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Where am I?

I’ve been on a self-appointed sabbatical but I will soon be back with more material from my archives and other material that I hope will be of interest.

In the meantime, I hope you will join me at Sharon’s life stories, which is just what it promises to be. I’ve introduced the stories saying, in part:

The stories I’m telling here are about me. They are, therefore, mostly of interest to me — and to my family and perhaps to my friends.

On the other hand, if I tell them well enough, maybe they’ll be of universal interest and even if you’ve stumbled upon them by accident, you’ll say, “What a good story!” and you’ll come back and read some more. Even if you don’t say, “What a good story!” I’m pretty sure, at some point, you’ll say, “That happened to me too.” Or maybe you’ll say, “I once had a friend/teacher/neighbour like that.”

I hope if you do, you’ll come back and check out the stories now and then.

I’ll look forward to seeing you, in both places.

(February is African History Month. This is a piece from my archives, first published in 1993.)

Maxine Tynes
(Maxine Tynes)

Maxine Tynes was born and raised in Dartmouth, where her heritage goes back to the time of the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia. She is a graduate of Dalhousie University and was a high school teacher of English. She has done freelance broadcast work both regionally and nationally.

Maxine is a poet and author. Among her books are: Borrowed Beauty; Woman Talking Woman; Save the World for Me; and The Door of My Heart.

Borrowed Beauty tynes_woman talking woman Door of my Heart.

She has been named the Milton Acorn People’s Poet of Canada and the Dartmouth Regional Library has named a room in her honour.

She has been awarded an honourary doctorate of human letters by Mount Saint Vincent University and was awarded the Governor General’s Canada 125 medal in recognition of contribution to Canada, to compatriots and to community. She was the first Canadian of African descent to be named a member of the Board of Governors of Dalhousie University.

I interviewed her in the Maxine Tynes Room at the Alderney Gate Library in Dartmouth.

Maxine: I’m one of those Maritimers who will never move very far away from home. I grew up right here beside the railway, just a stone’s throw from where we’re sitting in this library. It was a very good place to grow up, in the heart of downtown Dartmouth.

There was a lot a traffic in and out of our house because we were so central. All of the neighbourhood kids congregated at the Tynes’ house. My mother knew where her kids were every minute of the day. It didn’t matter if she was thinking about her six-month-old, her 16-year-old or her 26-year-old, or her 36-year-old, she knew precisely where each was at all times.

My father worked at the shipyard which meant it was a five minute walk to work, down the track and around the corner. There was a lot of traffic home with him. He brought the world through our front door to our dinner table – daily, weekly, nightly, yearly. He was a big, gregarious man, he loved life, and people just naturally took to him.

You could imagine an environment like the shipyard, where people were coming from the four corners of the world for short stays or long stays for boat repair and there was this man who always made it his business to meet and greet the stranger. It didn’t matter to him that this Captain spoke Greek or French or Russian.

My mother, on the other hand, was juggling a dozen children plus this man and plus whomever else he brought home. But like all good Maritime women or probably all working-class women, that pot is bottomless and endless. You know, we Maritimers, we’ll throw an extra fish in, a few potatoes and onions in, and the chowder feeds the multitudes.

And so what convinced me that I would be able to speak and write and string poems together and actually have people read them and want to read them and ask for more?

Early days told me many things before I was conscious of the telling: we always had to make every day count and my mother, probably like your mother, most people’s mothers had all these little homilies and little lessons about life, these little philosophies that she would drop upon our head as easily as she would pull on a stocking cap or braid up our hair at night and so time and again we heard things like, “if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing well,” “if you don’t believe in yourself nobody else will,” “if you don’t take a chance you won’t know what you can do and what you cannot do,” and always, “try, do your best and nobody can ask any more than that.”

Most wonderful things that have been planted in your mind, in your little childhood heart and soul, you probably felt it was going in one ear and out the other. But for somebody who would put pen to paper eventually, it meant that I have instilled within me an intrinsic belief in self. While I was tightly reined in with the rest of the brood, in a sense my parents offered a kind of freedom that is hard to come by: the freedom to think for oneself and believe in oneself, as long as you feel you’re doing and saying the right thing to the best of your ability.

