I own only one thing that had belonged to my grandmother.
I last spent time on the farm, illustrated on this page’s banner and written about—both factually and creatively in various places— on this page, in about 1975 or 1976 which would put me at 11 or 12. I last saw my dad in 1978, some months after the Grease soundtrack was released: don’t ask why that is significant.
I have been back to the farm site only three or four times since then; one or twice, I simply drove down the gravel road past the farm, catching glimpses of the white house through the trees, the disused outbuildings falling in on themselves apparent as we passed the main driveway into the yard. I believe my dad was still living there at the time—this would have been in the very late 80s or early 90s. I had no desire to visit: he had long before left me behind.
But twice I stopped.
Four or five years ago, while on the way to an aunt’s birthday celebration, I decided to revisit the roads that remain engrained forty years after I lived near them. I followed the highway, without difficulty finding the hidden gravel road, and marveled at how familiar everything felt—not necessarily looked because everything about surrounding the road seemed overgrown and more close, but felt: this was home. As I came to the bottom of the sloped and rutted road leading to the flats, I stopped the truck and took a picture of the hill above the farmland, and another of the homeplace—sheltered by towering spruce trees—from a distance.
As I pulled out and eased around the final bend, I marveled at how the land had changed over the twenty or so years since I had last snooped. Behind me, where once an empty coulee sat undisturbed, an acreage now stood. To the left, where a large farm operation had existed, now were only the fading scars of a home and yard. And to the right, pasture land I had once explored daily—I remember practicing sprints in preparation of some local picnic or another, my chubby legs churning in calf-high mixed grasses—was now overgrown and weedy.
I stopped outside the driveway, and slipped the truck into park. The farmyard that had once dominated my life appeared minuscule compared to that of memory. The milking shelter no longer existed, nor did the milk house where cream had been separated. Most significantly, the weathered grey barn was gone, the only remaining evidence of its existence a nearly empty space, skinny aspen working to claim it. Grandma’s house remained behind overgrown lilac bushes, listing toward the north. After sitting for a couple minutes, I decided to risk driving into the yard, sounding my arrival to inhabitants with what I hoped was a friendly blast of a horn.
A dog came to welcome me, its tail rhythmically communicating no ill will. Again I waited, hopeful the residents would welcome me onto their land; soon enough a couple appeared from the white house. I got out of the truck, tentatively waved hello and from a distance introduced myself, explaining that 40-plus years earlier I had lived on this land. I do not recall their names, but they welcomed me kindly, if with cautious reservation, going through their vague understandings of my mother learned through neighbourhood stories shared, I imagine, at various community events: she was a hard worker (agreed) who kept a huge garden (yes) and was treated poorly by Robert (without doubt.) Warming to each other, and over the next half-hour or so they updated me on the various changes made to the land, how the barn burned for days when they finally leveled it—the ancient manure so impacted that it smoldered forever—and how they didn’t dare go into the old house, which looked like it was about to collapse any moment.
I was invited into the home of my earliest years, and while it looked very different from memory, it wasn’t difficult to become oriented even after four decades. It was still small, but had been modernized to have a more open floor plan. Not wishing to wear out my welcome, and needing to get down the road to meet family at my aunt’s, I made my leave filled with additional stories of my father, including how the gravel company apparently ripped him off as mightily as he had defrauded my mom. Justified, at last.
Three years later, I made the same journey with entirely different results.
I almost drove by the farm site, hitting the brakes only as the weed-filled driveway came into view. The tall spruce still hid most of the yard from the road, and not seeing the house as I had passed, I had become disoriented. Everything was gone—both houses, every outbuilding and shed. Nothing. I backed up to where the house should have sat on my right—through a break in the trees I saw only thigh-high grass and weeds. I pulled ahead and into the drive way, honking my horn and getting out.
Entirely empty. If it wasn’t for the spruce trees framing the yard and the occasional patch of hard-packed gravel poking between the weeds, one might not know a farmyard had once existed here. Where had everything gone? I walked this way and that, without any sense of understanding and trying to comprehend what I was seeing. Three years ago, two houses, one at the end of its life true but the other well-tended and renovated, had stood, flower beds and herbs flourished, bushes and grass were maintained. Now, nothing?
I snapped a few pictures with my camera, including of the blue rural address sign, and made my way back to the vehicle. Obviously the place had been abandoned, but I couldn’t understand how everything could be gone. Later, I messaged cousins who still lived in the area, without luck. The farm was on an isolated road, one no one would take for any reason other than to get to the farm, and while the next home about three-quarters of a mile further remained inhabited, no one knew the fate of our farm or the people whom I had met so briefly just a few years before. Internet searches of property for sale provided no additional information.
Fast forward six or seven months.
I am at work in my office, and an email from an Alberta author pops into my inbox. School principals receive unsolicited offers from all types wanting to appear at their schools, at a cost—dances, theatre groups, authors, musicians—and most are deleted upon receipt. And I recognized this solicitation from another occasion, but I didn’t delete it this time: I read it, googled the author’s name, found positive comments about him from other schools, and thought, What the heck? The price was right—no charge— he appeared reputable, and we did have room in our schedule for a library visit. Within a couple hours and a handful of emails, we had the details worked out: we would see him in a few weeks. No more thought was given.
