“Nu es et Tiet,” my mother would say in the Russian Mennonite Low German our family always spoke together. Now it is time. And my father would get up to wrap his bare feet in footcloths and pull on his felt boots with rubbers over them, hook his heavy mackinaw and fur cap off the pegs by the door and go outside with the neighbour we were visiting. They would lead Prince and Jerry out of the barn and hitch them to our bobsled and we would drive home to a rhythm of harness bells, always, as I remember it, in blue darkness and covered by blankets and stiff cowhide in the sledbox.
We are travelling between winter poplars, momentarily open fields, along massive black walls of spruce; the horses feeling in the snow the trail of their own hoofprints home like the narrow path of sky above us, bright heaven sprinkled with light but sometimes, abruptly, flaming out like an exploded sun, a shower of fire and frightening until it swims away into waves fading out in rainbows: there, God lives in such light eternally and so far away I may never get there beyond the stars. Though my mother certainly will, and also, perhaps, my father.
They are singing. My father’s favourite hymn, which they have carried with them from their Mennonite villages on the steppes of Ukraine and Russia to sing in Saskatchewan’s boreal forest:
Hier auf Erden bin ich ein Pilger,
Und mein Pilgern, und mein Pilgern währt nicht lang. . . .
Here on earth I am a pilgrim
And my pilgrimage will not be very long. . . .
In the crystalline cold my mother’s soprano weaves the high notes on “Pi-il-ger” back and forth into my father’s tenor like wind breathing through the leaves of summer aspen. My oldest sister, Tina, is married and my oldest brother, Abe, in Bible school, they are not there, and Dan is standing at the open back of the sledbox, tall and silent; but we four younger siblings are humming inside our layered clothes under the covers, Mary especially because she can already thread alto between Mam and Pah’s voices, make three-part harmony, and if only Dan would open his mouth, as Mary tells him often enough, we could have a family quartet even if Helen and Liz and I are too little for anything yet except melody.
We are driving home in the boreal forest that wraps itself like an immense muffler around the shoulders of North America; the isolated spot where once my particular life appeared. A physical place in western Canada not difficult to find: north of North Battleford halfway to Meadow Lake, west off Highway 4 where the Saskatchewan Official Highway Map is blank except for tiny blue streams beginning and running in every direction; not a settlement name north of Glaslyn, for ninety kilometres; in the space cornered by Turtle and Stony and Midnight lakes. The ground of whatever I was or would be, root and spirit.
There, before I could speak any language, I heard Psalm 90, a Prayer of Moses, read aloud, and recited at home and in church:
Herr, Gott, du bist unsere Zuflucht für und für. . . .
Lord, God, you have been our refuge in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
All our days pass away under the shadow of your wrath,
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or perhaps by reason of strength fourscore,
yet their span is but toil and trouble,
they are soon cut off, and we fly away.
Threescore and ten years ago my life began on the stony, glacier-haunted earth of western Canada. Seventy years of refuge, under the shadow of wrath. As my mother said, “Now it is time.”
–On board MS Dnieper Princess,
the Black Sea, October 4, 2004
An arc of water spouts from a steel kettle. It steams against the darkness under the roof rafters like a curve of light. And a scream. My sister Liz – she is five years old, or six – has stepped into the family washtub too quickly, at the instant Helen, certainly nine, began to pour boiling water into the tepid, slightly scummy bathwater I have just scrambled out of. The boiling water slaps down Liz’s leg, that’s her scream, and with a cry Helen drops the steel kettle to the floor, the water splashes out with the crash, pours over the bumpy boards as the kettle lid rings away and I am screaming too.
Our mother would have been there in a second. Kettles with long spouts are a dangerous story in our family; even as a baby I knew how in Russia my oldest brother, Abe, at six, ran in from play outside and inexplicably tipped the spout of the kettle boiling on the stove into his mouth for a drink and scalded his tongue and throat almost to the point of death. Steel kettles squatted on every kitchen stove, Russia or Canada, often steaming and dangerous, but they were as necessary as continuous fire in the grate.
This must have happened on our CPR homestead before I turned three, certainly in summer when we had washtub baths on Saturday evening, though we washed our feet, dirty from running barefoot all day, every night before bed. First I hunkered down in the tin tub used for washing clothes, then my three sisters bathed in the order of their ages, just adding more hot water each time to what had already grown cold around the person washing before. Until Mary, thirteen with curly blond hair, who would sometimes seize the tub by its handle, drag it to the kitchen doorstep and dump it out, she’d rather wash herself in a cup than sit down in everyone else’s Schwienarie, piggish filth!
My first memory: water arcing and the length of Liz’s small leg scalded; which is not as dreadful as Abe’s throat, but why are the rafters there? Why would we bathe upstairs in the sleeping loft? Where is Mary? The extremely hot, very heavy kettle would have had to be hoisted up the ladder stairs you needed two hands to clutch and climb – hoisted somehow by Helen who was always sickly, never strong? This should have happened in our lean-to kitchen, as usual, beside the woodstove where Mary would simply swing the kettle around by its handle, off the firebox and tilt it over the washtub.
But in this, the first undeniable memory of my life, nothing is more fixed than that low, open jaw of roof rafters and three of us screaming. Childhood can only remain what you have not forgotten.