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Authors: Richard Wagamese

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A Quality of Light

BOOK: A Quality of Light
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Copyright © 1997 Richard Wagamese

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Wagamese, Richard
    A quality of light

eISBN: 978-0-385-67478-2

I. Title

PS8595.A363Q34 1997      C813′.51      C96-932215-1
PR9199.3.W33Q34 1997

Published in Canada by
Doubleday Canada



The author wishes to thank The Canada Council for its generous support during the writing of this manuscript. Also, to Jan Whitford, agent and friend, for overseeing its nativity, James Lumsden for his careful attention to the initial sections, Leslie Donnelly for hearty encouragement after twelve pages and Richard Ford for kind words and the power of example. Most of all, to Don Sedgwick, Kathryn Exner and John Pearce of Doubleday, my ongoing gratitude and admiration for patience, guidance, compassion and faith.


Some of the events pertaining to native political history did occur—Oka, Alcatraz Island, Wounded Knee, Anishanabe Park. I have been as accurate as memory allows with the dates. However, Ted Williams’s book
The Science of Hitting
was published in 1971. I’ve used it out of time here for the benefit of the story. It is still the epitome of how-to books, especially for hitters.

For Tom Gilbert
a great friend
and enduring example
a warrior
in the truest sense.

You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Brothers Karamazov


e are born into a world of light. Every motion of our lives, every memory, is colored by the degree of its intensity or shaded by the weight of its absence. I believe the happy times are lit by an ebullient incandescence — the pure white light of joy — and that the sadder times are bathed in swatches of purple, moving into pearl gray. When we find ourselves standing against the hushed palette of evening, searching the sky for one singular band of light, we’re filtering the spectrum of our lives. We’re looking through the magic prism of memory, letting our comforts, questions or woundings lead us — emotional voyageurs portaging a need called yearning. Because it’s not the memories themselves we seek to reclaim, but rather the opportunity to surround ourselves with the quality of light that lives there.

The muted grays of storm clouds breaking might take you back to the hollowness you found in a long good-bye. The electric blue in a morning horizon might awaken in you again that melancholic ache you carried when you discovered love. Or you lay on a hillside in the high sky heat of summer, the red behind your eyelids making you so warm and safe and peaceful, it’s like the scarlet a part of you remembers through the skin of your mother’s belly when you, your life and the universe was all fluid, warmth and motion.

The qualities of light are endless and our entire lives are immersed in them. That’s why we go back. That’s why we use the gift of memory to sift through it all, seeking answers in the people, places and things we inhabited once, hoping we might find there a single quality of light that defines us.

My name is Joshua Kane. I am an Ojibway and the word that brought me to light was
It was carried on the reed-thin shoulders of a boy who lived most of his life in darkness but who shone with the mantle of a hero. I became an Indian because of Johnny Gebhardt. When he walked into my life in the early spring of 1965, my life was sheltered, peaceful, predictable — and white. My parents, Ezra and Martha Kane, had adopted me at birth and I was raised in the staunch Protestant tradition perpetuated in the furrow and fallow of the farmlands they sprang from. It’s a sad irony that my mother would be barren given the fertile soil which nurtured her creation. Still, it was the same measure of love that spawned my adoption as would have gone into the immaculate joining of seed to womb in my parents’ marriage bed. I know this today as surely as I know that the earth is Mother to us all and we come out upon her breast to learn the motions of the dance that connects us. The cosmic dance driven by the music we learn to hear through the soles of our feet.

We lived on my grandfather’s farm outside a small southwestern Ontario town called Mildmay. Our friends and neighbors bore names like Hohnstein, Dietz, Schultz and Schumacher, with a smattering of Ringles, Conroys and Leach. In that rich tradition of hereditary farms, the idea of family was more important than its definition, and I was accepted, quite simply, as Joshua Kane because that’s all I had ever been. That I was the only brown face in Kane family pictures was never questioned. I was born and I lived as a Kane. My parents had never kept the truth from me and I’d known about my tribal blood from the moment I could understand. They told me of my mother’s inability to conceive and how they felt the need for the love that they felt for each other to be rendered more completely through a child. The Ontario Children’s Aid Society had directed them to a very young Indian girl who was
pregnant and had no means of raising a child. They told me that they wanted to bring into their lives someone who would be theirs from as close to the beginning of life as possible. Someone whose history could begin and end with them.

They told me how happy they were when the arrangements had been made to pick me up at the hospital and how they waited, almost like they were pregnant themselves, with all the anxiety, anticipation and joy that birth parents feel. And how natural and right it felt to finally hold me, like a circle closing, their lives and mine coming together as fat and full of promise as a harvest moon. They told me of the tremendous love they felt for me from that first moment and of the gratitude they held for the Lord for bringing us together as a family.

