AS THE PANDEMIC begins to bite in March 2020, many people report exceptionally vivid dreams, recurring nightmares. The phenomenon is widespread enough to feature in news bulletins. Experts are interviewed.
I am pleased that dreams have become newsworthy, but I see no cause for surprise. We are all facing new terrors – what’s more, we’re all doing it at the same time. These dreams are just a collective coping mechanism, a pressure valve for fears so deep our waking selves cannot face them, at least not yet. Perhaps they augur well for the resilience of those who can remember what they dream.
People call talk shows to share their dreams. Why are they so vivid? they ask. Why do they linger and colour our days? What do they mean?
MY COVID DREAM comes at dawn, when a pale wash of light filters reassuringly through the curtains and I finally sink into the depths and sleep.
In this dream, I have come back to a house I once lived in. I stand in a shadowy room steeped in the sepia tones of old photographs, blinds drawn against the natural light, a fine patina of dust undisturbed on the tables and the tiles. There is a door; beyond it, a dim corridor leading to rooms I never knew were there. These spaces open out – sterile, empty, so brightly lit I can’t see into them.
I hardly breathe. I want to touch the familiar things – the doorframe, the banister on the stairs – but they will crumble to dust if I do. I stand still because if I move, I will enter that corridor. I have seen it before.
I will pace up and down its length the way my grandfather, Pierre Abraham Saint Amour, paced the hallway in my parents’ house one night in September of 1951. He was my mother’s father, just out of hospital in the foothills town of Turner Valley, near the Canadian Rockies. I was just a child, but I sensed that something terrible walked with him that night. I couldn’t move, paralysed by everything I did not know, by questions I knew better than to ask.
He died just days after I lay awake listening to his footsteps. He was seventy-four. No one told me he was dead. I never knew where they buried him.
On a family history website, I have now seen a black and white photo of his gravestone in a Calgary cemetery. The trip I was planning for September 2020 would have taken me to the US and Canada, to places he had been, as I tried to piece together his true story. And I would have visited his grave, bringing an armful of tiger lilies and Indian paintbrush picked in the foothills, to ask forgiveness for not going to him with what comfort I could offer, that night when I was eight.
I wake from this dream less in fright than in grief. Sometimes I have cried in my sleep at this spectacle of emptiness and absence, this embodiment of paralysis.
THROUGH THE FIRST months of pandemic ups and downs, I don’t move. I do not mean literally. I get on with life, like everyone else, finding new ways around things we once did without thinking. Our brains are exhausted by constant vigilance; they whirr like those of toddlers. We fall asleep face-first in our mashed potatoes as they sometimes do, stunned and enervated by the ever-changing demands, the yammering on our devices.
What I mean is this: I feel suspended in an endless moment, only my fingers moving on the remote. People tell me to stop watching the news, to focus on how fortunate we are here. I try – but not everyone is here. Not everyone is lucky. I mean this globally for the whole benighted, suffering mass of humanity, but especially for those I love who are not here. Those I only see on my screens.
My anxiety spills over. My presence makes the people I love more fearful, not less. I try to model calm resourcefulness, but I’m not fooling anyone.
I do not recognise the funk I am in for what it is until one day when I listen to a recording of Helen Garner reading Postcards from Surfers. The narrator’s friend, whose father died while she was overseas, says that she now knows what grief is: ‘Sometimes it’s what you expect. But sometimes it’s nothing more than bad temper.’
So it is. I am rude, often to strangers. I strike like a snapping turtle from behind my mask. I am impatient and answer those who express hope about elections, or vaccines, with arguments demonstrating that no reckoning looms for stupidity and greed, that no medical breakthrough is coming over the hill, like the cavalry, fast enough to save us. I become the Cassandra whose calls I would decline if her number came up on my screen, the voice of doom that makes you want to lie down on the rug and expire.
MY GRANDDAUGHTER SAYS she thinks dreams are about things we have recently left undone. I tell her she’s right. What I do not tell her is how obsessed I have become with all the things I have left undone. I look in despair at the piles of papers I haven’t filed, the newspapers I keep for that one article I will never get to.
