About the Author

Carol Shields

Carol Shields was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935 and moved to Canada, at the age of 22, after studying at the University of Exeter in England and the University of Ottawa. She was the author of over 20 books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a work of criticism on Susanna Moodie, and a biography of Jane Austen. Her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, the American Book Critics' Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. It was also a runner up for the Booker Prize, bringing her an international following. Larry's Party (also available from BTC Audiobooks) won England's Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. Carol Shields died in July 2003 in Victoria after a long struggle with cancer.

Books by this Author
Dropped Threads 2

In My Mother’s Arms by Mary Jane Copps

The “ordinary” family is capable of inflicting much pain upon its children. Pain which, by necessity, moves inward, creating adults who must either unravel their secrets or perpetuate a legacy of betrayal.
-- Jan Austin, psychotherapist

I am startled awake by the quick, cold hands that hoist me to her shoulder. She impatiently pats away my instinctive cry of distress.

At three, sleep was a place I went to, like going to the playground with my sister, or running in the backyard with Prince, our cocker spaniel. Sleep was even a favoured outing, always surprising me with who, or what, would show up to play.

I loved surprises. I believed in them, saw them as a necessary part of life. My days were filled with looking for them. Head down, I would walk along sidewalks, intent on finding a shiny coin or sparkling jewel. Whenever possible, I would turn over rocks and dig in the earth beneath, sure a treasure was awaiting me. And always, I pulled at the pockets of adults, convinced that the clinking I heard was something they were carrying as a gift, just for me.

So on this night, as the sliver of light slashes across my tumbled crib, and her fragile hands wake me to darkness, I can ignore my siblings’ sudden silence and fill my sleepy head with thoughts of Santa Claus.

In my house, midnight Mass distorted the reality of Christmas morning. My parents and brothers and sister would return home hungry, ready to get on with the opening of gifts, and I would be wakened to join them. I suspect that my mother, faced with the day’s prospects of too many in-laws and the endless details of the holiday meal, simply wanted to get something out of the way and pushed to establish this Christmas-in-the-dark tradition.

But it isn’t snowing. Perhaps the Easter bunny, then, or maybe my birthday. I snuggle deeper into her neck, closing my eyes tightly, for it is bad luck to ruin a surprise.

I’ve inherited my reverence for gift giving from my mother, a devout orchestrator of holidays and celebrations. These hallowed events were staged in one of two places, depending on the occasion. The living room couch, a much-protected piece of furniture, elaborately displayed the wares of Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s and birthdays. Always, I would build up the moment of surprise by walking down the stairs facing the wall, averting my eyes until the last possible second from the splendours that awaited me.

Sweaty from slumber, I cling to her coolness as she carries me down the stairs. Once in the living room, I push myself away from her shelter and look toward the couch in eager anticipation. It is empty. Unsettled, but not deterred, I close my eyes and once again set my drowsy hopes on Santa Claus.

Christmas was truly fantastic. The den, a large addition at the back of the house, became a holiday shrine. In one corner stood the magnificent tree (Scotch pine was her favourite) with lights, fragile decorations, aged tinsel, a golden angel and, of course, a circle of brightly wrapped gifts. Stockings hung from the top of a built-in bookcase, bulging with candy and the unwanted but necessary tangerine. And beneath them, the unwrapped deliveries from the North Pole. All this was held from view by heavy, brown brocade drapes that shut the den off from the dining room. Opening these drapes required her permission.

I feel the presence of my siblings as we reach the dining room and pop my eyes open in delight. All significantly older than I am, my two brothers and my sister are my playmates, my caregivers, and I love them fiercely. They stand huddled together near the kitchen door, looking not at me but at my mother. They do not make a sound. Behind them I see the open drapes and know for certain this is not about Christmas.

I must have seen their terror. I must have sensed her anger. But I had already chosen my role in this house, to remain hopeful long after it was prudent. My desire for a gift would not be quelled. Perhaps it was what saved us.

Once we are in sight of the other children, her voice rings high and loud above my head. This is her never-ending-flurry-of-words, all racing out of her mouth, bumping into one another, falling together and never making any sense -- at least not to me. But the others seem to understand. They turn in unison and enter the kitchen. From behind, she shoves each of them toward the stove.

If I had not been struggling against the mist of sleep, I might have seen her eyes, wide with panic and veiled with the glaze of prescription drugs. If I had been a little older, I might have smelled a day’s alcohol on her skin and heard the madness of her demand.

She is asking her children for proof of their loyalty, their unshakeable love. She gathers us around the stove, my brothers on her left, my sister on the right and me still in her arms. She turns the large front element on high, the electricity crackling to life and slowly changing the colour of the black coil.

“If you love me,” she says, “you will move your hand toward this element until I say stop.”

Her voice booms and bounces in the quiet kitchen. My siblings squirm. I remain mesmerized by the brilliant spiral below me.

“You first,” she says, nudging my sister with her elbow.

The shaking hand of my eleven-year-old sister begins a descent from its highest height toward the glowing orange element.

I am annoyed. I know about going first -- about opening the first present, being served the first plate, getting the first piece of cake. As the youngest, and very much the baby, going first is my place, my territory in a crowded household. Besides, I have been looking for a surprise and this sun-like object must be it.

With the agility and speed of a three-year-old, I wiggle and lunge, diving toward the burning element.

My sister’s hands catch mine. She pushes me back, toward our mother. My oldest brother moves quickly, stepping between us and the stove, clicking off this evening’s source of pain.

I giggle and laugh. I think we have invented a new game to play together, a type of dance, perhaps. My sister takes me from my mother’s trembling embrace. The speed words have stopped. Tears slide down her face, and she mumbles apologies without pause. My brothers cautiously walk her up the stairs, their footsteps creaking toward her bedroom. I sit with my sister in the kitchen. Held within her tight embrace, I listen to the wild rhythms of her heart.

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Two Novels in One about a Marriage in Transition
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tagged : literary
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Le poisson orange

Si d’aventure je recevais de toi, inopinément, une lettre dactylographiée, manuscrite, peu importe, pour me rappeler que nous avons suivi autrefois le même cours avancé de flûte à bec au YMCA du sud de Montréal, et que c’était toi la fille aux rhumes de cerveau et aux collants de tricot noir dont le cahier de Petite musique pour flûte avait perdu sa couverture, je ferais mine d’être un peu méfiant, j’essaierais de ressusciter l’image jaunie de l’hiver 1972. Ou était-ce 1973 — Il est impardonnable d’oublier, mais, avec le temps, la mémoire se braque; voilà les mots que j’utiliserais

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Orange Fish

The Orange Fish

Like others of my generation I am devoted to food, money, and sex; but I have an ulcer and have been unhappily married to Lois-Ann, a lawyer, for twelve years. As you might guess, we are both fearful of aging. Recently, Lois-Ann showed me an article she had clipped from the newspaper, a profile of a well-known television actress who was described as being “deep in her thirties.”

She looked at me from behind a lens of tears.

Despite our incompatibility, the two of us understand each other, and I knew more or less what it was she was thinking: that some years ago, when she was twenty-five, she made up her mind to go to Vancouver Island and raise dahlias, but on the very day she bought her air ticket, she got a letter in the mail saying she’d been accepted at law school. “None of us writes our own script,” she said to me once, and of course she’s right. I still toy — I confess this to you freely — with my old fantasy of running a dude ranch, with the thought of well-rubbed saddles and harnesses and the whole sweet leather tip of possibility, even though I know the dude market’s been depressed for a decade, dead in fact.

Not long ago, on a Saturday morning, Lois-Ann and I had one of our long talks about values, about goals. The mood as we sat over breakfast was sternly analytical.

“Maybe we’ve become trapped in the cult of consumerism and youth worship,” I suggested.

“Trapped by our zeitgeist,” said Lois-Ann, who has a way of capping a point, especially my point.

A long silence followed, twenty seconds, thirty seconds. I glanced up from an emptied coffee cup, remembered that my fortieth birthday was only weeks away, and felt a flare of panic in my upper colon. The pain was hideous and familiar. I took a deep breath as I’d been told to do. Breathe in, then out. Repeat. The trick is to visualize the pain, its substance and color, and then transfer it to a point outside the body. I concentrated on a small spot above our breakfast table, a random patch on the white wall. Often this does the trick, but this morning the blank space, the smooth drywall expanse of it, seemed distinctly accusing.

At one time Lois-Ann and I had talked about wallpapering the kitchen or at least putting up an electric clock shaped like a sunflower. We also considered a ceramic bas-relief of cauliflowers and carrots, and after that a little heart-shaped mirror bordered with rattan, and, more recently, a primitive map of the world with a practical acrylic surface. We have never been able to agree, never been able to arrive at a decision.

I felt Lois-Ann watching me, her eyes as neat and neutral as birds’ eggs. “What we need,” I said, gesturing at the void, “is a picture.”

“Or possibly a print,” said Lois-Ann, and immediately went to get her coat.

Three hours later we were the owners of a cheerful lithograph titled The Orange Fish. It was unframed, but enclosed in a sandwich of twinkling glass, its corners secured by a set of neat metal clips. The mat surrounding the picture was a generous three inches in width — we liked that — and the background was a shimmer of green; within this space the orange fish was suspended.

I wish somehow you might see this fish. He is boldly drawn, and just as boldly colored. He occupies approximately eighty per cent of the surface and has about him a wet, dense look of health. To me, at least, he appears to have stopped moving, to be resting against the wall of green water. A stream of bubbles, each one separate and tear-shaped, floats above him, binding him to his element. Of course he is seen in side profile, as fish always are, and this classic posture underlines the tranquility of the whole. He possesses, too, a Buddha-like sense of being in the right place, the only place. His center, that is, where you might imagine his heart to be, is sweetly orange in color, and this color diminishes slightly as it flows toward the semi-transparency of fins and the round, ridged, non-appraising mouth. But it was his eye I most appreciated, the kind of wide, ungreedy eye I would like to be able to turn onto the world.

We made up our minds quickly; he would fit nicely over the breakfast table. Lois-Ann mentioned that the orange tones would pick up the colors of the seat covers. We were in a state of rare agreement. And the price was right.

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A Novel
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tagged : crime, literary
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The Collected Stories of Carol Shields

Something has occurred to her – something transparently simple, something she’s always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we are still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost.
—From The Stone Diaries


Something is always saying to me: Be plain. Be clear. But then something else interferes and unjoints my good intentions.

