A lifelong writer, HYACINTHE MILLER is editing drafts of her non-fiction book (Police Officer: Journeys from Recruit to Chief), two novels, and an anthology of erotic short stories. She is president of the Writers’ Community of York Region and a member of Sisters in Crime and Toronto Romance Writers. She maintains a blog, Write in Plain Sight, and is developing another site called The Police Professional.
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I’ve always been enamoured of snapshots, those frozen fleeting seconds of our lives that outlast memory.
The date printed on the pinked margin reads February 1938. Grandmother’s thick wavy hair is pinned back under a fancy hat. The camera registers her dark oval face, her unblinking gaze under a solemn brow, the fox-head stole draped around her shoulders. Her fingers grip a wooden plinth, as if to press it into the floor.
“My mother was a dainty woman,” Mom would whisper, prying the lid from a dusty storage box and easing grandmother’s shoes from a bed of crinkly tissue. Tiny (size 4), low-heeled and shiny black and soft as frosting, with a comforting, worn scent, those boots were a talisman. Wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron, she’d turn away to look at something I couldn’t see. I’d trace the sweep of leather buttons, the cobbler’s stitched signature on the instep. There was no question of me putting them on — at age ten I was almost as tall as my mother, with feet far too big. Eleven months after the portrait was taken, grandmother sat in a dentist’s chair to have a tooth extracted and didn’t awaken from the ether. At age 19 the orphaned guardian of three younger siblings, my stoic, graceful mother would wear the weight of that death all of her life.
The photo of my mother at 22 hangs on the wall of my sewing room, in an antique frame we unearthed in her garage after she died suddenly in 1998. In it she is shy, slender, hopeful — I was that way too, once. She’s affianced of my father, a dreamy lad deployed as a sapper with the British Corps of Engineers in the pestilential trenches of Second World War Egypt. We’re not sure how they met, or when. My brothers and I speculate, injecting romance or intrigue into an invented history. In that unruly garden behind the family walk-up in Montreal, Mom looks more incandescent than sunlight. In fading convent-school cursive, she wrote on the reverse, Greeting to My Beloved, Christmas 1942. He returned two years later, not the man she’d thought she knew, but a wary, tight-lipped husk, besotted by an Englishwoman who’d reclaim him twelve years later, leaving my mother bereft again, this time with three small children of her own. Mom mourned/adored him till she died. I learned the persistence of love.
My daddy, whom I would love even when he no longer knew me, stands at parade rest in a postcard photograph, cap rakishly askew over his right ear, dark khaki uniform sharply pressed, boots spit-shined, cloth service belt wrapped tight around his narrow waist. Birthed in a village somewhere in Cuba and lacking proper documentation, he’d lied about his age to enlist in the army. The sweet-faced poet-photographer-machinist-farmer looks to be on the threshold of tears. He inscribed the photo, From Ronnie to dear Eunice, with his love. Underneath what looks like a hastily sketched bird is a blotch of red, whether wax or a scrap from an album I don’t know. But it resembles a misshapen heart. When I first found the picture among my mother’s things, those words, his love, struck me as odd phrasing, but recalling the lives they’d lived — briefly together and decades apart — I knew that he’d lost whatever self he had, after he sailed on that troop ship and puked his way to war. He’d shaken hands with the Shadow.
In a yellowing cellophane bag tucked on the top shelf of my closet, I’ve kept the pair of impossibly tiny pink booties that were mine. They seem more fitting for a doll than a full-term infant. I was born fourteen days short of my parents’ first anniversary. Babies were smaller in those lean days after the Armistice. I recall stories of how poor they were. How important the family connections. The sweater Mom knitted fits my outstretched hand. Decorated with scalloped edges, eyelet rows, and yellow ducks, the fine wool sweater’s much washed, the stitches barely felted, no longer pristine white but aged to ivory.
