Saturday, May 30, 2009

a little-known eccentricity

I have a favourite kind of pen. In fact, there is really only one kind of pen that I like to write with. Most other pens make my fingers go numb, for some strange reason.

My last Paper-Mate Flex Grip pen just ran out of ink. Now I have to find some more.

Goodnight, all!

in this one

I am working through a series of exercises in a book called Writing Alone or With Others by Pat Schneider. it is seriously, the best book I have ever read on writing, and I try to do a writing exercise each day from her book. They are simple, yet effective.

Last night's exercise:

"Spend a little time centering, turning from busyness back to your own inner reflections (I do this by journaling first and writing out the crap that's in my brain). Then call up from your memory a snapshot or photograph of someone who is important to you. It may be someone who is close to you, or someone who is no longer in your life. It may be a picture in your album, or just a mental "snapshot." Usually it is a good idea to take the first one that comes to your mind, rather than rejecting the first and sorting through the possibilities. If you feel some resistance, that may be an indication that there is a "knot" to be unraveled...."

here's my result:

In this one, you are looking away from the camera. You always look away, never quite able to face the glare of the flash, never as comfortable as you are with your living image. It doesn't look like you, the finished photo. It looks like someone who resembles you, but lacks your living essence. it is not quite the person you expect.

You are your own worst critic. Your mouth is crooked. There are gaps in your teeth when you smile. The flash catches your glasses and makes you squint. You write as though you are writing a stranger's story and not your own, so disconnected do you feel from your image.

Once there were folds of flesh. You gave then up, gave yourself to life and exposed the you beneath the disguise to the scrutiny of the world. Now your skin hangs a bit in the same places. Some suppleness lost, but you've regained the true outline of your face. Your eyes are larger. Your multiple chins have vanished. And your hair is curly, when it never used to be. Check yourself out...look at the strength in your biceps. You really are beautiful, girl, but you are the last one to recognize it.

In this one, you sit on a rock. The Thames rolls past in the background of the shot. It is a quick flash of blue green, moving slowly at this point in its coursing. In the upper left corner, barely visible, is the rusty shopping cart that has been sitting in the water ever since you can remember. Your hair is short and vibrant, the breeze lifts the bangs away from your face. You are framed by wildflowers, growing along the riverbank, clutched in your four-year-old hands, springing up through the rocks at your feet. You are not looking at the camera at all. Instead, you are focused on a person or object to your right, something hidden from the camera's view. You are grinning, squinting a bit in the sunlight. It must be cool outside because you are wearing a white sweater over your striped t-shirt.

In this one you are milking a cow. The photo doesn't capture the sounds and smells of the barn, small and outdated even then, with its tiny herd of aging Holsteins. They stand close to one another, steam rising from their backs in winter, the smell of manure overpowering all year round. But to you it smells sweet, like the scent of fresh milk and hay and the bodies of the animals you love. Your forehead rests against the warm brown flank of Lichen, your Grandmother's favourite cow, but your Grandmother is in the house. Your hands are pulling, pulling to no avail. The milk won't squirt into the pail even though you try as hard as you can. Large work-worn hands are guiding your tiny fingers. Those hands, that body behind you holds you in place, even when you squirm with discomfort. "Me luff you," he whispers, as he rubs his raspy cheek against yours.

In this one, the neighbour is carrying you down the street. He and his wife are looking after you and your siblings because your parents have gone away for the weekend, to look for a new house. You can't walk because your foot hurts, and you had to send one of your brothers for help. Actually, you cut your foot on a piece of glass two weeks ago, but you never told your parents about it. You had been swimming alone in the pool, which you are not allowed to do. Now your foot is infected, and it hurts so much that you want to scream. As it is, you're crying as he carries you. He is six feet tall, and can lift you on his shoulders as though you weigh nothing at all, even though you are almost nine years old. He carries you downstairs into his basement. It is unfinished, with exposed wooden beams and toys scattered everywhere. There is a bumper sticker on one of the beams that reads "The population bomb is everybody's baby," and you just don't understand what it means. He puts you in an old, stuffed easy chair and brings you a footstool. Slowly he begins to massage your leg.

In this one, someone has called for a group shot. All of the camp counselors are jockeying for position. You are supposed to be seated by your cabin mates, but everyone wants to be close to their friends. You are young, slim for the first time since you were nine years old, and baked a beautiful summer brown. You are wearing a bathing suit and shorts, and you are smiling directly into the camera for once. Just beside you, with a hand resting casually on your shoulder, is the girl you spent almost every waking, free hour with. She has just come out of the lake for the photo, wet hair slicked back, body glistening, blue eyes shining and clear. It doesn't matter what the other girls say. What matters is the night under the stars on the dock, the strange pull in your gut, the willingness to do anything, just to have a few more minutes with her before the bus pulls out to bring you home again.

In this one, you are in math class. You'd like to be somewhere else. You'd like the teacher to take her head out of her butt, and her nose out of the book she's reading behind the big oak desk at the front of the room. Pay attention, she constantly tells the class, and yet she is oblivious. You are crouched in your seat, bent over your textbook. Eyes down, you read fifty years worth of names carved with the point of a compass, you can interpret the woodgrain, derive secrets from the penned in ditties that mar the surface of the desk you inhabit. Your hair hides your face, hanging down so long that it touches the desk. Your hands are clenched, both of them, so hard that your nails have cut crescents into your palms. You are biting your lips, biting biting in an effort not to cry as spitballs fly though the air and land on your notebook, on your sweater, in your auburn curtain of hair.

In this one, you are invisible. You've disappeared, slowly melded into nothing because that what you asked for. You needed to survive, somehow.

In this one, you are looking straight into the camera.Your eyes are open, wide and alert. Your grin is a recollection of your childhood photos, when there was no restraint required, when you did not think about how you looked, or what shape your mouth was making. You're leaning back, resting you head against her shoulder. Her arm is around you, and your fingers are entwined. Joy. Even now you feel the soft hardness of her body, inhale the warm scent of laundered cotton, hear the laughter in both of your voices. it is a prefect, beautiful moment. That photo has yet to be taken.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

second time around

My heart's too full for words today.

"The third time's a charm. And this one's mine."

It will happen.

Or you can all move to Canada. I've got a spare room and a big basement.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


There's too much violence in the world.

A friend of mine just lost the love of her life.

I don't know what else to say. I can't stop crying.

To hear the song I really want to post (but can't because it hasn't been released yet - my CD will be arriving sometime this month) go here and listen to "No More Missing Daughters." When I hear it, I think about little Tori Stafford, my friend, and other women I know who have been lost to violence, whose lives have been shattered. Too many.

Here's another song that does it to me every time.

I know my long-time followers have seen this before, but I love her so...can't wait to see her at Hillside in July.

Life is too short. I need to grab everything while I can.

There's a candle on my altar for my friend, and her lost love. May she be at peace.

Monday, May 25, 2009

to a distant muse

I wrote this last night, in response to a writing prompt. The suggestion was to close my eyes and ask for a single image - and whatever it was, to write it out, and see where the writing takes me...this is what came to me.....

The skin on her back, and the back of her neck is tanned, supple and warm. I will touch her there, my fingers will glide gently across her shoulders, butterflies on silk. The hair at the nape of her neck is short, beginning to lose the blonde she dyed it months ago. What if my hand rests there? What if I could follow the muscles in her upper back with my lips, trace the lines of her vertebrae slowly, in as many ways as I can think of? I will end my journey with the tattoo on her lower back, gently trace each line three times, with fingers, lips, and then tongue. She might shiver, but I would warm her. Maybe she will throw her head back,reaching for me, vainly reaching, because I have not finished yet, not discovered toe, calf, ankle, round of hip that hides beneath the blanket. Fingertips. And movement. I used to sing in a church choir, and I remember how we once gathered outside before an evening performance. It was early summer, and my dress was ankle-long but fluid against my legs as the breeze lifted the cotton and gently pulled it back into place. I took deep breaths, prepared for singing by drawing oxygen deep into my body, filling my core with air and blood and sound. Only when I have taken my singing breath, belly-full from esophagus to diaphragm, only then can I lie with you face to face.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

not the greatest

way to spend a Saturday.

