Family Lines

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Tag: memoir (page 8 of 15)

Calgary sprawl

Family_Lines_aspensCold night. Black night. A bright moon. Its light slants between skinny, stark trees. Pale and naked. Bare of leaves. These are aspens. We speed past them in our car and the trees become barcodes found on packages you buy in the store.

The trees are up for sale too. To anyone who can afford to buy them. But they won’t be showcased or their beauty shared. Left in place for everyone to see. No. The aspens will be cut down. Razed to their roots. And big, ugly, soulless houses put in the once living green space.

Dressing like a “gangsta”

pen.For the past four weeks I’ve been spending some time at the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre teaching a memoir writing workshop. Every Wednesday morning for about an hour a few people write around a table in the midst of a busy room buzzing with conversation and movement and a movie blaring on the TV in the corner. It’s not hard to block out the distractions: my participants are keen on learning how to craft their stories and ask a lot of questions.

The workshop is offered through This is My City (TMC). TMC is a non-profit society that brings art and people together no matter their income bracket or social status. As a TMC volunteer I’ve been offering my four-week memoir session to homeless and detox shelters for about two years now. Last week was my last trip to the Drop-In this fall.

We talked about using description, show: don’t tell, in our stories. For example: Janice was very angry. That’s telling. Janice was waving her fists in the air and her face was very red. That’s showing. Description paints the scene for the reader by proving details that appeal to the senses using the senses. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? How do you feel? These bring a world to life in your story instead of just telling a reader what he or she should be experiencing.

I asked my Drop-In participants to describe something. One man decided to illustrate himself with words. Here is his piece:

I am a large teddy bear on steroids with long curly hair, a weathered looking face with an unwanted belly that travels in front, defying my efforts at reduction. This belly laughs at me, “Hah, hah!” it says. “Try and lose me, my friend.”

“I will lose you,” I retort, “one day.”

When I am in decent shape I dress “gangsta.” I dress in Ray-Ban, True Religion, FUBU. I look good, sexy. I’ve been taught to do that. I like the look.

All it takes is one person

market place.

A market in Gambia. The yellow car with green stripes is a taxi.

Ghosts are real. I know because one haunts me. He doesn’t just appear at night – he comes anytime, anywhere. This ghost is not a fanciful wisp residing in my brain, this ghost is real. I’ve seen him. In the flesh.

I went to West Africa, along with a woman from New Brunswick, to work as an intern at a non-governmental organization (NGO) in The Gambia. This was several years ago when I was around 24 years old. Before this experience I thought I was going to change the world. I was going to make a difference. However, throughout my time as a publications officer recording human rights violations on the continent, I realized the planet was set on staying the same. Humans like the status quo.

Gambia is sub-Sahara and sand is everywhere. Peanuts, what they call ground nuts, thrive there as well as palm oil from the abundant leafy trees. Temperatures and humidity are high and sweat rolled down me from all directions. Gambia is poor, very poor, but there are a few rich, extremely rich, people. It’s evident in the large sprawling compounds built next to families living amongst their chickens.

Most people are friendly. Some, mostly men, too much so. They thought my roommate and I were in the country for a different reason. (There’s a booming market for sex tourism catering to Europeans women.) After a month living in Fajara, we went from polite Canadians to rudely snapping, “Go away!” in Wolof. I got good at tuning out the voices of passersby or those sitting by the side of the road calling to us. I became such an expert at ignoring people in the street that a friend had to tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. He had said hello to me three times. My ears had blocked his greetings and I was ashamed.

Travelling opens your eyes but it can also close your mind. No one talks about that. They only talk about the good, the positive, which is great but not realistic. Why can’t we have authentic discussions about the good and the bad? In Gambia I got used to some people asking me for things, wanting things, begging, stretching out their hands and asking, “Give me money.” I walked by. Not hearing.

