An Awakening in Canoes-Part V

“When you live beside water, there is an urge, often a need, to cross it.” Those are the first words in The Canoe: An Illustrated History.

In Victoria, in 25 kilometer winds, I kayaked. It was in the protected waters of the bay, but seaplanes took off and landed on the water beside the kayak dock, and then we were exposed to open winds and pushing waters before we could paddle ourselves into the inlet, closer to a shore. I feared the drift – suddenly panicking and not being able to control the vessel. Control punctuated the undercurrent of my life, one I was trying to relinquish.

My ex-husband sought control. My religion emphasized control. My parents had claimed control until I wrested free of it in my mid-20s. Entering motherhood seven years earlier had been my first step toward letting go of the notion of control and giving in to the moments. Every day since, I had done my best to anticipate only a single day’s torments and treats. And since ending my marriage, I was coming closer to success.

After three days, I repacked my suitcases and lumbered onto the Swartz Bay ferry once again. I scanned the countryside before we pushed off: heavy hills thick with tall pines, mist hanging like a curtain over ocean water, the taste of salt in the air. Ahead, a hill rose above the clouds like a slumbering bear.

The boat was massive. I settled back against a bench. Outside rain pattered down, a dreary day. Vessels were everywhere on this trip. Independence in a symbol? Reliant on instinct and air, the map of the moon, the tidal push, reading clouds and shadows to learn a true course. On my hike, I took the most challenging route. I could have skirted sea level on flat paths but I didn’t even see them when I set out.

The rain did not abate that entire day. I found my hotel, negotiated my room and unpacked my belongings into drawers beneath the TV. The initial rush of the vacation – the freedom of being alone, the anticipation of exploration – had dissipated. Now I was in a city of tall buildings and beautiful people and I slept in the king bed alone.

My first morning in Vancouver, I dined at The Elbow Room, a legendary diner where customers get their own water and are admonished to follow the rules spelled out on the first page of the menu. I loved it immediately. My effeminate, aged waiter brought me a cup of coffee; “seconds you get yourself.” He pointed to a carafe warming on a counter.

I strolled along the artists’ shops of Granville Island, the water relatively still. A sailboat named Paradox III docked by the market where vibrant berries beckoned like a lover’s finger. One night, I met Lee Ann, a tiny former Peace Corps volunteer and cousin of my father’s whom I had never met.

“I am light like your grandmother,” she said. Light eyes, long frizzy white hair, a backpack slung over her shoulder. We shared a drink and nuts from a martini glass in the hotel bar, and then Lee Ann walked with me across city blocks to the Blue Water Café, where I would have oysters fresh from the sea.

She remembered “Aunt Sarah” coming to visit her California family (my late grandfather’s four brothers and one sister all settled in California after serving in the Pacific during World War II; my grandmother’s two sisters also moved west).

My grandmother took over Lee Ann’s kitchen, and when she, a little girl, saw the butter my grandmother had placed on the counter to soften for a cake, Lee Ann diligently put it back in the refrigerator so it wouldn’t spoil.

“Who did this?” my grandmother admonished. Sheepishly, Lee Ann admitted her guilt.

“She wasn’t mad,” Lee Ann explained. “She deemed it a responsible thing to do.”

The grandmother she described to me was full of life, lively, bustling, a baker, a leader – unlike the woman my parents had shown me. I’d known her well but only in partiality. Grandma Sarah lived in Detroit for most of her life, but Lee Ann described a vibrant, talkative, happy woman who recalled her Montreal relatives in great detail. By the time I asked, in the late 1990s, my grandmother had forgotten everything. Lee Ann had names and memories of mink coats.

I learned from Lee Ann that my grandmother’s other sister, Bev, had breast cancer and a double mastectomy two decades ago. She would turn 80 in August and my parents would travel to

Arizona for the celebration. Lee Ann couldn’t make it. By the time I visited

Vancouver, my own sister had just finished a brutal year of breast cancer treatments. Until she was diagnosed, we had no idea of any family history. She is 35.

I learned that my grandmother’s mother was named Nechama, Hebrew for comfort. It is my daughter’s middle name, in memory of a relative in my ex-husband’s family. Lee Ann illustrated all the N names in our family, after this illustrious matriarch: my father, Norman; his sister, Natalie; a cousin, Nicky. Bracha was her mother, Hebrew for blessing. My father’s Hebrew name: Nachman Baruch, for two strong women he never knew. Lee Ann’s Hebrew name was Nechama, too.

In the restaurant, after she left, I was cold. My bare shoulders in a summer tank top as night fell. “Can I bring you a pashmina?” the waiter offered. I shook my head no, but smiled. I was reading Salinger. The Effingham oyster was my favorite of the four British Columbia bites of sea. As I left, finished beyond full, I took a silver tri-fold card to remember the restaurant. On its cover, the words in white: food, wine, friends.

 

My final day in Vancouver, I walked the seawall at Stanley Park. In the shade it was cold. Seaplanes took off across the expanse of the bay. Low clouds hung over the mountains.

 

Mountains and ocean. Height and depth. Between sea level, where I sat, and the summit, the progress defined by industry polluted the waters. I was happiest sitting on the sand, discarded opalescent shells sifting through my hand. But really, anywhere the tide goes in and out and in, I am at peace.

The recurrent sound of things that happen in any season, any storm, in sunlight under the moon. The scent of the sea was briny, full of earth and welt, almost like a promise. The ocean aroma was one of shedding all pretense and becoming linked with sun and moon. A sailboat meandered into my sight line. I had memories of sailing on lakes. This one had its sails down and was gently coasting between harbor inlets.

At the end of my trip, I pulled the Perth rune out of its soft bag. Powerful forces of change are at work here … the flight of the eagle, lifting yourself above the endless ebb and flow of ordinary life to require broader vision…let go of everything, no exceptions, no exclusions.

My last meal in Vancouver I ate at the Boathouse Restaurant on Denman and Davie streets. Overlooking the ocean, boats rocking on the harbor, little sailboats and big freighters, I sat inside a restaurant fashioned like the interior of a boat. I knew innately that the journey was indeed the destination. I sipped a mango martini. I could still smell the salt of the sea but I could no longer taste it in the air. 

That was the week that Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died. My daughter called two days before I was supposed to return home, tearful that one of her earring holes had closed up because her father failed to replace a lost earring. So far away, I was helpless. My children needed me. My vacation was over.

Back home, my mother drove across town to get Eliana and take her for a re-piercing. I bit back tears to imagine her enduring the pain twice, inwardly shouting at my ex-husband for his indifference. Thankfully, the hole had not closed and a woman at the jewelry store shoved an earring through, securing it with a tight backing. Crisis averted, albeit with a slight bit of pain for both of us.

The symbolic work of a canoe is to resolve or contain. Canoes have carried people through history, through war and famine, to new shores and beyond the horizon. But the canoe’s voyage was never easy. It was risky and uncomfortable and in high seas, downright dangerous.

The great advantage of a canoe was its light weight: two men could carry one of average size with ease, yet on top of the water, a canoe can carry a heavy load and still respond well to the twists of a river of fast current. Still, it remains a fragile vessel. Even a slight error in judgment while running down a rapid could throw a canoe against rock and tear open its bottom irreparably.

Apparently, the border between the United States and Canada is not an arbitrary line. It is punctuated by watersheds, along which the first settlers flowed with the current toward the Pacific, toward an unimaginable and vast frontier, toward the vast endless hope of the sea. 


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