I was late because I was given poor directions. I spent the entire day sitting in one spot (and I work in a day care centre, so I'm used to moving around a lot during the day. I only wrote one thing that was anywhere close to good, and I think I could have done as well at home. Or sitting in the park on a beautiful afternoon, soaking in the sunshine and smelling the lilac blooms.

I don't need writing prompts anymore. I think I'm beyond that. What I want, more than anything is honest feedback. What I need to figure out is how to take my stack of stories and get them out there for people to read.

Consider my best effort for today:

I don't remember my first period. I honestly don't. It was no big deal, because my mom had told me all about it. "Just go to the cupboard," she said to me,"and get yourself a pad. You might get cramps."

And that was all there was to it. Simple.

My mom couldn't say the word hemorrhoid without breaking into seven shades of embarrassment. But she managed, by looking at the ceiling, or the roof of the car, wherever we were when we had "the talk," to get through the mechanics of everything. Everything I needed to know about my period. That I would bleed. That I could wear pads. That I might get cramps.

But she never explained why.

I learned the facts of life from a series of pastel-coloured pamphlets that sat at the back of my seventh-grade classroom. I went to a Catholic school, and my teacher, Mr Cappelli, never really talked about sex, he just waved his large hand vaguely towards the back of the room. And there was a film. Two films - one for girls that the boys couldn't watch, and one for the boys that girls couldn't watch. "Girl to Woman" was made sometime in the 1950's. I watched it in 1977. All the girls in the film had ponytails and wore penny loafers and big, full skirts. The walked down the hall of their school, talking about their periods like they were no big deal. They didn't shift their eyes and giggle, like the girls in my class, who knew something about something, who had already unlocked the secret of why.Who had mothers that either ignored them, or who weren't paranoid about what they were doing with their fingers under the crocheted blankets on their princess beds.

I missed the boat. The pamphlets told me everything I needed to know, about what body parts went where, and implied that penises and vaginas only went together for the sake of procreation. The pamphlets didn't tell me it was supposed to feel good, so I didn't expect that, and anyways, I had no friends to giggle with.

My mother could not say things that might unlock her heart. Neither could I, because I learned that some things were just not talked about. She would sit at the table, with her hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, and say nothing more profound than "Gus, I think we'll start buying powdered skim milk in order to save money." I believed for a long time that she only thought about things like dishes, and the grocery bill, and the weather for the next day. She said things that didn't matter, because the ones that did were too painful to speak.

My period came and went with no notice at all. I found the pads in the bathroom cupboard. I had some cramps. It came back the next month.

I'm not trying to be hyper-critical, of myself, or the convenor. It's not that I'm beyond receiving good, honest feedback. It's just that I didn't get much of what I was looking for. I learned that it was funny, and that it already read like a story.

If I'd gone across town, it would have been no big deal. But I spent four hours in the car today, and a small chunk of spending money that I could have used to pay for something else.

Oh well. Lesson learned. All writing retreats/workshops are not created equally.

At least I got to enjoy the scenery.

Friday, May 22, 2009

just breathe

I will not let fear destroy all the work I've done.

He lives far away. If he really wanted to physically find me, he would have done so by now.

I have this amazing life to live, and he will stay out of it.

I took some deep breaths and a long walk. The lilacs are in full bloom, there are tiny ducklings on the creek, and the sunset was amazing. Tomorrow I'm going to a writer's workshop. How cool is that?

Tonight, I'll eat something, play my guitar for a while, shower, and sleep soundly.

He can't control me any more, in any way.

Life is good.

fuck fuck fuck

I figured I was safe.

After all, it's been sixteen years, and he lives thousands, literally thousands of miles away. An ocean away. He's not tech savvy - and in moments of great fear (although not for several years) I looked for him, to make sure that I knew where he was.

So that I could keep breathing, live normally, as I have almost since the day he left the country and I got a new, unlisted number.

I grew complacent. My number is listed. I live in a bigger city. I don't look anything like I used to. He could walk right by me and never know it was me.

My biggest mistake is coming back to haunt me, and the worst thing is, he simply Does. Not. Get. It.

Why else would he try to friend me on Facebook?

I was nearly ill. My hands are still shaking. Yes, it was that bad.

A former supervisor, from the centre I worked in sixteen years ago, told me at a recent conference that he was still sending letters to their location, one or two a year, and that she just tossed them in the trash. Once every five years or so, he sends something in care of my parents. It's a small town. Even if the address is incorrect, things end up in your post office box anyways.

He's going to try to friend everyone in my family. Including my daughter, who was four years old when he came into our lives.

Shit, shit, shit.

I've checked my stats. He hasn't found me here, yet.

And it's not a matter of being in fear of my life (but I don't know if that's even true, because it could have gone there, had he stayed, and I made damn sure that he would have to jump through some pretty huge hoops to get back into the country)'s about being perpetually and endlessly harassed.

Damn it all, why?

Sorry this is so incoherent, it's just such a pain in the butt...and my daughter's not home, so I can't get her to change her privacy settings on her facebook. He could be looking at pictures of her right now!


Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Just before I moved in February, I met M.

We're busy people. We don't get together very often.

I knew she was going to the Ferron concert at the end of April, but I didn't really expect to see much of her, because she was going with other friends. But when I walked into the Princess, there she was, looking over Ferron's CD's. She told me that she was hoping I would turn up...and so we sat together.

I'm sure none of you were there, but I was sitting with the crazy people in the second row.

About a month ago, I signed up for a writer's workshop, on her recommendation. She's going, as well. This morning she sent me a short e-mail. She wanted me to know how much she was looking forward to spending time with me on Saturday.

For some reason, this makes me very happy.

better than ever

Urinary tract infection.

And a second allergic reaction.

So I don't think it was the face mask (my apologies to Lush...). More likely, it was the nori(seaweed). I had sushi on Sunday night, ate my leftovers last night at about the same time, and had raging hives around midnight. Again.

I love sushi, and I've eaten it before, of course. But usually the sushi I eat is made by a good friend of mine, who either rolls her nori on the inside of the roll, or doesn't use it at all. The sushi I had in Toronto had the nori rolled on the outside - much larger quantity.

And I only had 3 rolls each day...that's how allergic I must be to the stuff!

I went to visit my parents yesterday in St Marys. For those of you who don't know, any angst-filled writing I create about my childhood is rooted in that town. I have a love-hate relationship with the place. It's even worse now. I spend most of my time living my life the way I want, but as soon as I get close to home, it's like this invisible noose drops around my neck - it's very loose, but I can still feel it, and it threatens to choke me if I move the wrong way.

That's how I used to live every day, one short year ago.

I am out to my parents, but not the rest of my family. Haven't figured out how to get there yet...but there is this schism, and it gets wider every time I go home. I'm just not comfortable.

On the way down yesterday I thought to myself, "Fuck it. Whatever. I'm tired of living like this, and I'm just going to be who I am." If people want to know, they can ask. If I feel like telling them, I will. My nieces and nephews are all bright, savvy kids, and I'm pretty sure that the older ones have caught on already - or else Megan has told them, because the girl can't keep a secret to save her life. I'm not going to be one person on Facebook and another on Blogger, just because I have family on Facebook who might be - horrors!- offended if they find out that I'm queer. So linked facebook with my blog, and vice versa.

The people that matter - my brothers and my sister - well, I love them, and I know that they will, perhaps reluctantly, perhaps with doubt and fear, learn to accept that this is who I've always been. My sister knows anyways.

My brother the priest is home for a week. He lives in Boston while he's finishing his M div. Okay, he's not a priest yet - he's a Capuchin mendicant - but within a few years he will be. My parents dote on him, he can do no wrong. And really, I've come to like him a lot better over the last year or so. Since he's had time away from the family. Since he's been out in the world, meeting different people, working in soup kitchens and mission churches in the middle of nowhere. I don't like his religion, and I don't like his politics, and I never will, unless he makes this radical shift away from the institution he's marrying. What I stand for, he's publicly against, regardless of his personal thoughts. A permanent divide.

