I am still immersed in urban splendour, though no longer in Toronto. My last night in that metropolis I ventured out onto Browning Aveenue with my buddy Avril when Halloween was in full effect. I was not prepared for the parade of talent and full-on foolishness. The street was crawling with parents and children in disguise as all manner of inventive characters and creatures, and I didn’t see one store-bought costume. There were no tarty nuns, chambermaids or nurses. And no Trump, not even a “Trumpkin”. It was as if the best trick one could perform on the Day of Misrule was to treat oneself to the denial of his existence.
What we did encounter were robots, dragons, and storybook protagonists. My favourite was a skeleton with his own x-ray glowing in a box over his ribs. I also loved the woman gnome who was giving out playdough.
“Oooo!” I cooed with delight. “I wish we got play dough when we were kids.”
“I only have 250 of these left, I’m getting worried!” she replied.
“Last year we had 940 kids!”
“And that wasn’t the record. We hit 1,100 one year!” she boasted.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ervin texted he had 40 people, “Although that may include the moms,” he added.” “But,” I pointed out to my city friends, “that’s a third of the town of Val Marie”.
The following day I took the train to Ottawa with my niece Megan, who was in Toronto working on her column in a men’s fitness magazine. She is their “Style Siren”. She studied journalism, then running shoe design at The Nike School. She’s a ‘sought-after’ clothes buyer for NBA basketball stars and a sports reporter. Just sitting on the train watching Megan tweet, text, email and ‘instagram’ her team about her new line of post-court wear gave me palpitations. I turned to stare out the window at the receding urban sprawl, longing for a glimpse of sky and open field with no sign of human habitation. While the city was a pleasant surprise, not the assault I thought it would be, the distractions and diversions seemed less effectual. Perhaps my two years in a “spiritual geography”, as Kathleen Norris describes the territory, have made me happier, clearer, more capable of letting go. But in order to stay that way, I needed ready access to silence and empty spaces.
One of the benefits of living in a big country is that one can always find empty stretches of blessed ‘nothingness.’ Unfortunately, it also means family is often too far away for regular pajama parties. You may be the kind of person who likes to keep vast gaps between you and your family, but mine consists of best friends. In Val Marie, where families have lived for generations upon generations, folks get together for everything from birthdays, to dance recitals, to the loss of a child’s first baby tooth. Weddings and graduations are a given – the whole community shows up. Last year’s Val Marie grad class was a big one – three in total! And, it is also a given that they each get a gift from every member of the community.
Sporting events are also guaranteed to pull folks together under one roof. In Val Marie it’s bonspiel and rodeos. In Ottawa last week it was the world series. My big sister Cecile, Megan’s mom, picked us up at the train station, with take-out chicken and a tub of guacamole we headed straight home and plopped ourselves in front of the tv for the duration.
After Ottawa came Montreal. Monika, an old friend from art school, met me getting off the subway. Monika is a book freak like myself. Her husband built her a wall-to-ceiling shelf along one side of their home, complete with rolling ladder! After I stopped sailing up and down the shelves and she got me settled in their guest room, she wondered if I might like to check out the church bazaar down the street. I could think of nothing better.
The first thing that caught my eye upon entering the church basement was a foot high pair of statues of the holy family. Mary cost a dollar. Joseph, only fifty cents.
“You know”, Monika pointed out to the old guy wrapping my figurines and placing them tenderly in a shoe box, “you’re talking to a woman named Madonna.”
“C’est vrais? Sing me something!”
Half-faking shock, Monika marvelled at how even elderly Catholic Quebeckers default to a pop star reference rather than the mother of God.
“I’m used to it,” I say, shaking my head gravely.
It wasn’t until we returned to Monika’s that we noticed that Joseph only had one hand. Hence the discount. “However,” she said, “I do find it interesting that your last two relationships were with guitarists who both sustained hand injuries.”
“Oh my God. That’s right!” I remember, in both relationships, being furious at that expression: ‘I can do that with one hand tied behind my back’. Oh yeah? Try it!
And I remember the winter I had just finished working on a Glenn Gould documentary and was on tour with James. I suggested we try the great pianist’s trick of soaking his hands in hot water and then massaging them just before going onstage. I became very familiar with his hands, their lines and muscles. And I shook with grief at the thought that, with one hand, a thief had plunged a knife into James’ back and neck and almost robbed him of his life. Not to mention vocation and income.
It also reminded me of a scene in ‘The Barefoot Boy from Val Marie’, a memoir by Jean Stav, the man whose family bought my family’s land after they left the area. Here is part of the story of Ted Pedde:
“His only neighbour within five miles of him was his brother Leon who had settled there after returning from the First World War. Ted had been involved in a mishap with his horses and lost his right hand and arm up to his shoulder. He was a tall lanky man about 6’ 3”. He wasn’t homely and he wasn’t mean-looking but he wasn’t handsome either. He was distinctly manly. Hours in the sun turned his skin to leather but did not hide the deep lines of pain from the continuous torture on his body by his lifestyle and misfortune.
What intrigued us children was how he coped with having only one arm. When he went to Val Marie he always came through our yard on a raw broke bronc and arrived between five and six in the evening after fourteen miles of bone jarring ride. He would spend the night at our place.
Dad would tell him to wash up for supper for a good reason. It’s not easy to wash your hand when you don’t have another hand to do it with, consequently it didn’t get washed too often and everything the hand touched acquired a hard, greasy black look in time, such as coat buttons and hat. We formed a circle around the wash basin where Mother had put some warm water for him. He was a bit embarrassed and Mother came to his rescue. She asked, ‘Mr. Pedde, would you mind if I helped you?’
He answered, ‘That would be very kind of you!’ and offered his one hand to her. She first lifted off his buckskin jacket and black felt hat then rolled up the sleeve to the elbow and placed the hand in the warm water. She soaped and scrubbed the arm and hand with a wash cloth, then, with a fresh warm basin of water she washed his face and neck and brushed his hair. After she dried his hand, arm and face Ted looked down at his arm and hand and said ‘Thank you Mrs. Stav, I don’t think that hand knew what you were doing to it.’
Try it sometime just as I did after watching him with his limitations. It’s not easy to wash a hand with the hand that needs washing.”
That night, getting ready for bed at Monika’s, I positioned Mary so that Joseph’s missing hand was the object of Mary’s adoring gaze, a gaze devised to envelope her newborn son. I drifted off to sleep counting the ways I used my hands over the past week, beginning with carving a pumpkin, baking mushroom cobbler, emptying a storage locker full of books, turning the pages of some of those books, and ending every day writing in my journal. I’d also eaten fried chicken, popped grapes in my mouth, stirred coffee. In Montreal I fumbled for subway fare, handled small sculptures hand-crafted by Monika in her studio and sewn buttons back on my coat.
When you read this, Americans will have, with one hand, decided the fate of their country. I’m crossing my fingers.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.