Telling our family stories: The Forgotten Voice

I’m currently teaching a creative writing class that takes inspiration from our individual family stories. As part of the curriculum, I decided that I would have my students start memory boxes. I’ve bought each of the students a craft box made out of wood, so that they can paint and decorate it to suit their personality. What they put in it is up to them, but I hope it’s something that they will keep.

Of course, opening a memory box is the type of thing that can really prompt recollection… and stories. So, in order to help connect with—and inspire—the students, I decided to dig through my crawl space to discover my own memory box.

Because I knew I had one somewhere. I also knew I hadn’t opened it in eons; I had dutifully shifted it from apartment to apartment, home to home, throughout my life, mostly just cramming it away in the corner of some dark storage area. In my imagination, it was just an old and battered shoebox, its corners held together with tape.

I found the box in the utmost furthest depths of my crawlspace. It wasn’t a shoebox. It was much larger and a quick peak under the lid in the flashlight-illuminated darkness revealed a treasure trove of mementos.  So I tugged it out, navigated back through the obstacle course that is our crawl space, and brought the box into the light.

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Inside was a journal chronicling my trip to Central America in my early twenties, a skunk trophy I won when I was in Elementary School (for being on the worst curling team—yes, this is LONG before the culture of everyone earns a participation ribbon), old photos, an unpaid cable bill, and countless letters.

Most of the relics in the box were over twenty years old, though some (like the skunk trophy) even more ancient. As I rummaged through the contents, I found one particular object that piqued my curiosity: a cassette tape attached to a stack of letters with an elastic band. I had no idea why this tape was in this box; I had no recollection of it whatsoever. I yanked the tape free of its parcel then promptly forgot which stack of letters it had belonged to. The only way to really figure out what the tape was about was to listen to it.

Luckily, my wife still has an old tape player stuffed away in our storage (she refuses to throw it out, despite my nagging). So I procured the player, stuffed in the cassette, and began listening.

It was a girl’s voice, but I had no idea whose it belonged to. I thought maybe it was my sister. Or maybe my cousin. I even wondered if this tape had belonged to someone else and just ended up in my box of memories by mistake. But then I heard the girl say my name; she was speaking to me directly.

And then, suddenly, I knew who she was.

I remembered.

* * *

I grew up in a very small town. I think my graduating class had all of 50 people. I always laugh when my students ask me how I chose my high school because the truth is that I had no choice—there was only one option available to me, the only school in town. It was the type of town where the school body didn’t change much. Oh sure, a few people came and went, but it was the type of town where 80 per cent of the people you started Grade 1 with were then when you graduated from Grade 12.

For me, Yvonne was one of those people.

I met her in Grade 1, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that she and I became fast friends. That’s when my family moved to the other end of town, her side of town, which meant we took the bus everyday together—or, once I had my license, the car.

Our relationship was not always a simple one. As is so often case in such a situation, the line between friendship and romance was often blurred. We went to movies together, starred opposite each other in school plays, did projects together. I remember many weekend nights when we would drive up to the desert in my old ’66 Ford Custom. It was a behemoth of a car; the trunk was so long and wide that we could sit on it, backs against the rear window, and our feet wouldn’t even dangle off the end. We’d sit there, contemplating the stars, and do what all young people do: share our hopes and ambitions. The town was small, but I feel like on those night, with the desert sky beaming above us, that the world seemed vast and endless . . . and possible.

In those days, Yvonne and I knew everything about each other that there was to tell. We talked almost every day. I knew every nuance of her expression, the cadence of her voice, the ups and downs of her demeanor. I guess that’s the way it is with best friends.

When high school came to an end, Yvonne and I went our separate ways, chasing dreams. For those first couple of years, we were still very close. We wrote each other often, sharing correspondence and the luster of our exciting experiences in new places with new people. We even attempted a formal relationship at some point, but it was mostly long distance…and by that time—well, we had more distance between us than physical space. We had simply grown apart. This time, when we went our separate ways, it was for good.

Through the next few years, I lost touch with Yvonne. We didn’t write, didn’t talk on the phone. From time to time, I heard about her through mutual friends, things such as she had fallen in love, she had gotten married, she had given birth to a daughter. Whenever I received these tidbits, I was genuinely happy for her . . . though, I must also confess that it was sort of like hearing about someone I didn’t know, like a character in a story I used to read as a child. Yvonne really wasn’t a factor in my present life—so I simply didn’t dwell on her.

More years passed. I was twenty-five and living in the city with another childhood friend, Mike. We were doing well, two young men with professional jobs, a nice apartment, and steady girlfriends. Mike was good friends with Yvonne’s stepbrother, so he was the main conduit for news about her.

One winter’s evening, the phone rang for Mike. He ducked into his room, talked for a few minutes, and came out looking like someone had run him over with a truck.

“I have to tell you something,” he said, leaning heavily on our kitchen table. The hesitation was heavy in his voice.

“What is it?” I asked impatiently.

“Yvonne shot herself.”

I remember feeling confused and bewildered. I remember Mike continuing to talk, but it was suddenly like we were under water; I couldn’t hear anything. But, eventually, I came to the surface. I remember asking, “So. Is she okay?”

Mike looked at me with discomfort, almost frustration. “No, she’s not okay, Lee. I’m trying to tell you. She shot herself.”

It was February 14th, 1996. Valentine’s Day.

