In Stained Glass a 50s-something reporter, who has been jaded by overexposure to media hype and is cynical about every aspect of his wretched life, is given an assignment by his aging mother to complete the memoir of his great-great-grandfather Christopher Dryden. In the early 1870s Christopher had been sent on a mission to the boisterous Gold Rush town of Barkerville, BC, where a fund-raising campaign to install a stained glass window behind the alter of St. Saviour's Anglican Church (flickr image at right by jmegjmeg) turned into a heated controversy when it was revealed that the anonymous donor, who was covering most of the cost for the painted glass, was none other than the owner of the town's most notorious brothel...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sketch: The Shard

It sat in its cradle of wood, transubstantiating the crisp white light of a fall afternoon. Grandmother had placed it on her kitchen windowsill, which faced southeast, looking out toward Newcastle Island and Nanaimo Harbour. I had never noticed it before, but it had been there all along, refracting the brilliance that poured in on sunny days; dimmed somewhat, when scudding clouds roiled in off the Strait of Georgia; inanimate after nightfall, when the only available light was the crass effulgence from her kitchen fixtures.

One day Mother would inherit this heirloom. But that was a long way off. And it would be an even longer time before I took any serious interest in the shard. As a child I didn't really recognize the image of Mary Magdalen etched into the fragment. I was more interested in the unformulated patterns of light that played tricks with my eyes, and ended up splayed on the scuffed linoleum of my Grandmother's kitchen floor. Pretty, was the only word I had to describe the sensations that light caused. But even then, it meant so much more to me.

"That belonged to your Great-Grandmother Anna Dryden," Grandmother informed me. She knew just how meaningless her concatenation of genealogy would be to a four-year-old, so she didn't press the matter. Now, when I think of it, I realize that Grandma was Anna Welland's daughter-in-law, and that her husband Cameron was Anna's only son, and that the tendrils of relationship extend back that far. Farther than I ever could have imagined, before Mother told me more about that remarkable piece of glass.

I had hoped to own it someday - but Brenda has laid claim to it too.

Funny to think a shard of glass would become such valued treasure that it would be contested article in Mum's estate. But neither Brenda nor I are good losers, and even though Mum's not dead yet, we're already scrapping over it. I think it's rightfully mine because I did the research that added a historical dimension to what was, after all, merely a shiny object. Brenda believes it's hers by some feminist variant of logic that adds up to a quasi-legal birthright. She's not at all interested in sharing. Which is just as well, because I don't want to share it either, even though I made the suggestion. "You'll just have to come over and visit more often so you can have a look at it when it's sitting in my kitchen window," was her last word on the subject.

Actually, the kitchen window reference is anachronistic. The Shard of Mary hasn't sat in Grandmother's kitchen window for almost 20 years. When Dad inherited it Mother placed it on top of the piano in their living room. Neither of them seemed bothered by the fact that it would never be activated by direct sunlight as long as it sat there. They seemed content to leave its luster dulled by the drab, brown wall behind. Didn't bother me much, either, until later. Truth is, I experienced an evanescent epiphany when I first saw the stained glass fragment on Grandmother's windowsill, then I forgot about it. It became a glittery part of her world beyond reach or significance.

Further Notes:
  • There will be analogies drawn between the coloured glass and hallucinations brought on by Kyle's use of drugs in his hippie youth;
  • The fragment was picked up by Anna Armstrong after the window in St. Saviour's had been shattered by the opponents of Rev. Christopher Dryden.
  • She kept it as a memento her entire life, having the edges of the shard capped in copper and a little stand built for it.
  • Mary Magdalen's profile along with a glimpse of halo is captured in the fragment.
  • Anna and Christopher were left alone in the church after Madame Blavinsky and her girls fled the window's dedication service - they and a few miners had been the only ones in attendance.
  • Christopher continued with the service even after the newly installed stained glass window had been shattered. After the service he sat with Anna alone in St. Saviour's to pray.
  • She had not accepted his proposal for marriage at that point. She knows after that service that she will, and that they will have to leave Barkerville.
  • The shard symbolized all that for Anna, and Kyle is the one who will rediscover the story in the glass.

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