The family has disintegrated. Our parents knew our lives intimately: who we got connected with; what we got from that; what changes we went through as a result of being exposed to these young people or to those.

The railway track had to be no more than eight metres from my back door. But a dozen children could be raised in that proximity to these huge leviathans and not one hurt, not one maimed – not even a fear or threat, because my parents had eyes everywhere, all the time, and we were trained to have eyes on each other.

But it was more than that. While they were saying watch out for the little ones, where are the little ones, where’s your sister, where’s your brother – the message was we care about you, we care for each other, I’m responsible for you, but you in turn are responsible for the one younger than you. You could always count on someone older than you knowing where you were and reaching out that hand to catch you before you fell.

What I don’t see in young people today is that safety net. When you see, out of necessity, single mums or struggling partners sending their children out to a caregiver so they can pay the mortgage or dress and feed their children, children develop a different ethic – to whom are they accountable? to Mom and Dad? They love Mom and Dad, Mom and Dad love them, but then there’s a third party in there.

So by the time they’re in elementary school, then junior, then senior, more and more their personal time is given to them to entertain themselves, to put their own brakes on, to make those value judgments. Who is controlling the moral atmosphere, the atmosphere in which they develop values? It’s out of necessity but there’s a price to pay for that – I didn’t have to pay that price.

I was a child, I was a little girl, when I started writing. I was reading voraciously and then I started writing. I don’t remember my first poem. I remember the first stories that I wrote – they were stories I would have written when I was in elementary school, probably in grades three and four.

I would get my star on the essay and then I’d get the willies because invariably my teacher would want me to read it in class which didn’t bother me but then she would take me around to the other grade fours and then the grade fives and then the grade sixes so you can imagine the pressure on a little kid to do that. It was wonderful, but it was unnerving at the same time.

I guess it stimulated that desire within me, but even before school stimulated it, my Mom did. I was a sick kid when I was very young – I had a couple years off school, I had polio in the ’50s – so my mother took charge of everything. She rallied me around and also took care of my early education – best teacher I ever had. I know that I model myself as a teacher after my Mom. And she gave me this love of words and reading.

For me as a writer, it’s important to add to the growing and burgeoning store house of developing African Canadian literature and North American literature produced by those from African culture. I don’t have children but I am leaving writings behind that will mark my place and that will illuminate and amplify the fact that we are a culture too and that we were here. People over historical time have been eradicated, have been exploited, have been displaced, but their art remains; sometimes, it remains in its pure sense.

Like all writers and all artists, there’s something in me that drives this thing to be done – this writing, this poetry, this literary voice – that is subconscious, but there is also a conscious drive and that is the sense of self as black woman in the world who wants to speak this womanist, feminist vision and philosophy and dialectic, who needs to speak from black culture, to look behind me and where I find blank trails to turn to myself to create some, to lay down a path of my own with the story and the poem.

I feel a strong connection to Africa. It’s a feeling of being connected and disconnected at the same time. It’s a sense of having a foot firmly in the past and feeling impotent, probably almost a rage, that the disconnection was made for me. This thing was done to me generations ago without any sense of cultural control and so I look at a map and I see this continent that is truly mine and there’s another sense of displacement that moves in – the continent is mine but where and when will I be able to claim it?

bleeding hearts cropped for web

(Today is Valentine’s Day and I have gone to my archives for a look at love and marriage. This column was first published on September 17, 1989. I suspect things have not changed too much.)

I’m interested to see that the Advisory Council on the Status of Women is doing a study in provincial high schools to find out if young women have a realistic view of their futures. In similar studies done elsewhere, the Council has discovered that many young women believe in the mystique of a Prince Charming who will come into their lives.

“But the reality is,” says researcher Jane Wright, “that many women are living in poverty and are single parents.”

A few years ago, I did a series of articles about women in marriages, all of whom had married — or were about to get married — at a young age.

My first question to the engaged girls was always, “What do you expect to get from your marriage?”

Without any exceptions, the answers were individual variations on: “Well, I’d just like us to have a nice life together.”

On further questioning, I discovered that most of the young couples had no sense of shared interests or life goals, and the majority had never discussed the question of having children and how they would fit into the fantasy life that seemed to prevail in youthful girlish minds.

