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Irish Lament

I’m Irish. That’s the short story. My father’s parents were born in the small seaport of Sligo, on the northwest coast of Ireland. I never knew them; they both died before I was born. In fact, Dad doesn’t remember his mother because she died when he was just three—of peritonitis from infection after an appendectomy; his distraught father swore he’d murder the surgeon. Then at sixteen, his father died. At sixteen, my father was at the mercy of his own wits … of which he had plenty.

Dad holding his two grandchildren, my sister on the left, me on the right.  1977.

 

Black wavy hair and bright cobalt-blue eyes, large ears and large-knuckled hands, Dad had a way with words. He always won the scrabble games. He recited Tennyson and Robbie Burns at length. When I complained about a teacher, he cautioned me “Learn in spite of the teacher.” When I dedicated my first book to my mother, who was overjoyed for days, I was worried Dad would be jealous; but he said, while shaving one morning: “Never miss the opportunity to make someone happy.” After my divorce I was a very sad young woman. What can a father do? He sent me a letter that contained three words: “I love you.” That letter is over fifty years old now, tucked away in my jewelry box.

And there’s the time Dad and I were visiting my friend Carol in the wilds of rural Florida, near the Everglades. (You should see the size and speed of the spiders, let alone the alligators.) One night we were wakened by loud crashing noises in the brush outside the house. Carol ran quietly in bare feet from her bedroom and whispered that there’d been a lot of break-ins lately. What to do? How to defend ourselves? The cocker spaniel trembled and hid. Dad ran noisily from the couch in the living room, slammed a door and shouted, “Harry! Get the gun, get the gun!” Harry? Gun? You have to hand it to my dad.

At some point, as a young adult, I began to miss having grandparents – that path back and back. There was no one to call ‘grandpa’ – not on my mother’s side, either, for he died before I had a chance to meet him. And her mother died while still in her twenties, when Mom was five. In the absence of living ancestors, I longed for connection with my forebears dead and buried.

I felt the absence as a presence – it accompanied me like a melody droning in the distance, like an Irish lament. I needed psychic connection to those from whom I was descended. What were their dreams, their struggles? Were they farmers, plumbers, midwives? What was life like in Ireland? Why did they come to Canada? What were their stories? How would I feel by knowing them?

Therefore, in my mid-forties, I recorded an oral history of my father’s memories of stories he remembered of and from his father. We met twice a week for a month.

At the time, I was a French teacher, indulging my fascination with language. So it was with great astonishment and delight when Dad told me how, when his aunts and uncles came to visit in Brantford, Ontario they would start in English. Then the English would get “very broad”. Then, when they reminisced about Ireland they would get excited and it would become pure Gaelic. “Gaelic!” I said, startled and thrilled. Yes, he said. “They probably spoke Gaelic at home and in the streets, and learned English at school.” Just knowing that left me breathless—though Gaelic itself opened up another mystery. Soon after, I took classes in conversational Gaelic … but no matter how hard I tried, Gaelic would remain a mystery. Still, I am fiercely proud of my wild linguistic roots.

Here’s a sampling of that oral history from 1984:

“In Ireland, my dad played soccer (what we call football) and hurling, which is a vicious game played with a stick and a ball that is smaller than a lacrosse ball. The main idea, of course, was to go after the ball, but Uncle Harry would say that it wasn’t a real game unless you forgot the ball and went after somebody’s head.

“My mother, Annie Sheeran, was a singer back in Ireland. She sang with John McCormack before he became famous and made hundreds of records.

“My dad didn’t ride horses as far as I know. The main means of transportation in Ireland was bicycles and jaunting cars. These latter were two-wheeled carts drawn by a pony or donkey.

“I never heard my dad talk about going to the pubs in Ireland, I guess because it cost money and they wouldn’t have had much. The economic conditions there were one of the reasons for coming to Canada. Memory of the famine was still recent.

