On the One Hundredth Anniversary of my Grandmother’s Birth

Thelma Mae Bruce, circa 1920

Thelma Mae Bruce, circa 1920

I was three months pregnant with my third son when our  washing machine broke. The tub would fill, spin, and drain but the agitator wouldn’t turn. We had no money and a lot of laundry. Something needed to be done. I rolled my pants over my kneecaps, climbed onto the edge of the washing machine and stomped the clothes clean with my feet and legs. From half inside the machine, I realized that, just for a moment, I had become my grandmother – and I was grateful and astounded such a thing could happen.

If my grandmother was still alive, she would have celebrated her one hundredth birthday yesterday. And by “celebrated” I mean stood up beside the dinner table while everyone else ate. I called her Gram but her name was Thelma, a word now used in our family as a verb describing a hostess who won’t stop working to sit down with the rest of the party. “Nah, I’m fine. You guys go ahead. I’m just gonna Thelma.”

If I lived 600km closer, I would have joined my dad and my aunties yesterday at a big Thelma Day dinner. It looks, from the picture, like they went to one of Gram’s favourite prairie Chinese food smorgasbords.

Gram was loving but not always easy to feel close to. We were close anyway. At size 5, she was one of the few adults I could trade shoes with – not that we ever did swap her hospital inspired Naturalizers for my chunky-heeled boots. We were both oldest daughters of large families who had to take on work as teenagers to help our parents. My load was lighter and I was able to stay in school but when Gram quit in the eighth grade, she quit for good. I never heard her complain but when I graduated from high school at the top of my class she bought me a card and instead of just signing her name, as she usually did, she wrote “very proud of you” and my heart spilt in two. We’re both daddy’s girls, cleaning ladies, fast food super stars — doctor snarking, sibling scolding, hard coughing, cat ignoring, short ladies.

She’s a figure recurring throughout my creative work. The first piece I ever did for CBC Radio was a personal essay for Tapestry about the work Gram and I did together tracing our roots from New Brunswick to Scotland. In my novel, I shamelessly lifted the character of the grandmother who sleeps on a saw bench the night before her husband’s funeral from a scene out of my own childhood, with my own grandmother.

When she was nearly dead and losing her hearing, many voices slipped out of the pitch where she could still hear. But I knew where to find the right range and she could always hear me, right to the end. I stood up to speak at a funeral for the first time when she died.

So I felt like an idiot going to bed after midnight on Thelma Day, the one hundredth anniversary of my grandmother’s birth, without doing anything to observe it. While my family members were eating commemorative dinners, I had done nothing and said nothing about it as I fed my kids a rushed meal before darting off to take the 9-year-old to judo lessons. I had eaten standing up while packing his gym bag. I had dropped him off and driven to the senior’s home where my mother-in-law lives and collected her laundry. I had tried to phone my favourite schizophrenic loved one, found out his line was disconnected, and arranged to pay the bill to hook him back up. There are lots of good ways to observe Thelma Day, even if we happen upon them unknowingly while doing what she would do if she was here.

More than any inspiration she’s given me creatively, Gram inspires me spiritually. For our family, she was a Miriam without a Moses. Her Promised Land is a hard brilliant place without anywhere to sit.  Someday, I hope to stand with her there.

Happy Thelma Day, everyone.

Family Christmas Newsletters: Confessions and Unsolicited Tips

My cousin, Rachel, composed and photographed her perfectly lovely husband and cat to make this and win at Christmas cards.

My cousin, Rachel, composed and photographed this to win at Christmas cards.

The year I moved house, finished construction on our basement, gestated and started raising my fifth son, I didn’t get much writing done.  The only thing I published that year was a Christmas newsletter all about my immediate family.

Some people hate reading letters like these.  I know that.  I don’t send them to everyone – like the person who once soundly told me off for “always bragging.”  He gets an empty card with a hand-scrawled inscription and just as much love as everyone else.  The letters aren’t meant to please me but the people on my mailing list — good will toward men, and all that.  I hope anyone who isn’t made merry by my letter throws it in a snowbank on the way home from the mailbox.

