Rampant with Memory

Not less radical but more so

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“As we grow older we should become not less radical but more so.”

A thoughtful dissection of these words and next an attribution to the writer.

As we grow older…

Images rise within me, as I rest on these words, beginning with my arthritic big toes that step painfully onto the curb while once they tore though beach sand following upon the heels of other children.

And

A fresh etch on my chin that wasn’t there when I went to bed –that one, there, next to the newly sprouting hair.

And

Whence once I stood, now I sit: “Would you like a seat?” The young man asks me on the streetcar. “Thank you,” I say, appreciating his kindness more than I do the seat. I try not to shout at him: Why would I? Don’t you know that I go to the gym three times a week where I deadlift, benchpress, and sweat?

And

Ah, there surely are endless ‘Ands’ only to be many more. Stay tuned; stay alive; they will come.

We should become not less radical…

Should. Become. We must fully become and then let go. And what do we do during that becoming? Fight like hell to climb that hill.

When I was pregnant I carried my belly during the heat of summer up to my Vancouver loft. I was 32 and my ankles swelled and my toes were fine. But it was a still a fight and now many another.

I was radical then. On the vanguard of gay parenting where I faced assumption, rejection, ridicule, and scorn. Since then, I strive to excel in radical but other preoccupations sometimes threaten best intentions.

Now I am an almost-old-woman ignored. My hands hold the back end of a shopping cart instead of a placard. Maybe someday they will hold a grandchild’s hand. Ah, but inside my heart and thought I am as radical as always.

…not less radical but more so

Margaret Laurence wrote that quote, the one that awakened a flood of words. She also inspired me to name this blog long ago when she gave voice to Hagar Shipley in the opening lines of The Stone Angel.

Laurence wrote that one small sentence but she couldn’t endure old age and killed herself instead. She tried twice, in fact, succeeding only once. Cancer struck her out. Which of her books remain unwritten? Was her final act also radical?

No answer because she can no longer speak it. We are held prisoner, wrapped in the mystery of her life, her death.

But let’s honour her words and fight on.

 

Shall I burrow into Clara Thomas’s life?

Clara Thomas

 

A Clara Thomas biography? None is written on this woman yet. Shall I write it? Could I bear writing a biography of a woman I only knew because she died?

Clara Thomas died on September 22nd in the small Ontario town of Strathroy where she was born 94 years ago, almost out of wedlock, to teenage parents (two months shy but shockingly no scandal).

In the town of Strathroy lives her husband of 71 years, retired meteorologist Marley Thomas.They met in first year at Western University back in 1937.

Clara’s mom, Mabel Sullivan McCandless, managed the dress shop in town and Clara would swing by after her cleaning shifts nearby and walk home with her for lunch.

Sounds like an Alice Munro story but it’s Clara’s story and Clara’s story is my story at least for today. And maybe after today, after I file her obituary with the Globe and Mail, I’ll climb inside Clara’s story and nuzzle in there for several months, several years, of my own little drama.

Oh, and here’s a morsel of Clara to hopefully further whet your curiosity: at the heels of her mom she learned to sew. Later on, she sewed Jamaican cotton robes worn by her good friend Margaret Laurence, to hide the author’s shaking knees during public readings.

Clara Thomas. Wikipedia her. Here, I’ll wiki her for you and then tell my own tales.

There is so much to write about her, hence my thinking about a full-length biography–even in these hellish days of publishing–because she deserves the honour and Canada must salvage the history of this woman’s work and I don’t mean only as a dressmaker.

She was one of our earliest and greatest scholars of Canadian Literature even though she was scoffed at and passed over during her earliest protestations that our writers are worthy of study.

Most importantly: she tugged women writers out from obscurity, taught them in her classes, and encouraged several of these women to surrender their literary estates to the Clara Thomas Archives at York University where she taught for several decades. (Among them are Laurence, Adele Wiseman, and now Thomas herself will join her friends and fellow authors there.)

Thomas wrote brilliant critical books on Margaret Laurence’s novels including The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence. One of her academic colleagues at York told me in an interview that she burst into tears once in class while reading Hagar Shipley’s famous declaration:

“Pride was my wilderness and the demon that led me there was fear… [I was] never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched.”

We owe Thomas a great deal for her scholarly zeal. She plunged deep inside Canada’s letters and discovered  our writers to be “ghost-haunted and ghost-obsessed.”

“[But] it is only when one of the ghosts has invaded, taken a seat in the imagination of the writer and then insisted on his reincarnation in the word that a Hagar Shipley, a Dunstan Ramsay or a poem like Pride moves into the literature–and the mythology–of a country.”

This tiny WordPress posting allows for only a glimpse into her metier. My obituary will offer a more sizeable portion but barely, barely.

Shall I do this thing? Shall I commit my life to telling her life? What would Margaret Laurence suggest? What would Morag Gunn do?

Writing about housewives

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How do I write about housewives?