It’s hard to express the turbulent emotions that I experienced after receiving this news. I remember a gamut of feelings—confusion, anger, guilt. But mostly anger. I became determined to not dwell on the matter. I didn’t even go to Yvonne’s funeral. I refused to reflect on my relationship with her or to play the games that everyone else wanted to play—exploring the whys and hows of her death. I didn’t go back and look at old photos, examine old memories, or get in touch with anyone about it. I didn’t want to know.

Simply stated, I put it all away. My mementos from Yvonne were stuffed away in that box, and that’s where they stayed. I never opened that box, except to put other stuff on top of it.

I thought of her no more.

The years continued to pass—an entire decade, then another. Life carried on. Every now and then, Yvonne popped into one of my dreams or crossed my mind. She was still a girl to me—frozen in time, locked at the age of twenty-five or in some cases younger, sitting on the back of my car, talking about her hopes and ambitions. Sometimes, I would catch myself perusing facebook, looking at the posts of other old friends, and wonder what had become of Yvonne and what she was doing these days—only to suddenly remember with a sharp pang of guilt that she was gone, and had been for a long time.

Maybe this is because I had refused to really deal with her death. I don’t know.

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Yvonne on her 19th birthday, which is on June 30th. This photo is taken in my parents’ old house, so Yvonne and I must have both been back from college for the summer.

But then there was the discovery of the tape. Listening to the full cassette revealed that Yvonne and I not only wrote each other letters, but we taped them. She mentions as much in her recording, telling me that she can’t find the tape I had most recently sent her so, instead of recording over it and sending it back to me, that she’s starting a new one. So there’s that mystery solved.

Still, finding—and listening—to the tape was so very strange. It wasn’t quite like finding an old forgotten photograph or a video clip of us. It was a message from her, directly to me, same old same old—her talking about her plans for her future, her desire for happiness and love.

That part to me is heartbreaking. But mainly I feel gratitude for hearing the sound of my friend’s voice again, the one that had evaporated from my memory. It certainly wasn’t the healthiest of decision to pack away my emotions . . . but I am at least thankful that I packed away the relics, because they allowed me access to something all these years later.
And that is why I’ll have my students make their own memory boxes, too.

 

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Just add water . . . ?

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This week, I rolled out one of my favorite classes as part of my CWC creative writing workshops: A Monster in a Bottle.

In this class, the students each assemble a prop that consists of a miniature glass bottle stuffed with monster parts: claws, fangs, eyes, fur, feathers and that sort of thing. I actually only let students pick from three different supply piles, as I feel this makes them a bit more creative and considerate.

The idea is that this bottle is something they can buy at a pet store. It then has to be “hatched” through a series of special instructions . . . which, of course, the students have to write.

Here’s some of the photos from the day’s activity. As always, I’m continually amazed at the ingenuity of the students! Some of them definitely thought outside the bottle . . .

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Telling our family stories: The Farmer, The Giant, and the Milk Thief

Long ago in a place not seen by anyone now living, there dwelled a humble farmer with a large family. His land was poor and barely arable, growing only onions, but he tried to scrape out an existence to support his extensive brood. The farmer did not even have a stable to keep his cow. He had to tie the creature to a tree in his yard, so that it would not wander away. However, the cow was his one boon, for it granted the farmer two large pails of milk each and every morning.

milkpail.jpgOne day, as the farmer was carrying his two pails of milk to the farmhouse, a giant was passing by. He was a terrifying fellow, with a head the size of a bathtub. When the giant saw the frothy milk slopping in the pails, a terrible thirst came over him.

“You, farmer!” the giant boomed. “Give me some of your milk.”

“It is for my family,” the farmer protested. “It’s all we have for our breakfast.”

Now, the giant was a crafty fellow. It would be easy for him to take both pails of milk by force, but he thought if he did so than the farmer might rouse his neighbors and drive him from the country. So he said to the farmer, “If you do not give me one of your pails of milk, I will take both. Do not be so greedy.”

If he had any courage at all, it abandoned the farmer while he stood in the dark shadow cast by the giant. So he gave one of his pails of milk to the giant. The enormous man drank down the milk in one gulp, cast the empty bucket upon the ground, and plodded away.

Every day afterwards, the giant returned and demanded that the farmer give him a pail of milk. Knowing not what else to do, the humble farmer obliged.

milkcow.jpgHowever, one day the farmer went to milk his cow, only to discover that it had gone dry, and would give no milk. Not two pails, not one, not even a single drop.

Soon, the giant arrived and demanded his daily drink.

“My cow is dry,” the farmer said. “I have nothing for you this day, and nothing for my family.”

“I suspect you are trying to trick me,” the giant growled. “But I am in a hurry today. So I will make you a deal. Tomorrow, you will give me two buckets of milk. And if you do not have them, the I will eat your oldest child.”

Then the giant stomped away, causing the ground to quake.

The farmer was at a loss for what to do, and began to fret. But his wife said, “Tell a story to the cow, and it will soothe her.”

And so the farmer did as his wife suggested, and spent the afternoon telling tales to the cow.

However, the next morning, when the farmer returned to the cow, it was to discover that she was still dry. Soon enough, the giant arrived in the yard. He leaned down and glared at the farmer with an angry eye.

“I’m ready for my two buckets of milk!” the giant thundered.

“The cow is still dry,” the farmer moaned. “I have no milk to give.”

“I do not like these tricks,” the giant grumbled. “But I am in a hurry today, so I will give you another day’s grace. When I come tomorrow, there better be FIVE buckets of milk waiting for me. Otherwise, I will eat your oldest child AND your youngest, too!”

