Ex-Pats (No Such Thing.)
Kristen, my saintly wife and the homestead matriarch, is a wizard and a whirlwind in our woodstove kitchen. My own culinary skills and interests are mostly limited to boiling coffee water, making Saturday sourdough pancakes, roasting slabs of fish on the outdoor fire, and almost-always-cheerfully washing big piles of dishes. As early-winter daylight dwindles, our cold-weather appetites kick in. So it is a happy fact that here at the Hoarfrost River we have always enjoyed not just one, but two full-on Thanksgiving dinners. Clever as can be, we label the one in early October “Canadian Thanksgiving,” and 45 days later we sit down to “American Thanksgiving.” There are usually no turkeys involved, but there is always good food and plenty of it.
This doubled-down Thanksgiving is wonderful from the pumpkin-pie, gravy, and fresh rolls standpoint, believe me. The second one also says a lot about the strength of traditions and the durability of origins, and about our memory and our innermost allegiances. Thanksgiving in October seems all well and good, but when that final Thursday in November rolls around, we both know, deep down, that it’s just gotta be a holiday around here.
When our ancestors, on all sides and branches of the extended families, left Scandinavia for North America in the mass exodus of the late 1800’s, they brought their own holiday calendars with them, too, including Santa Lucia Day on December 13 th. A crown of candles on a white-robed daughter and pre-dawn gatherings for coffee and pastries in houses with no electric lights allowed. My sister still keeps that tradition alive in Minneapolis, every year, to the great delight of her mostly non-Scandinavian friends and neighbors.
These are small things, you say, just nostalgic gestures. But are they? We can all leave a country behind and become citizens of another. But can we? How are we coded, deep down, by our countries of origin and the ambience of those “formative” years? Kristen and I are immigrants. Maple leaves on our passports, yes, and taxes all paid to CRA, not IRS, but we are “American ex-pats” always and forever. (Some Canadians consider that a derogatory label, trust me.) This past month we have done a lot of mulling and musing over that strange brew of allegiances, upbringing, attitudes, and roots that gets lumped under the heading of “patriotism.”
A little story, my story, to start with:
In 1957 a boy was born in Moline, Illinois, a small city on the Mississippi River. His mother was twenty; his father was twenty-six. Eisenhower was President. In Canada John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister, although, as usual, maybe two out of ten thousand Americans would have known that. Sputnik had just been launched. On the streets of Moline and Rock Island, Vietnam was as unfamiliar a name as Diefenbaker.
Dad worked at the local television and radio station, where his appearance as Mr. Peterson the Swedish Postman on the afternoon kid’s show was a popular gig. Television was small and local, new and exciting, and it was all in black-and-white. A lot of things were all in black and white, in Illinois and in America, in 1957.
Within the year the family moved north and east to Crystal Lake, a town along the Wisconsin line, northwest of Chicago. Dad began a long career as a high-school teacher. A sister soon graced the scene, and later another. The boy’s years blur together, just the good moments remembered. Fishing at the gravel pits, bicycles on dirt paths, baseball on back lots, a cold basketball bouncing on a concrete driveway in autumn dusk, to the smell of burning leaves. Trombone practice and tornado-warning sirens. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and camp-outs in Stearn’s Woods.
Politics? Well, there’s November 1963, walking home from first grade to find Mom standing in front of the television in mid-afternoon, watching awful news come in from Dallas. And there’s August 1968, at the ripe old age of ten, with the television on downstairs late one night, still in black-and-white, the screen and commentary a frantic melee from Chicago’s Grant Park — just over an hour’s drive away. The Democratic convention, Hoffman and Hayden, Humphrey and Daly. Confusion, mayhem, billy-clubs, gas masks. Uncle George and Aunt Jean, Mom and Dad, all leaning forward toward the screen. Up to bed you go, young man.
Every morning at school, announcements over the loudspeaker from Mr. Husman the Principal, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag at the front of the classroom, the Stars and Stripes. Fifty years on, and the words are still right there in my mind, without the slightest pause or effort to recall them:
I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic for which it stands
With liberty and justice for all.
End of little story. Moral: No salmon has ever been more thoroughly imprinted with the chemistry of its home stream than that boy was infused with the scenes, sounds, scents, and repetitive recitations of his youth. (How about you?)
Fast forward to a July morning in 1990, here at the Hoarfrost River. Kristen and I were out in front of the old log cabin, the original “Jimmie Colburn shack,” enjoying an alfresco breakfast when a power boat rounded the headland and turned in toward us. I laughed when through the binoculars I saw the woman on the boat looking right back at me through her own binoculars. She laughed too, and we waved. They came ashore. Clint and Jan, out cruising and camping, from Yellowknife. Two little children. Introductions all around. He worked at the Con Mine, as an engineer or a geologist, and they had lived all around the world.
We gave them our own story in a nutshell. They both laughed out loud. “The minute we saw this place,” said Jan, “I told Clint and the kids I’d bet my bottom dollar you were Americans.”
She then gave us her succinct and witty rundown on the national character of Canadians, Aussies, New Zealanders (like her husband), Brits, South Africans, and Americans (like herself.) It was a fascinating set of insights, mostly to do with the relation of each country to its great outdoors, its back-country and wilderness, its vision of the perfect mix of urban and rural living, and its ideals of cottage and cabin life. I wish I had it all on tape.
