Several years ago now our daughter, while a young student at VIU, wrote this piece as a way of honouring a family friend:
John, my father’s friend, his English student, his protégé.
John, who often saw me in a long flannel nightgown as I would rush from the bath to bed. As I woke from a dream or needed to go to the bathroom late at night, I’d see John, dancing in our darkened living room with one of his girlfriends. Dancing? Perhaps more clearly leaning on one another. The girlfriend either A or B, interchangeable to me, since my glimpses of them were always through sleep—filled, eyes. The song was always “Cracklin’ Rose” by Neil Diamond, the volume turned a little too loud to sleep, but not loud enough to complain. John and my father, drinking beer most of the night, and Scotch. Scotch only when the quality of it no longer mattered, but it was always the best.
John knew my parents and me quite well, but only Dad found the friendship mutual. My mother and I thought John was very distant, only wanting to spend time at the house at night. A “typical artist”. We felt that to John we were accessories my father had acquired — items to be tolerated, but not paid much attention.
From Oxford Press came John’s first professional check as a poet. He gave it, uncashed, to Dad. Tears were behind my father’s eyes Christmas morning as he held that framed check, signed on the matting, but not endorsed. The check was never cashed, though Oxford Press has asked that it be cashed — their accountant’s books have not balanced since that Christmas.
Saltspring, a collection of poems, followed that initial publication by a couple years. Saltspring is the name of an island near Vancouver Island, on which lived; the title alone made me curious to read the collection. Each of us, my mother, my father, and myself, received autographed copies of the book.
In it my mother found, dedicated to her, the poem,
in this neighbourhood
the mothers are calling
their sons in
and the sons are
I’ve lived here so long I know
all the sons names
and I have come to recognize
the voices of mothers
and it brought tears to her eyes. She thought John had only thought of her as his friend’s wife. But no, perhaps more. A mother? Or at least a mother figure. One who cooks Mother Meals (balanced meals containing meat, starch, vegetable, and always milk to drink), and raises children. Another side of my mother was discovered. A side she knew existed, but thought had eluded John.
In the same book we read
mother us all
we ended up
. . . .
all I want
is wool & rain,
to sleep in your lap
dedicated to John’s mother, recently dead from cancer, and my mother and I both cried. Each remembering her own memories of childhood, of Jergens, of the smell of bleach, and all of it: Just a few words, but enough to bring so many pictures and feelings to our minds.
I didn’t expect it as I read through the book. Turning a page, I saw facing me the words “Denman Island”, and underneath, “to Margaret Lane”. Following was one of the book’s longest poems, a picture of myself I was certain John did not care to create. From that poem I realized he knew me in a way I had not imagined, that he did not dislike me, as I had come to believe. No, perhaps I wasn’t such an awful creature — merely the daughter of a friend — but a friend myself.
I read “Denman Island” many times; I wrote a paper in Canadian Lit class about it, as I tried to understand it, to interpret it, to know it like no other poem. Not because it was an assignment or in a textbook, but because it was my poem.
My father has the check, my mother has the neighbourhood, and me?
“Denman Island” is mine.