Then the giant clomped away, causing the trees to tremble and topple.

The farmer was now truly terrified. But his wife said, “Sing a song to the cow and coax the milk from her udder.”

It seemed like a silly idea, but having no better plan, the farmer went into the yard and began singing loudly to the cow. He sang all afternoon and into the evening. At last, exhausted, he went back to his house and fell sound asleep.

However, the next morning, when the farmer returned to the cow, it was to discover that she was still dry. Soon enough, the giant came rumbling into the yard and demanded to have his five buckets of milk.

“The cow is still dry,” the farmer told him. “I have no milk to give.”

“You have tested my patience to the thin,” the giant snarled. “But I am in a hurry today, so I will give you one last chance to please me. When I come tomorrow, there better be TEN buckets of milk waiting for me. Otherwise, I will eat all of your children, and your wife, too.”

Then the giant galumphed away, causing the rocks to tumble down from the nearby mountains.

The farmer was at his wit’s end and felt that everything was lost. But his wife said, “Go and perform a dance for the cow. That will surely start the milk running.”

The farmer felt this was a hopeless suggestion, but not knowing what else to do, he went into the yard and began dancing for the cow. She stared at him with blank eyes, chewing her cud as he pranced before her. He performed well into the night until at last he collapsed from exhaustion and began to slumber in the long, dead grass.

It was not long after he had fallen asleep that the farmer awoke to a sinister hiss. He rubbed his eyes and poked his head from the grass to see the most unbelievable sight. A prodigious snake was slithering out of a hole in the very tree that he used to tie up the cow. At its widest part, the serpent was as thick as a barrel, and it was as long as the tree trunk from where it had come. The snake’s scales glinted in the moonlight—and so did its eyes as it began to suckle the cow, drawing all the precious milk from its udder.

milksnake.jpg“Ah ha!” thought the farmer. “This is the scoundrel who has been causing me all my grief.”

He quickly fetched an axe and while the giant serpent satiated itself, chopped it in half. As he watched the snake writhing on the ground, dying, the farmer hatched a plan. He had solved one problem, and now he could solve another. So he proceeded to skin and dress the snake and afterwards began roasting its meat over a fire he built in the yard.

As the sun came up, the farmer’s wife peered out of the doorway of the house and said, “What is that smell? Are we to have meat for breakfast for once?”

“No,” the farmer told her. “This is for another purpose. Now fetch me some lye and bring it to me quickly. Then take all of the children and hide in the house. Make not a peep until I tell you it’s safe to come out. Oh, and one more thing. Bring me an onion!”

The wife did as the farmer asked, bringing him the lye and the onion. The farmer sprinkled the lye over the snake meat roasting on the fire. As for the onion, he cut it in half and held it to his eyes, causing the tears to stream down his cheeks. Soon enough, as his family scrambled into their hiding places inside the house, the giant came romping over the hill and into the yard.

“What is that delicious smell?” the giant asked. “I can see you didn’t butcher the cow.”

“These are my children and my wife,” the farmer sobbed. “For the cow is still dry. I could not bare you to devour them whole, so I did the horrible deed myself and am now cooking them on this fire.”

“This farmer is a strange fellow,” the giant thought. “But it makes no difference to me.”

Then, chortling, he snatched the meat from the spit and began gulping down the thick strips of flesh. It wasn’t long before he began to gasp and groan. Next, he began clutching his belly.

“What trick is this?” the giant wailed. He waved a threatening fist at the farmer, but before he could do anything else, he crashed to the ground, dead as a stone. His collapse was so violent that it caused the water to rush over the banks of the nearby river and flood the farmer’s field, covering it with fresh loam.

The tremendous sound roused the farmer’s wife and children from the house. They rushed into the yard to see the farmer standing before the fallen body of the giant. The farmer quickly related the entire story.

“What shall we do to celebrate?” the farmer’s wife wondered when the tale was done.

“Why, I think we should dance!” the farmer proclaimed.

And, as stories go, the farmer and his family lived many years in peace and happiness. Perhaps they are still living so, if they have not died in the meantime.

* * *

That’s a short folktale I wrote based on the stories told to me by my paternal grandfather. I remember listening to him as a boy and being fascinated by the many characters and creatures that populated his tales from Hungary or, as he called it, the “Old Country.” In particular, I remember him describing a snake that would sneak out of a tree hollow and steal the milk from the family cow.

Apparently, this is a common myth: the idea that snakes can steal milk. Of course, it’s scientifically impossible, but it does make for a great story. So, taking inspiration from my grandfather’s words, I decided to write my own tale, drawing on some of the traditions of Hungarian folktales. In particular, Hungarian folktales have their own particular endings and beginnings.

This is also the assignment I’m giving my creative writing students over the next two weeks. Phase 1 is to research myths, legends, and folktales from an ancestral culture. They have to pick three tales and provide a short summary of them. We’ll evaluate the stories and they’ll choose one in particular to focus on. Then, they will either retell that story or use it as inspiration to write a more original tale (as I did).

By the way, here’s a picture of my young grandfather (he’s the boy in the front row, wearing what looks like a gown) and his family in Hungary.

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Telling our family stories: A Walk in the Rain

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My students have submitted their first assignments in my class to teach creative writing through the lens of family stories. This first piece was to write a short poem about a moment of connection they experienced with a family member.

