Remember Me As You Pass By: Stories from Prairie Graveyards
Written by Nancy Millar
Remembering that we all die has the power to put our small discomforts and minor disputes automatically into perspective. The fact of death is the truest thing I know. And nothing drives the truth of mortality home like a stroll through a peaceful cemetery on a sunny summer day. Each of the folks represented by those bronze plates, concrete markers, and granite headstones experienced their own small discomforts and minor disputes. This was called “life.”
One day a couple years back, I noticed through the large glass window in our front door that something was hanging from the exterior door handle. There was a note with the book, Remember Me As You Pass By: Stories from Prairie Graveyards. It read: “I was doing some house cleaning, found this and thought of you.”
I was very touched by the gift but apparently not touched enough to read it until recently when provided the quiet by the coronavirus pandemic. I’m so glad I took the time to open up this paper copy and to savour its contents. This is an extraordinarily well-written and well-researched book. Besides knowing how to write and how to unearth some great stories, Nancy Millar is also pretty funny!
She writes about the “real” Sam McGee, a customer at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse, Yukon, where the fledgling poet, Robert Service, worked as a teller, and how Sam brought a bag of his own ashes home during a return trip to the North.
“When he visited Whitehorse at the end of the prospecting trip, he discovered that his old cabin there had been spruced-up as a tourist attraction and one of the items being offered for sale in the gift shop was “Genuine Sam McGee ashes.” Not only had he died, according to the tourist bureau of Whitehorse, but he had been such a massive man that his ashes would apparently supply tourist demand for some time.”
I also enjoyed how Nancy Millar describes Canmore, Alberta:
“Canmore is a pleasant mountain town on the edge of Banff National Park. Part of it wants to be big and rich like Switzerland; part of it wants to be small and modest like Canmore.”
There are a few really good chuckles in this read and they are placed alongside heartbreaking tales of tragedy that brought tears to my eyes for people long dead who I never knew. In the introduction, the author tells of a young couple who homesteaded in the early 1920s in the Innisfail, Alberta area. To earn money to help get them established, the husband went to work in Innisfail for a few months, leaving his newly-pregnant bride at home. He never did return. When his work at the brick plant in town was done, he started out on the twenty-mile journey on foot. He was robbed and killed along the way, his body left in a ditch.
“When the police found him in the spring, after the snow had melted and revealed his body, they rode out to tell his wife. But she had died too, in childbirth. Her twin babies were dead beside her.”
This book isn’t only about death and cemeteries. Instead, the graveyards and grave markers serve as jumping off places for Nancy Millar’s explorations of Canadian prairie history. It’s also a book that makes me want to explore prairie cemeteries even more than I have prior to reading Remember Me as You Pass By. At the end of the book, Nancy Millar includes a practical section called “How to Explore a Graveyard.” Handy! She reminds us to visit respectfully and to close gates. Then she goes into more detail for those readers interested in doing further exploration and maybe conducting some research.
If you love Canadian prairie history, old places, and colourful stories, then you will thoroughly enjoy this 1994 publication.
Then think as soft and slow we tread
Among the solitary dead
Time was, like us, they life possessed
And time shall be when we shall rest.
~ from the Calgary grave marker of George Park