Max and I were out yesterday morning, Sunday, a simple enough errand in our neighborhood. We “sallied forth” to buy a loaf of good seed bread and a potted plant, chrysanthemums in our case, with the smashed little faces that our daughter so admires, that bitter bronze color, matching the tablecloth she was sure to be laying right that moment out there in Oak Park. Eleven o’clock; my husband Max and I would be expected at half past twelve. We always arrive carrying a modest gift of some sort.

There, at the market, stimulated, probably, by the hint of frost in the air, I felt a longing to register the contained, isolated instant we had manufactured and entered, the purchase of the delicious hard-crusted bread, the decision over the potted plant – this was what I wanted to preserve. But an intrusive overview camera (completely imaginary, needless to say) bumped against me, so that instead of feeling the purity of the coins leaving my hand, I found myself watching the two of us, a man and a woman of similar height, both in their middle sixties, both slightly stooped – you’d hardly notice unless you were looking – and dressed in bright colors, making a performance of paying for their rounded and finite loaf of bread and then the burst of rusty chrysanthemums.

Wait a minute. Shouldn’t there be a grandchild in this picture, a little boy or girl staying over with Nana and Poppa in downtown Chicago for the weekend? Well, no, our aging couple has not been so fortunate.

Our Sunday self-consciousness, the little mid-morning circle around Max and me, was bisected by light and dark. The day bloomed into mildness, October 7, one year and one month after the September 11 tragedy – event, spectacle, whatever you choose to call it. Max is a well-known Chicago novelist – he both loves and hates that regional designation – and he was, of course, spotted by other Sunday morning shoppers. That’s Max Sexton. Where? Over there. Really? A little buzz travels with my husband, around him and above him, which, I believe, dishes out the gold dust that keeps him alive. To be noticed, to be recognized. With his white beard, white swifts of soft hair swept backward, his old-fashioned, too-large horn-rimmed spectacles, he is a familiar enough sight in our immediate neighborhood, and – allow me to say – in the national journals too, even to the point that he has been mentioned once or twice in the same breath with the Nobel Prize (as a dark horse, the darkest of horses). Not that we ever speak of this. It does not come up, we forbid it, the two of us. He has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer – we don’t speak of that either.

There we were, yesterday morning, a fine Sunday.

Accompanying the novelist Max Sexton was his wife of forty years – me – whose name is Jane; I had my right arm crooked loosely through the great author’s blue nylon jacket sleeve. Plain Jane. Well, not quite, God be thanked. My very good scarf gives me a certain look, not just its color, but the fact that it was knotted high up on the throat. Jane, the wife, the poet and editor, soon (tomorrow) to become past president of the American Sonnet Society – now known as Sonnet Revival – she with her hair in a smooth white pageboy and her reasonably trim body, c’est moi. Notice the earrings, handmade, Mexican. Wouldn’t you just know! Oh God, yes. Yesterday, at the Andersonville market in Chicago’s near-north side, Jane Sexton was sporting an excellent cashmere poncho-thingamajig, deep rose in color, and well-fitting black pants and expensive boots, which she always keeps nicely polished.

Let me say it: I am an aging woman of despairing good cheer–just look through the imaginary camera lens and watch me as I make the Sunday morning transaction over the bread, then the flowers, my straw tote from our recent holiday in Jamaica, my smile, my upturned sixty-seven-year-old voice, a voice so crying-out and clad with familiarity that, in fact, I can’t hear it anymore myself, thank God; my ears are blocked. Lately everything to do with my essence has become transparent, neutral: Good morning, Jane Sexton smiles to one and all (such a friendly, down-to-earth woman). “What a perfect fall day.” “What glorious blooms!” “Why, Mr. Henning, this bread is still warm! Can this be true?”

Max must surely hear the scattershot of my neighborhood greetings, so fond in their expression and so traditionally patterned, exactly what healthy, seasoned, amiable women learn to say in such chapters of their lives. He has, after so many years, a certain amount of faith in my voice, if nothing else, the voice that he’s married to, but then he doesn’t believe, I suspect, that the mystery of being is as deeply manifest in women as in men. The voice, as he perfectly well knows, is a social projection, an oral accomplishment, something I’ve created and maintained along with my feminine peers. I’m just being merry – that’s how I imagine Max processing my ebullience – I’m being cordial in a way that may be slightly dishonest but that keeps life from bearing down with its solemn weight, keeps it nosing forward, and overrides the worst possible story the day might otherwise offer, his story, that is, which could quickly turn dreary and strangulated without my floating social descant riding overhead on strings of nylon. Oh, do shut up, Jane.

Yes, there we stood: the morning’s excursion to the market, which we managed to stretch out an hour longer than it should have taken, then the taxi to our daughter’s house in Oak Park, her austere three-story brick cube on East Avenue (built 1896) where she lives with her film agent husband, Ivan, with its wide front steps and shrubbery and cement cupids – where we were to have lunch, as usual on Sundays, something hot and savory in the dining room, followed by fresh fruit (on French fruit plates, each one different in design, and accompanied by knives with ceramic handles) and afterward coffee, and then the journey home. Ivan, without a word of complaint, will drive us back to our downtown apartment, silently ferrying his mother-in-law, his father-in-law (he is a man who cannot drive and talk at the same time), eastward through the light Sunday traffic, taking Chicago Avenue as usual. He will actually back his old Packard out of the Oak Park garage, slowly, down the narrow overgrown driveway with its scraping branches, wincing as he hears his beautifully restored car suffering instances of minute damage.

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by Carol Shields
dramatized by Susan Coyne
also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged : literary, canadian
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Various Miracles


Several of the miracles that occurred this year have gone unrecorded.

Example: On the morning of January 3, seven women stood in line at a lingerie sale in Palo Alto, California, and by chance each of these women bore the Christian name Emily.

Example: On February 16 four strangers (three men, one woman) sat quietly reading on the back seat of the number 10 bus in Cincinnati, Ohio; each of them was reading a paperback copy of Smiley's People.

On March 30 a lathe operator in a Moroccan mountain village dreamed that a lemon fell from a tree into his open mouth, causing him to choke and die. He opened his eyes, overjoyed at being still alive, and embraced his wife who was snoring steadily by his side. She scarcely stirred, being reluctant to let go of a dream she was dreaming, which was that a lemon tree had taken root in her stomach, sending its pliant new shoots upwards into her limbs. Leaves, blossoms and finally fruit fluttered in her every vein until she began to tremble in her sleep with happiness and intoxication. Her husband got up quietly and lit an oil lamp so that he could watch her face. It seemed to him he'd never really looked at her before and he felt how utterly ignorant he was of the spring that nourished her life. Now she lay sleeping, dreaming, her face radiant. What he saw was a mask of happiness so intense it made him fear for his life.

On May 11, in the city of Exeter in the south of England, five girls (aged fifteen to seventeen) were running across a playing field at ten o'clock in the morning as part of their physical education program. They stopped short when they saw, lying on the broad gravel path, a dead parrot. He was grassy green in color with a yellow nape and head, and was later identified by the girl's science mistress as Amazona ochrocephala. The police were notified of the find and later it was discovered that the parrot had escaped from the open window of a house owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, who claimed, while weeping openly, that they had owned the parrot (Miguel by name) for twenty-two years. The parrot, in fact, was twenty-five years old, one of a pair of birds sold in an open market in Marseilles in the spring of 1958. Miguel's twin brother was sold to an Italian soprano who kept it for ten years, then gave it to her niece Francesca, a violinist who played first with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and later with the Chicago Symphony. On May 11, Francesca was wakened in her River Forest home by the sound of her parrot (Pete, or sometimes Pietro) coughing. She gave him a dish of condensed milk instead of his usual whole-oats-and-peanut mixture, and then phoned to say she would not be able to attend rehearsal that day. The coughing grew worse. She looked up the name of a vet in the Yellow Pages and was about to dial when the parrot fell over, dead in his cage. A moment earlier Francesca had heard him open his beak and pronounce what she believed were the words "Ca ne fait rien."

On August 26 a man named Carl Hallsbury of Billings, Montana was wakened by a loud noise. "My God, we're being burgled," his wife, Marjorie, said. They listened , but when there were no further noises, they drifted back to sleep. In the morning they found that their favorite little watercolor -- a pale rural scene depicting trees and a winding road and the usual arched bridge -- had fallen off the living-room wall. It appeared that it had bounced onto the cast-iron radiator and then ricocheted to a safe place in the middle of the living-room rug. When Carl investigated he found that the hook had worked loose in the wall. He patched the plaster methodically, allowed it to dry, and then installed a new hook. While he worked he remembered how the picture had come into his possession. He had come across it hanging in an emptied-out house in the French city of St. Brieuc, where he and the others of his platoon had been quartered during the last months of the war. The picture appealed to him, its simple lines and the pale tentativeness of the colors. In particular, the stone bridge caught his attention since he had been trained as a civil engineer (Purdue, 1939). When the orders came to vacate the house late in 1944, he popped the little watercolor into his knapsack; it was a snug fit, and the snugness seemed to condone his theft. He was not a natural thief but already he knew that life was mainly a matter of improvisation. Other returning soldiers brought home German helmets, strings of cartridge shells and flags of various sorts, but the little painting was Carl's only souvenir. And his wife, Marjorie, is the only one in the world who knows it to be stolen goods; she and Carl belong to a generation that believes there should be no secrets between married couples. Both of them, Marjorie as much as Carl, have a deep sentimental attachment to the picture, though they no longer believe it to be the work of a skilled artist.

It was, in fact, painted by a twelve-year-old boy named Pierre Renaud who until 1943 had lived in the St. Brieuc house. It was said that as a child he had a gift for painting and drawing; in fact, he had a gift merely for imitation. His little painting of the bridge was copied from a postcard his father had sent him from Burgundy where he’d gone to conduct some business. Pierre had been puzzled and ecstatic at receiving a card from his parent who was a cold, resolute man with little time for his son. The recopying of the postcard in watercolors — later Pierre saw all this clearly — was an act of pathetic homage, almost a way of petitioning his father’s love.

