There’s nothing wrong with that.

Whether it was cultural, part of the child-rearing wisdom of the time, or personality, my mother adhered to the belief that to compliment a child excessively would lead to conceit, a “swelled head.” A number of my aunts and female friends of our family were of the same mind. Oddly, though, my dad and a regiment of uncles seemed inordinately and vocally proud of their children’s achievements.

At Mom’s funeral, one of her good friends approached me to say, ‘Your mom was so very proud of you and Sharon.’ Although a tiny child’s voice inside my head whispered, ‘Then why couldn’t she tell us so,’ I realized in that moment that without heaping praise, both Mom and Dad had planted in us the unfaltering sense that we were loved. Unconditionally.

When our children were very young, Robert and I spoke jokingly with friends about all of us striving to“improve” on the child-rearing techniques of our parents. Although, they could hardly have been “techniques” because this was not a generation who read books on how to increase your child’s self-esteem, which activities and advantages were essential to her growth and well-being, and how to discipline. Dr. Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was published two years before I was born, but there would have been no place for it in the Harke family bookcase.

Sharon and I, when we shared the accomplishments of our children, or simple pleasures like showing one another a particularly precious rose in one of our gardens would often share the one family joke that neither of us had forgotten. Mom’s highest praise: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

In many ways, we have raised our children according to the same strong values our parents held, and I see in all three of my own and in my niece and nephew, the qualities that I am grateful to my mom and dad for nurturing in their “girls.”

When Mom died – far too soon, and Dad eight years before her – my grief and sense of loss was made even more profound because my children would never have the chance of getting to know Grandma and Grandpa Harke. So I have tried to include in my own expressions of pride and love, the joy Mom and Dad would have felt.

On a trip to the Alberta Books Awards in Edmonton three weeks ago, I took along two irises and two small clumps of primula (which were transplanted from the mother plant in Mom’s garden to mine almost 40 years ago). We stopped at Mt Pleasant Cemetery just a few hours before the gala, something I rarely do, to visit. I stood between their graves – Albert Morris Harke and Martha Harke – and whispered, ‘Hey, Dad. Mom. Know why I’m here? Tonight, I’m the recipient of an honour that I know would make you proud.’ In my mind I heard Dad proclaim, ‘That’s my girl!’ And Mom, I know you were smiling when I heard you say, ‘Well. There’s nothing wrong with that.’

And you know — there’s nothing wrong with that.

D
D

to FB or not to FB

(warning: I get a little preachy in this one)

There have been many times when I’ve declared that I am giving up “something” for Lent, but the seriousness of that commitment was measured in how long my fingers were able to stay out of the chocolate chips.

Typically, for a long spell in my adulthood this was a measure of the depth of the “I believes” that spilled from my lips during church services. From baptism through adulthood I’ve identified as a Christian, a Lutheran to be specific. The Lutheran liturgy is so indelibly printed in my mind that I suspect that in my dotage when I’ve lost oh so many other words, the Apostles’ Creed will be one of the easily retrievable files in my memory.

But this year, the forty days of Lent seemed to be calling on me to look closely at what matters most in my life, and the amount of time and energy that I squander on distraction.

When I first signed on to Facebook, it was with the notion that this might be a place to promote my writing, keep up with news from friends and family, and re-connect with people from “back when …” It has been a good way to re-connect, to keep abreast of what’s happening in the writing community, encounter some new people. But scrolling through endless newsfeed sometimes three, four, more? times a day has come too close to resembling an evening spent in front of the television, too lazy to change channels or fast-forward through commercials. I never was a TV junkie. How then, did I become hooked on the overwhelming flow of information about the lives of not only people I know, but those I’ve become connected with through “mutual friends?”

Yes, I do love seeing the photos of the adorable children of my friends, and those of my talented photographer friend, Margaret, who captures gorgeous images I would not otherwise see, and there are jokes, cartoons, wise sayings that amuse or touch me. There are political rants, some of which I am in agreement with, others that make me sit on my hands so that I won’t break the rules my parents taught me about never getting into arguments about politics, religion, or how much money anyone earns or how much they spend.

I want to be clear, though, that I appreciate the enjoyment other people derive from their own postings and those of others, and it’s not for me to decide whether the minutiae of life belongs on Facebook, or look down my rather long nose at anyone who loves social media. As with any human discourse, it’s all about respect. Being non-judgmental has always been hard for me, but I’m getting better. I hope.

