April 1st is the birthday of my Poppa, my Grumpy, my Grandpa. So today felt like a good day to finally get around to posting this. I wrote it almost 2 years ago and when I came here to blog, today, I saw it saved in draft form, found sometime last November in the archives of my hard-drive. So, yeah, I guess a double post on my first day back to blogging. On April Fool's day. No joke.
They came to Canada, crossing that imaginary border, a fire in their belly for a land that had yet to be worked over by too many hands. My grandpa, born in Idaho, moved to the shores of Slave Lake when he could barely toddle around on legs soon made strong by crisscrossing the bush with traps while drilling holes into the frozen lake ice of winter, small hands grasping the eyeballs of inquisitive fish. My granddad, born in Missouri, eight years before my birth, packed up my grandma and seven kids moving across the land until he found himself in a valley of towering trees, muskeg and papery thin birch. He made camp by the river, water flowing from the lake that holds softly the roots of my truth.
My grandpa was a boxer. He also won an arm wrestling championship when he was in his sixties. I watched him standing beside this much taller, 30 years his junior, muscled up man as the organizers handed out trophies. Beside that second place winner, my grandfather looked small, old and fragile. This man, who would fight a grizzly bear for a moose, who knew his way through the bush and across the lake and around the winding spaces of my granny, looked unimaginably fragile to me. The first time my grandpa put boxing gloves on me, I felt awkward and unstable and in need of protection as though wearing the gloves made me less invincible, more vulnerable.
My little town had far more boys than girls, young men working the oil rigs and cutting back trees rooted deeply in rough-hewn hands and the promise of freedom. I was the only girl in a sea of boy cousins yearning for the swirl of a pink frothy dress hiding behind a spunky, feisty attitude fueled by the red neck anger of something I didn't yet understand, the clinging hands of poverty. I wore it in darkly drawn on eyeliner and big black boots topped off with a sullen scowl and bright orange hair, a splattering of freckles across the bridge of a broken nose, invisible boxing gloves not quite hiding ragged fingernails.
I watched the orange glow of the fire as I tipped the bottle and felt the burn of vodka, music floating over me as the trees towered above. One of the ever changing bush party sites was a campsite directly across the river from my granddad's farm, black angus breathing out snot and snorts, stomping the earth. By the time I was old enough to party at the site known only by his last name, he had long since died.
When I was 12, my granddad died quite suddenly of a brain aneurysm. It was my first experience with death, so different from my son who, by the age of 12, had watched his great grandpa; aunt; and two brothers die. It was unexpected and brutal as death often is. My mother told us he was at the hospital as we drove out to the farm and in my head, I knew he was dead. We pulled up alongside the river, drove up the long driveway parking in front of the white picket fence, incongruous from the sturdy buildings and knotty wire fences separating the pastures filled with drying cow pies. I sat on the light blue velvet cushions of the van, sweating in the beating heat of all those windows, in the knowing and I could see him - a battered cowboy hat, scuffed boots, strumming his guitar, fingers cracked and dry from wrangling the bull and birthing the baby calf, blue eyes staring down the moon.
Vodka hit my brain, warm waves hovering above the lick of orange flame and shadow illuminations beneath the fuzzy stars of “I love you man.” I watched the stars, separating myself from the drunken laughter, the endless conversation but I could feel the collective pull as chalky smoke drifted up from across the river. A larger fire, bright orange ribbons dancing, distracting from the wooden pallet campfire at my feet. Young men, drunken sways in the night air, stumbled over themselves, over the bridge, weaving towards the shape of my uncle, begging to help, to be of some service. Stars collided with the knowing. It was a normal burn, controlled and necessary. I wondered where were those helpers at that other party, under the towering jack pines, soft spongy ground coated with white sand icing as I lost my virginity, torn open under a full moon, pine needles sticking into my ass like an acupuncture I didn't ask for, screams lost to the howls of the owl, the fire crackle too far away to see, drunken laughter splayed in the distance. The boys were busy doing what boys do, tending the fire.
I rode my bicycle with streamers on the handlebars, staring up at the bright blue sky as the fire bomber planes soaked trails behind them. My grandpa tugged my pigtails reassuringly in the sunlight of his driveway swept clean of pine needles and bits of soft sandy dust and I was reassured that the fire was out there and towns didn't burn the way that the bush was prone to. I promised him, that last time, hollowed out cheeks laid white against the hospital sheets, that I would quit smoking, the burning ember flickering between my fingers, smoke rings blown out.
When the fires hit my home town this spring there was a shattering. My parents had been visiting for the weekend, back yard barbecues and greenhouse shopping. Flowers and seedlings lined my patio waiting to be planted into the fresh spring earth. They were on their way home when my phone began its incessant buzzing and sometime after midnight, we opened the door to their weary faces, tired eyes.
The summer following the fire, I walked through the town where I grew up and saw the devastation, burned out vehicles piled high on top of each other next to blocks of emptiness, piles of rubble sitting next to a sunflower patch, face turned towards the sun, smiling as though it had never happened. Even though I had heard the stories and saw the photographs, it was still jarring to see, to feel my memories eroding and changing and I wondered at the memories cleared away, razed down in a blackened fight of smoke and flame.
There was no one left to tug my pigtails reassuringly as I admired the poppies in my mom's front beds, her lawn grass green. I tried to imagine the smoke so thick that my uncle could barely make it down the street, floating embers landing on concrete as he rescued their dog shaking in the farthest reaches of the darkest corner. I looked over at my grandpa's pretty wood slated house, spared from the fire that took out blocks of houses in seemingly random disorder. I always found it hard to believe that the house started its life as two skid shacks pushed together and that my granny left a perfectly good hospital to trudge miles through the snow to give birth to my father in the cold of winter's night in what became the kitchen where I learned to bake bread. The house had been sold years before and when the new owner gutted it, he proudly walked me through the rooms pointing out the new features and I took a Polaroid photograph of the faded linoleum that my grandfather installed for my granny when I was still able to reach up and pluck the mints out of his front pocket, white peppermints that cleared his throat during the long days at the lumber mill.
Fire is a fierce and powerful force fueled by wind, the summer storm of lightning strikes and cigarettes carelessly thrown out of cars moving as fast as the conversations that threaten Bambi and the field mice scurrying across the jack pine floor. Dead and old trees are burned to make way for the dense green of the new. There are pine trees that need the heat of fire to open up their cones, to create the seeds that repopulate.
I wandered along the ridges of the beach road, the sun dipping into the lake, blackened trees reflecting her light even as fresh new green swished in bright tutu layers and I breathed in the clearing of space.
A fire rips through me and sparks out of my fingertips as I clear away the dust and debris, the interfering clutter, the frayed edges of my boxing gloves held together by a thin band of leather string. The fire is burning away the last of the deadened branches and cracking open pods, releasing new, soft seeds and I look down and smooth my fresh new green skirt.
And high above the bright lights of the city glow ... I watch the stars, the grandfathers tending to the glittering fire.