“I’m scared to come back alone.”
These are the words I dare not say to my companion as we pull into the all-too-familiar border crossing separating Maine from New Brunswick. Nor do I admit it to the cheery Canadian agent who takes our passports; “visiting relatives” is the only answer I give to her cursory question. It’s enough; she waves us through with a smile.
I take a deep breath as we pull out of the station and head eastward. It’s the first time I’ve been in Canada since my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary last August.
My grandfather has been dead six months.
Red castles in the tide
The sand is red and thick in Blomidon. It’s not sand, really. It’s some sort of clay mixture, a geologic marvel I never bothered to learn about for fear it would take the magic away. But my dear, wonderful Blomidon is covered in this red earth. It hides beneath the farming crops and nestles into the cliffsides. It weaves its way through the few remaining unpaved roads. It catches in the toes of the small children who run out to catch the tide, scooping up the clams left in its wake.
Born in California, I am and will always be “from away.” My mother’s blood has bought me a card that says I belong to this world above the United States, but cards have no meaning past the border patrol. Ten summers of my life and the remains of a childhood lilt in my speech will never weigh equal to the Maritimers who have lived their whole lives here.
But Blomidon is where I grew up.
It’s 1993, and the smell of my grandfather’s old car wafts around me, memories mingling with the scents of cinnamon and leather. After a series of lengthy plane trips, we are finally here, trundling down the two-lane road from Halifax as the moon waxes overhead. Many times over I have fallen asleep on this ride from the airport — rocked to dreamland by the lullaby of those scents while curled up by my mother’s side in the big leather bench seats.
But tonight, my eyes are open while the adults reminisce and play catch-up. Tonight, I look at the stars, which beam down from the heavens with a clarity I rarely see in the smog-filled purple skies at home. Tonight, I watch the horizon as we crest the hill that brings Blomidon into view.
Blomidon remains hidden on most maps. A tiny Nova Scotia farming community on the shores of the Minas Basin, it lies sheltered by the cliffs of the provincial park that carries its name. Canadian tourists may drive to the lookout on the cliffs or hike Cape Split — but you won’t find them on these dirt roads. Here, it is quiet; the only voices come from the wheezing of sea breezes.
It is here in Blomidon that my grandparents have found a paradise late in their lives. My grandfather was born in the earth, a farmer by blood, and while his path in life took him away from the land and into the offices overseeing it, he has returned to his passion in retirement. He and my grandmother live on a small piece of red land that’s close enough to the water to hear the salt waves lick the cliffs. The house is not much — a single story surrounded by a large brown deck — but beyond it lies a treasure trove of vegetables and berry bushes, and a field of grain.
I crawl into that grain many times that summer, to my grandfather’s horror. I see it as the perfect hideaway from the world, my little outdoor reading nook, meters away from fresh berry snacks. He sees smashed wheat stalks and the lost profit that they represent.
He coaxes me out of his cash crop with a gift: a twin cot placed in the porch room, my new private study. It is here that I get lost in the tales of Alice and her Wonderland adventures, only stopping to steal a frozen pop or two from the porch freezer when my grandmother isn’t looking. It’s not quite as good as berries off the vine, but it’s close.
Cake grown by the slice
A different summer, we are in Blomidon to celebrate an anniversary. My entire Canadian family drives down to my grandparents’ home for the occasion. Aunts, uncles, relatives of all kinds. The land is filled with partygoers and slices of cake.
On my eldest cousin’s advice, I plant my slice in a fresh patch of ground. I am overjoyed to come back the following summer and find a small sapling; I am convinced that if only I let it be and it grows tall, it will start serving cake slices by the leaf.
I tell this to my grandfather, who smiles.
“What kind of cake?” he murmurs. “You know if you’re growing a vanilla cake tree here, I’m going to chop it down. We’re a chocolate cake tree family.”
He had planted it, of course.
He and Blomidon are forever intertwined in my mind. He is out there every day he can be: riding his tractor, shucking peas, pulling up rhubarb sticks and eating them raw. My love of fresh corn I blame on him. And my penchant for cards.
They’re a funny thing for my grandfather — cards. (Or, to hear him say it, “kaerdhs.”) He is the original card. The jack. The joker. The one you pull out of the pack because it can’t help but stand out. Your ace in the hole.
He emotes in cards and games. Cribbage; bridge; UNO for the kids. Cassino. 45s. Shuffling. Dealing. Cracking wise. “You’re not really going to do that to a poor old man like me, are you?”
We have whole conversations in crib games without saying a word. We catch up that way, sitting around the dinner table. Deuce, king, king, nine — thirty-one for two points. Aces and faces tell him everything he needs to know about me — and me, him.