So what have I been doing during this season of Lent? For the first time in my life, I have attended every Thursday evening Lenten prayer service, attended every Sunday worship, looked long and hard at whether I can “produce fruit out of season”, finally understood what the withered fig tree in Mark 11 means in contemporary life, pondered why people need holy places, and given a lot of thought to what the world’s religions share rather dwelling on the differences.

As for the time I would have spent on Facebook? I’ve made a point of talking with friends over coffee or lunch rather than checking to see what they’ve posted on Facebook or waiting for email. And probably most significantly, I’ve been reading voraciously. Even more voraciously than usual; at least five books a week, re-reading some of them as well, learning from all of them. From the short-listed GG and Giller lists, from twice weekly plundering of the new and notable displays at Fish Creek Library, from recommendations by friends. From beautiful fiction like Connie Gault’s A Beauty, Claire Holden Rothman’s My October, to Raziel Reed’s controversial, brilliant, funny, heartbreaking YA novel, When Everything Feels Like the Movies, to Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. The photo is a mere sampling. Forty days? At least twenty-five books, I think.

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Only four days left in this Holy Week. Am I counting them, eager to get back in the loopy loop of FB? No. What’s been good has been counting each of the days of Lent as part of the journey. And of hearing over and over again that paying attention to God means the practice of compassion and justice. To quote Marcus Borg: “Within the church compassion is to be the primary virtue in our relationships with each other…. among other things, compassion means inclusiveness and inclusive caring. Justice is the social or systematic form of compassion.” — from The Heart of Christianity

What a pity that the “Christians” who make the news regularly haven’t read Borg, nor do they seem to remember that Jesus was a fearless activist who crossed every social and political boundary he encountered.

So if I do re-appear on Facebook, apart from blog posts like this one that automatically show up there and on Twitter, and if I forget what Ma and Pa told me about not arguing about religion, maybe you’ll forgive me if I forget to sit on my hands when I encounter Christian bashing. I’m fresh from some dedicated contemplative thinking and prayer. I’ll simply be trying to make the point, as compassionately as possible, that there are fanatics in every religion, and a whole lot more of us who are working hard to walk in the way of compassion and justice, and most important of all — love.

Besides, I have photos of spring flowers to post. Would I deprive anyone of those?

What’s in an Ending?

— THE END —

Oh the pleasure of pounding those words onto the end of a story. Whether it took four, eight or twelve drafts, three months or six years, the story is over, ended, and the rest is up to the reader. When I finished final edits on my first novel, Running Toward Home, I envisioned all of the characters in that novel climbing onto a bus. As the bus ground its gears and chugged off into the sunset —I’m a poor author, my imaginary busses are all a little decrepit— one character made his way to the back and waved goodbye. I blew Corey a kiss and wished him good luck.

It is rare for me to begin a story with the ending clearly in sight. In fact, one of the pleasures of writing is in following the tape as it plays out in my mind, following my characters even when their footsteps are barely visible in the snow. But not to pretend that it’s all a mystical journey, there comes a point when I know it’s time to rein in even the bossiest character and hand her the bus ticket.

I love mysteries, particularly the creepy stories of the likes of Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, and a number of other favourite British authors who do “creepy” so very well, and get great satisfaction from the ending that gives up the secrets and brings the suspense to a close. But my preference in literary fiction is the “open ending”, the one that leaves room to speculate on what happened next; sometimes even what happened within the story.

I write with a straightforward style and in my self-critical moments, I’ve felt that there is often a too definite a resolution. Have I really left room for the reader to own the story?
What I’ve learned after two novels, a collection of short stories and the somewhat strange hybrid of non-fiction, memoir, and fiction that became The Boy, is that I should be prepared for at least a dozen different interpretations of the story, and in particular in the ending.

A friend, after reading the stories in A Crack in the Wall, phoned and asked why I seemed to be incapable of writing anything but depressing fiction. Depressing? I thought all of my fiction had at least traces of humour, and a crumb of hope in the ending. “Nope,” said the cranky voice on the other end of the conversation, “everybody you write about is drowning. Could you at least throw them a rope that they can reach?” So much for the light touch and twinkle of redemption.

In the final scene in Delivery “the ferry slides away with from the dock with two long mournful pulls of the whistle.” To me, it’s clear that where we last see each of the characters, answers the big question and earns —THE END— Apparently not, because at least half of the readers I’ve met at book clubs have sputtered over the ending. Well? Did she keep the baby? Is she going to give her up? Are Jack and his nasty wife going to raise her? I’ve learned it’s best to just ask, “What do you think? How do you think it ends, and how would you like it to end?” When I don’t like the answer to my question, because I know the best way for that story to end, I remind myself of the bus, and that the reader shaking the book at me really does own it now.