Jan’s instant assessment was still fresh in my mind when later that summer I stood before Thomas Eagle in Yellowknife. He was a Citizenship Judge, with a small office on Franklin Avenue. (Sir John Franklin, not Ben.) Judge Eagle was Ojibwe Anishinabe. He was a veteran of the Canadian military, and he was a lifelong advocate for the welfare of Metis and First Nations people. He was a handsome old man with a soldier’s posture. He had black-and-grey hair, bronze skin, and high cheekbones. I still remember standing there looking at him, taking in his appearance and knowing a little about his background, and then looking down at the words of the Citizenship Pledge I was about to recite. I remember thinking, ”He really wants me to say this? With a straight face? Yep. Evidently he does.” And so I did, looking Tom Eagle right in the eye to see if I could spot any twinkle there, any small acknowledgement of the many layers of irony rife in that moment. I could not. The oath goes like this, for those of you who have never actually taken it:
“I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
Weird, huh? The Queen? And the pronoun Her capitalized? Elizabeth, descendant of King George, whose redcoats the Yankees rose up to oust in 1776, so that they could start their new experiment, their Republic “with liberty and justice for all.” Americans are a rebellious bunch, and I remember feeling a little too “American” in my attitude and outlook as I recited that antiquated oath and thus became a Canadian citizen.
We take a lot with us when we leave a country and go to live in another. I well remember how much material “stuff” I had with me when my Dad and I pulled into the border crossing between Minnesota and Ontario on a muggy July night in 1987, for my official entry into Canada. Two worn-out pickup trucks each towing a trailer, one with two dogsleds lashed down on top, and on each truck roof a lashed-down canoe. A dozen huskies; crates of tools and books; chainsaws, skis, snowshoes; bundles of clothes; a ton of dog kibble. Jed Clampett would have been proud of us.
What I could not see, though, was how much “stuff” I had between my ears, stuff that was American through and through and was most definitely coming north with me, and that – unlike the dogs and gear and clothes – was never going to die or wear out.
Fast forward again, to November 2020. It has been a strange month, Kristen and I both constantly “checking in” by radio and phone and satellite inter-tube from our snow-globe bubble of germ-free taiga, as a tumultuous election and rampant disease have threatened a descent into total chaos south of the border. Today, as the month ends and the year winds down, maybe there is some calm on the horizon, but I am edgy. This ain’t over yet, I think.
From here, though, it is hard to know what to think, hard to hold an opinion that will not the very next day go up for grabs again. Will he? Will they? Won’t he? How could they? What if? What if not?
“It’s just a shitshow.” That same exact phrase, within 24 hours, came from two different people. My brother-in-law, who lives just blocks from the spot where George Floyd was killed and where burned-out and boarded-up buildings mark the aftermath of the riots that followed; and another good friend, writing from his timber-frame farmhouse off to the west.
The discord and upheaval haven’t quite brought me to tears yet. There have been times when things “down there” have done just that. Three different occasions come to mind. One, sitting alone on the houseboat in Yellowknife Bay on the morning of September 11, 2001, tears of anguish welled up as I listened to radio reports from New York. Seven years later, tears of wonder, as I sat alone in a motel room in Fort Nelson B.C., glued to the television while a hopeful and eloquent former Senator from Illinois took the oath of office as America’s 44 th President. And most recently, almost four years ago in January, sitting alone in the workshop on a bitterly cold morning, in front of the woodstove, hearing the first few paragraphs of number 45’s Inaugural Address immediately plunge into vitriol and finger-pointing. Tears again, just sad and bewildered.
The only thing I know for certain these days is that when it comes to these “ex-pat” compartments of my mental life, I am indeed in a snow-globe bubble, locked to a false and filtered notion of current events and everyday life in the old country. Because, of course, another aspect of moving away from anywhere, or anything, is that we lock it into our memory as it was, and it stays there unchanged. For example, distant friends or relatives have children. We see them, we meet the kids, and then ten or twenty years go by, and somehow we are surprised when – voila – we hear that little Betsy is now lecturing in anthropology or Rob is off fighting fires in the Yukon. How could this be? Aren’t they still giggling and trying to tie their shoes, like they are in our trustworthy mind’s eye? It’s the same with countries, and with ex-pats. Kristen and I cannot claim, after more than three decades of living in Canada, to know or understand what it is to be American in 2020. Face it, we tell each other. We don’t understand because we have been gone too long. Visits are just visits. (On the flip side, the far north and its legacy of opinionated non-resident visitors comes to mind.)
November is usually a tough month here, but for other reasons. It’s a bad month for flying weather, but with the current state of the pandemic shutdown there has been virtually no flying to do. Both planes are just tied down on the ice like a couple of expensive lawn ornaments. It’s the month of freeze-up, and for this year that is already finished, the second earliest ever in our time here, and in Kristen’s words it was “just not all that dramatic.” One day the lake was open, and the next day it was frozen.
We had our American Thanksgiving the other night, with an entrée of Dall sheep from the Nahanni Range, courtesy of a friend who was up there in September. Kristen moved gracefully around the kitchen, tending pots and doughs, and she was so absolutely enthused about it all that I wondered whether cooking and feasting on the final Thursday of November is some sort of genetic gender imprint or a North Dakota soil-chemistry side-effect.
And this November I have concluded that there is no such thing as an “ex-pat.” There is always and forever patriotism , which of course should just as well, and much more accurately, be called matriotism. And we might as well pre-emptively coin “they–triotism,” in advance of someone claiming that they somehow came to life without ever having a mater or a pater.
And for now, the usual cluck-clucking from north of the border will go on, watching the “shitshow” and the “meth lab” to the south. Schadenfreude is as common among neighbors as borrowing a cup of sugar – or as borrowing a cup of sugar used to be, in my locked-in memory of 1960’s small-town Illinois. You see, there I go again. When did somebody last go borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbors?
As I said the other day to Kristen over our lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers, “Man, I’d give my eye teeth to have a few neighbors drop by.” And right now there are more people than ever who know what we mean by that.
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