It has been my consistent belief that there is a story, nay, many stories, in every individual life. It’s just a matter of finding them. Sometimes it means sitting someone down, making this person trust you, and fishing.

She trusts you because your interest in her is genuine and is reflected in your face and body language: “Tell me more, please.”

It’s not so much a story around every corner; I believe there’s a story in every person.

But–how do I write about a housewife? I mean how do I write a Globe and Mail obituary about a woman often viewed as lurking in the shadow of her husband’s notoriety? I must coax her out. But she is no longer alive.

It’s Brenda Davies I’m now referring to. She is my current obsession. She was married to Canadian literary giant Robertson Davies for a fistful of fat decades. During his years as Founding Master of Massey College, at the University of Toronto, she stitched altar clothes and kneeling runners for the chapel there.

She entertained visiting scholars and dignitaries like the sculptor Henry Moore.

She read Canadian authors for him because he didn’t want to read them himself. They might cramp his style. Margaret Laurence was her favourite.

She even shushed women so they wouldn’t disturb him while he wrote–women students protesting in front of the college back in the 1960s because they were excluded from membership in the all-male bastion.

Oh, but there was so much more to her.

Before Rob whisked her into holy matrimonial, back in 1940 when she was 23 years old, Brenda worked as stage director of London’s Old Vic Theatre among the likes of Laurence Oliver, Tyrone Power, and Vivienne Leigh (that was a year after Leigh hammered down Scarlet O’Hara.)

Nearly 15 years later, Tyrone Guthrie offered her the job stage managing the Stratford Festival in Ontario. She turned it down. She was a housewife who took on the august job of stage-managing RD so that he could write the books we love. (She even came up with the title for Fifth Business.)

One more thing: Brenda was dyslexic.

“We pool our resources,” said the great man once upon a time.  “Mrs. Davies can drive a car and I can spell.”

If you get a chance to read my version of Mrs. Davies’ life, you’ll see that she managed to do a lot more important things — than spell.

 

“I think of Susanna Moodie’s grave”

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Susanna Moodie

PART FOUR: MONUMENTAL WOMEN

In a press release about The Famous Five put out by the National Council of Women of Canada, there is a statement about how little women’s history is taught in our schools and that The Famous Five were only famous to law students until MacLean’s Magazine placed these women and the Person’s Case among the twenty-five events that shaped our country in the past century. “Until 1999, the bronze plaque in the lobby of the Senate in Ottawa was the only major public recognition of The Famous Five,” they wrote. In a sense, it seems that the name itself is oxymoronic.

Around day seven of my research I came across Kathryn Carter’s name. She is a very much alive academic specializing in Canadian women’s history and she speculated as to why Canadian women heros remain relatively invisible in our culture, especially in comparison to our American sisters. “When I think about memorials in Canada,” she said, “I think of Susanna Moodie’s grave. Although it has received a certain kind of cult status, it does not have an official historical marker.”

She thinks it’s possible that Margaret Laurence drew people toward knowledge of Moodie’s life simply because she was inspired by the stone angel that marks her grave, and that Moodie became, in effect, a touchstone for many Canadian women writers. Meanwhile, said Carter, the gravesite was falling apart until Belleville, Ont. decided “after much prodding from outside sources,” to restore it. “[But] I don’t think Belleville understood the significance of it.”

Where is Margaret Laurence buried? What historic sites mark her memory? This question lies begging. I once wrote an obituary about Laurence’s first editor—indeed, he was also the person who sat down and typed her first novel while she took care of her young children. He also introduced her to Jack McClelland. Laurence lives on in popular memory as one of the birth-mothers to Can Lit, but what will become of her name three or four generations from now?

Carter often finds that the artifacts she’s looking for—the ones that tell the stories of a woman’s life—have become lost or else crumbled beyond repair. “One woman lived in Alberta, and her letters were published in 1928 in the States. When I tried to track her down [her letters] were in the attic of a barn that was falling apart.” She has also gathered fragments of stories that were found in the walls of houses undergoing renovations; she once found diaries shoved inside a sugar sack, tucked into the rafters of a Saskatchewan house.

It took me a while to find substantial information about memorials of Canadian women, unless it was L.M. Montgomery. At first, I found a Parks Canada website listing national historic sites of Canada. Under “search” I typed in “women” and came up with this startling message: “zero locations found.” I didn’t give up the fight though and after wading through several more pages on The Famous Five, I came across another Parks Canada listing: “Sites, Persons, and Events in Women’s History,” providing a myriad of information from the Acadia Ladies Academy in Wolfville, to Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, with a smattering of convents along the way. Nothing overtly feminist here, although the fact that there were such places that primarily served women is not insignificant. Included in this list was the birthplace of Emily Carr, in Victoria, and Manitoba’s Walker Theatre—the site of labour and women’s movement meetings.

STAY TUNED FOR PART FIVE OF “MONUMENTAL WOMEN”

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