Last year, Jessy Lee, Alan, and I spent Christmas at the cabin. We were there for Christmas Eve, Jessy Lee setting out cookies for Santa, watching Jess open her stocking, sharing a turkey dinner with Mom and Dad, and leaving early on the morning of December 26th. We returned to the calm of our home, and that holiday later met Mom and Dad in Moose Jaw for brunch the morning Jessy Lee returned home to Vancouver.
This year, Alan and I set up the tree and decorated the house the first weekend in December. Last year, we had to search the city to find a tree. That set-up happening days before Jessy Lee returned home. Alan and I simply relieved to have a sofa, furniture, grateful to be back in the house following the fire.
I am retrospective, more than usual this December. The end of the decade. The close of the year. So many changes.
I remember with Dad’s stroke six and ½ years ago came a slow shifting to a new normal, this loss and our grief. Much has changed. I am continually reminded that I cannot see around corners, but oh, I wish I could. Grief is the best at unwelcome surprises. Two years ago my sister stopped talking to me, to Jessy Lee, and once Alan and I married, refusing to know him. Though Jessy Lee and I have made every amends we know to make, distance is what my sister wishes. This Christmas Mom told us that we have have been discarded. The sting is deep. I often think how we might find a way to be a family for Mom and Dad’s sake, or at least for Dad’s. I spend much time concerned for Dad’s care when mom is gone and the silence continues. I never thought I would grieve the loss of my family along with the long slow journey of grieving Dad’s change.
Two years ago, Alan and I stood together in the backyard of our new home. There was nothing but sod. We had a plan. That winter, we researched native prairie grasses. In the spring, we prepared the lawn, without chemical, and planted over 80% of the backyard wild.
With the help of one of my students, Christian, we removed sod, dug holes, hauled dirt, and thatched the lawn. We planted 17 fruit trees, 48 aspen, 12 various species of evergreens, and a myriad of other trees. We planted 1000s of wild prairie flowers from seeds, many started in the winter, in pods, in the kitchen and dining room, though most, direct planted and nurtured by the Saskatchewan sun, and ingenious watering system Alan designed. The sod from the backyard disappeared and hip-high prairie grasses grew. Dogwood filled out three feet that first year. Wild rose sprang five feet. And Alan and I put down roots. Now, in the chill dusting of winter, the birds bring the yard alive, a flutter of wings, winter blues and grass golds. The trees sounds like home: wind in aspen, wind in grass, wind in pines.
June we helped Mom and Dad move out of the cabin. – The cabin was the Saas family home. It was the loft of a barn Mom and Dad had moved 200 kms and then renovated 40 years ago. They lived together at the cabin until Dad’s stroke. – Alan and myself, along with Christian, and another young man, a former student Lane who farms north of our place, loaded our SUVs, trucks, and trailers with a lifetime of Dad’s treasures. Dad had saved much of his 34 years of teaching and of teaching Outdoor Education. A classroom set of snowshoes, of cross country skis, archery bows and arrows. We loaded the canoe trailer and the two canoes that once ran Otter Rapids. There were more than 15 canoe paddles, most hand made. We loaded curling rocks, broom-ball brooms, soccer balls, basketballs, volley balls, medicine balls, weights, ropes, zip-lines, spot lights. And this was the school cupboard.
When Christian crawled into the rafters to pull down the fishing poles and lures from the camping cupboard and emerged with the long loved and well hidden tackle from the Dad and Daughter northern fishing trips, I wept. Oh, this tricky mess, this place of change. Armloads were loaded into trailers and hauled home for Alan and I to sort later in the summer, after all it was June, and June lives its own life for educators.
The cabin sold in less than a week with a 10 day possession. It was fortuitous that the cupboards were cleaned out. Dad’s work room emptied, divided between my sister and I, Mom’s dishes sorted into three piles. Sorted. Divided. For her. For you. For later. For now. The art, the quilts, it all: divided.
