We drive over a short one-lane bridge, up a slight hill and come to a one-block shopping street. The sidewalks are festooned with hanging baskets, dripping petunias, overflowing geraniums, their tropical colours shouting in the bright northern sun. Freshly painted benches, set out at intervals in front of the tidy façades, are the town's welcome mat.
My mother, Pat Turner, has her nose pressed to the window. "I think that's where I used to get my meat," she says. We're in Alness, on the east coast of Scotland. I was born here, though I have no memory save what my mother has told me: She boiled my nappies and cooked over the fire in the fireplace; Mrs. McLeod watched over my pram while I took air in the yard; I screamed when the bagpipes started playing in the field out back.
Otherwise, Alness is merely a name I trot out for official forms, a dot on the map north of Edinburgh, past Inverness on the elongated bight that forms the Cromarty Firth. I've been to Asia, the Antipodes, South America, Europe and England many times, but never north of the border. This trip is my mother's idea, and timely. My appointment with my birthplace is long overdue and she, a widow now, is losing the threads of memory.
We pull over and go into the shop. The butcher counter looks recently renovated, nothing like what she remembers. We buy juice and drink it on an ornamental bench outside before we get serious about searching out Finiss Cottage, the house where she and my father rented lodgings during the last years of the Second World War. She doesn't remember the address, but she'll know it when she sees it, she says. I don't doubt it. The town is no more than a hamlet.
Ambling back downhill, we take a short side street to a Royal Air Force commemorative site. The war had brought my dyed-in-the-wool English father here, and it was for him that my mother had packed up her trunk in Moose Jaw. Like hundreds of Canadian "girls" wooed and won by British servicemen posted to training bases in Canada, she had suddenly found herself alone when her husband was recalled to England. While thousands were clamouring at the door of Canada House in London to escape Europe, she and many other starry-eyed newlyweds set out in the opposite direction, across the sub-infested Atlantic, to reunite with their men.
Almost 60 years later, back on the main street of Alness, my mother takes halting steps and, leaning on me, recalls pushing my buggy uphill to line up for the extra ration of milk allotted to babies. Now I'm more anxious than she is to see the house, as if it might revive some early memory that would give shape to my life.
"It could be one of those," she says, pointing to a row of two-storey cottages, each fronted by a gated fence and a well-tended garden.
"Do you remember the address?" I ask, in the faint hope the Scottish soil underfoot might jog some rusty gear of memory. She furrows her brow, groping in vain for the number.
The buildings are remarkably similar, all much like the photo my mother treasures. I notice the names - above a door, on a door, on a wall. None is Finiss Cottage. This can't be the place. She must be confused.
A woman, not young, is deadheading roses a couple of houses further on. We may as well ask. We've come all this way.
We exchange pleasantries, compliment her garden, then my mother says, "I used to live here in the war, in Mrs. McLeod's house. I imagine she's passed on, but maybe you knew her. My daughter was born here." She beams at me with pride.
"McLeod." The woman shakes her head. "I'm afraid not, but we've only been here about 20 years."
"I'm sure it was along here somewhere - Finiss Cottage it was called. Do you have any idea where it might be?"
The woman brightens, steps toward us. "This is it, dearie, this is it. It used to be called Finiss, but we changed it to Kirkness. My husband's from Kirk, you see, and Ness is our name."
They chat some more, my mother regaling the woman with details of her life and the time she spent in Scotland. Feeling we've overstayed our welcome, I'm about to push on when Mrs. Ness says, "Would you like to have a peek inside?"
We admire her new kitchen and deck, and my mother remarks on another change - an indoor bathroom. Then my mother takes the lead upstairs to the room my parents had shared. She occupies the space as if she'd never left it, checking the fireplace for coal, laying a hand on the small wooden table, peering out the window where she might have seen my father bicycling home from the air force base, stepping toward the corner where she would have tucked me down for my morning nap.
Outside again we hug farewell and make our way back to the street. My mother is aglow with reawakened memories, and I have the mixed blessing of holding them in trust for the time when they will be irretrievably lost to her.
I have something for myself, too, a visceral impression of the place where my infant body took its first breath, cried its first sorrow. Now, when the bagpipes start practising in the park across the street from my house, their wailing stirs a deep gratuitous sense of attachment.
Joyce Statton lives in Vancouver.
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