Heather Simeney MacLeod
"To Discover the Various Uses of Things"

Memory: Fragment

Not the day of his death, but somewhere thereabouts, I drove around the city. Drove out to the airport as if I might leave the Volvo parked illegally in a loading zone, and I imagined the driver’s door left ajar, the music still playing, and my hands and face pressed against the small window as I watched my life disappear beneath me.
After he died, I cut off all my hair. I moved to Scotland. I tried to make sense of things.

Inquiry: Critical

“What is this?” It’s early morning and we’re in the shower. He places my hand on the inside of his upper thigh. But this memory is collected in third-person. I remember it happening, and I know it happened to me, between us, but the shampoo runs into her eyes. She blinks. She reaches out towards the wall for something to hang onto. He doesn’t offer her his hand. She reaches out towards the wall, but it’s me that finds the tile. It’s smooth and damp. She finds a cloth, wipes the soap away from my eyes.
Collecting memories is to collect something tangible like comics, stamps, Barbie dolls, but I don’t collect these sorts of items. I recollect. It’s diaphanous. It’s built from snippets of songs, weather, odd details like a glass filled with marbles and water sitting at a window ledge in a wee cottage by the Juan de Fuca Strait. It’s sewn, knitted, woven together: the sound of water running; ceramic tile against my finger tips in squares of 4¼” x 4¼” in Bright French Roast and Matte Glacier; shampoo, Alterna White Truffle, stinging my eyes; the feel of the teak bath mat against the soles of my feet. What is this?

Objects: Material Culture

A cup of butter, a heaping cup of brown sugar, two eggs, a cup and a half of oatmeal, and then add the secret ingredient —my grandma told me about the secret ingredient in the oatmeal cookies, and I harbour it like a memory —a teaspoon of vanilla, a quarter of a teaspoon of soda and another of baking powder, a cup and a half of flour (Rogers, unbleached and without preservatives). Bake at 350 degrees for ten minutes. My grandmother’s recipe (in its complete form) is available in a cookbook she and other female members of her community in rural Saskatchewan put together. Of course, it’s out of print. But her recipe was collected. She has a copy of the cookbook. The women wrote out the recipes. Their handwriting is for the most part clear. Some of the women also decorated their collected, combined, and published recipes with drawings and personal notes. The book was sold at the corner store and at the Bingo hall.

Yesterday, five years now after his death, in my grandma’s cookbook—coming from Saskatchewan, printed and published in 1935—my gram has written in her cursive script moving always to the right: Richard dead 24 October 2004. And I made two dozen cookies for my Cousin Tim’s wedding weekend. And later my gram and I made 179 pyrogies. My family is big and I feel small in all my single-ness.

Theory: Things

A thing leaves its object-ness behind when it’s isolated, when it leaves the backdrop of the world to announce its single–ness. There was this man, a German philosopher, who thought about the distinction between objects and things. The cookbooks from Saskatchewan compiled and collected by my grandma and the other women in her community are objects. My grandmother’s cookbook is a thing. It stands out against the backdrop; it announces its singularity, its individuality; it announces Richard’s death almost six years ago (and counting).

In the closet in a bedroom that once was mine in my mother’s house is a small gold-coloured box wrapped up with a gold-coloured slip of ribbon. Inside of the box is a lock of Richard’s hair. The lock of his hair recalls fragments of memory, but it, the lock of hair, isn’t memory. Is the lock of his hair an object or a thing? I want the lock of his hair to be an object. I want his lock of hair to somehow slip alongside all the other locks of hair that have been collected by the living of the dead. Richard’s mother gave me a mourning locket, the only gift she ever gave me that I liked, but I never wore it. It’s empty. Unfortunately, a lock of hair is a thing and not an object.
An object won’t keep you up at night. An object doesn’t follow you down flagstone streets in Scotland; an object doesn’t confront you in the early hours of the morning making your heart beat like a hammer striking nails through green wood. Because an object lacks single-ness. But a thing, a lock of hair for instance, is a relic of the dead. It’s a mallet moving through my days, and it wakes me at night like a sledgehammer pulsating through my veins. It vibrates through my recollections, and this morning I took it from its gold-coloured box, and I held it in my hand. I whispered to the fragment of Richard; to the relic of Richard, to the thing, to the whatness of what Richard was, I whispered; to the remains of Richard, I breathed across the length between what was living and, now, what is dead, I recollect.