Family. I suppose I understood from my earliest days that it’s something far greater than simply blood and chromosomes. It’s belonging. Fitting. Wearing other people’s lives around your shoulders easily, casually, as a loose and familiar robe. A comforting weight, resplendent in its weft and warp. A fabric compelling in its texture. Yes, I was a Kane, and the Indian in me lay somewhere underneath all of that, an anonymous subtext in the book of my life.

“You’ve got all the chapters and verses,” my father would say. “The only thing you don’t understand is the begats. And believe me, son, no one ever reads the begats.”

I remember the mornings of my boyhood as the basso rumble of my father’s voice through the darkness and then the soft scraping of wooden spoon against my feet. “Joshua, son, it’s time,” he’d say and I would emerge from sleep, tousle-headed and grinning, rested and ready for the day’s journeys. That’s how my days began for as long as I can remember. So that now, on the cusp of middle age, I can almost swear some mornings I hear the creak of his step across the floorboards, just as I did all those times I faked slumber so that the dulcet bass of his voice would become the hinge my world swung open on.

In that spring of 1965, my world was three hundred and twenty acres of farmland. We lived in the three-story brick house my great-grandfather Nathaniel Kane had built with a horse, pulley
and swarm of neighbors just before the turn of the century. It stood on a long slope overlooking sixty of those acres running west from Highway 9. With the small apple orchard behind and the long graveled driveway lined with pines leading up to it, the house stood like a sentinel against morning skylines, windows gazing outward like pale yellow eyes — wide-eyed, curious, benign. The creaks and shiftings of that house were the lullabies I remember most, and the shadow creatures that agrarian moon conjured in the corners became the purple hills themselves, calling me forward into dreams and then the soft awakenings of my father.

I’d walk into the kitchen to see him stirring oatmeal, and my mother, face as pale and quiet as an egg, absently buttering toast with one hand and following the words in her Bible with one finger of the other. The sun would be a mere suggestion against the lush plum of the skyline. When we’d seated ourselves around the table my mother would bow her head and pray and then read a verse or two from the Good Book before we’d spoken a word to each other. Then my father would wink covertly at me, grin at my mother and begin the farmer’s good-natured litany of chores and destinations. I’d sit and listen, watching as my mother bent over her Bible, engrossed in her verilies, begats and whosoevers, as my father would say. When we’d eaten, we men would rise, clamber into our coats and hats and gloves and begin the formal procession to my mother for a quick kiss and hug before heading to the barn.

I’d learned the value of hard work early. The Kane family history was built on it. Early to bed and early to rise was just one of the adages I’d come to accept as life principles by the time I was old enough to comprehend. Along with “study to show thyself approved” from Second Timothy and “any job worth doing is worth doing right” from the Kane Protestant ethic, I was well versed in the virtues of the land by that spring of ’65. My mother, a farm girl whose family lived one county over and who’d met my dad at a church soiree when she was sixteen, leaned on the teachings of the Good Book all her life and passed on to me the important coupling of earnest prayer and good work as soon as I could hold a dishcloth. Because I was a Kane I learned to love the feeling of body and spirit
moving together in the work the Lord assigned, just as I learned that quietness was rooted in humility and that if the meek were to inherit the earth, I could guarantee myself a large tract through quiet industry, prayer and service. Granted, my father was a lot less intense about his spiritual devotion than my mother, him preferring laughter and fishing over hymns and service as expressions of his faith, but he’d never strayed far from his Christian roots.

It was my father who brought me the spirit of the land. He’d sink his furrowed fingers deep into it, roll its grit and promise around his palms, smell it and then rub it over the chest of his overalls like he wanted it to seep through into his heart. It did — and it seeped into mine, too.

Very early some spring and summer mornings we’d pile sleepily into our fishing gear and head off in the old brown Dodge towards the distant Hockley Valley, whose small and ragged creeks were home to the most stubborn, wily and tasty trout in God’s universe. I’d lay with my head in his lap listening to the high-pitched whine of the tires in counterpoint to his soft humming of some Negro spiritual. He loved those songs. I can’t begin to count the number of miles I traveled that way, swept up in the romance of motion and the frail pitch and sway of a hummed “Kumbaya” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The miles would pass quickly and we’d arrive in the valley about the same time as the sun — quiet, whole and shining. He’d lean against the hood of that old Dodge, head thrown back, eyes closed, slow deep breaths melding with the morning mist. And then, from his throat, a single, exhaled note that would shimmer across the silence of those mornings.
, that note would say.
Yes, yes, yes.

BOOK: A Quality of Light
3.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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