“That was some day, eh Madonna!” yelled Stella from her porch this evening as I dragged my tired self home from the café. I was trying to remember myself as that woman who arrived two years ago, blissed out on silence and still and long days of writing at my desk in the old chapel of the Convent Inn. She had managed to slip into the rhythm of the days as they drifted by, rising at five thirty in the morning, making her coffee and porridge and saying a small prayer to the patron saint of the pen before immersing herself with astonishing ease into a day’s full of writing.
Now, she – I live a stone’s throw from the convent, and I can hear the guests on the upper balcony, their laughter carrying across the field to my open back door, and the memories of nights spent with guests return. My favourite evening was with a couple from Glasgow and another from the States, visiting all the major league ballparks of America, with brief forays into Canada between games. But the guest of honour was an astronomer from Toronto. He shared his tobacco with me and his knowledge with us all.
Suddenly, as these things happen in the Saskatchewan southwest in the summer, a lightning storm took centre stage, with spectacular displays of lasso-like strikes and forks, one after another. It was a night of all light and no rain, so when the power finally went out, the sky was still clear. “Hey,” I said to our in-house astronomer, “would you mind showing us a few galaxies? I can run downstairs and make us a pot of tea and a bowl of popcorn on the gas stove!” No sooner had I made the suggestion than out came the laser pointer and the class began.
“Wait, til I get the refreshments, I don’t want to miss anything!” I yelled out, scurrying down the stairs to the kitchen.
“Don’t worry, it’s not like they’re going anywhere, they’ve been heer for millions of years, even the ones that were long gone!” he laughed.
Without the village lights the town was even darker than usual, and we had optimal star-gazing conditions. That was some night!
But tonight what Stella was referring to was the visit of a football player, Matt Vonk of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Stella was at the till in the Whitemud Grocery when Matt arrived with his sister Ally, who works with me at the museum. A few of us knew Matt would be in town, including myself and Caitlin, who runs the café. Caitlin is a sports fanatic and, in her own words, “a total dork” when it comes to fawning over sports celebrities.
I went to the International Women’s Curling Bonspiel with Caitlin in March. She wore a giant foamy maple leaf hat through the whole event and leapt over entire rows of seats to interrupt various skips on their donut breaks asking them to sign her shirt. After the game a beer sponsor was handing out foam curling-stone hats and she was beside herself with glee. Caitlin is the reason there is security at sporting events.
This evening, even though I got to the café early, people were already sitting down, Caitlin made me go home and change into something green, the Riders colour, because she was going to get a photograph of us all in front of the café. Of course, she had her Riders jersey on and rolled her eyes at the sight of my faded army fatigue green t-shirt.
Undaunted, she held up a jelly jar full of a strange green liquid. “I’ve made a special drink just for the occasion! It’s the Roughrider cocktail! ”
“What the he-“
“I’ve reserved the table by the window and they should be here any second, right after the grocery store closes, so get ready!”
She sent me over to the grocery for more lettuce and there he was, standing with a slushy in his hand, politely fielding questions, and not looking like he was leaving anytime soon. When he did arrive Caitlin jumped up and down and pulled him back outside and got Ally to take a picture of us under the café sign.
“We don’t get many famous people here,” she explained to him. “Once Margaret Atwood came and I got her to stand under the sign too!”
The thing about Stella’s “that was some day” is, I had to stop a second and think what she was referring to… did we have hail while I was working at the museum? Did the town run out of ice again? Did the direction of wind shift and the smell of the dead racoon in front George’s old house hit the main road? Everyone’s ‘some day’ is different. Having met more than my fair share of famous people my ‘some day’ involves coming across a rattler on Eagle Loop. Or seeing the bison herd return from a season of calving. Or getting caught in a thunderstorm on my way home from cemetery road, catching a ride home with a rancher and watching from his back window as lightning strikes the spot where I stood and a double rainbow emerges, shortly thereafter. Or making it to the semi-finals in a horseshoe tourney.
Not that I haven’t been smitten by those well-accomplished in their fields who elicit admiration for their commitment to their craft. To have had the opportunity to sit and talk with Rosanne Cash on three separate occasions for over an hour each time was something. Gracious, funny, poetic and as insightful as her songs, she never seemed to stop plumbing the depths of her own thoughts to see where they would lead her. Once, she apologized for ‘going on and on’! As if.
But even Rosanne Cash has her star struck moments, as in when she got the jam to invite Bruce Springsteen to sing “Sea of Heartbreak” with her on her album, The List, a selection of essential Americana songs from a list her father gave her when she was nineteen. When going over the possible artists for the album she wondered out loud if she should dare ask ‘The Boss’ to do a duet with her. At that moment she didn’t see herself as a colleague but as another girl with a crush on a musical icon. They sound beautiful together, by the way. They sound like two grown humans, a little battle weary, but safely ashore, enjoying a respite, after being tossed about by life in a sea of heartbreaks.
Another time I found myself jittery with excitement was when my ex introduced me to The Holmes Brothers, three bluesmen with a gift for turning anything they sing into street gospel and a testament to the human spirit. We (I had just started singing backup in his band) were to play Terra Blues in the Village later that week, but that particular night it was the Holmes Brothers onstage. James told me a story about playing the same club just a few days after 9-11. A bunch of musicians were playing for free to give rescue workers a break. The air was thick with jet fumes and people were holding scarves and hankies over their mouths. There was dust everywhere. People were crying openly. One of the Holmes brothers just couldn’t stand it anymore and began to weep on James’ shoulder. Looking for some way to repay the workers for all their efforts and tears, James began giving everything away – all his cds and t-shirts and posters. “Just keep playing,” a fireman called out. As Churchill once said: ‘when going through hell, just keep going.’ When playing through pain, just keep playing.
The night I got to meet the Holmes brothers backstage was ‘some night.’ I listened to them talk about their families, their lives, the arthritis creeping into their joints, that day in September. They were getting ready for the last set of the night. They were tired. They were great artists, in my mind. To them, they were just doing their job. I remember one of them commenting on James’ slide guitar playing, how he admired it. I thought: I guess we all have something we do well and if we give ourselves over to it, work through the hellish bits, we can take our place among the artists. We can say we followed our calling. We committed.
We will always be blown away by the talents and skills of our heroes. Like Matt Vonk of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, we’ll hear that Margaret Atwood got her picture taken in this very spot, too and we’ll say: “Really? Margaret Atwood? Cool!”
Madonna Hamel is an artist and writer. She lives in Val Marie, SK. She works at the Harvest Moon Café and the local eco-museum and as a freelance writer-broadcaster for CBC radio. On August 3rd she’ll be performing at the Val Marie Hotel from her collection of stories based on her PWSS exhibit, ‘My Mother’s Apron,’ including three new songs.