Wednesday, August 21, 2013

when Carrie met Charlie

This morning I was pondering why we have this understanding that the only 'successful' relationships are the ones that last forever. For some reason that thought brought to mind my grandparents, or at least my story of them and I'm still percolating on why that is.

Christmas 1969: such a 60's looking group
I never really knew my maternal grandparents - not the way I had a clear sense of the grandparents on my dad's side. I can see my maternal grandparents only dimly, through faded 'snaps' and memories that are distorted through time and other relationships. And yet, I have this sense of them - of the romance of their story.

It may be only a story - the romantic imaginings of someone who was too young to see the truth of it - but it still moves me. There's no high drama, no Romeo and Juliet, no Antony and Cleopatra, no Rose and Jack, but in many ways it's a romance that is so much deeper than any of those tragic narratives. 

My Grandfather is truly the stuff of legends in my life, by which I mean that I mostly just have stories of him to go by. Grandpa - Charlie - died when I was only 6, and I'm not sure if I actually remember him reciting poetry or have just heard stories of , and inherited, his love of language. For years my mom had a cassette tape of Grandpa reciting 'Winnipeg Station' (an early 20th century Canadian prose-poem of which Google has failed to find me any trace). Grandpa was, in my mythology, the first of us to co-opt our Irishness. My version of him invents limericks and recites Yeats and was one of the few people to really read, understand and enjoy Joyce. Although he was born in Prince Edward Island, in my version of him the green hills of home he cherished were across a broader sea. I also believe that he suggested my VERY Irish names (Shannon Coleen), although that too may be just part of my personal fiction. Grandpa made his living as a carpenter, but from all accounts he was what we'd now call a Renaissance man - good with his hands as well as his wit and his heart.

Grandma - when she was still Carrie Bell Campbell - left school in Grade 8 to help her parents on the farm. The youngest of a string of farm kids, as Carrie's siblings married off her help became indispensable. In her 20's, when other young women were meeting beaus and starting families of their own, Carrie was still at home caring for her aged parents. When she finally met Charlie, at a church meeting, she was able to be courted (in a proper and ancient manner we can only imagine today) only because of the death of her mother. I imagine that in Carrie's eyes Charlie was, comparatively, a man of the world. He was college educated and had worked in the United States. He'd held a variety of jobs - as a salesman, a labourer, and a carpenter. It was working with wood that he found his milieu. I'm not sure what Grandpa did for a living when they met in her small farming community, but I assume they wasted little time in the dating phase of things. She was in her 30's already; he was ten years older. 

A double first Christmas 1968: my cousin Troy and I, born 8
months apart, in the seat of honour.
I don't know much about those early years. Their first child died in childbirth, an event that Grandma still spoke about with tears in her eyes and anger in her voice (she blamed the doctor's incompetence) when she told me about it 60 years later. Two boys followed. Grandma was 41 when my mom was born and had another baby boy 5 years later.

By the time I was born, Grandpa had already retired. I never knew them not to live in what we then called an 'old folks' home,' though my mom has shown me the house they lived in in Kelowna when she was a young girl. Charlie always wore a fedora and a button down shirt, even to go to the beach. They were always old to me, yet I remember them holding hands; Carrie was a great hand-holder.

Although I had much more time to get to know Grandma, I still have a sense of mystery about her: what were her dreams? Did she resent those years on the farm? Did she long for the openness and stability of Gilbert Plains when they followed work from town to town in BC? Despite her limited formal education, Carrie too liked reading. I don't know if that was always the case or if it was the result of living her middle years with a reader. She took up bowling when she was 80, which was probably about the time she first wore 'trousers.' When she was 91 she suffered a stroke, then recovered so remarkably from that you'd have thought it never happened.

Grandma's last Christmas, and still so proper.
Grandma was 103 when she died, and by then few people alive still called her by name; she was mom or grandma or Mrs. Fuller. The girl Carrie had been subsumed. She had waited so long for Charlie, but they had only 40 years together bookended, for Grandma, by 30 years alone. When her Charlie died, Grandma bought two cemetery plots and bided her time. She told me, late in her 90's, that she was ready to go. She had outlived a son, her siblings, many of her friends, and her sweetheart. It was lonely to be a survivor.

Grandma never, as far as anyone knows, so much as looked at another man seriously. Oh, she could be a great flirt with waiters and store clerks, and there was that one time she bought a large cubic zirconia ring and tried to pass it off as an engagement ring at Christmas (did I mention her mischievous sense of humour?). But really, she had had her great love.

We are so addicted to grand gestures in our culture. We want over-whelming emotion and obstacles to over-come and John Cusack with his boom box. And yes, when I say 'we' I mostly mean I. But there's something to be said for that quiet sustaining love, a love that goes on for three decades after death. There's something to be said for a legacy of love. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

white pants

I own one pair of white pants. I cannot remember at any prior time in my life owning a pair of white pants. I bought these only and specifically for my choir uniform a couple years back, having seen pictures of myself on stage in a tragic and too-short skirt. Nobody needs to be distracted by their own chubby knees while singing and clapping and trying to focus on the audience. I quit that choir two years ago, but never got rid of the pants. Or of the horrid itchy choir orangy-red polyester shirt, for that matter. 

Lately, due to severe wardrobe limitations, I've taken to wearing my white pants off stage. The first time was in desperation after shopping for a week for a white dress to wear to Diner en Blanc. I finally settled for just buying a white tunic and pulling the pants out of the back of the closet they've been collecting dust in. 

It turns out, my white pants are flattering - slimming, sharp, perfect length, perfect shape. For so long I've associated them with the hideous choir shirt I wore them with that I'd never evaluated them on their own. For even longer (maybe my whole post-pubescent life) I've believed that only skinny girls should wear white bottoms. Even my khaki linen shorts are pushing it. 

