Out of Time

by Janice Williamson

August 18, 2019

Imagine you sit on a chair, in a car, or you stand leaning against the table. You have been there for an hour, a few days, or you have just arrived. You are home. You are not home.

You would like to heal the drift. To this end, you say something stupid. Like: a modernist writer might think of this as the continuous present. What Gertrude calls one thing following any other. Your Zen Buddhist monk might think of this as attending. In 1974 this was Allen Watts “being here now.”

She looks straight ahead and says: “No, it is a wounding.”

(You take her to buy a new bra and she likes none of them. The woman who attends us is patient and kind. Earlier you didn’t understand the sizes. G or F or DD. Until you remember your alphabet.)

Your daughter reads in her room. Or she walks through the fields or along the country road. She visits you and your mother in the bedroom from time to time. And she cooks a delicate frittata. When she leaves the farm to fly to the coast, she weeps with abandon, held close in her grandmother’s arms.

You spend the day cleaning your mother’s closet, colour coordinating the blouses. So many black and white. So many stripes. So many white blouses. She says she is ashamed she has so many. You fill bags with giveaways. A damaged yellow purse, a red purse, a multi-coloured purse, a pair of sling-back low-heeled pumps – 10 and a half 5A.

You work without stopping. No breakfast or lunch. If you clean this closet, this world will be orchestrated in a way that makes sense.

When you finish, your back aches, your hands. Your head.

But you are happy. Satisfied. Ready for any challenge.

When you pull the chain dangling from the ceiling, the small perfect room lights up. The blouses move in a thoughtful line from black on black to black and white stripes to black and white dots to black and white squiggles to black and brown and white mottled fields to blue and white stripes to blue oxford cloth to peach stripe to yellow stripe with dots to patterns of colours including purple and black and pink to white white white white white, one with triangular black and white bone buttons, to navy blue. Then come the long housecoats. Some multi coloured. Some beaded.

You find one on the floor.

At night you have dinner together. Your daughter creates a warm salad of green and yellow beans from the garden, toasted almonds and other delights. You sauté fish the way your friend Doreen taught you. Originally from East Germany, she calls herself the Communist chef. She says, “You can’t have too much butter.” The trout skin tightens to a crisp crunch. Your mother lets you eat half of her tender fishy pink flesh. She apologizes about her appetite.

Afterwards, you bring out the photographs you found cleaning out a drawer. The grandchildren cavort – tiny perfect figures in a landscape green with summer.

Or the time your daughter took a cello lesson in Victoria’s basement and fell off the chair. You cried and kept her awake for fear of a concussion. She had a black eye when the two of you visited your mother’s farm at Christmas.

In the photograph, the two girl cousins sit in fluffy housecoats in front of the brightly lit tree. On a patterned rug, your daughter looks pensive.

Today your daughter explains the photograph’s invisible tale – Santa brought her a potty that she sits on centre stage. Her younger cousin, jealous of the gift, sits next to her on a cake pan, an improvised substitute from grandma. Your daughter fills us in on what is happening and not. Stories are like this. The clue was the cake pan none of us noticed at first. Then came the laughter.

Thank you. You are welcome.


In another image, your daughter toddles up the back lane with a knapsack on her back. Or she laughs in delight silenced by time. Her first birthday with you on the prairies is her second on this planet. Your neighbours visit.

You are 48 when you travel to China. Your mother accompanies you on what is the most important journey of your life. What we learned travelling together with my young daughter gives her us a special memory and grand motherly rapport.

On your daughter’s second birthday a few months after her arrival in Canada, you are 49 and sport a wide thrilled grin. The visual image of your mother – then 71 in our garden celebration – shocks me today. Who is that young woman?


Kodachrome erases time. Hormones too. My mother tells me she was a test subject for high doses of estrogen in the 1960s when pharmaceutical companies refined birth control pills. She has the skin of a baby’s bum, my mother jokes.

Tonight at 90, twenty years later, her face looks young enough. But her eyes give away the controlled panic of a world twisted by the hands of a fast-forward clock. Spun out of time, her psyche drifts. A wobbling top. She is at sea, mid-Atlantic. Any horizon looks like any other.

Like the last view of her great great grandfather Alexander McTavish who in 1832 died of cholera en route from the Highlands of Perthshire to North Easthope, Ontario. His widower Janet Stewart McTavish would land in Halifax and travel with her four children John, Peter, Margaret and Duncan to Perth County. They would later call home Shakespeare, Ontario.

To map a new land requires a sadistic dementia. Lost are many names and generations of Anishnabek, and Haudenosaunee or Iroquois, and Ojibway, the Chippewa.

Spun out of time by the puny hands of history’s clock, settlers dare not forget the promise of a wampum belt.


My mother says, “I’m scared.”

I hold tight to her hand, “What can I do to help?”

“Shut up. I can’t stand platitudes.”

“Do you want to hold my hand?”

“Is it a magic hand? Not unless it is a magic hand.”

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