Keeping the Grass Green; making sure the sun shines on beautiful books

 

In the process of culling a lot of other possessions to make for a less cluttered home, I eventually ended up at the bookcases. Some years back, it seemed like sacrilege—me, professing to be a disciple of words and story—to discard books. Pass along so others can enjoy them, donate to book sales, pack away in boxes to be reconsidered “at another time.”  Among my treasures, though, were lovely hard cover editions of the likes of Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, To the Lighthouse, The Prophet, The Velveteen Rabbit—you know the ones that are on a special shelf, and in my house, for the most part, gathering dust. Surely there were people to whom I could gift these treasures. When I opened them and turned the pages, they gave off the undeniable scent of “old”; musty dry pages, occasionally a crumbling flower pressed between them, cracked spines. Beloved stories all, but beloved editions? It’s a short walk to the blue bin in the back alley. I put all the musty old books—there were many paperbacks in that condition as well—into a large paper bag because I couldn’t bear to hear the thud of each one going in.

I was left with books acquired post-1960s. Fortunately, this wasn’t the first clean-out I’d done, and passing years have made me more frugal, more practical where books are concerned. I read a lot; on the average, twenty books a month. I buy the books written by friends and favourite authors—often both apply. I have kept almost all the books signed by good friends, and others that I’ve bought that are simply so good that they’re keepers. My strategy, though, when I hear about a book that intrigues or someone recommends, is to head first for the library. After all, we do know about public lending rights. If I read a book and love it, know that I will want to re-read, or that I feel certain family and friends must read, then a trip to one of our local indie bookstores.

In this latest culling, in the signed copies, I’ve found books that I hold in my hand and ponder. These are fine books, deserving of a place on the shelf, books that I want to bring to other people who may never have seen or heard of the title or the author. Books that had their season and then quietly—to quote the lovely Jean McKay who I met Sage Hill—“have gone to grass,” the title of one of her slim treasures that is on my shelf along with The page-turner’s sister, and The Dragonfly Fling. I have a collection of special books by other fine authors I’ve met at Sage Hill or The Banff Centre or in writing classes, or simply through our great Alberta community of writers. At the risk of missing many names, they include: Dave Margoshes, David Elias, Leona Theis, Rod Schumacher, Allison Kydd, Myrna Garanis, Audrey Whitson, Astrid Blodgett, David Carpenter, Lori Hahnel, Barb Howard, Lee Kvern, Bruce Hunter, Cecelia Frey, Bob Stallworthy and the rest of you who must surely know who you are. Some of you are among those Susan Toy is showcasing in her recent promotions of books and authors we should know.

Looking at all of these books from seasons past, I felt compelled to hold my own books in my hand, and contemplate the number of their seasons. Apart from The Boy which has a life all its own that astonishes me, they all seem like yesterday’s news. This is not something on which I dwell, lose sleep, or feel bitter. It just is the world of books and publishing.

Every year, marvellous new books, shortlists for awards from which to choose.

I met Susan Toy in 2009 when I was doing a reading from my latest book at the time, Delivery. Big smile on her face, she marched up to me, extended her hand, and said, “Hi. I’m Susan Toy, your book rep.”  I had a book rep? Oh my, did I ever.

Most of Susan’s life’s work has involved books; bookseller, sales representative, literacy teacher, and promoter of fellow author and their books through her company, Alberta Books Canada. Meeting Susan was serendipitous; I’d been mulling over, shying away from, the very thought of promoting my own books. Modesty? Laziness? Expectations that my publisher would do the work? On that night at Pages when I met Susan, I knew after five short minutes of conversation that I’d just found the help I needed.

For almost five years, Susan promoted my books all over the province; arranged readings and speaking engagements in libraries and bookstores and at conferences. She was a constant source of affirmation and encouragement. Her enthusiasm and faith and commitment to what she was doing, and her many other skills and projects—she’s a marvellous cook! —have made her a special friend.

I have missed Susan in the years since she returned to Bequia and established a part-time home in Ontario, but was delighted that she turned her attention to her own writing and established her own press, Island Editions, to which I looked for advice on electronic publication of my first book, Running Toward Home.  The advice led to the publication of the ebook by Island Editions, a good decision and one I will consider for future publications.

I set out to write this blog post to shine a light on Susan’s recent promotions, spotlighting both authors she represented while she was in Alberta and authors she has since published through Island Editions, but got lost in my contemplation of the few books that rise to the top of the pile of hundreds  published in that same year. How to keep the also-rans alive.