I make a stab at getting my affairs in order. If I fell off my twig or just found myself clinging to it upside-down and unconscious, I would like to spare my daughter the frustration of searching for bank account numbers, medical details, passwords. Just to be clear: ‘getting my affairs in order’ seems the appropriate expression. People over seventy worry rather more than the young ones in their lives realise.
It isn’t only the cavalier way I have allowed administrative chaos into my life, nor my laziness in getting rid of things I don’t want or need, that preoccupy me. My obsession extends to all the words I haven’t written this year, to the story I haven’t started to tell, and to all the emotional loose ends in my life: the hand I didn’t hold, the letter unanswered, the embrace I turned away from. I am appalled at how many truncated stories there are – incomplete, pending, perhaps lost forever.
I know what is seeding panic in my heart, what is exacerbated by the loneliness of isolation, what gives my dream its intensity. Fear, of course, and behind the fear, love. I am afraid that what I love will turn to dust if I try to touch it, to keep it alive, to fix it.
This is why I can’t move, why I haven’t written. Fear, love, and the grief that washes over me when I wake from that dream.
IF YOU DON’T move, you sink. I’m pretty sure I’m sinking.
From where I sit and fret at my desk, I see a framed photograph of my father’s mother, Gundred Warren. She is nineteen and sits astride her horse, wearing a long riding skirt and boots. Holding the reins loosely in one hand, she looks straight at the photographer.
On the back of a portrait taken the same day are these handwritten words: ‘Miss Gundred, 1910. Taken by Gopher Johnson.’ You only create pictures like these if you love the person sitting for you. I wonder if she should perhaps have married Gopher and not the irascible Scottish immigrant from Glasgow who will be the father of her four children.
In the picture on my piano, her horse also loves her. He stands perfectly still, alert. She sits tall, already a woman to be reckoned with, never one to sink without a trace. I am shamed by her smile as she sits, effortlessly in control, tufts of prairie grass around her horse’s hooves.
What to do? How do you stop sinking?
All my life, I have found solace in books, so the obvious answer is to hold one in my hands and turn the pages. But this insidious virus seems not content merely to destroy everyone’s plans – it is altering our relationships with the pursuits dearest to us: sport, shared meals, the theatre, swiping left and right, congregating to sing and worship. In my case, reading – a solitary pleasure that should remain what it always has been.
Books haven’t changed, but I have. Plot twists befuddle me. I don’t feel smart enough for non-fiction. Some days I can hardly manage a poem. I can still, however, listen with pleasure to authors speaking: any author, talking about anything.
On ABC TV’s Compass, I hear Tom Keneally reflecting in the cemetery at North Head Quarantine Station on Sydney Harbour. He contemplates the headstone of a young World War I soldier, paid for by his mates, and says: ‘This is the funny thing about age – the persistence of love has taken me by surprise, and the persistence of optimism.’ I think, yes, yes, the persistence of love. What I mean by love and what he means are probably worlds apart, his concept much the nobler. No matter.
But optimism – what I would call hope – is absent from my current state of mind. I cannot see forward through the shifting uncertainty. How could anyone feel optimism now? For Keneally, however, they go together.
He looks at the grave and I realise he is seeing a completed story – a tragic story, but one given meaning by its outcome. You learn from it; it can touch and inspire you.
This is the moment when, hallelujah, a book comes to my aid. As I consider the power of a completed story to console and uplift us, how the end gives significance to the whole, the book that I remember is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, with its unhappy protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, desperately seeking an antidote to meaninglessness in the most intellectual way imaginable.
Roquentin sees something that might give shape to formless despair; he grabs hold of this glimmer of hope. ‘When you tell a story,’ he muses, ‘you seem to be starting at the beginning: “It was a beautiful evening in the autumn of 1922. I was a clerk for a notary public in Marommes.” In fact, you have begun at the end.’ Every moment in the story is caught up in the ending; every instant drags the one before it towards the conclusion.
Roquentin’s former girlfriend, Annie, was expert in wringing significance from every moment; she had in fact shown him the way. They were separated by circumstance and their hours together were limited. She would contrive to make that time a misery until exactly sixty minutes before they had to part. You could set your watch by her.
He recalls an evening at the cinema, the last before they would part for months. He had to leave at midnight. When she took his hand in the dark, he knew it was eleven o’clock, that they would now feel the passage of every minute cascading down to an inevitable end, moments of meaning preserved in amber like beads as they fell, one after another.
