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.