He grew up to become not an artist but a partner in the family leather-goods business. In the late summer he liked to go south in pursuit of sunshine and good wine, and one evening, August 26 it was, he and Jean-Louis, his companion of many years, found themselves on a small stone bridge not far from Tournus. “This is it,” he announced excitedly, spreading his arms like a boy, and not feeling at all sure what he meant when he said the words, “This is it.” Jean-Louis gave him a fond smile; everyone knew Pierre had a large capacity for nostalgia. “But I thought you said you’d never been here before,” he said. “That’s true,” Pierre said, “you are right. But I feel, here” — he pointed to his heart — “that I’ve stood here before.” Jean-Louis teased him by saying, “Perhaps it was in another life.” Pierre shook his head, “No, no, no,” and then, “well, perhaps.” After that the two of them stood on the bridge for some minutes regarding the water and thinking their separate thoughts.

On October 31, Camilla LaPorta, a Cuban-born writer, now a Canadian citizen, was taking the manuscript of her new novel to her Toronto publisher on Front Street. She was nervous; the publisher had been critical of her first draft, telling her it relied too heavily on the artifice of coincidence. Camilla had spent many months on revision, plucking apart the faulty tissue that joined one episode to another, and then, delicately, with the pains of a neurosurgeon, making new connections. The novel now rested on its own complex microcircuity. Wherever fate, chance or happenstance had ruled, there was now logic, causality and science.

As she stood waiting for her bus on the corner of College and Spadina that fall day, a gust of wind tore the manuscript from her hands. In seconds the yellow typed sheets were tossed into a whirling dance across the busy intersection. Traffic became confused. A bus skittered on an angle. Passersby were surprisingly helpful, stopping and chasing the blowing papers. Several sheets were picked up from the gutter where they lay on a heap of soaked yellow leaves. One sheet was found plastered against the windshield of a parked Pontiac half a block away; another adhered to the top of a lamppost; another was run over by a taxi and bore the black herringbone of tire prints. From all directions, ducking the wind, people came running up to Camilla and bringing her the scattered pages. “Oh this is crazy, this is crazy,” she cried into the screaming wind.

When she got to the publisher’s office he took one look at her manuscript and said, “Good God Almighty, don’t tell me, Camilla, that you of all people have become post-modernist and no longer believe in the logic of page numbers.”

Camilla explained about the blast of wind, and then the two of them began to put the pages in their proper order. Astonishingly, only one page was missing, but it was a page Camilla insisted was pivotal, a keystone page, the page that explained everything else. She would have to try to reconstruct it as best she could. “Hmmmmm,” the publisher said — this was late in the afternoon of the same day and they sat in the office sipping tea — “I truly believe, Camilla, that your novel stands up without the missing page. Sometimes it’s better to let things be strange and to represent nothing but themselves.”

The missing page — it happened to be page 46 — had blown around the corner of College Street into the open doorway of a fresh fruit and vegetable stand where a young woman in a red coat was buying a kilo of zucchini. She was very beautiful, though not in a conventional way, and she was also talented, an actress, who for some months had been out of work. To give herself courage and cheer herself up she had decided to make a batch of zucchini-oatmeal muffins, and she was just counting out the change on the counter when the sheet of yellow paper blew through the doorway and landed at her feet.

She was the kind of young woman who reads everything, South American novels, Russian folk tales, Persian poetry, the advertisements on the subway, the personal column in The Globe and Mail, even the instructions and precautions on public fire extinguishers. Print is her way of entering and escaping the world. It was only natural for her to bend over and pick up the yellow sheet and begin to read.

She read: A woman in a red coat is standing in a grocery store buying a kilo of zucchini. She is beautiful, though not in a conventional way, and it happens that she is an actress who —

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Life in the Clearings versus the Bush


“The land of our adoption claims
Our highest powers, – our firmest trust –;
May future ages blend our names
With hers, when we shall sleep in dust.
Land of our sons! – last-born of earth,
A mighty nation nurtures thee;
The first in moral power and worth, –
Long mayst thou boast her sovereignty!
Union is strength, while round the boughs
Of thine own lofty maple-tree;
The threefold wreath of Britain flows,
Twined with the graceful fleur-de-lis;
A chaplet wreathed mid smiles and tears,
In which all hues of glory blend;
Long may it bloom for future years,
And vigour to thy weakness lend.”