He's a big guy, and a diabetic. He's lost about twenty pounds since Christmas, which is great. My mom tells me, as we're going to visit my grandmother (in a nursing home) "I hope he doesn't lose too much."

"Well, why not?" I ask her. "It will make him a lot healthier."

"Because, then he won't be himself anymore." perhaps if he loses all his excess weight, like I did....there may be aspects of his personality that come forward, which my mom may not be able to cope with very well. That's what happened with me. I'm starting to get it. You see, all the changes I've made, which are positive to me, are just new to her. She doesn't understand it yet, and maybe never will. And because she's only beginning to discover who I am, she's a little bit scared. You're supposed to know your kids, right?

Don't worry, Mom. I'm fine. Better than ever, except for this stupid uti and random allergic reactions.

At the nursing home, my grandmother didn't recognize me. Not unusual - she is 98, she's developing dementia, and my appearance has changed a lot. But that was the first time, and it's hard to see her like that...

Last but not least, I bring you a photograph of my youngest daughter:

It may be a bit hard to see, but she's the little blonde kid on the swings. Her uncle took her to the park while I was visiting my grandmother.

What's interesting about this picture is that she appears to be pumping herself on the swing, without any adult assistance at all. This is the kid who swears up, down, left, right, and sideways that she does not know how to swing by herself. And my brother informed me that she was telling smaller kids how easy it was, and giving them pointers.

Faker! And now I have photographic evidence.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Okay, my eyes were opened. Enough said.

Okay, maybe not quite enough - I'm not completely was a lot of fun. Until my friends went out as a pair to put money in the parking meter and left me there by myself.

It was freakishly cold yesterday. I'm really glad that my daughter left her winter jacket in the car, because I needed to borrow it - and only realized that it was missing not one, but two buttons until I tried to do it up...

I love Toronto but I don't think I could live there. One side effect of living in a bigger city is that I would never eat at home. We had dumplings for lunch, at a place on Spadina...I forget the name, but it's really kinda seedy, and there are pictures on the wall of former prime ministers et cetera. But the food is fabulous. And we had supper at Sushi Time - amazing again.

And we went here

I bought two facial masks, and tried one last night...and ended up with a full-body allergic reaction, at one in the morning because I simply could not wait to try it until the next day.

Which meant that I had to defer trying out any other purchases I might have made for another day as well.

Today's a holiday.

You know what? I've been alone long enough.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

road trip

The neophyte lesbian (moi) has been given an assignment.

Two of my friends have decided that I need to get over whatever fears I have about my own body.

So tomorrow we're off to Toronto.

To "good for her."

My mission, should I choose to accept it: to make a purchase, and start figuring out what I like and don't like.

I need not report back. Good thing, too, because this is the last you may hear about it.

I am a naturally reserved person, unless I am tipsy (I don't drink anymore), or if I'm with people I know really, really well. So this is all very embarrassing and scary (even though I know these women really, really well).

Wish me luck.

you'd think

that after 30 some years of getting periods, I'd be able to figure out when mine was on the way, and be somewhat prepared.

But my doctor put me on the pill after I was diagnosed with anemia, and it's been throwing me for a loop. Instead of having really, really heavy periods (they're still heavy, but not as bad, and it's only the second month) I get mildly depressed about two days before it shows up, and I think all things negative.

Well some of it is.

I did some quick calculations. Since they're pretty regular at the moment, my monthly torment should arrive promptly right in time for:

Wild Ginger witchcamp in June

My birthday in July

and....drum roll please


How did I get so lucky?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

wake up empty

It doesn't happen very often anymore.

You see, I like living alone. Or rather, semi-alone, since I share custody of my 5 year old with the ex. And if the dog could fuse himself to me, he would. The cat doesn't care as long as I feed him. I like writing far into the night, and going to bed whenever the hell I want to. I like not having to respond to someone else-s anal-retentive cleanliness issues. I like having a bed with some give - not that rock hard thing that bruised my hips for eight years, and I like sprawling all over when I sleep.

Last night I had a dream - I dreamed that the ex's girlfriend wanted to start getting the kids (hers and ours) together for outings. In the dream we were scheduling things, she was talking about what Emily might like to do...and she offered me a slice of pizza because she thought I might be hungry.

I don't eat pizza. It makes me throw up, but she went in search of pizza for me anyways. In my dream she was about four feet tall and about fifty years old. She looks nothing like that irl.

So, am I jealous? Like, I have no sexual attraction for the guy whatsoever, I don't want him, he can do whatever he pleases. My insecurities are all about what I can and can't offer my kid. With me, she'll never again experience having two opposite sex parents living in the same household. That's okay with me - more than okay.

But I want her, and her dad, and everyone else on the planet to know - she only has one mother. And that's me. Sometimes I worry that if there is a girlfriend (on his side) and other kids around that she may just like being around her dad more than me. I know that this is baseless, but I worry anyways.

After all, he's fun dad. He has a lot more money than I do. He has been seeing the same person long enough that they just might be thinking about getting the kids together once in a while - it's hard spend time together without the kids when you always have the kids. I can see that - but I would be waiting a lot longer if it was me.And he's you know, dating.

I'm not. I could be, but I'm not.

Why not?

Because I'm fucking terrified, that's why.

Dreaming about other people moving on when I feel stuck just rubs it in.

I need to get over whatever baseless fears are holding me back.

"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."


That's why I write. That's why I need to connect with people on a deeper level. Because I don't want to wake up in tears anymore.

grandmother stories (part two)

As Thomas King said "The truth about stories is that that's all we are."

I am a first generation Canadian. My parents arrived as children, with their parents, at a time when European families were brought to this country to provide necessary farm labour. I'm lucky enough to have a grandparent still living, a grandparent who could, up until two years ago, tell me the stories of her childhood, my mother's childhood...when you pack up your life and move across the ocean with seven children, there is not much space for family heirlooms. These stories are my legacy.

I wrote this almost seven years ago. I showed it to one person (my ex) who heartily criticized it, and I stuck it in a file, vowing never to work on it again. At the time, the fact that he read no fiction, and had little to no clue about fiction writing in general had no bearing. I learned not to show him my work - he really didn't understand that sentence fragments were sometimes necessary, that dialogue needed rough edges, that in order to describe something perfectly, one occasionally relied on imagery and imprecision. Whatever....

Read it and judge for yourself.

Oma, this is for you.

In the cellar, familiar objects were recognized by touch alone. No light were permitted, lest their brightness seep through their only source of ventilation, a small, narrow window. She had memorized the distance between the bed and the wall, and could only walk with hands outstretched tentatively in front of her body as she felt her way through the darkness. Two weeks ago, when they were forced to move their beds downstairs, Theo had used a crowbar to pull the casement from the window frame, allowing a marginal purchase of cool, spring air into the musty cavern. Now the elements were free to enter: the wind, the rain which streamed down the stone walls and puddled on the floor, and sunlight in the form of a single, narrow bar that cracked the darkness only during the day, when the cellar was unoccupied.

Slaap kintje slap
Dar buiten lopt in schaap
En schaap met witte voetjes
Dat drink zijn milk so soetjes
Slaap kintje slap.

On the makeshift bed, Johanna rocked baby Nada and sang, her hesitant, tuneless voice punctuated with ominous whines, and deep explosions that sometimes shook the very foundations of the house. The village and surrounding farms were built on a hill, and each dwelling was blessed with a cellar. Because of this, only three lives had been lost since the Occupation, a miracle, considering the hundreds of lives forsaken elsewhere. With the shelling so close, her relative safety was little comfort for Johanna, alone in the cellar with her two small children. Nada was a year old, and Joop almost three.

She rocked and sang continuously, repeating the words over and over until her voice cracked and broke. Nada was already fast asleep; her head lolled in Johanna’s slight, strong shoulder. As the words to the lullaby left her mouth, she silently prayed.

“Heilige Maria, Moeder van God. Bid voor ons zondaars, nu en in het uur van onze dood….Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” The hour of her death may have been upon her, but strangely, she was not afraid. Her fears were for her children, too young to experience the pain of loss, the trauma of injury. Too precious. Hers. Johanna thought of her husband, away from home, his location unknown.

