She Means Well

Assignment 1: University of Iowa Free Online Course How Writers Write 

I offer her a cup of tea, because this is what her type expects. Of course, she refuses in the way that people do when they want something. There is more to language than words, so I pretend not to hear her “Don’t bother,” and push myself up from the sofa.

It’s hard to be dignified with a walker, but I think I mange quite well. Eyes forward, back straight; left foot in front of right. Remember not to trip on the carpet. Six steady steps to the kitchen, or six unsteady steps to the Care Home.

Being old is a lot like being young. A single mistake can cost so much.

My daughter-in-law’s watchful eyes keep me upright. It takes so much effort to propel myself forward that a part of me wants to give up, to crash to ground.

Like before. They all thought that when I broke my pelvis, they’d get their way, but here I am, back in my apartment. This is where I plan to die.

My daughter-in-law follows me to the kitchen, but there isn’t room for two, so she presses herself against the doorframe, arms folded across her chest. Her left hand is hidden, but the chewed nails on her right hand glare at me. She offers to put on the kettle, but I stop her. The truth is, I’d rather she does it, but I know she’ll just add that to catalogue of ‘Things I can’t do on my own.’

Like I said before, the spectrum narrows with age.

Her eyes monitor my every move. The effort it takes me to keep my hands steady as I pour the boiling water from the kettle into the teapot surprises me. Life lesson: there is no crime worse than putting a teabag in a mug. I learned that and then I rushed out and bought the chipped Brown Betty from the thrift store. I only use it when she is here.

Milk in the creamer, sugar in the sugar bowl, two past-due-date biscuits on the tray, before I shuffle past her back to the sofa. She trails behind me, tongue clicking as she clears the coffee table and puts the tray down. While we wait the requisite ten minutes for the tea to steep, (not nine or eleven) my daughter-in-law casts her eyes around the small room, finally settling on the six plants that line the windowsill. “Have you watered those this week?”

“Yes,” I say, meaning no.”

“Oh,” she says, “I’ll do it before I leave.”

I let her pour the tea. It’s a small concession, but I won’t risk a life sentence in a care home over Earl Grey. She slops milk into her tea and sips. “That hits the spot,” she says.

“Yes,” I say, even though it’s too hot and too strong and burns my tongue. “Wonderful.”

We didn’t drink tea at my house when I was a girl. My parents were coffee drinkers. Instant. Nowadays, the faintest wisp of Nescafe transports me to girlhood.

Before Papa went away, he and Mutter sipped their coffee together every morning before he started his work. After he left forever, but only four years, Mutter always made a cup of coffee for him, but she drank it herself. Still, she had no energy. It wasn’t decaffeinated either. They didn’t have that in those days.

By the time she’d finished her own steaming mug of coffee and moved on to Papa’s, it was cold. She hated cold coffee. She hated it so much It made her cry.

My daughter-in-law doesn’t drink Instant. She has a bad-tempered machine that spits out droplets of dark coffee into tiny cups, that she throws back like a shot of schnapps.

“Your eye.”

I don’t understand until she pushes a tissue toward me. “It’s leaking.” I take the tissue and press it to my eye. Thank God she can’t see my other leaking parts, because even this disgusts her. I can see it in her downturned lips and hear it in her sigh. “Stop scratching. It will just make it worse.”

I take a past-use date biscuit and bite into it, chewing carefully to protect the few teeth I still have.

“Those can’t be good,” my daughter-in-law picks one up, smells it and puts it back on the plate. That’s not manners, but I hold my tongue. Mutter would have never allowed such rudeness. Or wastefulness.

My daughter-in-law pulls her phone out of her pocket and looks at it. It’s a phone and a clock and camera and a music machine. I wait. Will she make a call, show me a photo or is she checking the time? The answer comes in the form of an eye roll. “Did you make me a shopping list? I have to go soon.”

How could I have forgotten to do that? “Yes.”

She shakes her head. Holds out her hand. Her wedding ring could do with some resizing, or she could eat a little less. “Can I have it?”

“It’s on the table, I think.”

While she searches through the debris on the table for the list that doesn’t exist, I shut my eyes. I’m tired, but I also need to get away from her for a bit.

It’s a trick I often witness Mutter do; close her eyes and shut out the world. Mutter teaches me important things. “It’s okay to lie sometimes. Sometimes you have to bend the truth. Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death.”

I am never allowed to speak German, even at home, even if Mutter and Papa whisper to each other in the old tongue, when they think I can’t hear them.

Walls are thin when ears are young.

In Germany, my dad wore a handsome uniform, but in Canada he wears an old suit they bought at the second hand store. “Papa is a financier.”

I know this is not a good job. Other children at school have fathers with good jobs. They work in shops and hotels and drive cabs. They always have nice clothes and new shoes. Papa works at home in the kitchen alcove. His notebook bursting with columns of numbers and letters.

We don’t have many visitors in our Bloor Street apartment, but when we do, Papa trusts me to take special care of his notebook. I put it under my pillow, then l lie on my bed, reading or daydreaming until the visitor leaves.