This has been a bit of a tricky assignment for them because, one, it involves a bit of vulnerability, and, two, they’ve been having trouble picking the family member and the moment.

I always strive to do the assignments that I give to my students. So I wrote a poem about connecting with my paternal grandfather (that’s him at the top of this post). I was very close to him growing up and it’s pretty easy to think of moments when we connected. However, one moment in particular stood out for me, and that was a day my grandfather walked me to school in the rain. This stands out for several reasons. I’m not actually sure why he walked me to school—I didn’t live with or anywhere near my grandparents, so it must have been for some unusual reason that I was with him on a school morning. Also, the number one thing I think of when I remember my grandfather is his storytelling—but, on this particular morning, we shared a walk of silence.

Well, here was my attempt at my own assignment:

Shall we walk in the rain?
I will follow your lead,
The umbrella between us
But not a single word.

How many times
You have mesmerized us,
Brother and I,
Over a tattered album
With countless tales
Of the Old Country?

Distant places
I have never been,
But dream to wander,
Places of myth and legend
Where witches and gypsies
Seem to lurk
In every dark nook of every forest
Or bend of every country road.

But places of war and danger, too
Where soldiers arrive
—suddenly—
In the night
To loot and snatch
Food and sometimes people, too.
Places of hunger and woe,
Where a single loaf of bread
Cannot be bought
Even with a wheelbarrow topped with money.

But you do not tell me these things
Now
As we walk together in the rain.
Instead we savour silence
And solitude
Between two people
Who don’t always need words,
But just each other.

Telling our family stories: Jack and the woman with no fortune

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There was once a poor boy named Jack who grew up in England. This was long ago, before iPads, iPhones—well, you get the idea. The only “i” was in yourself. And Jack had a lot of it. He was quick-fitted young fellow and could spin a tale or two.

Somewhere along the way, he learned how to tell a fortune using a simple deck of playing cards. He would ask his supplicant to shuffle the deck, then would deal out a selection of the cards on the table. Next, he would examine the chosen cards to weave a story for his listener. Hearts represented love, of course. Diamonds were for wealth, clubs for good fortune, and spades for misfortune.

Jack left England with the rest of his family in 1926, immigrating to Canada at the age of fifteen. They ended up in northern Alberta, Grande Prairie to be exact, where the winters were long and tough, the nights dark and cold. It was the perfect stage for a storyteller like Jack. Even though Jack’s family came from a humble background, and they could always use another coin, Jack never accepted money for his fortune telling. These were hard years for everyone, after all, and no one seemed to have it easy. Jack’s fortunes were a way to provide a little bit of hope, a little bit of succor, during those times. As such, neighbors from near and far would make their way to Jack’s family home on those frigid nights, pining to hear the young man entertain them for a few hours.

One night, a particularly large crowd showed up at the house. As everyone huddled around the kitchen table, near the old wood oven, Jack pulled out his worn deck of cards and, glint in his eye, began telling fortunes.

One of the people who came that night was Old Bess. Despite her nickname, Old Bess really wasn’t that old. It was that hard prairie living that perhaps made her look so hard and (some say) grim. She and her husband were the closest neighbors to Jack’s family, but she rarely attended Jack’s theatre. Some said it was because she was superstitious and a bit afraid of Jack’s dabbling with the “devil arts.”  Others said she didn’t take it seriously at all, but in fact thought it was all a lot of “hogwash.” Still, others said she was just shy, or patient, feeling that she had all the time in the world to hear what Jack had to say about her future.

Well, this was the night that Old Bess finally took a turn at Jack’s table. The hour had passed midnight, and everyone had heard his fortune when Old Bess’s husband encouraged her to have a seat in front of Jack to hear her future.

“Just a bit of fun, after all,” he claimed.

Jack himself was feeling weary after spinning so many stories, but Old Bess’s husband seemed eager. So Jack passed the deck to Old Bess and asked her to shuffle it, cut it, and select her cards. Then he placed the chosen cards down in front of her and gazed down to discern her future.

He saw nothing.

The cards were simply not speaking to him anymore that dark night. It wasn’t that the cards were blank—as always, there was the typical combinations of suits, the same mixture of face cards with numbers. A certain queen sidled next to a seven, a sword-bearing kings taunted a clever-looking jack, a particular ace stood off to the side, all alone. But Jack could weave no story from their faces, tug no thread from their tapestry.

I must be too tired, Jack thought with a yawn. My brain’s gone fuzzy.

He apologized to Old Bess and told her he had run out of rhythm for the evening. “Come back next Saturday,” he told her. “I’ll let you have first turn.”

Old Bess agreed and everyone cleared out of the house. Jack fell straight to sleep, but his slumber was not entirely peaceful.

Which, in retrospect, was not that surprising. He woke up the next day, walked into the kitchen to find Old Bess’s husband sitting with his parents at the kitchen table. “Bessie died during the night,” the neighbor man said.

If you asked Jack, it was all just a coincidence. But after that, folks weren’t quite so eager to line up to have their fortunes told by the poor boy from across the ocean with the glint in his eye.

* * *

Well, that is a true story. Mostly true, anyway. Or as true as I know. It’s mostly the way I heard it, though I added a name to the neighbor woman in the story, because no one ever gave her a name and I feel she ought to have one. As for Jack, he was real enough—he was my maternal grandfather, and he was quite the storyteller. He especially loved telling tales over a deck of cards. He told many fortunes to friends and family over the years—including me.