Thing: Relic

A long time ago a monk had a dream in a city that used to be called Constantinople. In his dreaming, an angel came to him. She told him to take the relics of St. Andrew to the ends of the earth. The monk took the bones of St. Andrew’s hands to Scotland. When you have lost everything, when you have cut your hair to the quick, when you want to travel to the ends of the earth you go to Scotland.

Memory: Trace

There is evidence in my collection of memories that my concern, for him, rippled past apprehension into a panic so extreme it came to resemble stillness. My imagination could not trace his absence.

In the days of his dying, I remember, I was forgetful. And in the days after his death, I was absent. I moved through his dying and his death like a dream. And I dreamed him remade, whole, and living. And I dreamed him always just beyond reach. In my dreaming he rowed a boat so close to me that my fingers felt the grain of the wood, but he never heard me call, and he didn’t stop to lift me from the water. In my dreaming he ate his fill at an overcrowded celebration. The crowd so thick I couldn’t reach him, but I woke still feeling the tingle in my fingertips from the brush of silk and cashmere, feeling the glint of sheer nail polish with platinum dust, seeing a bottle of Monkey Shoulder whiskey sitting on a Rococo table with a small hand-carved Black Pearl Soapstone rhinoceros. Its eyes bright and blood red. I tried to make sense of things.

Trace: Memory

I make lists of all I recollect. His favourite city, his favourite meal, his first girlfriend, his first kiss, but these things are mementos that don’t belong to me. A, by far, thicker list contains what I’ve misplaced in my collection: the sound of Richard’s voice, the sound of his laughter, his favourite colour. It’s written down somewhere. In some old moleskin journal I have documented objects and things. And these, too, these misplaced and forgotten remembrances must be someone else’s souvenirs. What belongs to me? The moment of his dying: the water coating my fingers as I reached out with my hands towards the squares of 4¼” x 4¼” tiles in Bright French Roast and Matte Glacier. That space, so small it moved faster than the sting of shampoo in my eyes. That blink, that sudden, sharp knowing: cancer sleeps. And then it wakes up. What belongs to me? I use objects. I use things to try to organize my anxiety and my affections. To make meaning of my fears and my fantasies, I use things. I use objects.

Relic: Thing

I long to keep company with heroes, and sometimes I tell myself I’m this way because of the Catholic school system. The direct cause from an intense introduction to characters who ran headlong into disaster; gods dressed up as men and women killing dragons. The petition to God for a sacrificial death: herded into coliseums and thrown in with lions delighting spectators who lounged about drinking honeyed wine and eating boiled eggs in pine nut sauce. Iron maidens, cracked spines, Catherine wheels, dislocated bones, torn flesh, fire, but no one ever recanted. I wanted to grow up looking for treasure, hunting for relics, searching out objects and things; I wanted to grow up living one adventure followed directly with another. I wanted to keep company with heroes because of Indiana Jones. I didn’t want to be Saint Margaret slaying a dragon; I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I still do.

I want to hunt for the misplaced, the lost, the forgotten, and the hidden. There’s treasure underneath the water, buried in the deep, every cave hides chests of colonial gold made in Lima. I want to rent a boat and dive into the waters off the coast of Florida. I want to find chests overflowing with Mexican Cob Coins, Atocha emeralds, and Tumbaga silver bars. I want to stroll through the Judean desert to the Dead Sea. I’ll dig my way through the layers of ash and refuse and find clay vessels decorated with red paint; necklaces of shell, bone, and semi-precious stones; spindle whorls; pieces of woven linen; baskets, the sole of a sandal; and engraved copper dishes. I want to find the unexpected. None of this belongs to anyone, does it? Souvenirs are waiting to be discovered, and waiting for someone to claim them, and to say: this belongs to me.

