Drowning Fantasies

I should also mention the thirty inch eave that jutted out between the first and second storey. This eave, like the one a storey above, was slightly inclined to shed water and protect the walls and windows from rainfall and melting snow. They were flat enough that they made an ideal ledge for a child to walk along. There was easy access, as Dad had made a staircase that led right up onto the roof, to a sort of deck he’d built along the north side of the house. Unfortunately, he made the incline on the deck a bit too steep to be entirely functional, and it was never used like a regular deck for gathering and watching the sunset. One of our dogs liked to sleep there outside Mom and Dad’s bedroom window and bark like a sentry at any vehicle that drove into the yard: thus visitors were met by the sight of a dog on the roof.

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It was a thrill teetering along the ledge. I enjoyed the challenge of walking the entire circumference of the house. It wasn’t allowed, of course. I once leapt from the ledge of the garage (a matching design, with flat roof and narrow ledge of eave) after I’d climbed up to fetch a ball I’d kicked up there. When I leapt, I landed on my wrist. The pain was considerable and I tried sneaking to my room to hide the shame of my deed. My mother spotted me slipping by as she was folding clothes. She later told me that my face was the same colour as my white shirt. She followed me into my bedroom at the southwest corner of the house and she asked what was wrong and I confessed that I’d hurt my wrist. She asked me to wiggle my fingers—my mother, like my grandmother, had practiced nursing—and I was alarmed to see that I couldn’t.

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It was the only bone I’ve ever broken. So far.

With the rounded kitchen looming like a prow, the house has the look of a ship: one of those Mississippi riverboats, or maybe Noah’s Ark. A neighbour told us that a pathologically lying visitor had tried to convince them that the fellow who built it had been a ship captain.

My sister Heather and I used to imagine our house was a ship and that our bicycles were lifeboats. Dad had poured a sidewalk from the front door on the east side of the house (a door never used) around the kitchen, past the main entrance on the south side, to the staircase on the west that led to the roof. This sidewalk, we imagined, was part of the ship. The major challenge of the game was to avoid touching the ground as we rode our bikes around the yard.

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If you put your foot to the ground to get your balance, you were considered drowned.

Thank You, Frank Lloyd Wright

The house’s most remarkable features are the flat roof and curved kitchen. My grandfather had nothing to do with either. In the late 50s Nelson Gowan bought a farm right smack on the American border and moved himself and my grandmother down there in the exact middle of nowhere, leaving the farm to his two boys and the house to his youngest and most recently married son, Joe, who immediately began planning major renovations.

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My grandfather’s design had a traditional peaked roof, but my father had seen photographs of the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright and was struck by the genius of Wright’s insight that a prairie home, given the lack of moisture in the Western climate and the wind that blew incessantly, sweeping any accumulation of snow away, had no need for a peaked roof. Those redundant peaks were nothing more than a waste of space and materials: an inheritance imported from the oppressively damp and moulding East. So Dad cut the peak right off the building and added a full second storey, making its lines horizontal like the surrounding prairie landscape.

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I’m not sure if he got the idea for the kitchen from Wright. It wasn’t really a characteristic of the prairie style home, but you can certainly find curves in Wright’s buildings: The Guggenheim, for example. Dad went with his family to the World’s Fair in New York City in 1940, but The Guggenheim wasn’t completed until 1959 so that wouldn’t explain his inspiration. On the other hand, 1959 was about the time Dad was building the kitchen, and perhaps he saw photos of The Guggenheim in a magazine. Maybe not. Maybe it would be a bit grandiose for me to claim the house was influenced by The Guggenheim.

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Still, it was an ambitious undertaking. Dad wanted the horizontal cedar siding to match the rest of the house, but in order to curve the siding around his turret of a kitchen he had to custom-make each piece like a smile that went flat when shaped to the curved surface. Stucco would have been much simpler, but Dad had a thing for cedar siding, either vertical or horizontal. He used it on all his buildings, including the wooden grain bins. Except the barn. And even the barn was painted to match the palette of the rest of the buildings on the farm: a strip of reddish brown about four feet, topped by a strip of white about four feet, the same pattern repeated on the second storey. The colours were chosen to match his herd of Hereford cattle.

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The Dining Room

My father may not have literally been born in this house, but he was a baby here, and grew up in these walls with his four siblings through the Dirty Thirties and World War II. Our dining room was also the dining room when he was a child. We did not eat in the dining room every day, but he must have eaten thousands and thousands of meals in that room, almost all of them cooked by his mother and then by my mother.

He never called any other place home.

He married my mother, Laureen Gowan, in 1957, renovated the house that his father had built, planted thousands of trees, raised cattle, grew grain, stuffed birds, restored gramophones. Impossible to summarize a life in a list.

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Dad died in the dining room, some of his gramophones around him. I can see the place where his bed was below the dining room window from my spot here at the kitchen table where I type these words. I was sitting here eating my supper when he died on Saturday evening, January 6th, 2007. My mother sat across the table from me. Neither of us had much to say. I got up after we’d finished and walked into the dining room to check on him, and he was gone, his glazed eyes open and his mouth frozen in a rigid contortion as if he were gasping for air.

I called my mother and she came in and we sat with him awhile, holding one another, quietly weeping, and then I called my brother Ray. Five minutes later he was there.

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This is my father’s house.

It’s impossible not to feel my father here at the same time as it’s impossible not to feel his absence here. Everything around me was planned and built by him.

I’m at the kitchen table, in the dead-end of the nook where I sat for most meals growing up. It’s breakfast time, but there’s no food in the fridge, none of my mother’s canning in the cupboards in the basement, no vegetables in the root cellar.

A thin layer of plaster dust partly covers the wood-grain Formica that covers the table. Someone, probably my brother Ray, started mudding a spot of water damage on the ceiling almost directly over my head; got so far as sanding, but it looks as though it needs more mud, or perhaps the water that damaged it in the first place is still getting in, and the job was abandoned until the roof is fixed.

I listen for my losses and my ears ring.