by David Helwig
The Other Notebook
You’ll notice if you see me on the street that I’m not as young as I once was. Birthdays resonate with a slightly dire significance, numbers dropping into place like the black ball in the wrong pocket. Anniversaries prompt me to look back through the years I’ve spent on PEI, looking to set it down in words, to understand.
It was April of 1996 when I arrived on the Island. I had travelled overnight by train from Montreal to Moncton. Judy picked me up at the station, and we drove to Eldon where we had bought a house. Weather cold, as it pretty much always is on the Island in the spring. Jim Halliday, who farmed a mile down Halliday’s Road, stopped by to say hello. The Coopers, in the store across the road, took note of me as a new neighbour.
I was a newcomer, an outsider. Those who were close to me had been left behind in Montreal or Kingston or Toronto. Cold winds penetrated the house, which we shared with mice and rats and at least one skunk. But as spring came on, I set myself to patching plaster, painting, digging a vegetable garden. We met neighbours and a few writers and artists. In the first few months, I did what a writer does to make sense of a new world, I wrote—poems, a short story called “Missing Notes” and a novella, Close to the Fire. You observe what is urgent, unaccountable, take hold, digest it, spin out the lines, transform it into setting and plot and character. The first pages had their roots in the cold and silent old house where I spent my days while Judy was teaching.
Gradually the empty map of the Island began to be filled with familiar names. Judy taught me geography. The key point, as she explained it, was that on the Island you could never get lost. Every road led to another road which would eventually lead you where you were going. Lead you home.
Was this home?
Helwig. That’s not an Island name.
It’s not just the old jokes that defined my separateness. Before moving to the house in Eldon I lived alone in Montreal, reading, working, the centre of my life a superb church choir. In the summers I passed my days in a haunted house in Eastern Ontario. Before that I had lived for many years in the city of Kingston, Ontario, raised children there.
In university I once spent the summer tutoring a difficult and damaged teenage boy. Established in a cabin on his family’s small island on a lake in eastern Ontario, I wrote a poem with the lines “There will be no home for my pilgrim bones/When I go down with the western moon.” Highly romantic stuff, but professionally, at least, I did keep moving on. Now I left my tracks on old Island roads.
“But that’s where your soul lives!” A friend said that a few years ago when I told her that we had sold the ancient, ghostly house on Wolfe Island at the eastern outlet of Lake Ontario. While she had never seen the house, she had drawn conclusions about its place in my life. I once wrote a column about how summers alone in that Wolfe Island house, renovating, accumulating odds and ends, wood, metal, stone, had been a means of rebuilding something. My soul, we say, having no other word for some complex wholeness of being that we can’t quite apprehend.
And now I was rebuilding once again in the old, cold house in the village of Eldon. I wrote about what we found in the neighbourhood—John Macpherson’s water-driven sawmill, the harness-racing track at Pinette. More than one poem was inspired by the long quiet beach we discovered just a few minutes away. We must have walked there on hundreds of summer days since.
As you stand facing the water, the red sand curves off to the right. Behind the beach grows marram grass and beyond the tall grass you see land-locked ponds. Like any northern landscape, especially any landscape on water, the beach has a wide range of moods. In an autumn storm the fierce wind sweeps over the water and the sand and walking even a few steps is a struggle. On rainy days water and sky are unrelieved grey, nothing visible over the strait but the line of horizon where sea meets sky, but on a spring morning, or a still summer evening, the range of tints and shades of water and sky is subtle and complex, washes of blue, grey, green, white, the blend intricate and intense.
As our house was renovated, eventually lifted and put on a concrete foundation, we hung its walls with more and more pictures, some with family connections, some by a variety of Island artists. Gradually more and more of the ground was dug up and planted with flowers. Once Judy retired from teaching, we both spent a lot of time planting and weeding and trimming. We shaped the yard to make it more fully our own.
I make no claim to be an Islander, but what I saw over the passing years, ploughed fields, woodlots, a stream in a valley, the red and white barns, the glitter of light on water, were seized by the imagination and became landmarks, signs. You become part of a place; it becomes part of you. Spring returns. I play golf on a course a few minutes away. The gardens make their demands. I find myself writing columns about politics and architecture and my own various moods.
You live in a place, and you own a corner of it. Saltsea is the only novel I’ve written that takes place on the Island and most of its characters are from away. I’m still an observer here, but what I’ve learned to love is reflected in memories, habits. So is this home? I suppose certain circumstances could lead me to move away, but it’s unlikely. My parents are gone; my children and grandchildren live in Ontario and Quebec. My friends are scattered across the country, the world. I can’t help but reflect that all our homes are short term rentals. I’m in no hurry to go down with the western moon, but chances are that someday I’ll end my life here, and maybe they’ll toss my ashes into the sea.
Dave Helwig is…
David Helwig was born in Toronto in 1938 and lived there for most of his first ten years, then moved with his parents to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario where his father ran a small business repairing and refinishing furniture and buying and selling antiques. He attended the University of Toronto and the University of Liverpool. He published his first stories, in Canadian Forum and The Montrealer, while still an undergraduate. His CV lists 44 published bookes up to 2012 —poetry, novels and novellas. He has also edited numerous editions of Best Canadian Stories. From 1976 to 1980, he taught part time at Queen's while doing a great deal of freelance work, and in 1980, he gave up teaching and became a full-time freelance writer. He has from the beginning written both fiction and poetry as well as a wide range of radio, televison and journalism. Vocal music was for many years his avocation. After abandoning this for some years, he returned to it in his forties and sang with a number of choirs in Kingston, Montreal and Charlottetown, as a bass soloist on occasion. He currently lives in an old house in the village of Eldon in Prince Edward Island. Helwig served as PEI’s Poet Laureate in 2008 and 2009.
For this anniversary issue of The Buzz, David Helwig wanted to pay tribute to the late Joseph Sherman. This piece was originally published in the Globe & Mail and then adapted for The Buzz as Joseph Sherman: A Cultural Life.