The Boy raises countless questions. Why the complicated structure? Why write a fictional version of the story alongside the true version? Do I believe that Robert Raymond Cook was innocent? Probably the most difficult question: Why did I write this book?
But for once, at least where the fiction is concerned, I felt compelled to spell out the fate of young Daniel Peters in the most definite of summaries. “He will hold down a job in a welding shop, find someone to love, and look ruefully back in his old age on the years he wasted as a punk. In the end, his family will claim him.” The fiction is there because the only way I could endure writing the true story, was to offer a different ending, a form of redemption.

I seem to have drifted to non-fiction and particularly memoir recently, and I wonder if it’s all about control. I may encounter readers who feel the story isn’t complete, but there is no way that I will countenance anyone playing loose and fast with the stops and starts of my own life.
—THE END—

The Queen is Coming — well maybe not, but there is a new princess.

I posted this story a couple of years ago, but the excitement over the new royal princess makes me think it can go around once again..

The story was first broadcast on CBC’s Alberta Anthology and  published in print in The Best of Alberta Anthology for 2005  in celebration of Alberta’s centennial.

So here it is, the story of a staunch royalist who would probably have wanted to knit a pair of booties for Charlotte Elizabeth Diana,, and her not so staunch but exceedingly kind son.  Charlie still holds a special place in my repertoire of fictional “friends”.

The Queen is Coming

by Betty Jane Hegerat

My mother phones at eight o’clock in the morning on March 27. “Charlie! The Queen is coming for the Centennial. I want to go to the party,” she says. “You sound sleepy, dear.”

I’ve given up reminding her that I work nights. I do data entry at a bank. Suits me well, and I’m free to ferry Ma to medical appointments and funerals – pretty much her only outings these days.

I’d cruelly hoped, when I heard about the pending royal visit on CBC radio this morning, that Ma would be having one of her bad days. That the news wouldn’t penetrate the fog.

“You know I hate crowds,” I tell her.

“You’re fifty-seven years old,” she says. “You should get over these little fears of yours.” She sighs. “This will be my last chance to see her.”

My mother’s obsession with the royal family began in 1948 when she and Princess Elizabeth were both pregnant. I was born two days after the little prince. If the royal had been a girl, I would have been named Ernest, for my father.

“The tickets are free,” she says. “All you have to do is get in line.” I imagine her head trembling as she speaks. “I hope I can find my hat.”

 In Ma’s royal album, there is a picture from 1951. The two of us standing on Ninth Avenue, Ma in a dark wool coat, matching felt hat with a brim and feather. Me, buttoned into a heavy brown coat cut down from Ernest’s overcoat just a few months after he died in a streetcar accident. I’m clutching a small Union Jack in my chubby fist.

The Princess was wearing a mink coat that day, and a matching hat that hugged her head.  Ma had a milliner fashion a replica of that mink cloche hat out of a piece of fur no has ever identified. My sister, Annie, swears it’s cat. The hat has only ever been worn for royal viewings.  Four in all.

I grudgingly agree to get tickets to the Saddledome reception. But I oversleep on the morning they go up.

Ma is surprisingly cheerful. “Never mind. I’m not sure I could have endured the program. They say it will be hours long.”

“Right!” I say in jovial response.  I’ve had nightmares about chasing her runaway wheelchair down ramps. About the accidents to which this proud woman is now prone and the mortification of both of us.

“We’ll just go down to the public viewing,”  Ma says. “Maybe she’ll do a walk-about.” She’s getting excited now. “Wouldn’t it wonderful if Charles was coming?”

“Don’t know why he isn’t,” I say. “He’s fifty-seven. He probably loves riding around with his mother.”

“He’s busy,” she snaps. “He’s getting married again, you know.”

Ma loved Diana, is sour on Camilla, but says at least Charlie Windsor isn’t going to remain an old bachelor for the rest of his life. And he has those two fine sons.  I, on the other hand, allowed a childless marriage wash up on the rocks ten years ago.

The weather in the week leading up to the Queen’s arrival in Calgary is cold, grey, fiercely windy. Not the sort of climate to which a responsible man would expose his frail eighty-two year old mother.

But she insists.  My sister, Annie, insists. “For gawd sake, Chuck!” she snarls over the phone, “I offered to take her myself, but she wants you.”

I slump in my chair, thinking about the hat I retrieved from the top of the closet. . Even after my heroic attempts to fluff it up, the old relic looked like road kill. I winced when Ma settled it over her scant curls and peered into the mirror. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered, “I look so old.”  But I, standing behind her chair, was staring at my own reflection. A fat, balding, man who would never be mistaken for a prince.