There are so many stories I want to tell about him, my Grampie, in this place. There are so many early ones I’ve lost to the catacombs of memory, replaced only by scents and feelings. I have 24 years of photographs, but they can’t recreate the twinkle in his voice when giving a rebuke. The smell of fresh grass as we ride on his tractor. The banter in a game of cards.
It is 2011 and his beautiful Blomidon land has long been sold. My Grampie is 91, thinning, and recently missing a leg (“though where it got off to I can’t quite say”). His surgery has required a move to an adult care center 90 kilometers south, which feels like a pen for the living dead. The zombies in the halls are all slow and moaning, but I’m in no danger of catching their disease quite yet.
His room is the sole spot of energy in this dank place. It is surprisingly sunny, if sparsely furnished. He smiles to see me and my family here. “You brought me my wife!” he exclaims as my grandmother walks in. They have just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, and she comes bearing a letter from the Queen congratulating them. He smiles, shyly, as she puts it on his shelf. He loves her in a way I can’t do justice to describe. Like a schoolboy, he is giddy and protective and sly, all at once.
We play cards; 45s, of course. His hearing is far gone, but his mind remains sharp. He sharks us, all five players — even his partner.
As we stand to go, I am stricken with sudden horror at leaving him, this man I love and admire so deeply, alone in this prison infested with the undead. He may be aged and minus a leg, but the man who sat on the deck admiring his red-clay kingdom is still there. It seems cruel to abandon him to this. “I’ll try and get back in the spring,” I say, with one last hug.
“Anything to say before we go, Bill?” his wife asks.
He looks her dead in the eye, half-cocked grin. “Only that I’ve loved you for 60 years.”
And on it goes
I don’t get back in the spring.
He falls sick the week before Macworld Expo, in January. My mother drops everything and flies to his side. I get clipped phone updates and texts, longer as the days wear on. I duck out of Wednesday’s Smile party to answer the phone; 15 minutes later, I’m still curled up on a parking curb listening to explanations and excuses while my friends wonder where I’ve gone off to. I nod along numbly as I hear my mother’s voice crack, and I wish, not for the first time, for a portal to swallow me whole and deposit me at his bedside.
I get the call in the afternoon as I step off the Macworld Live stage, my last appearance of the show. “I wanted to wait until you finished,” my mother says. “We were watching you on the Web stream.”
I can’t go to the funeral. Instead, I get condolences passed through my mother and father, text messages and tweets. “You know, I think you’re the only member of the family who didn’t make it,” my grandmother tells me during a FaceTime call. And as we drive through the never-ending New Brunswick hills in August 2012, her words ring in my ears.
It’s not about missing the funeral. I’m never any good at those, anyway. (As if anyone is.) But I worry. I fear the opinion of my relatives, of my grandmother. I don’t think they realize I would have given up anything for another round of cards.
I’ve held my mourning for six months, and hold it for several days more; I focus on showing off my beloved province to my companion. We veer north and take a trip up around Cape Breton, exploring the forest floor. Another detour, off to Alexander Graham Bell’s darling Baddeck.
And then we’re bound to the Minas Basin on the same path I’ve taken for years. They’ve put in a four-lane highway in places; there are more city lights, and fewer stars. But Blomidon is still there, shadowy in the distance as we top the hill.
I stay away from the red cliffs for the first few days. I play tour guide, and we traipse about the valley, visiting vineyards and ice cream shops, walking through Grand Pré, and singing campfire songs.
At last, I go see my grandmother. She’s in a center too, now; a much nicer one. I learn that my grandfather spent his last months here, far away from the house of the living dead I had last seen him in. This center is surrounded by beautiful gardens and a stocked pond, with large windows and brightly lit paths, and the hint of red earth hiding in the cornerstones. I can see why she likes it. I know he did.
Sitting in the garden together, I let go of the apologies I know, in that instant, are no longer needed.
I’m sorry I destroyed the wheat.
I’m sorry I never came to visit in college.
I’m sorry we didn’t get to play more cards.
I’m sorry for not appreciating this until it was too late.
She just smiles and takes my hand.
On our last day, my companion and I drive down the dusty road toward Blomidon. I realize, as we go, that I have never been here as an adult; I find my way to their old home almost by instinct. The gardens have been sodded over with grass and the berry bushes are overgrown, but the wheat fields remain. I wonder who lives there now. I wonder if they know how many ears of corn were shucked on the porch, or the origins of that backyard tree.
We walk down to the beach, side by side, Blomidon mud squelching through our toes. The last of the guilt, the mourning, the terror, it all melts away; sinking into the seafloor with every footstep toward the tide. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch two small children eagerly digging for clams and splattering the legs of their father behind them with thick red mud. New memories mingle with old.
It’s a beautiful day.
Illustration by the author.