Year after year, during twenty years’ residence in the colony, I had indulged the hope of one day visiting the Falls of Niagara, and year after year, for twenty long years, I was doomed to disappointment.
For the first ten years, my residence in the woods of Douro, my infant family, and last, not least, among the list of objections, that great want, – the want of money, – placed insuperable difficulties in the way of my ever accomplishing this cherished wish of my heart.
The hope, resigned for the present, was always indulged as a bright future a pleasant day-dream – an event which at some unknown period, when happier days should dawn upon us, might take place; but which just now was entirely out of the question.
When the children were very importunate for a new book or toy, and I had not the means of gratifying them, I used to silence them by saying that I would buy that and many other nice things for them when “our money cart came home.”
During the next ten years, this all-important and anxiously anticipated vehicle did not arrive. The children did not get their toys, and my journey to Niagara was still postponed to an indefinite period.
Like a true daughter of romance, I could not banish from my mind the glorious ideal I had formed of this wonder of the world; but still continued to speculate about the mighty cataract, that sublime “thunder of waters,” whose very name from childhood had been music to my ears.
Ah, Hope! what would life be, stripped of thy encouraging smiles, that teach us to look behind the dark clouds of to-day for the golden beams that are to gild the mor row. To those who have faith in thy promises, the most extravagant fictions are possible; and the unreal becomes material and tangible. The artist who placed thee upon the rock with an anchor for a leaning post, could never have experienced any of thy vagrant propensities. He should have invested thee with the rainbow of Iris, the winged feet of Mercury, and the upward pointing finger of Faith; and as for thy footstool, it should be a fleecy white cloud, changing its form with the changing breeze.
Yet this hope of mine, of one day seeing the Falls of Niagara, was, after all, a very enduring hope; for though I began to fear that it never would be realized, yet, for twenty years, I never gave it up entirely; and Patience, who always sits at the feet of Hope, was at length rewarded by her sister’s consenting smile.
During the past summer I was confined, by severe indisposition, almost entirely to the house. The obstinate nature of my disease baffled the skill of a very clever medical attendant, and created alarm and uneasiness in my family: and I entertained small hopes of my own recovery.
Dr. L—, as a last resource, recommended change of air and scene; a remedy far more to my taste than the odious drugs from which I had not derived the least bene fit. Ill and languid as I was, Niagara once more rose before my mental vision, and I exclaimed, with a thrill of joy, “The time is come at last – I shall yet see it before I die.”
My dear husband was to be the companion of my long journey in search of health. Our simple arrangements were soon made, and on the 7th of September we left Belleville in the handsome new steam-boat, “The Bay of Quinte,” for Kingston.
The afternoon was cloudless, the woods just tinged with their first autumnal glow, and the lovely bay, and its fairy isles, never appeared more enchanting in my eyes. Often as I had gazed upon it in storm and shine, its blue transparent waters seemed to smile upon me more lovingly than usual. With affectionate interest I looked long and tenderly upon the shores we were leaving. There stood my peaceful, happy home; the haven of rest to which Provi dence had conducted me after the storms and trials of many years. Within the walls of that small stone cottage, peeping forth from its screen of young hickory trees, I had left three dear children, – God only could tell whether we should ever meet on earth again: I knew that their prayers would follow me on my long journey, and the cherub Hope was still at my side, to whisper of happy hours and restored health and spirits. I blessed God, for the love of those young kindred hearts, and for having placed their home in such a charming locality.
Next to the love of God, the love of nature may be regarded as the purest and holiest feeling of the human breast. In the outward beauty of his creation, we catch a reflection of the divine image of the Creator, which refines the intellect, and lifts the soul upward to Him. This innate perception of the beautiful, however, is confined to no rank or situation, but is found in the most barren spots, and surrounded by the most unfavourable circumstances; wherever the sun shines and warms, or the glory of the moon and stars can be seen at night, the children of genius will find a revelation of God in their beams. But there is not a doubt that those born and brought up among scenes of great natural sublimity and beauty, imbibe this feeling in a larger degree, and their minds are more easily imbued with the glorious colouring of romance, – the inspired visions of the poet.
Dear patient reader! whether of British or Canadian origin, as I wish to afford you all the amusement in my power, deign to accompany me on my long journey. Allow me a woman’s privilege of talking of all sorts of things by the way. Should I tire you with my desultory mode of conversation, bear with me charitably, and take into account the infirmities incidental to my gossiping sex and age. If I dwell too long upon some subjects, do not call me a bore, or vain and trifling, if I pass too lightly over others. The little knowledge I possess, I impart freely, and wish that it was more profound and extensive, for your sake.
Come, and take your seat with me on the deck of the steamer; and as we glide over the waters of this beautiful Bay of Quinte, I will make you acquainted with every spot worthy of note along its picturesque shores.
An English lady, writing to me not long ago, expressed her weariness of my long stories about the country of my adoption, in the following terms: – “Don’t fill your letters to me with descriptions of Canada. Who, in England, thinks anything of Canada!”
Here the pride so common to the inhabitants of the favoured isles spoke out. This is perhaps excusable in those who boast that they belong to a country that pos sesses, in an eminent degree, the attributes bestowed by old Jacob on his first-born, “the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.” But, to my own thinking, it savoured not a little of arrogance, and still more of igno rance, in the fair writer; who, being a woman of talent, should have known better. A child is not a man, but his progress is regarded with more attention on that account; and his future greatness is very much determined by the progress he makes in his youth.
To judge Canada by the same standard, she appears to us a giant for her years, and well worthy the most serious contemplation. Many are the weary, overtasked minds in that great, wealthy, and powerful England, that turn towards this flourishing colony their anxious thoughts, and would willingly exchange the golden prime of the mother country for the healthy, vigorous young strength of this, her stalwart child, and consider themselves only too happy in securing a home upon these free and fertile shores.
Be not discouraged, brave emigrant. Let Canada still remain the bright future in your mind, and hasten to convert your present day-dream into reality. The time is not far distant when she shall be the theme of many tongues, and the old nations of the world will speak of her progress with respect and admiration. Her infancy is past, she begins to feel her feet, to know her own strength, and see her way clearly through the wilderness. Child as you may deem her, she has already battled bravely for her own rights, and obtained the management of her own affairs. Her onward progress is certain. There is no if in her case. She possesses within her own territory all the elements of future prosperity, and she must be great!
The men who throng her marts, and clear her forests, are workers, not dreamers, who have already realized Solomon’s pithy proverb, “In all labour is profit”; and their industry has imbued them with a spirit of indepen dence which cannot fail to make them a free and enlight ened people.
An illustration of the truth of what I advance, can be given in the pretty town we are leaving on the north side of the bay. I think you will own with me that your eyes have seldom rested upon a spot more favoured by Nature, or one that bids fairer to rise to great wealth and political importance.
Sixty years ago, the spot that Belleville now occupies was in the wilderness; and its rapid, sparkling river and sunny upland slopes (which during the lapse of ages have formed a succession of banks to the said river), were only known to the Indian hunter and the white trader.
Where you see those substantial stone wharfs, and the masts of those vessels, unloading their valuable cargoes to replenish the stores of the wealthy merchants in the town, a tangled cedar swamp spread its dark, unwholesome vegetation into the bay, completely covering with an impenetrable jungle those smooth verdant plains, now surrounded with neat cottages and gardens.
Of a bright summer evening (and when is a Canadian summer evening otherwise?) those plains swarm with happy, healthy children, who assemble there to pursue their gambols beyond the heat and dust of the town; or to watch with eager eyes the young men of the place engaged in the manly old English game of cricket, with whom it is, in their harmless boasting, “Belleville against Toronto-Cobourg; Kingston, the whole world.”
The editor of a Kingston paper once had the barbarity to compare these valiant champions of the bat and ball to “singed cats – ugly to look at, but very devils to go.”
Our lads have never forgiven the insult; and should the said editor ever show his face upon their ground, they would kick him off with as little ceremony as they would a spent ball.
On that high sandy ridge that overlooks the town east-ward – where the tin roof of the Court House, a massy, but rather tasteless building, and the spires of four churches catch the rays of the sun – a tangled maze of hazel bushes, and wild plum and cherry, once screened the Indian burying-ground, and the children of the red hunter sought for strawberries among the long grass and wild flowers that flourish profusely in that sandy soil.
Would that you could stand with me on that lofty eminence and look around you! The charming prospect that spreads itself at your feet would richly repay you for toil ing up the hill.
We will suppose ourselves standing among the graves in the burying-ground of the English church; the sunny heavens above us, the glorious waters of the bay, clasping in their azure belt three-fourths of the landscape, and the quiet dead sleeping at our feet.
The white man has so completely supplanted his red brother, that he has appropriated the very spot that held his bones; and in a few years their dust will mingle together, although no stone marks the grave where the red man sleeps.
From this churchyard you enjoy the finest view of the town and surrounding country; and, turn your eyes which way you will, they cannot fail to rest on some natural object of great interest and beauty.
The church itself is but a homely structure; and has always been to me a great eyesore. It is to be regretted that the first inhabitants of the place selected their best and most healthy building sites for the erection of places of worship. Churches and churchyards occupy the hills from whence they obtain their springs of fresh water, and such delicious water! They do not at present feel any ill-consequences arising from this error of judgment; but the time will come, as population increases, and the dead accumulate, when these burying-grounds, by poisoning the springs that flow through them, will materially injure the health of the living.
The English church was built many years ago, partly of  red brick burnt in the neighbourhood, and partly of woodcoloured red to make up the deficiency of the costlier material. This seems a shab by saving, as abundance of brick-earth of the best quality abounds in the same hill, and the making of bricks forms a very lucrative and important craft to several persons in the town.
Belleville was but a small settlement on the edge of the forest, scarcely deserving the name of a village, when this church first pointed its ugly tower towards heaven. Doubtless its founders thought they had done wonders when they erected this humble looking place of worship; but now, when their descendants have become rich, and the village of log-huts and frame buildings has grown into a populous, busy, thriving town, and this red, tasteless building is too small to accommodate its congregation, it should no longer hold the height of the hill, but give place to a larger and handsomer edifice.
Behold its Catholic brother on the other side of the road; how much its elegant structure and graceful spire adds to the beauty of the scene. Yet the funds for rearing that handsome building, which is such an ornament to the town, were chiefly derived from small subscriptions, drawn from the earnings of mechanics, day-labourers, and female servants. If the Church of England were supported throughout the colony, on the voluntary principle, we should soon see fine stone churches, like St. Michael, replacing these decaying edifices of wood, and the outcry about the ever-vexed question of the Clergy Reserves, would be merged in her increased influence and prosperity.
The deep-toned, sonorous bell, that fills the steeple of the Catholic church, which cost, I have been told, seven hundred pounds, and was brought all the way from Spain, was purchased by the voluntary donations of the congregation. This bell is remarkable for its fine tone, which can be heard eight miles into the country, and as far as the village of Northport, eleven miles distant, on the other side of the bay. There is a solemn grandeur in the solitary voice of the magnificent bell, as it booms across the valley in which the town lies, and reverberates among the distant woods and hills, which has a very imposing effect.
A few years ago the mechanics in the town entered into an agreement that they would only work from six to six during the summer months, and from seven till five in the winter, and they offered to pay a certain sum to the Catholic church for tolling the bell at the said hours. The Catholic workmen who reside in or near the town, adhere strictly to this rule, and, if the season is ever so pressing, they obstinately refuse to work before or after the stated time. I have seen, on our own little farm, the mower fling down his scythe in the swathe, and the harvestman his sickle in the ridge, the moment the bell tolled for six.
In fact, the bell in this respect is looked upon as a great nuisance; and the farmers in the country refuse to be guided by it in the hours allotted for field labour; as they justly remark that the best time for hard work in a hot country is before six in the morning, and after the heat of the day in the evening.
When the bell commences to toll there is a long pause between each of the first four strokes. This is to allow the pious Catholic time for crossing himself and saying a short prayer.
How much of the ideal mingles with this worship! No wonder that the Irish, who are such an imaginative people, should cling to it with such veneration. Would any other creed suit them as well? It is a solemn thing to step into their churches, and witness the intensity of their devotions. Reason never raises a doubt to shake the oneness of their faith. They receive it on the credit of their priests, and their credulity is as boundless as their ignorance. Often have I asked the poor Catholics in my employ why such and such days were holy days? They could seldom tell me, but said that “the priest told them to keep them holy, and to break them would be a deadly sin.”
I cannot but respect their child-like trust, and the reverence they feel for their spiritual teachers; nor could I ever bring myself to believe that a conscientious Catholic was in any danger of rejection from the final bar. He has imposed upon himself a heavier yoke than the Saviour kindly laid upon him, and has enslaved himself with a thousand superstitious observances which to us appear absurd; but his sincerity should awaken in us an affectionate interest in his behalf, not engender the bitter hatred which at present forms an adamantine barrier between us. If the Protestant would give up a little of his bigotry, and the Catholic a part of his superstition, and they would consent to meet each other half way, as brothers of one common manhood, inspired by the same Christian hope, and bound to the same heavenly country, we should no longer see the orange banner flaunting our streets on the twelfth of July, and natives of the same island provoking each other to acts of violence and bloodshed.
These hostile encounters are of yearly occurrence in the colony, and are justly held in abhorrence by the pious and thinking portion of the population of either denomination. The government has for many years vainly endeavoured to put them down, but they still pollute with their moral leprosy the free institutions of the country, and effectually prevent any friendly feeling which might grow up between the members of these rival and hostile creeds.
In Canada, where all religions are tolerated, it appears a useless aggravation of an old national grievance to perpetuate the memory of the battle of the Boyne. What have we to do with the hatreds and animosities of a more barbarous age. These things belong to the past: “Let the dead bury their dead,” and let us form for ourselves a holier and truer present. The old quarrel between Irish Catholics and Protestants should have been sunk in the ocean when they left their native country to find a home, unpolluted by the tyrannies of bygone ages, in the wilds of Canada.
The larger portion of our domestics are from Ireland, and, as far as my experience goes, I have found the Catholic Irish as faithful and trustworthy as the Protestants. The tendency to hate belongs to the race, not to the religion, or the Protestant would not exhibit the same vindictive spirit which marks his Catholic brother. They break and destroy more than the Protestants, but that springs from the reckless carelessness of their character more than from any malice against their employers, if you may judge by the bad usage they give their own household goods and tools. The principle on which they live is literally to care as little as possible for the things of to-day, and to take no thought at all for the morrow.
“Shure, Ma’am, it can be used,” said an Irish girl to me, after breaking the spout out of an expensive china jug, “It is not a hair the worse!” She could not imagine that a mutilated object could occasion the least discomfort to those accustomed to order and neatness in their household arrangements.
The Irish female servants are remarkably chaste in their language and deportment. You are often obliged to find fault with them for gross acts of neglect and wastefulness, but never for using bad language. They may spoil your children by over-indulgence, but they never corrupt their morals by loose conversation.
An Irish girl once told me, with beautiful simplicity, “that every bad word a woman uttered, made the blessed Virgin blush.”
A girl becoming a mother before marriage is regarded as a dreadful calamity by her family, and she seldom, if ever, gets one of her own countrymen to marry her with this stain on her character.
