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Canadian Women

By Chrisbookarama
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tagged: women
Books about or featuring Canadian women.
The Birth House

The Birth House

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

Prologue

My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.

My father, Judah Rare, built this farmhouse in 1917. It was my wedding gift. A strong house for a Rare woman, he said. I was eighteen. He and his five brothers, shipbuilders by trade, raised her worthy from timbers born on my grand­father’s land. Oak for stability and certainty, yellow birch for new life and change, spruce for protection from the world outside. Father was an intuitive carpenter, carrying out his work like holy ritual. His callused hands, veined with pride, had a memory for measure and a knowing of what it takes to withstand the sea.

Strength and a sense of knowing, that’s what you have to have to live in the Bay. Each morning you set your sights on the tasks ahead and hope that when the day is done you’re farther along than when you started. Our little village, perched on the crook of God’s finger, has always been ruled by storm and season. The men did whatever they had to do to get by. They joked with one another in fire-warmed kitchens after sunset, smoking their pipes, someone bringing out a fiddle . . . laughing as they chorused, no matter how rough, we can take it. The seasons were reflected in their faces, and in the movement of their bodies. When it was time for the shad, herring and cod to come in, they were fishermen, dark with tiresome wet from the sea. When the deer began to huddle on the back of the mountain, they became hunters and woodsmen. When spring came, they worked the green-scented earth, planting crops that would keep, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips. Summer saw their weathered hands building ships and haying fields, and sunsets that ribboned over the water, daring the skies to turn night. The long days were filled with pride and ceremony as mighty sailing ships were launched from the shore. The Lauretta, The Reward, The Nordica, The Bluebird, The Huntley. My father said he’d scour two hundred acres of forest just to find the perfect trees to build a three-masted schooner. Tall yellow birch, gently arched by northwesterly winds, was highly prized. He could spot the keel in a tree’s curve and shadow, the return of the tide set in the grain.

Men wagered their lives with the sea for the honour of these vessels. Each morning they watched for the signs. Red skies in morning, sailors take warning. Each night they looked to the heavens, spotting starry creatures, or the point of a dragon’s tail. They told themselves that these were promises from God, that He would keep the wiry cold fingers of the sea from grabbing at them, from taking their lives. Sometimes men were taken. On those dark days the men who were left behind sat down together and made conversation of every detail, hitching truth to wives’ tales while mending their nets.

As the men bargained with the elements, the women tended to matters at home. They bartered with each other to fill their pantries and clothe their children. Grandmothers, aunts and sisters taught one another to stitch and cook and spin. On Sunday mornings mothers bent their knees between the stalwart pews at the Union Church, praying they would have enough. With hymnals clutched against their breasts, they told the Lord they would be ever faithful if their husbands were spared.

When husbands, fathers and sons were kept out in the fog longer than was safe, the women stood at their windows, holding their lamps, a chorus of lady moons beckoning their lovers back to shore. Waiting, they hushed their children to sleep and listened for the voice of the moon in the crashing waves. In the secret of the night, mothers whispered to their daughters that only the moon could force the waters to submit. It was the moon’s voice that called the men home, her voice that turned the tides of womanhood, her voice that pulled their babies into the light of birth.

My house became the birth house. That’s what the women came to call it, knocking on the door, ripe with child, water breaking on the porch. First-time mothers full of questions, young girls in trouble and seasoned women with a brood already at home. (I called those babies ”toesies,“ because they were more than their mamas could count on their fingers.) They all came to the house, wailing and keening their babies into the world. I wiped their feverish necks with cool, moist cloths, spooned porridge and hot tea into their tired bodies, talked them back from outside of themselves.

Ginny, she had two . . .

Sadie Loomer, she had a girl here.

Precious, she had twins . . . twice.

Celia had six boys, but she was married to my brother Albert . . . Rare men always have boys.

Iris Rose, she had Wrennie . . .

All I ever wanted was to keep them safe.