“When my dad and Uncle Harry and Uncle Joe and Aunt Liza got together, they would reminisce about life back in Ireland. Good stories! Sometimes, at night, they would go out and steal a sheep. Astonished, I asked What for? To eat, he said, in a tone of voice that implied ‘what else?’ Well, who from, I asked, my mind still boggled. He was laughing, and said, as if it was a silly question, from somebody who had them. One night, my dad and Uncle Harry and a third person got together and told this story, and I heard it many times after that so I guess it’s true. They’d been biking around during the day and had seen some sheep on a farmer’s land, and they went back that night on bicycles to get one. The way they always did it was to stun the sheep with a pick handle and then drag it away. So this dark and moonless night, they went back to the spot and came to the stone wall that surrounded the field. They parked the bikes and climbed over, and a bit beyond, they saw this white shape lying on the ground. Aha! A sheep! Uncle Harry swatted it with the pick handle and the thing rose up in front of them like a huge ghost. It was a big white horse. Dad is laughing one of his almost uncontrollable laughs. It put the fear of God into them, and they turned and ran, blind with terror, and ran right into the stone wall. They were going so fast that their bodies flipped right over the wall, and they kept on going. Dad is laughing and laughing. They’d have been eighteen or nineteen at the time, and there were many times when they went to bed hungry. Tears of laughter are in danger of turning into something else, but Dad is adept at turning the conversation around.

Progressing into my dad’s past, gave me a deeper understanding of my father, of myself, and of an era. Bringing departed ancestors into my life expanded me. I walk accompanied by ancestral music and ancient wisdom. I walk accompanied.

To quote the First Nations writer Richard Wagamese who, I’m sorry to say, died last week, “We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we each see other, we recognize our kinship—we change the world, one story at a time…”

            Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir: Show Up, Open Up, Write.

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Soul Food Stories

Shark Vertebrae Necklace, from Pinterest

Shark Vertebrae Necklace, from Pinterest

A young shark took the bait that was left overnight on a fishing line at the end of the dock on Pine Cay—bait that was intended for snapper, or grouper or other delectable dinner fish. When Raymond found it on his slow-gaited inspection walk around the dive shop just after sunrise, it was dead. Sharks need to keep moving in order to breathe, and this one, unfortunately, had been kept virtually immobile by the hook on a short line.

Raymond hauled the creature in, all six feet and hundred pounds of it. His parents, with survival skills that dated back to the late 1800s when their grandparents were brought here, the Turks and Caicos Islands, from Africa, would have filleted it, made shark steak, or hash, from it and dried the rest. But at nineteen, tall lanky Raymond had had enough shark meat to last him a lifetime. Moving quietly in his speedo bathing suit and flip-flops, he loaded the recently dead animal onto a wheelbarrow and brought it to me.

I had a working compost pile. It was in a big box that Raymond had nailed together from two old doors on either side, plywood cut to fit at both ends, a piece of wood on the top, bare ground underneath. The box was about six feet long, three feet high and three feet wide. I had filled it to the top with seaweed, leaves, donkey doo, lobster shells and refuse from many dinners from the small hotel on the island. Hot stuff! Literally. When you dug in with your fingers, it was almost too hot to leave them there.

“I knew you’d want dis,” he said in the soft island way.

We scooped the top layer of rotting debris off onto the ground, then reached for the shark.

“Look,” I said as we lifted the body into the box, “it fits!”

Indeed it did. Then we put back the layer we had removed, and put the lid back on. Coffin-like.

Two days later, I went back to check on our animal. As I lifted the lid and peered in, the strong scent of ammonia stung my sinuses. Hm-m. Nothing looked any different. I pulled aside the top layer of compost materials. There lay our friend. When I touched the grey skin, it was warm, and pulled back easily to reveal white cooked flesh. I took a pinch to taste. Although the nitrogen odour was unpleasant, the flesh was flaky, mild, and slightly sweet. I ran home, grabbed a knife and plate, ran back, and cut away enough for our dinner, hoping the smell would dissipate by then. It did, and with sweet potatoes and white wine, we didn’t just eat dinner, we dined.