Here’s a photo of Grandpa Jack and his family on the ship coming over to Canada. My grandfather is in the back row, second from the left:

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Retelling this story about my grandfather is how I began Class 2 of the new workshop series I’m teaching this term. The program is called CWC Family Stories for the Creative Writing for Children society.

The students have been exploring their identities through the lens of family stories and family history. Last week, I had them write a short poem about a moment of connection with a family member. The truth is that they’ve had some trouble accomplishing this assignment—but that’s okay. After all, improving their ability to express themselves is one of the reasons they are taking the class!

In a future post, I’ll publish the poem about my Grandpa Tom (my other grandfather) that I chose to write as way of example for them.

 

Telling our family stories: The Boy and the Three Criminals

There was once a wealthy man who lived in a village near Vienna. He owned many businesses, including a butcher shop and a tavern. One day, while in his tavern, he told one of his regular patrons that he had to travel to the market in Vienna to buy beef for his butcher shop. Little did he know, three unsavory characters were listening in on his conversation, and overheard of his plan. They knew that the wealthy man’s pockets would be weighed heavy with gold and formulated a plot to rob him. The next morning, they waited along the forest road and ambushed their unsuspecting victim. Instead of handing over his coin, the wealthy man attempted to fight off the three scoundrels. He was murdered and the three thieves escaped into the woods.

Not long afterwards, a local villager found the wealthy man’s horse by the side of the road and soon discovered his body. The authorities were alerted, a posse formed, and the three men were soon captured. Punishment was swift; the three fiends were sentenced to hang in the town square.

Before their execution, each man was given a final wish. The first criminal asked for a tankard of beer so he could blow the foam off and drink it. He was granted his wish. The second criminal wanted to spit in his mother’s face because she had not “raised him right.” His wish could not be granted, because his mother was not present; for all anyone knew, she was no longer alive. The third criminal stared into the crowd of onlookers and asked that the son of the man he had murdered to come onto the scaffolding, so that he could lift his chains and know their weight.

The boy obliged and, timorously approaching the murderer, grasped the heavy chains in his hand and knew their heaviness.

The men were executed and the boy inherited his father’s wealth and businesses. But he mismanaged his affairs and eventually fell into severe debt, and lost everything.

* * *

Well, that is a true story—as far as I know anyway. It was told by my grandmother. The boy in the story was the husband of her own grandmother. I don’t have a picture of the boy (there weren’t many cameras back then!), but I do have a picture of my grandmother as a child in Austria:

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I also have this photo of her mother, my great-grandmother, who told the story to her:

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Well, this is a famous story in my family, and retelling it is how I began Class 1 of the new workshop series I’m teaching this term. The program is called CWC Family Stories for the Creative Writing for Children society.

I spent the last few months developing this program. It’s designed for teenaged students, and is meant to help them explore their personal, familial, and cultural identities through a creative lens. My feeling is that when we explore what has come before us, we can gain insight about ourselves . . . which is very important when you are writer!

And, of course, you can also discover a treasure trove of new ideas. And a writer is perpetually on the hunt for new ideas!

Personally, I find the facts of the family story told above to be suspicious. It reads like a fairy tale—there are three criminals, and an implied lesson, as if the boy in the story took such heed of the chains that he took no further risks in his life, and thereby fumbled away his inherited wealth. Still, it doesn’t really matter if it’s fact—there’s a certain truth to it. (Though, it’s at this point that I must say that my grandmother—the conduit of this story—was illiterate. As such, she trained herself to survive by memorizing everything. She never told a different version of this story—or any story, for that matter. She never elaborated or modified. So, if this story was ever made more fanciful, it was by someone who came before her).

In any case, I’m looking forward to the workshop series. We’ll be tackling family stories from a variety of angles, discussing food, family rituals and traditions, family homes, even family pets.

We’ll also be reading a series of books over the course of the next twelve weeks. It’s pretty easy to find books that relate to family life; pretty much all of them do! But I developed a list that connects to the specific topic of each week. For the record, here is my list . . .

* * *

Paperboy, by Vince Vawter

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

The Flask, By Nicky Singer

Crispin, Cross of Lead, by Avi

Alexandria of Africa, by Eric Walters

The Gospel Truth, by Caroline Pignat

 

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

Stones on a Grave, by Kathy Kacer

Half Brother, by Kenneth Oppel

Running Wild, by Michael Morpurgo

Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen

The Green Man, by Michael Bedard

* * *

I hope to chronicle much of the program on this blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

 

Exploring Québec ~ Day 4

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Day 4 was actually the final day of my time in Québec City. Since it was a truncated day, with part of it spent getting to the airport and flying home (which actually also turned out to be a better part of the night—but such are the risks that go with trying to make flight connections across a giant country such as Canada), Marcie and I did not do a great deal, other than visit the Museum of Civilization, have a final lunch, and then wander the old streets one last time.

The Museum of Civilization is in the lower old town, but in a very modern building. The main exhibit chronicles the history of the province and is brimming with all sorts of interesting relics from the past. I highly recommend it.

Well, one thing we learned about this place is that people are extremely convivial, full of love, and very proud of their beautiful cities. And well they should be! Even wandering through the time-worn streets of Québec City one last time, Marcie and I discovered many lovely doors and details.

How did we miss these previously? I’m not sure! But here are some of the final things we noticed.