Even though it’s a morning in May, Ma is bundled into her black winter coat, feet encased in fur-lined boots, hat perched covering her freshly-permed hair. A policeman stands in the middle of Ninth Avenue, diverting traffic. Despite his shouts, I creep forward, waving my “handicapped parking” sticker. He shakes his head, but points to a loading zone around the corner.

I push Ma’s wheelchair to a curbside spot in front of the Palliser Hotel. Huddled into my windbreaker, I wish I’d worn my own winter jacket. But then, just minutes before the entourage is due, the sun breaks through. Ma twists in the chair to look up at me, her face tiny beneath the fur. “They say she never wears a hat twice.”

Suddenly there’s a limo approaching, and as it glides by, a smattering of applause from the crowd. A blur of face, a wave. Finished in seconds. Ma doesn’t blink. “That’s not her,” she says. “It’s that Clarkson woman.”

The Governor General, Ma tells me, is going ahead to stage the receiving line for the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the way things work.

I’m eyeing the corner of Ninth and Macleod a block away, thinking that this is where the cars will slow. This is why the crowd is thickest there. For the better view.  I hope my mother doesn’t notice that I haven’t chosen the best vantage point. Haven’t even tried.

She turns again, and motions for me to listen. I crouch beside the chair. “You look at her face, Charlie. She’s so… serene. How can that be possible with all the stress the poor woman has been through?”

I choke back a snort. “She has a bit of hired help, Ma.”

“Oh, not that,” she says. “It’s the children. The way they live their lives. What a disappointment that must be.”

I feel heavy, leaning there on my haunches, the weight of my own dull life hovering over Ma and me. “I guess that’s just something that comes with being a mother,” I say.

 “No dear,” she tells me softly, without taking her eyes off the street. “Elizabeth has had bad luck with her Charles. Aren’t I a lucky old woman to have raised a decent man like you?” She turns now and the smile takes twenty years from her face.

I can see cars approaching, people waving and cheering in the next block.  Too fast. They’ll be past us in a flash. I crank Ma’s chair around, bounce it off the curb and race down the street, Ma gasping and waving her arms.

 “Make way!” I shout. “The Queen is coming!”  At the corner, the crowd parts to let us pop up onto the sidewalk just before the second limo in the procession slows, and glides past.  Under a big-brimmed white hat, a smiling face turns to Ma, a gloved hand makes an elegant salute.

Ma grabs my arm. “She smiled right into my face!”

I bend, press my cheek to hers. “Of course,” I say. “She recognized the hat.”

Books that Enchant

 

I have no memory of my mom or dad reading to me, but I know that my older sister entertained me well with books. In fact, I remember her telling my dad with great excitement, “Janie can read!” I was about four years old, and no young genius, but after many readings of the same book had the words down pat and always pointed to “the” which was one that I did recognize.

Even then, I chose the prettiest books. Illustrated copies of Beatrix Potter’s books and a tome of a collection of Bible stories for kids with illustrations that verged on the downright terrifying— Joseph sold into slavery, Jesus with a tear-stained face kneeling to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Questionable imagery at best, but oh so beautiful on the page. I can still call up the painting of Elijah ascending into heaven in his fiery chariot.

Robert and I did read to our children. We maxed out our limit at the library on occasion, and our bookcases fairly bulged with the strain of the books our kids owned. We not only raised three readers, but can proudly claim a children’s librarian as our own. Among the books I keep hidden so they will not be kidnapped–Brian Wildsmith’s A Christmas Story, A Prairie Alphabet by Yvette Moore and Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet, and The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, this latter one with illustrations dark and almost frighteningly beautiful.

This long preamble to talk about a book that is currently enchanting me. I’ve had the good luck to reconnect with Glen Huser whose Writing for Children course at UBC was the hatchery for my YA book, Odd One Out, which I will be released this spring from Oolichan Books.

I knew of Glen’s books and the fine recognition they garnered before I me him at UBC. A former Edmontonian, Glen taught at the same school as one of my cousins, had been in a writing group with several authors I know, and highly respected in the Edmonton writing community. In fact, I read some of his YA books in preparation for the UBC course: Touch of the Clown; Stitches, which won the Governor General’s literary prize; Skinny Bones and the Wrinkle Queen, nominated for the GG; and the beautiful Grace Lake, written for an older audience.

Through this reunion via email and Glen’s website http://www.glenhuser.com/main/, I’ve found his more recent novels, Runaway, and The Elevator Ghost as well as two stunning works of art, Time for Flowers, Time for Snow, and The Golden Touch.

