Category Archives: Writing Tips
Hello Nanaimo! Hope to see you tonight at the Portfolio Reading Series, where I’ll be presenting my latest book:
Word Vancouver, 2022
Calling all writers! I’d love to see you at Word Vancouver, 2022 on September 25, where myself, Andrew Chesham, Laura Ferina and Joseph Kakwinokanasum, will be Demystifying the Publishing Process with moderator, Rob Taylor.
About This Event
In this panel on demystifying the publishing process: working with a small, independent, or ‘micro’ press, four published authors, two of whom teach at SFU’s Writer’s Studio and two who have recently graduated from the program and have new books out with a local BC press, continue the conversation initiated on our Read Local Blog. The discussion will move from the act of writing to the work of getting your work noticed and published. Panelists will share their insights about working with a small, independent BC publisher.
Location: SFU Harbour Centre, Labatt Hall
Moderator: Rob Taylor
Guests: Andrew Chesham & Laura Farina, co-editors of Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing (Anvil Press) | Julie Burtinshaw, Hangman (Tidewater Press) | Joseph Kakwinokanasum, My Indian Summer (Tidewater Press)
Get your free ticket here!
Filed under Events and Readings, Writing Tips
SFU Writer’s Studio Reflections
It should have been a difficult year.
On January 28, 2020, the British Columbia government announced the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19, when a traveller returning from Wuhan, China tested positive for a virus the world knew little about though rumours swirled of an epidemic flu type illness alarming in its ability to not just spread quickly but to kill.
Two months later, the Health authority in British Columbia, where I live, announced the first community, non-travel case of COVID-19. Three days later, the first of too many deaths occurred in a care home in North Vancouver. BC declared a state of emergency that is ongoing as I write this.
Six months into the virus, September 2020, I embarked on a ten-month writing program at Simon Fraser University. By then, I’d become accustomed to C-19 protocols, not surprised, but disappointed to find out the course would be online. I’d miss the opportunity of face-to-face learning, though I looked forward to filling the long Covid hours pursuing my writing.
On the first day of ‘class’, I felt both excited and nervous. Excited to meet the group of people I’d be sharing the next ten months with and nervous, afraid my unfamiliarity with the tools of COVID-19 might prove daunting. Slack, Zoom, BB Collaborate, online forums, online discussions, an alternative way of learning for me. What if I couldn’t figure out the audio on my computer? What if I actually looked as awful on their video feeds as I did on mine? Instructions about how to look good on zoom contradicted each other. Background is important, put a beautiful painting behind you, advised one website. Background is a distraction, sit in front of a plain wall, advised another. Correct screen height is essential to your appearance, as is lighting. Different experts recommended different techniques. Look up to the camera, look down to the camera, look straight at the camera. Use natural light, or back light, or sidelight, or dimmed light or bright light. Mute when someone else is talking, mute when you chew, mute when you cough, and mute at any hint of bodily function sounds. Triple check that your video is off. Horror stories of people unknowingly leaving their camera on while undressing during zoom calls went viral.
Already challenged by the intensity of the program, I tried not to think about all the things that might go wrong, but I needn’t have worried. Our first meeting, led by our talented scribe, Claudia Cornwall, and assisted by our wise and kind TA, Maryanna Gabriel, set a tone of encouragement and support that would last the duration of the course.
The speed at which our cohort absorbed our new reality astounded me. Humans are adaptable, whether it be normalizing runs on toilet paper or debating the merit of cloth versus disposable masks. In this viral world, new phrases and words entered our vocabulary: Social distancing, airborne spread, Covid bubbles, variants, VOCs, isolation, quarantine, N95s, Long Haulers, mRNA, lockdowns, herd immunity, vaccine passports, virtual happy hours.
In that first year of Covid, many people, cut off from family and friends, became lonely and depressed. Some faced job loss, illness, and hospitalization, as the virus claimed lives indiscriminately, targeting the most vulnerable in society.
None of those things happened to me. Instead, in the first year of COVID-19, something magical occurred. The magic of building new relationships.
With age, making friends becomes more difficult. As the bonds formed in childhood, high-school and university strengthen, forming fresh relationships becomes challenging and living in lockdown, withdrawing into our private bubbles, means the opportunities to meet and foster new friendships are scarce.