If you go to the ends of the earth you’ll find the bones of Saint Andrew’s hands, and you’ll find buried underneath the rolling green hills outside of Stirling four neckbands made from twisted gold, Anglo-Saxon coins, and belt buckles. And there’s treasure in the stratum of vegetation and silt. The relic of what we once were buried in the peat waiting for the clumsy slice, the accidental flick of the shovel, the desecration of the thoughtless. The peat moss shape of affection, but I want an artifact that doesn’t speak to me. I want a relic that doesn’t wake me in the night. I want something unique, but numbered among the many. I want to make sense of things.

Things: Theory

The single-ness of remembrance is as tangible as Cob Coins, spindle whorls, gold neckbands, the gruel undigested in the belly of the peat bog bodies, and the bones of a saint’s hands.

There was a man, and the memory of his dying is an isolated thing. It stands alone in all its single-ness. It is a cell dividing. It is uncontrolled cellular growth.

Material Culture: Objects

My grandma is 91, and yesterday as we made pyrogies for Tim’s wedding weekend she said, “I’m giving this cookbook to your mom when I’m gone.” The cookbook with the cursive scripts of her neighbours and her friends, the cookbook with lists of deaths and births on the back page, the cookbook with the secret ingredient to the oatmeal cookies will be my mom’s when my grandma’s gone. And I imagine my grandma not dead, but gone. Gone to Saskatchewan and standing in fields of wheat with my grandpa, and I imagine her in the rolling hills outside of Big River. I imagine her on the train to Saskatoon, and I imagine her horseback riding on the outskirts of Egg Lake. I imagine the bones of her dark hands. I imagine her wedding ring glowing copper in the sunlight while she rolls out dough for pyrogies, and I imagine her pointing to the secret ingredient for the oatmeal cookies. She lowered her voice, even though there wasn’t anyone else in her kitchen, when she said, “A cup and a half of that.”

I collect the small, intricate moments I spend with my grandmother. They’re semi-precious stones I place in twisted gold necklaces of recollection. Souvenirs which I try to claim as my own and mementoes I want to say belong to me, but memory is metastatic. It moves, and it won’t be contained. It is a cell dividing thought.

Critical: Inquiry

What is this? A cell is an object. There are too many to count. A tumour though, now, that’s a thing. What is this? A tumour is a collection of abnormal cells. Abnormal because the cells refuse to stop, and they continue to divide. They multiply.

“What is this?” he asks while we’re in the shower. Am I on my way to work that day? The lump is uneven. Is my hair long or had I already cut it just above my shoulders? We’d redone the bathroom. He’d picked out the tiles ―a muted brown like crushed espresso beans and cold lake water like a puddle barely melting in a field of ice.

“I didn’t think it would come back,” are we out of the shower when he says this? Did he say this, or do I just think he said this? Did I think this? What was I thinking? He was afraid. I said, “It isn’t cancer.” Did he flinch at the word, at the sound, at the shape: cancer? Was I impatient? I usually am, am I? I think so. “What else is it?” Was I running the towel over my hair? Did I ignore the question that I, now, only think he might have asked? I know I said, “I’ll make you an appointment with your doctor,” but was I gentle when I said it? I don’t think so.

I collect fragments and sometimes misremember those. I can’t forgive him and have stopped the bother of trying. I remember his death was unexpected. I was surprised despite the collection of malignant tumours, despite the collection of cancerous cells, despite the prognosis, despite radiation and chemotherapy; I was surprised.

Fragment: Memory

To discover the various uses of things is the work of history.
—Karl Marx

I have an empty piece of mourning jewelry. I have a lock of Richard’s hair that I wish was merely an object, but the lock of his hair is a remembrance. It remains. How do I make meaning from the lock of his hair? His death remade me, and I became another person in my single-ness. I traveled to the ends of the earth. Am I mourning the man or merely the remembrance? And so,

I try to make sense of things.