Jenny Ferguson is a Canadian studying for her PhD at the University of South Dakota. Her recent work can be found in Thrice Fiction, 605 Magazine, Spittoon Magazine, and Architrave Press.
Festival events: 2013 AWP Boston; 2013 AWP a reading eXperiment Boston, 2014 AWP a reading eXperiment Seattle, 2015 AWP Minneapolis
Both Sides, Again
This is me telling the beginning. The story of the real start of my family. Like wind dancing with rapeseed’s yellow blossoms in birds-view patchwork fields, wind as it tangles hair and soothes late summer sunburns, this story comes to me.
So, it was true love. A girl called Sarah with coarse hair, split ends before they were called splint ends. Young, willful, good at climbing trees when trees dared to grow on the grasslands. A boy, let’s call him Peter John MacDonald. He lived out west, in Canada. He was not so good at climbing trees as Sarah.
Peter’s family migrated across the ocean, like the others who are now Canadians. Across the ocean his family collected money, is how the story goes. They used to have big houses on estates. Used to have wolfhounds for hunting things that ran too fast. Used to wear kilts. Then something happened. So they abandoned the old country and left the money behind, couldn’t carry the foundation stones of their houses in their pockets when they crossed in boats. History tells that people died on these boats, but Peter didn’t. If he had, this would be a different story. Wouldn’t be me telling it. If Peter’s family hadn’t left when they had left, they’d have been sent to Australia. Better beaches in Australia. Peter could have been an Australian instead, if things had been a little differently. But he still would have met a Sarah. It might have been true love. In Australia.
This Sarah lived on the plains with her family and her family’s family. And so on. Her great-grandparents lived in the place that was where Canada was before it was there. That place we’ve heard about from a paragraph on a page in book teaching the history of this nation. So, it’s true, you might have guessed, Sarah was Indian. The Cree kind if you wander around those books long enough. But that makes no different. Peter had a full dose of old blood from across the ocean, that’s what matters.
Sarah and Peter had kids. A barrelful? That’s monkeys. A handful? That’s small kids who fit into only one of your hands. Easier to say they had lots. The metaphors aren’t to be forced in this kind of story.
It may be easier to say that Sarah and Peter were in love and people in love have more kids than other people who aren’t in love. The two of them had twelve kids who lived long enough to be named after no one in particular, and four who died at birth. The ones who died they named after their parents. Then down the road two more died, a drowning and the fever, before the inclination to fall in love had simmered in their chests. The rest of Sarah and Peter’s children grew up and had children of their own, and those children had some children too. Eventually.
But it was before they had kids that Sarah and Peter went to talk to Sarah’s father, who didn’t call her Sarah because it wasn’t her name. He called her something else. Something, I’m not sure what.
“Sir, I want to marry your daughter,” Peter said.
“Father, I want to marry Peter John MacDonald.”
“Daughter, you cannot marry Peter John MacDonald. Peter John MacDonald, you cannot marry my daughter. That is the final word. The end of this story,” Sarah’s father said and held a hand out to his daughter. Come now, his hand said. Come, girl-who-is-not-called-Sarah.
“Father, Peter John MacDonald owns a small farm with three horses, he is kind, he is a good shot with rifles and would likely be able to learn how to hunt buffalo with the men of our tribe and could support many children. He speaks very good poetry.”
“Peter John MacDonald is a white man, daughter. Peter John MacDonald, you are a white man.”
“I am. Yes, I won’t deny it. But, father-of-the-one-I-call-Sarah, we are in love. Do you know what that means?”
“Yes, father, it is true love.”
“That is no matter. Peter John MacDonald is a white man, daughter and you will not marry one of that kind.”
Sarah left the scene rather calmly to pack her things and her father spoke to her retreating back. She would return, he said, when she realized the error of her youthful ways. Sarah’s father said he would welcome her when she came to them. Do you remember back to when Sarah was described as willful? She never came back. If they could not accept her soon-to-be husband, she would stay away. Her daughters would need a father and she loved Peter John MacDonald and knew that the feeling would not fade with time and other lovers.
Sarah told this story of her marriage to her daughters, but like all storytellers, she changed some things. For dramatic effect and for other reasons too. What began with her new name, ended when she told her daughters that her mother and father, settlers from the across the ocean, like other Canadians, died and were buried under two wooden crosses under a poplar tree somewhere. Peter added that Sarah’s parents were good people, but they couldn’t adjust to life in Canada. They died of broken hearts. Missed the old country. That someplace. The wet weather. So that when they fell ill on the road lined by poplar trees heading west, they up and died.
These are the stories that my mother told me when I asked. Stories her mother told her. Pretty little stories full of white lies about my relations.
Peter’s mother thought there was something strange about the woman he wanted to marry. Sarah did not have a last name. She had no family. Had strange eyes that reflected Peter’s mother’s doubts right back at her. Was not a member of their church.
“She was orphaned as a child,” Peter replied. “Was thrown from a horse, a bump on the head. A foundling. Dysentery, you know how that one goes with the fever, the abdominal pain, the bloody excrement, the dying. Yeah, both her parents, one right after another. The only survivor of a shipwreck off the far coast of the Dominion. In hiding. No, not in hiding. But all the other things are true,” he told his mother.