She wept silently beside him. At exactly midnight, she squeezed his hand violently as he stood to leave without a word. She had made that hour into a story, with a beginning and an end; an adventure. ‘It was very well done,’ he concludes.
Roquentin imagines using this creative process to give shape and significance to his own experience. ‘It would have to be a book,’ he writes. ‘I don’t know how to do anything else.’ Ha, I think – of course it would. He imagines the book finished, people reading it and saying: ‘Antoine Roquentin wrote that, the red-headed guy who hung around in cafés.’ He will look back at his present moment of revelation and know: ‘On that day, at that exact time, everything began.’
Why, I wonder, had this not been more evident to me this year, why has it not been something I hung on to, when it is so obvious a truth? That’s how you make a story: you write a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s how stories come to mean something. Maybe you only discover what they mean as you write – but they have a trajectory and a coherence conferred upon them by their conclusion. They are the opposite of our open-ended, morphing, shifting Covid narrative.
I need to write the story I have, the one I was planning to write.
MY 2020 PROJECT was to write my grandfather’s story – the real story that my daughter found online, not the one he invented when he was twenty-three. For fun, she had ordered a DNA test from a family history site. She began constructing a family tree as she waited for the results.
Military and church records in Canada survive back to the late sixteenth century and everything is online. When my daughter typed in my grandfather’s name and what little information I had been able to provide, details of his real story began springing off the screen at her. Within hours, she knew that my grandfather Pierre was not who he said he was.
The wallpaper of everyone’s childhood is a collection of shorthand notations about parents and grandparents. We accept these tiny story fragments when we are small. We don’t question them any more than we would question a road sign.
As a child, I was certain of this: my mother’s mother, Josephine, only escaped being carried off as a baby by the bald eagle that planted its talons in her scalp because she was a little heavy. The raptor let go, but all her life she feared everything that flew, from bees to aircraft.
I also knew this: my grandfather Pierre had come to the US from France with his parents when he was small. When he said ‘catastrophe’, the last syllable rhymed with ‘off’. He was tall because in eastern France, where he came from, people were tall. This became the family joke – if we saw a tall man, someone would say, ‘He must be from the east.’
The story my daughter unearthed, over months of steady and savvy sleuthing, could not have been more different.
Pierre Abraham Saint Amour was born in Neche, North Dakota, in 1877. He descended on his father’s side from a long line of men named Pierre Saint Amour, the first of whom landed in the New World in 1688, a corporal in the service of Louis XIV. His regiment was sent out to quash the Iroquois raids terrorising the Montreal region.
Not only that: my grandfather was Métis by heritage, the Pierres having married into this people of ‘mixed blood’, recognised as one of Canada’s three Indigenous groups. On his mother’s side, his ancestors were First Nations women who married early French traders and trackers and, later, French settlers.
My daughter and I felt no surprise at the presence of Indigenous DNA in our profiles, given the information she was finding. What I felt was pleasure on learning that there was a family connection – although generations distant from me, and small – to Pierre’s great-grandfather, Cuthbert James Grant, a prominent Métis leader of the early nineteenth century, and to Cuthbert Grant’s mother, Marguerite Ahdik ‘Clear Sky Woman’ Songab, an Ojibwe woman who helped her husband, Peter Grant, develop and manage a powerful trading empire on the Central Plains.
What I felt more keenly was regret that I lost my grandfather before I was old enough for him to take me into his confidence and tell me these stories. In fact I doubt he would have, given the apparent success of his invented identity, given how carefully he had covered his tracks.
In the early twentieth century, it wasn’t easy to check someone’s story. You took things on trust. My father spoke to me, occasionally and casually, of Pierre’s coming to the US from France. He must have believed the story – I am certain he would not have married my mother had he known about Clear Sky Woman.
Border control officials working on the frontier between the US and Canada believed Pierre. I have seen two documents of crossing, one giving his nationality as French and the other giving it as Canadian. On both documents, the box labelled ‘Color’ contains the word ‘white’. None of that was strictly true, and Pierre was the one providing that information.