Part One

Around the year 1760, a ship of Scotch immigrants came to be wrecked on the shores of this place. Although the vessel was lost, her passengers and crew managed to find shelter here. They struggled through the winter – many taking ill, the women losing their children, the men making the difficult journey down North Mountain to the valley below, carrying sacks of potatoes and other goods back to their temporary home, now called Scots Bay.
In the spring, when all who had been stranded chose to make their way to more established communities, the daughter of the ship’s captain, Annie MacIssac, stayed behind. She had fallen in love with a Mi’kmaq man she called Silent Rare.
On the evening of a full moon in June, Silent went out in his canoe to catch the shad that were spawning around the tip of Cape Split. As the night wore on, Annie began to worry that some ill had befallen her love. She looked across the water for signs of him but found nothing. She walked to the cove where they had first met and began to call out to him, promising her heart, her fidelity and a thousand sons to his name. The moon, seeing Annie’s sadness, began to sing, forcing the waves inland, strong and fast, bringing Silent safely back to his lover.
Since that time, every child born from the Rare name has been male, and even now, when the moon is full, you can hear her voice, the voice of the moon, singing the sailors home.
A Rare Family History, 1850

1

Ever since I can remember, people have had more than enough to say about me. As the only daughter in five generations of Rares, most figure I was changed by faeries or not my father’s child. Mother works and prays too hard to have anyone but those with the cruellest of tongues doubt her devotion to my father. When there’s no good explanation for something, people of the Bay find it easier to believe in mermaids and moss babies, to call it witchery and be done with it. Long after the New England Planters’ seed wore the Mi’kmaq out of my family’s blood, I was born with coal black hair, cinnamon skin and a caul over my face. A foretelling. A sign. A gift that supposedly allows me to talk to animals, see people’s deaths and hear the whisperings of spirits. A charm for protection against drowning.

When one of Laird Jessup’s Highland heifers gave birth to a three-legged albino calf, talk followed and people tried to guess what could have made such a creature. In the end, most people blamed me for it. I had witnessed the cow bawling her calf onto the ground. I had been the one who ran to the Jessups’ to tell the young farmer about the strange thing that had happened. Dora talked to ghosts, Dora ate bat soup, Dora slit the Devil’s throat and flew over the chicken coop. My classmates chanted that verse between the slats of the garden gate, along with all the other words their parents taught them not to say. Of course, there are plenty of schoolyard stories about Miss B. too, most of them ending with, if your cat or your baby goes missing, you’ll know where to find the bones. It’s talk like that that’s made us such good friends. Miss B. says she’s glad for gossip. ”It keep folks from comin’ to places they don’t belong.“

Most days I wake up and say a prayer. I want, I wish, I wait for something to happen to me. While I thank God for all good things, I don’t say this verse to Him, or to Jesus or even to Mary. They are far too busy to be worrying about the affairs and wishes of my heart. No, I say my prayer more to the air than anything else, hoping it might catch on the wind and find its way to anything, to something that’s mine. Mother says, a young lady should take care with what she wishes for. I’m beginning to think she’s right.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Blue Castle
Why it's on the list ...
woman defies society's rules
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The Canadian Housewife
Why it's on the list ...
Women's lives throughout Canadian history.
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Come, Thou Tortoise
Excerpt

The plane is a row of gold circles and a cockpit. One of those circles will carry my head halfway home. I count back fourteen. That circle. In the cockpit the pilots are having a good time. Boy are they. Coffee cups have to be put down. They are really laughing. One puts a hand on the other’s shoulder. Then the one with the hand leans over and kisses the other’s cheek. A quick impulsive happy peck.

A fellow passenger joins me at the terminal window. Hey, I tell her. Our pilots just kissed.

No response.

I’m thinking that kiss bodes well for our safety.

She pretends she has a cup to throw away.

That is my plane. With the word nap resolving on its tail. How do I feel about that acronym. Not great.

My phone rings and it’s Linda.

What’s up.

Winnifred isn’t moving.

Never assume a tortoise is dead. Rule Number One of Tortoise Ownership. What’s the temperature in your apartment. Remember it’s winter. It’s still dark. She ’s not nocturnal. These and other environmental factors have likely caused her to withdraw into her shell. Her heart beats maybe once an hour. Be patient. Wait an hour.

Still, I crouch down next to the window. Feel the heat coming up from the vent. Is my tortoise dead. Should I go back.

My own heart is all apatter. This is being alive. Can you feel the body worry before every beat. I can. Will this be the last. No. Will this be the last. No.

Should I go back.

I look up at the pilots who are possibly in love and I don’t want to catch any other plane but this one. This is my plane.

Yesterday I peered down into her castle and she was beside the pool making the same journey I’d seen her start two days ago. I knocked on her shell. Excuse me, Winnifred.

No legs emerged. No little ancient head.

I picked her up and held her under my armpit. This usually worked. I did have a heat lamp, but paper castles tend to be flammable.

Finally she woke up.

There, I said. I put her in the pool.

I knelt down beside the castle with windows that look out onto my kitchen. Many times I have seen Winnifred poke her head wistfully through one of those windows. Many times I have seen her drop a piece of lettuce like a note.