In the middle of my several month term we were invited to a conference in Dakar, Senegal. Travel! Cool. (Or I should say, scorching.) We were driven from Gambia to Senegal in an SUV piloted by the NGO’s competent driver. He stopped in a busy and dusty Senegalese town a few hours into the trip. I can’t remember why: maybe for a bathroom break or for gas. He parked near a market where hundreds of people and booths packed the sandy street. It was hot, too hot. The sun was bright, too bright. It was noisy at the bazaar, too noisy.

I could see a man sitting to the side of our vehicle. One of his legs was half gone. One arm was half gone, the stump hanging from his shoulder. I didn’t know what was wrong with him. I didn’t get out of the SUV to ask. I didn’t get out of the vehicle to see him. Why would I?

The man saw me.

He saw me and maybe saw a bit of hope. He saw me and thought maybe I will help him. He saw me and thought maybe I’ll give him a chance.

The man couldn’t walk. He didn’t have a wheelchair or even a cane. He wiggled over to my window by moving his hips side to side in the dirt. It must not have been comfortable. It must not have been easy. It was a struggle. He made it the two metres to my side of the SUV and lifted up his hand to me. Said something I couldn’t hear. I refused to hear. It was nothing I haven’t heard before.

I did nothing.

baobab tree.

A baobab tree in Kololi, Gambia.

Our driver got in the vehicle and drove off. Leaving the man amidst the busy market. Where everyone got on with their business.

Since that day I’ve asked myself why, why, why? Why didn’t I spare an extra dalasi (dollar)? Why didn’t I give him something to eat? Why didn’t I at least hear him? How did I become that person, that person who turns away?

I don’t know. I’ve rationalized it: if I gave something to everyone then they’d expect it from others who come after me; I would have gone broke if I had to shell out money to everyone looking for a handout, or something along those lines. I still don’t have an answer.

I do know that this man changed my world. One man. His ghost comes to remind me that change starts with me. That listening to people and hearing them is what matters. That ignorance is not bliss. That no matter where in the world you are – you can make a difference.

The apple of my eye

apple orchard.

Beautiful orchard in the Annapolis Valley, N. S. Photo credit: Fudge Benedict.

It was a ham sandwich. And it was going to be delicious. I had prepared it with Yum Bakery’s Good Hearty Bread (a mix of grains and seeds), a slice of black forest ham, a piece of green, crisp lettuce and a little bit of creamy, golden butter. But I never got to enjoy my creation. Someone else ate it.

I made the sandwich to have for lunch while apple picking, part of a Horton High School band fundraiser. As a trumpet player (and not a good one) I was in a Nova Scotia orchard twisting off apples and piling them in a big wooden box. Our efforts would hopefully help pay for a trip to the U.S. East Coast.

This autumn labour would bear fruit in the spring when we took the elevator up the Empire State Building and went down to the Boston Aquarium. At the time, it was a lot of hard work. The orchard might look idyllic with its red, red apples hanging off the sturdy brown branches amidst pretty velvet green leaves but it seemed like when I picked one Northern Spy or Cortland or Red Delicious, two more took its place. The harvest was never-ending.

The Saturday was a bust too. I had to get up early for the drive out to the Annapolis Valley farm when I just wanted to sleep in for once. It was a chilly and foggy morning too and the tall wet grass soaked my sneakers and made my feet damp and cold. Two things were keeping me going, though: my fantastic sandwich and a chance to see the cute band guy.

I was new to Horton. The large high school was a catchment for smaller rural junior highs. After Grade 9 at Wolfville Junior High, my classmates and I bused it to Horton High for Grade 10. I didn’t relish the idea of going to a new place but it was a chance to meet new friends. Indeed, I was picking apples with a few recently acquired buddies whom I’m still friends with today.

apple orchard.

Those apples look delicious. Just like my sandwich. Photo credit: Fudge Benedict.

Among the unfamiliar faces (to me) was a boy who was tall and skinny with dark brown hair. I don’t remember his name or what instrument he played, only that he was a year older and I liked him. Like-liked him. I had yet to say a word to the guy and I doubt he even knew I was in the orchard but I hoped he would notice me in the romantic, bucolic setting. I was sure the valley mist made my eyes sparkle and my cheeks as rosy as the apples.

