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
You’ll find links to previous guest posts in this series here.
KRISTEN DEN HARTOG is the author, most recently, of the novel And Me Among Them, published in the United States as The Girl Giant. With her sister Tracy Kasaboski, she wrote The Occupied Garden, a family memoir about her father’s childhood in Second World War Holland. The two are currently at work on a story about their grandmother’s family in First World War England. Kristen lives in Toronto, and writes about the books she reads with her daughter at Blog of Green Gables.
Seven treasures, in no particular order:
Years ago I lived in Alberta and I would spend the weekends with my friend Janet, driving from town to town in a pickup truck to visit flea markets. We’d buy up old things like delicate chipped china, or mysterious rusted farm tools. Once we came upon a pair of cloth-covered scrapbooks, made just after the Second World War, every inch covered with bizarre rather than political news: a 24-year-old typist whose appendix was on the wrong side; a boy found living among gazelles. The random way the books were put together offered few clues as to who made them, or why. More puzzling still was why someone would get rid of them. It seemed to me that the books needed to be rescued, in the way of family photos that have lost their families.
I inherited my dad’s stamp collection when I was a child. The hobby didn’t last long for me, but I treasure the collection because it makes me think of my dad as a boy in Holland. I can picture him poring over the stamps — tiny works of art in scalloped frames — wondering what the countries themselves must be like, and how he could get himself there. The collection makes me think of my dad now too — a fit, weathered 74-year-old with the dust of many countries on his sandals. In the mid-1990s, he sold his house and belongings and set sail with his wife in a boat they built themselves. Almost twenty years later, they’re still travelling the world, and have been to most of the places in his childhood postalbum.
I was given my grandmother’s wedding dress, but I never married, so it hasn’t been worn since September 1934. My own parents divorced when I was little, so my idea of marriage deflated somewhat early on. But when I think of my grandparents, married for more than sixty years, I’m impressed. She kept a scrapbook full of Valentine’s cards signed “?” — though of course the sender was no real mystery. Perhaps a lack of mystery can be a pretty wonderful thing. The dress reminds me that relationships can last. Before my grandmother died, she waited for my grandfather to come and hold her and kiss her goodbye. In the ensuing years he often spoke of her. “She was one heck of a lady,” he’d say.
When I was 7, my dad took my older sisters and me to New York City. He says now that he wanted to show us there was a very different world outside our small hometown in northern Ontario. And certainly we got a taste of it. I have vague memories of driving through Harlem, and travelling the wrong way down a one-way street. One night, as we slept in our hotel room, someone entered. My dad and I were in one bed, my sisters in the other. They woke and saw a light under the bathroom door, and assumed it was me or my dad in there. I slept right through till morning, and woke to the sight of police officers interviewing my dad and the news that we’d been robbed. All the cash for our trip was gone — a fortune to my dad back then — but the camera remained, a good one, I think, with fancy lenses. That’s why we still have this picture of me and my sisters on the ferry heading for the Statue of Liberty. (The sisters are also a treasure.)
From the time we met, my partner Jeff and I have been squeezing into photobooths periodically, documenting our life together. After Nellie was born, we began bringing her in too, and over the years we’ve collected a hodgepodge of these zany photobooth shots that we keep in a special album. I love these pictures, four in each set, Nellie toothless at first, then toothy, then toothless again.
This is a virtual treasure. A few years ago, I started blogging about the books I read with my daughter, Nellie. The essays aren’t book reviews of any kind, but meandering little posts about how books weave themselves into our family life. Sometimes I research an author like Roald Dahl or William Steig or E.B. White, and include anecdotes about them as well as old book covers, or some of Nellie’s drawings of characters. Over time, I see now, the blog has become an evolving journal of Nellie’s childhood, of parenthood, and of our family’s trip through children’s literature. There are all sorts of memories, images, and quotes stored on the blog that might otherwise get forgotten, such as her musing about the fact that “sum bilive, sum don’t.”
I have a little wooden rocking chair that was my mom’s when she was little. It’s meant for a toddler, but when we were teens my sisters and I could still wedge our bottoms into it and walk around with it stuck there. Those kinds of antics always got my mom giggling, at which point she was vulnerable and you could get her giggling even more. The chair makes me think of her and her wonderful, infectious laughter, and our house on Darwin Crescent — three girls and a mom against the world.
Also by Kristen den Hartog on this website:
Wednesday, July 25th, 2012
Read the series Introduction here.
ELIZABETH YEOMAN is a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her teaching and scholarly publications are about language, culture, history and memory. Her poetry and travel writing have appeared in literary journals and she has contributed media pieces to the Globe and Mail, the Women’s Television Network and CBC Radio. She is currently working with Labrador Innu elder and environmental and cultural activist Elizabeth “Tshaukuesh” Penashue on a book based on Elizabeth’s diaries. Elizabeth Yeoman also blogs at Dinner in Strange Places.