Another two days later, I dug into the top layer and found … nothing. It was gone! Totally decomposed, transformed into other elements. The scent of ammonia was still there – sign of the nitrogen that would make rich compost. This was amazing. So fast! The temperature of the air, of course, was a helpful factor, 85 during the day, 75 at night. I dug around a bit more. Along the entire far side of the box was arrayed a row of vertebrae in perfect formation, from larger in the thoracic area to petite in the tail. I’d never seen shark vertebrae, and was in awe. They were small and white, delicate. This fierce predator had exquisite gems running the length of its backbone. And such artistry in each one! Cylindrical, about as long as my thumbnail, with small oval holes along one side.

 

Immediately I could see a necklace. I picked the vertebrae out of the hot pile, brought them home and let them completely dry on a plate in the sun. Days later, I drilled small holes in their centres and threaded a piece of leather thong through them, knotting it between each one. The finished piece was ancient, oceanic, and my artistic delight. I loved wearing it.

A few months later, as part of a conference on gardening in the tropics, a group of us visited a museum in the Dominican Republic. Under one of the glass cases of early man, I could hardly believe what my eyes were seeing. A necklace composed of shark vertebrae—from the 13th century! I felt an immediate kinship with the woman who imagined, designed and wore that necklace. In that startling moment, I met up with my original native self who wanted to adorn my body just as she did. I met a sister … who had lived, imagined, died, and left beauty behind.

You never know where the transformational processes of a compost pile will take you. Just as the shark’s flesh provided nourishment for my body, and its vertebrae provided artistic wonderment for my soul, so too preserved personal stories can provide soul food for generations to come. Imagine a descendant a few hundred years from now saying, “… and to think she wrote this in the 21st century!”

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Remembrance in Memoir: What Does It Take?

Dear Steve,

I’m really glad you asked this question in my memoir writing workshop last week:

         “What three qualities do people who complete their memoir have?”

Since then, I’ve consulted two authors of published memoirs who sent me their three qualities. Then, I came up with four. All in all, we now have ten personal qualities that help lead to a completed memoir.

Ronald Mackay, author of A Scotsman Abroad http://editura.mttlc.ro/ronald-mackay-scotsman-abroad.html (about a two-year period of his life in Romania, and published on line by the University of Bucharest in 2016) sent me these:

“Be daring”: I found I needed to ‘screw my courage to the sticking place’ just to overcome self-doubt and the fear of appearing self-indulgent by writing about my own life.

“Avoid temptation”: When I worked in Bucharest, I was a ‘babe-in-the-woods’. Nevertheless, I decided to write from that ingenuous perspective and not as my older, hopefully wiser, self.

“Plow on regardless”: While I might forget precise dates, the names of places and people and exact details, I avoided being slowed up by research that would have added little value.

Sheila Wright, author of Amare: A True Italian Love Story https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/amare-a-true-italian-love (about falling in love in, and with, Italy, was published by iUniverse in 2009), sent me the following:

 A strong feeling of urgency and inevitability.  Almost like giving birth, once the story had grown inside of me, there was no keeping it from coming out.

A belief that I have universal truths to express, that readers will relate to me and find common ground.  Maybe even see themselves in my story and say “Yes, I have felt that!”

A strong history of journalling — that desire to record and remember.  And perhaps a fear of losing those precious memories.  I want to keep them fresh for myself, and for my children.

And mine, which are everywhere in my book The Gift of Memoir, but not in this succinct organized fashion:

The self-discipline to show up. Making the commitment to write a certain number of hours a day or week, then actually sitting down and writing, is crucial. Freeing up the space to create – or re-create – your world in words, gives you the freedom to enter the past. As Margaret Atwood put it, ya gotta “get ass in chair.”

Curiosity. Writing a memoir is setting out on an adventure. Like deep sea diving, or hiking the Camino trail, it is the anticipation of unknown discoveries that grabs your imagination. What will you remember that you had forgotten? What will you learn about yourself? What will it feel like when your book is in your hands, bound in a form meant to last through the generations?

Generosity. When you write your stories, you give to others. Every sentence, and the thought behind it, is a gift to someone who will one day read your stories. “Give, give, give; write, write, write,” is a message from your generous higher self.

Trust. Trust that you will get there. Writing a memoir is a journey. It has a beginning, then it has pitfalls, great highs, doldrums, night sweats, gems, and then it has an ending. Of course, the raft on which you are crossing the ocean may be rammed and broken into pieces by a maddened humpback whale (its partner endangered by whalers), leaving you treading water … but along comes a sail boat and picks you up. Picks you up. Somehow, changed in some way, you get there … to journey’s end.

