"For Posterity" by Madeline Sonik (An Excerpt)
My father’s large hand contains my small one. I think of them together, a tender white clam curled in a warm weathered shell. He doesn’t often take my hand, but we’re at Niagara Falls, boarding the Maid of the Mist, and a surge of tourists threaten to separate us in their swell. My brothers have gone ahead without being noticed and when they gripe that my father is playing favourites, he excuses himself by saying: “She’s only a little girl.”
He helps me struggle into the bulky black rain poncho I’m given. It’s too big for me, and I have trouble lifting my arms. He’s brought his camera and he takes a picture. “For posterity,” he says, and I wonder who she might be. I envision a woman in a babushka like my grandmother’s, a distant relative in Russia that I’ve never seen.
It’s 1965 and I’m too young to know that it’s not Russia, but the Soviet Union where any unknown relatives might be. I don’t know that my country lives in a suspended state of mutual hatred with the country of my ancestors, or that even as the Vietnam war burns, this “Cold War,” as it’s called, has already shown signs of thawing. From these insulated precincts of youth, I know neither what came before, nor attempt to predict the future. Who could foresee that in twenty-six years the Union would collapse, or that in twenty-one, a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl would inflict an aggressive form of thyroid cancer on countless children in its surrounding regions?
The world is a foreign body to me. I have no knowledge or feeling for it and don’t regard it in any way as my legacy. Instead, I’m concerned with my own physicality—the discomfort of this scratchy poncho, its stink of car tires and fish. When my father finishes with the photo shoot, I stand and try to breathe the air. Tourists surround us. I inhale their stifling anticipation and begin to feel sick. I search the crowd for some diversion and at last find a couple kissing. I imagine that they’re newlyweds, that they’ve come here for their honeymoon. The couple whisper to each other and kiss again. “Honeymoon,” I think, and imagine a sticky luminous syrup dripping from the sky.
If I were old enough to read the newspaper, I’d know that the convention bureau here greeted more honeymooners last spring than any other spring on record—that newlyweds from all over North America, and even some from Mexico and Japan, claimed a Honeymoon certificate and got a pass for the bride to visit attractions as her husband’s guest. But I don’t need to know this to think about the importance of marriage to girls, to consider how honeymoons are almost equal to weddings. I escape all of the unpleasantness of my senses simply by thinking of Niagara Falls as a place for love.
There are heart-shaped beds, like boxes of Valentine chocolates, in our hotel. There are heart-shaped ashtrays in the stores, heart-shaped picture frames, heart-shaped post cards. I asked my mother, who decided to shop instead of come with us, if she’d buy me a heart-shaped locket. I thought she might because I know she has a golden one with a picture of her father inside. She said I was too young for jewellery, but I know this is just her way of saying “No.”
I watch the couple kissing and try to imagine what being in love is like. Others on the boat watch too, and the couple seem oblivious. My father nudges me to stop gawking. He tries to distract me by pointing towards the Falls, but I’m captivated by the couple’s uninhibited exhibition. I wonder if I should ever fall in love, if I, too, would be so publicly carefree.
Looking back on this day from adulthood and thinking about the innocence and self-absorption of love, I’m aware that in all probability, not only I but likely everyone on that boat was unaware of “Love Canal.” It’s likely that if someone had told us it existed just east of here, in the United States, we would have imagined a romantic destination, believed it had been named to convey this impression, and never, in a million years, guessed the name was to commemorate the developer, William T. Love.
We’d be intrigued to hear that the mile-long ditch which came to bear his name had originally been intended as a canal to provide cheap electricity to the neighbourhood of “Model City”—a happy, healthy, alcohol-free community he’d envisioned. Problems with financial backing and advances in electrical technology were ultimately what thwarted him, and his property was foreclosed upon and sold in 1910.
Only the jokers on board might chuckle “Love failed!” but few familiar with the slang of prostitution would be able to resist commenting on the next part of the story. Love Canal was eventually purchased as a chemical dumping site by Elon Hooker, the founder of Hooker Chemical. It was filled with some 21,000 tons of hazardous waste, covered over with dirt, and then sold for one dollar to the municipal school board for the construction of the 99th Street Elementary School. Hooker warned the board about the toxic waste; he even tried to prevent them from selling the excess land to real estate developers, but the wheels of progress are rarely slowed by reason.
On the Maid of the Mist, as we listen to a pre-recorded tour guide crackling through the boat’s speaker system, we’re ignorant of the fact that bad smells are vaporizing from the earth at Love Canal, that strange chemical substances are surfacing in the schoolyard and seeping into basements. We don’t know that letters have been written, that complaints have been made, and that with the exception of trucking in a few loads of soil and clay as a suppressant, the city has, so far, taken no action. Also unknown to us, of course, is the fact that this toxic waste is insidiously seeping into the Niagara River—that the mist from these cascading falls, which dampens our jackets and infuses our lungs, contains traces of these chemicals.
The local paper, the Evening Review, has reported nothing on this. Amidst stories of air cadets winning rifle shoots, students winning public speaking contests, and highland dance troupes dancing their way to regional renown, there’s no mention of complaining residents of the Love Canal area, and no indication of profound environmental damage in this region.
But there is an article on scuba divers who’ve unearthed a warehouse of historic treasures: muskets, anchors, parts of ships. They may have found the American gunboat the U.S.S. Detroit. It got caught in the strong currents of the Niagara River during the War of 1812 and was torched and sunk in battle. There’s a thousand-pound cannon they’ve raised. It’s been sandblasted and the city will set it on a model undercarriage so it can serve as a historical show piece. They’ve found hundreds of old shoes, an upside-down tugboat, and a mast seat, almost perfectly preserved. They know the past can’t just be washed away, but toxic waste and chemicals, unlike historic artifacts, are invisible to the naked eye, and the river’s waters are as cold and transparent as a ghost.
-From Afflictions & Departures by Madeline Sonik. Published by Anvil Press Publishers, 2011. Used with permission of the publisher.
Afflictions & Departures was a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction, and also nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian non-fiction.
Madeline Sonik is a teacher, writer, and editor. Her work has been published extensively in journals, magazines, and academic anthologies. Her latest books include Stone Sightings (poetry), Arms (a novel), Drying the Bones (stories) and Belinda and the Dustbunnys (children’s novel). She has a MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Education, both from UBC. She has also been the recipient of numerous awards, prizes and fellowships for her writing. She currently teaches at the University of Victoria.