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Reflections from the SwampSkeletons in the closet

Skeletons in the closet

Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

Dear Readers

Most of us have a few skeletons in our closets. This story is about one of mine and my dad’s. “Some say a heart is just like a wheel; when you bend it, you can’t mend it.” (The McGarrigle Sisters) I’m hoping to mend a broken circle through reconciliation with the past. Sometimes we can mend a broken wheel, other times we can’t. May the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by

My bride and I were married when we were 21. When we were young, we moved around a lot. We moved out to Vancouver Island with everything we owned in a beat-up van with bald tires. I still had hair then.

Considerable cleansing of our worldly possessions had to occur before the trip to fit the remaining sardines into the can that would take us out west. We threw out most of our “stuff” but decided to keep the two kids and the dog. Four years later, we came back to Carp in the same sardine van (with even balder tires) with four kids and a pile of ninja turtles, dolls and teddies. Again, a selection process occurred to fit everything back into the Van. We piled half of our stuff on the lawn with a sign that said, “Free stuff.” Maybe that’s why I can’t resist finding free stuff. It’s a karma thing. I’ll ask Freud next time I’m on the couch.

A few years after returning from living in places out west, my dad came over unexpectedly to our home in Carp. He announced that he was going to Calgary, my hometown, and wanted to go back to Hussar to visit his old friend Mr. Stankovic at his farm. I liked Mr. Stankovic; he would give all us kids a dollar bill when he visited. Once, when he came to visit, I followed him like a vulture looking for pickings. He checked his wallet and couldn’t find a dollar bill, so he gave me a “fin” with a comment that I should let him off the hook next time.

The movie “Bucket List” revived an old expression by the same name. The implication is that now’s the time to go sky diving, scuba diving in the Caribbean, or learn how to fly a plane. My dad’s bucket list wasn’t like that. His list was to reconcile with those he may have hurt or mistreated in his life. Stankovic was on his list, and he needed my help.

When my dad was still going to school in Calgary to get his accounting papers, he did books for farmers for cash, chickens, or meat. Farmers and their kin became dad’s friends, allowing my brother and me to work on these farms. I was about ten, so I just hunted for gophers or caught frogs most of the time. I regrettably killed hundreds of gophers. The Government of Alberta paid five cents a gopher tail. I had Mason Jars full of gopher tails.

When we came to the farm in the fall, Stankovic was so desperate for help during the harvest that he let me drive a combine all day. Having ridden little more than a bicycle, the challenge to manoeuvre a massive combine across an endless prairie full of wheat was the major accomplishment and thrill of my short life. I scratched “drive a combine” off my childhood bucket list. Kissing a girl still hung there on the bucket list with jumping off the high board or tobogganing down Suicide Hill.

Stankovic had a lot of marginal lands where he ran cattle, especially Herefords. He still had an old workhorse, “Blue,” that had retired with a full pension. Blue had given the farming job up to the tractors and other machinery. Blue had nothing but “taking it easy” and chewing timothy grass on his bucket list. Is it coincidental that so many retired folks like doing nothing and going to Tim(othy’s)? Local kids could still ride Blue without reins or saddles; Blue would respond to the standard commands such as Hee” and “Haw,” “Step up,” and “Whoa.” I wanted to ride Blue, so we went up to Makepeace.

Makepeace was a natural place with few buildings, where a battle between two indigenous tribes occurred before settlers had moved in. The bodies of the deceased laid buried on a hill, four deep on buffalo skins. While ploughing, Stankovic’s tractor had unearthed part of a grave. Authorities came in, and anthropologists had excavated several gravesites.

Stankovic “owned” the land and showed us the graves. My father encouraged me to jump in and look around. I found a bone that looked like a skull to me and pulled it out of the earthen wall of the grave. Later I learned that it was the central part of the pelvis. It looked like it had eyes and a mouth. Unbeknownst to me, Stankovic, a devout Catholic, was gravely upset and didn’t like us disturbing the gravesite. My father knew, and he could see and feel it in Stankovic’s eyes.

I took the pelvic “skull” home and added it to my collection of bones, antlers, fossils and licence plates.

Later, when I started teaching biology, I hung the skulls, but not the pelvic bone, up in my classroom. I continued to collect skulls, and by the time my bride and I moved to downtown Carp, we had over 30 heads. I mounted them around our dining room in Carp, but not the pelvic bone.

My bride ran a daycare in our home, and I remember once she almost lost a client because she thought we were members of some cult and didn’t want to see her children’s skulls mounted on our wall.

This brings us back to the story where my father dropped in when he was 63 and I was 32 years old. He planned to go back west to visit Stankovic and wanted to know if I still had the pelvic bone, which I had found over 20 years before in Makepeace. I said no, I had moved all over the country, thrown out almost everything I owned, and I didn’t have room to bring a pelvis bone back and forth across the country. He asked me to check around in the basement. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

I dutifully went down and looked around and couldn’t find any pelvic bone hanging about. Small wonder! I was about to leave the basement when I saw a large cookie tin where I had stored my treasures as a kid. I opened the container, and betwixt the rabbit’s feet, gopher tails, Beatle and hockey cards, an old pocket watch that didn’t work and a pile of cool rocks and arrowheads, I found the pelvic bone. The memory of Blue, the prairies, the exposed grave, the shrivelled buffalo skins, the smells and the cumulus clouds filled the basement. I was ten years old again.

I gave the bone to Dad.

He thanked me and said, “I knew it would be there. What I did was wrong. I encouraged you to rob a grave. Desecrating a grave was wrong and I knew it. I have to go back to Makepeace and make peace with my conscience.”

He went back to Calgary, rented a car, drove to Hussar, found Stankovic, went back to Makepeace, and buried the pelvic bone on the hill. To this day, I don’t know if his conscience was more disturbed by upsetting Stankovic’s sensibilities or if he was disturbed by the fact that he had violated a grave. I think it was both.

Now I’m 67 years old. I have my bucket list. It’s similar to my father’s. There have been things that I have done that have hurt others, most of these things I can’t undo. I now see Makepeace as a sacred place.

I hope to return to Makepeace and reconcile with the spirits that blow in the winds around the hill. I’ll ride on Blue to the site and let go of some of the skeletons in my closet. I’ll taste the dust of the prairies and seek forgiveness for my part in disturbing a grave. I’ll reconcile with the spirits of all the gophers I killed. Makepeace is a sacred place; I pray that I shall be received by the spirits who dwell there.

May the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord, by and by.

 

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