Jess and I have been best friends since February 1961, when she blew into Sister John Francis’s class at Denis Morris High School, nudging the trajectory of my future. Drum corps and cheerleading, smoking Export ‘A’s pilfered from her dad, and . . . boys. At age 16, we are so innocent in our matching white jackets. Not for nothing in 1992 are we wearing dark sweaters, reflecting, perhaps, the lessons shaping our lives. In the photo I’ve grown into the same cautious eyes that were my dad’s. Unlike him, though, I’ve saved my self.
The Superman sweater, knit when my son was in grade seven and before heroes fell from favour, later kept my mother comfy too. Graduated to a new outfit, he dropped by for a scheduled break from patrolling the 400 series highways, proud to show Nana his police cruiser. Years later, he would wear his dress uniform to her funeral. Captured forever in this photo, their innocent connection still warms.
And when I thought that my options for bliss had frayed to a thread and that my fate, like that of all the women in my family, was to grow old alone, I met him at IKEA, my Swedish Viking. His first gift was a signet ring with stylized initials reading LH in one direction, HM in the other. Our lives have intertwined, like the letters. What serendipity.
Wednesday, March 6th, 2013
Artist and writer NATALIE SHAHINIAN is happiest in her pyjamas, snacking on peanut butter licked from the end of a spoon. When the spread is on sale, Natalie stocks up, solely in the event of an emergency. She has been quoted as saying, “I don’t want to imagine a world without peanut butter. That would be an awful way to live.”
(Read about Seven Treasures and find links to more guest posts here.)
It may have been her parents’ farm, but it was B’s kingdom. An only child, B was audacious among adults, and immune to any punishment if she was caught. With acres of farmed fields stretching some distance, it was impossible to know all of B’s offences.
She putted large, spongy soccer balls of overgrown cucumbers at cars in the full parking lot. She terrorized the Italians, stealing mature blossoms from the zucchini patch. She pulled open a curtain of tall rushes and shot out on her dirt bike, delighted with the panic she stirred up among customers.
Through an unspoken agreement only parents understand, it was decided I was to befriend B and set a good example. I was stumped, for a while. Then I prepared for my next visit.
That day, when B saw the purple whisky pouch rattling in my hands, she bolted for the farm’s ready-picked shop, returning with an identical bag that rattled like mine. All that visit we traded Oilies and Pearls, lost in a tilled kingdom of our own. Until the big marble in the sky began to swirl orange, pinks, and gold upon our faces. Goodbye, goodbye.
2. Pencil Crayons
It happened the year my sister returned home from studying abroad. I came up to her knees. She came up to my soul.
You have to be careful with these. They’re special. Not like any of the ones you’ve used before. Her hands were holding something inside her unzipped suitcase. I stood up.
She took out the tin tray of pencil crayons, Caran d’Arche. The lid was so ornate and beautiful; I couldn’t believe the real gift was what was inside.
Colours arranged in perfect pointed tips. Just the sight inspired me, and still does.
3. Metropolitan Button
If I faced west on the entrance steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I could see the Front Desk in the Great Hall where I spent most of my internship. If I faced east, I could see Fifth Avenue, the M1 bus, doubles of dog breeds on long leather leashes, and a heap of apartment buildings. I could see the museum I kept rediscovering that is New York City.
During my first week of orientation, I picked up tips rarely circulated beyond the Museum doors. The green salad at the Restaurant is a hit or miss. The elevator outside of Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas is usually empty. The best fashion to be seen, outside of the Fashion and Costume Institute, is at the Roof Garden Café on a Friday, after five o’clock.
Granted, none of the insight shared qualified me as a native New Yorker. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t let myself identify with city’s inhabitants when a stranger would turn to me and ask for directions, or a tourist would want my opinion about a particular place or restaurant; the closest grocer, the best independent-designer shopping district, the specialty bookstores. The server at the bakery, who started put my order together before I walked through the door.
Deep down however, I knew, I had more in common with the city’s visitors regardless of what I had learned or had been told. It was in the way people not from there looked at everything in the city like it was under a piece of glass. The John Lennon Memorial in Central Park, the pretzel vendor on the street corner, the graffiti in the laneway. For me, the small, especially, would stand out: the sparkling granite of the sidewalk, the misprinted admission button for the Museum. Art was everywhere, not just within the galleries. And, still in love, I couldn’t help but look, and look, and look.