How different is the conduct of the female peasantry in the eastern counties of England, who unblushingly avow their derelictions from the paths of virtue. The crime of infanticide, so common there, is almost unknown among the Irish. If the priest and the confessional are able to restrain the lower orders from the commission of gross crime, who shall say that they are without their use? It is true that the priest often exercises his power over his flock in a manner which would appear to a Protestant to border on the ludicrous.
A girl who lived with a lady of my acquaintance, gave the following graphic account of an exhortation delivered by the priest at the altar. I give it in her own words: –
“Shure, Ma’am, we got a great scould from the praste the day.” “Indeed, Biddy, what did he scold you for?” “Faix, and it’s not meself that he scoulded at all, at all, but Misther Peter N— and John L—, an’ he held them up as an example to the whole church. ‘Peter N—’ says he, ‘you have not been inside this church before to-day for the last three months, and you have not paid your pew-rent for the last two years. But, maybe, you have got the fourteen dollars in your pocket at this moment of spaking; or maybe you have spint it in buying pig-iron to make gridirons, in order to fry your mate of a Friday; and when your praste comes to visit you, if he does not see it itself, he smells it. And you, John L—, Alderman L—, are not six days enough in the week for work and pastime, that you must go hunting of hares on a holiday? And pray how many hares did you catch, Alderman John?’”
The point of the last satire lay in the fact that the said Alderman John was known to be an ambitious, but very poor, sportsman; which made the allusion to the hares he had shot the unkindest cut of all.
Such an oration from a Protestant minister would have led his congregation to imagine that their good pastor had lost his wits; but I have no doubt that it was eminently successful in abstracting the fourteen dollars from the pocket of the dilatory Peter N—, and in preventing Alderman John from hunting hares on a holiday for the time to come.
Most of the Irish priests possess a great deal of humour, which always finds a response in their mirth-loving countrymen, to whom wit is a quality of native growth.
“I wish you a happy death, Pat S—” said Mr. R—, the jolly, black-browed priest of P—, after he had married an old servant of ours, who had reached the patriarchal age of sixty-eight, to an old woman of seventy.
“D— clear of it!” quoth Pat, smiting his thigh, with a look of inimitable drollery, – such a look of broad humour as can alone twinkle from the eyes of an emeralder of that class. Pat was a prophet; in less than six months he brought the body of the youthful bride in a waggon to the house of the said priest to be buried, and, for aught I know to the contrary, the old man is living still, and very likely to treat himself to a third wife.
I was told two amusing anecdotes of the late Bishop Macdonald; a man whose memory is held in great veneration in the province, which I will give you here.
The old bishop was crossing the Rice Lake in a birch bark canoe, in company with Mr. R—, the Presbyterian minister of Peterboro’; the day was rather stormy, and the water rough for such a fragile conveyance. The bishop, who had been many years in the country, knew there was little danger to be apprehended if they sat still, and he had perfect reliance in the skill of their Indian boatman. Not so Mr. R—, he had only been a few months in the colony, and this was the first time he had ever ventured upon the water in such a tottleish machine. Instead of remaining quietly seated in the bottom of the canoe, he endeavoured to start to his feet, which would inevitably have upset it. This rash movement was prevented by the bishop, who forcibly pulled him down into a sitting posture, exclaiming, as he did so, “Keep still, my good sir; if you, by your groundless fears, upset the canoe, your protestant friends will swear that the old papist drowned the presbyterian.”
One hot, sultry July evening, the celebrated Dr. Dunlop called to have a chat with the bishop, who, knowing the doctor’s weak point, his fondness for strong drinks, and his almost rabid antipathy to water, asked him if he would take a draught of Edinburgh ale, as he had just received a cask in a present from the old country. The doctor’s thirst grew to a perfect drought, and he exclaimed “that nothing at that moment could afford him greater pleasure.”
The bell was rung; the spruce, neat servant girl appeared, and was forthwith commissioned to take the bishop’s own silver tankard and draw the thirsty doctor a pint of ale.
The girl quickly returned: the impatient doctor grasped the nectarian draught, and, without glancing into the tankard – for the time
“Was that soft hour ’twixt summer’s eve and close,” –
emptied the greater part of its contents down his throat. A spasmodic contortion and a sudden rush to the open win dow surprised the hospitable bishop, who had anticipated a great treat for his guest: “My dear sir,” he cried, “what can be the matter!”
“Oh, that diabolical stuff!” groaned the doctor. “I am poisoned.”
“Oh, never fear,” said the bishop, examining the liquid that still remained in the tankard, and bursting into a hearty laugh, “It may not agree with a Protestant’s stomach, but believe me, dear doctor, you never took such a wholesome drink in your life before. I was lately sent from Rome a cask of holy water, – it stands in the same cellar with the ale, – I put a little salt into it, in order to preserve it during this hot weather, and the girl, by mistake, has given you the consecrated water instead of the ale.”
“Oh, curse her!” cried the tortured doctor. “I wish it was in her stomach instead of mine!”
The bishop used to tell this story with great glee whenever Dr. Dunlop and his eccentric habits formed the theme of conversation.
That the Catholics do not always act with hostility towards their Protestant brethren, the following anecdote, which it gives me great pleasure to relate, will sufficiently show: –
In the December of 1840 we had the misfortune to be burnt out, and lost a great part of our furniture, clothing, and winter stores. Poor as we then were, this could not be regarded in any other light but as a great calamity. During the confusion occasioned by the fire, and, owing to the negligence of a servant to whose care he was especially confided, my youngest child, a fine boy of two years old was for some time missing. The agony I endured for about half an hour I shall never forget. The roaring flames, the misfortune that hung over us, was forgotten in the terror shook mind lest he had become a victim to the flames. He was at length found by a kind neighbour in the kitchen of the burning building, whither he had crept from among the crowd, and was scarcely rescued before the roof fell in.
This circumstance shook my nerves so completely that I gladly accepted the offer of a female friend to leave the exciting scene, and make her house my home until we could procure another.
I was sitting at her parlour window, with the rescued child on my lap, whom I could not bear for a moment out of my sight, watching the smoking brands that had once composed my home, and sadly pondering over our untoward destiny, when Mrs.—’s servant told me that a gentleman wanted to see me in the drawing-room.
With little Johnnie still in arms I went to receive the visitor; and found the Rev. Father B—, the worthy Catholic priest, waiting to receive me.
At that time I knew very little of Father B—. Calls had been exchanged and we had been much pleased with his courteous manners and racy Irish wit. I shall never forget the kind, earnest manner in which he condoled with me on our present misfortune. He did not, however, confine his sympathy to words, but offered me the use of his neat cottage until we could provide ourselves with another house.
“You know,” he said, with a benevolent smile, “I have no family to be disturbed by the noise of the children; and if you will accept the temporary home I offer you, it is entirely at your service; and,” he continued, lowering his voice, “if the sheriff is in want of money to procure necessaries for his family, I can supply him until such time as he is able to repay me.”
This was truly noble and I thanked him with tears in my eyes. We did not accept the generous offer of this good Samaritan; but we have always felt a grateful remembrance of his kindness. Mr. B— had been one of the most active among the many gentlemen who did their best in trying to save our property from the flames, a great portion of which was safely conveyed to the street. But here a system of pillage was carried on by the heartless beings, who regard fires and wreck as their especial harvest, which entirely frustrated the efforts of the generous and brave men who had done so much to us.
How many odd things happen during a fire, which would call up a hearty laugh upon a less serious occasion. I saw one man pitch a handsome chamber-glass out of an upper window the street, in order to save it; while another, at the risk of his life, carried a bottomless china jug, which had long been useless, down the burning staircase, and seemed quite elated with his success; and a carpenter took off the doors, and removed the window-sashes in order to preserve them, and, by sending a rush of air through the burning edifice, accelerated its destruction.
At that time there was only one fire-engine in the town, and that was not in a state to work. Now they have two excellent engines worked by an active and energetic body of men.
In all the principal towns and cities in the colony, a large portion of the younger male inhabitants enrol themselves into a company for the suppression of fire. It is a voluntary service, from which they receive no emolument, without an exemption from filling the office of a juryman may be considered as an advantage. These men act upon a principle of mutual safety; and the exertions which are made by them, in the hour of danger, are truly wonderful, and serve to show what can be effected by men when they work in unison together.
To the Canadian fire-companies the public is indebted for the preservation of life and property by a thousand heroic acts; – deeds, that would be recorded as surprising efforts of human courage, if performed upon the battle-field; and which often exhibit an exalted benevolence, when exercised in rescuing helpless women and children from such a dreadful enemy as fire.
The costume adopted by the firemen is rather becoming than otherwise; – a tight-fitting frock-coat of coarse red cloth, and white trousers in summer, which latter portion of their dress is exchanged for dark blue in the winter. They wear a glazed black leather cap, of a military cut, when they assemble to work their engines, or walk in procession; and a leather hat like a sailor’s nor’-wester, with a long peak behind, to protect them from injury, when on active duty.
Their members are confined to no particular class. Gentlemen and mechanics work side by side in this fraternity, with a zeal and right good will that is truly edifying. Their system appears an excellent one; and I never heard of any dissension among their ranks when their services were required. The sound of the ominous bell calls them to the spot, from the greatest distance; and, during the most stormy nights, whoever skulks in bed, the fireman is sure to be at his post.
Once a year, the different divisions of the company walk in procession through the town. On this occasion their engines are dressed up with flags bearing appropriate mottoes; and they are preceded by a band of music. The companies are generally composed of men in the very prime of life, and they make a very imposing appearance. It is always a great gala day in the town, and terminates with a public dinner; that is followed by a ball in the evening, at which the wives and daughters of the members of the company are expected to appear.
Once a month the firemen are called out to practise with the engine in the streets, to the infinite delight of all the boys in the neighbourhood, who follow the engine in crowds, and provoke the operators to turn the hose and play upon their merry ranks: and then what laughing and shouting and scampering in all directions, as the ragged urchins shake their dripping garments, and fly from the ducking they had courted a few minutes before!
The number of wooden buildings that compose the larger portion of Canadian towns renders fire a calamity of very frequent occurrence, and persons cannot be too particular in regard to it. The negligence of one ignorant servant in the disposal of her ashes, may involve the safety of the whole community.
As long as the generality of the houses are roofed with shingles, this liability to fire must exist as a necessary consequence.
The shingle is a very thin pine-board, which is used throughout the colony instead of slate or tiles. After a few years, the heat and rain roughen the outward surface, and give it a woolly appearance, rendering the shingles as inflammable as tinder. A spark from a chimney may be conveyed from a great distance on a windy day, and lighting upon the furry surface of these roofs, is sure to ignite. The danger spreads on all sides, and the roofs of a whole street will be burning before the fire communicates to the walls of the buildings.
So many destructive fires have occurred of late years throughout the colony that a law has been enacted by the municipal councils to prevent the erection of wooden buildings in the large cities. But without the additional precaution of fire-proof roofs, the prohibition will not produce very beneficial effects.
Two other very pretty churches occupy the same hill with the Catholics and Episcopal, – the Scotch Residuary, and the Free Church. The latter is built of dark limestone, quarried in the neighbourhood, and is a remarkably graceful structure. It has been raised by the hearty good-will and free donations of its congregation; and affords another capital illustration of the working of the voluntary principle.
To the soul-fettering doctrines of John Calvin I am myself no convert; nor do I think that the churches established on his views will very long exist in the world. Stern, uncompromising, unloveable and unloved, an object of fear rather than of affection, John Calvin stands out the incarnation of his own Deity; verifying one of the noblest and truest sentences ever penned by man: – “As the man, so his God. God is his idea of excellence, – the compliment of his own being.”
The Residuary church is a small neat building of wood, painted white. For several years after the great split in the National Church of Scotland, it was shut up, the few who still adhered to the old way being unable to contribute much to the support of a minister. The church has been reopened within the last two years, and, though the congregation is very small, has a regular pastor.
The large edifice beneath us, in Pinacle-street, leading to the bay, is the Wesleyan Methodist church, or chapel, as it would be termed at home. Thanks to the liberal institutions of the country, such distinctions are unknown in Canada. Every community of Christian worshippers is rightly termed a church. The Church is only arrogated by one.
The Wesleyans, who have been of infinite use in spreading the Gospel on the North American continent, possess a numerous and highly respectable congregation in this place. Their church is always supplied with good and efficient preachers, and is filled on the Sabbath to overflowing. They have a very fine choir, and lately purchased an organ, which was constructed by one of their own members, a genius in his way, for which they gave the handsome sum of a thousand dollars.
There is also an Episcopal Methodist church, composed of red brick, at the upper end of the town, by the river side, which is well attended.
You can scarcely adopt a better plan of judging of the wealth and prosperity of a town, than by watching, of a Sabbath morning, the congregations of the different denominations going to church.
Belleville weekly presents to the eye of an observing spectator a large body of well-dressed, happy-looking people, – robust, healthy, independent-looking men, and well-formed, handsome women; – an air of content and comfort resting upon their comely faces, – no look of haggard care and pinching want marring the quiet solemnity of the scene.
The dress of the higher class is not only cut in the newest French fashion, imported from New York, but is generally composed of rich and expensive materials. The Canadian lady dresses well and tastefully, and carries herself easily and gracefully. She is not unconscious of the advantages of a pretty face and figure; but her knowledge of the fact is not exhibited in an affected or disagreeable manner. The lower class are not a whit behind their wealthier neighbours in outward adornments. And the poor emigrant, who only a few months previously had landed in rags, is now dressed neatly and respectably. The consciousness of their newly-acquired freedom has raised them in the scale of society, in their own estimation, and in that of their fellows. They feel that they are no longer despised; the ample wages they receive has enabled them to cast off the slough of hopeless poverty, which once threw its deadening influence over them, repressing all their energies, and destroying that self-respect which is so necessary to mental improvement and self-government. The change in their condition is apparent in their smiling, satisfied faces.
This is, indeed, a delightful contrast to the squalid want and poverty which so often meet the eye, and pain the heart of the philanthropist at home. Canada is blessed in the almost total absence of pauperism; for none but the wilfully idle and vicious need starve here, while the wants of the sick and infirm meet with ready help and sympathy from a most charitable public.
The Wesleyan Methodists wisely placed their buryingground at some distance from the town; and when we first came to reside at Belleville, it was a retired and lovely spot, on the Kingston road, commanding a fine view of the bay. The rapid spread of the village into a town almost embraces in its arms this once solitary spot, and in a few years it will be surrounded with suburban residences.
There is a very large brick field adjoining this cemetery, which employs during the summer months a number of hands.
Turn to the north, and observe that old-fashioned, redbrick house, now tottering to decay, that crowns the precipitous ridge that overlooks the river, and which doubtless at some very distant period once formed its right bank. That house was built by one of the first settlers in Belleville, an officer who drew his lot of wild land on that spot. It was a great house in those days, and he was a great man in the eyes of his poorer neighbours.
This gentleman impoverished himself and his family by supplying from his own means the wants of the poor emigrants in his vicinity during the great Canadian famine, which happened about fifty years ago. The starving creatures promised to repay him at some future period. Plenty again blessed the land; but the generous philanthropist was forgotten by those his bounty had saved. Peace to his memory! Though unrewarded on earth, he has doubtless reaped his reward in heaven.
The river Moira, which runs parallel with the main street of the town, and traverses several fine townships belonging to the county of Hastings in its course to the bay, is a rapid and very picturesque stream. Its rocky banks, which are composed of limestone, are fringed with the graceful cedar, soft maple, and elegant rock elm, that queen of the Canadian forest. It is not navigable, but is one great source of the wealth and prosperity of the place, affording all along its course excellent sites for mills, distilleries, and factories, while it is the main road down which millions of feet of timber are yearly floated, to be rafted at the entrance of the bay.
The spring floods bring down such a vast amount of lumber, that often a jam, as it is technically called, places the two bridges that span the river in a state of blockade.
