I am in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewn. A small town of French heritage founded in 1896. The brochures call it, 'a touch of Europe on the Prairies'.
I call it, the beginning of my search for my father.
I drove here yesterday. Drove across rolling prairies spread out beneath cloud streaked sky where ghosts chased cats and dragons flared their nostrils. The wind blew steady. Ferociously. Fields recently freed from winter's grip, lay fallow, prickly signs of wheat and grain pushing up through the cool, dank earth.
I drove past abandoned farm houses and tractors deserted in the fields. This is grainland. There are few fences here. Just open fields of huge tracts of land rolling out in undulating waves towards a far and distant horizon. Stretched out to meet the promise of infinity in a sky they can never touch, never reach.
I was alone. I needed the time. Needed the opportunity to just be, away, alone, singular in my world embedded on a ribbon of highway heading east then south then north east then east again.
I drove. Sunroof open. Wind gusting around my head, music blaring on my Ipod plugged into my stereo. Keith Jarrett flinging piano chords into the wind as I flung the aftermath of busy out the window.
I drove. In search of my father.
When I arrived in this 'piece of Europe on the prairies, I asked the proprietor of the B&B where I'm staying about the deserted farmlands and boarded up houses. "Most of the little farmers are gone," says the proprietor of the the 'Historic Bishop's Residence'. The Residence is a grand old dame dwarfed by the Cathedral on the east and the Gravelbourg Elementary School on the west. It is indicative of much of the architecture of the town. Golden brick that glows in evening light. White trimmed windows. Porches where wicker furniture beckons. "Farmings an expensive business these days. The conglomerates are buying up the little guy. They cannot face the fact they must leave the land but they have no choice so they just walk away, leaving everything to rot behind them."
I wonder if that is what happened to my father. He never wanted to leave his homeland, his mother, his life as a young boy but had no choice. And in his leaving, in his being pulled across the ocean to a school far away, he left his past to lie fallow behind him. Never looking back. Never looking at what had caused him so much pain.
This place called Gravelbourg is where he came as a boy. Nine years old. Alone, he sailed the Atlantic to arrive in Montreal. His father met him and as far as we know, put him on a train westward bound where an Uncle met him in Regina and brought him to Gravelbourg where a school welcomed him for awhile.
My grandfather, my father's father, had arrived in Canada in 1907. He stayed in a boarding house in Toronto for awhile and then, the war drew near and he signed up with the the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He sailed back to London sometime in 1917 where he wed a woman named Rachel.
We don't know much of the story after that. We know there was a daughter. Her parentage is dubious. Some question about, "Who really was the father?" though in the records, she is registered with the same last name as my father, and me.
And then the story grows faint. My father seldom talked about his past. Seldom mentioned the whos and whats and wheres of his life. But he did mention Gravelbourg. This small town set on the prairies in a region settled by Francophones and, if the town names are an indication of heritage, some German's too.
Today, my search continues. I have a meeting with a woman at the high school. There is a record of my father having been there. I have a photo my sister gave me of him with a class. 1930 the photo says. He would have been 12.
I wonder about this boy. What did he feel? What did he think of the circumstances of his life? I know he seldom spoke with his father. We only met our grandfather twice. I remember the tension. There was an argument. Promises made and broken.
My father often made promises. And then he broke them. Did he learn that as a boy? Did his father promise to bring him to Canada and then find he could not take care of a young boy alone. His business took him all over the world. Africa. South America. He was an oilman. Did he send his son to a school on the prairies where he could learn French because he believed knowing the language would be good for him? Did he send him hear because he had a brother close by. A brother with six children who could care for him on weekend breaks and holidays?
Did he do it because he thought it was best?
Could my father ever see that?
Will I see traces of my father here?
I had promised myself long ago that one day I would go in search of my father. I had promised myself I would come to Gravelbourg. To see for myself if some trace of my father could be found, some understanding of his past be uncovered.
I am keeping my promise.
Time will tell what I will find.
It always does.