From what I could gather, the “nice life together” that the brides-to-be envisioned included vague romantic ideas of dining by candlelight looking like a picture in a magazine, strolling on Sunday walks through crackling fall leaves, and taking annual vacations aboard the Love Boat, dancing under tropical stars.

There was little knowledge about the part money plays in young married life (or old married life for that matter) and there had been no discussion about finances.

I went back to interview one of the brides a year after her marriage. She hadn’t yet given up but she was disillusioned. The candlelight dinner — if it ever got off the ground — had given way to a quick scoff in front of the television with reruns of Three’s Company. The romantic Sunday strolls were spent at the ballpark where the groom was either playing or practising. The Love Boat had been sunk by a wild trip to Montreal that the groom had taken with his buddies to see the Expos play.

When I interviewed her for the second time, it was mid-winter, she had a new baby, and she was feeling quite optimistic about the future but still fantasizing. She hated the time he spent playing ball and going on ball trips and she had wrung a promise out of him that he’d quit the next season. I felt sorry that she had gone that far and I pointed out that she had known before the marriage that he was a zealous ballplayer.

“Yes, I did,” she said sadly, “but I thought he’d change after we got married. I thought he wouldn’t need baseball any more.”

The marriage did break up — of course — but it wasn’t because of baseball. It was because the young couple had never been realistically prepared for their life together. He went out west and worked in oil and made a lot of money; she remained in her home town with the two children and lived on social assistance.

I also interviewed the prospective grooms, by the way. I found in most cases that they had given little thought, romantic or otherwise, to their impending change in status. The reason is probably as old as the institution of marriage itself: men view marriage as the context in which they will pursue whatever in life interests them, whether it be a career, sports, friends, hobbies or community service.

Too many young women still view marriage as an end in itself.

Midwives are back in the news in Nova Scotia. Whenever that happens, we can assume there is something that’s not going smoothly in the world of midwifery.

In the nursing community, we always knew that one of the reasons midwifery could not gain a solid foothold as part of the health care solution was that the medical establishment was not willing to share its power. The reason we don’t enjoy widespread use of nurse practictioners is a symptom of the same power struggle.

This is a column I wrote about midwives and midwifery which was published on October 14, 1990. I have edited it only to remove an event that was held the weekend this appeared.

Childbirth, just taken on its own, not knowing anything about the circumstances of mother or baby, is one of the most earth-shaking experiences to watch. You notice I say “watch.” I have never given birth (my son is adopted) but during my nursing career, I observed many births – dozens, I suppose, or maybe scores. Each one had such a profound effect on me that, to this day, I can be brought to tears when Sondra Huxtable (the oldest of The Cosby Show daughters) gives birth to twins in a situation comedy.

I trained at the Montreal General Hospital but each year, a couple of General students, did the obstetrics/gynaecological affiliation at the Women’s Pavilion of the Royal Victoria Hospital. I was one of them. There were many, many babies born there every day.

Royal Vic
(The Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal)

It seems hard to believe but at that time (it was only the ’60s) second year students were left alone to work on the post-partum wards. We were always told that if we needed help, we should run down the hall to the delivery rooms where the nurses in charge would be glad to help us out. The delivery room nurses, as far as I can remember, were all from Great Britain, all trained as midwives, all answerable to all levels of the medical hierarchy, none allowed to deliver babies on her own.

One night, alone on our ward, I looked in on Mrs. X who had been admitted because of her age (40-something) but had not yet delivered. Mrs. X was expecting her ninth baby. It was around two in the morning and she told me she was in labour and I should be ready to call the doctor and get her down the hall. I called the nursing supervisor.

Minutes later the supervisor called me back and told me she had spoken to the doctor (an intern, on call that night) and he said there was no possible way Mrs. X could be in labour – he had seen her a couple of hours before – and I was to give her half a grain of codeine for her pain. Well, I might have been only a second year student but it didn’t sound right to me and I refused to do it – on solid ground, since technically, I wasn’t allowed to administer a drug unless the doctor came to the floor and put it in writing.

So the supervisor came down and gave Mrs. X the codeine. Within minutes, Mrs. X called me and told me the baby was coming. I learned many useful things as a nurse, perhaps none of them more useful or certain than this: when a mother – particularly one who has already delivered eight times – says the baby is coming, the chances are pretty good that the baby is coming.