It is a stirring and amusing scene to watch the French Canadian lumberers, with their long poles, armed at the end with sharp spikes, leaping from log to log, and freeing a passage for the crowded timbers.
Handsome in person, and lithe and active as wild cats, you would imagine, to watch their careless disregard of danger, that they were born of the waters, and considered death by drowning an impossible casualty in their case. Yet  never a season passes without fatal accidents thinning their gay, lighthearted ranks.
These amphibious creatures spend half their lives in and on the waters. They work hard in forming rafts at the entrance of the bay during the day, and in the evening they repair to some favourite tavern, where they spend the greater part of the night in singing and dancing. Their peculiar cries awaken you by day-break, and their joyous shouts and songs are wafted on the evening breeze. Their picturesque dress and shanties, when shown by their red watchfires along the rocky banks of the river at night, add great liveliness, and give a peculiarly romantic character to the water scene.
They appear a happy, harmless set of men, brave and independent; and if drinking and swearing are vices common to their caste and occupation, it can scarcely be wondered at in the wild, reckless, roving life they lead. They never trouble the peaceful inhabitants of the town. Their broils are chiefly confined to their Irish comrades, and seldom go beyond the scene of their mutual labour. It is not often that they find their way into the jail or penitentiary.
A young lady told me an adventure that befell her and her sister, which is rather a droll illustration of the manners of a French Canadian lumberer. They were walking one fine summer evening along the west bank of the Moira, and the narrator, in stooping over the water to gather some wild-flowers that grew in a crevice of the rocks, dropped her parasol into the river. A cry of vexation at the loss of an article of dress, which is expensive, and almost indispensable beneath the rays of a Canadian summer sun, burst from her lips, and attracted the attention of a young man whom she had not before observed, who was swimming at some distance down the river. He immediately turned, and dexterously catching the parasol as it swiftly glided past him, swam towards the ladies with the rescued article, carried dog-fashion, between his teeth.
In his zeal to render this little service, the poor fellow forgot that he was not in a condition to appear before ladies; who, startled at such an extraordinary apparition, made the best of their heels to fly precipitately from the spot.
“I have no doubt,” said Miss —, laughing, “that the good-natured fellow meant well, but I never was so frightened and confounded in my life. The next morning the parasol was returned at the street door, with “Jean Baptiste’s compliments to the young ladies.” So much for French Canadian gallantry.
It is a pretty sight. A large raft of timber, extending perhaps for a quarter of a mile, gliding down the bay in tow of a steamer, decorated with red flags and green pine boughs, and managed by a set of bold active fellows, whose jovial songs waken up the echoes of the lonely woods. I have seen several of these rafts, containing many thousand pounds worth of timber, taking their downward course in one day.
The centre of the raft is generally occupied by a shanty and cooking apparatus, and at night it presents an imposing spectacle, seen by the red light of their fires, as it glides beneath the shadow of some lofty bank, with its dark overhanging trees. I have often coveted a sail on those picturesque rafts, over those smooth moonlighted waters.
The spring-floods bring with them a great quantity of waste timber and fallen trees from the interior; and it is amusing to watch the poor Irishwomen and children wad ing to the waist in the water, and drawing out these waifs and strays with hooked sticks, to supply their shanties with fuel. It is astonishing how much an industrious lad can secure in a day of this refuse timber. No gleaner ever enters a harvest-field in Canada to secure a small portion of the scattered grain; but the floating treasures which the waters yield are regarded as a providential supply of fir ing, which is always gathered in. These spring-floods are often productive of great mischief, as they not infre quently carry away all the dams and bridges along their course. This generally happens after an unusually severe winter, accompanied with very heavy falls of snow.
The melting of the snows in the back country, by filling all the tributary creeks and streams, converts the larger rivers into headlong and destructive torrents, that rush and foam along with “curbless force,” carrying huge blocks of ice and large timbers, like feathers upon their surface.
It is a grand and beautiful sight, the coming down of the waters during one of these spring freshets. The river roars and rages like a chafed lion; and frets and foams against its rocky barrier, as if determined to overcome every obstacle that dares to impede its furious course. Great blocks of ice are seen popping up and down in the boiling surges; and unwieldy saw-logs perform the most extrava gant capers, often starting bolt upright; while their crystal neighbours, enraged at the uncourteous collision, turn up their glittering sea-green edges with an air of defiance, and tumble about in the current like mad monsters of the deep.
The blocks of ice are sometimes lifted entirely out of the water by the force of the current, and deposited upon the top of the bank, where they form an irregular wall of glass, glittering and melting leisurely in the heat of the sun.
A stranger who had not witnessed their upheaval, might well wonder by what gigantic power they had been placed there.
In March, 1844, a severe winter was terminated by a very sudden thaw, accompanied by high winds and deluges of rain. In a few days the snow was all gone, and every slope and hill was converted into a drain, down which the long-imprisoned waters rushed continuously to the river. The roads were almost impassable, and, on the 12th of the month, the river rose to an unusual height, and completely filled its rocky banks. The floods brought down from the interior a great jam of ice, which, accumu lating in size and altitude at every bridge and dam it had carried away in its course towards the bay, was at length arrested in its progress at the lower bridge, where the ice, though sunk several feet below the rushing waters, still adhered firmly to the shore. Vast pieces of ice were piled up against the abutments of the bridge, which the moun tain of ice threatened to annihilate, as well as to inundate the lower end of the town.
It presented to the eager and excited crowd, who, in spite of the impending danger rushed to the devoted bridge, a curious and formidable spectacle. Imagine, dear reader, a huge mass, composed of blocks of ice, large stones, and drift timber, occupying the centre of the river, and extending back for a great distance; the top on a level with the roofs of the houses. The inhabitants of the town had everything to dread from such a gigantic battering ram applied to their feeble wooden bridge.
A consultation was held by the men assembled on the bridge, and it was thought that the danger might be averted by sawing asunder the ice, which still held firm, and allowing a free passage for the blocks that impeded the bridge.
The river was soon covered with active men, armed with axes and poles, some freeing the ice at the arch of the bridge, others attempting to push the iceberg nearer to the shore, where, if once stranded, it would melt at leisure. If the huge pile of mischief could have found a voice, it would have laughed at their fruitless endeavours.
While watching the men at their dangerous, and, as it proved afterwards, hopeless work, we witnessed an act of extraordinary courage and presence of mind in two brothers, blacksmiths in the town. One of these young men was busy cutting away the ice just above the bridge, when quite unexpectedly the piece on which he was standing gave way, and he was carried with the speed of thought under the bridge. His death appeared inevitable. But quick as his exit was from the exciting scene, the love in the brother’s heart was as quick in taking measures for his safety. As the ice on which the younger lad stood parted, the elder sprang into the hollow box of wood which helped to support the arch of the bridge, and which was filled with great stones. As the torrent swept his brother past him and under the bridge, the drowning youth gave a spring from the ice on which he still stood, and the other bending at the instant from his perch above, caught him by the collar, and lifted him bodily from his perilous situation. All was the work of a moment; yet the spectators held their breath, and wondered as they saw. It was an act of bold daring on the one hand, of cool determined cour age on the other. It was a joyful sight to see the rescued lad in his brave brother’s arms.
All day we watched from the bridge the hill of ice, wondering when it would take a fresh start, and if it would carry away the bridge when it left its present position. Night came down, and the unwelcome visitant remained stationary. The air was cold and frosty. There was no moon, and the spectators were reluctantly forced to retire to their respective homes. Between the watches of the night we listened to the roaring of the river, and speculated upon the threatened destruction. By daybreak my eager boys were upon the spot, to ascertain the fate of the bridge. All was grim and silent. The ice remained like a giant slumbering upon his post.
So passed the greater part of the day. Curiosity was worn out. The crowd began to disperse, disappointed that the ruin they anticipated had not taken place; just as some persons are sorry when a fire, which has caused much alarm by its central position in a town or city, is extin guished, without burning down a single house. The love of excitement drowns for a time the better feelings of human ity. They don’t wish any person to suffer injury; but they give up the grand spectacle they had expected to witness with regret.
At four o’clock in the afternoon most of the wonder-watchers had retired, disgusted with the tardy movements of the ice monster, when a cry arose from the banks of the river, to warn the few persons who still loitered on the bridge, to look out. The ice was in motion. Everyone within hearing rushed to the river. We happened to be passing at the time, and, like the rest, hurried to the spot. The vast pile, slowly, almost imperceptibly, began to advance, giving an irresistible impulse to the shore ice, that still held good, and which was instantly communicated to the large pieces that blocked the arch of the bridge, over which the waves now poured in a torrent, pushing before them the great lumps which up to the present moment had been immoveably wedged. There was a hollow, gurgling sound, a sullen roar of waters, a crack ing and rending of the shore-bound ice, and the ponderous mass smote the bridge; it parted asunder, and swift as an arrow the crystal mountain glided downwards to the bay, spurning from its base the waves that leaped and foamed around its path, and pouring them in a flood of waters over the west bank of the river.
Beyond the loss of a few old sheds along the shore, very little damage was sustained by the town. The streets near the wharfs were inundated for a few hours, and the cellars filled with water; but after the exit of the iceberg, the river soon subsided into its usual channel.
The winter of 1852 was one of great length and severity. The snow in many of the roads was level with the top rail of the fences, and the spring thaw caused heavy freshets through the colony. In the upper part of the province, particularly on the grand river, the rising of the waters destroyed a large amount of valuable mill property. One mill-owner lost 12,000 saw logs. Our wild, bright Moira was swollen to the brim, and tumbled along with the impetuosity of a mountain torrent. Its course to the bay was unimpeded by ice, which had been all carried out a few days before by a high wind; but vast quantities of saw logs that had broken away from their bosoms in the inte rior were plunging in the current, sometimes starting bolt upright, or turning over and over, as if endued with the spirit of life, as well as with that of motion.
Several of these heavy timbers had struck the upper bridge, and carried away the centre arch. A poor cow, who was leisurely pacing over to her shed and supper, was suddenly precipitated into the din of waters. Had it been the mayor of the town, the accident could scarcely have produced a greater excitement. The cow belonged to a poor Irishman, and the sympathy of everyone was enlisted in her fate. Was it possible that she could escape drowning amid such a mad roar of waves? No human arm could stem for a moment such a current; but fortunately for our heroine, she was not human, but only a stupid quadruped.
The cow for a few seconds seemed bewildered at the strange situation in which she found herself so unexpect edly placed. But she was wise enough and skilful enough to keep her head above water, and she cleared two mill dams before she became aware of the fact; and she accom modated her self to her critical situation with a stoical indifference which would have done credit to an ancient philosopher. After passing unhurt over the dams, the spectators who crowded the lower bridges to watch the result, began to entertain hopes for her life.
The bridges are in a direct line, and about half a mile apart. On came the cow, making directly for the centre arch of the bridge on which we stood. She certainly nei ther swam, nor felt her feet, but was borne along by the force of the stream.
“My eyes! I wish I could swim as well as that ere cow,” cried an excited boy, leaping upon the top of the bridge. “I guess you do,” said another. “But that’s a game cow. There’s no boy in the town could beat her.”
“She will never pass the arch of the bridge,” said a man, sullenly; “she will be killed against the abutment.”
“Jolly! she’s through the arch!” shouted the first speaker. “Pat has saved his cow!”
“She’s not ashore yet,” returned the man. “And she begins to flag.”
“Not a bit of it,” cried the excited boy. “The old daisy-cropper looks as fresh as a rose. Hurrah, boys! let us run down to the wharf, and see what becomes of her.”
Off scampered the juveniles; and on floated the cow, calm and self-possessed in the midst of danger. After pass ing safely through the arch of the bridge, she continued to steer herself out of the current, and nearer to the shore, and finally effected a landing in Front-street, where she quietly walked on shore, to the great admiration of the youngsters, who received her with rapturous shouts of applause. One lad seized her by the tail, another grasped her horns, while a third patted her dripping neck, and wished her joy of her safe landing. Not Venus herself, when she rose from the sea, attracted more enthusiastic admirers than did the poor Irishman’s cow. A party, com posed of all the boys in the place, led her in triumph through the streets, and restored her to her rightful owner, not forgetting to bestow upon her three hearty cheers at parting.
A little black boy, the only son of a worthy negro, who had been a settler for many years in Belleville, was not so fortunate as the Irishman’s cow. He was pushed, it is said accidentally, from the broken bridge, by a white boy of his own age, into that hell of waters, and it was many weeks before his body was found; it had been carried some miles down the bay by the force of the current. Day after day you might see his unhappy father, armed with a long pole, with a hook attached to it, mournfully pacing the banks of the swollen river, in the hope of recovering the remains of his lost child. Once or twice we stopped to speak to him, but his heart was too full to answer. He would turn away, with the tears rolling down his sable cheeks, and resume his melancholy task.
What a dreadful thing is this prejudice against race and colour! How it hardens the heart, and locks up all the avenues of pity! The premature death of this little negro excited less interest in the breasts of his white companions than the fate of the cow, and was spoken of with as little concern as the drowning of a pup or a kitten.
Alas! this river Moira has caused more tears to flow from the eyes of heart-broken parents than any stream of the like size in the province. Heedless of danger, the chil dren will resort to its shores, and play upon the timbers that during the summer months cover its surface. Often have I seen a fine child of five or six years old, astride of a saw-log, riding down the current, with as much glee as if it were a real steed he bestrode. If the log turns, which is often the case, the child stands a great chance of being drowned.
Oh, agony unspeakable! The writer of this lost a fine talented boy of six years – one to whom her soul clave – in those cruel waters. But I will not dwell upon that dark hour, the saddest and darkest in my sad eventful life. Many years ago, when I was a girl myself, my sympathies were deeply excited by reading an account of the grief of a mother who had lost her only child, under similar circumstances. How prophetic were those lines of all that I suffered during that heavy bereavement! –
“Oh, cold at my feet thou wert sleeping, my boy,
And I press on thy pale lips in vain the fond kiss!
Earth opens her arms to receive thee, my joy,
And all my past sorrows were nothing to this.
The day-star of hope ’neath thine eye-lid is sleeping,
No more to arise at the voice of my weeping.
 “Oh, how art thou changed, since the light breath of morning
Dispersed the soft dewdrops in showers from the tree!
Like a beautiful bud my lone dwelling adorning,
Thy smiles call’d up feelings of rapture in me:
I thought not the sunbeams all gaily that shone
On thy waking, at night would behold me alone.
“The joy that flash’d out from thy death-shrouded eyes,
That laugh’d in thy dimples, and brighten’d thy cheek,
Is quench’d – but the smile on thy pale lip that lies,
Now tells of a joy that no language can speak.
The fountain is seal’d, the young spirit at rest, –
Oh, why should I mourn thee, my lov’d one – my blest!”
The anniversary of that fatal day gave birth to the following lines, with which I will close this long chapter: –
“The shade of death upon my threshold lay,
The sun from thy life’s dial had departed;
A cloud came down upon thy early day,
And left thy hapless mother broken-hearted –
My boy – my boy!
“Long weary months have pass’d since that sad day.
But naught beguiles my bosom of its sorrow;
Since the cold waters took thee for their prey,
No smiling hope looks forward to the morrow –
My boy – my boy!
“The voice of mirth is silenced in my heart,
Thou wert so dearly loved – so fondly cherish’d;
I cannot yet believe that we must part, –
That all, save thine immortal soul, has perish’d –
My boy – my boy!
“My lovely, laughing, rosy, dimpled, child,
I call upon thee, when the sun shines clearest;
In the dark lonely night, in accents wild,
I breathe thy treasured name, my best and dearest –
My boy – my boy!
“The hand of God has press’d me very sore –
Oh, could I clasp thee once more as of yore,
And kiss thy glowing cheeks’ soft velvet bloom,
I would resign thee to the Almighty Giver
Without one tear, – would yield thee up for ever,
And people with bright forms thy silent tomb.
But hope has faded from my heart – and joy
Lies buried in thy grave, my darling boy!”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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A Guide to Libraries in Manitoba
edited by Donna G. Strike
introduction by Carol Shields
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Dropped Threads