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olddoor-reddoorstones

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Well, my next adventure, will be sticking my nose into my sketchbooks and laptop to work on the actual “writing” phase of my writing projects—and to teach some creative writing courses. One involves the theme of family history . . . but that’s a post for another time. In the meantime, I’m fuelled up with inspiration and ready to spring into a fall of creativity!

Exploring Québec City ~ Day 3

We woke up on the morning of our third day in Québec City feeling very sore, our legs reminding us of the amount of trekking we did yesterday. According to Marcie’s app, over 26,000 steps! So we decided to have a casual day.

Marcie spent the morning exploring the shops on Rue Saint-Jean, while I stayed in the hotel room, at the window seat, doing some writing. I had a goal to finish a particular chapter of one of my books before the end of this trip. The scene I’m working on is set in an old museum, a sort of cabinet of wonders, so this whole trip to Old Canada has been very helpful and invigorating. I’m not sure if I’m actually going to be able to complete this chapter before I’m back in Vancouver, but I’ve outlined the whole scene and now—ha, ha—just have to write it. Well, maybe I’ll complete the chapter on the flight home and that will give me some sort of sense of accomplishment. I tend to be a slow writer anyway, and am not one of those who forces myself to achieve a certain word count each day or week. It’s just not the way I create.

In any case, after Marcie returned from shopping, we headed out to the provincial parliament building and registered for the free tour. We had 45 minutes to spare, so we wandered around the neighbourhood, which we had some familiarity with from the previous day. We came across an old church on Grande Allée East that was for sale and discussed whether we would ever consider buying in it and living in it. We thought the turret at the top would make for a neat studio—but it would be one laborious walk each morning!

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It was actually sad to the church in a dilapidated state. Tall weeds were sprouting from the sidewalks and many of the windows were boarded up.

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Of course, the cost for renovating and up keeping such a building would be exuberant and, of course, we don’t have the money for such a venture. So we left behind our whimsical moment and took our tour at the parliament building.

Like so many of the provincial parliamentary buildings in Canada, it is a beautiful structure—and a little better maintained than the old church up the street!

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The 45-minute tour was excellent and we enjoyed the beautiful stained glass windows and magnificent chambers. Many of our fellow tourists were Canadian, so the guide made sure to keep testing us on Canadian history. (I feel like I did pretty well.)

After the tour, we decided we needed a leisurely lunch and headed back towards our church and enjoyed a couple of hours at Le 3 Brasseurs, which is a chain I was first introduced to in Montréal. I encourage Marcie to try the flammekueche, which I had tried previously, while I had poutine. Because, you know. You can never have enough poutine.

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Well, of course you cane have way too much poutine. I certainly have while I’ve been in this province, but, hey, I convinced myself that I deserved my poutine indulgence after walking 26,000 steps the previous day before. I’m not sure how we convinced ourselves that we also deserved a refreshing pitcher of sangria. We just did.

Well it was Monday, and that was the last day of the long holiday weekend in Canada, and we certainly noticed a difference in the city as we walked around through the afternoon and night. The streets were sedate, and we had many of them to ourselves! We enjoyed the frantic hustle bustle of the weekend, but now we were privileged enough to enjoy a more romantic experience of the city on a warm summer night. In particular, we enjoyed all the stunning lighting of the buildings, both modern and old.

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pridebuilding

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As is always the case, I’ll end with a few doors and details that I espied during the day. My particular prize is the lion doorknob! I’m pretty sure this a portal to Narnia—but I posted it at the bottom of the photos, just so you don’t shun the others!

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Exploring Québec City ~ Day 2

Our second day in Québec City was another busy one. We woke up a little bit later than usual and decided we would go visit the Plains of Abraham, the site of the famous battle between the British and the French in 1759—a deciding moment in Canada’s history.

We ambled along the wall again, past the provincial parliament, and arrived at the museum’s office. The clerk there told us that, if we hurried, we could make it to the nearby “Le Citadel” to see the changing of the guard. So we abandoned the Plains of Abraham for the moment and charged off to Le Citadel, along with hordes of other late-arriving tourists, hastily purchased our tickets, and squeezed through the gates to observe the ceremony.

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I’ve seen quite a few changing of the guard ceremonies (London, Prague, Seoul, and so forth), but this one was the first one to feature a goat. And this is no ordinary goat, but one with golden horns!

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The goat’s name is Batisse. He is the regiment’s mascot and is an integral part of the changing of the guard.  The origins of the goat goes back to Queen Victoria, who in 1883 was given a goat by the king of Iran. Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century, and Queen Elizabeth II gave one of the descendants of this goat to the regiment at Le Citadel. Well, Queen Elisabeth II is still around, but the original Batisse is not. In fact, the regiment is now on the twelfth Batisse. According to our guide, the queen sent over a new goat each time one passed away . . . until number four. With that fourth goat, came a wife. So now the regiment is responsible for propagating its own line of mascots.

In any case, Batisse looked quite regal. I suppose horns painted gold will do that for you.

We really enjoyed the tour. Our guide was informative and humorous and we learned a lot about the history of the fortifications—namely, that it was built to protect the city from an attack by the Americans that never came. (They did attack Québec City, but only before the citadel was constructed.)

It was interesting to see the difference in construction between the original French buildings and the subsequent English fortifications.