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These are my seven treasures:
The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers: I won this as a prize for an essay contest sponsored by the Nova Scotia Association of Garden Clubs when I was in Grade 7. I think the topic of my winning essay was the joy of gardening. My father took me to Halifax, a four-hour drive, to accept the prize at a banquet — but when we got there he said he was very tired and would I mind if we just went out for supper by ourselves. Though he was quite a prominent labour lawyer, he was reserved and self-effacing in his personal life, so perhaps after driving all that way he felt he couldn’t face a formal dinner among strangers. I didn’t mind; I too felt a bit reluctant now that we were so close to the actual event.
Instead we went to a Hungarian restaurant called Tokay, which I thought was the height of sophistication, treated ourselves to exotic food we had never tasted before, and drove home again: two shy escapees from public recognition and formality.
The book was mailed to me later and, as the photo shows, it has since been much enjoyed.
A drawing done by my daughter, Ilse, when she was 14: This is us on the top deck of a London tour bus; that’s her on the left and me on the right. She wasn’t very happy at that stage of her life but she liked London and she was dying to go on a tour. Though I didn’t want to, I agreed to go because she was so rarely excited about anything in those days.
As soon as we climbed the stairs of the double-decker and emerged into the sunshine again to see the lions of Trafalgar Square and all of London spread out around us, her face lit up. We spent a memorable day together seeing the sights from our bus-top perch.
My wedding ring: I have lost a total of four wedding rings. The one I wear now is the third, which I found again after losing the fourth.
I can’t remember how I lost the first one; it was so long ago and the details mundane. The second one was more dramatic. I was going to Spain with a friend, to walk the Camino de Santiago, and I said to David, my husband, that I wasn’t going to take any valuables with me, not even my wedding ring. “All right,” he said jokingly, “go ahead and look as though you’re single so you can pick up men.” I thought his joke might have just a touch of seriousness to it so I took the ring after all, but my hands swell when I hike and I ended up carrying it in a pouch with my passport. I have no idea how it got lost. I don’t think it was stolen; the passport was intact. The ring must have fallen out, and probably still lies somewhere on that ancient pilgrim trail.
My third wedding ring is a replica of an early-seventeenth century ring found at the Ferryland archeological site in Newfoundland. I lost it too, and felt so badly that I secretly tracked down the goldsmith and got him to make a copy: a replica of a replica! Later I found this one buried deep in a tiny forgotten pocket of a knapsack. For a while I wore both of them, but still later I managed to lose the copy.
One more and the “Five golden rings!” of the Christmas carol will hold true for me and we’ll move on to six swans a-swimming. “More difficult to lose them,” David mutters.
A patched jacket and a mini replica of it: I bought this jacket to take to Labrador for a week-long trip into the bush on snowshoes. It was 30 below and the jacket was essential, but the very first night in the tent I brushed against the red-hot wood stove and melted huge holes in it. The down flew up like a cloud and my friend Tshaukuesh burst into laughter, then saw my stricken face and clamped her hands over her mouth. She found some fabric and a sewing kit and I spent that evening and the next day sewing, sewing, sewing: tiny stitches to keep the down in. It worked, and I was able to complete the trip.
After I got home to St. John’s, a small package came in the mail. It contained a mini replica of my jacket, patches and all. My Innu doll has worn it proudly ever since. When I look at it, I can imagine Tshaukuesh laughing to herself as she stitched it for me.
Another book, Nigella Lawson’s cookbook Feast: I never expected to like the British cooking diva and domestic goddess. She is too successful, rich and glamorous for someone like me who always sides with the underdog. But as I found out when I finally read one of her cookbooks, she is also funny, self-deprecating and down-to-earth, and she understands what really matters in life. And in death.
Feast has a chapter on food for funerals and I love Nigella for that. When my friend Rita’s father died, she said, “If there’s anything good about a death it’s the sense of community.” A stream of people brought food to her house and her family didn’t have to cook for a week.
My father died suddenly not long afterwards, and it was the same for us. I remember one dear friend walking up the driveway carrying a tureen of lobster chowder and two more arriving together with homemade date squares and loaves of bread. There were plates of sandwiches and cakes everywhere. I couldn’t eat, but knowing the food had all come from people who cared was enormously comforting. And as Nigella puts it, “Any food is a reminder that life goes on, that living is important. That isn’t brutal: it’s the greatest respect you can pay to the dead.”