The focus for this anthology floated out one day amid soup and salad at one of those gatherings where Carol and I take the emotional pulse of our worlds – or The World, it seems to us.

“The woman’s network let me down. Nothing I’ve ever heard or read prepared me for this!” This particular yelp resulted from the plummet of energy and purpose I experienced with menopause and quickly led us to wider, more lively musings on what else had caught us unprepared, where else we had experienced gaps between female experience and expression. We were surprised by the number of topics and by the ease with which they came to mind. The image of dropped threads from the fabric of women’s talk occurred to us and the familiar, satisfying assumption that women could talk about anything unravelled as we spoke.

We included other women in our speculations: friends, colleagues and family members took up the conversation with enthusiasm and immediate revelations as though, for some, the topic was one they had wanted to discuss for years. They identified gaps in their communal talk and named life-altering surprises in their individual lives. Most spoke of serious issues, of surprise bruisings or blessings, private moments of intense connection or bewilderment. Other women reported insights that bordered on the hilarious: one friend mentioned that her greatest surprise was “sagging earlobes” and another claimed it was “a husband who flosses his teeth in front of you and then expects passion in bed.”
The idea for an anthology of writings on the topic blossomed naturally. We had obviously tapped into a rich vein of stories that touched on defining moments in women’s lives. We invited a number of acquaintances and friends to write these stories, the ones they wanted and needed to tell, recognizing, of course, there would be private spaces that everyone needs to keep beyond the claim of words. We thought women writers would have interesting observations: what subjects hadn’t they written about that needed communal airing? We also asked women of other backgrounds, academics, ranchers, politicians, homemakers, journalists, lawyers, to identify the areas of surprise and silence in their lives.

