Snapshot

Geist - - Notes & Dispatches - STEVEN HEIGHTON Images on pre­ced­ing pages from Pic­tographs by James Si­mon Mishib­ini­jima. Pub­lished by The Por­cu­pine’s Quill in 2017. Mishib­ini­jima has cre­ated a unique body of work over the past four decades and es­tab­lished a loyal fol­low­ing in North Amer

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.

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