I found this today while looking over Brian Lee’s excellent Pender Harbour publication, The Harbour Spiel.
What has this got to do with Laurie McConnell, you must be thinking.
Well, here is the shocker: I took shop classes from Paul in Junior High School in Richmond BC, started dating him at 19, married him at 23, and divorced him at 31.
In between was a whole lot of living.
When I told my parents – who were living in Calgary at the time – that I was getting married to a man 42 years older than I, my mother blurted out, “Thank God you’re not gay!” Ah, mom, we’ll get to that soon enough.
Paul N. Holsinger was 17 years my parents’ senior. I have been nothing if not hard on my family. I used to pick up the mantle of black sheep as if it were the Golden Fleece itself… today I simply wish to be kind and loving.
My parents and my sisters took him into the family without question, though my dad did make one comment – ‘This is the biggest mistake you’ll ever make’ – before the marriage. I still don’t agree with him on that, and Paul was as welcome as my sisters’ boyfriends; he and my parents used to talk for hours.
I know now that I married him because I was gay but didn’t know it, because after being abused by a number of men when I was between the ages of 11 and 17 – and I must make it crystal clear, he was NOT an abuser – I had no idea of how to have appropriate relationships with men or where the boundaries were. I felt that I had to put sex on offer to have any kind of friendship with a man, and well, Paul, as much as today I might say why didn’t he rebuff me or say “It’s lovely to express those feelings but they’re entirely inappropriate and I don’t think you should visit my school any more,” we all do the things we do for a myriad of reasons, 90% of which we don’t have a hope of understanding until decades after the fact.
I also married him because he was so different from the guys my own age, who were more often than not getting wasted at keggers and blowing off post-secondary studies in the pursuit of parties, sleeping in, cars, or for no reason at all.
Paul kept a scrupulously clean house (I have memories of him cleaning the grout at the base of the toilet and tub with an old toothbrush every Saturday morning), he made food from recipes in the paperback ‘Diet for a Small Planet’, years ahead of its time, he baked the most dense and delicious caraway rye bread that we topped with poached eggs and cayenne for breakfast. He was in a lapidary club (we made each other our wedding rings, from molten gold), he fixed a multitude of clocks which in the beginning comforted me and in the end enraged me with their relentless yet sweet chimes at the hour and half hour (the dreaded late evening hours!). But best of all he sailed. Any time and all the time.
His boat was a 26′ sloop called The Wood Duck. It had a diesel engine and was built – inexplicably – in Idaho. He sailed that boat too many times to count through Desolation Sound, and it was an extension of him that was beautiful to see and be a part of. He sailed further afield too, once to the Queen Charlotte Islands as they were then known. With another woman his own age, while he was dating me, who had been until that departure previously unknown to me. But that’s another story, and perhaps the one he should have been in from the beginning. But, I digress.
Through Paul I fell in love with the west coast. We spent weeks every summer – when we weren’t separated and trying to work things out that couldn’t be worked out – boating all through the lush heat of Desolation Sound, the blustery and current-strong Johnstone Strait, or fishing out of our summer home on the southeast side of Cortes Island. I learned to sail, or at least pull that halyard or move the tiller over there, tie knots, and do the detailed chart work required to fish close to shore at 2 knots with a 7 ft keel sloping deeply from the water’s surface. I caught monster salmon and canned them on a wood stove in 90 degree August heat that required me to kneel like a supplicant inside the sauna of the boat’s cabin, while a frustrated pot grower on the beach fumed at our boat at anchor in front of his cabin, eventually setting up a target, firing at it with an ought 38 and glaring over at us menacingly. I learned to skin poles for the barn roof and curve them by bending them through alders, and how an Alaskan Mill worked, and how otters sounded in the dark when they came to eat their shellfish and leave their messes on the long tongue of the dock just feet from our bed in the old logger’s floathouse perched on the rocks above the bay. I put headphones on and to music only I could hear I oared a dinghy ballet in our quiet cove, or shipped the oars and slept under the sun until the roar of an eagle’s wings awoke me half a mile from where I dropped off into the depths of slumber.
I saw beauty I never imagined existed out of my suburban childhood, where I didn’t taste real salmon until I was 17 because an uncle was coming out from Edmonton to visit and we couldn’t possibly serve him Captain Highliner’s Fish Sticks (which I loved, and for years I thought all eating fish were tiny and rectangularly shaped).
Because of Paul, I loved the taste of the ocean, and of all the food that grew there. I fished on my own by dinghy and served up many meals from fish of my own catching, mostly rock cod or ling or tommy cod, with a million different ways to eat it. I loved cleaning salmon, my hands stroking them in a form of worship and gratitude in the receiving of their life into mine. The dark liver line, the quicksilver of the coho, the gorgeous melding of blues and greens in the 27 pound spring salmon I drew out of the sea at the northern tip of Cortes, where the mid-morning sun slanted into the water and I watched my salmon fight for his life in dashes towards and away from the boat. (I refuse to say I played it, a small acknowledgement of the violence in ending any animal’s life.) I pounded moon snail for hours with a meat mallet and found it was only good ground up for chowder as a source of protein. I learned I was never quite hungry enough to keep sea cucumber down, and how the protection of our only source of vegetables and fruit other than 12 hours away in Campbell River meant hard choices about marauding animals. I held a hummingbird in my hand, and shrieked as Paul plummeted around the cabin in the dark at two a.m. trying to catch the bat circling above our heads, and lay awake one night for hours watching the deer feed in the middle of a thunder & lightning storm so close it blew out the store’s windows in Squirrel Cove.
Because of Paul, when my life fell apart at 25 and I found myself on the Sunshine Coast for a summer job, I had the wisdom to know that this rough hewn geography borne of a childhood spent visiting as a Brownie, Girl Guide, Scout, Ranger, Junior Leader was my spiritual home, and so I left my partially completed degree in creative writing and art history and committed to what is now my 28th year of being a Coastie, this fact being the foundation of who I have become as a person, a worker, a creator, a relator and a connector around all things coastal.
And though Paul and I eventually divorced after 11 years together in and out of marriage, and though I ended it poorly and without integrity and though he never would speak to me again as long as he was alive, I knew through others that he found a life that pleased him in Pender Harbour. I knew he still taught as a volunteer, that he once gave his time to a group of people at the Zen Meditation centre to teach woodworking, his great love, he dated a woman who was a friend of an acquaintance and they sat together all three to watch the May Day Parade, that he was known for being a very kind man, a natural born storyteller (even if sometimes you could not get him off the long incline of a many-times-told story), a ham, an independent spirit quite apart from the time he lived in, as if he crafted his own epoch from the wood and clocks and boats and gardens and animals and friends among which he found himself.
I am so grateful he and I had that decade together, as flawed as it was, as driven by selfish motives inside each of us, but also driven by the strange and beautiful love we did have for each other, once upon a time. And so I grieve, and my wife – my beautiful, soulful, exactly right spouse – places her hand on my shoulder to comfort me as I sit at the kitchen table of the house I have lived in for 27 years and where my girls have grown up and another marriage begun and ended and dogs and cats and guinea pigs have come and gone and come again, and all of my life telescopes together in a kaleidoscope of memories that fold into one pinpoint of light that is me, burning in my short existence among the heavens.