Usually, the visitor is the landlord. He announces himself with a loud rap on the door. “Hello, Mr. Clarkson. Please come in. It’s so nice to see you.” Mutter hates Mr. Clarkson, but she always greets him as a friend.

It is my job to turn the picture on the wall above the fireplace in the living room over when someone visits. “Make sure it’s not crooked,” Mutter tells me when I am learning how to do this quickly and efficiently.

I am happy to turn it over because I prefer the picture on the reverse side. A tall, leafless tree stands in the middle of field of flowers. A wide river flows beside it and in the distance gentle slopes roll into tall mountains. A lone bird soars in the blue, cloudless sky. Mutter cut it out of a magazine. She says the original is even more beautiful, but I can’t believe that. She says it hangs in a gallery in Dresden, across the sea and maybe one day she will take me to see it.

I long to go across the sea to the Fatherland where everything is better, but Mutter says we can’t go until we win the war.

After Papa left for four years (but it felt like forever), I didn’t turn the picture back for days and days and maybe even months, so I got to enjoy the fields and the trees and the river and the mountains whenever I felt like it.

I hoped Mutter wouldn’t notice, but one day I came home from school, and she’d done it herself. She wasn’t happy with me. “That is supposed to be your job. You’ve let your father down.”

“Where is Papa?”

“I told you. He is away on business.” Her voice shakes and I know she’s had too many coffees.

“Don’t cry, Mutter.”

“You must call me ‘Mama’ now.” She begins to leak out of her eyes.

“But you are Mutter.” My face stings from her slap. But not for long. A cold washcloth takes care of that. Inside it hurts more. It still hurts when I think about her anger over that stupid picture on the wall.

“Wake up!” I open my eyes.

“Mutter. I know you wanted to protect me, but you should have told me. I know who that man in the picture was.”

Adults mean well when they hide things, but they usually get it wrong.

My daughter-in-law gives me that look she saves for when I get mixed up in time. As if it’s a crime to go backwards now and again. “I wasn’t asleep.”

“No matter. I can’t find the list and I have to go.” She’s taken the tea tray back to the kitchen and the windowsill is damp from where she’s overfilled the flowerpots. “I’ll pick up some milk and a frozen dinner for you tonight; chicken, but find that list, or else you’ll starve and if you don’t eat… well, I’ve told you what will happen if you can’t look after yourself.”

Her lips brush my cheek. I know I’m rotting on the inside. I just didn’t realize she could smell decay on my skin. The thought makes me sad. I always take such pride in how I look and I never forget to splash Eau de Toilette over my in the morning. Mutter taught me to be clean.

She taught me to sew when she found out that the girls at school teased me about my clothes.

Mutter and I go together to find material for a new dress for me once every four months with the seasons. Spadina Street is rich in garment stores. We only buy fabric that is on sale. A week before Papa came home, Mutter splurged. She bought enough material for two dresses, blue with yellow flowers on it for her and pink with white stripes for me.

On the day before Papa came home after four years (that felt like forever), I helped Mutter clean the apartment. I dusted the picture that hung on the wall over the fireplace and Mutter gave me a cloth soaked in vinegar to clean the glass.

Even the man in the picture with the funny moustache that looked like a toothbrush and the bleached dead eyes sparkled the day Papa came home from camp.

On the day that Papa came home for the first time in forever, Mutter didn’t have to drink cold coffee in the morning.

She didn’t cry, not even a single tear.

I must have stretched out, because when I wake up, I’m alone. “Mutter,” I call and then I remember.

The daughter-in-law has let herself out. And just like Mutter used to do, she’s thrown a soft blanket over me to keep me warm while I sleep.

I shouldn’t be so short with her. She means well.

Off Bowen Island

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Uni of Iowa Writing Courses Online

I’ve recently signed up for a writing course from the University of Iowa. If your interested it’s free, or at the most $50 USD if you want a certificate at the end of the course. Students come from all over the world. The course is not onerous, but it’s challenging and a great way to practice writing. I’m loving it. The course I am taking is called How Writers Write Fiction 2016: Storied Women. I’m going to post all of my assignments right here on my blog to track what I hope to be my progress.

Assignment One to follow tonight or tomorrow! The Old Tree in Woodbridge


Filed under Blogroll, Events and Readings, General, Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Maelor, Wales Remembering How to Play

It’s hard to believe but my residency at Stiwido Maelor, in Corris, Wales is coming to a close. It’s been a very successful, inspiring and wonderful three weeks. During that time, I’ve managed to edit and submit the almost final draft of my upcoming novel to my publisher Second Story Press, in Toronto, Canada. This would never (and those of you who are writers can confirm this), have been possible if I hadn’t been given the gift of time and freedom to write.

Beyond that, I’ve made friends with other artists and writers from all over the world.

And beyond that, I’ve discovered a magical corner of the world that it’s hard to get to from Vancouver, but worth the long hours it took to get here.

