BY MADONNA HAMEL
I’m headed into the long stretch now. “Mother’s Apron”, the cumulative offspring of four years of research, story gathering and editing, takes the stage in a week. Yesterday I rehearsed the songs with my guitarist. And on the drive reciting to myself, I marveled at how the characters took up residence in my heart and head. I especially love Marie-Ange, a Metis woman. Her deep friendship with a British woman reflects one of the first instances of contact between native and settler culture.Marie-Ange is a mid-wife who helps save the women and babies of the new women.
In ‘The Silent Song of Mary Eleanor’ – by Marjorie Wilkins Campbell, who wrote her mother’s bio based on a found diary and childhood recollections of Saskatchewan in the late 1800’s – new families get thrown together and class distinctions drop away. “Ethnic origins varied,” she wrote. Scots, Germans, peasants, a former ship captain and “two or three ‘half-breeds’, a term father heartily disliked, despite his British arrogance” gathered at picnic. The story inspired me to write characters who were aware of prejudice based on class and race and used the opportunity to start fresh in a “new a naked land”.
The book of the same name: ‘A New and Naked Land’ by Ronald Rees is a treasure. It opens with a quote by Adam Smith: “A man is, of all sorts of baggage, the most difficult to be transported.” And on that note we are given a sense of what it must have felt like to be plucked, dragged, and dropped, like an erratic, onto the prairie. I came to see how getting lost here would have been the biggest fear. “Or worse”, as one of my women say, “getting lost in a fire”.
When the great railway project began, CPR journalists were hired to travel west to write about the wonders of the New World. But “all references to dry and cold” were forbidden. I can’t help but wonder if “references to native peoples” were also forbidden. Or did they just not encounter any? Or were they just not interested? As a journalist I can’t imagine such lack of curiosity, but it happens all the time. To decide about what we will write, who we will portray and how we will approach a subject is one of the privileges of membership to the ‘press club’. I was discouraged from doing ‘homeless’ stories once, because the ‘homeless’ were “not our listening audience”. “No shit, I wanted to say: they don’t have a home. Let alone a radio.”
Nothing is more shocking than realizing you have the privilege of being a member in a club that believes itself to be The Elite. It was revealing to Marjorie Wilkins. And it still reveals itself today. Upon hearing the name of my performance, “Mother’s Apron”, a couple of men have responded with: ‘I’ll tell my mom’ or ‘I could take my sister’. It’s not a topic they are “particularly interested in”, they have no problem telling me. I say: “It’s not about aprons, per se, y’know, It’s not a sewing class. It’s history through the pockets of women’s aprons.” When people say things like this they are basically telling me: ‘stories about women don’t interest me, they just don’t have any pull, and I feel no obligation to make the effort.’
I want to be good-natured, but at the same time I want to make a point. To one man I replied:“Would you make the effort if the women on stage were taking off their clothes? If the words Girls! Girls! Girls! were in the title rather than ‘Mother’, or, God help me, ‘apron’?” Luckily, he laughed.
And luckily, the majority of men understand: these are their stories, too. I remark on these remarks because, often we women dismiss our own stories. We dismiss them as ‘chick lit’, or, if the woman-girl isn’t carrying an assault weapon, ‘chick flick’s, We think to be called ‘one of the boys’ is the highest compliment, while, inversely, for a man to be ‘one of the girls’ is to be insulted.
But here is where the stories I’m researching get extremely interesting. Some came running from revolutions; they were poor and hungry and barefoot and this was a step up. Others came on ‘the greatest lark of our lives!” Others came expecting cozy cottages by a glen, and when they saw the sod hut, refused to step down from the carriage. They just sat there and had a good long cry. Then, they lighted to the ground and began toiling at their new life, making a home out of what they were given. What they found here was a freedom from the constrictions of the Old Country. They became partners with their men in ways many of us have never achieved.
One of my characters is a Mrs. Prothero. She takes in a jilted bride and decides to find a husband for her by reading out various ads in the lonely hearts section of the local newspaper. As she reads out to her young woman she catches the girl faltering, examining her own hands and then hiding behind her back. She catches a young woman wavering. She insists: Out here you can’t be anything but partners!
Mrs. P. helped me understand how men and women worked together back then. It makes me wonder if prosperity doesn’t blindside us, break our bonds with others, bonds formed by having to work together. Does lack of purpose make us loose our way? But that’s a constant question, isn’t it? And it gets raised again and again: What is purpose? One of my women, serving men in a boarding house, watches as an evening progresses. She loves but is equally afraid of men “with no purpose, as well as men who are purpose-bent: The wolfers, the drinkers, the fighters.”
All of my characters help me understand. They have a life energy in them that beseeches me not to drop them; they are just getting their Earth Legs, finding their footing in the world of matter after filling my head and heart from their place in books, letters, memories and ever-present Spirit. These are old stories still good, good stories still old. And they deserve to be heard. And they are champing to be told.