 

Steve, many thanks for inspiring me with your question. I hope you get a chance to read A Scotsman Abroad (free on line) and Amare: A True Italian Love Story (available at Indigo).

Diane

A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories

 

 

 

 

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Goldenrod Feast

Fall Feast

Fall Feast

 

It’s late August and Goldenrod is everywhere. I walked by Lake Ontario today, and was ecstatic to see several species of bees, three lady bugs, two wasps, one grasshopper, and one monarch butterfly luxuriating on the lush yellow florets of Goldenrod in full feathery bloom. Fascinated by the frantic activity of the bees and the majesty of the monarch in the hot afternoon sun, I stopped to observe.

The monarch grasped florets with its thin black legs, and occasionally opened and closed its orange wings as he or she gathered nourishment for the trip across the lake. I had just learned that a bulge in one of the black veins on the hind wings indicated male gender, but was so taken with the interaction between Goldenrod’s lunch menu and feasting visitors that I forgot to notice. I kicked myself for not having a camera.

The bees clung to florets, even hanging upside down as they gathered the riches. Some looked like bumble bees, some like yellow jackets. Others could almost be mistaken for flies. Sometimes they flew the short trip to a nearby ochre buffet proffered on the tip of another four-foot stem.

Maybe, I thought, just maybe, all these life forms would still be here if I beetled home, grabbed camera, and zoomed back. Luck was with me. Half an hour later, the multi-specied community was still harmoniously harvesting pollen and nectar. Click. Click.

I must admit I had never really appreciated Goldenrod until this moment. What did it do besides give me hay fever? Here by the lake I could clearly see it offered sustenance to winged wildlife.

This past weekend, I had another Goldenrod moment. I drove out to Campbell’s Honey House (on Campbell Road west of Warkworth, Ontario) to get my winter supply of unfiltered honey. I handed Mrs. Campbell my jars.

“Would you like summer honey or fall?” she asked.

“What’s the difference?”

“The bees make summer honey from summer flowers,” she said, “and right now the fall honey is mostly from Goldenrod, and that’s why it’s a deeper amber colour.”

Goldenrod! It offered sweet sustenance to human life, too. How could I have misjudged it all these years? Ignorance is not bliss.

To top it off, my doctor told me that it’s unlikely my, or anyone else’s, hay fever is caused by Goldenrod. Ragweed is the usual culprit. The two just happen to blossom at the same time.

