It's been two years since I've last stepped foot in Victoria. The first thing I notice as I walk the residential streets is that the greenery seems to be competing against the buildings. The second thing I notice is that the greenery is winning. Plants are nestled in every corner, pushing against the ubiquitous stone walls and pressing into empty spaces. The branches of trees, green and golden in the evening light, form a canopy above me. There are countless species: the massive Maple, whose leaves dwarf any of its competitors; the stately Douglas Fir, tall and narrow and pointing straight into the heavens; the occasional Arbutus, marked by its stark red bark; and the exotic and prickly Monkey Puzzle. But the Gerry Oak, its bark as twisted and knobby as its leaf, overwhelms the rest, memorable both for its texture and its constant presence.
I was born in Victoria and my childhood nostalgia is tightly linked to this city. Now I'm riding a borrowed bicycle through its streets. I'm not seeking out the memories, yet they persist in confronting me regardless. The map of memories becomes a literal map I use to find my way home. Lost in the dark streets at night? There is the church your parents were married in - you know your way from here. Not sure when to take the turn off Foul Bay Road? There is the yard where you gathered pine cones as a boy one December afternoon - turn now.
The memories come even thicker as I let myself into my aunt's house, which was once our family's home. The building is over a hundred years old, although the loss of city records in a fire makes knowing its exact date impossible. Shelves of books are in every corner, the remaining wall space lined with framed artwork of tall ships at sea. The floor creaks and its sound summons the past. There is the room where I sat on the couch next to my dad while he quizzed me on stories from my childhood Bible. That's where my sister's cradle used to be - I can still hear the sound of her wind-up lullaby music box. There is the kitchen where my mother made bagels and cheese sticks. I'm hesitant to enter the backyard, as even the smell of its soil conjures stories.
My aunt enters my room and pulls out a heavy photo album dedicated to my family. There is my Mum, bright eyed and radiating joy. She seems constantly fresh, not yet wearied by the toil of raising a strong willed first-born, followed by three more children. There is my Daddy, handsome in his dark hair. His modesty seems apparent even in the photographs and memories of his kindness shine through. And there is the little man himself, his hair whispy and blonde, his face round and beaming into the camera. He is happy, and beloved, and he knows it.
My aunt is getting ready to attend her goddaughter's 18th birthday. In English tradition, a godparent is responsible for the spiritual upbringing of a child and is present at every major event. I was always a little disappointed that my parents never assigned me a godparent, mostly because it meant less gifts. I cheerfully complain about this to my aunt, but she doesn't see any humour in it. "Of course you had godparents. When you were born, your dad approached three people and asked each us to commit to praying for you during all your formative years."
Well then. I was never told this before. "Who were they?" I ask.
"Myself, Dave Eggert, and Ken Smith" she replies. "And we kept our word."
Following this conversation, almost entirely by accident, I end up spending time with all three of these saints. Ken Smith, a retired math teacher with a rich Scottish accent, invites me into his basement suite, where his wife Kathy serves us tea and biscuits. He walks me through the formative decisions that shaped his life and career and how they reflected God's faithfulness. Dave Eggert I bump into when I visit the ministry, SALTS, which brought my parents together. This wooden tall ship program, with its voyages up and down the coast and around the world, fill the legends of our family's history. I attend a prayer meeting in the hull of the boat my parents helped build, which was setting sail that afternoon filled with kids from local schools. I sit next to Dave and, as part of the meeting, he spends several minutes praying for me once again.
How does a boy turn into a young man? How is he shaped away from the natural inclinations of sin and selfishness and towards the redemption of Christ? How does he change from a child of flesh alone to a child of the Spirit and the church? I was away from my family that week in Victoria. But I was confronted again of the steps they took to build a heritage for their son.
On Sunday I attend my aunt's Anglican church. My parents were married in the midst of this same congregation. It has changed names, buildings, and denominations and underwent a painful schism from the now liberal Anglican Church of Canada. This trial of conscience and conviction was a sad, wounding time for the church, but the resulting sense of clarity and purity is apparent when I attend. This service is filled with an older population, old even for Victoria. It's a small act of God's grace that they all make it up and down the pews without injury. Yet appearances deceive. Their worship is vibrant and alive. The joyful abandon in their singing is striking. I'm refreshed by the liturgy, so rooted in the Word and the Gospel. It reorients me to the true reality.
We celebrate communion. One by one, the white or graying heads make their way to the alter to receive the bread and wine. Suddenly I recall a memory deeper and dustier than any I'd experienced that week: my parents partaking of communion years ago in that very church. It's a blurry image of dark wood, white robes, blue glass, and the smell of wine and wafers. My parents would leave me to make their way to the front. I didn't understand what was happening. How could I? Yet I remember the serious joy of the occasion. I knew that it was something, something significant. Occasionally my mum or dad would break off for me a small sliver of their wafer. It tasted foreign and familiar and was always too small. But I couldn't partake fully. Not yet.
Then every night my dad would walk into the darkness of my room, lay his hand on my forehead, and pray Moses's blessing:
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make is face shine upon you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you.
And give you peace.
Some of these words made sense. Most of them didn't. "Make his face shine upon you" provoked a not-all-too-wrong image of God having a shining, serious face that smiled down upon me. I had no idea what "countenance" meant, but it sounded special, almost like those rare occasions when my parents would lift up their film camera to take my picture. "And give you peace." A piece of what? I understood it to be a promise. That someday I too would receive a piece, a whole piece, of communion wafer. That I would partake as freely and as regularly as my parents.
And now I'm here, twenty-two years later, surrounded by that same church family. I walk forward, kneel between strangers, and am given a whole piece. "May the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, preserve your body and soul to everlasting life. Take and eat."
And so I do.