Ironically, I owe the moment of contact and the memory of it to ethnic intolerance. That’s what drove my Greek mother to flee her community, elope with my non-greek father and hide out in a small mining town in the heart of Ojibwe country—northwestern Ontario. There my father found an entry-level job as a teacher. He also got to know the Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, who at the time was painting huge canvases on butcher paper in brooding, dark colours.
So my father’s “first contact” story, featuring a difficult, brilliant, aesthetically germinal figure, is surely more interesting than mine. My story is a mere snapshot—though unlike most old photos it’s not faded and discoloured. It’s brilliantly lit up by what must be a spring sun, May or June, the day warm and windy. I’m five years old. Kindergarten has let out. A girl and I are walking along holding hands. Her hand is brown. The memory includes the knowledge— possibly layered onto it after the fact—that the town has fallen behind us and I’m in an unfamiliar place, approaching a red tarpaper bungalow among birch trees. Quivering leaves cast dense, animate shadows. A lake shimmers behind the house. The girl’s mother is hanging white sheets (maybe shirts?) on a line that runs from the side of the house to a tree. She’s smiling broadly as we approach. And that’s it. The whole memory. I struggle to let more light into the moment—to push the recall both backward and forward. A meeting in the schoolyard before we walk to her house? Playing by the lake afterward, or having a snack in the kitchen? Later days when we did the same things? I’m left not with a story but a fragment, which for some reason I’ve retained, vividly, while forgetting almost every other moment I experienced up north.