I did almost nothing. I prepared a sterile field for the arrival, put on some sterile gloves and waited a minute. When the little baby appeared – small and premature – I put him on his mother’s tummy and ran like hell to the delivery room to get a midwife. She came, delivered the placenta, hustled off with mother and child and left me with shaky knees to deal with the paperwork, cleaning up, explaining to doctors etc.

A few weeks later, when I had finished my ward work and moved on to the premature nursery, one of my first tiny patients was Baby X. In his admission notes, I read, “Admitted on the night of … suffering from acute codeine intoxication.” (Babies get their intravenous fluid through the veins in their forehead and so his little head had been shaved except for a fringe around his ears. The permanent nursery staff called him Friar Tuck.)

I thought of that little baby a lot over the next several years – and his dear experienced mother, who knew her baby was coming, knew what had to be done, tried to reject the offer of codeine for her pain. I thought of the delivery room nurses, who knew so much more about pregnancy, labour and delivery than the medical students and interns who were entrusted with these important responsibilities, the nurse/midwives who felt such anger and frustration when they ran up against a case like little Friar Tuck.

It’s interesting that every time a midwife-attended birth doesn’t go as planned, you can read about it in every newspaper, hear about it on every newscast, see it taken to court. But when inexperienced interns and medical students put a new baby and its mother at risk, it’s simply seen as part of the education process. When busy obstetricians choose to do Caesarean Sections for their own convenience, it’s just another case of doctor-knows-best.

I’ll be watching the mid-wife and mid-wifery issues here and will keep you posted.


At the very end of 1990, Dan and I left Halifax for Europe. This is one of the columns I wrote about that trip. It was published in The Daily News on January 15, 1991.

As midnight begins to strike on December 31 in Madrid’s central square, the Puerto del Sol, the lights are lowered and silence falls over the thousands of people gathered there. In accordance with an old tradition, each person eats one green grape at each stroke. The feeling of anticipation and tremendous excitement builds and builds and finally, at the last stroke, pandemonium erupts.

A large ball of light drops from the clock tower, a volley of fireworks fills the sky, champagne corks pop and plastic champagne flutes appear instantly out of pockets, everyone hugs and kisses and cheers and dances, and a sign of lights spells out Feliz Ano Nuevo – Happy New Year.

This year, to make the scene almost unbelievably perfect, there was a bright, beautiful full moon looking down on it all. This year also, my husband Dan and I were among the thousands in the Puerto del Sol and we both have to say, it was our most exciting New Year’s Eve ever.

We had arrived in Madrid only a couple of hours before, on a plane from Amsterdam with only about eight other people. The Madrid airport was dim and nearly empty and we dragged ourselves sleepily through it as befits two travellers who had left Halifax nearly 24 hours before and had not been to bed for a day and a half.

What a difference a couple of hours can make.

The taxi driver who took us downtown assured us that we wouldn’t sleep a wink that night because of the fiesta; after all, our hotel fronted directly on the square where all the festivities would occur. We didn’t expect to have any trouble sleeping but, truly, we became more and more awake as we got closer to the action.

Christmas lights Madrid

The Christmas lights in central Madrid were dazzling – large garlands of lights strung across the wide boulevards, every street with a different pattern of Santas, bells, candles. Lights were entwined in the branches of all the big trees along the streets, many businesses and institutions displayed elaborate and very beautiful manger scenes.

After we’d checked in to the hotel, Dan went out to see if we could get some champagne. He was back in minutes to report that they were selling champagne on the streets. Later when we both went out, we discovered that champagne was just one of the things being sold on the streets – there were temporary booths and tables of green grapes, ice cream and popcorn, scarves and belts, purses, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

New Years Eve Madrid

(This is a generic photo of Puerto del Sol on New Year’s Eve but that’s our hotel in the background, with the Tio Pepe sign on top.)

The crowds gathered through all the surrounding streets and a most interesting crowd it was. There were babes in arms, toddlers and little children dressed in their best, young couples in gowns, full-length fur coats and tuxedos, casually dressed parents and teens in jeans, grandmothers and grandfathers dressed sedately for a big evening out.

