Since I was a kid, I have spent almost every summer working on a farm in the Okanagan. It was once a travelling theatre company, but at the end of the 70s they settled on a few dozen acres in the Spallumcheen Township. Despite only being there for a month or so, once a year, all the artists living and working there feel an ownership towards the lands during their time there. We are temporarily in this place, but for those of us that respect and love its location, we take it home with us in our hearts.
When I was 19, Harry, the technical director died in his sleep.
I found out over the phone walking through Stanley Park to the beach; I was on the greyhound the next morning. I arrived at night – the actors were rehearsing on set in the distance, they looked like figurines amongst the magnitude of the stage setting.
Even when all I wanted to think about was myself; how I felt, who I needed to see and talk to; the location we were on made all the people that I wanted to see at the mercy of their environment. They all came back at different times and as I greeted each person, I witnessed a vast display of grief, from almost jocular hellos to hugs that lasted minutes.
It was a tough summer, after opening the show we then planned a funeral for a person who had been our touchstone for years. He was who everyone took their questions to, the person who would make molehills out of mountains. We had his funeral at the farm, maybe 200 meters from where he had died. And we told stories. His daughters told stories about their dad as he was when they were kids, their own children running through the fields behind them chasing dogs and crickets. His son and the musicians on the show played the last songs that Harry had listened to the night he died. After we had told our stories his children got into his beat-up pick up truck, his coffin lying on a bed of pine branches, to drive his body to the funeral home. Three failed attempts to start the thing later, the truck started and they drove off on the bumpy country roads.
The few of us left had nothing to do, so we sat waiting for dinner on the porch and told the stories that weren’t so appropriate for the funeral. The carpenter that had offered to build his coffin told us that he had built it about 3 inches to short the first time. Writing this on a blog it’s hard to express how funny this story was as he told it. He was cursing and laughing, tears at the corners of all of our eyes. Of course Harry’s coffin was too small – it was a big joke on us that the one time the carp didn’t measure twice it was for his buddy’s G**D*** funeral. There we were, doubled over with laughter, tear stains on our checks from crying through the Okanagan dust, while the carpenter is shouting, “I couldn’t even f**king bend his knees enough to get the lid on!” That night, we sat around a (fairly) controlled fire and people smoke and drank and told more stories, rude stories, heartfelt stories; some people were missing from our ranks – still not quite ready to change tenses in their stories.
Half of us had been coming to this place for over 6 years (some for over 20), the other half had been there for only a couple weeks, but we were, all of us, permanent and temporary in the space. In a month, only the Artistic Director would be left, leaving the grief we had shared, the warmth of these stories, alone in the dirt and dust of these 80-acres that were our home, for a time.
When it comes my personal ideas of home, there is a sense of shared experience that creates a space rather than a permanence of location. Still, when I see people from that summer, there is a sense of home in their hellos. All of us were so fragile then, so easily broken and as a group we rebuilt ourselves together. I’ve experienced death closely since then, but I’ve never again had the same community, the same home to rebuild myself within. That summer, almost a decade past now, allowed an ownership towards tragedy I’ve yet to experience again; we built the coffin; we hosted the funeral; we dug a grave for his ashes and the things he had left behind; we said goodbye.
It was hard for me here to tell this story without naming the people in it, in order to respect their grieving practice and their anonymity but as I wrote, I felt compelled to give a name to the person that brought out our stories, to Harry.
“History.” Caravan Farm Theatre. The Caravan Farm Theatre, 2012. Web. 05 June 2015. <URL>
Gladstone, Amiel. “Harry van der Schee.” Theatre for People Who Hate Theatre. WordPress, 23 Aug. 2008. Web. 4 June 2015. <URL>