A Journey Home - A First Voice Reflection
Heading south from Ottawa on the 416, I pass a sign that designates this road as Veterans Memorial Highway. Memories of my Dad’s death flood my mind. I’ll be passing the place he was killed before I get to Kemptville. I’ll have to watch out for the bridge and connect with Dad’s spirit as I pass the place he was released from his body.
I was 13. He was 52 - coming back to Ottawa at midnight after a day of appointments and visits with family and old friends in our old stomping ground.
I'm travelling home myself now. I’ve flown in from Halifax and rented a car at the airport. Driving out of the city along the path that leads me through and back to my childhood is always a somber and surreal experience.
So many memories. So many stories. So much pain and confusion, regret and uncertainty.
This is a new road since Dad died. He was killed along this stretch when it was being built. He drove through a barrier at a crossroads that was intended to divert traffic back onto the old 16. Of course, many changes have occurred since then. That was 1973. I was still a kid. Dad was in his prime. He and Mom had started loving each other again.
And then the knock came at the door. The police. The message. Dad’s never coming home again. My life exploded in rage and grief.
Here I am, 4 decades later, driving towards the place on the south side of the river where my father died and my childhood ended. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. The traffic is moving quickly. It comes up on you fast, and is gone in an instant.
Is part of you still here Dad, your energy, your spirit? We never placed a marker on the side of the highway. That wasn’t a thing back then. I’m not sure it would be tolerated today, with so much resistance to roadside memorials as dangerous distractions to passing drivers.
Our family is so spread out across the country we’d never get together or agree on anything anyway. And I won’t do it alone. I don’t need it. I know where it happened and what happened. And Veterans Memorial Highway commemorates him anyway. It’s serendipitous. He’d appreciate that connection better anyway.
Passing the Ventnor turn off, I begin to watch out for my exit.
The Shanly Road always brings up bad memories. As I turn right to head towards Spencerville, part of me turns left to pick up the pieces of my four year old self from the site of my sexual assault by my baby sitter’s husband.
Maybe next time I’ll take that detour. He’s dead now anyway. He too died last week. Maybe instead of revisiting his farm, I’ll just dance on his grave.
The sun is warm on my face. I can feel the summer, smell the corn growing, hear the river trickling. In spite of all that happened in this place, it’s still where I call home.
I don’t know anyone anymore in the village. All my old friends and family moved away. Strangers live here now. They have no idea who I am. They have no idea of the lives we lived on the streets of this community.
There’s the site of the old bank we used to put the manure spreader on at Halloween. Crossing the bridge where the riot police showed up to break up the crowds burning scarecrows in barrels that year the youth got too rowdy.
There’s the old house of my childhood best friend. I can feel the warmth and smell the dry air of the huge attic we passed through to get to the widow’s walk on the roof where her brother used to practice his bagpipes, sending the reeling sounds across the rooftops throughout the village and settling on the surrounding corn fields that bordered our town.
Passing my old home, I notice the front face has been covered in shakes. It was always white when I knew it. Grandpa’s apartment on the left. The entrance to our front room off to the right where the kids threw the bats in the door on another wild Halloween.
I wonder if they’ve changed anything inside. I remember the stairs, and the wallpaper, and crawling into Daddy’s lap for comfort when I came home from the babysitter’s confused and terrified about what I had just experienced.
I can wander through that house in my mind, remembering the layout, the hollow sound of my footsteps, the colour of the paint. But there are rarely people in my memories, and even more rarely, food. I lived there for 11 years, and can’t for the life of me remember where the Cornflakes are stored.
I’ll be back down to the funeral home across the street in the next few days.
I’m here to lay to rest my beloved Aunt.
She was my buffer. She was my salvation. She was my primary attachment figure. Only the universe knows how I would have turned out without her in my life.
Of course the houses are much smaller than I remember, and the distance is much shorter from the village to the farm. I’ve lived a lot of life since I knew these places as a child. Perspective is everything.
I’m greeted by my cousins. Since I spent so much time with them when we were all children, we’re like siblings. I settle into the rhythm of making arrangements for the visitation and the funeral.
I know where the Cornflakes are in this kitchen. I know the smell of percolating coffee and the sound of the toaster rising.
This is the place I actually lived even when I wasn’t there physically. This is my real home. This is where I was loved, and valued, had meaning and felt safe. I was always welcome, always included, always respected, always loved. I could relax there. I’m trying to recall feelings of hypervigilance I may have felt there, and I can’t.
Yet in my home in the village I was always on guard. The overarching sense is that I’m alone aside from the occasional memory of an interaction with my parents and siblings.
Just before dusk I take a walk through the sugar bush and fallow fields. From the boundary of the property I can see the farm where I grew up and the adjacent farm my father was born on.
My roots run deep here, even though our families have only been here for 3 generations.
Both families moved to this rural community from Quebec. Dad’s family first, then Mom’s family 30 years later. There’s was a city girl meets country boy next door story, with lots of conflict, mostly imposed by interfering families, and seasoned with prejudice, competition, financial struggle, the effects of WWII and alcohol.
The last person of that generation has now passed. She was all the kids’ favourite adult, because she was non-judgmental. The world and I will miss her generous spirit. She was home for me. Her home was home for me.
As I think of the next few days, and how they’ll play out, the future for my beloved Aunt and me, I have some sense of peace.
The cemetery down the road holds the remains of most of my relatives from both my mother’s and father’s families. I will end up there too when my time is through. Future generations won’t have to search far to track our ancestors. The record of our family connections is recorded in one place by the graves of my grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, and eventually, me.
Even though most of us have scattered elsewhere across the country and around the world, the one farm is still in the family and the cemetery will always keep the record, of families merged and expanded, of roots deeply embedded in the history of that region. In spite of the challenges I have experienced in my life, the continuity and connection gives me a surprising sense of stability. There is a final place for me, even if I lived my life seeking to be meaningful.