One red mitten: When I was 22 years old, I spent a few months walking and hitchhiking around northern Europe by myself. I got a very cheap flight from Halifax to Prestwick, in Scotland, explored the Highlands, and then gradually made my way to Wales to visit my friend Joanna. After a week or two in her warm and ebullient company, I left to travel onwards. I really didn’t want to leave but I was afraid of outstaying my welcome and also I think I wanted to test my courage by making this solitary trip. It was a record cold winter and I was under-dressed for it: freezing and lonely, with very little money, but determined to complete the itinerary I had planned.
Several weeks later I arrived in Amsterdam where the canals had frozen solid and everyone was skating, warmly clad, ruddy-cheeked and cheerful. Not having skates with me, I watched from a bridge, spent the night in a bleak military-style hostel, and the next day made my way to the post office to retrieve a small clutch of airmail envelopes with Canadian stamps and, best of all, a package and a letter from Wales. Joanna had noticed my inadequate winter garb and decided to knit me a pair of bright red mittens. But she had finished only the first one and, in her enthusiastic way, sent it along without its mate, promising to send that too as soon as it was done.
I never did get the second one. Still, I wore this single vivid mitten for the rest of that long cold winter and, even if it only kept one hand warm, it was wonderfully comforting.
A photograph of a theatrical setting for Patrick Meyers’s play K2: My brother, Alan, built this abstract replica of the mountain K2 for a performance of the play at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal. He gave me the photo, in a frame he had also made himself, not long before he died of cancer in his early fifties.
Alan had by then built a successful career as a stage carpenter after barely passing Grade 12 (the second time around) and then trying various trades and vocational programs. He had spent most of his high school years playing bridge and pinball, and several months after that carving a single highly detailed stone chess piece. I suppose when he realized how many more there were still to carve and how little the whole set would be worth in relation to the amount of work involved, he decided to cut his losses.
The career he eventually found suited him: creative and meticulous, solitary and independent, yet with the potential, when he wanted it, for the conviviality of the theatre. When he gave me the photo, he said with characteristic understatement and just a hint of pride, “I think when Dad came to the play and saw that, it was the first time he realized I wasn’t just a bum.”
Thoughts? Comments? What’s one of your seven treasures?
Monday, June 25th, 2012
Read more about Shannon Bramer in my interview with her, “Experiments with Voice and Fidelity to Lyricism.”
Recently I was in Port Dover, Ontario, where my mother lives. Whenever I’m in town I walk the beach, take photographs, say hello to the lighthouse with my girls, buy a loaf of blue-cheese walnut bread from Urban Parisian bakery, buy a record from the magical Robot Café and last but not least: troll the Giant Tiger for deals and nostalgic oddities. On my last trip I hit the jackpot when I spotted, all alone on the wrong shelf, a bottle of Maggi, or “drops” as my Croatian grandmother used to call the salty brown liquid in the little brown bottle.
It’s loaded with MSG and other multisyllabic additives and chemicals, and my Nana let my brother, Johnny, and me add as much of the stuff as we wanted to our Lipton Chicken Noodle soup, at bedtime. The soup was what she called our “bedtime lunch.” My brother I and would sit with her in her blue-tiled kitchen, in Winona, Ontario, windows open, moon in the sky, enjoying the soup in our pyjamas, listening to my Nana’s wonderful stories. She liked to tell us about her life in Croatia: about the little village on the Hungarian border where she was born, about her parents, about her twin brother who died tragically when his shirt caught fire in a cornfield.
The sight of the little brown bottle, with its unchanged red and yellow label, brought it all back to me in a rush of sadness and longing. How I miss that house in Winona! How I miss my Nana and Papa. How I miss being small and having a little brother, our soft pyjamas, my Nana’s sandpaper hands, and that soup! That crazy chemical yellow soup and the Maggi we added without restraint because my Nana thought it made the soup taste even better than it already did.
Once in a while my brother added too much and he had a brown puddle of noodles before him that he didn’t finish. I was always more restrained and cautious with those drops, older sister that I was — but whenever Johnny made a mess of his soup my Nana just used to laugh! My Nana cried a lot, for various reasons, some obvious and some mysterious, and I remember that too — but when I look at the bottle of MAGGI it’s her laugh that returns to me.
And so I bought the bottle of Maggi from Giant Tiger in Port Dover, not to give to my kids (poor them — I’m sure they’d love it!) but to keep in my cupboard, for fun, because I still need my Nana, and it’s so nice to be surprised by her little bottle of “drops” in my cupboard, among the olive oil and seaweed and sesame seeds. Her Maggi fills my grown-up, serious pantry with a bit of my childhood and my Nana’s wonderful laughter.