You know that feeling you get when you put on a piece of clothing and instantly you feel taller, slimmer, longer, stronger, fitter, and more chic? That's what these pants do for me. There's just something inherently cool about wearing white pants - they are a luxury afforded only to those who don't have to work too hard. They are sassy and reckless and somehow daring. Wearing white pants all day and not get them dirty is a challenge I find decadent - it requires an awareness of what I am near, what I am sitting on, what I am eating that is entirely self-indulgent. 

Yesterday, at the end of a two-week road trip vacation, most of the clothes in my suitcase were wrinkled, a touch stale, some had lingering smoke smell from the wood fire in our cabin in Jasper. They lacked freshness. But I pulled those white pants from the bottom of the suitcase, and the wrinkles fell out of them before we even left the hotel room. Sitting in the car all day, I felt fresh and light. As it turns out, somewhere along the way I sat in something that left what looks like a bite-mark on my bottom. I guess that's just part of the white pants mystique. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

the saving graces: review

I threw this book in my vacation book bag not really sure what it was going to be about, but judging by the cover that it was summertime fare. I wasn't too wrong, though it's some often sad summertime fare. I enjoyed it in that 'I'm on holiday and can read as late as I want' kind of way, and yet have pondered for a week what to write about it, since it was in many ways 'just another book.' Or, should I say, another piece of chick lit trying to be taken seriously. My mom passed this book on to me knowing how she and I both love and celebrate our great girl friendships, and this book definitely does that.  

The Saving Graces, by Patricia Gaffney, is the story of a women's groups called - you guessed it - The Saving Graces. Over the years they've tried to add to the group, but it seems the four members, and the story's four heroines, form too tight a group for anyone else to really fit in. Unfortunately, the four main characters were all so thickly outlined that I couldn't really get into who they were. The 'crazy' one was too fully crazy; the uptight one too reliably uptight; the new-age zen mother figure a little too zen. I also thought it was odd that only one of the four women, all 30+, was a mother, and her child was at best tertiary to the story. I can't think of any four women I'd hang out with where that would be the case. Even though they all had their challenges and individual frustrations and hurts, I found it hard to really care about what happened to any of them. 

What kept me reading was the plot. Dealing with issues such as infidelity, infertility, cancer, and abusive relationships, there was a lot to chew on in each woman's story line. With such a complex plot, you would have thought the characters could have been as complex, but I suppose each writer has his or her own strengths, and Gaffney's plot strong arms her characters, right up until the end which I'm not sure how to write about without spoiling ... let's just say it could have been less heavy handed.

I recommend The Saving Graces for holiday reading. Or maybe for a few days at home sick in bed. It's a good story, but definitely not without its issues.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

a complicated kindness: a book club review

The second choice for my fledgling book club, reading Miriam Toews A Complicated Kindness was, for me, both a trip back in time and an other-world experience. Having grown up in a small town with small town people, and in a conservative Christian family with mostly conservative Christian friends, Toews world of East Village - a (not very) fictional village in Manitoba - both resonated and intrigued me.

Before I remembered that we're not suppose to read other reviews before our book club discussion, I read just one line from the Quill and Quire review that said "Reading A Complicated Kindness is like waking up at a crazy Bible camp." Having attend more than my share of Bible camp, and having loved every minute of it - even the part I couldn't quite articulate or integrate - I can say "yep, that's about right."

Naomi (Nomi) Nickel has all the familiar angst of an awkward younger sister (her big sister Tash's perfume was Love's Baby Soft - I haven't thought of that smell since 1984). All the internal drama of a virgin with a boyfriend. All the unreliability of an upset teenage narrator left to interpret life with little input from the adults in her life. All the complicated love of a family who loves deeply but not well. It's every woman's story, and she makes it all her own.

Part of what makes this story so uncanny is Toews' dance with language. The langauge of a skilled writer mixes that of an angry teenage narrator, an anachronistic father, and a village where 'the unwritten language of your people' often intermingles. Add in some good-ol' Bible thumping straight out of the King James, and East Village is a word-lover's paradise.

Narrator Nomi, an intelligent if not all that together girl, uses teenage language to express deep human emotion and experience that is simultaneously laugh out loud funny and heart-breaking. One sentence that particularly stuck with me: "It's raining questions around here. A person could drown in them."

Most of the story is of Nomi treading water in that sea of questions.

I just found out that Miriam Toews has written five other books. I hope to find them all in time for my holidays that start next week.

DISCLAIMER: If you click on any of my book links and choose to purchase from Amazon via that link, I get a small dividend.

Tonight was also my first time hosting the group and making dinner for everyone, and I went full-Mennonite. Or at least as full-Mennonite as someone who has only passing experience with strict Mennonites can get. We have agreed that our dinners will always be gluten-free (thanks ladies!) but my menu tonight would have been naturally gluten-free anyway:
  • home-made coleslaw
  • oven-roasted new potatoes
  • grilled Mennonite sausage (of course!)
  • bbq roasted chicken
  • steeped, honey-sweetened iced tea
  • gluten-free 1 2 3 4 cake cupcakes (based on this recipe from wikibooks, using gluten-free flour)
It was the kind of meal not many of us eat regularly - pretty meat heavy, and not a cooked veg in sight (I don't think that's very Mennonite - I just forgot), but was a lot of fun to share. There would have been a fight over the Mennonite sausages if we hadn't cut them into thirds. And the conversation was generous, vulnerable, fun and free - and honestly not all that focused on the book after the first few minutes. 

I had dog-eared a  question Nomi asks somewhere along the way 'If you were a disease, what would you be called and what would your symptoms be?" I had thought to ask the ladies of the club for their responses, but we were busy just enjoying each other's company.

I LOVE my new book club! 
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