I cried when I opened the box and saw the damage inside. There lay the remains of a dearly loved possession, chewed to pieces by a squirrel and transformed into a nest. My father-in-law had to console me.
I recently posted a blog about our growing detachment from our material stuff and how Julian and I continue to rid ourselves of things that we once thought we couldn’t live without. However, there are a few precious possessions that we treasure – things that are meaningful because of the people who gave them to us or the situations in which we acquired them, or objects that are simply beautiful. In fact, most of the non-utility items we keep in storage with my parents-in-law fulfil both these criteria – they are beautiful and we are sentimentally attached to them. There’s a cake plate, a red sandstone dancing polar bear, a heavy woollen blanket, Bob the bear. None of these are of any monetary value, but to me they are priceless.
And one of those priceless things was a pair of seal skin kamiks (boots) with duffel kamikpaks (liners) made for me in 2000 by the great Inuit seamstress Elisapee Muckpah. How I treasured those kamiks. I loved how they looked on me, I loved the feel of them, I loved the way I glided across the snow and ice when I wore them. They were instantly recognisable to those in the know as Elisapee’s with their signature pattern around the leg, made by cutting and sewing together contrasting triangular sections and parallel strips of seal fur. They were silver, metallic, pewter, shimmering and beautiful. And oh so soft to the touch. The feet were ingeniously made, following a tradition of generations of Inuit women – black seal skin soles and white caribou skin uppers, hand stitched with precision and delicacy, impossibly tiny and uniform stitches. The kamiks came to precisely beneath my knee and the white kamikpaks ended a few inches above my knee, the part above the knee hand decorated with colourful woollen roses. How I loved slipping into those kamikpaks, pulling the kamiks on over and then tying the kamiks securely at the knee with a black woollen tie.
I remember going to Elisapee’s house in early winter. She measured my feet and the length of my lower legs. A couple of weeks later they were ready. I wore them for the first time that night, walking across town to my friend Brenda’s house. Brenda’s mom had sent her a care package from down south and we got silly together, drinking illicit red wine in a community where alcohol was banned. I spilled some wine on the kamik on my left foot and from that day on the caribou skin upper bore a tiny red wine stain.
I wore them throughout the winter and spring of 2000 and 2001 and again through the winter and spring of 2002 and 2003. I wore them during my fieldwork in Quaqtaq over in Nunavik in northern Quebec and I wore them in the winter of 2007, the last time I went to Arviat. And when we moved aboard Carina I put them in storage in my father-in-law’s loft.
I thought they were secure from damage, but I was wrong. I had reason to go into the loft a few weeks ago and out of the corner of my eye I saw something strange on top of one of the plastic storage boxes. On closer inspection, I discovered it was excrement. It wasn’t a mouse, but I wasn’t sure if it was a squirrel or a rat. I discovered a hole in the lid of the storage box. What had once been a very thin crack in the sturdy plastic, sealed with heavy duty tape, had been chewed by a determined rodent into a sizable hole.
Armed with a dustpan and brush, a piece of cardboard and masking tape, and wearing rubber gloves, I determined to cover the offending hole, clean the box and then bring it down to the garden to empty it. The poo smelled fragrant, so I ruled out the rat and decided it must be a squirrel. But I chickened out when it came to covering the box, scared some sharp-toothed rodent would leap from the box and run up my arm! So my father-in-law climbed the rickety ladder into the loft to secure the box before I took it downstairs!
In the open air and space of the garden I was much braver. I opened the box to find out what harm was done. Inside I found the Julian’s little thirty-five year old badge-covered Cub Scout jumper – untouched; my arctic hare mitts and polar bear mitts – untouched; and in the middle of it all a nest of seal skin and duffel. The rodent had made mince meat of my beautiful kamiks and kamikpaks. I was heartbroken.
Those boots reminded me of a wonderful and transformative time in my life; they reminded me of the friendships I forged during that time; and I imagined my daughters inheriting them one day, a tangible accompaniment to the stories of my youth.
But then I became philosophical. Elisapee’s art lives on in the clothing owned and worn by her children, grandchildren and many people like me, who admired her work. And her art lives on in the skills she passed on to her children and grandchildren. The loss of the kamiks doesn’t diminish my memories of that time or my connections to those people. Memories and connections are not material. Rather they live on in ongoing relationships with people and place. And those relationships are as strong as ever.
And so it goes for all our material possessions. While they are beautiful and tangible reminders of times past, of people and places, they are no substitute for the living relationships that are forged and maintained through communication, giving and receiving. My kamiks are gone. But the people and places they remind me of are still there, and the relationships that matter remain strong.