother is building, my mother’s poetry group. I am a tourist in their lives now, admiring the views. The present has power: it is exciting, engrossing, immediate. But the old things, too, have power, and it is for them I find myself searching.

“Do you remember when you told me the facts of life?” I ask Jeannette. We are making pies in her kitchen and this quiet sharing reminds me of a summer afternoon long ago. “How innocent we were!”

“I didn’t tell you,” she says, “You told me.”

“But that can’t be right. I remember. . . .”

“Listen, that’s not something I’d forget. I was the older one, supposed to know everything. It was humiliating to have to find out such an important thing from my little sister.” She grins, and I feel my mouth drop open. I watch her fingers flute the edges of the pie crust. Could I somehow have revised history?

“You’re right about the innocent part, though,” she adds. “Imagine anyone being 14 and 15 now and knowing as little as we did then.”

On Monday morning I return to the Convent School to visit my old mentor, the one who took a special interest in the bright but unruly scholarship girl, who guided her transformation through several difficult years. The summer before my last year there, she was transferred to Vancouver, a loss I sorely felt. Now, I have learned, she is back in her old role of school principal.

Though I have prepared myself for the small shock of seeing her without the habit, I am still surprised by the tall woman dressed in a plain skirt and blouse who greets me. She is younger than I expected, only in her mid fifties.

“It’s so good to see you again, Mother.” I say.

“It’s just “Margaret” now,” she smiles. “We don’t go by “Mother” anymore.”

I want so much to tell her what I remember—her small encouragements, the subtle challenges to my spirit—for I have had more than 20 years to calculate her gifts to me. But it feels strange, relating such personal things to someone I barely recognize, and I find myself clothing her in an imaginary habit, focusing on her eyes, her familiar mouth.

“You gave me a little book once, one of those tiny pocket diaries with a half-page for each day. There was only enough room for a sentence or two in each space, so you suggested I write down something I learned each day. Do you remember?”

“No, I don’t really. But it sounds like a grand idea.”

“Then, when I’d come to see you—which was almost every day—you’d ask what I’d written, and we’d talk about it. That helped me through some really hard times.”

Watching her, I sense that what I describe is simply her normal way with students. What she remembers most is her old affection for me.

After I have shared my treasure-hoard of memories and offered my gratitude, the present and the most recent past seem to nudge away those distant things. We talk of my life now, the great changes in her life, the school, the religious order. No longer do we speak as student and teacher. She becomes like someone I might meet on a train or at a professional meeting—a woman I find interesting and enjoy getting to know. The visit stretches on through lunch (I treat her to a lobster roll at the Lord Nelson Coffee Shop) and well into the afternoon. Intermittently I call her “Mother”; each time she corrects me gently: “It’s “Margaret” now.”

“I just can’t seem to say it,” I admit finally, as I am preparing to leave.

“Practice it out loud a few times,” she says goodnaturedly. “Mar-gar-et. Mar-gar-et.” We both laugh.

“Perhaps I am afraid that in finding Margaret I will lose Mother Connolly,” I say, suddenly seeing it.

“Oh you won’t lose her. But that relationship can’t go anywhere anymore. We have an opportunity for something new now.”

The whole time I am in Halifax, the air is charged with this same odd tension: past and present fading into each other, old things shifting, rearranging themselves. My mother, too, seems to feel it. Together we make a short excursion to Louisburg in Cape Breton. I have never seen this rebuilt French fortress, though several of my American friends have, and my wish to see it now is part curiosity and part the need to claim it as my own. On the way we pass through areas which hold pieces of my mother’s past—towns where she was a young, rural schoolteacher, many years ago. With some encouragement, she talks about those days: when it was nothing to walk ten miles, even in winter, to go to a dance; when people traveled by steamer; when rural schoolteachers boarded at the houses of their students. It is a world I know of only through her.

On the way back my mother suggests a detour through a small village she has not revisited in more than 30 years. “It’s where I first met your father,” she explains. There is very little to Pomquet Station: a cluster of houses along a dirt road, an old, boarded-up general store, some barren fields. “There used to be a railroad station, and there were more houses then,” my mother says. We drive back and forth on the dusty road, looking for landmarks.

With the help of a local teenager, we find the site of the one-room school house where my mother once taught. Only the foundation remains, now overgrown with wild rose and raspberry bushes. We walk along the edges while my mother explains the layout, where the potbellied stove stood, where the children put their coats. I am struck again by the persistence of the past, its hold, its richness. It has been more than 40 years since my mother stood at the school house door ringing the bell, yet every detail is still alive in her.

“Your father was manager of that store.” My mother points to a dilapidated, abandoned building. “It was a co-op then. I came down one day to buy a package of blue-lined envelopes and there he was. I was very impressed with him. He had traveled, he wrote poems and articles that were published in the paper. He wasn’t like the local boys and farm hands who tried to court me.”

We are both silent for a while. My mother’s face is wistful, full of remembering. I stare at the old store with its boarded-up windows and doors, trying to picture that small event so long ago that changed my mother’s life, and without which I would never have been.

For the remaining hours it takes us to drive back to Halifax, my mother talks about her years with my father: the courtship, the romance, the high expectations, the disillusionment, my father’s illnesses, the four babies. I have never heard my mother talk of those years in quite this way before, with this joy of remembering that transcends the sorrows.

“Have you ever regretted marrying Dad?”

“Heavens no! I would never have had you children otherwise!”

“But weren’t we an awful burden? If you had stayed single, you could have continued teaching, writing. You would have had a totally different life.”

“That’s the one thing I have never regretted; you children were and are the best part of my life!”

We cut across to the Eastern shore and drive through dozens of picturesque fishing villages. The sky and sea are a hard, bright blue. I remember now that there were many such days.

Soon it is time to return to Virginia. On my last full day in Halifax, I realize with a burst of panic that much I have come to do remains undone: I have not walked the mile-long path to Saint Agnes school, where I walked each day from third to sixth grade, nor found my old prom dresses and diaries, nor stood in fog, nor gazed at the sunset in dreamy longing from my old bedroom window—how is it I have forgotten these things? I rush upstairs to the window, but instead of the horizon, all I see is the leafy green of the trees in front of the house—trees once small and frail, whose great branches now crowd the sky. I open the closet door, but find only the things I brought with me, along with a few of my mother’s winter clothes. There is a low cupboard in the room, a storage cubicle built into the front eave of the house, where I used to keep my treasures. Surely bits of the past still wait there, ready to disclose themselves.

I stoop before the door, but something in me hesitates. I recall the apple tree, the small book that changed my life, the shifting, slippery, selectiveness of memory. There is no retrieving the past. That fixed, solid whole does not exist; it is an invention. Invisible circuitries transform one thing into another and another; tracks grow over, cover themselves. I touch the small plywood door with the palm of my hand, and then I get up. Let whatever lies there keep its own secrets.


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