As a young child growing up in New Zealand, I remember dreaming about autumn in Canada. Fall leaves, like the ones I imagined while listening to Joni Mitchell records, lined country roads with reds and oranges and yellows and every other colour that fills a heart with warmth. In my imaginings, Canada was always in the time of autumn, always moving toward the smell of fireplaces, always the trail of smoke from chimneys beckoning us home to woolly socks and hot cocoa – a reminder of the ‘going inward’ part of life.
My parents met in the early ‘70s in my mother’s hometown of Vancouver when my father was travelling abroad. Once married, they moved to start their new life together in Aotearoa – Land of the Long White Cloud. Soon after returning to New Zealand, Dad entered University and before long, Mum’s belly began to grow. My older sisters arrived in ‘75 and ‘76 and I came along in ‘78, third of the eventual six. And when I was six, I danced James Taylor’s greatest hits on Dad’s feet. We danced about the living room; father, daughter, little hands and feet on big hands and feet in a moment that I wasn’t number three, a moment I was no number at all.
I was dancing and free and loved unconditionally.
But there is a busyness to families of that size.
I have handfuls upon handfuls of joyous memories from childhood. I didn’t just dance with my father. I danced with my mother to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. To this day we do the very same moves upon hearing our song. My siblings and I formed a dance group prior to our youngest sister being born. We called ourselves ‘The Gilchrist Five’ and we performed at old folks homes, hospitals and schools. I loved to run cross country, I loved the final haul up the school hill where I often took the lead. I recall freedom and adventure, bare feet and sand, rain and mud, birds and fish, swimming and running and collapsing on the grass in laughter, my chest rising and falling, rising and falling, slowed only by the breathtaking vision of clouds above.
And yet, here I am, all these years later, crying. Feeling a hollowness in my stomach, missing my own childhood, the heartache of the past. Feeling like while it was happening, I missed it.
I sucked my thumb and twirled my hair as a kid. I twirled my hair in a circular repetitive motion, hoping to calm the increasing feelings of invisibility, one lost in six, the feeling that I myself was an autumn leaf. A leaf so dried out that only the slightest remnants remained; the veins, the very life of that leaf, traced on an existence of disappearing lines, thin lines, invisible lines, no lines at all, nothing.
And then I learned to handwrite.
I started writing letters to my Grandmother in Vancouver. She wrote back and we talked about interesting things and shared stories about our lives on opposite sides of the earth and I told her how I loved Canada. I told her how I loved Canada and we began the conversation about how one day I would visit her there. I loved her handwriting. It was whimsical and magical. I loved the way her stationery paper smelled like her, even after its long journey to my hands. I loved the way her E curled and danced into the m…i…l…y of both our names, Grandma’s name was Milly, short for Mildred. I loved the way she wrote the ‘y’ at the end of my name. It was my ‘y,’ it was her ‘y,’ it was our special sameness.
And then my dreams of visiting Canada came true. But I was not going for a visit. My family was moving to Canada permanently. Like a record halted by a scratch, suddenly the entire song of my life in New Zealand was coming to an end. My childhood done, just like that. My twelve years of watching one set of stars trace the sky, done, just like that. On a hot summer day, August 12th, 1990, a Sunday, my family landed in Vancouver, Canada. There were no leaves, no autumn colours, no comforting smoke from chimneys beckoning me home, no thing that even resembled home, just city and concrete, so much concrete.
It was then I realized I didn’t pack the things I really wanted to bring with me. How could I? You can’t pack the sound of a tui sitting atop a flax bush. You can’t line rocks up in a different stream, matching them just the way my bare feet remember them – my body knowing things about its’ place in the world – how does one stuff that in a suitcase, just enough to close the zipper? Life went from winter to summer in seventeen hours and suddenly I didn’t want to know anything about autumn in Canada at all.
But we go on, that’s what we do. And I learned about Canada in the autumn. I watched trees turn in the fall and felt colours change around me. I learned to go inward. I learned to say what I couldn’t by writing. I learned to push that lump in my throat down.
And then I grew up. I saw many leaves fall. I said a final goodbye to my Grandmother and I became comfortable sitting beneath stars of a different night sky. I also became less comfortable with the feelings of invisibility I felt as a child. Why did I choose the narrative of feeling unseen? Why did I let myself discard me like a fallen leaf, tossed on a burn pile? Because I did. Because I had to discover my own yellows and reds, and I had to discover my warm colours, in my very own way. Because it was too much for me when I was dancing on my father’s feet. It was too much for me when I was taking on raising six children and life and finances so that my parents didn’t have to feel all that pain. It was too much for me when I left the only home I’d ever known right at the moment I was learning to become me.
And now I know. I know that I am the warmest of fireplaces. I am all the coloured leaves. I am the trees of Canada, the birds of New Zealand. I am winter, spring, summer and fall. I am all the stars in the universe.