Johanna had been alone at night upon occasion, both before and after the Allied invasion which had brought the fighting to her part of Holland. For the first time since the Germans had marched in and declared Holland to be their territory, the war had now reached the Acterhoek. The original siege had taken three days, more or less, before the small Dutch army had given in to defeat. But through the occupation, the work of the Underground had remained constant, but remote. A strategic bridge or railway car bombed here or there, a few rounds of sniper fire lobbed from a well-hidden position.
Messages were delivered, “packages” smuggled across checkpoints and into safe areas; a brisk trade was conducted in black market ration books, and fresh food was withheld from demanding soldiers.
She allowed herself to think of Theo for a few minutes. His bicycle was his means of transport. In order to avoid conscription into the German army he had taken a job selling insurance on behalf of the German government, which was the only insurance scheme available. His brown cardboard pouch, German government issue, had been painstakingly altered to create a secret compartment that held ration books, papers, and new identities. Delivered messages were always memorized, never written down, and all was transported from one farm, one village to another by bicycle. Johanna worried every day, every hour that a suspicious movement, a moment of hesitation would give him away. She could not bear to think about the camps with their armed guards, barbed wire, and rumored atrocities. Too many people she knew had disappeared already. Three priests from their parish vanished after speaking against the Jewish expulsion by reading a letter from the Dutch Bishop during mass. Everyone knew where they had gone. Worse than death by firing squad, it was a slow, stifling execution.

There would be no sleep tonight. Even if the shelling and gunfire stopped, Johanna would be unable to rest without the comfort of Theo’s arms around her shoulders. She knew this already. The children had settled, oblivious to the sounds of an army’s final desperation. She laid her head on the pillow and pulled the sheet up to her neck, careful not to disturb the children. Her wedding linens, meant to last a lifetime, were soiled and grey, with no soap or bleach to restore their former, crisp brightness. For the last two weeks she and the children had been virtually confined to the house, leaving only for brief moments during a lull in the fighting to feed the animals. Once had she been able to hurry to the neighbour’s, for whispered exchanges of the latest news. Only the most necessary things were washed in the kitchen sink and left to dry overnight. Baby linens, underthings, house dresses. Theo kept up the pretence of working, when he could. There were moments in each day when he could slip out. He would fling his satchel over his shoulder and pedal away, on the pretence of selling useless insurance.

Johanna heard the creak of the solid door being opened upstairs. The footfall was authoritative and heavy, the step of regulation Army footwear. Either Werner or Schwarz had returned from wherever they had gone. Soon she would hear him ascend the steps into the attic. For several weeks now the house had been occupied by two German soldiers, who slept in her father’s attic workroom.

Besides Werner and Schwarz, other soldiers would take up temporary abode, bunking in the sitting room, the kitchen, or in the workshop. They ate the family’s food, and drank their fill until long after midnight. Some were pleasant, some silent and gruff. Johanna and Theo had no choice but to provide them with meals and shelter. Johanna’s father had left to stay with cousins in another town, and had urged her to take the children and join him. She refused, not wanting to leave the house with so much work ahead. The gardens needed to be planted, the animals needed tending, or the family would starve next winter.

She could live with the two soldiers. After all, they were just people like her. Werner was nice enough, a farmer back in Germany and very sympathetic, but Schwarz was clearly Hitler’s man. Neither was to be trusted. There were moments of panic when her children were toddling around a house full of soldiers. A kind-looking officer had once given Joop a piece of chocolate. He took it in his chubby fist and turned his innocent blue eyes towards the soldier.

“Dank u, vuile Duitse mens,” he had said. Thank you, dirty German man. Johanna had frozen to the spot, her face drained of colour as she waited for the whole family to be shot where they stood. But the soldier had laughed warmly and patted Joop on the back, admiring his pretty blonde curls. So close.

The presence of the soldiers had brought the family into direct danger. Certainly the increased activity around the farm would be noticed by the Allies, if it had not been noticed already. The Allies were advancing, beating the Germans back little by little. This quiet countryside, which had seen almost no action in the past five years, was now a dangerous place. The roads were nearly deserted. Travelers avoided main roads and open spaces, afraid of being caught between the enemy and the enemy. Families moved their beds to the cellars and slept in the security of stone foundations and earthen floor, sometimes narrowly missing death as their houses collapsed on top of them. Jurgen van Pels, a neighbour, had been killed by sniper fire as he walked along the road to the village three weeks ago. A German soldier, hidden in a foxhole, panicked and shot recklessly, not caring whom he killed.

In the countryside, food was much easier to obtain than in the larger cities. Most goods were earmarked for the German cause, but there were ways of providing for one’s family. When a pig was killed, supposedly by disease, it was inspected by the Germans and then buried. Later it was unearthed by the light of the moon, butchered and preserved, hidden in the secret places that families created to store their illicit, life-giving food. Johanna’s father, a carpenter by trade, had devised a pantry with an inner and outer shelf. With a push of a button, the outer shelf swung open, revealing hidden jams, preserves, dried foods: whatever had been procured through saving, subterfuge, and the back market. These were the subtle, illicit means by which the Dutch bested the Germans daily. A matter of survival for oneself, for the children. A soldier could confiscate whatever food he desired, and although some were conscious of the hungry-looking children that ran barefoot and ragged, many did not care, and divested families of their entire, visible hoard.

Johanna succumbed to sleep in the grey light before dawn as the birds began to raise their voices from the low bushes surrounding the red brick house. The children showed signs of wakening first, stretching and yawning, twisting themselves in their bedclothes. Usually Johanna was awake and dressed at this time, cheerfully chatting with the babies as she prepared for the day’s work. Today she woke slowly, stretched her arm across their restless bodies, and filled her nostrils with the scent of their warm childhood.

With brisk, forced good humour, she sat up, tickled Joop under the chin to tease him into wakefulness, and began to dress. Using a small mirror and comb, she rolled her hair neatly back behind her ears and washed herself with a damp cloth, brought from the kitchen the night before. The last few years had taken some toll on her body, grown lean from hunger and hard with labour. Trained as a seamstress, there was nothing to sew except clothes remade and reworked, the worn places patched. But a family must eat, and the gardens must provide for both summer and winter. Her small hands, long-fingered, had grown calloused and hard. Tiny lines had appeared around the bright blue eyes and in the corners of her mouth. Frown lines, lines of worry and watchfulness.

Johanna quickly dressed the children and took the narrow stairs into the kitchen, holding Nada in her arms while Joop cautiously climbed alone, one step at a time. Once upstairs, she took down the blackout blinds and permitted the morning light to fill the kitchen. She lit the stove, carefully feeding the precious fire with paper, kindling, and bits of coal. Just enough heat to cook the meal and no more, not even for a morsel of extra warmth on this cool, spring morning. Nothing could be wasted, not the food scraps, nor the coal in the bin, nor time spent worrying.

There were four eggs in a bowl on the counter, eggs meant for Werner and Schwarz, who still slept, and had their breakfasts carried up to them each morning. No doubt, they had been pilfered from another farm. She stood at the counter and turned one over in her hand; warm, brown and smooth. Her children were hungry and the officers feasted on eggs. Milk was scarce, the last cheese had been eaten, and there was no meat for anyone, except the Germans. She could add a bit of water and scramble three eggs; they were large enough that one would not be missed. It was wrong. But she would do it anyways, steal the egg which had been stolen from some hungry farmer. Someone she very likely knew.

There was no mishap, no foundation for the anxiety which had robbed Johanna of sleep. Theo arrived home after breakfast. He looked tired and said little, which was not unusual. So many things went unsaid when life was spent on tiptoes, straining to embrace and love while surrounded by strangers. Their nights in the cellar were the only moments of privacy they had.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“I was helping Jan van Broste on his farm. It was too late to travel, so I stayed.”

“How is the business?” Johanna questioned, referring to the insurance work, knowing there was no other business that could be openly discussed.

“Insurance is a tough sell these days,” he answered, rolling his eyes towards the attic. I’m happy to be home again.”

Both Theo and Johanna knew that there was no more insurance to sell, that soon the policies held by Dutch citizens would be useless. Johanna laid a quiet hand on the inside of his arm. As she caressed him, she felt the solid muscle beneath his sun-browned skin, and absently rubbed the inside of his wrist near the fraying shirt cuff. She looked into his beloved face with intensity as she spoke quietly.

