Not Exactly Ghosts

I wrote last time that I hoped the ghost of Emily Carr would visit me here in her studio. I’m sorry to report there has been no sign of her. Still, every day the place begins to mean a little more to me as I continue my research and write the first part of my play.

I touch door knobs she touched and slide my bare feet along the wood floor she walked, I stand at the big window that let in light for her painting and tell myself this is where she stood, although what she saw through it is different.

There’s a beautiful cedar that fills most of the view, and since she lived here a century ago now, I have no idea whether it was here in much smaller form, or has been planted since. The neighboring houses would not have been here either, as Emily’s lot was a carve-out from her family’s large property in James Bay. In fact, her conservative and very proper father exacted a promise from one purchaser that he would not build a tavern on any of the Carr’s land, which he promptly went and did anyway. It’s gone now and Christmas lights twinkle from the balconies of the condos that were built in its place.

Emily isn’t here, although perhaps it is she who is prompting many of the changes that have made my flat first draft richer and more satisfying in revision than I thought it would be at this point. With anything I write, my first draft is just to get it down, and it’s only at that point that I can start seeing the real potential in the story and the greater depth of the characters. Now it feels full and rounded, and respectful of what Emily was going through when, at 56, she was basically a charwoman in the boarding house she ran, trying to find time to paint at all, and still little known and underappreciated as an artist.

That was about to change, though, when she was invited to exhibit some paintings she had done of totems and Indian villages to represent the Canadian West in an all-Canada art exposition in Toronto. Her exposure there to the Group of Seven, and especially Lawren Harris, changed her vision, her approach to painting, and her life.

At that point, she began the decade that produced most of her major works, and what is blowing me away right now as I inhabit her studio, is that she painted them all right here. They would have been on her easel bathed by the light from the window I now look through. I stand on the spot where when she painted them. Dozens of painting that now hang in galleries would have been stacked against these walls. Paintings like this one

And this one

Here. Where’s I am right now. I am just in awe of that.

Emily hasn’t visited me, but other presences have. I’m not much for astrology or New Age ideas, but a friend who is big on these things told me that this is a time for one’s past to be coming up in unexpected ways, around issues that are unresolved. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like a ghost, but I have found myself suddenly ambushed by memories of those I have loved who are now gone. One such memory, something that happened over forty years ago and I haven’t thought of for years, is the last day of my father’s life. He was going into surgery to correct a problem causing congestive heart failure and we were told that he would either die on the table or recover and live with a healthy heart. His only other option was spending the rest of his life slowly dying in a hospital bed, and he chose to take the risk.

The surgery was early in the morning, and we got up before dawn to be there to talk to him before he went in. When we got there we were stunned to hear he had already gone into the operating room. No kisses on the cheek, no squeezes of the hand, no “I love you”s. No, they said, it wouldn’t be possible to go in and see him because he was in a sterile area.

Well, we all thought, we’ll do all that when he comes out. A few hours later the surgeon came out and said the repair had gone well but his heart was too weak and they could not get it started again. I remember asking if I could go in to sit with him, and the doctor said yes, but that it would require a lot of preparation. The rueful expression on his face made me understand that what he was saying is that it wasn’t a pretty sight. My father was unconscious and so deeply sedated there would be no way he would know. I decided not to, though my heart was breaking that I couldn’t hold his hand.

I think I know what happened that morning. My parents were both very gentle, very private people, not good with expressing emotions. I think he simply couldn’t handle seeing us. Or maybe he thought he was sparing us pain. I can see it either way. It must be one or both of those, because the staff knew we were on the way, and they would have waited if he wanted to.

I could go on about that day, about how some evangelical type came over to my mother, sister and I, while we were waiting for the doctor to come back and say it was over, asking if he could pray with us. I guess he meant well, but he could have seen we weren’t praying but were just crying quietly together. A complete stranger burst into that private moment wanting to turn our experience into something that comforted him. I could talk about how, at twenty weeks pregnant, I first felt my baby move within a few minutes of my father’s death. How I called my husband and told him if it was a boy he would have my father’s name, Ivan. How when we left the hospital my mother leaned against the car and said in disbelief, “I’m a widow.”

How a few weeks later I had a vivid dream in which my father came in my room and told me he was fine. How I woke up to both terrible disappointment but also elation that I had heard his voice again, seen how he walked and sat, smiled and laughed. Been with him one last time.

I could talk about honoring my son Adriano’s memory on his birthday two days ago, which was especially raw in this liminal place, between confinement and freedom, between the present and the past.

But the rest is too private, and requires more bravery than I have. So I will just say yes, the dead are here. Emily’s studio is haunted after all.