I spotted my sister before she saw us–she was standing outside her rented car looking over where we had just come from. Wasn’t sure if it was really her, as it was dim, and she was just far enough away, and I hadn’t seen her since 2009. I called out and she turned and smiled in recognition as we started over. I guess I looked pretty much the same, plus signs of the years and darker hair. But my daughter she looked at in a kind of wonder. It had been seven years, my daughter had been ten at our last visit, and was now six inches taller that her aunt, a tall, slim beauty.
We loaded up the suitcases and headed out in Amber’s rented car before the attendants could ticket it.
She is seven years younger than I, and when we were growing up, that was a lot. She and my youngest sister were close to each other, but to me, both were little playmates or annoyances, depending. I played with them, might have changed a diaper or two, sewed dresses for them, but they were like a different generation, me in seventh grade at a different school by the time Amber started kindergarten. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, nor do I resent it now, they were the reason Mom had her hands so full in my upper elementary to teen years.
In later years, though she graduated from McGill in music and stayed in Montreal, and I finished up my education degree and moved out west, we reconnected at times, with visits at the homestead, and once in Montreal. There was the connection of evangelical Christian faith then, found separately and in different ways, as well as the experience of independence of adulthood, and reflecting on the setting in which we grew up. Whenever we met we had lots to talk about and have felt at ease doing so. Still, we don’t know each other well, with only a few days every few years to go on. I have drifted away from her beliefs in many ways, but the awkwardness of that is not as it was. On my side, mostly, I guess–she has never been pushy or judgmental, and is a loving, service-oriented sort of person, and generally fun to be with. And she laughs at my jokes.
The day before was Moving Day in Montreal, just after all leases end or are renewed by law, and her new flat was full of boxes, taped, labeled and stacked. The street outside held evidence of several moves, including a set of bedroom churches bagged and labelled “punaises,” which late I found means bedbugs.
We helped my sister get her basic kitchen equipped and flatten some boxes. Her belongings were basic, but we found what we needed, and fried up something or other for supper. We each got a room and hit the sack after talking late.
You never really know some people–ever mysterious and wonderfully so. But at least with family there can be a given that you’ll stay connected over the years and keep at it, however slowly. Maybe getting to know siblings is confused by projection of self, in addition to various kinds of growing-up baggage. So many similarities, just by the fact of having the same parents and, in our case, our shared physical environment. The same people lived nearby, mostly still do in some form. One of my best friends had a sister that was one of Amber’s. We went to the same schools and had some of the same teachers, and our neighbors never changed, just grew up along with us, and eventually inherited the family place. We know the tides, winds, slow springs, humid Julys and tingle of first frosty October mornings followed by warm afternoons. We know the creak of our mother’s knees and sound of feet hollowly stepping up thirteen stairs, the particular thump of each bedroom door, the smell of newly mown hay and the first spread of cow manure on the nearby fields.
My daughter was helpful on this journey, pointing out qualities I had overlooked, similarities and differences she saw, and sometimes critiquing my less than perfect ways of communicating (mostly with my mother, as we shall see). Concerning my Montreal sister, I agree with my daughter’s comment, after all our visits were over, that she is the least like all the other siblings, or like our parents. For some reason, we don’t really count my youngest brother in the group, because he’s always marched to a different drummer, and been responded to differently, as we also shall see..
Amber looks different, for one, with her auburn-brown hair and chocolate brown eyes, wide mouth, pale skin and light freckles. Though we were all brought up with music, she was the only one that went whole-heartedly into music study, majoring in piano performance. She was a Bach fiend, winning lots of prizes at our local adjudicated music festival and holding her own even among the big fish at Montreal. She was so intent–loved to practice, outgrew two piano teachers, started accompanying a church choir all before heading to college. Our old wooden farmhouse with the finished pine floors resounded each day with wonderful sounds until she left. Mom and Dad would have sent the piano to her, if it had been practical.
I was off doing my own thing in those years—studying education, moving out west, and then getting engaged. We did all major in doing our own thing, not resenting each other for not keeping in great touch, but enjoying the connections we had from time to time. Our brother married his sweetheart Heather in Ontario, bringing the family together there for the wedding in 1993, and we three sisters sang “Wherever you Go, I Will Go” at the ceremony, then watched them drift off into a lake on a houseboat honeymoon.
Amber takes a relaxed approach to life and music now. She enjoys her job working as a student advisor in the engineering department at McGill (where she once met Justin Trudeau, though she didn’t recognize him, and when he requested to see her colleague, asked if he had an appointment. “It’ll be okay, he said.). She got a promotion (a different time), then dropped back down to her former position, because she enjoyed the pace and interactions more. She no longer plays Bach, but once she found the Lord (in charismatic movement of the ’90s connected to the “Toronto Blessing” happenings), gave her music to God entirely for worship, on her own and for her church and its offspring in various parts of the world. Our mother was not amused, but felt she’d “grow out of it” and go back to classical. Never did, though. Just more of a secret internal reality working out in mysterious ways.
I was first up on Sunday and took a walk along the St. Lawrence River a few blocks south. There’s a few miles of park, with trails paralleling the banks. It’s a huge river, a major shipping route from the Atlantic up into the interior via the Great Lakes, but no ships were noticeable from this side. I saw a heron, red-winged blackbirds, one tiny toad, ducks, moths, and a few cyclists and joggers. I stopped by a shallow pond and wondered why it held only plants, until I noticed there was a plastic liner blocking the water from the soil. That nixed it for amphibians and probably most aquatic insects as a habitat.
We had buckwheat pancakes, eggs, and coffee for breakfast. Amber had decided to skip church–surely always a priority otherwise, to hang out with us. The day before she had mentioned it, and I said sure we’d come, but either she sensed that I was only slightly into it and maybe just being polite, of just wanting to attend out of curiosity about her life, she offered to spend the morning hanging out with us, to her credit, I think.
After a slow morning, with eggs and bagels, we hoisted our day packs and headed to the metro and zipped downtown for a hike up Mount Royal in the center of town.
It was a warm day for walking, but with a blessed breeze again. After lunch at the Lola Rosa, up we strode, taking the long route that zigzagged up instead of the series of stairs. There were bikers, strollers, and stroller pushers. There was a boy annoyed at his parents for going the slow way, while he wanted to vauly up the steps joining the switchbacks. Half way up there’s a park that reminded me of a Seurat painting, but for the concrete border around the pond.
At the top is a large, airy hall of stone with a central room that could be used for balls, symphonies, and large weddings or funerals, surrounded by a few shops. Outside on the plaza a colorfully painted piano had been set up for public use, and some people were gathered around as someone plinked away. The main city was visible from the edge of the summit, with the Fleuve St-Laurent (the river) in the background.
After walking down Amber showed us the underground mall network, miles of tiles, artificially lit stores that must be a haven from the cold come winter. Caught the metro back, watched “Ant Man,” and slept among the boxes. The next day we bused out to the airport for our flight to Halifax.