There are nine of us in Memoir Writing, bringing our total to eleven. All are women, some younger, some older, from a variety of backgrounds and countries. We meet virtually, two or three or times a week, on Zoom or BB Collaborate to workshop our stories, to provide feedback and encouragement to each other as we mine our memories to bring our past to the page.
Mental time-travel is hard. Some stories bring joy, some tears. Every time I hear someone read, I’m awed by their talent, their survival skills, their sense of humour, their courage in telling their story. Initially, we knew nothing about each other. We still know less than if we’d met in a classroom or a bar or a café. These have been slow-growing relationships, where every week, every reading, every word adds a piece to the puzzle of the whole person.
Through our stories, we’ve come to know each other, to trust each other, sharing intimate chapters of our lives, usually for the first time.
Our Tuesday morning chats, our Saturday mentor readings, and our Tuesday evening workshops have become the highlight of my week.
Writing is often described as a lonely occupation, but because of my cohort, I’ve never felt alone.
As I sit and write, these women sit with me, poised on the edge of my imagination, their fingers flying over the keys, tapping out their hearts in beautifully crafted sentences. I am thinking about them now, as the course nears its end.
There is Engeli, who brings me sunshine and warmth, both in her lyrical words and her tropical travels. There is Jenny, coyote whisperer who has taught me to understand and appreciate the dedication and passion of a field scientist. There is Ellen, whose brilliance shines a dazzling light, softened by the golden glow of her commitment to saving lives. There is multi-talented Leesa, whose extraordinary ability to capture my imagination takes me on the wings of fantasy into her world. There is Kate, the Truth-teller, who stories tug at my heart long after I’ve heard them. There is Kae, whose tales of discord and harmony accompany me on a musical journey into a world of sound. There is Karen whose courage to write and fight for the environment reminds me I can make a difference to the planet. There is Nuia whose courageous story of upheaval and beauty reminds me the importance of kindness and love.
Lately, aware that our time together is waning, we talk of the future. Words like ‘seeing’ each other creep into our vocabulary. The possibility of ideas we once took for granted resurface. “Maybe post Covid, we could all get together.”
We reminisce of the past, when humans sat together, touched, shared meals, and inhaled the same air. We imagine talking to each other, not on a screen, but in person.
That intimacy, once familiar, now seems distant. On Zoom, spontaneity is lost, while our ability to listen mindfully improves. Online we dress from the waist up, run a quick brush through our hair, and if we remember, a bit of mascara, but in real-life we’ll toss our slippers and pajama bottoms, dress again as whole people.
There will be no more props. When I picture the writers in my cohort, each one has a personalized backdrop. Leesa triumphs for pure aesthetic value. Ellen for her well-stocked library, Kate for her house-in-progress, Jenny’s blue walls, and affectionate dog, and Kae’s softly painted office, Karen on a boat or in an Airbnb, Engeli’s sun drenched abode, and Nuia wrapped in a warm housecoat, puppy at her side, Maryanna haloed by yellow light, Claudia, with large, black ears. The background’s we chose is a part of how we now visualize ourselves and each other. Imagine Mona Lisa backdropped by a kitchen, instead of a landscape or The Lady of Shallot backdropped by a high mountain, instead of a green and blue Lake, or the girl in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere without the bar?
I long for the time when I can meet my writing cohort, my new friends in person, and I hope they will forgive me, if I forget to say “Hello,” and instead shout, You’re muted. I can’t hear you. Your screen is off.
If so, it will only happen once. After all, we are human and we adapt quickly.
Filed under Events and Readings, residencies, Stuff to do, Writing Tips
St. Peter’s Abbey: Day Four
St. Peter’s Abbey is oldest Benedictine monastery in Canada. It was founded in 1903. In the early pictures, there is a distinct lack of trees, but over the years the Brothers have created a green oasis in the middle of the sweeping prairie. I have not done much outdoor exploring though. I enjoy the greenery mostly from my window and that’s because this whole area is tick-infested and I don’t want one of those creepy parasites digging into my flesh. When I do walk, I stick to the gravel roads, which are apparently safe from creepy crawlies. There are always surprises on residencies, but this was one I could have missed.
