The Story Pool – Madonna Hamel
The weather was rather cool on Wednesday, and there was still a lot of haying to be done, not to mention it’s the middle of the week, so I wondered how many would show up for My Sister’s Apron, a new set of stories and songs connected to my My Mother’s Apron exhibit at the Prairie Wind & Silver Sage gallery and eco-museum.“Oh well, whoever comes comes,” shrugged Maurice who set up his amps and mics in the corner of the Val Marie Hotel bar and was running off to The Seniors Centre for ‘some meeting’.
As Maurice was heading out, Arron, a magical young woman from Grasslands Park slipped quietly into the bar to quickly go through the three songs she was singing as backup with Sara, also from the park, and still on her way back from a business meeting in Saskatoon. I’d only had a chance to go over the new songs once with each of them. We went for evening walks and let the pace of the walking establish the rhythm and tempo of the songs. We walked into the dark, turning stories into lullabies.
I wasn’t worried about Arron or Sara; they have sweet, ethereal voices, suited to songs I named ‘Love & Dust’, ‘These are Yours’, and ‘O Mother!’ Songs about inheritances and bequeathments, ghosts and angels. If anything, I wanted them to sing louder, ‘own the mic’. But I needed to own the songs, and that meant being comfortable with them. I’d been humming them all week, living with them like unceasing prayers, which they were. Even though I still didn’t know all the words.
But my biggest concern was my very presence. It is the continual question we ‘blow-ins’ all ask ourselves: how much to involve or implicate myself in my community? Too much and it looks like I’m taking over, imposing, taking up more space than is mine to occupy. Too little and it’s as if I have no interest in them, or that I think I’m better than them. You hear those assumptions and conclusions all the time: “S/he thinks s/he’s so…” fill in the blank. Of course, how can we know what people are thinking? In a small town it’s inescapable. I want to behave in a genuinely friendly manner, not a simmering stew of hostility or trepidation on the inside while hypocritically chirpy on the outside. And I definitely don’t want bar-goers feeling like I’ve shanghaied the place and forced them to keep quiet for nearly an hour!
“No worries! It’ll be fun!” says the owner, Aline, to whom the performance is mostly dedicated, as it begins and ends with the stories of women who ran the first boarding houses: women run off their feet, tired to the bone, who can never find help, who on any given day swears she’ll hand the keys to the first person who walks through that door but won’t really, because she provides a service. And, in the case of the first women in the West, where else would she go? And where would the young ‘unhitched or jilted’ women go for refuge, company and employment? Women like the ones I read about and whose memoirs I studied, widowed or abandoned or adventuresome all survived by working in some sort of “service industry.” All came to understand the spirit and frustration of service.
I began in my preferred manner, entering from an unpredictable place, hoping to create enough mystery as to make the audience whisper: “is this part of the performance?” But at the same time I wanted to facilitate delight, not fear. “I’m not a hypnotist,” I assured Laureen, the chair of PWSS board, the people who keep the eco-museum alive. “I don’t make people do things they don’t want to do. But I do want to embody the eco-museum philosophy: remove the walls of the museum building and bring our stories, songs, poems into the light of daily life. Remind us all that the ‘artifacts’ of our lives and the generations before us are alive and organic and meant to be utilized, (and perhaps a little less analyzed) and then, passed along.” And so I began the night with: “Who ordered the burger?”
Eugene had his acting debut that night with his brilliantly delivered single line: “I did!” And plopping it down in front of him I reeled off its list of ingredients: “It’s fully loaded: It’s got heart, it’s got soul, it’s got sweat, tears and toil, it’s got elbow grease and I’m pretty sure that’s where my fingernail went. As well, it has mother may I, do I have to and thank-you very much, it’s got I’ll have another, if you please. It’s got grit and determination, it’s got plans and dreams, it’s got worry and appreciation and about million and a half half-baked schemes. Oh and here’s your lettuce….”
I have long since learned that theatre and story-telling is about sharing. That’s the whole point; if your performance does not have the energy loop of connection and exchange, why bother? You will just be wasting everyone’s time with your self-indulgence and arcane factoids. Many a mentor has taught me to make an effort to understand a place and the people in it. What makes this place relax, laugh, ponder, breath and celebrate? Try to find your common humanity and work from there.
Mind you: not every literature or creative writing or film prof will teach that. Apparently, we need a conflict to generate a good story. Without one there isn’t anything to tell. Really? Or maybe it’s just ‘energy’ or ‘change’ or ‘movement’ we need. Like Einstein once said: “Nothing happens ‘til something moves.” (He’s also been purported to have said: “But what do I know, I’m no Einstein”). Talking with Sherri whose Aurora Borealis photographs are showing at the gallery as well, we got onto the subject of conflict.
“I suppose it’s one way to get a story going, but surely all we need is ‘relationships’ between people or events or territories.” I mused.
“Connection,” she responded. “We just need to connect.”
Look for conflict and you find it. Look for connection and you can find it too. We can decide to find the similarities or the differences, to muster a reason for a stand-off or an act of good will. We can cultivate habits we yearn to keep, not break; and tell stories we’re proud to call our own.
The owner of the boarding house begins her story this way: “I inherited this place from my mother, who got it from her mother, and it was passed on to me and so it goes. They called my grandmother: Ness. Short for Necessity. Who, is the mother of invention but also the daughter of courage. Don’t worry if you don’t get the names and dates of history straight: just remember that it happened. And be certain it was never according to plan.
“My grandfather died and my grandmother took in boarders and among the women who helped her were a few rejected mail order brides, one of whom landed here after her prospective husband, who beckoned her sight unseen from England and who went early to the station to get a look at her, had second thoughts, sent a telegram to the boarding house where all the jilted, wilted and bewildered end up. The telegram read: Sorry. Go Back Will Pay.
“He was a Northwest Mounted Policeman. He spent more weeks patrolling the line between Wood Mountain and Fort Walsh than he ever would at home. He never married, officially. Although he did have a wife. A native woman. A femme sauvage, they called her. A wild woman. And she knew how to find drinking water, edible roots, berries and wild rice. She knew where the fish were, and she caught rabbit and muskrat and wildfowl. From what was left after a meal she made clothing, rope, tools and toys. She made snowshoes from guts. And saddles from cottonwood and hides and she fed the horses in winter using the inner bark of aspen trees. And, she kept him warm at night. I know all this because when it came time for the women on the farms to have babies, she was the one they called for.
“We became ‘the locals’, and the previous locals became suspect. They were wild. We were civilized. So we wouldn’t identify with them. Except when we had babies. When it comes to having babies, you do what you must, you willingly deliver your baby into the hands of a stranger with steady eyes and sturdy grasp. And the femme sauvage becomes the sage femme: Here’s mushroom to stop your bleeding. Here’s boiled cheery tree root for nausea. These are yours. And it don’t matter who your God is, you both just pray, unceasingly. Here’s soft moss to line the cradle. Here’s cattail down for diapers. Here’s wild mint to calm your nerves. Here’s a lullaby to help you sleep.”
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.