The book that has me so enchanted now is Time for Flowers, Time for Snow, a retelling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. In Glen’s words, the book “was the brain child (children?) of a Montreal music director who works with a massed choir of about 200 schoolchildren for the chorus.” Glen has written the narrative and the lyrics to the opera. The music was composed by Giannis Georgantelis who directs the choir of over 180 school children accompanied by the Orchestra Symphonique Pop de Montreal. A CD with both narrative and music is included with the book. Illustrations by Philippe Beha complete this marvelous package. I am awaiting the arrival of the second book in this series, The Golden Touch, a retelling of the King Midas story.

Give your children and yourself these gifts of enchantment by one of Canada’s finest. Seek out Glen Huser’s books. Just a trip to the bookstore or library—they are so close at hand, and so worthy of the quest.

My UBC Hat Trick

 

http://oolichan.com/oolichan/hegerat-odd-one-out
Now, I am a pitiful specimen of a Canadian, because I do not love hockey; I don’t watch hockey, I know very little about the game or the lexicon therof, and my interest in the Calgary Flames involves periodically asking the true fan in the house how “our” team is doing. But there’s a hockey term that always makes me smile—“hat trick.” Although I’m sure there is no one out there who needs a definition of hat trick: the scoring of three goals in one hockey game by the same player.

So, I’m calling the publication of my newest book, Odd One Out (Oolichan Books 2016), the completion of my UBC hat trick. I’m borrowing this is as a literary term. The game has been a long one beginning with the publication of my MFA thesis, Delivery, a novel, (Oolichan Books 2009) the year after I completed the MFA Creative Writing through UBC’s low residency program. For literary purposes I’m going to say the game has three periods, and can go on for even longer than a cricket match—in my case, for seven years.

In the second period, The Boy (Oolichan Books 2010), a hybrid of investigative journalism, fiction and memoir was published.

This spring, 2016, Odd One Out, a novel for teens, will be out.

Each of these three books owe huge thanks to the exceptional mentors I had access to at UBC. The gracious and talented Catherine Bush was my thesis advisor and guided me through the final draft of Delivery.

The irascible journalist, Terry Glavin, was one of the instructors who drew me to apply to UBC when I was struggling with non-fiction, with writing the story that ultimately became The Boy. Not only did Terry teach me how to “construct literature from the found materials of the known world,” he baptised me in the belief that TRUTH MATTERS.

I had no intention of writing for young people until I took a summer session course, Writing for Children, with Glen Huser. As in all writing courses, there is that basic requirement— write! And it was in the ten days in the summer of 2007 that I began to think about a boy named Rufus, to hear his voice in my mind, and to get a sense of what was troubling that poor kid. The kind and generous Glen Huser, in my estimation one of the finest Canadian authors of children’s book as well as an outstanding teacher, read the first draft of Odd One Out and helped me find the right sized boots I needed to write for a teenaged audience.

I’ve noticed a recent surge of discussion about the value of the MFA in terms of a writer’s skill and success. I will go on record, as I have many times, in saying, “No! One does not need a university degree to be a good writer.” But what’s troubled me lately is that many of the people who are making that same declaration are doing so with a kind of reverse-snobbery that gets a tad offensive. Don’t apply to graduate programs if you feel they’ll be of no value to you, but please don’t peer down the length of your nose at those who have taken that path for their own personal reasons.

I applied to the UBC MFA Creative Writing program and was accepted on my second try (this for those of you who are inclined to toss in the towel after first attempts). My motive was simple. There were important things I didn’t know and felt sure I couldn’t accomplish without the help of some wise people who would hold my feet to the fire in my efforts to earn a degree. I didn’t need any more letters to tack onto my name, I didn’t need a new community of writers, although I’ve been ever grateful to have met so many gifted and supportive people. I was at an age when I wasn’t looking to gain extra credibility in order to teach. I wanted to be immersed in that academic world just long enough to find answers to my questions.

Am I glad I made the decision to apply to the MFA program? You bet I am. Would I have continued to write and to publish without the degree? Of course I would have. I am determined, tenacious, and thick-skinned and not particularly humble when it comes to believing I have a gift and a responsibility to use it.

Thank you UBC for helping me tighten the laces on my skates. Hat trick.

O Tannenbaum

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In our house, the season begins with the lighting of the first Advent candle, but I don’t have a sense of the house being prepared until the tree is up, and the Angel of the Lord has ascended (or descended, depending on perspective) and sits, albeit precariously, in her place.

For many years, the decorating of the tree has fallen to me, and I admit that I don’t always do this bit of “celebration” with a glad heart. In fact, I can remember many Christmas trees from my childhood more clearly than I can those of the past 44 years in my own home.