“It is good to have you home.”

The officers did not go out that night. Instead, overly jolly, they brought down their flasks of Geneva and suggested a game of cards. There was no way for Theo and Johanna to refuse their kindness gracefully.

It was an unusually quiet evening. No distant shelling, no gunfire. Where birds might sing at eventide, or dogs might bark at passing motor cars, there was silence. The sunset against the hills filled the west with ominous red tentacles that reached out and stroked the darkening sky above the house.

The children were sleeping downstairs and a euchre hand had been dealt. For the first time in two weeks, the electricity was on. It should have been a blessing to go without candles, but the overhead lamp seemed too brilliant, angrily reflecting off the polished surface of the kitchen table. Johanna felt uneasy in the unnatural calm, under the bright light which shone like a beacon. The blackout curtains were well-made, and she knew that the lights could not be seen from outside, but she imagined that the light’s essence could travel right through the curtain, to alert and beckon both Allies and Germans alike. She suppressed her fears, picked up her cards and played her hand.

No one was at ease, but they played several games and shared small jokes as the officers filled their cups with Geneva again and again. Johanna sipped her drink carefully. She was no drinker, and she did not want to lose her ability to respond in an emergency. The air in the house was filled with the odor of cheap cigars, produced and proffered by Werner for the enjoyment of Theo and Schwarz. Johanna wished desperately for an open window, a taste of fresh clean air in the stale farmhouse. She could not risk going outside, not with the lights burning so garishly overhead. Too much noise inside, too little outside. Both Schwarz and Werner laughed loudly, too loudly, telling bawdy jokes in German, guffawing with red faces until tears rolled down their cheeks. They slapped each other on the back, sometimes giving an additional friendly punch on the arm. Their words began to slur, the pretence of a card game was forgotten. Johanna was sure that morning would find them slumped over the table, snoring loudly, with playing cards scattered all over the stone-tiled floor. Always, she thought, they drink to hide their fear, to have an excuse to show their emotions.

In a moment of silence they heard the wheels of a car, or a cart, being pushed along the nearby road, too ominous in the unbroken quiet of a temporary ceasefire. Theo turned his face to the window.

“Turn out the light!” he commanded suddenly.

Johanna stood up and flicked the switch, just as something whizzed by her ear, something hurtled with tremendous force and heat, so hot that Johanna felt as though her face had been burned. She had heard no sound, no loud retort; but, when she ran her fingers along the wall, she was not surprised to find a bullet hole, a perfect circular pocket in the smoothness of the painted plaster.

It was time to leave.

In the candle’s faint glow, Johanna knelt on the bedroom floor and pulled open the bottom drawer of her bureau. Inside were precious things, memories, mementoes of a sweet existence before and even during the war, lovingly gathered and stored. Her mother’s wedding ring. Her grandmother’s hat pin, from the days in the last century where wealth and status were displayed on the peak of starched, white cap. A dried corsage, worn on her wedding day. Her wedding photo, as she walked to church on the arm of her beloved. Birth announcements for both her children. A ribbon from a tiny, knitted cap. She pulled out her engagement photo and studied it carefully, squinting in the faint light. How young she looked, how fearless, with her stylish hat tipped over one eye, her secretive smile. The picture had been taken only five years ago.

The satchels were filled beyond their capacity already, bulging with undergarments and baby things, a change of clothing and a nightdress. There was no room for sentimental objects. Johanna’s hands caressed the long, white christening gown that she had made for Joop from her own wedding dress, satin and lace from one sacrament fashioned lovingly for another. How tiny it was, how precious each careful stitch, each bit of lace, the linen underskirt. It must stay behind, even though Johanna longed to snatch it up and carry it close to her body. In two months there would be another child, and perhaps no finery to clothe a new infant on its baptism day. Her fingers journeyed beneath the satin to the cards and letters collected, stored, and treasured. She took the birth certificates, the identity papers, the ration cards, and their marriage certificate. She left everything else behind except a faded photograph, a picture of her mother, who had died more than ten years earlier. The human lives were the truly valuable things.

In the morning, during a lull in the fighting, she would pack the satchels onto the sides of the bicycle, strap Joop into his carrier seat, put Nada in the front basket, and pedal the few miles to her cousin’s house. It was a crowded place. Her father was there, her sister, other relatives who had fled their homes. Theo would stay behind to care for the house and the livestock. It was a risk to travel, but there was greater risk in staying. Perhaps the sight of a woman on a bicycle, alone with two children, would be enough to arouse pity in the hearts of the soldiers, and they would stay their guns.

Johanna thought about the day the first Allied troops had landed close by, in the early autumn of the year before. She had been digging up turnips in her garden, once used only for pig feed, now a family staple. Joop played with a wooden toy by her side, and Nada slept in a sling tied around her shoulder and fitted snugly to her waist. It was the clearest of days, and she could look beyond their small holding to see similar farms, and rolling hills, miles in the distance. The day was warm and she worked vigorously, her small body bending to clear the earth and shake the roots free from clods of dried earth. Her hair was pulled away from her face with a kerchief, and her dress was covered in earthy stains. Johanna had heard the drone of aircraft and looked up, expecting to see another German plane. A formation of Allied warplanes flew overhead and began to fan out, becoming distant and small in the cloudless skies. She had watched the paratroopers jump out, falling, opening their parachutes to float softly and gently to the ground, like the fluff of a milkweed pod ripped apart and carried by the currents into the soil. She heard it then, the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire as one by one; the Germans hit their floating targets. As she had shaded her eyes against the sun’s glare, she whispered a soft prayer, a prayer that ripped her heart, for the safe deliverance of the soldiers to the ground. She knew that there was little chance of survival, even for those lucky enough to land.

Who would be left to pray for her, if everything was lost?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

grandmother stories part 1

Tomorrow is Mother's Day.

I haven't written my mother's story yet, only alluded to some parts of it in the last short story I posted. It is not ready to be told.

But my grandmothers stories need to be remembered.

This is the essence of who they were, who they are. My father's mother died when I was eleven, my mother's mother is still alive.

Although this post and the next are works of fiction. my fiction is always rooted in the truth of a life, a moment, an object, a person.

These stories are both long, but well worth reading till the end. I will post the second one tomorrow.

Enjoy. And for all of you who mother - mother children, pets, family, friends, the earth....have a wonderful day tomorrow.


As cottages went, the little pink dwelling was neither the prettiest nor the quaintest in the neighbourhood. The curled shingles on the roof flapped in the wind, and the once-glossy black shutters were peeling and faded. The interior was dated, cozy and unmemorable. But a family like Anneke’s could easily afford a week’s stay.

Even the cottage’s location tucked away on the fringes of a tiny tourist hamlet, did not lend itself to popularity. There were few neighbours for socializing, and it was a ten minute walk to Georgian Bay through an overgrown stand of pine and poplar.

Anneke loved the tiny cottage. She had visited here time out of memory, playing near the brook, and falling asleep to the haunting moan of pine trees that surrounded the house. A dilapidated bridge was a spot for daydreams, close enough to the house that her mother could see her, and far enough away that the sound of distant waves muted the shouts of her younger brothers.

Anneke’s grandmother had come to the cottage this year for a few nights of respite, finally consenting to leave the farm work to Grandpa. This morning, Anneke had Grandma almost to herself. Her mother and father had gone shopping in Midland, taking the two younger boys with them. Only Billy and Anneke remained, and Anneke was hopeful that her younger brother would be too busy making messes to pay attention to what she and Grandma were doing. Shortly after her parents’ car left the driveway, Billy disappeared to build a fort in the woods. Of course Grandma gave him permission. She let them do anything they wanted.

Grandma sat at a picnic table in the back yard, gazing quietly across the lawn. Anneke snuggled in beside her, laying her head on Grandma’s arm, pulling herself as close to the older woman as she could get without actually sitting on her lap. When Grandma finally spoke, it was in Dutch instead of English. Anneke wrinkled her face in confusion.

