This excerpt is the introduction to my full-length poetry manuscript, The Comfort of Stone, which is slated to be published in autumn 2021. There are several strong themes linking each unit;one focuses on the impact of immigration and the dimensions of time that it creates.
One of the poems, “To New Beginnings in Canada,” closes with these lines:
In those days, emigration
was a kind of death.
Our loss keened loudly
from the Western Highlands
to the Orkney Islands in the North Sea
by those who loved us.
One Grannie crying on a station platform,
holding us tightly in her arms —
“I’ll never see ma wee bairns again…”
My birth above the bakeshop on Albert St. in Kirkwall, Orkney; my early years among my father’s family there after the war; our time in Aberdeen and Edinburgh; and holidays to the Western Highlands, where my mother’s people lived — all this was known to me as a child growing up in south western Ontario. However, it was not until some years after the death of my father that,as an adult, I first returned to Scotland with my mother. We crossed from the mainland to the Orkneys by air.
Several years later, I took my own daughter “home” to the Highlands and islands of my birth, this time crossing by sea ferry. The reality of seeing the people and places I had always heard about in the talk around our kitchen table was life changing. The impact of the beautiful and historic Orkneys, particularly, has informed the poetry that begins this book.
As immigrants, our family arrived in Canada in early April, but my father could not begin teaching in Chatham,Ont., where he had secured a position,until September. He had exhausted most of the funds from the sale of our house in Edinburgh to pay the cost of ocean passage for himself, my mother, my younger sister and me — as well as for his widowed sister and her son, who was disabled, who now lived with us.
A cottage without any plumbing near Peterborough, Ont., at Bridgenorth by Lake Chemong, was our very rustic beginning in the “new world.” Here, our father travelled the winding roads of the Haliburton Highlands late into the summer nights, delivering ice cream to small stores.
In Chatham, my mother gave birth to my brother and another sister. We were now a family of eight, and teachers’ salaries were extremely low at that time. The last me agre cheque came at the end of June; the next, not until the very end of September. To make ends meet, my father laboured in the sweltering cornfields. When that was still not enough, my mother and aunt went to work at night, peeling tomatoes in the canning factories. My mother, always strong and resourceful, but a little prideful too, warned us not to tell anyone — after all, our father was a“professional” man.
Windsor, Ont., offered a little more money for teachers and, more importantly, a university. This welcoming city of the “Christmas Tree Man,” a poem in The Comfort of Stone, was to be our final destination. As an immigrant family, we had moved from one rented place to another,and (counting the two I attended in Scotland) I had changed schools nine times by my 16th birthday. While living in our last family home in Windsor,I met and married my husband, who also came to Canada at age seven — but from England. It took my Scottish parents a little time to forgive me for marrying an Englishman, but we were indeed well-matched: we both feltun settled anywhere. We are now in our 12th home, having lived in the city, the country and along the shore of Lake Erie.
In the end, we must return to the beginning. I read somewhere that people who come from islands can never truly be at home anywhere else. We lost our wonderful father, and the music of his piano that had always filled our life, when he was only 52 years old.With some of his last breaths, as if to someone far away, he said, “Put the flags up on the Kirkwall pier.” Like the ships of wartime Orkney, he was coming home to safe harbour.
The Comfort of Stone is the poetry of changing lives and landscapes, of family and memory. It is poetry that remembers the music.
If you are interested in learning more about my book, want to “talk poetry” or would like to renew our acquaintance from years past, you can connect with me on Facebook or by email at [email protected].