Staring Down Ghosts

(Staring Down My Ghosts In Northern Ontario from the Globe & Mail 03/10/2012. Note: The paper’s editing preferences, while not reflective of the choices I would have made as an editor, have not been altered from the published article.)

Little is left of the old nickel town of Victoria Mines: a few metres of crushed slag that once formed a road; sunken foundations, bits of wood.

Now a ghost town in Ontario’s Sudbury Basin, it is where my family’s Canadian story began, around the turn of the last century.

Since my father’s death, my heart has been balled into a fist. I thought that coming to look at this place might ease the grip.

As we exit the car, we spread out and take measure. Granite tumours bulge: unwelcoming, treacherous for my elderly mother and aunt and uncle. My husband and I keep our little boy close.

Occupying this ground demands an almost sepulchral reverence. It is a haunted space, even if its ghosts exist only in my awareness that life once burgeoned here and then was gone.

Scattered in the scrub are morsels of ore and the occasional verdigris shock of copper-cobalt. Evidence of the living – broken jars, a wooden cross, shards of metal – lie hidden within a hissing ocean of weeds and grass.

Where the mine and the smelter once thundered and murky smoke drifted across the years, while a thousand souls fought for survival, there is silence.

Wind shushes through the leaves, a parched, papery sound, and I swear I can hear the murmuring past: the clatter and tinkle of the dinner table, men’s voices, occasionally women’s, the distant wailing of a baby.

The sky is cloudless and almost pure indigo. Chirring grasshoppers and the ravens that haw from time to time form a bleak antiphony to the ghost-echoes of women dying in childbirth; the barking and hacking of tuberculosis, silicosis, cancer; the low and terrible moans of hunger and disease in brutal winters.

My father’s death has unnerved me, even though it was expected. Through him I was bound to my ancestors, but I was coldly severed in that instant when his world went black and disappeared. Ever since, I have felt as much left behind as these places that formed, and deformed, our history.

When the past is unknown, the individual lives caught up in those shadows can become unknowable. This was my father, and in a way he was lost to me long before his death. I thought that maybe, if I picked through our shared past, I would find my dad and feel connected to something I never really had.

The oldest family photo of my grandfather shows him in 1914 on the newly built porch of his general store in Coniston, about 60 kilometres west of Victoria Mines. Another spoke in the Sudbury hub, Coniston was born out of the ruin of Victoria Mines, whose operations dried up like dozens of others dotting the ore-rich Basin. My grandfather’s prospects moved in an almost organic synchronicity with the mining fortunes in the region. In that photo, his Hollywood-handsome figure exudes attitude: Arms folded, he gazes on some unseen point beyond the camera. Sporting a great handlebar mustache, his expression is pure swagger. He has the world by the tail, and it shows.

How different from the old, prattling man who died 40 years ago, his eyes long emptied of vigour.

Each successive grief – the loss of two daughters in infancy, his wife’s defection under the pressure of his expectations, and finally the double blow of his second-born daughter’s death along with her unborn child – took its toll. And just as he’d imposed his supremacy and demands for perfection upon his family, so too did he impose his brokenness.

His descendants carried this with them, a kind of permanent hurt passed on like a gene nobody could decode.

The past became veiled in shame and silence, breaches in the narrative that stopped the story dead. We didn’t know how to ask our way past them, to isolate those metaphorical chromosomes and the memory-material that defined our familial angst.

At Victoria Mines, birch trees reach from thin soil like sun-bleached bones and the lank forms of Jack pine and white pine have filled the emptiness. In the old, sepia images of the town there were no trees. This place, too, is an erasure.

All this goes together: These lost towns and lost stories and lost relationships are the defining features that create the landscape of our lives, then vanish without a trace. It’s what’s in between that’s missing, borne silently among us like a genome: the when and where and why of them and of us.

The curve in the slag-banked road, if you catch it at just the right angle, mirrors the curve of the main road visible in one of those misty old images. It takes a while, experimenting with perspectives, to see the lay of the land through the eyes of all these ghosts. But see it we must.

My father’s death was not just a door slammed between life and afterlife: It was the breaking of a DNA narrative. To relate our experiences is to breathe life into words, to give power and expiation to our brief presence.

Something about who we have become mutates when a parent dies. Maybe it’s the discovery that we have never really been ourselves under the weight of all those pasts, known and unknown. Maybe what changes is that their deaths are not only a severance, but a freeing. It’s the dissonance that is so hard to navigate.

What has bound up my heart so that I can barely breathe remains. It will likely be there, in some part, for the rest of my life. It’s what loss is.

As we return to the car, I take one last look around. No voices have whispered their answers.

Then I realize: There is something I must say, too. Every day.

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Filed under Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Writing

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