The family tree, oh so long ago, was always a fresh-cut spruce. There were no Little House on the Prairie outings to fell and carry home the tannenbaum. In my remembering, my dad would have wanted to cut that tree himself, but would have been forbidden to do so by my mom. Dad had polio as a young man, and was left with a paralyzed right arm and hand. He did carpentry around the house and produced some lovely wooden pieces that I still own. But swinging an axe with his left arm? I’m grateful to Mom now for her bossiness.

Once the tree was home, Sharon and I helped with the decorating, enjoying even while enduring Mom’s insistence that each ornament be hung on exactly the right branch for balance and beauty. And the hanging of the tinsel? Gott im Himmel. There was no standing back and tossing handfuls of icicles at the branches – a style favoured by my children, but one I’ve never adopted, such was the influence of my obsessive mom. Finally, the smell of Christmas pervading our small living room, all decorative bits in their place, the Angel was carefully placed to watch over Christmas. She was a beauty. Sculpted of strong plastic, feathery wings, eyes raised heavenward. Unfortunately, over the years the light bulb heated her skirts and they began to scorch, until finally, sometime after I left home, she was deemed a fire hazard and I have no recollection of the tree topper with which my mom replaced her.

The other tree that is magical in my memory is the giant that graced the front of our small St. John’s Lutheran Church in New Sarepta. I’m quite sure from the earliest of my Christmas Eve recollections, the tree was lit with candles, although my sister disagreed with that memory. The services, also in the first years I remember, were in German, and even today “Oh, Christmas Tree,” doesn’t hold a candle (never mind the ones flickering on the tree) to “O Tannenbaum.” As we exited the church, each child was handed a brown paper bag with an orange, a handful of hard candy – the men put these bags together and they had huge and generous mitts – and a handful of nuts in the shell. Big smiles on small faces.

Fast forward to the Hegerat family Christmas tree decorating celebrations. The lights, which I asked Robert to put in place  quickly fell to my part of the “deal” when I re-arranged his work for the second year running. Thereafter, he relaxed in his chair and read while I decorated. To my delight, I found an angel almost a replica of the one who graced our Harke famiy tree and she is with us still.

When Elisabeth and Eric were young enough to consider the tree-trimming tradition to be fun, I was delighted to let them hang whatever they chose as high as they could reach. Elisabeth liked to hang all of the angel decorations in one spot. They were a choir she explained and they had to be together or we wouldn’t hear them. I suggested that if they were spread out, their voices would carry in all directions, but she wasn’t buying it. Within a few years, the shiny baubles and the old ornaments inherited from my mom were joined by the treasures the kids created at school – oh, those elementary school teachers who loved the pasta angels and the child’s handprint on brown construction paper transformed into the head of Rudolph. Some of these mementos still come out of the box each year – and some go right back into the box – but the tree represents the life of a family. When I became too stern about the hanging of the tinsel, or perhaps they had more important places to go and things to do—clearly I gave the impression that I loved doing the job – my family left it to me.

Now I’ll go carefully place each decoration with a moment of pondering its origin, and then I will hang every glittery strand of tinsel and think about my mom, and about my dad whose generous left hand helped fill the brown bags for Christmas Eve. For isn’t that what a family Christmas is about? Peace on earth, hope, and abiding memories of the saints who’ve gone before.

On Short Stories; Randomly Pulling Thoughts From the Air

But no, short stories aren’t scooped out of the air in nets. More often, they’re a flash of an idea that flies by so quickly we grab at them and have to run to catch up. Sometimes we have to walk backwards over the same ground to find them again. And again. And again.

What’s random here are my thoughts.

I’m perplexed when readers—smart readers who love literature—tell me they don’t read short fiction because …. The reasons are too many and too weird to list. I will strive to be respectful and not criticize. This is part of my resolve to cease judging other people.

What I know for sure, is that telling stories is innate in human beings. From ancient to contemporary times our lives are made up of stories strung like beads on a string.

Some of us write those stories, and the ones we steal from other people’s lives, and the ones that start with life but with which we play fast and loose.  Some people prefer to listen, to read, to be reminded that no matter how far away the story’s world, stories are universal. The stories we remember are the ones that strike a chord, resonate, make us catch our breath – all those clichés.

Just a few of the stories that I can’t forget, a few that immediately fly out of the books on the shelves behind me: “Hills Like White Elephants,” –Hemingway; “Why I Live at the Post Office,”- Eudora Welty; “The Lady With the Dog,”- Chekhov; “Dance of the Happy Shades,”- Alice Munro. And so many more.