French:

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English:

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The tour guide also introduced us to this twelve-tonne cannon:

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According to our guide, this beast once caused the destruction of a woman’s house on the other side of the Saint Lawrence River. They fired the cannon one winter, only to have its payload strike the frozen ice, ricochet off the hard surface and bounce forward to obliterate her home. Thankfully, she wasn’t inside at the time. Recently (and by recently, I mean within the last few weeks) many of the shells for this cannon were unearthed and were lying nearby for us to see:

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You can see my foot in the bottom of the photo, to show you how big the shells are. (Also, my foot is there because I didn’t know it was in the frame when I took the shot.)

Nearby was the building where they kept all the powder. There was a slot in the outside wall that most of us assumed was for use by soldiers inside to use for firing at enemies.

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Actually, it’s just a ventilation shaft. It zigzags into the building so that an enemy couldn’t simply stick his own gun through, fire, and easily explode the store of gunpowder. However, our tour guide told us that attacking soldiers sometimes used animals as incendiary devices. What they would do is take a rat, dip its tail in oil, light it, then send it scampering into the shaft to ignite the entire building.  Very cruel, but I suppose effective. This technique was never used at Le Citadel, but about a half hour later, I spotted a black squirrel scampering across the grounds and thought to myself that it best just keep moving in case anyone got any ideas . . .

Well, of course, they don’t store powder in that building anymore. It’s a museum where you can see plaques and relics from the Seven Years’ War, including a very cool original canon. (We weren’t permitted to take photos.)

Near the end of the tour, we got to stand on the battlements overlooking Old Québec City. The view was very impressive. Marcie and I had taken our tour of Château Frontenac the day before, but we looked upon it with fresh eyes from this vantage point—it truly is an impressive and magical building. I have to say, it’s just one of those buildings that no photo can really seem to do justice. It rises out of the cityscape like a castle.

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After leaving the citadel, we returned the Plains of Abraham, but thought we better get some lunch before we ran out of steam. We found a restaurant called “Cosmos” just past the statue of General Montcalm and enjoyed some crepes. You can see Marcie’s meal. It was like fruit exploded all over her plate.

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Our stomachs satiated, we returned to the Plains of Abraham and wandered across the grounds of the infamous battle. It was so verdant and peaceful that it was a bit difficult to imagine that this was once the sight of the grisly Battle of Québec, the deciding confrontation in the Seven Years’ War.

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Incidentally, this pivotal battle lasted all of fifteen minutes. It resulted in the deaths of the leaders on both sides, James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph Montcalm. Whenever I think of this moment in Canadian history, I am reminded of this pair of famous paintings:

The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West (1770)

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La Mort de Montcalm, by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (1902)

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Just outside of the park, there is also a statue of Montcalm. I could not really get a good photo of it due to the position of the light at that time of day, but here it is anyway:

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The Plains of Abraham also features a famous statue of Joan of Arc. I guess she was kind of like a patron saint for New France.

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After exploring the park for a bit, we crossed down to the nature path and descended down a long staircase to the rue at the bottom. From there we gained a good vantage point of the cliff looking upwards:

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It was this type of cliff that a small contingent of British soldiers had to scale in order to surprise the French garrison at top. Once they seized the garrison, the rest of Wolfe’s 5,000-strong army was able to reach the plains via a road. (Let’s just say the walk down was onerous enough and we had the use of stairs; so I can only imagine how difficult it was for these men to climb up beneath the cover of night.)

We required refreshment after our long walk in the hot summer sun, so we decided to head back to Château Frontenac, where we had seen the lovely 1608 bar the day before on our tour of that hotel. We arrived just after the bar opened at 2pm, so were able to procure a table (the bar filled up very quickly afterwards). This is a beautiful, cozy location in the hotel, affording a great view of the Saint Lawrence, if you get the right seat. We sat next to the bookshelf, since we wanted to feel like we were in the old reading room—which is what this room used to be.

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Our next adventure for the day didn’t happened until later at night when we took the ghost tour through old Québec City. As I mentioned in my blog posts about Montréal, I really enjoy taking ghost tours, since it is a good way to hear about the history of a place.

This tour did a good job of trying to create atmosphere. Our guide was dressed in a cape and hat and led our way down cobblestone streets with a candle-fuelled lantern.

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Marcie and I appreciated the fact that the tour took us down several streets, back alleys, and courtyards that we wouldn’t have otherwise explored. In fact, there was a great deal of walking on this tour—it had some people puffing and panting, especially when we started climbing some of the steep hills. The grande finale of the tour was at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity near the Château Frontenac. Here is my picture of it in the night:

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The guide led us inside—it was pitch dark with only the lights from the streets beyond to provide us with any illumination. We then sat in the pews as she told us stories about the ghosts who apparently haunt the cathedral, her candle light flickering and adding a certain macabre ambiance. That was certainly a lot of fun!

After the tour, we headed back towards our hotel and came up through the gate on St. Jean where raucous music was playing on the festival stage. It’s the Pride Festival here this weekend, so each night they have been having celebrations. On this night, it was drag queens performing. We paused to watch a bit of it. Marcie said to me, “That looks like Marilyn Manson on stage.” It was just a look-alike of course. Afterwards, faux-Marilyn stalked through the crowd looking grim and somber and people delighted in taking pictures with him. Faux Gwen Stefani went next. Well, it was a fun way for the night to come to an end.

As usual, I’m finishing off this post with a series of photos chronicling the doors and details discovered throughout the day. Every time I turn a corner in this city, there is a new treasure to find . . .

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Exploring Québec City ~ Day 1

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Technically, this was our second day in Québec City, but our first full one. We arrived late last night, and you can read about our welcome in my previous post.

