PHOTOS: COURTESY ARKSEY FAMILY
The bur oak stands on land that has been in my husband’s family for more than a century. Its roots are deep and strong and its branches spread in all directions. The trunk has been made solid by sunshine and rain, and its surface is gnarled by the abrasions of time and weather.
I cannot look at our oak tree without remembering the words I memorized in grade school. “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” Yet although it is undoubtedly a thing of beauty, this tree is not a poem. It is a saga with green-leaf pages held together in an unbroken spine.
The tree sits on land located near Langruth, Man., a small farming community approximately 100 miles northwest of Winnipeg. The provincial highway it stands beside follows a ridge left by the receding of Lake Agassiz 10,000 years ago. Today, the highway winds its way along the western shores of Lake Manitoba.
Years ago, my husband’s paternal grandparents lived there near the highway with their family of nine sons. I am told that the yard site was a common stopping point for travellers. Originally there were two–almost identical–trees growing there, one on each side of the home’s front door. But a team of horses tethered to one of the two left only a stump when the horses bolted and made for freedom. Both trees are easily seen in old family photographs. The remaining one grows steadily taller and sturdier. It was there when photos were taken of my husband’s uncle. He was in uniform and it was just before he headed off for service in World War II. Walter Arksey was my father-in-law’s brother.
Several years ago, family members spent time remembering Walter as they gathered information on his life for inclusion in A Place of Honour, a book on WW II casualties sponsored by the Manitoba Geographical Names program, Manitoba Conservation. Under that program, lakes and rivers in northern Manitoba are named after fallen soldiers. Arksey Lake, located northeast of Nejanilini Lake in northern Manitoba, was named after my husband’s uncle in 1974.
Walter was a pilot officer attached to a Royal Australian Air Force squadron. In June 1944, only two days after receiving his first commission, he was declared missing in action and presumed dead. He was 21.
He is commemorated at Viroflay New Communal Cemetery near Versailles, France. His nephew and namesake Walter Arksey of Kanata, Ont., visited the site about 10 years ago and sent back photos for family members in Manitoba. Many of the family members and community residents who would best be qualified to talk about Walter are themselves no longer with us. It was harder than we thought to find out about the young man in the family photos.
My father-in-law was reticent on the subject.
My mother-in-law remembered the going away party that was held for him before he left Langruth. She said he cried. My husband’s great-aunt Lucy (Lou) Senton of Winnipeg remembered seeing Walter off on the train on Oct. 27, 1943. Lou was the youngest in a family of 14 children. Her sister Maude was the oldest and Walter was Maude’s second child. That meant that Aunt Lucy was actually younger than her nephew Walter. His companions at the train station did not believe that this could possibly be his aunt.
“Arksey, you’re putting us on,” they said.
Lou says Walter was typical of the many bright young farm boys who saw the armed forces as a way out of life on the Prairies during the depression. In a letter home just weeks before his death, Walter spoke of the sights and people of England. “It really isn’t too bad over here,” he wrote, “but the sooner I can set foot on Canadian soil the better.”
Walter was not the only Arksey son to spend time overseas. His younger brother Gordon was in England at the same time and letters indicate that the two were able to see each other during that time. An uncle, Maude’s brother Art, was also there.
When news came of Walter’s death, his mother was pregnant with her ninth and last child. Lou says the young infant was colicky and unsettled. “How could he not be?” She remembers Maude saying, “I think I cried every day I carried him.”
I have been told that losing a child is like going through childbirth, but with no release from pain and no joy. It is a graphic and powerful analogy. Maude went through both experiences in the same year. My memories of my husband’s grandmother are scant; she died the year we were married. She struck me as a brusque, no-nonsense kind of woman. Tears did not seem part of her. Now I know differently.
When the war ended, the soldiers came home–Gordon and Art among them. There was a fire at the house, and the nearby oak tree was singed, but not destroyed. The home was rebuilt further back from the highway and the tree continued to grow, although no longer immediately adjacent to the front door.
Over the years the home yard site saw many changes. The remaining sons grew up and started families of their own. After my husband’s grandfather passed away in the early 1970s, the house was vacant. It was eventually sold and moved to another location. The barn was dismantled, and the yard site became part of an adjacent field. It remains in the Arksey name.
In the early 1980s a highway-widening project threatened the tree’s future. The tree was too close to the highway and would have to be cut down, government officials said. My father-in-law and other family members said, “No.” The tree still stands.
About this time my husband’s sister Jane, her husband Dale and their three young sons moved back to Manitoba from Alberta. They moved into a house about a quarter of a mile away from the tree and the old Arksey yard site.
