How Your Father Became an Apprentice
in Sleds and Toboggans in the Village
of Middle Economy, Nova Scotia
In The Highland Book of Platitudes, Marlais, theres an entry
that reads, Not all ghosts earn our memory in equal measure.
I think about this sometimes. I think especially about
the word earn, because it implies an ongoing willful effort
on the part of the dead, so that if you believe the platitude,
you have to believe in the afterlife, dont you? Following that
line of thought, there seem to be certain peoplecall them
ghostswith the ability to insinuate themselves into your life
with more belligerence and exactitude than othersits their
employment and expertise.
I imagine that your mother informed you of thismaybe she didntbut let me say it directly. My own mother, Katherine, and my father, Joseph, leapt from separate bridges in Halifax on the same evening. I was seventeen. Oh, it was quite the scandal. It made for bold headlines in the Halifax Mail (page two the day after it happened, page four the following day; the war was on, so most of the front page was reserved for Allied victories and setbacks, and Axis atrocities).
So there I was, a spectacle for every Haligonian to pity, victim of a sordid love triangle, orphaned all of a single hour, on August 27, 1941, between six and seven oclock, not quite dusk at that time of year, but almost. Odd as it might sound, the first thing I experienced, past the initial shock, was embarrassment. And when I returned to school the day after the funerals, I could hardly breathe for the shame and embarrassment of it all. That may not refl ect well on me, but its the truth. Of course, at night the weird sadness found me, and everything familiar to my life, absolutely everything, had suddenly become unfamiliar.
Its been twenty-six years, then, since my father leapt from the Halifax-Dartmouth Toll Bridge, connecting Highway 111 to the Bedford Highway, my mother from the toll bridge connecting North Street to Windmill Road. Rough waters that day under all bridges, Bedford Basin to Halifax Harbor, wild dark skies and gulls more catapulted and buffeted than fl ying here to there, all of which I could see from my high school on Barrington Street. Anyway, I keep the clippings in a mintwood box. Among their headlines are unusual love nest results in twin suicides and mystery woman causes family tragedy.
Have you ever read the poet Emily Dickinson? She says that to travel all you need to do is close your eyes. Here at 58 Robie some nights, I close my eyes and Im back on August 27, 1941, sitting on the porch when the first of two police cars pulls up in front of our house. Imagine, only ten or fifteen minutes before, Id gotten a phone call telling me whatd happened. And here Id been complaining to myself: Where is everybody? Am I going to have to make my own supper?
First page to last, The Highland Book of Platitudes, originally published in Scotland, does not contain a platitude that addresses a woman falling in love with a woman, and a man falling in love with the same woman. Yet that was the situation with my parentsand this included our next-door neighbor Reese Mac Isaac. In 1941 Reese Mac Isaac was thirtyfive years old. Her hair was the color of dark honey, she was slim and dressed smart, and was, to my mind, as lovely and mysterious as any woman youd see in an advertisement for perfume in the Saturday Evening Post. My family didnt have a subscription, but you could find copies in the lobby of the Lord Nelson Hotel, on Spring Garden Road across from the Public Gardens.
In fact, Reese was employed as a switchboard operator at the hotel. Also, shed taken acting lessons, and in 1937 had appeared in Widows Walk. It was a picture about a woman whose husbands fishing boat capsizes in a storm on the same night shed been dallying with the handsome village doctor. Out of guilt and remorse, the woman goes mad and spends the rest of her nights in a widows walk atop her house. For the few months that it was being filmed, Widows Walk was all the gossip. Referred to as an all-Canadian production, most of it was shot near Port Medwaytheyd even built a temporary lighthouse.
Excerpted from What is Left the Daughter: A Novel by Howard Norman. Copyright © 2010 by Howard Norman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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