After the big finale, it was a party we hated to leave but good sense prevailed and, contrary to our taxi driver’s prediction, we had no trouble at all having a sound night’s sleep.

We went out on New Year’s Day expecting to see the kind of deserted streets we’d see in Canada on a holiday – but not in Spain. The Spaniards spend much of their lives outside their homes and they were certainly out on Jan. 1, 1991. Many were just having their regular walk – the paseo; others were checking out the wares of the vendors who were back in the streets and in the squares; still others were crowded into noisy bars and restaurants. Spaniards are a very social people and there are many occasions to be turned into social events – from morning cafe con leche to the very late-evening dinners they’re famous for.

Later on New Year’s Day, we went to an ancient church in central Madrid. As the concept of queuing is simply unknown in Spain (or at least unpractised, unless they’re buying lottery tickets), it was interesting to see that the people who wished to take communion simply advanced to the altar in clusters and took their chances. It appeared that everyone was taken care of, however. (While they were up taking communion, other people would come and take their seats but no one seemed to mind.)

I’ve been to Spain many times since the first time I went there in 1970, over 20 years ago. I’ve always said that I go because I like the climate, I like the landscape and I like the people.

There have been many changes in the country since then but, fortunately, some things never change: the climate, the landscape and, at least in the superficial ways that I was able to observe on a short vacation, the people. They remain gregarious and outgoing, treating somewhat timid Canadian strangers the way they treat each other, living their lives loudly and unself-consciously.

I suppose that’s why they know how to throw a great New Year’s Eve party and altogether, it was an unforgettable experience to ring in 1991 with so many of them.

(I have returned to my archives for a look at another Christmas Past. This column was published on December 23, 1990.)

Fruit cake

It’s impossible to turn around these days without someone asking if we’re all ready for Christmas. Well, my answer is “certainly not.” After all, there are still a few days/hours left.

I don’t panic, however, because I come from a tradition of not being ready for Christmas – and I mean, really not being ready. My mother was a teacher and all you teachers know that December is just about the busiest time of the year. I used to be a community newspaper editor and all you community newspaper editors know that December is the busiest time of the year.

Come to think of it, in many occupations, December is the busiest time of the year. Don’t ask me why.

This year, I had white and dark fruit cakes made before the end of October. It’s always a goal; in fact, it’s written on my calendar. But I do remember one year arriving at my parents’ home for Christmas to find that no fruit cakes had been made, so I set about making them on Christmas Eve. They were good – they lasted until about April too, and just got better and better. I expect that was the same year that we made the mince pies on Boxing Day.

My sister and I often used to finish decorating the house after Christmas too. We always managed to have the living room and the tree completed by Christmas Eve but the day after, there was plenty of stuff to do around the other rooms – hang up the cards, set up the nativity scene and the little village, loop some garlands around the windows.

One year, I remember arriving home to the usual hectic scene and discovering – on Christmas Eve – that we had no turkey. This time, it was pure oversight. Poor Mum really believed that there was a turkey in the freezer. So we set out on a quest for turkey. I’m pretty sure it was Sunday because the major stores were closed and the smaller stores just didn’t have a turkey.

We had pretty well concluded we’d have to have a meatloaf for Christmas dinner when we decided to phone an old family friend who still owned part of an old-fashioned downtown grocery store. He came down on a cold and snowy Christmas Eve and opened his store to find us a turkey in his cooler.

Thank goodness. I love turkey. I can never understand it when I hear people saying they’re going to have roast beef or roast lamb for Christmas dinner. Not me.

When my sister’s children were small, naturally we spent the whole night of Christmas Eve putting together toys that came with about a million parts accompanied by incomprehensible instructions. After the kids were in bed, my sister would have to drive to the school where she was vice-principal and get the boxes and boxes that she’d stashed in her office.

Then after our parents were in bed (deception all around), we’d open some smuggled-in wine – there was no alcohol in our parents’ home – which seemed to make those inane instructions a little easier to follow. Or at least it made trying to follow them a little more fun.

We’d finish about four in the morning, we’d look at the beautiful tree and the toys and the stockings and just for a minute, we’d believe that Santa had been there while our backs were turned.

And that’s how I still feel. I like Christmas very much and I never consider it drudgery to get ready for it – even if I am usually late.