The Teal and Gold Bedspread
In a world of luxurious feather duvets, Walmart bed-in-bag sets, and funky IKEA bed-dressing and textiles, I have clung to the ancient teal and gold bedspread of my Croatian grandparents. Mostly it was my grandfather’s, because I don’t really remember my grandparents sleeping in the same room. This particular blanket was on the bed where my Papa used to sleep and snore quite loudly, which is probably why my Nana moved out of his bed.
It still smells sort of like my grandparents’ home: roses, Palmolive dish soap and a hint of frying garlic. Yes, I do keep this blanket on my bed! My Papa was a stocky man with an enormous, firm potbelly that my brother and I both loved. When he slept his tummy would rise and fall under that blanket; we would sneak up on him in the morning and jump into the bed with him and it seemed as if within minutes of our rousing him my Nana would have stolen into the room and the rumpled bed would suddenly be made, crisp at the corners, pillows hidden.
The Pink Housecoat
My Nana bought this rose-coloured, velour housecoat before she went into the hospital. She was 73 years old and dying of a rare form of lung cancer. Doctors believed it was related to chemical and/or asbestos exposure. My grandfather worked at Dofasco (a steel mill in Hamilton, Ontario) for decades and spent many shifts in the coke ovens. She washed his work-clothes every day.
Her body shrunk and shrivelled in that housecoat as several painful weeks went by.
Maybe it’s morbid of me to have kept the housecoat, but I did so because when I wear it I think I feel her still somewhere inside it and I feel less afraid of growing old, like I might be able to face the pain of leaving this world bravely, with grace, the way she did.
I don’t wear it all the time, but when I need too, it’s there.
The fabric is growing shabby and worn now, but I do not want another housecoat.
The Whiskey Stool
My grandparents, for better or worse, both liked to drink. Rye whiskey was the beverage of choice — they both had their own bottles, sometimes hidden, sometimes out in the open. I remember finding a bottle of the gold liquid in my Nana’s closet and being both startled and moved by the revelation of my Nana’s other way of being. The idea that she had a secret life, she who seemed to be so under the thumb of my grandfather, somehow pleased me. The bottle made me sad too, in a way, because I understood what drunkenness was and feared it at the time — but it also signified a rebellion, a fine thread of defiance in my Nana that I admired. There was always more to a person than what you could see; there was more to Nana and more to Papa, and when I grew up there was going to be more to me. I put the bottle away and felt guilty for snooping. Every so often I checked to see if it was still there.
My Papa used to spend a lot of time in his garage, sipping his rye and tinkering with his cars and farm equipment. When he came in the house he often situated himself in the basement, on his favourite stool, smoking and sipping his whiskey. Sometimes I would sit on the floor beside him and we would have long, interesting conversations. Wrestling was usually on TV; sometimes the radio was playing.
This stool was upholstered with a cherry red fabric that had become quite worn by the time he died. Now it wears a brown and gold fabric that matches the couch my husband inherited from his great-grandmother and which we had reupholstered at the same time. These sit together in our living room. Our children climb and jump on the couch, which is now over 100 years old, and shuffle the old stool around — often flipping it over to make a boat for their stuffies or pushing it into the kitchen and against the cupboard in order to reach the treat drawer. Its legs have a lot of wobble to them now, but it’s a sturdy thing, the way my Papa was, and it’s mine.
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SHANNON BRAMER is a poet and playwright. Her poetry collection The Refrigerator Memory was published in 2005 by Coach House Books. Two previous poetry collections, suitcases and other poems and Scarf, were published by Exile Books. Shannon’s first play, MonaRita, was produced in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in February 2010 and has since appeared in festivals across the country. Sometimes you can find Shannon in the playground, recruiting little poets: www.poetintheplayground.blogspot.com.
Also browse and enjoy guest posts in the Seven Treasures memoir series on this website.
Thursday, June 7th, 2012
Sisters Carol and Mary Jane McPhee had no idea a year and a half ago that something big would develop out of a technique they stumbled on to communicate with — and bring some light to the days of — their aging mother.
“It’s all about storytelling and conversations,” Carol says of the game the entrepreneurial siblings from Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood created and now market as LifeTimes: The Game of Reminiscence.
The seed for LifeTimes was planted in the summer of 2010, when Carol and Mary Jane found themselves struggling to find a way to relate to their mother. Shirley McPhee, 86, was living alone in an assisted-living facility and facing short-term memory loss. She was often frustrated, anxious and grumpy, making family visits stressful.
Yet when a family member planned to visit North Bay, where Shirley grew up, she was able to recall exact directions to her childhood home — someplace she hadn’t been in seventy years.
“Cross the railway tracks,” she said. “Go for two blocks. Turn left up the laneway. Look for the little red brick house tucked in among the lilac bushes.”
Thursday, February 16th, 2012