I have since often wondered why I decided that day to invite the author to our school. I still have no idea, but am grateful I did.
The calendar turned, and an affable gentleman arrived on the agreed date, a box of books in hand and the first group of youngsters were shepherded to the library: truly, just another day in an active elementary school. While engaging the student in conversation, the author mentioned, entirely in passing, that he had once lived west of Edmonton in a small rural area with which I was familiar. Hmmm, I thought to myself—What a coincidence.
The morning progressed, and the author completed his storytelling visit, quite successfully I should add: he engaged the range of students, from grades one through six. During lunch over pizza and engaged in that rather awkward conversation between strangers I mentioned, “You lived at Keephills? That is strange, ’cause I was raised near there.” A brief back and forth occurred, comparing notes, until he asked, “Where about did you live?”
Not being certain of the exact range road, I described rather flippantly, “In a small white house on a gravel road to nowhere.”
“No, specifically,” he insisted.
“South of the Duffield road, down a winding gravel trail to the flats.”
It was at this time I believe he said, “Schiedeman Flats?” Recognition must have flashed in my eyes because he continued, “Around the bend on the flats, the first property?” I must have nodded.
“That’s where I lived,” he concluded.
And for the next half-hour—punctuated by frequent exhalations of “I can’t believe it” and “This is so strange,” from me—and with one of the educational assistants offering to cover my playground supervision, we exchanged remembrances of the land we had shared, years apart.
He had bought the land from my dad—it was his ex-wife I had met a few summers previous—and he had lived on the property for a number of years, raising his children there. His daughter still lived in the area, down the road and up the hill on land I once unsuccessfully squirrel hunted. He told me rich vignettes of the farm—what had occurred in the years after my sister and I lost contact with dad, what had happened to the property in the many ensuing years.
It was a most exhilarating and unexpected experience, with gaps in understanding backfilled and questions answered. He explained that the gravel company had bought the rest of the land from his ex-, having purchased the majority of the land from dad over the years as his need for income outweighed tangible connection to the land he possessed. The author wasn’t sure what had happened to the actual home itself, but did know that grandma’s house had been torn down prior to the sale.
From my understanding, it sounded like he had left the land more than a decade earlier, but as an aside he mentioned, “I think I have some of your grandmother’s dishes in a shed at home. Would you be interested in them?” I rather vaguely confirmed I might be, not sure what he was offering: being more than a little cynical, How much? I was thinking.
I don’t have many fond memories of my grandmother Akins, but I realize I don’t have any negative ones either. I believe my memories were coloured by my mother. I remember she lived in Edmonton and came to the farm during the summer for a few weeks each year. Her house was yellow clapboard, two-storey, and filled with papers, magazines, and the detritus of a life of accumulation. She lived most of the year in a (if memory serves) three or four storey walk-up in downtown Edmonton, red-brick with a wooden banister along the straight-up staircase. She had two apartments, and lived on the top floor of the building; her second apartment was never seen, as far as I recall, but I was told it—much like the farmhouse—was filled with her belongings.
I remember her dark, satin- or silk-like dresses, the edges of which I recall running over my thumbnails and between my fingers. I can see her feeding us at her table in the city, overlooking buildings observed through the dining area window. And I picture her tight, grey-blue curls. Unlike Grandma Smith, my mom’s mom, of whom I have vivid memories, that is about all I recall of Grandma Akins. I certainly don’t remember her dishes from the farm.
Anyway, after taking him to my office the day of his school visit, showing him pictures of the yard snapped on my visit the year before and displayed on my bulletin board, and several additional moments of memory swapping, we said our goodbyes.
A few weeks later, delivering copies of his books students had ordered following his visit, the author dropped by the school. After we delivered the books to the various students, it again came time to say farewell, but there was still one surprise for me. Handing me a non-descript cardboard box, he said, “This is all I could find, but I know there are more somewhere.”
Inside was a gift from the farm— a serving dish, perhaps a soup tureen, off-white with blue, orange, and green accents on its lid. It had been my grandmother’s—my dad’s mom’s; while I didn’t recognize it, it was a revived connection to my lost past, to my twisted family history. I doubt it is worth much, and it is—on first glance—perhaps even a bit unattractive. I believe I said as much, unfortunately: filter failure…again.
But, over the weeks and months since as it has sat in pride of place in our home it has grown on me. I quite love it now, and even more appreciate what it represents. It is remarkable that it survived in a home left to the remnants of a hoarder’s collections, obvious disuse, and the forces of nature for generations. Even more compelling is how it came into my possession—an email read rather than deleted.
It is a tenuous chord to the life from which I was removed the day mom decided she could no longer endure her life of abuse and mistreatment, and to a place on which I gave up when I realized my sister and I would never mean that much to the man who had rather cruelly cut ties with us.
But a bond strengthened it serves.