Fossils

I’ve been staring at my wedding photo.

What is shown:  We are standing in our finery on the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, turned sideways to the Bay of Fundy. It’s a cloudy day. The wind is blowing hard, as it always does there. (This was the first photo taken, and my hair was a mess for the rest of the day. I really did not think that through).

What is not shown: Under my feet are millions of years of plants and creatures, now extinct to this earth, trapped and fossilized in layer upon layer of stone. Stretching out behind us, hidden by the waves, are tunnels under the Bay where men like my grandfather worked in the dark and damp, chipping coal from the walls and sharing their lunches with rats.

All of that is hidden, though. An image rarely tells you what really is buried within.

Seventeen years ago, I got married just up the road from those cliffs, in the same church where generations of my ancestors were baptized, married, and eulogized. It’s in a small town — a village, really. No, not even a village anymore. It’s just a collection of houses:  some tidy, some abandoned, some falling down. When my mother and father grew up and there, it was a big town. There were many streets, a movie theatre, and shops. There were busy coal mines, and a thriving port. The train came there twice a day.

But now, many of the roads have been reclaimed into woods or fields. The train has been gone for decades, and the ships for over half a century. When the mines closed, much of the town closed with it. What is left only hints at what once was. Like one of the roses I plucked from my bridal bouquet and pressed in a book, it is dried up and sepia toned. It’s impossible to tell what colour it originally was, but a faint scent lingers. Still a flower, but no longer a flower.

We visit those cliffs, and that village, almost every time I visit my parents. Daisy and Puck like to walk along the rocky beach and search for fossils. Our dog, Pippa, likes to run in and out of the waves. We time our visits so that the tide — among the highest in the world — is out, and we can walk for hours on the flats where the Bay has pulled back its water to reveal its muddy underthings.

My parents bring a picnic, and find a piece of driftwood to sit on. They used to like to walk along the beach and look for fossils and beach glass with us. Lately, though, they are content to sit near the shore and watch us walk farther and farther out. My father takes photos of us — closer, at first, and then becomingly steadily smaller specks on the horizon where sea meets mud flat. My mother frets that we’ll be caught when the tide turns. She was always the worrier.

I stand far out on the mud flats and squint back at my parents. Even from this distance, my mother’s bright red hair stands out. At 80, it is only slightly faded. Her red hair is the one constant of her physical being, the touchstone that reassures me it’s her, no matter how else her physical self changes.

My mother is becoming frail.

She was a tall, slender woman. At 5’7, she towered over her much shorter daughters (I got her Irish colouring but my father’s French stockiness, alas). Now, she is shrinking into herself, and is not much taller than me. She is slighter than ever. My father says she forgets to eat if he doesn’t eat with her, and even then, she often claims to have no appetite. Each time I see her, she is less ‘her’ than she was before. Still my mother, but flaking away, layer by layer, under the pressure of the waves of dementia.

I walk back to where they perch, holding hands on their driftwood, and sit next to my mother so that my father can go play with the dog and the kids. My mother tells me a story she’s already told me twice today, about a neighbour I don’t know. Then she tells me a story I’ve never heard, from the time when she and my dad were dating. She is back in the 1950s, reliving another picnic on this beach. Her details are rich and her words spill out easily; it’s clear she sees in her mind’s eye what it was all like. She feels the scratch of her wool dirndl skirt, and the garters digging into her thigh. She smells the sea, both now and 60 years ago.

We drive home, muddy and windblown, our pockets bulging with sea glass and fragments of fossils we found on the beach. My mother points out where things once were, in this little town that is no longer a town. I never saw the town in its heyday. She sees ghosts of things invisible to me. To her, they are as clear and real as today.

She laments that things have changed, over decades. I lament that she is changing, so rapidly. I lament that the dementia is encasing her  memories in a cliff, and that soon she’ll be invisible to all of us. I believe, though — I have to believe — that the ‘ghost of the thing’ remains. The tracks of an old road are still there, buried under a hayfield, if you look hard enough. The rotting piers still mark where the tall ships used to set sail for the West Indies. The creatures that lived millions of years ago are liberated from their cliff-tomb by the pounding waves, to tumble onto a modern beach. My mother’s red hair is still visible from across the mudflats.

Still a flower, but no longer a flower.

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