She climbed out of the pool and creaked over to the window.

I have to go home for a while, I said.

Winnifred is old. She might be three hundred. She came with the apartment. The previous tenant, a rock climber named Cliff, was about to embark on a rock climbing adventure that would not have been much fun for Winnifred. Back then her name was Iris. Cliff had inherited Iris from the tenant before him. Nobody knew how old Iris was or where she had come from originally. Now Cliff was moving out. He said, Would you like a tortoise.

I would not say no to a tortoise, I said.

I was alone in Portland and the trees were giant. I picked her up and she blinked at me with her upside- down eyelids. I felt instantly calm. Her eyes were soft brown. Her skin felt like an old elbow. I will build you a castle, I whispered. With a pool. And I was true to my word.

Hold her under your armpit, I tell Linda.

Ugh.

Trust me.

And I hang up.

That was rude, but I am not myself. I am unslept. I am on automatic pilot. This image brought to mind by the pilots who clearly aren’t. What does automatic pilot mean. I picture an inflatable pilot, but that is from a movie. Automatic pilot is just a computer. It is what flies the plane when the pilots take a nap or make out. It is what kicks in metaphorically when your dad is in a comma, sorry coma, and you are summoned home and you must make arrangements for your tortoise.

Last night I stepped outside carrying Winnifred in her castle and the sky was busy with stars.

Look, Win, I said. The past. Because the past is what you are looking at when you look at the stars.

Winnifred looked up.

That’s where I’m going tomorrow, I said.

We drove out to Oregon City where the streets are all named after presidents in the order they were elected, so you can’t get lost if you are American and know your presidents. Linda and Chuck live on Taft. When I pulled up, Chuck was outside smoking with his actor friends.

Evening, Chuck.

Hey.

As I climbed the steps, one of the actor friends said, Am I hallucinating or is she carrying a castle.

Yes, a castle.

Four people at my gate are knitting. Knitting needles are allowed on planes again. At security there was a new and definitive list of Objects You Cannot Take in Your Carrion Carry- on Luggage. All the usual weapons from the game of Clue were there, minus knitting needles, and with the addition of snow globes.

I patted my pockets and said, Where’s that snow globe.

The security woman in blue pinched the bridge of her nose like I was causing her pain right there.

Move on, please.

In the little kiosk inside security there were knitting needles and wool for sale. Christmas colours. So knitting is enjoying a revival.

I limped on to my gate.

Earlier, in the apartment, I had tripped over my carry- on bag in the dark. I had lain in the dark and thought, I won’t go, I’ve been hurt. I lay there and looked up at the sloped ceiling, still bumpy with Cliff ’s climbing holds. Cliff liked to refer to the ceiling as an overhang.

I had sent him an email saying, My dad is in a comma and waiting for me to open his eyes. Must depart. Apartment available for your use. Tortoise with Linda and Chuck.

No reply.

I sent him a second email: I meant coma.

I lay on the floor. My cab with its little Napoleon hat was puffing in the street.

Get up. Go.

When the right person arrives at the bedside of the comatose person, the comatose person opens his eyes. Everyone knows this. This is Rule Number One of Comatoseness.

Yesterday Uncle Thoby called and said, Oddly. There’s been an accident.

Which word made me sit down on the kitchen floor. Accident, I said.

Your dad received a severe blow to the medulla oblongata as he was walking home. From, this is unbelievable, a Christmas tree. Hanging sideways out of a pickup truck.

Uncle Thoby’s voice was okay until he got to pickup truck. Then it broke down. I didn’t understand. Hit by a Christmas tree. Or walking home from a Christmas tree. Or what.

Hit by. On his way home.

I thought about this. Finally I said, I have a question. Are you ready.

Okay.

Here it is. I’ve got it. What is a medulla oblongata.

A brain stem.

Oh. Right. So a Christmas tree stem had collided with my dad’s brain stem. And now he was in a coma. I put my hand on the back of my neck. I had forgotten that the brain has geography. The human brain is 1,400 cubic centimetres of geography. Our heads fit inside airplane windows for Chrissakes. We are small and we can be pitched out of our geography.

I’ll come home, I said.

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Why it's on the list ...
An oddball woman returns home.
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Fall on Your Knees
Excerpt

Silent Pictures

They're all dead now.

Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, towards an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.

Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.

Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.

Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her house-dress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad - they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.

So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.

Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.

There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.

Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.

Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.

Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."

And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbour once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.

But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?

But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.

All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.

Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.

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Why it's on the list ...
A family of women and their secrets.
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