My grandfather’s first wife believed he was French. One of her grandchildren – a step-cousin of mine – requested information on a family history site about her grandfather: Pierre Saint Amour, ‘tall, dark, handsome and French’, about whom she knew almost nothing, except that he left his wife and baby a few years after their marriage in 1904 and disappeared. That physical description could fit my son: he has the same olive complexion Pierre had, the same colouring as millions of French people.
I may never know if anyone knew or guessed the truth about my grandfather’s origins. I don’t think my pretty little grandmother knew, because when I left Canada to study in France, she gave me advice I didn’t follow but have never forgotten. She folded a five-dollar note into a handkerchief, pinned it to my bra with a safety pin and said: ‘Take a nap whenever you can and do not, ever, marry a Frenchman.’ That still sounds to me like she believed Pierre was one of them.
LEARNING MY GRANDFATHER’S real story did not make me feel threatened or cause me to question the truth I knew when I was a child. I didn’t care who he was. I felt in my heart the truth of the love he showed me. That was all that mattered.
The deep despondency I have felt about the trip I could not take in September, which has contributed to my inability to write, is not about needing to redefine a place for myself in his new story, about feeling insecure in what I now know about him. It isn’t even about not being able to stand where he stood, to get a feeling for the places he went, although I do want that experience. It’s something deeper.
My children and my grandchildren were to accompany me on part of that trip. We talked of all going to Neche, of standing together on the dusty, deserted main street of that tiny town where Pierre was born and lived until, at twenty-three, he chose to walk away.
I don’t need to go there to know why he did this. I know the Métis were the poorest of the poor, that there was no place for hope or ambition. This trip was about something else. I wanted to stand with my children and my grandchildren for a moment at the beginning of my journey into the past. I hoped that if they shared this moment with me, they might carry the memory of it forward as part of them. I wanted them to carry me forward in the same way, in their hearts.
That memory was for me too, to hold close as long as I am here. The grief I felt when this trip became impossible did not spring from the compromising of part of a writing project; it was about the inevitability of one day leaving the people I love, a pain many of us have felt sharpen during the pandemic. Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux, wrote a French poet: love is never free of grief.
GRIEF TAKES TIME to process. You give yourself the time.
I know now what a good story this is: the tale of one man’s life, but also a wider story of family secrets, of decisions born of desperation – and of even bigger themes: prejudice and discrimination; hard places and spirits that refuse to be crushed.
It will still all come down to a story about the love of a child for her grandfather. I will start small, with my childhood memories, because these are the stories I know in my soul. They need no research.
Write what you know, the manuals tell those who wish to start putting words on a page. There is a whole lot wrong with that advice, but here, for what I hope to do, it’s useful.
I want to begin by capturing the memories that are precious to me and preserving them, like the flowers and leaves in old French crystal paperweights, held in domed clarity, beautiful forever. Perhaps these memories will anchor other, older stories in the same way a paperweight stops important records of things past from flying off to be lost in the wind.
This first, then: a vignette. Write what you know.
I ALWAYS LOVED my grandfather’s name: Pierre Saint Amour. It seemed, to the small child I was, a fitting name for the hero of a book. He was my hero: he talked to me, explained life’s puzzles, protected me.
I sat with him one day on the back stoop of the house he shared with my grandmother and my two uncles, in a little town in the foothills of the Rockies: a house with an acre of prairie grass for a back garden, raspberry canes I picked fruit from in August, a pump that you worked by hand, lifting the creaking handle up and bringing it down again until fresh water gushed from its spout, always cold. You drank from a metal cup that hung there on a wire.
I sat on the stairs, looking up at my grandfather as he told me a story about a baby goat. The tiny animal, he said, was testing its legs. It took a few shaky steps out into the world, then stumbled back to the safety and warmth of its mother to feed, latching on to her with such energy that you could hear the connection. He smacked his fist into the palm of his other hand to illustrate the sound of that baby connecting with its mother, the strength of that bond.
He knew I did not have that with my mother, that I was suffering. This was why I spent so much time with him and with my grandmother. He was telling me it wasn’t my fault, that he too had tried for connection with my mother, his daughter, and failed. He was offering me a different love to hold on to.
This is the first thing I write, because every one of us was once this child. Every one of us once loved, with open heart, another person we trusted to return that love.
Surely this is all that sustains us.