Elizabeth Brewster’s Joy foretold

Donald Gammon & Elizabeth Brewster on UNB campus, circa 1946

I learned something new about grief today thanks to Margaret Atwood. Not from a character in one of her novels, or a line of her poetry, but from a personal response she made to my request for an interview.

Some background: A couple months ago I wrote an obituary on Canadian poet and publisher Raymond Souster, Atwood’s first publisher at Circle Press. She retweeted me about him almost immediately and I was thrilled: my first-ever retweet and it was from one of Canada’s national treasures and a writer whose work I adore.

My piece ran in the Globe and Mail and maybe Atwood read it. And then, yesterday, I contacted her again for another comment about another recently deceased poet. This time it is Elizabeth Brewster‘s life I am trying to write about as sensitively and as professionally as I can.

Since 1953, Brewster has published 23 books of poetry, two novels, three books of short stories, and two volumes of memoirs. Most people haven’t heard of her; that makes me even more determined to write her story, to quote her verse.

Brewster suffered powerfully during the first half of her life and once almost drowned herself. But she survived and chanced to meet up with a young Atwood at the University of Alberta in 1968.

Atwood was into tarot readings back then and turned the cards over for Elizabeth.

This reading was transformative to Brewster, a friend of hers told me, because it foretold joy as a replacement to sorrow. And much writing ahead. And because she believed in this young, wild-haired psychic of sorts, maybe more in the young Atwood as an individual and writer than in her skills as a clairvoyant, her life unfolded with more promise.

I’m not making this up.

It’s what Elizabeth wrote in autobiographical musings a few years ago.

So I wrote to Margaret Atwood looking for a comment.

“I knew Elizabeth well when we were both living in Edmonton in 1968-70, and kept up with her after that. She was an honest poet, very open, very clear. She kept up her interest in poetry all her life. I’m sorry she has died.”

At first, I was annoyed Dame Atwood said so little.

But then someone I love nudged me towards greater compassion and that always necessary damned diminishment of ego.

Maybe, said this person I love, maybe she is just tired of people dropping dead all around her. Maybe her grief is a quiet thing.

Sometimes I carry with me shades of the reaper, all these requests to speak of the dead when maybe people just want to be left alone. Please, just leave me alone.

But thanks to Margaret Atwood, at least in part anyhow, I’ll be able to write about Elizabeth’s joy.

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About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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6 Responses to Elizabeth Brewster’s Joy foretold

  1. Best yet!! So beautifully written – you swirl those words and phrases around like a great painter! And yes, tears….

  2. Hi, I’m the managing editor of The Fiddlehead and we are planning to do a retrospective on Elizabeth Brewster. Our editor loves the picture you have of Brewster on this posting and is hoping to get permission to use it. Do you have information on whom we should contact?

    Thank you, Kathryn

  3. Dwight Brewster says:

    Please write pretty things about my favourite auntie. She was a very special person: interesting and interested; engaging and engaged, and a most delightful conversationalist. I expect that she was an excellent professor as well. Aunt Betty was able to argue, or rather, ‘discuss’ the finer points of 20th Century Distopian literature with an boy at least sixty years her junior, deepening his understanding of the works (and perhaps broadening his outlook a bit) without the slightest hint of condescension, and with a firm, but gently applied, challenge to a few preconceptions that just might have been misconceptions.
    Miss Elizabeth Winifred Brewster, C.M., S.O.M., Ph.D., D.Litt., et cetera, was a very special lady….of the honours she received, she was proudest of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, because it showed that she had finally “…been accepted as a Westerner.” I do not believe I ever spoke with her without learning something, with the possible exception of some telephone conversations after the stroke, but I did not know Margaret Atwood had read her cards. I hope you can do justice to her brilliant humility in your piece. Would you be so kind as to let me know when and where I might read it? Thank you for your consideration.
    Kind regards,

    R. Dwight Brewster

    • Nor says:

      Hello Mr. Brewster, Your aunt was an inspiration and I’m very glad to have come to know more about her. The obituary I wrote on her is in The Globe and Mail this morning. Please pick it up, if you have a chance. I’ll also try to send you a pdf directly. Thank you for your comment.

  4. Cindy Hanna says:

    Thanks you for your kind words about my friend, Elizabeth. Here are a few more, posted for those who loved her … I was lucky to get to know her in her youth (which for her, lasted until a few years ago)! I met Elizabeth in her late 70’s. I know that it is a cliché to describe the elderly as “young at heart”, but Elizabeth was. Every time I saw her, she was full of news. She kept up with contemporary events even once she developed macular degeneration and lost most of her sight. How, I’m not sure; perhaps via the radio, perhaps through her many friends. Elizabeth came to Judaism later in life, after many years of study and Lunch and Learn sessions with Rabbi Pavey. She was a living, breathing monument to the idea that it is never too late to change your life. She was such a small, quiet, dignified presence in synagogue. I got to know her better, though, when I offered to drive her to Shabbat morning services in the winter. (In the summer, she liked to walk.) At first, I thought I was doing a mitzvah; before long, I had made a new friend who enriched my life enormously. I always tried to visit her whenever I returned to Saskatoon – not out of duty, but because I so enjoyed her company. She had a vibrant spirit, a keen and enquiring mind, and a wicked sense of humour. I admired her greatly; she was not one to complain about the many losses of aging. Instead, she adapted. When she could no longer see, she dictated poetry; this was how her latest book was written. She recovered from a stroke with sheer determination and a dedication to life. She hadn’t always felt that way; she had periods of depression and deep despair, and once tried to drown herself. And out of her recovery, came these words:

    You don’t know how much
    you may yet enjoy
    just waking up
    and peeling oranges
    to eat with sugar
    while you listen to the clock strike
    down at the Town Hall
    telling you again
    that you’re still here

    and Sylvia Plath isn’t.

    Words, indeed, to live by. I miss you, Elizabeth, but am glad you’re at rest and out of pain.
    Cindy Hanna

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