I have two photographs to show you. The first one is of 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, British Columbia.
The second is also of 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, British Columbia but this house no longer exists. It stood on exactly the piece of ground now occupied by the duplex in picture 1. It was my family home.
Just so you know, the first image I downloaded from Google Earth street view. The second one I got from one of my sisters. I don’t want to relive my family’s life in the home depicted in the second photograph, the one I would call my family home but it would be an interesting journalistic exercise. After all, it was a very important place in my life for years. No, what I want to do is dwell upon another reality. But first a little background.
Look at photograph 1 and you see a relatively new duplex between a home on the right and a fourplex on the left. The fourplex has been there some time and existed when the house in photograph 2 was there. It was built after a very dilapidated home was torn down sometime in the sixties if memory serves me right. The house on the right stands on a lot my family sold after our property was subdivided into a number of parcels. It was built sometime in the sixties too. The photo is unexceptional in just about every way. The unit on the left of the duplex is 636 Alderson Avenue and the unit on the right is 634.
That (634) was the address of my family home for a long time. I’m not sure exactly for how long because I don’t really know when my father and his first wife moved into it. I think it was sometime in 1937. When my parents moved out of the house you see in picture 2 one of my sisters bought it from them, sometime in the 1980s, the house was still in the family for a period of time. Later, after my sister sold the house it was eventually demolished and the duplex in picture 1 was built to replace it. By the time it was demolished, the house in picture 2 had undergone extensive renovations. Although the house was ‘serviceable’ that mattered not, it was demolished. That’s just the way it is. I lived there for 12 years with my many siblings starting in 1947 before I went off to boarding school in Edmonton in 1959, then on and off for a few more years. Actually the details aren’t important except as background information.
What I want to focus on here is something that has been a preoccupation of mine throughout my academic career and even earlier, I’m thinking, and that’s the fleeting aspect of our lives, their finiteness within a field of infiniteness. It’s a cliché to say that the generations come and go, that each of us is born and dies. That’s certainly true, but what interests me here is the substance underlying the cliché, how we think about these things, explain them to ourselves, reconcile them with the natural cycles of matter and energy and attempt to derive some kind of meaning for our existence.
The house I lived in, the house my family occupied for decades is gone. All the activity, all the sorrow, the happiness, the sadness, the love that permeated that place are gone. All gone. Yes, my sisters and brothers have many memories of life there. Stories abound. Yet the house is gone, forever. Poof! In a flash of time.
I’m thinking that the people who currently live at 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, BC, have no sense at all of what may have stood on the very spot they now occupy. To them, the property is what it is. Their lives are ongoing. They move easily from room to room. They have things to do, people to see, work to go to. They eat and sleep without ever thinking about the people who lived there previously. They may not even know that people lived there previously.
Yet, people did. I did. My brothers and sisters did. My parents did. There was life there, there was drama. There was tedium. The current residents don’t know that my father had the front yard paved over. I know that he did, but I’m not sure exactly why except to get rid of the patchy lawn that was there before and to increase parking spaces. They have no idea of the tons of laundry my mother did every week, of the piles of soiled diapers that she cleaned, the Sunday pork and beef roasts my father used to put on the stove in the morning and the many loaves of bread my mother baked every three or four days. They don’t know about the laughter, the tears, the pain and the joy that characterized that home. They have no sense of anything that was there before them. Fair enough of course. I wouldn’t expect them to.
What is interesting, I think, is that the same kind of experience of things exists in cities, towns and villages everywhere. The current Rome is built on several past Romes that keep turning up in archeological digs. The same thing goes for Paris, Beirut and London and every other human occupied place on earth. I’m quite sure that the house I lived in at 634 Alderson Avenue was the first one built on that piece of property. I’m guessing trees, brambles and bushes stood on the homesite before the house was built. In Rome there are buildings raised on the debris and remains of several other generations of houses and homes previously erected there. Of course, at one time there were no man-made structures on the planet at all. Then, as a species, we moved like a fungus across the planet and occupied large tracts of land, building structures on them, some with a degree of longevity, some with none. It seems solid. It all seems so real, yet it’s all fleeting. Nothing is forever, not 634 Alderson Avenue, not Rome. We move silently through time glancing backward now and then but catching only glimpses of what went before.