4. Shark Tooth
Lying on its side, the outline of the shark tooth I found while collecting shells at the beach looks like an irregular “D,” her first initial, and I remember.
The sunburn isn’t a big deal, D. Honest. It’s, like, nothing.
D calls my bluff with a palm-full of cold aloe gel on my reddened spine. THWACK! I never had a chance.
I howl, and then nearly choke on my own laughter, and she rolls off the bed in a fit so silly she can’t even glance at me. She’s crumpled on the floor, laughing and holding her tummy. I exaggerate my agony, laughing too now, filling the space around her.
Nothing about the day was remarkable. Not the weather, not the time, not the route. And if it hadn’t been for the fallen nest, lying on the edge of someone’s front lawn, I would have forgotten about my companion since, Mother Nature.
Look how the dry grasses are woven! Isn’t it amazing? A bird did this! With its tiny beak, it made a home. A HOME! With the neckline of my T-shirt, I wiped the tears from my eyes. Behind me, I felt Her smile.
At home, I presented to my mother what she had missed. Multiple sclerosis had put an end to our leisurely walks together. Relying on both of us for support, Mom peered over the nest, absorbing its craftsmanship with wonder. That’s when Mother Nature began to ease her hold, certain I could take the weight of Mom on my own, acknowledging my thankfulness, growing smaller and larger with every whisper. I know . . . I know.
6. Wacky Packages
To spend time with my cousins, I had to take an oath to belong to their exclusive fraternity. Thou shalt watch the cartoons of their choosing. Though shalt learn to pedal fast if thou wantest to ride bike alongside. Thou shalt wrestle and expect to get hurt. Furthermore, thou shalt not cry, nor tattle, nor be a sissy baby if thou shouldest get hurt.
I took the punches, and the plots of destruction, all the way to the convenience store, where the three of us would buy coveted Wacky Packages. It was a fair price to pay for acquiring a pack containing trading cards and stickers spoofing household brands. And with two brothers to trade and laugh with, I rarely had any doubles . . . or doubts about the time spent with them either.
7. Ceramic Mug
At the end of summer, L, your skin would be caramel brown. Your ponytail would be a brighter blonde. (Buttercup!) And you’d be taller. Much taller since the last time I’d seen you, before you left for camp.
What was this place that served peanut butter on hot dogs? Had beds so high you had to climb a ladder to reach them? I pleaded with my parents. Can I go?
Unlike L’s, my camp was in the city, at a local public school. A yellow bus dropped me off in the mornings, and in the afternoons took me back to the ketchup and mustard waiting for me at the kitchen table and the bed I could crawl into on my own. My days, however, were the notes in the margins of a story about to unfold.
I painted. I danced. I wrote stories. I put on a show. I made new friends, broke someone’s heart, and so, for a while, got used to sitting on the bus, alone.
And I knew it was right. All of it. It reached to the brim of my ceramic cup, the one I made in Pottery, and then began to flow over.
It tasted exactly like you looked in August, L.
Wednesday, December 5th, 2012
SUZANNE ADAM left her native California for Chile in 1972 to marry her Chilean boyfriend. She explores how this experience has shaped her life in her memoir-in-progress Marrying Santiago. A member of Santiago Writers, she has had narrative essays published in The Christian Science Monitor, California Monthly, and Sasee Magazine.
Tree-hugger, avid memoir reader, nature writer, talker to stray dogs and cats, gardener, CNN news junkie, serious recycler, walker, birdwatcher, lover of storms and laughter, Pilates aficionado, and doting granny, she’s embracing aging and working up the courage to let her hair go grey.
Monday, November 26th, 2012
I pay my bills by working as a freelance writer/editor. Usually, that entails me hewing and sanding language about others’ thoughts and interests. A hygienic business, for the most part — subjects kept safely distant, taut, and orderly. But this Seven Treasures project: it required trekking through much bramblier and overgrown woods than I expected. My words here carry the cuts, scrapes, and burrs that prove I made the journey (even if I’m not sure where I’ve arrived).
