Family Lines

stories for you

Month: May 2013

Monsters into words


Alpha House. Photo credit:

“Write the hard stuff,” suggests the last line of a story in a writer’s magazine. That’s easy when the hard stuff is just basic hard stuff, like what to make for supper. But what if it’s like the hard stuff the people living at Alpha House are dealing with – the stuff that turns lives upside down and inside out and lures leviathans into battle.

I had just finished reading the writing tip after wrapping up a memoir writing workshop at Alpha House. Alpha House is a shelter in the city that gives those whose lives are affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies a safe and caring home. I volunteer seminars there through a Calgary organization: This is My City (TMC). TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status because art builds bridges and lessens differences.

On Tuesday I started teaching a class called “Write YOUR own story” at Alpha House. The participants were a lively bunch and seven people sat down with me at a table to write. There was a lot of talking and I had to start my class several times. I was expecting distractions and there were many but people were interested in what I was teaching and wrote down what I was saying.

Then, one by one, people began to leave. They needed a coffee. They needed a smoke. They needed a break.

A couple participants rejoined me and picked up their pens. In the end four people stayed to finish the class. With these four I had two writing exercises for them.

The first one was writing a legacy letter to themselves, a kind of note to remember a moment or an accomplishment. It’s meant to connect the person today with an experience or happy memory from yesterday. Participants were supposed to start the note with Dear Past Me but one man said he couldn’t write the letter.

He couldn’t write it because his past was too riddled by addiction. He had no recollections of joy and could only remember having a habit. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to release unwanted and bad memories but he didn’t want to use the writing exercise as catharsis.

Another one of my writing exercises was aimed at helping people use description in their pieces. I asked the participants to illustrate themselves in words.What colour is your hair? What are you wearing? How do you talk?

But one woman told me she couldn’t do it. She had just had surgery and wasn’t looking her best. I suggested she write about a friend or the dog she had told us about in another story, or even her mother.

“That’s bad,” she said. “I don’t want to ever go there.”

She ended up writing about someone else. Someone who wasn’t too terrible to remember.

So the hard stuff is out there. But it’s a lot easier for some of us to put down the words on paper. It’s a lot tougher when you’ve had a lifetime of the hard stuff. Especially when it means turning the monsters into words and releasing them.

My mother always said…

My parents

My mum and dad and me.

My mother isn’t afraid of anything or anyone. Nor is she intimidated by fashion and wears whatever she wants, wherever she wants. Much to the horror of a 14-year-old. Me, a few years ago.

I liked my socks to match, Mum didn’t. She once wore a pink striped sock with a black sock. I pleaded with her to change them or else wear different (but the same pair) shoes to hide the fact her socks were different. But she told me she didn’t care and I shouldn’t either.

“But people will look at you!” I probably whined. Then she repeated the phrase she often said to us, “You’d be more upset if you knew how many people weren’t looking at you.”

She always told this to me and my two younger sisters. The advice didn’t stick until a few years later. Now as an adult, I sometimes wear different coloured socks and let people see them. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that my mother taught me how to be an individual.

Her lessons didn’t just include personality. She taught my sisters and me how to be strong in the face of adversity. She also taught us how to be kind and how to speak up for ourselves. She taught us how to be humble and how to have fun. She tried to teach me how to cook — but that was one lesson I never learned.

At my wedding this past summer my mother’s dress matched the colour of my bridal party — green. She looked beautiful and cool as the hot August sun drenched all the guests. My mum could have worn different coloured socks and two different shoes and it wouldn’t have mattered to me. As long as she was there. So when everyone was looking at me while I married my husband I knew I had been well prepared for the moment and my future. Thank you mum.

Memoirs: insight not ego


My nephew’s Grade 4 heritage project on his great-grandmother.

Talking with a client today, he said he feels like he’s tooting his own horn when it comes to his memoirs. That telling his story is selfish and who would want to know what he had experienced and thought. I said maybe right now it seems egoistical but down the road his children, grandchildren and their children will be happy to have the insight and an emotional connection with him and their heritage.

I witnessed this link between past and present generations last week. My nephew did a school project on his maternal great-grandmother, Jean Booth. She came to Canada as a war bride from Scotland and was the focus of his Grade 4 heritage project.

Since his great-grandmother is no longer alive, my nephew had to interview his grandmother (my mother) about her mother as well as track down photos and other information about her life and background. He also learned something I didn’t know – the name of the ship his great-grandmother, along with her two kids, arrived on in Halifax – the S.S. Aquitania.

However, instead of having only facts and figures about the ship that crossed the Atlantic or how many war brides came to Canada, he had stories to share of her experiences. How while most people watched the British Isles, saying goodbye until the land faded into the horizon, Nana was so sick she couldn’t sit up. Or how the trip was made a little longer by rough weather and icebergs. These are some of the stories I had recorded with her in 2003 and then transcribed after her death in 2007.

Last Friday, my nephew displayed his project at an elementary heritage fair and presented it to judges, teachers, students, his parents and grandparents. My sister e-mailed me after the event and said it was wonderful for her and her family to learn about Nana’s life and for her great-grandchildren to understand their Booth background. Nana’s stories are more than just tales, they are a narrative that shape her into a living being instead of someone who lived long ago.

It ties into this observation that I read the other day. It’s by Fenton Johnson, a memoirist and teacher, and it rings true. He said:

A successful memoir is a product not of the self-obsession of a selfish, me-first generation but evidence of literate people’s recognition that the written word has replaced the story sung by the winter fire as our means of establishing and preserving cultural memory.

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