But I know that Christmas is not an easy or enjoyable time for many people and mostly, it’s just a relief to get it over with. I keep hoping that if only there could be a safe and secure place for everyone, then someday, Christmas will again live up to its promise of peace and happiness.

Let’s hope it’s soon.

The house was on the shore, about 100 feet from the water, right where the Black River flows into the Miramichi. It was a pretty house, weathered grey with sharply pointed gables and gingerbread trim. It looked a little worse for the wear. From a certain angle, it looked as if it were leaning back on its haunches; it had been built many years ago, with no foundation, and was “settling”, especially toward the back, where the kitchen was. From the front, it looked as if it were hunching its shoulders against the northeast winds that swept around the point, blowing in from the Miramichi Bay. It was a cold old house.

Black River house winter

February 17, 1976

I forgot to push the rolled-up blanket against the door before I went to bed so there was snow on the kitchen floor this morning. The wind battered the house all night. It’s some cold. The glass of water I took to bed with me was frozen when I got up — frozen solid, not just a little skim of ice like sometimes.
The water in the kettle on the stove was frozen too. I got the fire going and waited for the water to melt so I could prime the pump — at least I remembered to drain the pump last night.

After I got the pump working, I filled the big copper boiler on top of the stove to get some hot water. It was wash day and I wanted to get an early start to get the clothes hung outside while there was still some daylight. I had a few dishes to do so I started on them first. The dishwashing detergent wasn’t frozen but it had turned into a gel so stiff, it was almost solid. I had to use a knife to get some out of the bottle. I suppose I’ll have to start keeping it in the fridge.

The fridge is huge. I saw it advertised in the newspaper and a deal was pretty much made over the phone. I’ve never had a very good grasp of the size of an object that’s described in cubic feet. Anyway, I’m glad now. I keep many things in the fridge. It keeps them from freezing: things like canned goods and ketchup; oils and vinegars; potatoes, pickles and peanut butter — not to mention shampoo and conditioners, moisturizers, makeup and lotions. I think I could — as it used to be expressed — sell refrigerators to Eskimos. They could use them the same way I do.

I almost froze my fingers getting my big washtubs in from the shed. My hands were a little damp and when I reached up to lift the first tub off the hook where it hangs, my fingers stuck to the surface. I peeled them off; no permanent damage but I went and put my gloves on before I dragged the tubs in.

The two tubs sit side by side in the middle of the kitchen floor, one filled with hot soapy water, the other with less hot clear water for rinsing. The steam rises into the still-cold air of the kitchen like you see from those hot springs in Iceland. I sit on a cushion. I have a washboard for scrubbing and a hand-operated wringer that clamps on the side of the tub for wringing. A little shelf at the bottom of the wringer moves back and forth to keep the soapy water draining into the soapy tub and the clear water back into the clear tub. It’s very efficient.

I put the newly wrung-out clothes and towels and sheets into a wicker basket on the floor beside me but before I got outside to the clothesline, the bottom layer had already started to freeze up. I put a few layers of newspaper and a folded blanket under the basket until I was ready to go out.

God, it was cold out there. I was already wearing long underwear, heavy pants, wool socks and a couple of sweaters and I added boots, scarves, jacket, mitts and a wool hat plus earmuffs. The wind was still blowing and if the clothes weren’t frozen in the basket, they were most certainly frozen by the time I got the clothespin fastened onto the line. It’s not that easy to do, wearing gloves and mitts and still having numb fingers. Why do I do it? Well, they’d freeze if I hung them in the house anyway and they dry a little faster outside, especially in that wind.

After the clothes were hung and as long as I was dressed for outdoors, I decided to fill the woodbox and take a trip to the outdoor facility to empty my little private indoor commode. It was frozen too.

I made some bread this afternoon. I had lots of potato cooking water, bottles and bottles of it — in the fridge, of course — and a bag of stone-ground whole wheat flour my sister had given me for Christmas. It has taken me quite a while to find the best way to raise my dough in that cold old kitchen. I tried placing the bowl in the warming oven of the wood stove but it was too warm. It rose too fast and the texture wasn’t good. Placing it on the outer edge of the open oven door caused an uneven rise.

