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August 10, 2008

A Day in Steveston

I spent most of the day in Steveston.

I can't ever go to Steveston without thinking of this amazing long poem called Steveston written by a local poet named Daphne Marlatt. I studied it during some English course at University. It left a lasting impression because it was actually many poems in one and we went over and over it, line by line, trying to decipher the words in ways I was always positive the poet never intended.

I used to imagine the poet sitting, apparition-like, at the front of the class, floating ever so slightly above and behind the professor. I imaged the poet smirking and then after some time uttering just one word: Bullshit. And, then, she'd smile because she was a poet and just the thought that anyone at all was reading her stuff was good even if they did get it all wrong.

Perhaps my impression of that poem lasted because its words created visuals that meshed with the memories I had of going down to Steveston as a child. It was a different place then. There were no condos.

I'd accompany my childhood friend and her mother. They were Japanese. Her mother used to take us down to Steveston in the summer and we would walk on slanted boardwalks and follow her carefully, trying to keep up until we'd arrive at a very dilapidated shack or boat (I can't recall which now).

We would be going to visit "Uncle Simp". I'm not sure why he was called that. It seems a bit derogatory now that I say it out loud. He'd give us candy. He'd give her mom a big salmon or two. I recall at the time that it was hot and his shack/boat was very dark inside and the trip for two kids who didn't get to go many places outside of New Westminster seemed like an exciting adventure on a hot summer day.

My friend's father drowned when she was 3. Her mother worked day and night as a seamstress when we were growing up. On hot afternoons, when we'd run out of things to do and were reading in the living room of her duplex, women would come and be fitted. They'd bring their patterns and their fabrics and her mom would have her measuring tape and pins in her mouth as she hemmed an almost finished dress. We'd overhear the rhythm of conversation between her mom and a lady who seemed to know our names even if we never remembered theirs. Murmurs in the kitchen seeped into the background as we finished the last chapter of a Nancy Drew novel or packed up the Barbies or finished another game of Snakes and Ladders. We were inseparable then.

The whirr of the sewing machine was the never ending soundtrack between us dashing off to the community pool, plunking ourselves down after games of badminton in which we'd use the fence between the duplexes as the net and we'd play until we could no longer see the birdie in the dark. The sewing machine was the constant. The light in her mom's bedroom shone out into the backyard or sometimes when I slept over, the crack of light shining under the door of my friend's bedroom was the last line of consciousness just before my eyes slid shut and her mom worked on.

For that reason Steveston's Japanese history meshes with the Japanese experience so much a part of my own childhood history. I can't help but smell dried seaweed and green tea. The wood trim on some of the boats was the same texture as the dark, brown lacquer of the plastic chopsticks that I took years to learn how to use. On special occasions when her mom made sushi, my friend would always describe what was under each lacquered lid. She became my culinary tour guide. "I think you'll like this," she'd say. "I don't know, that's a bit slimey. You probably won't like that much."

I don't see either of them much anymore.

Maybe that's why the memories of Steveston are bittersweet. For me. For all that the village used to be. It's history.

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