For letter-writers, there are lots of ways to approach the family Christmas newsletter.  An artsy friend of mine wrote hers as an acrostic poem.  My Manga-loving sister-in-law once included an original, hand-drawn cartoon in hers.  I have a family of cousins who usually aim for the absurd – cats and paganism and stuff.  And I have a friend from a town called Spring Coulee who doesn’t use any gimmicks but always manages to dash off a letter that’s hilarious and real and totally charming.

Don’t misunderstand.  I like conventional Christmas letters too — the blessing-counting, the press releases, the shine-a-grams.  If I stopped getting them, I’d be very sad.  I love them.  But I love the wacky letters.

To write, mail, or post either kind of letter is to run the hazard of spreading Christmas cringing along with Christmas cheer.  It takes guts to attempt a holiday year-in-review letter.  Sometimes, we all get it wrong.  With my husband’s job, I find it hard to write a letter without the words “rape” or “murder” and there might be people on my list who dread reading about it.

Still, here’s a list from imperfect, sometimes-offensive me sharing my personal preferences for Christmas newsletters — some tips on how to keep me smiling all the way to the “Happy New Year” at the end.

1)      Good News, Bad News – We’ve all got good news and bad news.  A letter that’s nothing but good news is not going to be seen as dishonest or deceptive.  We should all know enough about the human condition to be able to assume that the year had some crud in it that didn’t make it into the letter.  Bad news shouldn’t come from an ink-jet.  It’s for the hand-written note on the inside of the card for people we only communicate with through Christmas cards – and there aren’t many people like that anymore.

Often, bad news is embarrassing for the people involved.  That makes it embarrassing for readers too — like witnessing a public shaming.  It’s one thing to say the cat ran away or someone broke her arm in a heroic feat of sports.  It’s another thing to report that someone’s weight is out of control or that he has a court-date.  If telling bad news isn’t necessary, leave it out.  If letter-writers can spin bad news with the right kind of humor or hope or, if it’s already well-known, nod to it gently and obliquely, they might get away with sharing it.  Get an editor to confirm if this has been done successfully.  And when in doubt, leave it out.  For the love of all that is holidays, leave it out.

2)      Keep it short.  Christmas letters are an exercise in pith.  Don’t waste space waxing lyrical about snowflakes or telling readers how every bit of news should make us feel.  We can assume someone was happy about finishing the marathon without being told.  If we’re the kind of people who sat down to read the letter in the first place, we’re probably the kind of people who can empathize between the lines.

3)      Avoid the hallmarks of bragging.  Apparently, I haven’t been very good at this.  But may I suggest avoiding the braggiest of all brag words: proud.  For some people – and we can never be sure for whom – the word proud can’t be separated from implications of feeling superior.  Even if we are feeling this way, we shouldn’t admit it in the Christmas letter.  As we write about the best parts of our lives, we’ll probably find that the word “pleased” serves just as well as “proud” anyway.  It expresses all the happiness we’ve felt without running the risk of offending readers prone to feeling oppressed by other people’s good fortune.

4)      Make sure the news we share is rightfully ours.  This is about more than respecting privacy.  Even within families, there’s a hierarchy of ownership over news.  If my sister finds out the sex of her unborn baby, it certainly affects me as the baby’s aunt but I can’t mention it in my newsletter until my sister has had a chance to tell everyone first.  She’s closer to the news so her claim on it supersedes mine and I defer to her on how it’s spread.  The newsletter should be about our own small world where we are the experts and owners of everything.

5)      Avoid predictions.  It might be hard for readers to remember what’s actually come to pass and what we only hoped would happen.  It’s going to be awkward next year when we have to answer to past unfulfilled predictions and “un-tell” the good news we thought we’d be sharing.

6)      Illustrate.  Don’t use lists of vague adjectives to express something that can be told with an example or quick anecdote.  All journalism — including amateur holiday journalism — is essentially storytelling.  Good reporting makes the letter memorable and gives the people in it the character they deserve.  Concrete experiences and direct quotes make for a good newspaper and a good family Christmas newsletter.

I could add something like “be yourself” but, really, that can’t be helped.  Maybe a better parting idea would be that we might enjoy our letters more if they read like something we would like to receive ourselves.  If it’s wacky, so be it.  If it’s stodgy, that’s fine too.  People on our mailing lists already love us.  They’ll forgive us a few cringes.  And we’ll forgive them too.

