I am utterly besotted by my uncle. Well at this stage of our relationship, anyway. It did not start out that way as you read in “It Wasn’t Love at First Sight”, that casual chance encounter in California. But it did turn out to be something intense and involved. There is some comfort, some precedent in the knowledge that falling in love with your subject is part and parcel of biography. This was told by Richard Holmes who is known as one of the more gifted of British biographers in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.
Holmes follows in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson on a trek in France. The beginning chapter is seamless in its interweaving of past and present, Stevenson’s journey and his own. He speaks of his emotional link with Stevenson. The first stage of the “fictional relationship, the pre-biographic: ‘it is a primitive form a type of hero or heroine worship, which easily develops into a kind of love affair.’ “ p. 66. He then traces those embryonic feelings felt for Stevenson, identifying him with other heroes like Jack Kerouac.
He goes onto explain how important this is. “This form of identification or self-projection is pre-biographic and in a sense pre-literate: but it is an essential motive for following in the footsteps, for attempting to re-create the pathway, the journey, of someone else’s life through the physical past. If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far anyway.”
This makes perfect sense to me at this point in time. It does explain what has been heretofore inexplicable behavior on my part. Why in the world would I be going to Kirkcaldy and then to Saskatchewan if I were not in love with the man? Kirkcaldy is bleak, wind swept, barren of the niceties and the refinement of life. The Regina, Saskatchewan of my uncle’s times was basically a frontier town planted with saplings fed by mere trickles of water. So I am not going there for the scenery. I have been to, come to, much better places in both the geographic and technical sense. So it is love, puppy love, that is propelling this journey.
But Richard Holmes is not the only biographer to fall prey to a strange connection with the subject. Kathryn Hughes talks of her attachment to George Eliot in Fever, an essay in the collection Remember Me: Constructing Immortality: Beliefs on Immortality Life and Death. She speaks of the growing conviction that comes over biographers that their subjects have chosen them to tell their story (rather than the other way round) and are lending them uncanny messages from beyond the grave.” Uncle Dave may have picked me, but there was a limited short list, let’s admit it. So I am flattered but Holmes love interest speaks more eloquently to me.
But, according to Holmes there is a rocky road ahead. “But the true biographic process begins precisely at the moment, at the places, where this native form of love identification breaks down. The moment of personal disillusion is the moment of impersonal, objective re- creation. Holmes describes when that pivotal moment was in the life of Stevenson. “For me, almost the earliest occasion was that bridge at Langogne, the old broken bridge that I could not cross and the sudden physical sense that the past was indeed ‘another country’”.
It happened to me. That moment when I said: “The past is the past, Uncle Dave and I do not love you that much.” In the beginning phases of love, romantic love, you would follow your intended beloved to the ends of the earth. To hell and back if need be. (Regina was not exactly hell, there was a slight temperature differential.) But it is not just following in the beloved’s footsteps, there is also the willingness to make any sacrifice for the sake of union with the beloved. All needs, hopes and desires are swept aside and the besotted is focused only on the other, not on the self. That is where I was on that snowy day in Regina Saskatchewan. My dream of a mystical union with Uncle Dave was reluctantly, but quite quickly put aside. I climbed back into the Mazda and drove away – possibly, even probably, never to return. At that critical moment I had full knowledge of my individuality and separateness.
It happened in Regina, Saskatchewan during winter. So it was both a painful and a cold moment. It was on December 22, 2015 around or about 10:30 a.m. It was in the Regina Cemetery.
My personal pilot is cousin Faye Dryburgh Sheffer. We had met for the first time the day before when she picked me up at the Regina Greyhound Bus terminal. This is not a geography lesson but some parameters are necessary. I had flown from London to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. But it is Regina, for reasons recounted elsewhere in this book, that is the mecca. It was necessary y to get from Edmonton to Regina. For some obscure and stupid reason I decided to
travel on a Greyhound bus, a trip that was to take sixteen hours, leaving Edmonton at 1900 and arriving in Regina (late), at about 11 the next morning. For the uninitiated and Canadian shy, Alberta and Saskatchewan are neighboring provinces but their capitals are many miles apart. Further for me, because I inadvertently took the long way, through Calgary.
The ‘in crowd ‘call that mode of conveyance, the Greyhound bus, the Hound. The trip proved too harrowing, boring and miserable to recount. When I spoke to my sister- in-law of the proposed trip she reminded me that someone had been decapitated on a Hound. On my own I would have never thought of it – but with her prodding it came back to me, in all of its horror. I email: “Thanks, Sandy!” “That is all I need” She says: “Don’t worry, he is in jail.” That did not allay my fears, and it ended up she was wrong. He had gotten out, as Canada is unclear on the concept of capital punishment. Later, I learn that when people take the Hound jokesters always ask: “Where ya be heading?”.
But I digress. Faye picked me up at the Hotel Saskatchewan. I stayed there because it was built in 1926 so it was standing there when Uncle Dave was out and about, just around the corner from where he worked almost seventy years ago.
In the days preceding the final trip to the Regina Cemetery I felt, in a strange way almost born again. I had not met Faye before she picked me up from the Hound. I only knew her from email correspondence with the Niece’s Nexus. All though all of the nieces had been dispersed from the home base of Regina, Faye and her family remained and had served as caretakers for Grandpa Dryburgh. All the Dryburgh brothers had fled Regina, save William (Bill) Faye’s Dad and Uncle Dave. Through the email contact I had learned that Faye and her husband Larry were preparing to leave on their annual winter trek to Florida, those snow birds.. Despite that Faye and Larry were so welcoming and I was in perfect ease with them. It was, as if, they were family!
This was the second day of Regina Cemetery visitation. Although many of our relatives are buried there, they are spread out. The day before we had found Grandpa and Grandma Dryburgh, Faye’s parents and Robert, Uncle Dave’s baby brother, who died in 1910.
That second day we got out of the Mazda and trudged around looking for the grave. It has snowed overnight and there was fresh snow on the ground. We walked, it seemed endless, making footprints in the snow, up and down the rows, brushing snow off likely looking spots. The grave was so hard to find because the gravestone was flat. So after turning up empty, my cousin Faye showed a flash of genius. She gets in her car, dials a number on her cell phone and a woman, – sort of an air traffic controller – gave detailed directions and zoomed us in, right on the grave of Uncle Dave. Down a middle aisle on the left, third one in, should you ever be tempted to make the journey.
The gravestone was flat and covered with snow. Why flat? It makes no sense to me this flat rock, particularly in the winter with snow. “Make this hard for me, Uncle Dave, please make this hard for me!” (I guess it wasn’t him actually, he was dead, so somebody else picked out the gravestone). I brush off the snow. It is simple, rather disappointingly so. It just says: David Dryburgh 1908-1948. There is no inspiring epitaph. This was a man of letters, you silly survivors. (I was a survivor, but I was only five and probably could barely read. I am taking no responsibility for this one.)
Story to be continued.