This post originally appeared on December 11th, 2009.
Anyone entering my dining room will not see a table but a family shrine. The walls are covered with paintings, etchings and sketches by my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens. The hutch holds not dishes but century old photographs, books inscribed to ancestors (including one from Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King), an antique sewing box, and even a bracelet Carl had given to his wife Madonna.
Scattered among these items are sticks, stones, a small jar of sand, and a pinecone or two. Yes, my husband laughs, but he humors my habit of littering every shelf in our house with rocks because they are, after all, the cheapest souvenirs I could possibly collect.
There was a time that I bought T-shirts and trinkets from everywhere I went, and I still will if I happen to be in a city with a Hard Rock Café. In the past few years, however, my travels have been research for The Oak Lovers and the places I go aren’t exactly packed with tourists.
This was certainly the case on that rainy September afternoon back in 2004 when my cousin Chris and I visited the old covered bridge in West Montrose,
. It was just one stop my friends Mike and Wendy made on our short driving tour of the Mennonite villages of Ontario . I snapped some photos and we were about to go when Chris pointed out that the bridge had been there since our great-grandfather’s time. Carl’s home town of Waterloo County Kitchener (then ) wasn’t far away and Chris wondered if Carl would have been to West Montrose. Remembering a short story Carl wrote about canoeing that very stretch of the Berlin Grand River, I told Chris I was certain he had. At the very least he went under the bridge. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I felt a strange compulsion. I ambled down to the river’s edge. The bank was muddy and I saw no stone that would easily be obtained; this only made me want one more. “If anyone sees a small rock on the bank, let me know,” I said.
Had I known Wendy as I do now, I may not have been shocked to see her wade out into muck without bothering to ask why I may want one. With a triumphant cry, she pulled a nondescript round stone out of the murky depths of the river itself.
“This one was certainly here when he was,” she said, plopping it into my hand. From that moment on, I have considered Wendy my best friend. (The stone now sits on my hutch.)
The next day the four of us went to the
. Using my great-grandmother’s memoir as a guide, we located the place where Carl must have fallen from a cliff into the Elora Gorge as a boy. After climbing down into the gorge itself, I took pictures and slipped a couple of rocks straight from the river into my pocket. Mike found a small piece of driftwood and handed it to me. “You might want this, too. Perhaps he knew the tree it came from. It’s lighter than rocks in any case.” village of Elora
I could have bought a T-shirt in the village that day had I really looked for one, but I knew it would have been made in
Vietnam or . I would have worn and washed it until it became faded and torn. The rocks, on the other hand, had been molded by the power of the Grand River, had been there since long before there was a Bangladesh , let alone a Carl Ahrens. When I hold one, history and memory collide. Canada
While I’m in
now, I can open a jar and touch sand taken from the beach beside where the Ahrens summer cottage once stood. Perhaps as my grandmother skipped from the house down to Dallas Georgian Bay for a swim with her father, one of them stepped on those very grains.
Many writers create character sketches before they begin a novel, photographs of how their characters look, lists of likes and dislikes, images of clothing individuals wear or name of the perfume they use. For me, though, the shrine in my dining room is a character sketch on constant display. I can wear Madonna’s bracelet or fit my fingers into the grooves on Carl’s paintbrush or open one of the books to see poems they marked with favorite passages underlined. Now, thanks to all my sticks and stones, I can also touch the places they have been, and a part of me can physically be there, watching the scenes play out.