My friends and I quickly picked our first tree clean. When we moved onto the next challenge I left my coat and plastic bag — with my lunch in it — under apple-free boughs. My crush wasn’t as industrious as us. In fact, he didn’t pick anything at all. He lounged by a nearby tree, watching us until two of his buddies, one of them a girl, came to visit.

After a few hours of gathering apples my friends and I decided to have lunch. The image of my delectable sandwich enticed me to walk faster to our original tree. I couldn’t wait to have a bite and taste all the hearty ham goodness of my snack.

What’s this? The plastic bag was empty. No trace of bread or meat or even a crumb anywhere. My sandwich was gone. Gone! I wanted to cry and bit my untasty lip to fend off tears.

Then I saw my crush. He was sitting in the same place I left him with his pals. They hadn’t been working at all. Just trolling around the apple tree. An arm’s length away from my sandwich.

apples.

I might not have my sandwich but there are tons of crunchy apples to enjoy. Photo credit: Fudge Benedict.

I could never prove he was the one who ate my fine meal. I could never say it was him. I never confronted him or even asked him if he was the one who enjoyed my lunch. That was the end of my sandwich and the end of that crush.

 

 

A welcome home by Freddy

Freddy Wilson.

Look closely… the figure in the middle of the overpass is Freddy Wilson. This photo was taken in July 2014 when Freddy was waving to motorists on Highway 101 near Hantsport, N.S.

I won’t be headed home to Nova Scotia from Calgary for Thanksgiving this year. I’ll miss the red, orange and yellow of the province’s spectacular foliage. I’ll miss bringing in the wood while smelling turkey and pies baking. I’ll miss my family and seeing how tall my niece and nephew have grown. I’ll also miss the drive from the Halifax airport, where a man stands to greet you, to the Annapolis Valley.

My family home is in the Annapolis Valley. Those of you who live (and whose hearts still live) in the valley know to look up at the Bog Road overpass spanning Highway 101, near the town of Hantsport. There’s usually a man standing on the bridge, rain or shine, waving to the cars and trucks and semis passing quickly below. From the driver’s seat, I can never see the man’s face but I know there’s a smile that comes with his “hello.”

For as long as I can remember this man has welcomed or bade farewell to motorists going to and from the valley. My family used to call him “The Waver.” A friend’s mother called him her “Little Buddy.” I didn’t know much about him until an article came out in the local paper, The Advertiser, in 2007.

The waver’s name is Freddy Wilson and the overpass he stands on is now named after him. He’s been waving for over 40 years and a trip home for me is not complete without seeing him. However, he hasn’t been out and about much. His long-time post was replaced by a new, higher bridge and so he’s not out there as often. That means for a few years I returned to the valley, I never got a wave.

Freddy at his  post.

Freddy at his post.

This summer I was back in Nova Scotia and ready for the drive home. It was around suppertime when we neared the turn-off for Hantsport. Who was standing above us on the overpass? Freddy. What a welcome home. Thanks Freddy.

Stupid girl

Me at the NWT/Alberta border. I used to live in Fort Smith, NT.

Me at the NWT/Alberta border. I used to live in Fort Smith, NT.

Met up with a friend who was in the city from Fort Smith, NT this past weekend. We got talking about bears and I remembered a story I wrote when I was in Smith and it’s about coming nose-to-snout with a bruin in 2007.

Stupid girl

I went out to the river, alone, last night for an evening photo shoot. I drove to Mountain Portage, which is about ten minutes out of town, into the wilderness and down by the roaring Slave River rapids. I went because I was sad and thought a walk by the water would make me feel better.

When I got to the trail head there was still some fall sunshine but it was slowly being pulled towards the Earth. I put on my headphones and walked down the very steep hill to the beach. I walked along the racing river practicing my sunset shots while listening to opera. Examining everything around me to find the right photos. At one point I glanced at a few dips and ripples in the sand. Notice some marks deep in the mud.