I have felt some guilt, particularly because I believe so fervently that it is to authors to promote authors, for not sharing each of Susan’s promotional posts, but have chosen instead to celebrate Susan’s work, and to direct you to the Authors-Readers International list on her website, and encourage you to accept Susan’s invitation to meet all of these writers and their work. https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/authors-readers-international-list-of-authors/

If there is a way to dust off of a book, bring it back into the consciousness of readers, this is a good place to begin. I suspect as well, that your own bookcases could yield many books that deserve more than a short season.

Thank you, Susan. In what I know has not been an easy time, you’ve made a huge effort to send us back to the books that should not/need not be relegated to the has-been remainders bins.

The Top of Toy Mountain (1999)

 

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I’m stuck in traffic, making one last trip to the mall. A radio announcer with a soulful voice implores me to consider the children who will have nothing under the Christmas tree. He wants me to help build Toy Mountain.

For three weeks, I’ve shopped, baked and decorated. I am building Christmas for my family. Today, I have one last purchase to make for each child; one special present to add to the practical pyjamas, sweaters and socks and the books, games and CDs.

I will spend tonight assembling my ten-year-old’s costume for the politically correct school concert. Having clothed angels, shepherds and wisemen for almost twenty years, I am an expert, but this year’s school costume stretches my creativity. He’s to dress like Elvis. Other classes are wearing western garb for “Santa’s Holiday Hoedown.” Trying to explain to my son what part Elvis played in Christmas, I finally shrugged and told him flatly, “None.”

Now, waiting to turn left to the mall as the radio beseeches to make this a Christmas a child will remember, I let my own memory idle back.

Christmas Eve is what I remember, and probably 1954. In a small white Lutheran church in New Sarepta, Alberta, I leaned against the scratchy wool of my dad’s suit coat with my eyes fixed on a twinkling tree that was surely twenty feet tall. In a few minutes, we’d file past the smiling man at the back door who would hand me a brown paper bag bulging with one Mandarin orange and a generous fistful of nuts and hard candy—the men who filled those bags had generous hands. Then home to our own tree and presents.

There was no Santa in our Christmas. The gifts came from Mom and Dad: a sweater, socks, underwear, and maybe a Nancy Drew book. I have no memories of perfect toys , but what I remember is the sweet swelling in my chest as the voices of the people I loved rose in the final verse of Stille Nacht.

It is the same tender ache I will feel when I stand with my children in the candlelight on Christmas Eve at Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Calgary in 1999.

I have been trying to build my own Toy Mountain. I dart into the right lane, out of the stream of traffic and head north to a little shop called Ten Thousand Villages where, two weeks before, I found a pottery burro made in a Mexican village. He bears the Holy Family on his back and in Mary’s face there is the same expression of awe that I wish for my children at Christmas. The Mennonite Central Committee operates the store, the staff are volunteers, and the Mexican villagers who craft the pottery are paid fair trade wages.

I buy three figurines, pause and add a fourth. When my children open their presents, I will tell them the story of 1954.  The fourth little burro I will add to the top of Toy Mountain.

(published in the Calgary Herald, Christmas 1999 &Canada Lutheran Vol 14 Number 9  December 1999)

Betty Jane Hegerat was a member of Lutheran Church of Our Saviour at the time this piece written and is now a member of Lutheran Church of the Cross in Calgary.)   

Was the Artist Paid?

During the years that I’ve had my nose to the writing stone, I’ve learned that not only is the artist frequently underpaid or not paid at all for time spent engaging formally with other artists and audiences, but that there is a common and puzzling opinion that artists—who from this point I’ll refer to as writers, because I’m not qualified to speak from the perspective of those engaged in the visual or performing arts—should simply be flattered to be invited to speak to the craft and have an opportunity to promote our work.

The nudge I needed to write about the poor starving writer came from the list I looked through yesterday of the panels at this weekend’s When Words Collide conference in Calgary. This conference has had a steady growth in attendance and is a wonderful forum for connecting readers with writers of genre fiction.  One of the panel topics this year is “If Artists Starve We all Starve.”  Unfortunately, I’m not able to attend the conference but I hope to hear from people who will be there as to the commentary, given that panels most often simply reach a decision to respect differing opinions.

Early in my writing career, I was flattered when I was asked to read from newly published work or to talk about the craft in various venues and never asked if there was a budget for paying the artist, or even the offering of an honorarium. I was called up short by another writer who told me that each time I went out as a member of the writing community and neither asked for nor received an honorarium no matter how small, I was discrediting the value of time and energy spent by other writers as well. I can hear her voice clearly: “Betty, I tell some organizations that even if they can only afford to pay me five dollars, I will come and spend some time with them. When I’m asked by organizations that do have a budget but offer nothing for my participation I tell them to find someone else and hope that they will get the same response from a lot of other writers.”