1. “Into the Primitive”
This is the first object winking at me from my dusty cabinet of curiosities: Jack London’s The Call of the Wild — 7 3/4” x 5 1/8” x nearly 14/16”. Unabridged. Illustrated. Published in Wisconsin. According to my mum’s note written on the flyleaf, I received this “as a prize for spelling in grade 2, June 1974.” The cover art is blue midnight, wintery northern-spruce forest, and snarling jaws: clearly for boys only! I musta wept some lonesome-critter tears that summer.
2. My Little Friend
Another maternal inscription. This time, not literal. He stands barely 2 9/16” tall. Mostly creamy grey, with traces of yellow and blue paint in the creases of his long coat and belt. This is Dopey: the seventh dwarf — my mum’s tiny figurine from the late 1930s or early ’40s.
We moved out of my childhood home when I was 15 and most of my toys vanished. Not certain how. But Dopey stuck around ’til I unearthed him years later from a wooden whisky box lurking in a spidery corner of my grandparents’ cellar. He’s my talisman. We’ve been on some top-notch rambles together.
3. Ducks Are People
My father fell ill when I was 15. He passed away seven years later. Memories of dad as a vital person are the ones I strive to hang on to. Best of all: down at the lake — floating, tinkering, smoking, napping.
Among the few trinkets that came to me when he died is a green metal pin-on button (rusty on the back) — 2 1/8” across. In the centre there’s a white cartoon silhouette of a smiling duck, with the words “Love a Little White Duck” slung around the circumference. I can’t recall my father ever wearing this button, nor do I even know where it came from or what the message means. But at least it’s clear this mysterious bit of paint and tin was something that made him laugh enough to keep.
4. Rhymes with Memory
I couldn’t have just one book amongst my treasures. This next one measures 4 3/8” x 6 5/8” x 1 1/8”, and, like the volume before, it too was a school prize. Forty-three years before I howled with Jack London, my grandfather received Arthur Quiller-Couch’s redoubtable Oxford Book of Victorian Verse for “general proficiency” in form IVB at Ashbury. Its 1,023 pages are thin, serious tissues, but the volume itself is sturdily bound in faded scarlet morocco.
I read Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” from this little book at his funeral. It bolstered me to speak those old rhymes and to rekindle, through “the growing gloom,” my granddad’s “happy good-night air.”
5. Uisge Beatha
Here’s one that’s cheerier (about time). Throughout my childhood I was absorbed by nature’s mysterious creatures and corners, blathering vigorously to whatever adult would listen about uncanny forest footprints, the ghost of Anne Boleyn, WWII fighter planes that vanished around Bermuda, and scaly beasts that reside in watery caves. But it used to drive me nuts (still does) when I would hear about so-called scientific missions to “find” Nessie. So bullyish and so wrong to disturb her misty Scots solitude!
When Auntie Margaret passed away, I pocketed from a shelf in her home a ceramic figurine of the enigmatic creature herself. A smiling wee lass (4 15/16” nose to tail) sporting a jaunty tam and a belly full of Beneagles, my Nessie paddles blithely, undisturbed, across the surface of her grey-green loch.
6. Joie d’Hiver
Within about a month of decamping to Montreal in late summer 1989 I fell hard for another new transplant named Dennis. Around the same time we met, Den learned that he had taken second prize in that year’s Labour Day weekend novel competition sponsored by Arsenal Pulp Press. The even better news contained in that letter was that Arsenal’s editor so admired the manuscript he invited Den to rework it for publication.
Now, when I thumb through the resulting book — Dog Years — I time-travel back to that long, sub-zero St. Lawrence winter where I was kept warm by two entwined intensities: a new relationship and Den’s powerful word-alchemy.
Organic last: in places a thumbnail thick, shaggy, craggy, grey-brown bark surrounds the pale creamy-orange heart of a half-circle fist-and-knuckles fragment of silver maple.