And so Peter’s mother went to bed believing the tale her son had spun for her. Then something happened. When she dreamed the same dream twice she knew the truth about Sarah. She said to her son, “You cannot marry this girl. She does not believe in God. She believes in other things. There are no things outside of God, so she believes in no thing. I forbid you—He forbids you!—to marry someone who believes in nothing. Someone who is no one. Just a thing herself. A thing outside of God no one believes in.”
Peter’s father stood behind his wife, a hand on her shoulder. “Yes, Peter. These kind are not yours. If you marry below yours, you are not welcome in the house of mine.”
“And you will not inherit the fine things we carried in our pockets across the ocean,” his mother added. “You will not have the fine MacDonald things.” But Peter’s parents could not, as much as they might have wanted to, take away the fine MacDonald name.
Now, I suppose, you do not wonder why Peter and Sarah named their dead children after their parents.
Moving away from where they were from, they started someplace new. They had children who heard the stories and told the stories to their children. The late 1900s when the internet changed how we learn the stories of our past. Government programs digitized parish archives. Whose idea was that? I was too young to vote. Did I pay those taxes? No, I wasn’t working. Not yet. It’s not my fault those family histories are on the internet where anyone with a few curious fingers and time on their hands could find them. Whose idea was that?
Those digitized parish archives say mine was built on much romance and many stalwart lies.
This is just the story I made out of the facts. Peter and Sarah married. Sarah is not the name given to her at birth, but the one she took to her death. The one on the internet. Peter’s ancestors were Scots. Sarah’s were not. If Peter had died on the boat, I wouldn’t be me. If he’d gone to Australia instead, I’d be Australian.
What I know: I am good at climbing trees. Trees with many fat branches. I once climbed a tree to get away from a bear. He climbed up next to me. I stayed all afternoon. In a tree. Here in Canada. I am like Sarah, maybe. Don’t have coarse, long hair though. That could be a problem.
That’s just on my mother’s side. My father’s grandmother was called Louise. She lived in Winnipeg. That’s somewhere in the middle on the map. Louise worked for a family with money. She tended to the youngest children, the dishes, and sometimes the coaxing of milk from cows. The family’s eldest was away for a while. Something happened. He returned home at dusk before a thunderstorm in a drought. Let’s call him Jack.
Jack met Louise. It was true love. Probably it was lust, the down and deep feeling in the abdomen that clenches. Louise was a pretty girl with pretty dark eyes and they had only just met.
Standing under the cover of the cow barn, Jack used his line for wooing pretty girls while they waited for the weather to clear up, “Tell me about your childhood.”
“I liked the colour blue very much. The blue of the water of the lake by my father’s house. Of rivers with rock bottoms. The blue of the sky after a storm. I liked that blue most of all. Now I like the colour yellow.”
“Where are your parents? Can I meet them? We should visit them after this rain has stopped. Maybe tonight. More likely tomorrow.”
“Your mother is a good wife. And your father a good husband. They are good people.”
“You have high cheekbones,” he said and reached for her cheekbones.
“Good bone structure is ageless.”
They married, had babies. Lots of babies. Those babies had babies. And then those others had some too. Eventually.
Bone structure is ageless but it doesn’t come from the blue. Good bone structure comes from the French explorers who traveled in canoes on waterways and trapped beavers to trade with the people they found on the land when they got there. You know, those people referenced on page 508 of the textbook, right near the bottom.
And today, the internet reveals the secret to my high cheekbones and girlish good looks: “I am a Half-breed head resident in the Parish of Blankssssss in the said province, on the 15th day of July, A.D. 1870 and I claim to be entitled to receive a grant of one hundred and sixty acres of land, or to receive a Scrip for one hundred and sixty dollars pursuant to the Statute in that behalf. I have not made or caused to be made any claim of land or Script other than the above in this or any other Parish in said province, nor have I claimed or received as an Indian any annuity moneys from the government of said Dominion.”
Oh, now, that is interesting. The words, the ones with the details, where did they go?
I know where it happened. I can tell you that.
This is the story of the real beginning of my family: her name was Louise, his Jack. They married each other sometime after they met. Louise was part-French and part-something else. Jack didn’t know. Mostly he liked her cheekbones.
Since I like the colour yellow, maybe I am like Louise. But maybe I got it wrong on my father’s side. It could have been green. Should I like the colour of fresh grass in the spring? The colour of my favourite weeping willow tree? And with that, this story winds itself into a knot. Maybe I have to tell this again.
From the beginning. Both sides, over again.
The real one this time.
But I’m facing deadlines, pressure from the world, from the here and now. This application wants to know about me. Optional, it says. Not at all required. But leaving the boxes blank, you know what kind of message that sends to the government agencies, the scholarship commissions, the committees looking to select a candidate.
So, I scan the list.
Aboriginal. Sort of, not really, but a long time ago, does that count?, maybe. Let’s say a check mark indicates yes. Then I’m committed to this story when it might not be mine. Not checking the box denies Sarah and Louise, the colour yellow, the trees, my parents and theirs, and theirs. If Aboriginal, please indicate type. Status Indian. Non-status Indian. Métis. Where’s the box for twenty-five percent from my father’s side? Where’s the box for I can’t do the math with this many variables in play? Where’s the box for stories are easier to tell? Where the box for I’ve never been good at math? Where’s the box for stories hold truth, stories hold the details?