Weekend in Girlstown

Two of my sixteen nieces, lookin’ super girlie — and a little cranky

I was once pregnant with a child I hoped was a boy.  He was — so were his four younger brothers.  It’s been a long time since I’ve lived with any other women.  And it’s been even longer since I’ve lived with any girls.  It shouldn’t matter.  I was once a girl myself and there’s nothing about being sequestered with my sons that can alienate me from that part of my identity.  It should be true.  I believe it’s true.  But I still keep having awkward collisions with little girl culture years after little girls stopped being part of my daily life.

Some collisions are secret and subtle.  I’m not a very big woman.  Shopping for clothing can be frustrating for me.  One of my girl-friends, a lady born in the Philippines who’s learned how to deal with over-sized western clothing, gave me a tip: do some shopping in children’s departments.  It’s brilliant.  The first time I tried it I was like Homer Simpson at clown college turning around in front of the mirror saying, “I’ve never had pants that fit so well.”

Then the saleslady noticed me out on the floor, picking through the kiddie-jeans.  “No daughter with you today?”

“Uh – no,” I said.

“That’s okay,” she allowed.  “If they don’t fit her you can always bring them back with the receipt.”

“Great.  Thanks.”

I skulked away.  I felt furtive and a little ashamed.  I am not a girl.  That’s supposed to mean I don’t belong in the store, let alone in their merchandise.  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s a bit like what closeted transvestites cope with when shopping for clothes outside the ones socially prescribed for them.  I am not a boy but since I have sons, I feel perfectly natural stomping around in the boys’ section stocking up on jeans and navy blue sweatpants for my kids.  But in the girls’ section, in the company of the specter of my fake daughter, I am a pretender – unfit and unworthy.

This weekend, girl culture and I collided again.  My sister was staying at my house while her daughter, my most glamorous ten-year-old relative, competed in a dance festival.  I counted four costume changes – peacock feathers, rhinestones, ruffles, crinolines.  She was plastered in makeup and hairspray.  And my sister – a nursing instructor who can thread a tube into a trachea – struggled to glue false eyelashes to her lids.

My niece is warm-hearted and adorable and had no idea Auntie was eyeing her dance gear with the detached skepticism of a smug anthropologist.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when she asked me to come watch her dance.  The invitation rattled me.  Accepting it meant detachment was not an option and I was being drawn into her culture – one I had abandoned ages ago.

I arrived at the auditorium all by myself.  It felt awkward enough to make me wonder if I was in the right place.  I  asked the ticket seller, “Is this the little-girl-dancing-thingy?”

Inside the theatre, I found my sister.  The lights went down and the first ballerina came out.  She was a sixteen-year-old dressed like a fairy princess.

“Look!  She’s seriously wearing a tiara!”

My sister smirked at me.  “Yes.”

The next number was a whole troupe of teenaged ballerinas.

“They’re all wearing tiaras!”

My sister smirked again.  “Yes.”

“If they’re all wearing tiaras, isn’t that the same thing as none of them wearing tiaras?”

“Shh.  You have to stop laughing or the other moms are going to get really mad.”

“What?  I’m just delighted.”

It was not completely true.  I was vaguely delighted but it was a patronizing outsider’s delight – amused but not quite charmed by the spectacle.  I stuck to my social scientist persona.  The dance numbers – with all their kitschy props and maudlin narratives – had names like “Imagine” or “Grace” or the risky “Images of Grace.”  Even my sister laughed when the lyrics of one of the songs earnestly crooned, “If I could put you on top of a cake I would ice you.”

If there’s a perfect age for amateur dancing it’s got to be the one my niece is at right now.  She’s technically good enough to actually be dancing but not so old that she’s starting to look silly and lumpy in her fancy leotards.  If I was ever going to be able to enjoy this part of her life, it was now.  Her first number was supposed to be a sad commentary on class divisions – at least, that’s what she told me.  But she couldn’t stop smiling while she performed.  The adjudicator complained about it but Auntie loved it.  And by the end, in the dark, up at the top of the auditorium, awkward Auntie became sappy Auntie had to wipe her eyes.