The expectation that writers will go happily to any venue where there is an audience and the possibility that people will buy their books, seems to rise from the notion that we are only artists when we’re bent over the computer writing/rewriting/editing/querying publishers.  The rest of it is … well, just getting out there and selling our books. The business part of the job for which we are compensated by book sales. That we should be grateful for any opportunity to promote ourselves and our work. Every writer I know who visits a book club, reads in a school or at a library, or is a participant in a conference, spends time preparing for those appearances and most often gives far more than she takes away from the experience.

I don’t know a single author who doesn’t have a not-so-funny story about “payment” for appearances. On the other hand, every author I know also has stories about warm welcomes and generous gifts of appreciation. I have a fine collection of coffee mugs and book bags imprinted with the names of schools or libraries – I treasure these honorariums. I’ve also had bottles of wine, bouquets of flowers, and gift certificates. I have a friend who wins the prize with a $5 Tim Horton’s gift card as an honorarium.

But I’ve also traveled on my own dime, and mooched off friends or family to be part of an event for a handshake and a thank you.  I’ve attended book clubs where not a single member has bought a book and my payment was cheese and a glass of wine. I shrug those off, as most authors do, and take my payment in the knowledge that at least some of the members of the discussion group read my book.

All of this sounds terribly whiny, perhaps even surly, but I am tired of the level of “volunteerism” expected of artists. I want readers to know that although some of the events they attend pay the author participants fairly and treat them as honoured guests, this is the gold standard and often the compensation the artist receives is many rungs below the bronze level.

Perhaps I’ll lobby for a yearly” Take an Artist to Lunch Day.”  Meanwhile, though, I simply ask that whether you are a reader or another author at a literary event that you ask the question—and I dare you to do so publicly.  WAS THE ARTIST PAID?   Did someone at least buy her lunch?

Summer Stories

My garden is my sanctuary from the time blue buds on hepatica dare to appear under a dusting of snow and until the last trees finally begin to drop their leaves—the laurel leaf willow and the burr oak that seem to hold onto hope until late October or longer.

This time of summer, when every plant and tree has reached the peak of its perfection, has always been the best of all. In any corner of our garden, I can find a place for a chair and a bit of loveliness to contemplate.

I know that spring and summer are also the seasons of many of my stories. Rarely do I write winter and in particular the dark months.

Will there be a story from this summer? Or is this endless succession of warnings— “Weather Alert! Conditions are favourable for severe thunderstorms, heavy rain, hail, and funnel clouds” —about to become the cliché for prairie summer.

This summer, my garden has been less of a sanctuary and more the scene of mad dashes into periods of sunshine to weed and dead head and clean up the damage from the latest deluge of rain and hail.  And yet, I’ve been in awe of the mild spring that began in April and carried straight through to summer, the explosion of roses, day lilies of spectacular size, the early harvest of vegetables and a Calgary landscape more lush and green than any I can remember.

Here’s a pictorial of the Seasons in My Garden https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

Next summer may arrive even earlier and bring weather more extreme but even so, as I watch my garden mature into its late summer beauty, I hold tight to the hope that the cycle will remain essentially the same. I’m hoping too, that the fall garden will provide its own sanctuary.

As for story, I’ve written weather many times, and I suspect that will not change.

Here’s a short excerpt that seems fitting in this summer 2016.  “Storm Warning” was published in AlbertaViews 2002 July/August issue, the 15th anniversary of the Edmonton tornado, Jackie Flanagan reminded me the day she called to tell me that “Storm Warning” was a finalist in the AV Short Story contest. “Storm Warning” was also included in the collection A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008)

Storm Warning

Always, when she smells a storm, Jess’s heart races and she’s whirled into the eye of the tornado. She was driving cab on the south edge of Edmonton the day piles of coal black clouds rolled toward the city, bulging and heaving, gathering an eerie jaundiced light. When the car began to buck in the rising wind, Jess turned it around, driving furiously toward the edge of the storm. She hesitated when she saw a man at the side of the road braced against a mileage sign, his hair, his jacket, the legs of his jeans plastered to him. A glance at the sky in the rear-view mirror and her foot hit the brake. She pulled onto the shoulder, backed to where he was standing and flung open the passenger door. Both man and door were almost ripped away by the wind before he pulled himself gasping into the car and heaved the door shut.

Jess put her foot to the floor, instinctively heading for home. They were silent except for Brian’s ragged breath until a tight black funnel came spiralling out of the clouds.

“Jaysus! Is that what I think it is?” His voice was muffled in the thick heat.

Brian’s family loves to tell the story of how Jess saved him

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

reunion: who are you? Who was I?

reunion;  (OED)   the act or instance of reuniting; the condition of being reunited; a social gathering especially of people formerly associated.

