The drive to the treed oasis of St. Victor, nestled in the hills south of Assiniboia, could be just another visit. Bromegrass and foxtail encroach on the narrow, oiled road. The mustard yellow canola complements the bright blue summer sky, and acres of wheat stretch to the horizon. Angus cattle still dot the pastures. From the hilltop turn that leads into valley, I notice the grid road to the petroglyphs park and the land my father farmed cutting through the hills in the distance. The St. Victor: Le beau village sign just past the clay hills still welcomes us as we round the curve into town. Surely my parents will be sitting around the kitchen table awaiting our arrival, the coffee on, the beer cold, the wine cabinet well-stocked, treats ready for the kids.
This time is different, though. Our destination today is the cemetery where my parents rest. Waiting for my sister and her husband to arrive, Elmer and I first inch down main street. The Post Office/Library has been moved. I notice an attractive addition on one home. The stone fence around the former insurance building is still there. Our old house at the intersection of main street and the only avenue looks much the same as it did when I was a child, except for the French doors that have replaced the kitchen window. I try to reintegrate myself in this context. I can barely recognize the young girl who
learned to ride her two-wheeler beside the house on the only side street in town,
played the organ in the church just up ahead,
tobogganed down the hill at the intersection at the base of the hill,
climbed the trees and played Prisoners’ Base in the swimming pool yard,
performed plays on the house steps,
took the school bus every morning in front of the grocery store,
learned to swim at Jubilee Beach,
smelled the lilacs hanging over the fence from the rectory yard,
threw up on the sidewalk on the way to her first piano recital,
addressed the neighbors in French on the street.
Yet that girl has become the woman who unlatches the cemetery gate. It’s peaceful here. I see only a woman in a broad-brimmed hat and Bermuda shorts tending her massive garden. The high grass scratches my legs as I acknowledge the graves of my uncle and aunt and continue to my parents’ spot, adjacent to that of my stilborn older brother. Au service d’autrui, we had inscribed on their tombstone, centered under Papa’s carved wheatsheaf and Maman’s engraved roses. In the service of others, they always were, first of their families, each other and their children, then of their community. Papa supported his parents on the farm, grew wheat that fed the world, transformed the sweat of his brow into books and music for us and appliances that would make Maman’s life easier. It is a much richer alchemy than that of base metal into gold. I remember photographs of the graduation dresses and wedding gowns Maman created for her sisters, of the wedding dress she sewed for me, and the masterpiece our daughter wore for her confirmation (right, front and back views). Transfixed at their resting place, I think of the community hall a hop-skip from here that arose out of my father’s vision, determination, and ability to inspire people through his own hard work. I see the posters, wedding decorations, and costumes my mother crafted from recycled materials before it was fashionable.
My sister, her husband, and my niece park beside us. We have made the six hour round trip to honor Maman and Papa, our first visit in two years, since the summer we buried my father, his sister, and his brother. Dianne places red roses on their grave and our brother’s, a small remembrance of our time here this day. We pause in silent gratitude. Then, we wander on, to pay our respects to our uncle and our cousin, and to the people who kept this town alive in its zenith, our parents’ contemporaries. We recall a young victim of Hodgkin’s Disease now in the company of his parents. We talk about a neighbor’s battle with breast cancer. The town of our childhood is here, now.
I realize that I needed this reminder of where I come from, of the good people I knew growing up. I needed the reminder of my parents’ core values. Things are important only inasmuch as they help people to grow. Invest in people.
We stretch out our departure, loathe to leave, but without any reason to prolong our stay. My sister and her family head to the petroglyphs. We postpone that visit for another day. We have an important stop on the way home, another connection with family. My father would be pleased.