Folks, this land of ours is alive! Let’s keep it that way.

~~~~~~~

Thanks to Kathryn McHolm for teaching me how to see gender in Monarch butterflies. Thanks to Leslie and Peter Campbell for teaching me about their bees’ honey. And thanks to fellow travelers, the bees, for the sweet winter ahead.

Male Monarch Butterly

Male Monarch Butterly

 

Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir: Show Up, Open Up, Write

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Brief Memoir of a Blender

Preparing Mango Shake in the Revived Blender

Preparing Mango Shake in the Revived Blender

I am an aging multicultural blender. My glass bowl came from the Philippines, my practical plastic lid was imported from Mexico, my snappy blades were sharpened somewhere in the USA, and all my parts came together in China. My birth (they call it ‘registration’) certificate says Florida. Go figure.

Since I was purchased by my owner in Miami in 2003, I flew north in a suitcase and have lived my life as an expat in Canada—in Port Hope, Ontario to be exact. It’s been a sheltered life, living as I have in the same corner of the same kitchen of this same old house day in day out, all these years.

Sheltered, but not dull. I’ve done what I was born to do. Fulfilled my destiny, you could say. Pink smoothies, green smoothies, purple smoothies … with or without walnuts, sunflower seeds, or almonds. And soups! Many the soups I’ve whirred into silky spoonable easy-on-the-teeth bowls of goodness. Butternut squash soup, cucumber soup … and my favourite: potato-leek soup.

I almost died last month. My life of service almost ended when my Dear Owner (Dee) added a teaspoonful of honey to the mango smoothie, and hit the go button without removing the spoon. Idiot! The noise was frightful. I struggled for a few seconds and was ready to give up the ghost when, at my last gasp, Dee punched the stop button. In spite of her panic, she had the sang-froid to stop the accident in its deadly tracks before … well, you know.

The damage was severe. My fine blades were totalled, and the central part that held them in place was ruptured beyond repair. Would I wind up (before my time) as junk in the dump?

To my surprise and everlasting gratitude, Dee took me to the local fixit clinic on Mill Street. Here, a bearded wonder had seen this kind of case before, and sent out a request for a new part. The heart of the matter arrived in a well-padded box and in no time Ed—for that was his name—performed a magic transplant and had me ticking like new … for a fraction of the cost a younger model would have been. My 2016 blades, oh, they were cutting edge. I began pumping out smoothies like there was a tomorrow. Boy, I hadn’t felt this good in a long time…

I recommend this shelf-life saving procedure to all who are concerned about

  1. saving money
  2. reviving aging electric tools
  3. protecting the environment of our one and only Planet Earth.

Much obliged,

Blender and Dee – who has promised to be more attentive to Blender’s needs in future. They are looking forward to many more years together.

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The Magic of Intention

Eowyn and Prime Minister Trudeau.

Eowyn and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Before she left for Ottawa with her parents for the Canadian Dance Festival, eight-year-old Eowyn announced, “I’m going to have my picture taken with Prime Minister Trudeau.” Ha!

Once words are launched into the air, atoms and molecules perk up their ears and set the stage. The girl’s parents noted the flurry of molecular theatrics and unwittingly began to conspire with them.

My niece Kate, who is Eowyn’s mother, had won an award in the dance world. She arranged for me to receive a formal invitation to the reception from the Minister of Heritage. On the day of the event, I drove the four hours to Ottawa, and checked in to the downtown hotel where other family members were staying. I took a taxi through the stop-and-go traffic to the site of the reception, and passed through the security queue.

Hundreds of dancers were gathered on the second floor of the Sir John A. MacDonald building on Wellington Street. Wine flowed, an Aboriginal dancer welcomed us to this traditionally Algonquin land, the several speeches were short, and the award was presented to Eowyn’s mother. Dancers milled about, jubilant to meet others devoted to this same artistic pursuit.

Eowyn and her parents eventually wandered out to a quieter space at the glassed-in front of the building. They looked out. A black limousine pulled up to the sidewalk.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from the limo with an entourage of body guards. A waiter whom Eowyn had befriended asked her if she wanted to meet the Prime Minister. Eowyn said “Yes!” and the waiter yelled, “Quick, downstairs!”

They dash down the stairs to another reception room. What happens next is as much the mystery of molecules—obviously listening—as it is the universe fulfilling a promise to a young girl. Knowing this was meant to happen, Eowyn self-assuredly jumps the line of officials wanting to talk to the Prime Minister. He sees the girl (and the camera-ready waiter), and steps over beside her, big smile on his face. Click. History in the making. Her story.

Did I hear you say you are going to write a memoir? I can hear the flurry of molecules and rustling of paper and tapping on keyboard. I can see pages accumulating. I can feel the stories dripping from your shoulders and fingertips.

History in the making. Your story.

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An Honest House: A Memoir by Cynthia Reyes

An Honest House is a rich memoir that moves through a ten-year period of Cynthia Reyes’ cynthiasreyes.com life. In the midst of a successful career, family life with children blooming, she and her husband move to an old farmhouse surrounded by gardens they love, just north of Toronto. Against this idyllic backdrop, PTSD strikes.

AHH

An Honest House, a second memoir by Cynthia Reyes

 

 

A car accident leaves Reyes with debilitating pain and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its attendant depression, inability to concentrate, inability to sleep, nightmares, regimens of pain killers, difficulty walking and years of physio. The dream house becomes a prison.

In case you are thinking this is a hard luck story, it’s not. Good memoirs bring light into the world, and An Honest House beams light from every page. Bit by bit, from deepest despair to light-hearted jocularity, we accompany Cynthia Reyes as she “grows up”, to use her term.

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