“Grandma, you know I can’t speak Dutch. “ Anneke gently pushed her shoulder.

Grandma smiled. “So you can’t,” she said in heavily-accented English. “I wished you a good morning, my little one.”

Grandma’s hands were chubby, yet covered with a criss-cross of wrinkles, reminding Anneke of the honey-dipped doughnuts they both loved so much. They were ornamented with clusters of freckles and age spots, unadorned except for the wedding ring that gripped her fourth finger a bit too tightly. No polish or lotions softened the hardworking hands, with short, brittle nails and roughly calloused palms.

She did not dress up often, and Grandma had not dressed up for her trip to the cottage. She clothed herself in the same utilitarian garb she wore on the farm. A stained, brown cardigan with a rent in the elbow. A shapeless, floral shift that reached her mid-calf. A pair of nylon stockings were rolled around her untanned ankles. A bib apron in a contrasting print, which she wore as a part of her dress. Her apron was such an essential part of her wardrobe, except for during church on Sundays, that she occasionally wore two at once.

Ever since Anneke could remember, Grandma’s hair had been white, thick and wavy. It was seldom styled or combed. Often it stood on end, a result of Grandma’s constant habit of running her fingers through her locks when she was nervous or distracted. Her gait was heavy, but persistent. She moved slowly, shuffling her way through her daily routine, and hummed dreamily as she worked. At home she milked the cows, fed the chickens, and responded to minor farm emergencies with the same deliberate slowness.

“Grandma, come walk with me.” Anneke begged.

Grandma pulled herself up and grabbed the outstretched hands for balance. Anneke led her to the bridge, walking slowly down the sloping lawn, and carefully guided her Grandma across the uneven grass.

“We could go to the beach,” Anneke suggested cautiously. She could see herself leading Grandma over the rocks, feeling the spray of waves in her face as the sun scattered warmth over the icy blue surface of the bay. They could hunt for fossils; they could pretend they were castaways, stuck on a deserted island all alone.

“I’m coming too!” Billy shouted, and ran wildly towards his sister. Anneke had forgotten about him.

“No.” Grandma said with a frown. “No beach today. I don’t like the water.”

Anneke remembered another trip and a different beach, full of sandy ripples and broken shells. Grandma had worn a polyester swimsuit with a short, flowered skirt. She hugged herself tightly, unused to the exposure of bare flesh. She walked cautiously into the water, disconcerted by the sucking wet sand that pulled at her feet. She stood quietly for a few minutes, and watched the waves advance and ebb with a force she could not understand, and could not counter.

“I’ve had enough now,” Grandma had said. Five minutes later she was restored, normal in her cotton dress and worn oxford shoes with knotted laces.

“I’m bored!” Billy announced.

“Go away and play in your fort,” Anneke muttered.”

“It’s boring when I play by myself. I want to do something else. I want to make waffles. Grandma,” Billy pleaded, “Can we make waffles?”

Anneke frowned and crossed her arms. She was the oldest; she was supposed to decide what they should do next. “She can’t, silly. She didn’t bring anything with her except her clothes.”

“Of course I make waffles,” Grandma responded. “I need to get my bowl and my waffle iron.” Grandma turned towards the cottage and shuffled to the back door, which opened into the kitchen. The children followed; Anneke moved quietly, and Billy exuberantly, with whoops of joy.

Grandma must have packed the cast-iron waffle maker in her suitcase, because Anneke knew it had not been unloaded with the other cooking supplies. Perhaps Grandma had kept it a secret, to make waffles as a special treat.

Waffle-making had begun in another farmhouse, in another country, years before Anneke was born, It began as a ritual of survival, of preparing small cakes of grain, water, butter and soda, when not much else was available. Served hot, they were both a staple and a delicacy, a testament to Grandma’s talents as a baker. Her waffles were oval, flat, and chewy, not at all like the Belgian waffles sold at fairs and market stands. Much better. As the grandchildren arrived, Grandma included them in the proceedings. Small hands poured flour and cracked eggs against the yellow stoneware bowl. Children helped to mix the ingredients, the wooden spoon giving way to hands that shaped the pliant mixture.

Grandma kneaded the dough, working out its roughness with her plump fingers. Her body knew the recipe, it was an intrinsic recollection born from years of repetition, a secret passed from mother to daughter, to granddaughter. Anneke could help knead, although her rhythm was still awkward, and she could she could shape the dough into yellow sausages, to be tossed onto the iron and pressed flat. Sometimes there were three or four tins of leftover waffles in Grandma’s cupboard, to be eaten cold, but there were always more waffles to be made.

Grandma looked around the kitchen with its lemon-yellow cupboards, gas stove and old refrigerator. Anneke and Billy sat expectantly at an arborite table with wobbly legs. Grandma filled the aluminum coffee percolator with water and set it on the stove. She fiddled with the stove knobs, turning each one on, and then off, and then on again.

“Coffee first,” Grandma muttered, and began a search through the cupboards, pulling out a flour canister and a tin of peanut butter. She frowned when she discovered a box of tea. “That’s not mine,” she said, and dropped the package into an open garbage pail. As she ransacked the kitchen, she began to sing in Dutch. Grandma did not know the words to any English songs, even though her grandchildren tried to teach her nursery rhymes and other simple melodies. Nevertheless, she sang whenever and wherever she could. In the cottage kitchen she vocalized enthusiastically, punctuating her music with a tablespoon-tapped rhythm. Absorbed in her singing, she abandoned the cupboards and began to sway in time to the music, egged on by the delighted laughter of her grandchildren.

“Dance with me Grandma,” Billy cried, and joined hands with her He began to spin, pulling Grandma with him, laughing and screeching as they spun around in circles. His feet left the ground and bumped the table, the cupboards, and the stove in the cramped kitchen. When Grandma let go of his hands, he fell to the floor laughing, red-faced and teary-eyed. Grandma herself laughed so hard that her body shook, and her chest jiggled back and forth.

With Grandma, nothing was off-limits. She allowed her grandchildren to carry out every possible experiment, from mud pies in the barnyard to jam-making with squished gooseberries and sugar. Cupboards and closets, trunks and drawers full of buttons, old photos and treasures were turned out and wondered over. Meadows and fields were explored; flowers were gathered along the gravel road. The barn was a playground, full of dusty crevices, cows to help milk, and tiny mewling kittens. All these adventures were a natural consequence of a visit to Grandma’s farm, with Grandma always an enthusiastic conspirator.

Anneke’s mind was full of warnings when she arrived at Grandma’s for an overnight stay. Don’t play with the berries. Don’t make too much noise. Don’t get your clothes dirty in the barn. By the time her parents had left, the messages were lost in a jumble of plans – a wade in the creek, eating wild strawberries on the sloping meadow bank, and a walk through fields waist-high with growing corn stalks. Ominous warnings were instantly forgotten, only to be guiltily recalled upon her parents’ return.

Anneke knew that her parents would never allow waffle-making on a hot day like today. “Don’t bother your Grandma,” they would say. “Go and play.” It would be better to begin making the waffles right away, so they could be well-started by the time her parents returned. She climbed off her chair and tugged t Grandma’s hand.

“Are we making waffles soon?” she asked.

Grandma dropped the spoon on the table. “In just a minute,” she replied.

Grandma resumed her rummage through the cupboards, methodically overturning packages of macaroni, tuna cans, and tins of green peas, so that they sat upside-down in neat rows. She rearranged the plates and bowls, switching their places, forming pyramids of upturned dishes. She began carefully to examine the glassware, running her index finger along the rims to look or chips. Grandma moved slowly, her brow beaded with sweat, and showed o inclination to hurry in the languid afternoon.

“Something’s wrong, Billy. It smells funny.” Grandma continued to inspect the glasses, not noticing Anneke’s voice.

“Yeah. What is it?” Billy pushed a small car along the crack in the table.

“I think it’s the stove, but I’m not sure. Maybe we should go outside.”

“Okay.” He put the car in his pocket.

Can you take Grandma out? I’m going to look at the stove.”

“But what if something happens?”

“Nothing will happen. I think I need to turn it off. Just go outside.”