Throughout my childhood, that ancient dragon stood on the west side of my grandparent’s place. He shaded my bedroom from summer’s late-afternoon sun, made room for all my scrappy birdhouses. The tiniest puff of breeze and every branch would snap to life with glinting, quaking, argent-green eyes.
I was down south at university when he was felled. I recall the knee-buckling drift I felt when I returned home one holiday to find his space empty, the illumination switched off. A few limb-shards lay scattered in the ragged mid-December snow. I retrieved one. Twenty years on and those woody rings preserve my friend’s sharp, spicy aroma.
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MORGAN HOLMES grew up on the igneous shield of Northern Ontario. He spent most of his 20s in Montreal, and since then has found himself skirting Lake Ontario’s lowland shores. A freelance writer and editor (www.wordmeridian.com), Morgan also teaches continuing-education courses at Ryerson University (Shakespeare in Performance, The Art of Promotional Writing). When off the clock, he likes to spend time on wordless pursuits — his top three being piping, hiking, and canoeing.
To learn about other contributors to this series and the stories behind their treasures, click here.
Tuesday, November 13th, 2012
SHIVAUN HEARNE has managed the editorial and production department of the University of the West Indies Press since 2000. She was born in England, raised in Jamaica, and educated in Jamaica and Canada. She lives in Toronto.
My charm bracelet. This is, admittedly, a bit of a cheat in this list, holding as it does twenty-six treasures. But it is my most prized possession and the thing that contains my history and connects me to most of my beloved ones, living and dead. I don’t wear it as much as I’d like to because I fear losing one of the charms, but even the ones I’ve lost (including one that was miraculously found) have a story.
The short version of the charm bracelet tale is that it was my mother’s. About fifteen years ago, before charm bracelets became popular again (the whole Pandora fad), and for reasons unknown to me, I declared I needed a chunky charm bracelet and my mum had this tucked away in her drawer. I don’t remember ever having seen it in my childhood forages into her jewellery drawer, but it appeared when I needed it and it was perfect. From the unknown Sophie’s charm recalling the 1884 Cotton Expo in New Orleans, to my uncle Chris’s engraved infant-sized St. Christopher medal (a christening present), to the increasingly clever vintage charms I seek out and that my husband, Kevin, manages to find, this has become the portal to my story.
My Canadian citizenship card. It may seem an odd treasure, but it’s small and portable, and despite my entitlement to two other citizenships, Canada is the country that embodies who I am and the citizenship I embrace with pride. I was born in England and raised, from the age of six months, in Jamaica. And I love both countries. England, to me, is a sense of family — it was my mother’s country, despite the fact that she spent most of the last sixty years of her life in Jamaica, and the country of most of my small family. I feel a sense of connection, but I lived there with one eye always on the door, never really at peace. An island of myriad delights, it is, ultimately, a country that breaks my heart and a place where I cannot live as I would like. And so, Canada: my country of chance.
When I was seventeen and looking at universities abroad, I was wisely advised by a family friend to consider Canada because tuition fees were lower here than in the U.S. When I saw that tuition was lower still for citizens, my father’s long-forgotten Canadian birth certificate suddenly became significant. He had long since claimed his Jamaican citizenship and always travelled on that passport. He had in fact been dismissive of the accident of his birth here, partly because he loved Jamaica fiercely, but I think partly, too, because it was tied to a family “shame”: his mother had left his father while pregnant, to join her sister who was working in Montreal. I didn’t realize until years later that their marriage certificate is dated November 25, 1925, and my father was born February 4, 1926. Do the math. My grandfather travelled to Montreal in 1928 to bring his family home, and so my father was raised in Jamaica.
A month before my eighteenth birthday (after which the process would become more complicated), I hied myself off to the Canadian High Commission to claim my citizenship to a country I had only ever seen from the inside of airports, en route to England.
