carving our initials in the snow with our hockey sticks

“You were loved,” the novelist Steven Galloway wrote this week in memory of his friend Alistair MacLeod, who died at the age of 77 in Windsor, Ontario, on April 20. A salute to the author of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and (his only novel) No Great Mischief (1999) might include a passage from the latter in which the narrator, Alexander MacDonald, recalls what it meant in Cape Breton to submit to a post-game interview.

In the years that followed, some of Calum Ruadh’s many descendants expanded his original land holdings, while others moved farther along the coast and others deeper inland. Nearly all of them had large families, which led in turn to complex interrelationships and complicated genealogies, over all of which his name continued to preside. I remember as a high-school athlete, travelling to hockey games in communities which seemed a great distance away, sometimes playing in arenas but more often on windswept ponds beside the sea. And after our games we would be invited into the homes of our hosts, where we would inevitably be quizzed by their parents or grandparents. “What’s your name?” “What’s your father’s name?” “What’s your mother’s father’s name?” And almost without fail, in the case of myself and my cousins, there would come a knowing look across the face of our questioners and they would say, in response to our answer, “Ah, you are the clann Chalum Ruadh,” as if that somehow explained everything. They would pronounce clann in the Gaelic way so that it sounded like “kwown.” “Ah, you are the children (or the family) of the red Calum.” We would nod and accept this judgment, as the ice and snow dripped off our shin pads to form puddles on the linoleum floors. And later, when we were out of the house and thinking ourselves more sophisticated than we were, we would laugh and sometimes imitate the people and their identification. “What is your father’s father’s father’s father’s name?” we would ask one another, carving our initials in the snow with our hockey sticks, and then answering our won questions, “Ah, now I know, you are clann Chalum Ruadh,” and we would laugh and flick snow at one another with the blades of our sticks.