I finally worked out a system that involves hot towels, newspapers for insulation, and an enclosed space that holds some heat where I set my big bowl — a medium-sized cardboard box works fine. (I’m quite inventive. I’m the same person who used to bake beautiful loaves of bread in a fireplace that I built on the shore out of flat stones and mud with a refrigerator shelf from the dump as the baking rack.)

The rest of the day was uneventful. I brought the clothes in and stood them up around the kitchen until they thawed and fell over. They really do smell good. I read a lot, with my chair pulled close to the stove and my feet on the open oven door. I’ve drained the pump and I’m ready for bed now. My head got really cold in bed last night. I’ve put a large thick towel at the bedside so I can wrap it around my head tonight, if necessary.

snow storm fields


The stories I tell about living in the cold old house on the shore are not about poverty or hardship. They’re credentials. I tell them because it’s fun to tell them. I tell them so I don’t feel I have to explain why I love my washing machine.

But I tell them carefully and never with a suggestion of deprivation. Every day I lived in the old house, I thought of the woman who had lived there first, whose husband had built the house in the early part of the century. She had eleven children, most of them born in those very rooms. She had no electricity, no car to take her to town for shopping, no fridge to keep her food from freezing. And her water pump, unlike mine which was conveniently located in the kitchen, was outdoors.

There was another woman I used to think of too, while I was living in that cold old house. She lived in Chatham, where I grew up, and I met her only once.

It was 1950. I was six years old, a sweet little girl with long hair curled into ringlets by my mother every morning, dressed carefully in tiny pleated skirts and crisp white blouses, sent to school with bookbag and accessories — a pencil case, a plastic ruler with a hole in the middle, a soft pink eraser, fresh notebooks, everything I needed. I went to The White School, an old wooden building that must have had another name in the beginning but was never known by another name in my time. It seemed very big to me; today, when I drive by the lot where it used to stand, I realize that it didn’t take up much space. The students who went there were mostly working class; a few were middle class; some were very poor.

One day in winter, all of us in grade one, having struggled into our winter duds, were standing in line in the ante-room waiting for the teacher to come around and tie our scarves at the back of our necks so they’d be ready to pull up over mouth and nose for the cold walk home. As she approached me, I saw with dread that she was carrying a small sheaf of papers.

“I want you to take Eddie’s lessons home to him,” she said. “He was sick today.”

My little heart sank. I was scared of Eddie anyway and I had heard all the lurid White School tales about the house where he lived. I didn’t understand some of it but I knew what a bootlegger was. This was a grade one nightmare.

I lagged behind the others on the way home. I tried to think of some way of getting out of it. Finally — but much too soon — I turned down the street where Eddie and his family lived, in a ramshackle frame house behind an abandoned building. I picked my way through the rubble in the snowy yard — old car parts, an overturned wheelbarrow, a wagon with no wheels. Before I knocked, the door opened. A woman holding a baby was standing there.

“Who are you? Who sent you ‘ere?” she said.

“I brought Eddie’s lessons from school.”

“Come into the ‘ouse.”

Oh no oh no. This was not part of the deal. The room she led me into was more like a shed: it had bare board floors, a few old sticks of furniture, an unmade bed in the corner. It was cold. There was no sign of Eddie or any of the older children or the bootlegger but there were small children, a few of them — toddlers and babies.

“What’s your name?” she said. I told her.

“I know where you live. A new ‘ouse.”

It was a new house; it was owned by the power commission where my father worked. It was an ugly house and my mother didn’t like it. But it had a furnace and rugs and matching furniture and curtains. To Eddie’s mother, it must have seemed like living in a palace.

My childhood experience had not prepared me for her house. How could I have fit that cold hovel, those ragged children, that unkempt woman into my ordered little life where we collected money in Mission Band to buy food for hungry little heathen children in India; where we made little drawstring bags out of facecloths and filled them with soap and toothpaste and toothbrushes and combs and maybe a barrette for deprived children in Africa?

How could it be that there were little children in Chatham living like this? Did they have enough to eat? Did they ever have roast beef on Sunday? Did they have any toys or storybooks? Did anyone ever take them to the beach? Did they have aunties and uncles who visited at Christmas? Was there even a stove in this place?

These specific questions came to me years later; at the time, I asked no questions at all. I don’t know why except little children often feel shame and embarrassment when faced with complex situations that are uncomfortable.

