can you run as fast as this house will fall?

There is this photo of my grandmother from the 60s standing in front of a leaning wooden house, which hangs on my parent’s living room wall.

The picture was taken in Red Deer, Alberta, on a trip back out West, when my father was young. The house, the one she grew up in.

It is such a sad photograph, in sepia tone, and if you look too long at it your eyes almost feel dusty. Besides the abandoned house, there is nothing for miles around.

When I was at Queen’s we watched this film about settlers moving from the East, to the West. It is horribly depressing. For the longest time the only thing I could remember from the film was the line, “High winds and sand. High winds and sand.” I feel as though it was repeated throughout the film, depicting the sand that blazed off the ground in the prairie, ruining any chance of a crop.

When I was driving across the country, all I kept hearing in my head were those lines. Especially when driving past the dead sunflowers. Through Saskatchewan, although it seemed endless, it held a kind of rhythm. You knew you weren’t going to see anything for a few hours besides a farm way off in the distance, so the bleak landscape kind of soothed, yet crushed your soul at the same time. I remember thinking all this space – so much potential – yet so uninhabitable.

Outside my window now the sand swirls, no high wind, because I am in the Valley. On my desk sits an autobiography I am reading for the upcoming exhibition I am doing research for, which will show after I am gone from here. I haven’t been able to put it down. It’s about a pioneer woman who came to the Valley from England in the early 1900s. It’s not filled with flowery language. It is simple and to the point, heartbreaking, yet incredibly uplifting.

Indescribable conditions. She wrote a lot about how unhappy she was in her marriage, but could never leave because of the children. I know for her story, there are probably a thousand others just like it.

I think back to my grandmother in the photograph. Remembering all the stories she used to tell me over tea, of growing up out West. The conditions and why she left (when she met my grandfather), and I wonder what the photograph does not tell.

I will never know, but even though the photograph holds this solemn quality, I know the edges are worn with optimism, much like my grandmother herself, and that dusting is reinforced in this pioneer autobiography. In the smallest of details, which if you’re reading too fast, you’ll miss.

Its weird, for some reason reading this book, I’m glad she taught me how to sew.

And I wonder if years from now someone will look at a photograph of me, standing in front of (one of) the various landscapes I’ve inhabited and wonder the same thing.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “can you run as fast as this house will fall?

  1. It’s wonderful that your parents have that photo on their wall. I can imagine that there is so much to be read in and learned from it, about your own past and your family’s history and the birth of a country and human nature.

    I think it would be a great gift to be able to have someone see the past someday in a photo of yourself.

  2. The photograph was blown up from a small snapshot, and it was framed (I can’t recall for what occasion). I will have to take a picture of it when I’m home next. The long grass, and the leaning frame kind of hypnotize you. :)

    Its kind of why I started taking the “tourist photos” while traveling. Its often times the little things that show up in the photos – a sideways glance perhaps – that tell the best stories.

  3. bloody awful poetry

    Have I ever told you how gorgeous your descriptions are? Because they are. I still see that photo in my head, and well, heaven knows if I’ve got it right (but I do have a thing for sepia and really old stuff, so).

    And I love the title of this post as well, btw.

    And I hate having my picture taken, so it’s unlikely someone will ever look at an old one of me and feel all connected to the past and stuff, but I do find that idea very beautiful.

  4. Thank-you, BAP. Sepia is lovely isn’t? It holds a special place in my heart.

    Sunset Rubdown lyric for title. ;)

    I used to hate having my picture taken, then I realised I had no pictures of myself, or with others. I think the advent of digital media made that easier too.

  5. Lovely, lovely post Allison. Your description so poetic. I too appreciate a great photograph for so many reasons. I take my fair share and on occasion capture the very essence you describe.

    Ironically I do not like to have my picture taken due primarily to the fact that I am not photogenic in any way. Compound that with the fact that I almost always anticipate the camera flash my eyes are often closed. Hence another dorky reminder. But yes indeed, do appreciate a great picture and go to great lengths to find opportunities to shoot them.

    s

  6. You are in the right profession. It’s a lovely touching post. Now I’m thinking of your grandmother. They had such amazing lives and we sometimes just see them as little old ladies

  7. Sean: Thank-you! Its true what they say, a photograph is worth a thousand words.

    You should get some sunglasses, and whenever the camera comes out, pop them on. I suggest some Elton John 70s style for the greatest effect. ;)

    GT: I think so too. Now if only I can get a permanent position… :)

    Yes, that’s so true. The older I get the more I appreciate those before me. And working in smaller towns, where the community is an active force and having people drop by the museum, I feel like I’m able to hear some really interesting oral histories.

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