There are novels I can’t forget, but the memories are different in the way they cling to my brain. A short story isn’t simply a short novel, nor a novel a short story that got carried away with itself.

I know writers who sell their first books—that collection of stories it’s taken years to gather and polish to a high shine—but the contract is conditional on the author producing a novel within a particular period of time. The two book deal.

So do we graduate from poetry (my apologies poets!), to short story, and finally produce the novel? I’m reminded of a story from my husband’s early years in retail pharmacy. An elderly woman, whenever she came into the store would look at the pharmacist on duty, shake her head, and say, “It’s too bad you didn’t make it.” Finally someone gently asked for a translation. She believed that if one started out with the dream of being a physician but didn’t make it through, then they became a dentist, and if that too was beyond their capabilities, they sighed and went to work as pharmacists.

Where did all this begin? With my daughter’s freezer and a pot of borscht. With a friend remembering one of my short stories, “Leftovers,” that began with a freezer. Although, where it really began was with an anecdote a friend told me about a young mom who was terminally ill and spent the last months of her life cooking and freezing enough meals for her family to eat one of her dinners once a week for the entire year after her death. My immediate reaction: who could eat those meals?

I loved writing that story, as I’ve loved writing every other one that’s reached the finish line. Novels? If a story is like training a rambunctious puppy, a novel is like wrestling down a woolly mammoth. The satisfaction when it “works”, the sheer relief at reaching the end, the rewards that no matter how small are always greater than they were for the collection of stories, is affirmation that the six years of wrestling the beast were worth it.

When the drunken muse in my soul finally sobers up and gives me permission to write again, story is where I will go. The short form. The novel? Though I know brilliant authors who if they live to be 100 will take a pen along to the grave, I can’t help hearing the tick-tock. It helps that I think short fiction—thousands upon thousands of stories written every year—gives us a gift box overflowing with jewels.

So long to get to the promo? Not really. But it seems fitting to end with an excerpt from the beginning of “Leftovers.” Perhaps you’ll look for A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008), the collection where this story, after a good life in magazines and on radio, finally came to rest. Perhaps, you’ll reach for the book of stories you have closest at hand and re-read a favourite. Christmas is coming. The wish list if anyone insists that you provide one, should dangle to the floor with the titles of collections of short fiction. Toss in a novel or two if you must.

 

 

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Leftovers

Before she died, Margaret Murray cooked, packaged, labelled, and froze enough food to nourish her husband for a whole year. She also planned her funeral and gave away her clothes, but it was the meals that astonished anyone who heard the story. “Who could eat that food?” they asked. Frank Murray just shrugged. To ignore or dispose of the frozen labour of love would be to turn his back on Margaret, and he had decided twenty years before that he would never do that again.
Margaret’s grandmother, mother, and sister all died of breast cancer, and she announced at her sister’s funeral that she too would die before her fifty-fifth birthday. Pessimism typical of a Capricorn, her friend Sandra had said. Margaret was fast approaching fifty-four
On the December day that Margaret heard the results of the critical mammogram, Frank was so sure all would be well that he stopped to buy chocolates on his way home from work. Four hand-dipped Belgian truffles in a gold foil box.
He expected as he came through the door, to hear Margaret call out as usual from the kitchen, “In here, Frank! Supper in half an hour.” She was sitting in the living room in her wicker rocking chair. When he took the cup from her slack fingers, cold tea sloshed over the rim and across his knuckles. He reached toward the lamp but Margaret grabbed his hand, her face a solemn white moon.
“There is a lump.” She stared down at the front of her sweater. “How can it be that we didn’t feel it? Neither of us. I was so sure I’d find the lump myself. I thought I’d worry over it and feel it there and then gone and then back again for at least a week before I made an appointment. That’s how I thought it would be.” She stood up, grabbed his hand and slid it under her sweater, peeling away the cup of her bra so that the weight of her breast rested in his palm. She pressed his middle finger into soft flesh. “There,” she said. “Right there about four o’clock from the nipple, is what the x-ray showed. Can you feel it?”
Her skin was reassuringly warm and pliant. Frank shook his head. “No,” he said. He wanted to pull his hand away, but to do so he would have to wrench free of Margaret. And now, even though he didn’t feel a lump, there was something. A needle of heat radiating from deep inside his wife’s breast.

