Yesterday, I received a postcard from my friend Rooth. “Just came from Shackleton’s grave where we toasted his memory with some Guiness.” The stamp bears a photograph of a Chinstrap penguin and the words South Georgia, Antarctic Isle.
Something about Rooth’s words tweaked my memory and sent me rummaging among old obituaries I’d written and to a remarkable discovery of my own. But before detailing that, I’ll tell a bit more about my yesterday.
I had just finished dousing the sidewalk ice in front of the house with fistfuls of kitty litter, wanting to lessen the letter carrier’s risks, when he walked up the path and handed me the mail. I took it inside and although I didn’t sit down with a Guiness to read Rooth’s postcard, I did think heartily of history and of Shackleton’s grave.
“Now my eyes are turned from the South to the North, and I want to lead one more Expedition,” the explorer once wrote. “This will be the last…to the North Pole.”
In 1921 he went back to the Antarctic intending to carry out a programme of scientific and survey activities. Before the expedition could begin this work Shackleton died of a heart attack while his ship, Quest, was moored in South Georgia. At his wife’s request he was buried there.
There’s much, much history goes along with Shackleton’s story but I haven’t the room to write it. Instead, I’ll linger on his quote detailing his unmet dreams for further expeditions. Further expeditions…perhaps we all experience wanderlust, invisibly stitched onto an awareness of limitations. Meanwhile, at least for the vast majority of you who are reading my blog, we’re still able to toast and swallow and study other people’s completed stories.
Last summer I wrote an obituary on Winifred Scott, headmistress of the Norfolk House school in Victoria, B.C. She had gone from teaching at the wonderfully named Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s girls’ school in Montreal to this autere girls’ school in Victoria. Ms. Scott was renowned for inspiring a love of science in young women. In her time, she had been hugely mentored by a geology professor at Dalhousie University who had been on Ernest Shackleton’s last expedition. In fact, this man, George Vibert Douglas, erected the memorial cross that now marks it. He insisted it faced the south magnetic pole.
One thing I loved about my obituary subject was her name: Scott. This was the same name as the Arctic explorer who trumped Shackelton. (Scott had already been trumped by Roald Amudsen).
Another thing I loved about her was that in 2004, when she was 92 years old and visually impaired, she also travelled to Antarctica and stood by Shackleton’s grave, just as my friend Rooth had last month.
Winifred’s wanderlust was inextinguishable. And so is Rooth’s–she intends planting her feet on all seven continents. And even if all I do is shovel the snow and open the mail when it slides through the slot, my wanderlust also won’t diminish for a long, long while.