In 1997, Jane and Dale’s oldest son, Tim, signed up for the armed forces. He served a six-month tour of duty in 2000 in Bosnia and left for Afghanistan for the first time in 2002. I remember the day as if it were weeks instead of years ago that my husband came home from a day in the hayfields and said, “Someone tied a yellow ribbon around the tree at Grandpa’s.”
We knew why. Tim had just returned safely from that first tour. The yellow ribbon was a personal Welcome Home to one of our own, but no one claimed responsibility for tying it to the tree. It wasn’t until almost four years later that the mystery was solved. My sister-in-law admitted she had done the deed.
But by that time, the yellow ribbon had become a measure of our pain, no longer a symbol of our rejoicing. Master Corporal Tim Wilson, our 31-year-old nephew, died in an accident outside Kandahar on March 2, 2006, just weeks after leaving his home at Shilo, Man., where he was stationed with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
A week before his death, my sister-in-law received e-mail photographs from her eldest son. She showed them to relatives and friends. There was a photograph of Tim’s company and another of Tim standing alongside a tall, bearded Afghan soldier. “You must worry about him,” friends told my sister-in-law that day.
“Yes,” she said. “But he is doing what he wants to do.”
“I am a soldier, mom. I am good at what I do,” he had told her.
Still, I know she did worry. All three of her sons joined the military; Tim in the army, Chris in the air force and the youngest, Ben, in the navy. “Why are you doing this to me?” she asked, partly but not entirely in jest, when Ben announced his decision to join the navy.
“Mom, I’m not doing this to you,” he said. “I’m doing it for me.”
A week later, I saw that same photograph of Tim and his mates on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press alongside the story of the accident which claimed two lives and injured four others. There was a surreal quality to our lives at this time, our grief splashed across the pages of national and local newspapers, our drawn faces staring out at us from television screens. Unwittingly we had walked onto the set of a reality TV series.
A reporter from the local community newspaper phoned to ask whether I supported the presence of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. “Someone told me you would be a good person to ask because you lost a nephew there,” she said.
It took me a moment to respond. When I did, I said that we needed to believe that there was good cause for Canadians to be there. To suggest otherwise would be to take the ground out from under us.
I was to see the group photograph one more time. When Tim’s belongings were returned to his family some time later, his digital camera was among them. We received copies of the pictures still held in the camera’s memory. There again were the Afghan soldier and Tim’s company members, so familiar to me now I could close my eyes and see their features and combat gear from memory.
But there were also pictures of the land itself and the people who inhabit it. The photographs show miles and miles of sand and rock, small children in baggy pants and western athletic shoes, wrecked vehicles, a classroom. In one photo taken inside their tented living quarters, a girlie picture is tacked up in one corner. There is also a picture of one of the deadliest looking insects I have ever seen. Obviously, a member of the wasp family, with a stinger that reminds me of a hypodermic syringe, it had alighted on the canvas of a soldier’s tent. Looking at that picture, I don’t have to ask where death’s sting might be. It’s at the business end of this creature, I’m quite sure.
There is a monochromatic quality to these pictures, as if much of the colour has been bleached from the land. Granted, they were taken in late February before spring had brought rebirth to the landscape. I also notice that there are very few trees in any of the pictures. It would be nicer to die, I think, in a place where there were lots of trees.
We plan to erect a cairn near the oak tree at home. We will use a field stone taken from nearby farmland, and we will affix two plaques, one on either side of the stone. Tim’s 10-year-old son Jesse has already designed the inscription in honour of his dad. “In loving memery of Tim Wilson,” he wants it to read, and any spelling mistakes are his own. We shall leave them there.
On the other side of the rock, we shall place a plaque honouring Tim’s great uncle Walter. Until this past year, Walter was little more than a name to me, a face in an old photograph album.
My husband wants to set a bench under the tree beside the cairn, a place for people to rest and reflect, much as travellers did in years gone by when they stopped at the yard site. We haven’t set a date for the dedication of the cairn. We shall wait until a time when all family members can be there.
Twenty years ago, our tree was nominated for a Heritage Tree of Manitoba designation under a program sponsored by the Manitoba Forestry Association in conjunction with federal and provincial governments. It was given an honourable mention. “We do not inherit trees; we borrow them from our children,” read a quote on the back page of the Heritage Trees publication that year.
We borrow many things from our children, it seems, among them the ideals for which we fight and the time with which we fight them. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, what is borrowed can never be returned.