I never saw Eddie’s mother again. I think they moved away shortly after my visit. I never told anyone I’d been there.

There was something else I never told anyone. The day I went to Eddie’s was the third time the teacher had asked me to take his lessons to his house. The first time, I tore the pages into little pieces and buried them under a rock in a swampy ditch on the way home. The second time, I put them at the bottom of the box where I kept my supplies for playing school. No one ever found them.


(This piece was written and published a number of years ago. When the late Peter Gzowski was hosting Morningside on CBC Radio, he asked listeners to send him something about Christmas for his Christmas Eve program. I sent this and he read it to end his program that day. Years later, I read it myself on Christmas Eve, on the CBC Radio Mainstreet program that covered the Maritimes. I was hoping to give you a link to hear me reading it but I couldn’t find it so I’m afraid you’ll have to read it yourself. I hope you enjoy it and I wish you all the best of the Christmas season.)

In the mid-‘60s, I was a student in Montreal. One year, my schedule made it impossible for me to leave for home before December 24 so there I was, deciding whether I should spend much of Christmas in a little room in residence or whether I should spend it on the train. I decided in favour of the train.

I was very familiar with Montreal’s Central Station and always looked forward to the atmosphere there in the few days leading up to Christmas. There would always be a big raucous crowd at the far end of the station. Mostly everyone would be carrying shopping bags filled with wrapped gifts; there would usually be a couple of people with guitars and there’d be lots of excited children. When that big white-on-black sign was rolled into place listing the destinations — Trois Rivières, Québec City, Montmagny, Rivière du Loup, Rimouski, Mont Joli, Campbellton, Bathurst, Newcastle, Moncton, Amherst, Truro, Halifax and Sydney — there was a cheer and a good-natured crush as we all prepared to go down the stairs and board the Ocean Limited. These were eastern Quebecers and Maritimers going home for Christmas.

It wasn’t like that on that Christmas Eve. The station was dim and quiet, the way airports are late at night. There was a straggling handful of us waiting to board; we were subdued and cheerless.

It was late evening when we got on the train but even still, most of us gravitated toward the club car and soon began to talk. We exchanged stories of who we were, where we were going, why we were travelling on Christmas Eve. Some people were in my situation — they had worked up until that afternoon. One young couple had planned to stay in Montreal for Christmas and had decided at the last minute that they couldn’t bear not being home.

We talked about who would be meeting us at our various station stops and about little family traditions we were missing by not being home tonight. By the time we went off to our berths and roomettes, we were feeling quite warm and cheerful, the way you do when you’ve made new friends.

When we congregated in the morning — a sunny Christmas morning — in CN’s dining car, we were already rolling through the impossibly white snowy Québec countryside along the St. Lawrence River.

It was then that we began to lose some of our crowd and we established an instant tradition: at each station, as someone was leaving the train, all the rest of us would gather around the door to wave to the family on the platform and to sing a rousing chorus or two of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” We just kept waving and singing until the train pulled out.

By the time we were crossing the Gaspé peninsula, heading towards northern New Brunswick, we were having a real Christmas dinner, drinking toasts to each other and to our crew and acknowledging that so far, believe it or not, we were having a pretty good Christmas.

By mid-afternoon, our numbers had dwindled and as we approached the broad sweep of the Miramichi River valley, I began gathering my stuff together to be the next one to go. At the Newcastle station, I was waved and sung off the train by fewer people than there’d been earlier but with no less enthusiasm. My mother and father and I stood on the platform watching the train out of sight as it continued on toward Moncton.

The five-mile drive to Chatham was a merry one as I reported all the details of the trip. Everyone — including me — was surprised at the exuberance of my mood, everything considered.

There was one more surprise. Although both towns had the quiet empty streets and the unmistakeable atmosphere of Christmas Day, in our own house, the calendar had been set back. They didn’t want me to miss the special feeling of Christmas eve so the presents remained wrapped under the tree, the mince pies were on the counter ready to be baked, and the turkey was still in the bottom of the fridge, ready to be roasted with all its trimmings on Boxing Day.

When I’d left Montreal the night before, I had resigned myself to having no Christmas at all. I ended up having two Christmases — which turned out to be much more satisfactory.

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