The responses were immediate and the topics wide-ranging: everything from the joys of belly dancing to the shock of gender inequities in politics. There seemed to be a general embracing of the license implicit in our invitation, but also some reticence: more than one respondant commented on the courage it would take to write on personal issues that had long been beyond the limits of acceptable expression. A few women identified experiences which they could not write on because the pain was too new or the fear of judgment still too strong. What was particularly satisfying to us was that we were contacted by women who had heard of our venture and wanted their stories included. One of these surprise offerings is among the most powerful of the anthology.

The collection of thirty-four reflective pieces is the end result of those conversations and connections started back in the spring of 1999. Many of the voices will be familiar to readers; others will be new. Some are forthright and take the reader to the heart of intense experience. Others approach distinctly personal moments with caution and then veer away, as though the walls around the silences they’ve been keeping are impenetrable. What unites all these writings is the uncommon honesty, courage and acuity of emotion these women bring to their topics – and to us.

They tell us that once life slows down enough for reflection, women uncover truths several beats away from the expected and the promised: female friendships are often more central in our lives than those we have with men and children; what we are told can be as limiting as what is never spoken; and vanity, dominance and blasts of lust that break though marriage and age barriers can be good things. From those who document the private contours of grief and shame, we learn about survival instincts and minute-by-minute coping strategies that rise up and guide people to new spaces of accommodation. Other women point to the individual colourings of common human happenings: spiritual stirrings, aging and the discovery of fundamental gender inequities continue to catch women unprepared because these experiences can never be the same for any two people.

What the stories and the essays indicate about the variety and uniqueness in women’s lives is visually reinforced by the Vinarterta Lady sketch on the cover. This stylized woman speaks to the rich rhythms and shadings of our moods and approaches to life. As well, there is a mystery about this sketch that reminds us of the impossibility of capturing in any medium of expression all of what we are and what we experience. There are still blank spaces before us, and women are still asking, as one of our young contributors does, “What shall I tell my daughter?” When we scan through the topics that even this collection has skipped over – mother-daughter relationships, lesbian experiences, life without partners or children, to mention some, we realize that women’s conversational weaving will forever be a work in progress.

In the meantime we’re reminded not to forget the joys and potential growth from the uncharted. In the afterword Carol Shields writes a characteristically wise, gentle unfolding of the central theme as it relates to her personally. She tells of meeting the “surprises of self-discovery” with “gratitude” and then nudges the reader into embracing the unexpected: “Who isn’t renewed by startling scenery or refreshed by undreamed-of freedoms? Surprise keeps us alive, liberates our senses.”

Our wish is that this anthology will be liberating for readers. It offers a community of voices that are relevant to everyone, not just women, because the experiences recounted are ultimately those that give us our jagged human dimensions of joy and sorrow. We hope readers of all ages and backgrounds will be inspired by how the contributors answered the initial question we posed and will be drawn to examine their own crevices of surprise and silence.

Marjorie Anderson
July 2000


I was twenty-one years old, and standing in line to receive my Bachelor of Arts diploma from Hanover College. Major in English, minor in history. It was June, and the temperature was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Under our black academic gowns my girlfriends and I wore, by previous agreement, nothing. Nothing at all. This was considered high daring in those days, 1957. The night before, seven or eight of us had gathered in the woods above the campus and conducted a ritual burning of our saddle shoes. We were utterly ignorant of what lay ahead of us, but imbued, for some reason, with a nose-thumbing rejection of the suffocating shell of convention that enclosed us.
And yet most of us were prepared to inhabit that safe place our parents had defined for us. We married the same summer we graduated, joined our lives with men no older than we were, and within a year we were buying houses, having babies and planting petunias. Hardly any of us thought of a career other than wife and mother. No one had suggested such a notion to us.
The 1957 graduation address was given by a very popular math professor at the college. He began his talk by telling us that we would remember nothing of what he would say that hot June morning. This was true; I sat dreaming of my wedding, which was just six weeks away, and of the apartment where I would live with my new husband. The charm of domesticity, its sweetness and self-containment, pulled at all my passions. But suddenly he broke through my daydreams. "I ask you to remember only two things," he said. "Remember the date, 1957, and remember the words tempus fugit."
I had studied Latin, but even if I hadn't I would have known what that phrase meant: time flies. Our convocation speaker was reminding us that our lives would speed by before we had grasped them. It was our responsibility to seize each moment and fill it with accomplishment. Otherwise our life would be wasted, worn away with the turning years, and we would grow old and disappointed in what we had made of it.
The phrase haunted me in the ensuing years. I was occupied with babies and with the hard physical work that babies involve. We moved several times and so there were always new domestic arrangements to carve out. Cleaning, cooking, coping, running errands - my days were filled with such minutiae. It was in the calmer, cooler evenings that the phrase tempus fugit would return to me, beating at the back of my brain and reminding me that time was rushing by. I was spooked, frightened by what this meant.
And then, quite suddenly, I realized it meant nothing. Tempus did not fugit. In a long and healthy life, which is what most of us have, there is plenty of time. There is time to sit on a houseboat for a month reading novels. There is time to learn another language. There is travel time and there is stay-at-home time. Shallow time and fallow time. There is time in which we are politically involved and other times when we are wilfully unengaged. We will have good years and bad years, and there will be time for both. Every moment will not be filled with accomplishment; we would explode if we tied ourselves to such a regimen. Time was not our enemy if we kept it on a loose string, allowing for rest, emptiness, reassessment, art and love. This was not a mountain we were climbing; it was closer to being a novel with a series of chapters.
My mother-of-small-children chapter seemed to go on forever, but, in fact, it didn't. It was a mere twelve years, over in a flash. Suddenly I was at a place where I had a little more time to reflect. I could think, for instance, about writing a real novel, and I did. And then another novel, and then another. I had a desk in this new chapter of my life, a typewriter and a pile of paper that belonged just to me. For the first time I needed a file cabinet and a wrist watch, something I'd done without for a decade. I remember I spent the whole of an October afternoon working on a single sentence; I was not by nature a patient person, but for this kind of work and at this time in my life, I was able to be endlessly, foolishly, patient.
In 1985 I looked up from my desk and realized that the children had gone, all five of them. The house was quieter now. The days were mine to arrange any way I wished. I wrote a novel in which, for the first time, there were no children. It was a different kind of novel than I'd written before, with a more inventive structure. The publisher was worried about this innovation, but I was insistent. The insistence was something new, and it coloured the chapter I was living in, my early-middle-age chapter. The woman I saw in the mirror looked like someone else, but I knew it was really me, relocated in time and breathing another grade of oxygen. I was given an office and a key to that office. I loaded it down with plants and pictures, a soft lamp, a carpet. It felt like a tiny apartment, offering solitude and giving a new permission, another space in which to live my ever-altering life.
Friendship took time, but luckily I had time as I entered yet another phase. My women friends provided support, amusement, ideas, pleasure, wisdom. The two-hour lunch was a luxury I could afford during this period; moreover, it was a kind of necessary music. The more words we tossed into the air the closer we felt to the tune of our own lives. We talked about what we knew and what we didn't know. Our conversations were punctuated with the joyous discovery of commonalities, the recognition that the narratives of our lives bumped along differently, but with the same change rhythms.
But one day, over a long lunch with my friend Marjorie Anderson, we spoke for the first time of all that went unspoken, even in an age of intense and open communication. There were the things our mothers hadn't voiced, the subjects our teachers had neglected, the false prophetic warnings (tempus fugit, for example) we had been given and the fatal silence surrounding particular areas of anxiety or happiness. Why weren't we told? Why weren't we warned? What contributed to the reticence between generations, between one woman and another?
We decided to ask some of our women friends to talk about the skipped discourses in their lives and how they had managed, at last, to cope with the surprise of self-discovery, stumbling on that which had been missing: an insight, a truth, an admission, a dark hole. The proposals poured in. This was an exciting time; Marjorie and I were exhilarated by the ideas that were suggested, and astonished that so few overlapped. The areas where woman had been surprised by lack of knowledge ranged from childbirth to working with men, to illness, loss, friendship and secrecy, to the power of sexual feelings, the frustrations of inherited responsibility and the recurrent patterns that haunt us.
The finished essays, which arrived like dispatches from the frontier, described these varied experiences and reported on how they were confronted or accepted. Each voice was separate, and yet each connected subtly with others, as though informed by an underground stream. The essays expressed perplexity at life's offerings: injury and outrage that could not be voiced (Woman, hold thy tongue), expectations that could not be met, fulfillment arriving in unexpected places, the need for roughness, the beginning of understanding, the beginning of being able to say what had once been unsayable. Or, in my case, the apprehension of a structure that gave fluidity and ease to a long life, the gradually (or suddenly) shifting scenes, each furnished with its own noise and movement, its particular rewards and postures.
We move through our chapters mostly with gratitude. Who isn't renewed by startling scenery or refreshed by undreamed-of freedoms? Surprise keeps us alive, liberates our senses. I thought for a while that a serious illness had interrupted my chaptered life, but no, it is a chapter on its own. Living with illness requires new balancing skills. It changes everything, and I need to listen to it, attend to it and bring to it a stern new sense of housekeeping.
But I have time for this last exercise. All the time in the world.
Carol Shields
March 2000

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