Reflections of a Northern Graveyard
When I was four years old my father died in a boating accident on Great Slave Lake.
His old green Ford truck disappeared from our gravel driveway. Just like him. I waited and waited for him to return, but he did not.
When I was five years old my mother died in the Stanton Yellowknife Hospital.
Father Beauregard told my seven brothers and sisters and me that my mother had gone away forever. My hysterical demands to be told exactly where my mother was elicited a frustrated response from the overwhelmed priest who said that my mother had been buried in the cemetery.
We were all dispersed then, like a handful of grain thrown on tilled soil. Only time would tell what would become of the seeds. Only life would tell what would become of us.
I was adopted.
I had to find my mother.
One late autumn evening not long after, I stole out of the house and made my way to the Yellowknife Cemetery to find my mother, as that was where the priest said she was.
I did not find my mother, then, or for many years after.
I did find a graveyard, where only the graves within the single light standard were favoured with nightly illumination. All other burial plots provided a frightening, gauzy, gray, background of the dead.
Suddenly it dawned on my seven-year-old mind just where I was.
I awoke to a misty drizzle that blanketed the cemetery. The damp penetrated my clothing and skin.
At first, all seemed still and quiet as I wandered up and down rows of stones and crosses. I looked down and saw my beloved saddle shoes spotted with wet grass and earth.
I smelled dirt.
Dazed and frightened from my experience, I froze when I heard what I thought was shuffling and mutterings of corpses arising from the graves. I willed myself to turn around and what I saw remains with me to this day.
Ravens. So many ravens, roosting in a poplar tree for the night, had begun to rouse and stir themselves for the day ahead. They rose, en masse, and silently flew toward town, a steady whirring of their wings allowing even, focused flight.
I never visited the cemetery again while I lived in Yellowknife.
An unkindness of ravens. That is what they were. I learned the collective noun for a group of ravens in an English class at university. Up until that time I tucked any thoughts of my mother or my past deep within me. Loneliness, depression, and unresolved feelings of abandonment were the result.
The term reminded me of that night so long ago in the cemetery. I could not erase it from my mind and there began a longing to visit my mother’s grave. It seemed silly. What could I gain by standing in front of a patch of ground? Previous experience at gravesites saw my mind blank, feeble attempts at prayer, and wondering if the mud would come off my suede heels.
Shortly after I received a package in the mail. The postmark read ‘Yellowknife.’ I opened the gift inside the package before I read the enclosed letter. It was a beautiful heart-shaped amber necklace on a long gold chain. The handwritten letter, from a former schoolmate, detailed how she had never given a moment’s thought to my losing both of my parents when I was so young.
She wrote that a close friend of hers had died, leaving a five-year-old daughter, who was inconsolable at her death. She went on to say how traumatic it was to lose a mother, and inconceivable for someone to lose both, as I had. The amber heart, she said, was her heartfelt condolences for my loss, and a symbol of the love between a mother and child.
That autumn I drove to Yellowknife. I spent several days re-acquainting myself with my hometown. Many things had changed and many things had remained the same. I sensed that I belonged, an unfamiliar feeling.
I went to the cemetery and searched for my mother’s grave. I did not find it. As I walked among the stones and crosses once again I did note familiar names of those who had passed on and remembered fragments of our parallel and intertwined lives: the woman with the fragrant profusion of colourful flowers filling her front yard, viewed by me twice a day, on my way to school, and on my way home; the ever smiling Slavey man who sold fresh fish right from the side of his canoe down on the docks; the lady who worked in the perfume department of The Hudson’s Bay Company.
A lot of graves were unmarked. Many had large, wooden crosses that had been painted white and were in various states of disrepair. Some were leaning, crooked and had unreadable names. There were also many proper headstones of marble and granite, with well-tended plots.
Although the cemetery seemed shabby and overrun with foxtails, dead summer flower groupings on stiff stalks, and vastly overgrown grass, the overall effect was one of charming disarray.
It remained so for many years as I continued to visit Yellowknife in the autumn to try to find my mother’s grave and also to pick cranberries with first one sister, and then a second, with whom I had reconnected. My sister told me that the cemetery had been given a facelift and that our mother’s grave now had a stone marker. She gave me the approximate location and I searched but could not find it.
In my travels up and down the rows I noted that in the past year the father of a childhood friend had died. My friend and I had spent the better part of the summer outside at the picnic bench feverishly making cocktail dresses for our Barbies while her father feverishly chopped mountains of wood. A teacher of mine had also passed on. I wondered if she still wore the brown oxfords with thick, knitted socks under her long, filmy skirt wherever she was.
Many miles for many years were slowly walked, along rows and rows of familiar and unfamiliar names, by me, looking. For all of that time I was disappointed and then resigned.
Finally, standing before my mother’s grave and seeing just her name on the stone, I was happy and tearful to have finally found her. I did not know what to say, or think.
And then, as I stood in that burial ground I realized that so many lives had been lived in the north, in Yellowknife. Loving the bitter cold, hating the eternal darkness, reveling in the never-ending sunlight, bitten to death by the mosquitoes, and life. Some did good things, and some helped, and yet others simply watched.
Some of these people surrounded my mother as she made her way through her short journey. Who were they? What stories could they tell me about her? As I walked through this community from the past I saw that I did have a lot to think about when I came visiting, not only from my mother’s life, but also from my own.
It wasn’t all bad, I was finding out. And bad faded with time, if you let it.
I now have a sister to visit as well. There was never a shortage of conversation between us and I am looking forward to meeting with her next fall.
I will be buried in the Yellowknife cemetery. I can only hope that when that certain person searching for a loved one passes by my grave, they will stop, and remember.
Of Metis descent, Amber Lee Kolson was born and raised in Yellowknife. Her one-act play, Snow Angel, inspired by the story of a Metis woman who froze to death by the train tracks in Edmonton, won the BC National Playwriting Competition. Over the years, Kolson has also written and performed five one-woman comedy shows at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, and authored several books and short stories. She resides in Edmonton and her perfect day is baking and writing on her laptop at the kitchen table.