Anneke slopped off her chair and tentatively moved towards the stove, where the smell was stronger. She heard the persistent hiss of gas from the opened valves. By the kitchen door, Billy was trying to persuade Grandma to go outside. “It’s really fun. I want to show you.” Anneke fiddled with the black porcelain knobs. If she turned them to the left, the sound grew stronger; if she turned them to the right, she could make the sound stop.

With the burners off, she stood for a moment in the silence of the kitchen, hearing only her own uneven breathing. Grandma had played with the knobs when she was trying to make coffee and then forgot about them, like Anneke sometimes forgot to put her bicycle away after playing with it. Mistakes like this happened to everyone, even adults,

Anneke moved slowly across the kitchen. She pulled open the screen door and sat on the cement step. Grandma and Billy were playing airplanes on the lawn. Anneke watched them fly towards each other with arms outstretched. Billy provided most of the movement and all of the sound effects. Grandma inched her feet along as Billy careened wildly towards her.

“Now you have to catch me!” he challenged.

Silently, Anneke drank in the image of the old woman who played like a child. She was only fifty-five, but her white hair and ponderous gait made her seem much older. Sometimes Anneke’s father grew frustrated with grandma, maybe because Grandma played with the children too much. On their last visit to the farm, Grandma had been so preoccupied that she had served boiled vegetables without draining the water, and had never even noticed. Anneke scuffed the earth with her bare toes and closed her eyes.

“Grandma, when are we going to make waffles? You promised!”

Billy was being a pest. Couldn’t he see that the moment for sharing the ritual was gone? Anneke’s eyes half-opened and she was preparing to end the discussion when she heard the stinging, unmistakable sound of flesh meeting flesh. She jumped to her feet and ran down the slope, where her little brother was crying, holding his hand over a red mark on his cheek. Grandma was raging, spewing a string of Dutch and English words at Billy. She loomed over him with her full height, preparing to strike again.

Stepping between her grandmother and her brother, Anneke threw her arms protectively around Billy. She looked up defiantly and shouted “You leave him alone! Leave him alone!” Her voice cracked and she felt her throat close with tears. Anneke ran to the bridge, pulling Billy with her, and sat down with her legs dangling over the edge. Billy sat close, almost touching her.

“Doesn’t Grandma like us anymore?” he asked.

I don’t know. I think she does. But I don’t know why she’s so mad.

“Maybe I should say I’m sorry.”

“Maybe.” Anneke wasn’t sure that Grandma would understand.

Anneke shifted so that she could see Grandma in full view. She stood on the lawn, in the same place where she had struck Billy. Her arms were outstretched and her lower lip trembled. Grandma began to call out in a plaintive voice.

“Gust! Gust! Els! Het is tijd voor het avonmaal!”

Anneke whispered in Billy’s ear,”I think she is calling Daddy but I don’t know why. He’s not here.”

Grandma wandered around the yard and continued to call out names and words in a language that Anneke barely understood. Anneke was frightened by this new being who inhabited her grandmother’s body and made it do silly, strange things. She wanted to run to Grandma and explain that they were the only ones here. She wanted to make coffee for Grandma, and cover a slice of white bread with the thick, cold butter curls that Grandma loved so much. She wanted to run into the woods and keep running until she reached the shore, where in the cool water she could think about all the confusing, terrible things that could happen. She wanted to travel back in time, to half an hour ago, so that she could do things differently. Maybe if she had not yelled, Grandma would not be acting so funny right now.

“Let’s go,” she said, and stood up on the bridge. Billy did the same, holding Anneke’s hand tightly in his own. She walked to Grandma, dragging the reluctant Billy behind her.

“Don’t worry,” Anneke reassured him. “It will be okay. I promise.”

Anneke hugged her Grandma around the waist, pressing her face into the older woman’s soft middle. Grandma’s hands entwined her dark hair, and she bent low to place a soft kiss on Anneke’s cheek. It was as if nothing had happened: no sap, no yelling, and no ghostly cries for grown-up children.

“Where have you been, Anneke?”

“Just on the bridge. Are you hungry? I can make sandwiches.”

“look at the big girl, making sandwiches for her Grandma.” Her grandmother cackled with delight as she slowly pulled herself up the slope towards the back door.

Anneke followed close behind her, wary of letting Grandma get too far ahead. She squeezed her brother’s hand protectively, and sighed. In her mind she could trace the passage of forgetting, from the date, to names, to the making of waffles, even to the extinction of one’s own existence.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Me, right now

It's a beautiful day, and I've spent a good portion of it in my office, working away at words, words and more words. I have ten years worth of notebooks and hard copies to transcribe, and it feels like it will take forever. I am not a natural typist.

I need a Bill Whitehead for my Timothy Findley. Someone who can happily and accurately type the words that I best produce in longhand. The life partner aspect of that partnership - well, one can only wish.....

I've been trying to overcome my phobias about taking pictures of myself. Now that I don't weigh three hundred pounds anymore, I am self-critical of baggy skin and out of a dozen shots I took, these are the only two I would dare publish....

Also of office right now, with ten years worth of notebooks in a pile:


My garden, waiting to be planted:


While I was outside, I took a good look at the ground cover that's creeping out from under the fence, and I realized that I didn't need to buy that oregano plant after yard is full of this:

I'm working on editing and transcribing the "award-winner", my 15 seconds of local fame. When I'm done, I'll post it. I'm not so sure about posting my more recent stuff...I wouldn't mind so much if I could protect my posts, but here they are, out in the open. I'm going to try and figure a way around this, so that people who have the time and interest to read my fiction can do so, without it being so public. On one hand, I'd like to reach a wider audience, but on the other, I'm not so sure that Blogger is the way to go....

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

from the archives, part deux

I know that some of you don't have the time or stamina for long, textual posts. But I have to put these words somewhere. I'm cleaning out my drawers, going through my old notebooks, transcribing script to text...and saving it to disc this time!!!

This story was taken from memories of my childhood.


The town appears unexpectedly, a ripple on the landscape of gentle hills and rich farmland. It owes its existence to the meeting of two rivers, one being the powerful Thames. Thousands of years ago, the rivers cut deep into the soft earth, forming the high-walled fortress of hills that surrounded and enclosed the town. The water’s strength compressed the earth, and over generations the mud became limestone, and the limestone gave the town its sustenance.

It began as a thriving village nestled in the forks, fed by the river’s energy which churned through man-made canals into the flour mills, the cotton mill, the lumber mills. It was sustained by the railroad, for as two rivers met in its centre, two prominent railway lines criss-crossed the skyline with towering viaducts, joining the tiny community to the outside world. People and goods could travel northeast to Stratford, southwest to London, west to Sarnia, and east to Hamilton.

As the town grew larger, houses spiraled up the hillsides, proudly built with the products of the lime quarries. Stately grey, chiseled, mortared solidly into place, these houses lined the streets, outlasted their inhabitants, remained unchanged as the town grew around them. Homes spilled into the higher elevations as the twentieth century began. Churches built their prominent spires on commanding hilltops, visually reminding the good citizens of their parochial duty, of the extreme and patriarchal authority of God.

Efforts were made to bring culture to the community. An enterprising soul built an Opera House. Choirs and orchestras flourished in community centres. A town Hall was erected, and its limestone towers continue to dominate the downtown area. The pious citizens argued and raged over accepting Andrew Carnegie’s gift, but at last, a library was built. Goods came in from far away, via the railroad. Life was comfortable convenient, familiar, for those who lived in town.

But even then, did the shelter of the hills insulate the residents from the finer points of acceptance? There were few initial ties beyond the railroad. Did the isolation create an environment where the hierarchy was strictly enforced, where the small-town stereotypes of clannishness and secrecy became fully operational?

Or, is this the way of all small towns?

Before the car, before the rapid, convenient transport of humans across distance, movement in or out of town was limited, remarked upon. Notices were, are sometimes still printed in the local paper:” Mrs. Andrew Smith entertained her cousins, the Missed Marielle and Ruby Langford of London last week.” People did not drive out of town to work, not until the eighties and nineties, when cars were more affordable and credit was easy to acquire, when the cost of gas was lower than the cost of property tax in bigger cities.
New families occasionally move in, sometimes having connections in town through friends and family. A family from outside can transplant successfully, given the right ingredients: money, prominence, and willingness to conform. It matters whether or not you join the Lion’s Club, the IODE, or the Odd Fellows. It matters whether or not you are eligible to join the Royal Canadian legion, or the slightly less-respectable Army and Navy, based upon your family’s participation in the previous war.