“Are those bear prints?” I wondered for an instant. Then dismiss the thought. Nah.

After about a half an hour of shooting, I turned to go back home. And I’m face-to-snout with a bear. A black bear. It’s only a few metres away and cutting off my route home. I don’t know what to do. It stares at me. Stares and stares.

I’m scared. I’m frightened. I don’t move. I wait for it to leave so I can hike back up the trail, which is in sight. So close. Too close to the animal.

The bear breaks off his or her stare and takes a couple of steps away from me to nibble on some rose hips. I don’t move yet. It’s still too close. Then it walks back to the same spot where I had first met it and stares at me again. Agonizingly, it repeats this pattern of walking to and from me while nibbling a few appetizers and perhaps considering me as the main course.

I’m stuck. I have no where to go. The bear is blocking my path to freedom. I review my other options. I could get in the water that’s on my right and try to swim away – down the rapids. Probably not a good idea. Bears can swim. I could climb the cliff to my left. Probably not a good idea because bears can run. Fast. Probably faster than me uphill. Should I throw rocks at it? Then that might really get the bear’s attention.

bear.

I did take a photo of the bear when it walked far, far away from me. Of course, here it looks like it was the size of a cat. It was not.

Finally, before a better plan than just standing motionless suggests itself, the bear turns and walks further down the beach. And then further and further. And then it’s far away from me. This frees the path up the steep hill. I frantically scramble up the trail – every couple of seconds looking over my shoulder for the bear. It had seen me leave and I’m worried it’s not going to let me go and is chasing me.

I run up the hill as fast as I can and climb into the safety of my vehicle. I’m shaking. I have allowed myself to be scared at this point. When there are steel doors around me. I turn on the van and start the drive home. Towards the safety of pavement and the many people in town.

Snotember

snow.

A Calgary summer day.

A summer snow storm hit Calgary this past week. It wasn’t the pretty pre-Christmas snow that covers up all the dead leaves on the ground and causes kids to rush out to play. No, this was an ugly, messy, very, very cold and very unwanted first week of September snow. Not good at all.

Since all the leaves are still on the trees, the falling snow took many branches along for the ride to the ground. The heavy, wet snow piled up and up and up amongst the green foliage until they went down. All night and day the snap and crackle of the trees could be heard, along with the eventual whoosh of an avalanche of snow and leaves hitting the earth. Now in the sunny aftermath days later, it’s the chainsaws that are making the noise.

City crews and private companies are clearing away the hundreds of pieces of debris strewn across power lines, streets, sidewalks and countless yards. The jagged-edge whir of the chainsaw can be heard just about everywhere above the din of the vehicles and sirens that are usually part of the inner-city babble. The chainsaw sound is more at home in rural areas and I remember it well.

downed trees.

Piles of downed branches. Scenes like this are repeated on many Calgary streets.

My parents used and still use, wood to heat their large two-storey house in Nova Scotia. Evenings were always comfy and cozy beside the wood stove but mornings were another matter. They were cold. On weekdays dad would get up first and get the stove going. On weekends it was us kids who were up first. And freezing. We learned at a young age how to coax the embers of the fire back into a flame strong enough to burn the logs.

In the middle of summer cords of wood would be delivered to our home in the country and stacked on our front lawn. Dad would get out his chainsaw and cut the logs up and throw them into a pile. A pile to be chopped and then in the fall, trucked into our two-car garage. (The garage has never been used for vehicles. Only wood.) When I write “trucked” I actually mean wheel-barrowed in by me and my family: my dad, mom and two sisters.

From ages nine though to 15 I really, really, really, really hated this chore. It wasn’t hard but it was monotonous. Go to the big wood pile, load up the wheel-barrow, walk about 12 metres to the garage, dump the wood, put it on the stack – neatly – pick up the wheel-barrow, walk back and repeat. It was maddening when there were so many other things to do like talk to my friends on the phone.

