Legends of Myself 48

Posted on September 1, 2012

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Continued from Legends of Myself 47

48. Port Essington, 1958:  The Sledding Hill

Although my earliest memories are of Essington, the time I came to know my home village best was in 1958, when I went to live there with Uncle Gus, Auntie Irene, and my cousins.  I was not to get a later chance.

Uncle Gus was already becoming prosperous by then, a successful fisherman, and he and Irene had built a house.  It was located in Port Essington’s extreme back-corner, leaning against one of the hills that stood behind the village.

Spaksuut, as the Tsimshian call it, begins where the boats tie up.  Where Cunningham’s store was, which became Brown’s store.  Down where there were a bundle of hotels and other important buildings and businesses, by 1958 all defunct, so far as I know, but still standing.

Port Essington was the name originally accorded to the point of land behind which the boats tie up, where the Eckstall River flows into the Skeena estuary.  There is an eruption of rock there extending out a little ways in the direction of the Eckstall flow—my cousins called it Blueberry Hill—which provided boats with some shelter from the Skeena currents, especially strong when the fresh water added push to a tide sinking toward the river mouth.  It being an estuary, the waters of the Skeena at that point were, of course, tidal.

Almost all of Essington was tied together with boardwalks.  One long raised-plank street stretched along the Skeena past the edge of town to the graveyard and beyond.  Another, radiating out from the same floatside corner, stretched along the Eckstall, past Essington itself to Finntown, a sparsely populated suburb, its name commemorating a long-defunct reality, although I guess it wasn’t beyond possibility that there was a Finn or two remaining in Finntown, or at other addresses around Spaksuut in 1958.

A map of Port Essington from well before my time. I’ve marked my aunt and uncle’s house location, gc, at end of Wellington Street.

Another parallel set of boardwalks reached inland, the lengthwise one sprouting 90 degrees (more or less) from the Eckstall with the enclosing hills on one side and the bulk of the village on the other, a shorter one reaching back 90 degrees from the Skeena and stopping at the foot of the hills.  Where these boardwalks met, as far back and interior as Essington went, was where Uncle Gus had his house.

There was no electricity or indoor plumbing in the house I had lived in when last I was in Essington, but Gus and Irene had both.  For electricity there was a gas-powered generator out back in a shed which roared along for several hours everyday.  The bathroom had a tub and flush toilets, and there was even a washing machine.  Of course I took all these things for granted at the time because I had been living in cities and towns for years, but it was quite a contrast to my previous Essington home with Pop and Granny Alice.

Fishing was, as I said, doing well by Uncle Gus, but not all previous years had been easy.  There had been one season when there was almost no money, just a barrel of salt fish which Gus and Irene ate all winter—developing stomach problems because of it—to make sure that what money they did have was spent on a more balanced diet for the kids.  Those times were over with.

The house that Gus and Irene lived in was two stories, with the kid’s rooms on the second floor, Trudy’s on the side looking towards the Skeena, the boy’s room on side which overlooked the hill behind the house.  I was established on a cot in the boy’s room with Artie and Rainie.  (They go by Arthur and Reynold now.)

One of the first things I remember about Spaksuut was watching my uncle Gus working on the hill outside our boys room window.  I had no idea what he was up to.  Nobody explained it to me.  But he went out there day after day chopping down trees (they were small trees there), bushes, cutting them up and uprooting stumps.  It was a lot of work and I was impressed that anybody could be so busy.  It wasn’t until winter came and snow fell that I understood what he had been up to.

He had been clearing away the trees and bushes and smoothing down the slopes in order to make a hill for the kids to go sledding on.  No other purpose.  And when the snow came the sledding was perfect.

Some parents would wield their intention to do such a thing much the same way a kid would wield a report card.  They’d use it as a way of ingratiating themselves with their children, collecting parent-points on the notion from the moment of conception.  And then some parents would actually carry out the plan, and some would actually not.

There is nothing wrong with that way of operating, I don’t suppose.  But Gus probably never thought he needed to collect parent points.  It never occurred to him.  He just chopped down those trees and bushes, carried out the plan as a good idea by itself, just glad he had thought of it in time to get it done, between fishing season and the first snowfall.

Then when he had got it done, he just presented it to us.  Here it is.  I’ve cleared the hill.  You kids can go sledding.

That’s the way it was in that house, and so many other Tsimshian houses.  The children were central.  Nobody had to explain that.  And nobody ever had to collect parent points, either.

They already had those.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 49

Posted in: autobiography