A great surprise was discovering that my Old friend Art Slade was here for three days giving a workshop on writing YA fiction. All of us enjoyed talking to and teasing Art. I love reconnecting with writers, especially those who write in the same genre!
Last night, Father D gave us a tour of the Abbey, including the college, and the cellars. I’ve posted a picture of him below. The Abbey is always on the lookout for fresh Monks. Male, over eighteen, Catholic, Find out information here. I can actually see a lot of advantages to being a monk, of which I won’t list at the moment. Of course, I don’t qualify on so many levels, but others will.
All of this peace has given me some much needed time to reflect on loss and love and out of that I’ve remember that the pain never outshines the love. Not in the end. Love is too strong. We won’t ever replace our Kitty Moffat, but one day we will all be strong enough to bring another four legged friend into our lives.
Just not yet. But a friend said to me, “Pets are temporary. They are given to us for a short period of time. During this time, they need a home and love, just like anyone else. That’s what we give to them and we get so much more back.” So, if you are suffering the loss of your four-legged friend, close the door for as long as you need, but keep it unlocked!
Yikes, metaphors… that’s what happens at a writing residency.
I’ve been working hard on new ideas, researching those ideas and getting about a thousand words a day down on the page. Not all good words, mind you, but I’m forcing myself to do what I always tell new writers to do. I’m showing up at the page EVERY morning. Something great will come out of all of this work, I know.
One of the poets asked me what it felt like for a West Coaster to be way out here in the prairie. I replied, “I feel safe and protected like I’m in the middle of a soft, King-sized bed and no matter how much I roll around, I can’t fall off the edge.”
Saskatchewan is like that. Our nearest village is Muenster, a five minute walk up the road. The abbey is surrounded by huge farms; fields of purple and yellow and green and gold. The nearest town, where there is liquor store (which we all care about), is Humboldt. Humboldt is a city recovering from terrible tragedy, filled with warm and friendly people.
The Brothers and Fathers here at St. Peters’s were and continue to play a large part in their acceptance of the bus crash that took so many young lives from this area.
Next time, I hope I get to tell you about the wind.
St. Peter’s Abbey 2019
This is a very brief posting, but more to follow over the next week.
Quite a few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Muenster, Saskatchewan at a writing colony at St. Peter’s Abbey. At that time, I made incredible progress on the book I was working on and I met a handful of Canadian writers, some of whom I am still in touch with.
Now, late into the hot, languid days of July, I’ve returned. It’s been an impossibly difficult week, since we had to euthanize our Kitty Moffat last Sunday (July 20, 2910) and the anticipation I’d been feeling for my week at St. Pete’s all but disappeared when Kitty’s eyes closed for the last time. But now that I’m here, in my monastic white room with its narrow single bed and windows looking out at grove of maple trees dancing in the warm Saskatchewan wind, I think that being here and surrounded by quiet and nature is exactly what I need.
I sent my last book out to a publisher a few months ago and I am patiently awaiting word. I’d hoped to have heard by now, so that I could work on editing, but alas, nothing. I can only hope that in the next few days, I’ll find something to write about.
Otherwise, I’ll have lots of time to reflect under the wide prairie sky. For that, I am thankful.
Filed under residencies, Travelling In the World, Uncategorized, Writing Tips
Applications for Residencies at Historic Joy Kogawa House
Residencies at Historic Joy Kogawa House
The Historic Joy Kogawa House is seeking applications for residencies in 2020. The House aims to offer a voice and space for representatives from groups that may experience barriers or feel marginalized within mainstream society; writers whose work resonates with these aims are strongly encouraged to apply. Deadline: February 28. Learn more.
This is such an amazing opportunity for a Canadian writer. The Joy Kogawa House does so much for the literary scene in Vancouver and residents will benefit from the peaceful space to create as well as the opportunity to get to know local writers. I have held book launches here, as have many of my writing colleagues and friends and I’ve attended many readings so can attest to it being a very special part of Vancouver.
Uni of Iowa: How Writers Write Fiction
I enjoyed Assignment 5 – basically I took assignment number 1 and fragmented it. Lots of fun experimentation.