Google “school reunion” for more advice than I hope you will ever need:  6 Reasons High School Reunions should not exist; 5 Reasons to attend your high school reunion;  school reunion ideas, quotes, songs, invitation wording. Apparently high school reunions thrive in spite of the “6 Reasons” and in spite of reunion horror stories. Mine is not a horror story; simply the story of a woman who, for the most part, stays afloat by living in the Now.

I had an email today from a woman I haven’t seen in more than fifty years. As soon as I began to read the message I had a clear visual of my kind, funny, red-headed, preacher’s kid, best friend.  I met Joyce when we were ten years old. We’d moved to Camrose from a small town where I didn’t really have a best friend because I was a townie and all my “friends” arrived in yellow busses that rolled into town in the morning and departed at 3:00 in the afternoon.

I lost track of Joyce and other best friends when we moved to Edmonton six years later. So many different schools, so many partings with best friends, one would think I’d embrace the idea of “reunion.” Ten, twenty, thirty years of catch-up just might rekindle friendships and stir the pot of precious memory.

The invitation to the 50th anniversary of the class of 1966 at Camrose Composite High School arrived in February of this year. I was puzzled to receive it, because I’d only attended the first half of grade ten in Camrose. In 1966 I’d graduated from Bonnie Doon Composite High in Edmonton. When I questioned the enthusiastic woman who was head of the organizing committee, she said it mattered not. They were including everyone who had spent any length of time in grades 10, 11, 12 even if they’d moved away before graduation. A friendly inclusive gesture.  I left the invitation simmering in my Inbox; when the reminder came in May, I put off replying. The closing paragraph of the reminder: Don’t forget to pack yearbooks and conversation starter memorabilia and items that scream the 50’s, and 60’s. I didn’t have a yearbook nor do I keep memorabilia.  I let the date slip away.

I attended one high school reunion and it dispelled any notion I had of fun and renewed friendships. At this point in my life, connecting with people I haven’t seen in ten years is a  pleasure but in the context of a long life, not a reason to make of it a huge celebration. In 1976, high school graduation felt like the distant past and I allowed an Edmonton best friend to talk me into attending the ten year reunion of graduates from Bonnie Doon. Compared with Camrose Composite High School, Bonnie Doon was huge. For reasons too ill-conceived to ponder, home room classes were determined by academic achievement. I attended all the core subject classes with the academic bright lights. Many of them were also athletic bright lights and on the school council and beautiful. The combination of brains, beauty and success in every possible activity struck me as unfair in 1963 and still strikes me as an unfortunate glitch in evolution.

I was bright, but an ordinary looking teenage girl, totally lacking in athletic ability and morbidly shy. I suspected that it would be the most successful and happiest ex-Dooners who would attend the reunion, but never validated that prediction because there were few people I recognized and even fewer who remembered me. Apart from a half dozen people with whom Carolyn and I chatted, I felt as personally connected as I would have at a play or concert or wandering through the grocery store.  To be expected—name tags.  I was asked not once or twice, but far too many times — What was your name before you were married? Having morphed from the shy kid to the introverted adult with a sharp tongue, my answer to the question?  My name before I married is the same as it is now—Betty.  I convinced Carolyn that we (I) had stayed long enough to have made our understated appearance. She had her infant daughter with her and baby had definitely had enough. That, I told myself, was the last school reunion I would ever attend.

Joyce caught up with me because she did attend the Camrose reunion. She was in the 1966 graduating class. She’d gathered a mini-history of what I’ve been up to for the past 50 years from a few Camrose people with whom I’ve visited when I’ve done readings in that city.  I had a ripple of regret as I read her email, because I wondered how many other long ago “best friends” I’d missed by staying home. I found the invitation and scanned through the long long list of recipients and recognized so few names (although I make allowance for those girls, who like me, hadn’t kept their surnames when they married) that I imagined myself drifting uncomfortably from one corner to another wondering why I was there. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so. Perhaps I would have reminisced and laughed and been saddened by the list of classmates who have died or suffered misfortunes. For all of them, I offer up a prayer of peace.  For all who are doing fine and are happy in their lives, I wish them well. I do this comfortably from a distance because age mellows memory, and what’s left in my memory of the time in which I knew these people makes me grateful that we survived those harrowing teenage years.

I’m delighted to have had this “reunion” with Joyce and I hope to hear from her again. I’m sure the weekend was a wonderful chance to feel eighteen years old again and to marvel over the distance all those who attended have traveled. Will I go to the 60th reunion? Or reunions of any other people with whom I was formerly associated? I suspect not.  Although imagine the fodder for writing?  Every former student a walking short story.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.