What you do for a living is critical. Did you take a job that Walter’s cousin applied for, but didn’t get? Did they hire you to bring a new perspective – if so, be aware that newfangled notions are not always welcome. Are you properly respectful of the old guard? Did they tell you all the established family names on your first day of work?

It matters where you shop. Are you buying in local shops, thus assuring that goods are bought and sold in the historic, yet sadly-provisioned business district? Or perhaps you make a pretence of local shopping, but you are wealthy enough to travel to London, or even Toronto, and acquire your goods in fashionable, upscale establishments. Kingsmill’s. Simpson-Sears. Eaton’s – after all, Timothy Eaton was once a local boy. Do you dare admit your scarcity in a public manner and shop at the Salvation Army thrift store?

Anonymity does not exist in small towns. People watch you. They notice where you go. They remark upon your presence. Just being neighbourly, is all. They discuss what you wear, and how you present yourself, after you’ve left the room. They feign surprise at the door left ajar, the conversation overheard in the ladies’ room at the church bazaar. Are you pleasant, yet respectful, to the old guard, the denizens who can trace their family lineage in this town back to the nineteenth century?

You’re new here, aren’t you? Haven’t seen you here before. Know anybody, before you moved up? Did you know the Jackson’s, or the Reese family from London? They’re cousins of mine. How long have you been here? Found you way around yet? After you’ve been asked the questions a dozen or more times, you become weary. Does it matter? Why does it matter? Your answers may become more elaborate, or they may become short and sharp. If you start asking the questions, or heaven forbid, provide any feedback, you are either greeted with over-enthusiastic warmth, or you are coolly reminded of your station. What right do you have to ask those questions? That’s the way it’s always been done, nobody’s had a problem with it before you came along. Maybe you should live here awhile before you pass those kinds of judgments.

You feel the resident’s coolness, watch them dance in tight circles, shoulder to shoulder, as they weave in and out of building, down sidewalks, past rows of chairs at PTA meetings. They dance facing inwards, with their backs to the forlorn, the misfits. The circle grows tighter and tighter until they are stuck, unable to move forwards or backwards. Their feet stomp in place for so long that they are digging themselves into the ground, buried in the stagnant, infertile clay of exclusivity.

You live here. You are an outsider. They will take your money, but not your advice. Your presence is required at PTA meetings, but you are expected not to speak. Your children are welcome at school, but please do not ask the bus driver to pick them up, you’re out of the busing area. We make allowances for some families depending on the difficulty of the walk. No, your children may not bring a lunch to school, even if it takes them twenty minutes to walk home at lunch time. Only bus students may bring a lunch.

And so on.

The streets are clean. The roads are deserted at night. The town is steeped in silence; there is a calm that cannot be found in your former urban home. It is so quiet that it’s hard to sleep, at first. And after your eyes drift closed, you are forcefully awakened by the blast of a train whistle.

Everything is closed on Mondays.

Mail is not delivered. You pick it up at the post office. The Post Office is a modern building that smells like a dusty stack of books. You ask for your mail at the counter, as you are on the waiting list for a post office box. You open your mail and discard the junk. Before you leave, five or six people have noticed you, eyes shifting away when you make contact. Some acknowledge you with a glimmer of a nod.

On Sundays you pile the kids into the car and go to church, six to a pew. Back pews are always filled, so you march the little ones to the very front, on the left hand side of the church, under the watchful eyes of the priest as he delivers his sermon. You make the sign of peace with everyone around you, but they do not speak to you as you hurry the children to the car. You are asked to join the Catholic Women’s League. You pay your dues and discover that only the executive meets, there are no regular events, and the single ongoing project is knitting red slippers for altar servers. You don’t knit.

Your kids are divided at school. Separate playgrounds, different teachers, each child concerned preserving their own social integrity at all cost. This could mean that your daughter mocks your son, as she trudges the long road to and from school with him. But, in the face of adversity on that walk, they become unified. They turn their backs with stoic despair, having learned from you that it is better to ignore those who taunt them, than to rise to the insults. You really didn’t know how bad it was, you tell yourself later. In the other world, the world that was, they whooped and hollered their way to school, with friends fore and aft.

They don’t fit. Their clothes don’t fit. They don’t understand the distinction between town kids and country kids, what passes for the racial dividing line in a sea of white faces. They don’t laugh at appropriate moments, like when the kid from the dairy farm arrives with a head full of straw and muck on his boots. They don’t know not to laugh at the girls who huddle in a circle, giggling at nothing. Their silence at home about such matters causes you pain. You only overhear them as they whisper to each other after dark, consoling each other at the end of another long day.

In winter, they are the kings and queens of the best toboggan hill in the south ward. All the kids become their friends for a hour or two. Everyone goes home at night, and arrives at school the next morning with a bemused expression and frosty silence when your kids greet them with familiarity.

In winter the snow piles high. Schools close when it storms. People stay indoors, watch the snow swirl and settle, and wait for the plows to clear out their streets. You learn to carry jumper cables, you buy a block heater for the car, and you invest in snow tires. The children walk to school, trudging from one end of town to another four times a day because you are five houses away from the busing area. At lunch, they barely have time to take off their wet mittens before you send them back out the door. If they’re late, the principal will call you and suggest that you re-organize your schedule so that your children arrive at school on time.

Here, the trees are taller than you had imagined, healthy and abundant. Your children laugh and squeal at the squirrels, still a novelty. They play in a huge back yard filled with trees, alive with the voices of birds and the rustle of movement from the wind. Bats swoop from leafy branches at night and settle in the vacant barn, in the lot next door. You sleep with the doors unlocked, thw windows wide open, and you awaken to a chorus of birdsong every morning. There is no traffic. There are no squeals of bus brakes, no distant hum of transport trucks moving goods along the 401.

Your friends and family are long-distance calls away. They visit when they can.

You walk alone for hours when the kids are at school. You travel along the riverbank, by the abandoned railway. There’s a dirt road that follows the Thames for miles out of town and you hike along its dusty track. You take the kids with you, and teach them to wade in the water, and to fish. All of you watch in awe as a great heron flaps its wings and sails skyward, with long legs trailing gracefully behind. Your kids expand their vocabulary and knowledge, learning about cattails and milkweed, burdock and skunkweed. And skunks. You listen as the water cascades over rocks, an endless burble, a trickle between your bare toes. You rest on the limestone banks and forget time, forget place, forget that you are a stranger.

You are here.

Monday, May 4, 2009

from the archives

I'm referring to my notebook...thoughts go in, and they rarely see the light of day after that.

I wondered all the way home

It was feather-light and soft
the way we touched, and
all the diamonds I saved
spilled through my fingers,
useless, to the ground.
We pulsed, the white-capped
beating on shore
rhythmic in a moment's movement
and I left.
Drove home through darkness
shiny wet streets, artificial glare
of promise.
I contemplated the mineshaft
where I once abandoned
my existence
and I walked
through sunlit woods
boots crunching on earth,
holding my treasure in my soul.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


I forgot to buy my tickets for Hillside

There are no all-weekend passes left. They went on sale this morning.

In addition to my amazing friend Kate, Loreena McKennit (practically from my hometown) will be performing, as well as Buffy Ste Marie and David Francey.

There are single day tickets left. That will have to suffice for this year.

My blogging seems to have been reduced to short sentences and off-the cuff random thoughts. Don't worry...things are percolating. I'll write about them eventually.

ETA - just to clear up any confusion - I've met neither Buffy St Marie or Loreena McKennit. I grew up in a small town near Stratford, where Loreena lives, and I love her music. But I've never met her.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

waiting for sun

....and waiting and waiting and waiting.

The weather is the only thing I have to complain about! Life is good.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A note to my cat

Please refrain from bringing mice inside the house and consuming them on the carpet.

The back yard should be sufficient for your needs, even in the rain.


your human