We, as a species, will evolve right out of existence. No doubt at all about that. But that’s nothing to be sad about, nothing to fear. That’s just the way it is. Fighting it has gotten us nothing but pain and grief.
We try to hang on to the past in many ways. We write history. We practice archaeology and anthropology. We study how biological forms change and evolve. We measure tectonic action and we track the movements of stars and the galaxies.
We try to hang on to some sense of what we were. We take photographs. We write diaries in the hope of remembering something from the past. I have some journal writing from the 80s and 90s and when I look at them and read about what I was doing on a specific day in February, 1989, I’m not actually remembering those experiences. I’m not reliving them. I have an idea of what I was doing, getting a coffee, for example, but I’m not reliving that moment.
We record action, events, scenes of all kinds. We record human conversations and whale vocalizations. We film political speeches and we have buildings full of archives, artifacts, petrified bones and old art works. We try to hang on to the past. But all of it is fleeting.
As I approach my 70th birthday in January, 2017, I guess my death is more of a reality to me than it’s ever been. I’m not sad about that. I’m not depressed about that. My death will happen momentarily because life passes by that quickly, but that’s fine. Some of you will mourn my passing but don’t spend too long grieving. As I watched my father-in-law dying in a hospital bed in Burnaby General Hospital in 1989, the traffic outside just passed on by. Not many people took notice of his death. We did, of course, and we were sad. Same for when my father died in 2007. He as 94 years old and ready to go. His body was determined to go back into the pot of organic matter that makes our world go around. One day he was there, kissing babies, working his ass off trying to feed his many children, and the next moment he was gone. That’s our truth.
That’s our lives. I often think about my father these days. He was a man of tradition but he was also an excellent craftsman and inventor. After I got to be 14 years old or so we often worked together. He was my boss on many occasions, and he was a good one too. I don’t know why this is still with me, but I vividly remember the first time I heard him say ‘fuck’. My, I was shocked but impressed. I was 9 years old and with him on a Saturday visit to the sawmill he worked at on Lulu Island. As we left the plant in late afternoon he talked briefly to the watchman and that’s when he uttered the infamous word. Shocking and revealing. My father was human! I remember when he and I flew to Winnipeg to pick up my Austin Healy Sprite, a car I left there after a youthful infatuation with a young woman in St-Norbert, who at that time I would say was way above my station in life. He was great. He put up with my whining and snivelling. He was so forgiving and caring. I must say that I could be a jerk as a kid. But I wasn’t a complete waste of skin. We had some wonderful times as kids building forts, digging tunnels and just farting around. I was mouthy and bratty and that got me into trouble on occasion. As a teen, I was often sullen, thoughtless and miserable. Par for the course. I smashed up the Volkwagen van parked in front of the house in picture 2. Damn near killed myself along with a friend of mine. I was careless. I was irresponsible, and after that crash, I was brain-damaged for years, something that didn’t improve my outlook on life. Eventually, I grew out of it and up, went back to school and the rest is history. The people who now live at 634 Alderson Avenue know nothing of this and I’m sure they wouldn’t care if they did. That’s the way it is.
We look for continuity in our lives, we look for meaning. We even crave immortality and have created countless ways of convincing ourselves that our bodily deaths aren’t real and that our ‘souls’ will live on. I know people, irreligious people even, who at celebrations of life, still insist that the deceased loved one is somewhere up there, looking down and waiting for us to follow. It’s so hard to find any meaning in the minutia of life, in the fleeting memories and impressions we have of past events. So we look elsewhere and we create elaborate cultural schemes to convince ourselves that our lives have ultimate meaning and that there is life after death. It’s kind of a natural reaction, I’m thinking, that our big brains have devised to deal with death, the ultimate evil. Of course it depends on what we think life is and what death is.
Enough for now.