Between the offer of a cup of tea and her departure there exists a lifetime of untold stories.
You don’t want to hear my stories either. When I was young, I didn’t care about much about my grannie’s blue-haired friends. I knew how to be polite though, how not to scrunch my nose up at their smell, or recoil in horror if my hand happened to brush the surface of their thin, yellow and blue skin.
She had no concept of decorum. I can see the dislike in her green eyes and cat-like smile. You know, it’s unnerving when she stands behind me. If you find me in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs one day, look to her. One push is all it would take. It would be a gentle shove, so as not to leave even the tiniest bruise on my skeleton.
Of course she has no idea that I am afraid of her. Please don’t breathe a word, Mutter.
But you can’t. I buried you in the ground, after you buried yourself in the politics of war. Mutter, I always understood why we had no visitors. I played along with your stories and pretended to understand what you meant when you said it was okay to tell lies. Sometimes. Sometimes you said, it could be a matter of life and death.
We are in the kitchen and Papa is behind me. He watches me put on the kettle and my hands are shaking. We drink coffee, not tea. Tea is for them.
But it’s not Papa whose critical eyes burn a hole in my heart. I buried him in the ground after he buried us in the lies.
Don’t tell, but I hated him for what he did to Mutter. He made her cry. Even after they took him away. We got a teapot and Mutter taught me to make tea the English way. Boil the water. Warm up the teapot. Use loose-leaf tea and let it steep for ten minutes. Not nine or eleven. Milk, not cream and sugar into the cup first. Pour the tea. Pretend to like it.
My daughter-in-law is pleased that I make tea properly. At least I won’t ever embarrass her again by putting the milk in after I’ve poured her tea. It was a terrible day, the day I sinned over the teapot.
Now, she watches me, waiting for mistakes. No, I’m not being paranoid. She’s waiting for me to trip or spill or choke or forget my way into a Home for the Aged. You know, what I tell myself? Remember not to trip on the carpet. Six steady steps to the kitchen, or six unsteady steps to the Care Home.
Don’t kid yourself. Being old is a lot like being young. You have no say. I am not the boss of me.
“Do be careful,” she orders. “You don’t want to break your pelvis again.”
I demure but inside I shout at her. “This is where I plan to die. Broken or whole, you’ll never get me out of here again.”
Her watchful eyes narrow. Oh My. Did I speak out loud again?
Tea? Is she deaf?
“Don’t bother. I’ll pour.”
That I ignore. It’s very rude. She’s not polite for such a proper woman. Mutter would scold me if I’d behaved that way. Sometimes Mutter could be strict. She admired the man with the toothbrush mustache and he preached law and order, rules and regulations.
Mouth washed out with soap. Never say that word in our house. Never say Nazi. Do you want to get us arrested?
Of course, you know the camp they sent Papa too was an internment camp? The RCMP deemed him a danger to Canada.
What? Of course he was. Papa was a danger to Mutter and to me and to our poor cat.
She can be critical too. Where is my son? Why am I stuck with his snotty wife every day?
While we wait the requisite ten minutes for the tea to seep, (not nine or eleven) my son’s wife bites her nails. My poor son.
Will he visit me?
For a brief moment, I think she looks sad. He’s very busy. He sends his love.
She casts her eyes around the small room. Her left leg bounces up and down. Why won’t she look at me? Finally she settls 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.”
You think she is kind to visit me? If you think that, you don’t understand. She doesn’t care about me. She always makes the tea too hot and it burns my tongue. Too hot and too strong.
Of course I don’t complain. It’s wonderful, I say while the scalding liquid burns the inside of my mouth and scorches my throat.
Wonderful says my daughter-in-law. 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. “That hits the spot,” she says.
She tricked me though. She gave me my tea and it was cold. I spat it out. You know she pretended it hadn’t happened at all. Sorry is what she said, as if it had been an accident. I didn’t want you to burn your mouth.
I pretended not to hear her, just like I did if I heard people speaking German on the streets in Toronto. Muter said never let anyone know that you speak German. I am never allowed to speak German, even at home, even if Muter 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. MuterPapaWhereismySonandwhatisthisfatgirldoinginmylivingroomwedidintdrinkteawhenIwasagirlwedrankcoffee.
