Richard McColl's blog recounts an intensely personal trip to the land of his fathers
The neon sign is switched off but even without its garish blue and red illumination reads OPEN out to sea.
To me it’s backwards.
Today it’s redundant as all of the café’s patrons have arrived by car along the surprisingly hilly and well-paved roads of Pender island.
My grandfather moved out West from Winnepeg in 1943 and never looked back. Taking his family with him, he thought he had died and gone to heaven when he first saw the apple tree in his new back yard. This was a grand move, 33 Polson Street to Oak Bay, Victoria.
Apparently, the apple tree was his favoured topic of conversation until he passed away. We never met.
I went looking for their old house on Newport Ave. I didn’t find it, not for want of looking, but because the number no longer exists. Over the slatted fence of one garden midway along the street I could make out the telltale blossoms of an apple tree.
I have been here twice now. Once, after my father’s funeral that brought friends and family here to this immaculate hillside cemetery and another time a few years later.
It comforts me that there is still an apple tree here. Of course, it may not be the tree in question. The house is gone and all of that was a long time ago when an ordinary railway worker on a veteran’s disability pension from injuries sustained in France during WWI could have had a house on Newport Ave.
This was my father’s land. It is still his land, but, I am staking my claim too despite having never lived in Canada. Being here makes me feel close to them. I am envious of their inherent sense of belonging.
Melancholic, my journey continues, retracing footsteps of a past that I never had and am struggling to understand.
This is what I am looking for. It helps me reflect. I feel a pioneer. I am for a few days dislocated from my reality as an imbecilic tourist here on Pender, idling my rental car in the middle of the road to snap a photo of a deer. I did this. It is new to me. The motor hums. I can imagine the islanders smirking as they pass.
It’s out of season in Victoria and the ferry to Pender is almost empty. But still it runs. This is comforting. Just as the sign reads OPEN so everything appears to be available to buy; first nations art, exile art, chintzy tourist paraphernalia, log cabins and priceless slices of land here in the Pacific Northwest. Could I settle here?
In Victoria people complain about the rough edges along Pandora. I feel none of this. Victoria is like a thatch cottage dressed up as a city. Don’t laugh, it’s a refreshing change. People say good morning to one another. Beggars, despite their unseemly appearance are polite.
I read about mind altering ayahuasca retreats on Pender Island. I engaged in a ceremony once in the Peruvian Amazon. I did not enjoy the mind altering experience, less so the vomiting. My brief road trip of the island takes me past Magic Lake. I think about my current home in Colombia, another chapter to my family’s history in South America. The people call it yage here. I feel as if I have stumbled across a community that escaped the draft. Mysterious drifters wandering in the close fog. Magic Lake feels an appropriate name.
On my return visit to the cemetery the sun shone brilliantly. An elderly lady, perhaps a widow visiting her deceased husband, greeted me as if we were old friends. But, we are united here. My father’s stone had been placed. The inscription on his grave, 'Our Stuart has come home to rest.'
A year to the day of his passing his older brother passed away. Ray had asked to be on his mother’s side. I had hoped to see his stone and pay my respects. My cousins had placed it beside that of his wife now resting in Ontario. I don’t know them, and I didn’t know her. I don’t know where the cemetery where he rests is located and I won’t go searching for it now. Maybe on another occasion.
I’ll have to make do with no more than a visit here on the hillside on the island. Here lie my grandparents and my father, probably still talking about the apple tree.
We check into downtown Vancouver hotel, too classy and expensive for our tastes and budget. But, it makes for a change and my mood has awakened a disregard for cost. There is a patron checking in ahead of me and as she speaks the elegant feathers in her hat quiver.
“Do you have a formal dining room?”
“Does it have tablecloths?”
“I don’t believe it does ma’am.”
“Then it’s not a formal dining room is it?”
This has been a visit for reflection. Already, I am losing grip of my surroundings.
Only a month beforehand, we were in Brazil on honeymoon. How different could everything be? There, I find the cemetery where my sister lies. It’s in Gamboa, a disheveled area of downtown Rio where favelas tower up about this tiny corner. This unintrusive piece of land was set aside for foreign sailors who perished from yellow fever in the 1940s. My father and his first wife never came back to see Rhondda’s tomb after they left in the 1960s.
At first she was not listed in the registry, but, a kindly groundsman walked us around. There she was, on the wall up and to the left. We scrubbed the paint and lichens from her name. My father would have been happy.
Back in Vancouver I hand over my credit card to complete the formalities, high heels and feathers move towards the elevator. Lipstick makes a puckered sound when she opens her mouth to critique something. Looking back she thinks better of it and disappears.
There’s a smile behind my eyes but my face gives nothing away. What would my grandfather say about this? He, who was contented with a lone apple tree in his garden.
"I'm a freelance journalist, writer, hotelier, expedition guide and blogger. I divide my time between Bogota, Colombia and my hotel, La Casa Amarilla in Mompos. I specialise in both news reporting and travel pieces but mainly follow themes and issues that pique my curiosity."
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