Later in my teen years I started really liking piling wood. It was exercise and something to do outside when the weather was too chilly for a bicycle ride. As well, teenage years are full of change and piling wood was one thing that always stayed the same. Plus, it didn’t call for a fashion-forward wardrobe.

hearth.

The wood stove in the house I grew up in.

Thanksgiving Day was always the best day for wood piling. Usually this would be the last push to get all the logs needed for winter under the shelter of a roof. We’d start in the morning in the weak sunshine. It was cold but there would be no snow on the ground yet. By mid-afternoon the smell of turkey and pumpkin pie cooking in the oven would waft through the garage door from the kitchen. That would be our reward after a satisfying and good day’s work.

Thanksgiving is several weeks away and winter is supposed to be months away. Since it’s still summer, we’re supposed to be eating ice cream and watermelon and enjoying the last of this season’s rays. Not eating pumpkin pie and shovelling snow. Oh well. Has anyone found any pumpkin ice cream?

A rose (or grocery store) by any other name

Sign.

The Gominion sign. Photo credit: Violet Sky.

Grocery shopping in the late 70s for my family meant going to the Dominion store. I could never understand why it was called “Dominion” when the D was clearly a G: as in Gominion. Don’t you see it?

One of my clients is from Germany and grew up in Hamburg during World War II. She said no one spoke much English in that country then but products being exported from there had ‘Made in Germany’ written on them in English. In German, a ‘made’ is a type of worm found in cheese. My client couldn’t understand why items had ‘The worm in Germany’ stamped on them.

What signs or labels have you mixed up as a child?

Mid-summer memories

Canoe and paddle.

 

A French toot in English

Université Sainte-Anne.

The residence I lived in while at Université Sainte-Anne.

After finishing my second degree I had a lot to think about. I had been going to school for 19 years and now what was I going to do? I graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto with a journalism degree and was wondering if I should stay in the big city and find a job there or go home to the East Coast.

My mother found a short term answer – a bursary to attend a French immersion program. There were a few places to choose from: Montreal, Quebec City or Pointe-de-l’Église, Nova Scotia. I applied for the money to go to Pointe-de-l’Église.

Pointe-de-l’Église, Church Point in English, is a tiny Acadian town on the French Shore of Nova Scotia. It’s also the home of L’Université Sainte-Anne. The university is home to about 500 students and the campus is right on the shores of the Bay of Fundy. The view from the meal hall of the water is truly magnifique.

The bursary provided money for tuition, meals and board for six weeks. Six weeks where I did everything in French. I went to French classes, made friends in French, wrote in my journal in French and even dreamed a few times in French. It was exhausting. If anyone spoke a word of English they got an advertisement – a warning. Three advertisements and you’re out.

Université Sainte-Anne campus.

Université Sainte-Anne campus.

Our instructors handed out these demerits but other people could too. Since the town was small shopkeepers knew who was from the school and who was a tourist. If I had said anything in my native tongue in any store I would get dinged immediately.

My instructor Madeleine was always trying to get us. Especially in the morning before we had breakfast. While in line waiting to be served by the meal hall staff, Madeleine would point to a food item and ask, “Qu’est ce que c’est?”

“Oatmeal,” answered one unfortunate Anglophone.

One warning for her.

By the time I was asked the same question by Madeleine the oatmeal/gruau story had already made the rounds. I was safe with my “sauce au pommes” (apple sauce) reply.

During the last week of school I was paired with a guy in my class to do a project. Shawn and I didn’t really get along and had bickered like brother and sister most of the five weeks that had already passed. I was not looking forward to being his partner and spending more time with him.

That Wednesday he was coming to my residence to work on our assignment. I was the only one in the living room dorm and I just happen to let one. AKA pass gas. Right when Shawn walked through the door. I was mortified. What do I do? I had to get him into the kitchen.

“Hi Shawn, welcome. Let’s go into the kitchen,” I said. All in English.

He looked at me with wide blue eyes, mouth open and said, in French, “That’s the first time you’ve been nice to me. And it was in English!”

Oh mon dieu. He’s going to report me now.

He never did.

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