No one gets to be a girl for very long.  And some of us – like me and maybe like my niece too, depending on what the future brings her – end up moving farther away from girl culture than we ever imagined we would, back in the days when it meant everything to us.  Honestly, I don’t miss it.  It was silly and distracted from much of what is truly important.  But maybe there’s no need to be embarrassed about celebrating it every once in a while.  Maybe there’s no need to grudge the breasty teenaged ballerinas for spinning and tip-toeing through their final days in tiaras.  So what if we’re all wearing one from time to time?  We’ll have to set it aside soon enough.

Confessions of a Slow Reader

If this old picture of me could talk it would say, "What?"

If this old picture of me could talk it would say, “What?”

I am a slow reader – painfully, tediously slow.  It’s been true since I was in grade two and it’s still true today.  Whether I’m reading aloud or not, I can’t move through a book any faster than the speed of speech – not nearly quickly enough.

If you’re one of the people who’s surprised to learn this about me, thank you.  Most people assume writers are also accomplished readers.  I am not.  I have read and understood a lot of very good books.  But it’s taken me a long time.

Why am I talking about it now?  I just read book blogger Laura Frey’s Can-Lit confessions – a list of hard truths about her experience with our country’s literary canon.  She admitted to not liking, not reading, and being slow to hear about a few of the authors and books considered Canadian classics.  I enjoyed her candor so much I made my own confession about getting through my entire adolescence without reading a single word written by Farley Mowat (as proof of my ignorance, I think I even misspelled his name in my comment).

And then I started considering the short-comings in my own career as a reader.

Early elementary school – the learn-to-read years — was a hard time for me.   In grade one, the fluid left behind my eardrums by a streak of bad ear infections made me mostly deaf.  For about a year, nobody noticed.  That’s how it is with hearing loss.  No one’s to blame.  The loss meant I spent my time at school listening to the dull tides of my pulse moving through all that fluid – fwum, fwum, fwum.  I didn’t realize there was anything more to hear and I thought school was just really boring.  It seemed like we sat in our desks or on the carpet doing nothing at all.

In the second grade, I had surgery, the deafening fluid drained away, and I came back to the land of the hearing to find I’d been bumped from my place in the reading group meant for the best readers in our class.  After all the loud reprimands I remembered little deaf-me getting for not paying attention and not following directions, I figured I deserved the demotion and slunk away with my mediocrity.

Indignant current-me isn’t so sure I deserved it.  I have always understood and retained what I read.  But I will concede this: if we were being ranked based on our reading speed alone, mediocre was a generous assessment of my skills.  Grade two is when I remember Her coming.  She’s this voice in my head – an adult woman’s voice, I don’t know whose – that spoke every word I saw with my eyes.  I couldn’t read any faster than she could talk.  I still can’t.

After grade two, we moved to a new school where my teacher was just as interested in our writing as our reading skills.  She told me I was talented and I became her unofficial language arts protégé – the student invited to the front of the class to read creative writing out loud, at the glorious pace of speech.  No one ever mentioned my reading speed again.  It was my secret to keep.

And I did keep it.  I never cheated but I did learn how to read enough of a book to be able to sound informed about it and no more.  During my Arts degree, I learned how to wade through enough of the material on a course reading list to still get an A.  It was risky and stressful but I simply could not complete all the “required” readings.  There wasn’t time for someone moving at my pace to finish it.

Thanks to the years and years I spent pinned under nursing babies, forced to sit down and hold still and listen to Her, I have ended up fairly well-read.  It was another unexpected irony of motherhood – the way the babies who were supposed to stifle and suppress me ended up being what made it possible for me to become what I wanted all along.  Eventually, I did read everything on the lists from my university classes.  I’ve read hundreds of pounds of thick, daunting prose, poetry, and non-fiction.  And I’ve loved it.

Now that I’ve finished my reading lists — now that the Bachelor of Arts degree hanging in my kitchen doesn’t seem so much like a sham anymore — I can freely admit to anyone that I’m not what people might think I am.  I am a working writer but I am not what my early elementary school teachers considered a gifted reader.  I am not incorrigibly bookish.  I’m still poking my way through the literary landscape, warning my friends I’ll just drag their book clubs down with my sluggish ways.  But I’m working in this field anyway, in spite of my nature.  I’m reading and writing anyway. Maybe it’s true for anyone who tries to write as a vocation.  We’ve probably all got something deep-seated and shame-laden that we had to overcome before we could do this.

I know, it reads like a sports cliche.  But that’s the thing about cliches — they’re tired because they’re usually true.