We are all immigrants…

Auswandererlied 

(The Immigrants’ Song)

I and holding two photographs taken in 1947. In one, my mother, age twenty-five, is seated on a chesterfield with two other women Her hair is neatly permed, and she is wearing one of her “good” dresses, nylons, pumps. In the photo in my other hand, Beda, my dad’s cousin, age twenty-five, is posed with twenty-nine other German girls in the Lubercin Labour camp near Moscow, each of them wearing the one sweater they were allowed to knit for themselves in the textile factory where they worked.

On the back of my mother’s picture, faint blue ink tells me this was Christmas with the family. Beda’s photo bears these words: Look at our faces, we’re all young girls but look like old ladies.

I am haunted by the destiny of these two women; one whose family was desperate enough to cross an ocean to a country they didn’t know; the other whose family made the equally courageous decision to stay behind in spite of the threat of their village being obliterated by an advancing Russian army.

Both my mother’s and my father’s ancestors were German farmers who were settled in an area on the Vistula River near Plock in Poland around 1824. My dad’s grandparents and their five children sailed from Hamburg on the S.S. Sicilia on May 9, 1896 to find land in The Alberta District of the Northwest Territories after a decade of turmoil in Volhynia. Religious freedom was denied, military service became compulsory, and anti-Germanism was gaining momentum.

My mother’s family stayed through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, a time when the colonists retained an attachment to Germany through language, culture, and in many cases family who still lived in Germany. But they were expected to pledge their loyalty to Russia as their adopted land and fight for her interests. Their farm land was expropriated and vast numbers of Volhynians were packed into boxcars and sent to Siberia.

There have been no ambitious genealogists climbing around my maternal ancestral tree, so I have no knowledge of my grandparents’ life during that period. But in 1929 they too set out for Canada with their five young children—my mother at eight, the second youngest—and settled in the same area as my dad’s family.

I am a storyteller by lifelong habit, and in the past two decades, by occupation. The reluctance of my own family to share our story puzzled and frustrated me for years. One of the few stories I remember hearing about my mother’s early life in Canada is that she and her siblings were shooed away by the Englische farm wife down the road when they went to ask for water from her well. Barely ten years since Canadian soldiers had fought the Germans at Vimy Ridge and Passchendael, and now these Alberta farmers were to welcome German immigrants as their new neighbours?

We were German. I knew that was the answer to questions about my ethnic origin. Both sets of grandparents spoke heavily-accented English. My maternal grandparents who had come to Canada as adults, unlike the paternal grandparents who arrived when they were children, spoke English with difficulty, and when we visited with my mother’s family, we heard German. We were never taught to speak German.  But we listened and understood enough to learn that if we asked questions about “the old country,” the conversation came to abrupt halt because of “little pitchers with big ears.” My mother, in particular, had little patience for questions about the past. I had the sense that being German was not something of which one dared to be proud.

I knew from television, from the caricature Klink and Schultz of “Hogan’s Heroes,” that Germans were the butt of jokes. I knew from more serious drama that the jackbooted, brown-coated Nazi’s shouting commands were the embodiment of evil. None of those portrayals, none of those voices, had anything to do with my gentle-voiced grandparents.

We were Canadian. Yet I knew there was family left behind in Germany. I have Canadian uncles who were conscientious objectors in World War II and worked in Alternative Service camps. I have uncles who enlisted in the Canadian military  and fought the Germans. We know that many in the family who’d stayed behind were conscripted into the German military. No one spoke, even long after the war was over, of the possibility that cousins had come face to face in combat with cousins.
I am the child of a first generation Canadian father and a German immigrant mother.  When I look at the photograph of Beda, I am reminded that her fate could have easily have been my mother’s. When Beda’s family, German “colonists,” farmers at Nowe Borsyzewo in Poland, fled from an advancing Russian army in January 1945, Beda and the other young women and girls in the wagons that clogged the roads were taken prisoner. The two possibilities for Beda and the other girls were that would be sent to the Russian front as “company” for the soldiers or shipped to Siberia to a labor camp in cattle cars. Beda went to Siberia. In those camps she and the other prisoners were sent to work dawn to dusk on peat farms in the summer, in logging camps in the winter, and finally to the Lubercin labour camp near Moscow to work in a textile mill.

I am not “old stock” Canadian, nor would I wish to be. I feel a kinship to each wave of immigrants who have found their way to Canada during my lifetime. My family were the lucky ones who escaped before we became refugees.  Why were we not, as children, encouraged to learn and to speak German? Because we would have retained that identity as “the other.” The identity that sent the Englische farm wife out with her broom to chase my mother and her brothers and sisters away from the gate like stray dogs.

Were I able to wrap my arms around each refugee family who arrives in Canada from their war torn homelands my welcome would be brief: Thank God, you made it! We are all immigrants here.