Legends of Myself 16

Posted on May 1, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 15

18. Memory Is a Homunculus.

You may have seen the little critter in a psychology book, a homunculus, a grotesque, discomforting figure, all lips, ears, tongue and hands erupting from a tiny body.  Where people have nerve cells the brain pays special attention.  A homunculus diagrams just how much attention each part of the body is given by brain as a general rule.  In a homunculus, the hands—alive with nerves, intention and touch—loom larger than the arms and body together.

Remembrance constructs its own homunculus—although ego might want to deny it, and the result is more likely to resemble a fairy than a gargoyle—because memory largely consists of whatever you were paying attention to at a given time.  Whatever intrigues the imagination, whatever engages the emotions, stays large, remains.  All else withers or goes underground.

Which means that memory is absurd.

There was no rain in Prince Rupert from 1954 to 1956.  Despite the existence of streets, and even of car parts lying by the side of these streets, there were no cars or traffic, either.

Memory says.

Of course there really was traffic, and it made Granny Alice nervous.

“If she saw a car way up the street as far as you could see,” my father told me, “she’d grab your hand and get across as fast as she could.”

My father attributed my own cautious attitude toward traffic to this circumstance and to my grandmother.  He might well be right.  I don’t remember any of it, but implicit memory can remain where explicit memory is absent.  And if it is true, then Granny Alice still has my hand at street corners.  I remain averse to being run over by a truck.

I famously said, “Grandma talks funny,” but I don’t remember that either.  I was referring to her speaking Tsimshian, which for some reason she never taught to me.  Many people of her generation did not.  It was not much encouraged for Aboriginal people to preserve their own languages.

I remember only one word of what I assume was Tsimshian.  It sounded like “hum” but which I most likely just mispronounced and simplified.  The Tsimshian word haá¸μ’am’yaan—more compactly spoken than written—is the most likely candidate that I can reconstruct from my own extremely limited knowledge of the language.  It means toilet paper, but my young self mistook it to mean what it is used for.

The actual words used between Granny and me for bathroom activities were in English and were also my earliest introduction to numeracy, number one and number two.

As in Port Essington, although he must have been around some of the time, Old Pop still remains absent.  I don’t know why.  The homunculus refused to look at him.  As far as family is concerned, in Prince Rupert all my memories are of my grandmother.

I remember going into her bedroom one time after she had returned from shopping and discovering a pile of runners on the floor.  There must have been five or half a dozen pairs.  I was instantly convinced that she had gone insane.  To buy so many runners at a time was so clearly dotty that I burst into uproarious laughter.  I still recall Granny explaining to me, a little offended, that there had been a fire at the shoe store.  The runners had been smoke-damaged and she’d bought them on sale.  In fact, there was a distinct smell of smoke in her bedroom to corroborate her story, although the runners looked normal enough otherwise.

Well, maybe she wasn’t crazy.

I remember another time my grandmother making bannock and me hanging about watching her.  She gave me a little dough to work with too, and with grandmotherly tact placed my patty on the cookie sheet along with her own when she put the batch into the oven to bake.  When the bannock was done, you could still identify which one I fashioned since it looked a little wizened and pathetic next to the ones she made, and, more importantly, it showed clear signs that I ought to have washed my hands before making it.

I remember tasting it because I remember it being inferior to Grandma’s own, but I don’t think she either asked or expected me to eat the whole thing.  I suspect she only let me put it in my mouth because I would have been disappointed if I wasn’t allowed to try.

My last memory of Prince Rupert (for a while; I was going to return again in a couple of years) was going with my grandmother down to Seal Cove.  Seal Cove had been established as a seaplane terminal during the Second World War.  In 1956, it was still the only airport that Prince Rupert had.  The modern airport on Digby Island in Prince Rupert harbour had not yet been built.

My grandmother had decided to fly down to Vancouver to check herself into Crease Clinic at Essondale in order to deal with her alcoholism.  I myself don’t ever recall my grandmother being drunk, nor even any occasion when she might have been drunk, but her weakness for alcohol has been remarked in family history, notwithstanding my testimony.  I guess she finally wanted to deal with it.

We went down to Seal Cove on that day in order to catch a plane to Sandspit on Haida Gwai (then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) with a connecting flight to Vancouver.  I remember both ends of that journey vividly.

Coming over the hill and seeing the seaplane terminal at Seal Cove was the most startling sight so far of my young life.  There were planes landing, planes taxiing in the water, and planes taking off, planes all over the place wearing pontoons like giant Mickey Mouse feet.  I could hardly believe there was such a place so near to my own, suddenly-mundane life, as if I had crested the hill and found a science fiction universe on the other side.

For most of my life afterward, I had a notion of disappointment that I did not get to ride on one of those sea planes.  I think in fact memory conflated two different boardings on that day.  At Seal Cove I did board a sea plane, because that was the kind of airport it was.  But then at Sandspit we switched over to a more convention aircraft for the second leg of the journey.  That’s when I must have felt disappointed.  And it surely disappeared when we arrived at Vancouver.

My first sight of Vancouver was as a toy city far below, of tiny buildings and tiny cars moving along slender dark ribbons of road.  Granny Alice had given me the window seat, and I suppose she peered past me at the same sight, sitting next to me just as she had walked next to me and lived next to me and slept next to me my whole remembered life up till then.  She was there, but I was too busy looking out the window to pay much attention to her.  Memory’s homunculus ignored her.

I did not know then that the vague sense of her sitting next to me on the airplane would be the last I would ever know of Granny Alice.  I did not even have the grace of missing her later, since when we landed in Vancouver I moved into the care of the only person in the world capable of making me forget my grandmother, my father.

Had I known that Granny Alice was going to Crease Clinic to die, I might have turned away from that window.  I might have looked at her face and fixed it in my mind.  I might have stopped and paid more attention to the actual moment when she hugged and held and passed me over to my father.

But I didn’t.  No one knew what was going to happen.  Thus the last time I remember being in my grandmother’s presence, I was looking out the window.

Vancouver below us, gaining scale as the plane dipped towards landing, was going to be my new home for a while.  Fate unknown to me, tangled in with medical negligence, was about to change the direction of my life forever.

Once again.

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Continued at Legends of Myself 17

Posted in: autobiography