Get your hands off me I told her. She said I was slurring my words and that she was concerned about me. Ha. Any excuse to shuffle me off to a home. Why are you areyou wearing a uniform?
Papa loved his Instant coffee. Here, Papa. Nescafe. Drink it while it’s hot. Papa why did you go away for four years that seemed like forever?
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 throw back like a shot of schnapps.
I caught her wiping my face as if I were a child. I pushed her hand way. Don’t touch me. Then there is a teardrop on my face. I’m leaking. Everywhere. But I hide the private leaks. A grown woman shouldn’t be in diapers.
Will you have a biscuit? Chew carefully. I miss teeth. What, it’s not old. Those past due dates mean nothing. You know, she smells her food before she puts it in her mouth, as if I’m going to poison her. Muter would have never allowed such rudeness.
They all throw out food, that generation. Even my son. Dear boy. Mutter did not approve of wasting food. What’s that thing? It doesn’t look much like a phone to me. My daughter-in-law has one. Is yours a cameral too? Did you now that she can tell the time and take pictures with hers?
The shopping list? It’s on the table. That’s what I said, even though it wasn’t. Even though I’d forgot to make one. I don’t care. Things are missing. Like my taste buds, but don’t tell her. Don’t tell anyone.
Secret: I was relieved when Papa went away forfouryearsthatfeltlikeforever. He wears an old suit Mutter found in the second hand store. It smells like mothballs. I know they are lying when they tell me that Papa is a financier.
Wash out mouth with soap. Never say that word. I spy with my little eye. I can’t play that game because I can’t say that word. No wonder the other kids don’t like me. I wish we were like them.
You! You there! Where is Papa’s special book? You can’t touch it. It belongs under my pillow. PAPA TRUSTS ME TO TAKE CARE OF HIS NOTEBOOK.
I’m not shouting, you silly girl. Take your hands off me.
Where am I? It doesn’t matter. Where was I? Ah. I remember. Back then.
Mutter can be bossy. When someone does come over, I have to flip the picture of the funny, mean little man over. “Make sure it’s not crooked,” Mutter tells me. “Be quick about it.”
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.
Thank goodness Papa is gone for fouryearsthatseemlikeforever.
No more Hitler. Oops. I didn’t say that. Sorry.
Did I tell you that my Papa is away? Yes, he’s away on business.
Where is Papa?
I told you. He is away on business. ARE YOU DEAF?
My daughter-in-law’s voice voice shakes and I know she’s had too many coffees. No. Wrong. She drinks tea. It’s Mutter.
Don’t cry, Mutter.
“You must call me ‘Mama’ now.”
But you are Mutter. Even if you hit me, I will never think of you as Mama.
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.
My daughter-in-law hates it 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.” Gibberish.
Her lips brush my cheek. She winces. I know I’m rotting on the inside. She smells the rot. 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.
Do you remember your mother?
Ah, we used to go to the stores on Spadina. Oh, if you could have seen the fabrics. We bought special material for when Papa came home. Mutter made a dress for me and a dress for her. Blue with yellow flowers for her and pink with white stripes for me. On the day that Papa came home forthefirst time in forever, Mutter didn’t have to drink cold coffee in the morning. I never saw her cry again.
The day before Papacamehome after fouryearsthatfeltlike FOREVER, 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 mustache that looked like a toothbrush and the bleached dead eyes sparkled the day Papa came home from camp.
You know who that was, right?
How was my mum today?
Drifting in and out. Lot’s of talk about her past and her parents. I hardly understood a word she said.
Thanks for visiting her.
It’s okay. I like your mother. But you know, it’s you who she would’ve like to have seen. Not me.
There is lots of time for that. I’ll try and go next week.
The daughter-in-in-law nodded. The daughter-in-law even smiled.
She’d covered the Old Biddy with a blanket before she left. Then she’d realized her mistake and taken it off. She’d hoped her husband would be the one to find her. But
a week was a long time for a body to laze at the foot of the stairs.
The daughter-in-law said,
Don’t worry, Honey. I’ll pop in and see her in a few days. In the meantime, how about a glass of wine?
Filed under Stuff to do, Uncategorized, Writing Tips
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.
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.
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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!
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