I returned that last night before the moving truck arrived. Middle of high-school final-exam week. I boxed Mom’s paintings, setting them aside for her to take to the condo the next day. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor in the loft. I let the sounds of the cabin and lake seep into my bones one final time. Coyotes howling across the prairie. Gunther and Elfie’s flagpole tapping the rhythm of Spring. Dawn’s breath moving the lace curtains in the morning. I walked around the cabin, by the lake one last time. The leaves shimmering in the light. I hugged Mom goodbye. I ran my hands over the barn board. One. Final. Time. Every piece, every piece, every piece found, stripped, sanded, placed by Dad. I stayed there breathing in the wood and the brown and my safety and my childhood and my home for such a long time.
I think about the feel of that barn board. Sometimes. I think I sense it. The smell of its comfort. When the equilibrium of all things was still balanced. When there were no befores and no afters.
I am in awe of Alan’s loyalty to me and to Jessy Lee. I am in awe at his brilliance and creativity, at the steadfast purity of this work, and deeply grateful to his friends who know and see these unquestionable qualities in him.
Right now Jessy Lee and Alan and I are curled up on our sofa. Alan is reading. Jessy Lee is snoozing. I am writing. In seven weeks Alan and I return to Strawberry. In eight months Jessy Lee begins her graduate studies. I know many people who have completed graduate work, but I do not know any, other than Jessy Lee, who have been pursued by the institution. I am so proud of what she as made of her undergraduate work. She is my greatest joy.
I am sad and I am happy and I am ready for change. I defended my thesis two years ago. Some days I feel a desire for doctoral studies, the swirl of further research puzzles forming. Other days, I want to write. I want to learn, and I want change. I have begun a collection of teaching stories of experience. I still love my work, find living alongside high school students the most meaningful work. I also know that I am learning that I find the challenge and beauty of living alongside university students wonderfully life-making. I love teaching. I love learning. And, in many ways, I love change. I also know I want calm and to write, and that the universe will simply let me know…
The Friday before winter break, as I was traveling home from school, the sadness of moments lost enveloped me. I longed for the familiarity of the cabin. For a time when I felt my two feet firmly underneath me.
In early September, we sold the home where I raised Jessy Lee. The house had sat empty for more than a year. Those final eight months I had hired a former student to stop by the house everyday. Jessy Lee and I had long since said goodbye. And we love our new home. But still. I was the last to leave. And like running my hands over that old familiar barn-board, the names and dates and heights written on the threshold the past 17years were hard to leave behind. The creak of the front foyer signalling home and safe. The plate rail that Jessy Lee filled with ceramic art over the past two decades. And the evergreens. The five evergreens. The five 115 year old evergreens that sing in the wind. Ten years. Two degrees. Almost another certificate. Jesse Lee graduated high school and will almost finish her first degree. Dad’s stroke. Alan and I found each other. Houses sold and found. Family lost. But these are things or events. A decade. A decade of change, of changes. I think of the students who I have lived alongside these past years. I think about Dylan, who I have written about. He messaged one evening when I was teaching in Regina. I later shared the text with my university students. I spoke to him prior to the lecture. He called me to share that he was about to propose to Justine. “If this goes south,” he said. “I am going to need you.” 26 years old. They are are engaged. I think about all the students I hold as sons and daughters-by-heart. I think about my girl. My Jessy Lee. I think about when we first moved into that House Down the Street with the Black Mailbox. I think how brave we both were, over, and over and over again. In being on our own, in my going off to school, and in her going off to school and, darn it, nothing, and no one has ever, ever, come between. I love my Brown Eyed Girl. We did it. We got from there to here.
I stood a long time among those evergreens listening, letting them sing me home.
The sun was setting and the brightness of its gleam over the fields pulled me home that last Friday. I left my visor up all the way home, letting the light stay, the brightness washing away the dreariness of a four-walls kind of day. I turned the corner to home. Alan had strung more twinkle lights, looping them among the young aspen out front, over and over the lights swayed. He was standing in the driveway, him and Felix. “For you. For us, for Jessy Lee. For home.”