Papers

We live the most when we reach out to the people we share the planet with. That might seem like an easy truth but it took me a long time to get it. I was withdrawn and isolated for a long time. I never truly believed that there was anyone anywhere who had experienced the hurt that I had or felt the way I did about it. It’s a typical response of psychically, spiritually and emotionally wounded people. I didn’t know that then either.

The funny thing is that we learn to reach out as soon as we’re born. For human beings it’s a natural response to the world. It’s just life and living that sometimes makes us forget. We forget that we’re not on the planet alone and we forget that people are our greatest resource. They are walking, talking encyclopedias and they inform our lives with the story of their time here. Stories that only add to the substance of our own.

            Life sometimes makes that hard. Families get separated. People go away. People die. Relationships are fractured by circumstance. Sometimes things get shunted out of their predictable orbits by choices made in moments of weakness or confusion or pain. Regaining those precious human resources is sometimes a very tough, emotional business and it takes courage to make the journey to gather those stories.

            Take my wife and her father. They were separated for years. Her mother and he were never married and they’d grown apart by the time she was born. She had a last name though. She searched for him in phone books all around the world when she was a grown up. Of course, that was in the pre-Internet days when tracking someone down was a lot harder. But she found him with perseverance.

She was in her early forties and found his name in theVancouverphone book where she was living at the time. He lived mere blocks away. It turned out they’d lived in the same city for decades. Still, it took over a year for her to summon the courage to phone and make that connection. He was Australian. She’d known that and the accent on the other end of the line told her that she had indeed found her father.

            Ron was an amazing character. He was a jazz loving, rugby fan with a penchant for good beer, the pursuit of beautiful women, and a zest for life that meant that was a total original and a very unforgettable man. He may have had his faults but what you saw was always what you got. He was genuine; a madcap for sure, unpredictable and self-centered but always true to who he was.

            She only had a chance to know him for a handful of years before he passed away. She was devastated. For the briefest of time she had walked side by side with her history, her family, and when it ended all too quickly she lost a cultural, emotional and historical linchpin. It was a heart rending loss. She hadn’t had time to really get to know him and hear his stories. She hadn’t had time to fully enrich her own history with his.

After the funeral we worked together to clean out his apartment. He’d kept every scrap of paper that held anything about his life and interests. The job was enormous and took us four days to sort through everything. I would walk by with another armload and watch her reading his papers. She spent a lot of time at that. There wasn’t anything in any of those boxes that wasn’t crucial, nothing that didn’t hold some vital connection to his story.

It’s funny how something like a postcard scribbled years ago can come to mean so much. Place and time and distance were implied, not really known, a connection you only feel as paper in the hands.

Their were postcards scribbled on the hull of a sailboat off Wanganui, letters to and from friends in Europe, notes and observations, song lyrics, a guestbook signed by everyone who had ever visited him and photographs of people she would never meet but who had been important to him at one time.. 

There was a lifetime in those boxes, in their faded inks and snapshots her father’s world filled itself in hint by hint, line by line, detail by detail. When she was finished, she had a keepsake, a shrine they so inelegantly call a “scrap” book – the only treasure she took away.

They are the sum of us, the things we keep and in the hands of loved ones once we’re gone, those paper trails of living retain their sense of self, sit squarely in the palms, crooning old jazz ballads, moaning a particular blues, singing their histories. People. Our greatest resource.

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About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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