When I came here for university in 1985, because I entered as a Canadian citizen I had none of the orientation for international students: that meant sudden and full immersion. After an odd first few years, I found my feet and made some wonderful friends and the first roots of connection to the country took hold. I stayed until 1990 and then returned to Jamaica, intending to remain there only a year. That year turned into fifteen.
On a visit to Toronto in October 2004, I was struck with the feeling “I have to be here.” Six months later, I was living here once again, ostensibly for a year — but I knew already that it would be forever. And then, I met a Canadian man who felt like home to me, and is.
The Offering. I bought this painting the day after my mother’s funeral in 2009. We went to the opening of an exhibition by a friend in Jamaica, Lisa Lindo. I had seen this work on the invitation and fell in love with it, and when we arrived it was one of the few pieces that hadn’t sold yet. I was with a dear friend, who suggested I buy it in memory of my mother. The fact that I had just that day received an unexpected cheque from the Jamaican government (for funeral costs for a pensioner) in the amount of the price of the painting made it seem like kismet. I bought it even before I had a wall to hang it on. When we moved into our house, there was a nail in just the right spot in the living room, and that’s where it hangs to this day.
The key to our house. I have dreamed of owning a house for as long as I can remember. As a child I would read the real estate classifieds and imagine living in the places described there. Now, having a place of our own, one that feels permanent — as much as these things can be so — is a source of great joy. And I love the life that my husband and I (and our dog, Alice) have built here since 2010. I work from home, and I have yet to tire of these walls. (Admittedly, Scotiabank is the real owner of the house, and I accept that we are merely renting from them, but the bank is a less capricious landlord than an individual who could decide to sell at any time.) More than wanting a house, though, I want this to be a home away from home for my family of friends, a sanctuary of the sort I have known through the kindness of others. And the unexpected bonus is that we live in a wonderful neighbourhood with lovely neighbours, some of whom have become close friends: I have a sense of community, of connection to a place, of belonging.
My wedding ring. Kevin and I met in 2006 and lived together for years before we got married. He proposed a few years ago but I knew I didn’t want a traditional wedding or ring, and as a joke I said, “Whittle me a ring out of wood from the cottage.” Obviously that wouldn’t work, but I got a bee in my bonnet about having a ring that incorporated wood. On Etsy.com we found a wonderful company, Minter & Richter Designs, that uses a process of stabilizing wood and setting it in titanium to make a virtually indestructible ring. We sent them black walnut from a tree at the cottage and they made exactly the rings we wanted. We got married in September 2010.
The Cottage Logs. These journals are a record of our life together at the Far Side, our off-the-grid cottage on a pristine lake, and perhaps the most pure and special place I have ever known. Kevin had bought the cottage a few years before we met, and it’s where we really fell in love. We can be completely cut off from the outside world (other than CBC radio, my eighth treasure), and be absolutely at peace together on this extraordinary piece of the Canadian Shield. We started the logs in 2007, intending them to be a record of temperatures and weather conditions, wildlife sightings, and daily activities, but over the years they’ve become so much more. Guests add entries too, and even when our notes are almost illegible, the process of deciphering them brings memories flooding back.
My iPhone. The first one, I mean. The one that was actually an eyePhone. This was a Christmas present from Kev, before either of us even had iPods and when iPhones had just come out, and I had declared, “No i-ANYTHING for Christmas. We can’t afford it.” So he made me the eyePhone, which I thought was hilarious and clever. We both got iPhones a couple of years later and that was life-changing, of course — but my first eyePhone will always be special.
Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
CATHERINE GRAHAM is the author of four critically acclaimed poetry collections: The Watch, and the poetry trilogy Pupa, The Red Element, and Winterkill. Her work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Descant Magazine, Poetry Ireland Review, The New Quarterly, Joyland, Literary Review of Canada, and The Fiddlehead. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Lancaster University (U.K.) and in addition to mentoring privately she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the Haliburton School of the Arts. Catherine was judge for the 2012 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest and will mentor the winners. Her next collection will appear in fall 2013 with Wolsak & Wynn. Visit www.catherinegraham.com
Seven Treasures from my life:
Thursday, October 4th, 2012