We had a restful sleep in our gorgeous hotel, then after a quick petite-déjeuner, and with a spring in our steps, we entered old town Québec, ready to embrace all the new experiences awaiting us.

We started by walking along the old fortified wall and heading to get a view of the parliament building and, eventually, the Saint Lawrence River (pictured at the top of this post).

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We enjoyed the many gates, doorways, and bridges that afforded us the different views. They have many cannons along the walls, which especially caught our attention. See, after learning of our visit to Québec City, my cousin’s husband, Pat (a native Québecer) gave us a mission to find a cannon ball embedded in the trunk of a tree in the old town. We made sure to take pictures of the cannons—because we thought we could doubly impress Pat if we did so!

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Well, after surviving the cannons, we kept walking along the route, and eventually arrived at Dufferin Terrace and Château Frontenac. It’s here where you can see the beautiful monument to Samuel de Champlain:

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We had already pre-booked a tour for Château Frontenac, so decided to not linger there, but instead went up Rue Saint-Louis to gaze upon the beautiful architecture. We almost immediately were distracted by this side street where vendors were selling art.

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Marcie and I are not ones to buy a lot of souvenirs, except for artwork. We are running out of wall space, but I had no choice but to purchase this adorable print by Francois Thomassin. I think his artwork would be wonderful in a children’s book.

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Weaving up another side street, we came upon Chapelle des Ursulines, which is a Catholic Church with beautiful stained glass windows and many pieces of religious artwork that were saved from the riots of the French Revolution and brought to Québec. There was a very kind and knowledgable man outside the church, and he regaled us with the history and legacy of the Catholic church in Québec and encouraged us to go inside.

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We did take a quick peek, but did not spend much time there—after all, we had a cannonball to find!

And find it, we did . . .

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I won’t say WHERE we found it, in case you want to search for it yourself. Also, I’m not sure WHY there is a cannonball in the tree. One story claims that the cannonball landed there during the Battle of Québec in 1759 and then the tree grew around and over it. Who knows? Pat was very pleased that we found it; he immediately assigned us a new challenge, which we will try to undertake . . .

It was next time for lunch, and we overheard a tour guide waxing poetic about a restaurant we passed, so we decided to go in.

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We weren’t looking for an expensive or heavy lunch, but we did not regret dining at La Buche! It was pure Canadiana! To begin with, it is decorated with many items such as skates, skis, snowshoes, and . . . er, taxidermy.

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We dined out in the back terrace, where we enjoyed incredible food. I had tried poutine in Montréal, but nothing like what I was served here:

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Let’s just say that other bacon should go hang its head in shame. Because all other bacon has failed in comparison to this bacon.

As for Marcie, she had a grilled cheese sandwich unlike any we had ever seen:

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Yes, I know. It does not look like grilled cheese. I actually think it was battered and then grilled. Or deep fried. I don’t want to think about it too much, actually. I think we ate our calorie count for the day in one fell swoop.

Afterwards, we visited the bathroom. It was comprised of unisex stalls and every square inch was covered in graffiti. The sink was a bathtub:

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The faucets are actually the soap dispensers!

Well, it was time to make our tour at Château Frontenac. We found our guide, Michel, in full top hat and tailed coat waiting for us on Dufferin Terrace near the hotel.

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I ended up discovering A LOT of unexpected inspiration at Château Frontenac, this most historic of hotels. I’m working on a book that involves a hotel angle to it, and taking the tour got me rethinking a few details. (Alas, a writer is always at work . . . even when he is on vacation!) Mostly, this hotel allowed me to think about all the different services, details, and aspects of hotel life. I’ve read up on hotels of course, but nothing seems to top actually walking through one such as Château Frontenac and seeing it for yourself.

Well, there’s a lot one could tell about this hotel and its history, but suffice it to say that it was the largest hotel in North America for quite some time, and is still one of the most prestigious. It has had its ups and downs with fires, economic downturns, royal visits—you name it. The leaders of the allied powers even met here during World War II to plot their strategies.

Our tour included the grand ballroom . . .

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The ladies’ tea room . . .

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And the 1608 bar . . .

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The 1608 bar may have been my favourite place in the hotel. It was the old reading room, and we definitely want to come back here for a drink. In the adjoining room, where they serve the famous Château Frontenac brunch, we saw all sorts of taxidermy, much of it very strange . . .

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Yes, that was a two-headed duckling!

Here are a few other details I snatched from the hotel:

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chateaufrontenac-greenman

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Marcie and I now harbour the fantasy of returning to Québec City one Christmas and staying at this gorgeous hotel. It won’t be this Christmas, but hopefully one holiday season soon . . .

After our hotel tour, we went below Dufferin Terrace to explore the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux national historic site, which is administered by Parks Canada and is underground. Similar to my experience at the Pointe-À-Callièreo museum in Montréal, we were able to explore the old rooms and gaze upon beautiful artifacts from this early period when Québec was New France.

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My favourite artifacts, of course, were this lock and key:

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After emerging from the past, we spent the rest of our afternoon ambling the beautiful old streets (some of them delightfully narrow) and squares, taking in the many sights, smells, and sounds.

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We did a little shopping (Marcie bought a pair of Québec-made moccasins!) and took many photos. Here are just a few of them, including the many doors and details that caught my eye . . .

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Well, that was our wonderful first day. We are next looking forward to exploring the Plains of Abraham.