Last night I went to sleep trying to figure out what it is that makes an extended period of time away from real life in a place like Corris so extraordinary and difficult to describe. I didn’t come up with the answer before I drifted off, but this was my dream:

I was jumping on a trampoline with a group of unknown people; the only thing I actually knew about them was that they were artists and writers and they were having a good time. Every so often, one of us would leap off the tramp and skip rope or just lie on our backs in the grass. I was doing just that in my dream when a man and his little girl walked by. “What on earth are they doing?” the dad said to his daughter.

The little girl looked up him with a puzzled expression on her face. When she replied, she sounded worried or maybe puzzled. “They are playing, Daddy,” she said. “Have you forgotten how?”

And I think that’s what I’ve been remembering for the last three weeks; how to play and be free and create without any restraints. As they say here, ‘that’s brilliant.’ And it is.




Leave a comment

Filed under Travelling In the World, Writing Tips

Stiwdio Maelor; Wales Writing Residency

One of the greatest gifts a writer can have is being invited to spend time in a Residency. Last year, I applied and was accepted to an International Writers’ Residency in Wales. The process of applying seems so long ago, but suddenly it’s only a month away. My heritage on my mother’s side is Welsh so in a strange way, it feels like I will be travelling to a country that feels familiar, even though that familiarity is a product of stories I heard as a child and my imagination.

I’ll have the precious gift of time to write and I hope to keep up a blog while I am there, so check back for news and stories of my time in Wales.

I’ll be at stiwdiomaelor, and no, I can’t pronounce it yet, but that will change when I arrive mid-May. Thank you to Australian artist Veronica Calarco for giving me this wonderful opportunity to Write in Peace.


There’s something unknown waiting for me! 



Filed under Events and Readings, General, Travelling In the World, Uncategorized, Writing Tips

The Preludes to Assaults

Thank you Jane for saying what we all know to be true.

Jane Eaton Hamilton

Feel free to share.

#gomeshi #ghomeshi #ibelievelucy #IStandWithLucy #BillCosby #hairextensions #truthmatters #rapeculture #cndjustice

Jian Ghomeshi, you [redacted]. I don’t know you very well, but I know this: one night in early 2004, after I’d been awarded a writing prize in Ottawa, you followed me to a side room annexed to the main hall, where I’d gone to get away from the crowds, and while my (then) wife was in the bathroom or off getting another drink, I’m not sure, you put your hand on me. That hand. One of the very hands that is being discussed in court this week. You closed the distance between us and you massaged my shoulder/neck while talking to me about how I needed to relieve the stress of my big win. Eventually my (then) wife returned, you dropped your hand (that hand), and we chatted politely while you bashed the Rockies, BC and, in…

View original post 1,512 more words

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Authors Demand Fair Contracts

January 5, 2016

An open letter to the members of the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), the Literary Press Group (LPG), and the Canadian Publishers’ Council (CPC):

Today, author groups from around the world have signed on to an open letter regarding the Fair Contract Initiative from our sister organization, the Authors Guild (AG) in the United States. The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) has included its name and logo on this letter. TWUC works closely with the Authors Guild on many initiatives, most notably global copyright concerns (TWUC is, for instance, a friend of the court in the AG’s ongoing book-scanning lawsuit against Google). We fully endorse the AG’s recent work updating contract principles.

TWUC has been sharing with its members the AG’s new contract principles as they have been published on their website over the last six months. As a founding member of the International Authors Forum (IAF), TWUC is also contributing to work on new, global contract principles for creative professionals. You will find attached both the AG’s open letter and the IAF’s Ten Principles for Fair Contracts.

TWUC has long advised its members on contract terms and negotiation using its own Model Trade Book Agreement, and we believe the time has come to update this document to better reflect the changed reality of writing and publishing in Canada. There is no question the economic reality for Canadian authors has deteriorated in the years corresponding with massive changes in the publishing industry. TWUC’s 2015 income survey report shows that author incomes have declined 27% since 1998, and that, distressingly, annual writing income is below the poverty line for 80% of Canada’s writers. These findings are mirrored by similar studies in both the US and UK. The reasons for this decline are complex, and contract terms are not solely to blame, but they are part of the mix and need to be addressed.

TWUC is aware that many independent Canadian publishers have used its Model Trade Book Agreement as a template when drawing up their own first contracts. In that spirit of professional cooperation, we want to make sure you’re aware of the fair contract movement in the author community. In fact, we invite representatives from the ACP, LPG, and CPC to be part of the Canadian discussion around new contract terms. TWUC proposes a roundtable discussion about contract principles aimed at establishing general best practices. In the meantime, please read the many tweaks and changes to industry standard contracts proposed by both the AG and the IAF.

Thank you for your attention.


The Writers’ Union of Canada

Leave a comment

Filed under Give Me a Break, Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Martha Eleen at the Loop Gallery November 7, 2015

If you live in Toronto, check out my friend, Martha Eleen’s upcoming show. She is brilliant!
The Meaning of Things
Loop Gallery, 1273 Dundas St. West (at Dovercourt)
Nov. 7 – 29, 2015
Opening reception: Nov. 7, 2 – 5: pm

Image: Thank you for making this day necessary, 2015oil on wood, 20″ x 20″

Martha Eleen

Leave a comment

Filed under Events and Readings, Stuff to do