All That Belongs
By Dora Dueck
Catherine, an archivist, has spent decades committed to conserving the pasts of others, only to find her own resurfacing on the eve of her retirement. Carefully, she mines the failing memories of her aging mother to revive a mysterious Uncle and relive the tragic downfall of ... Read more
Catherine, an archivist, has spent decades committed to conserving the pasts of others, only to find her own resurfacing on the eve of her retirement. Carefully, she mines the failing memories of her aging mother to revive a mysterious Uncle and relive the tragic downfall of her brother. Catherine remembers, and in the process, discovers darker family secrets, long silenced, and their devastating aftermath. Spanning decades between rural Alberta and Winnipeg, All That Belongs is an elegant examination of our own ephemeral histories, the consequences of religious fanaticism, and the startling familial ties--and shame--that bind us.
Dora Dueck is the award-winning author of numerous books, articles, and short stories. Her novel, This Hidden Thing, won the 2010 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, and What You Get At Home (Turnstone Press, 2012) won the High Plains Award for Short Stories. Dueck's novella, Mask, was also the winning entry for the 2014 Malahat Review novella contest. Dora grew up in a Mennonite community in Alberta, lived many years in Winnipeg, but currently makes her home in British Columbia.
It's my last day of work at the regional archives, just a few hours now before my colleagues whisk me away to a retirement dinner. An elderly couple from Australis stops by with a request. I have nothing to do--my desk is empty, files cleared--so I'm floating around the front of the place and I greet them and help them find evidence of a second cousin who apparently lived and died in Winnipeg. Not that it matters one way or the other, they say, but since we're travelling through Canada anyway.
They're delighted with what I discover: a mention in the finding aid, a short article about the cousin's appointment to a contractor's firm, the death notice. They tell me they've heard he was a scoundrel and the clap their hands and laugh, as if this paucity of information confirms their suspicions, The Australian woman is small and bony in appearance, clad in a flowing black dress too big for her. But she bubbles with eagerness and warmth and her personality swells into the garment. I'm drawn to her.
When we're done with the search, the woman and I discuss genealogy. I ask her how far back she can trace and she says, To the first fleet of them. To the first shipment of convicts.
Your forbearers were convicts? I've completely forgotten, in this moment, how that continent came to be populated with Europeans.
Oh yes, yes, convicts. There's a lilt in her voice, she says convict as easily as she said scoundrel. It may have been for something horribly horrible, she goes on, maybe slaying the master or a neighbour. Or as trivial as stealing a rabbit from a rich man's woods.
Her husband, who's been distracted by files unrelated to the second cousin, lifts his head and chips in with a bit of a speech. There was a patient of Carl Jung's, he says, who feared to accept things in his life lest they overpower him. His fear turned out not to be true. As he learned to be receptive to all that belonged to him, good and bad, light and night continuously alternating, his world came alive.
The woman touches his arm. Jung, Jung, she says, as if it's his name. yes, she tells me, Jung and his patient were right. This credo has served us well. She takes her husband's hand and begins to guide him out, the black dress undulating around her knobby knees like a wave goodbye.
She stops, turns, calls back. You've probably got embarrassment in your family tree too! Family trees are rarely reassuring! I smile and gesture indecisively and they carry on through the exit. I feel a sensation of judgment rising and pressing against my heart. It feels like the vague heaviness that used to oppress me during evangelistic meetings in my childhood church, an inchoate insistence to which I always responded with fresh avowals of surrender to God. My past might be unremarkable but I'm ashamed of it nevertheless. Yes. My odd Uncle Must. The whole lot of it, in fact, everything he drags in his wake, everything in my chronology, the choke and pother of my earlier self, the losses, my brother, that slight souring at the edge of every bite. Uncle--yes, and everything! Circumstance and disappointment that penetrate like yeast.
My assistant Joan is coming my way. She looks plump and superficial after the tiny woman in black. I pretend I don't see her and stride to the window, I'm caught up in the couple's words. In the personal history that weights me--suddenly, unexpectedly. The boulevard trees are almost bare, autumn light between branches weak and disconsolate, as if aching for green. That man and woman, it's like they caught me off guard. Caught me already out of here and retired, ready for something new.
The pressure of judgment yields, shifts to wonder, to questions that compel. Two boys outside, rolling by on their skateboards. Their shouts ribbon back to me, dare me to grab and hold. God they're young. So young and wonderful and round the corner already. Have I harboured shame too long? Been too fearful--of overpowerment?