At the age of eighty, Don Gillmor's grandmother let slip the defining secret of her life: her twin sister Jean was not her twin, but her aunt, and her family had emigrated from Scotland to Winnipeg to escape the stigma of her illegitimacy. That revelation set Gillmor off on what seemed at first like the most personal of quests: to track down his ancestors. The Desire of Every Living Thing is also the story of the New World, the story of Winnipeg, the story of this country. Both an evocative family memoir and a brilliant feat of historical imagination, the book's most moving theme is how the discarded past haunts and shapes our lives without us even noticing.
|Publisher:||Random House of Canada, Limited|
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From the back of the Fort Garry United Church that Sunday, my grandmother looked out on rows of blond oak pews bolted to the floor and the unthreatening backs of people's heads. A pale winter light was diffused by beige translucent windows. There were hats still; it was 1962. Small dark hats that perched, hats with netting and dried flowers and sombre ribbon. Furs were out at the first opportunity, which in Winnipeg could be September. By December they were a fixture. One woman had a wrap with the mink heads still attached. The jaw was hinged and the mouth used as a clasp. The dead marble eyes stared across the con-gregation without rancour. The mink had its own fur in its mouth, an act that seemed to imply loyalty, like a golden lab swimming to shore with a stick in its jaw.
Behind the varnished pulpit, his voice searching for the perfect monotone, Reverend Donald Ray read from Exodus, And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men. My grandmother sat with her hands folded around a small black cloth purse, her eyes widened in effort, blinking away sleep. Her Scottish brooch was pinned to her bosom and her hair curled in soft grey waves. Before the children of Israel were led by Moses, before God had drowned all the Egyptians (And Israel saw the great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians; and the people feared the LORD), my grandmother was asleep, her breathing occasionally hiccupping into a soft snore.
I sat beside her, eight years old, wearing a tan corduroy sports jacket that I was either growing into or out of, my father's tie dangling below my waist. My mouth was still brightwith the flavour of eating Colgate toothpaste. Damn shit shit piss. These words went through my head involuntarily in galloping repetition. It was part of the reason I was in church; toothpaste hadn't banished them. My grandmother slept heavi-ly beside me. We sat in the back pew with our separate sins.
My grandmother, Georgina Mainland, had been raised in the Free Presbyterian Church, which had taken its doctrine from Calvin, who believed that human beings were fundamentally corrupt and deserved to be damned. The Free Presbyterians disapproved of organ music and hymn singing and talking on Sunday. They disapproved of most things. It was a stark, wintry religion and was conducted in bleak brown churches, the antithesis of Rome's magnificent, frivolous cathedrals. As a child, my grandmother had lived on the northern coast of Scotland, at Fanagmore, a fishing village with only a few houses, the youngest of ten children. Her family came to Canada in 1905, when Georgina was six.
My grandmother now attended the United Church because it was handy and her friends went there. She was a soft, beneficent presence, her face unlined at sixty-two. But she held to certain Free Presbyterian ideas and felt personally at risk when my brother and I played Go Fish on Sunday at her house. Cards were the devil's tool.
The United Church didn't have the rigour and strict discipline of the Free Presbyterian Church. You didn't need to memorize anything or kneel or wear a hat. You didn't need to chant in Latin or confess or forsake your foreskin or shake hands with the person behind you or fall down speaking in tongues. And you didn't need a gift for music to sing the amelodious hymns. Formed in 1925, the United Church brought together Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists. It wasn't a smooth transition and threatened to erupt into a minor Holy War, as it involved not only the division of faith but of property. If a majority of Presbyterians wanted to become United, then the church was turned over to them and the stalwart Presbyterians were left to build their own. Four decades after its inception, the United Church, in our sunny enclave at least, believed that a congregation could govern itself, without the tyranny of popes, bishops or kings. It was a convenient belief that in 1962 was given more to folk songs than to Hell, though there was some overlap. It was the ideal religion for an eight-year-old boy.
From the Trade Paperback edition.