Loss. Regret.

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Writing obituaries sometimes feels like an exercise in loss and regret. The subject has died, of course, and so I lack the opportunity to interview this person. Instead I must gather details of her or his life from colleagues, family, and friends.

But these individuals whom I am compelled to interview are often gob-smacked by grief and so I question with caution then must form an impression of my subject’s character based on their reminiscences and any relevant biographical material they lend me.

Loss: the absence of my subject.

Regret: I have never met them.

Sometimes there is a diary or memoir, such as with my most recent obituary of Dr. Edmond Boyd. The richness of his life seeped from the pages begging to be shared and I felt grateful to have them. But even with this first-hand record I ran into problems.

Dr. Boyd hated his father. The first words of his diary begin with this declaration. And so in my obituary I called his father imperious, suggesting he held onto his family like a dictatorial patriarch.

But his children remembered their grandfather differently: consumed by his work as a Harley Street physician but otherwise a warm man, protecting his son from a doting and possibly oppressive mother. They would have liked to have known him better.

With the obituary I am currently writing about James Pon I have encountered a similar problem. Loss, yes, and regret.

In researching Mr. Pon I have been generously given access to an oral history done a few years ago: 50 pages of articulate questions concerning his life as Chinese-Canadian immigrant who came to Canada at age five and was burdened by the financial weight of a head tax.

His grandfather was one of navvies who built the CPR line, risking his life to unite the country according to Prime Minister John A. MacDonald‘s national dream.

But there is a different issue for me in reading this transcript and it saddens me.

This 95 year-old man sounds incredibly sweet, generous with his time, and in-all-ways he is doing is best during this interview.

But his memory is fading. His responses seem almost by rote, like he’d been asked them time-a-plenty by journalists. Sometimes he seems to be led, or pressured, and at times he is even slightly teased or cajoled.

This assumed inauthenticity makes it difficult to mine the gold of his life.

One of the interviewers suggests frequent breaks; she is sensitive to the strain. But Mr. Pon allows for few of them. He plows ahead with his stories and he is wearying and now he is gone.

My article will honour him, and this is good, but he won’t know it.

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“Let him rest,” says his widow

Edmond Boyd April 1945

When I’m writing an obituary, I live among the family. Not literally, of course, but emotionally. It begins with reading the death notice, usually written by one of the deceased’s children, placed in a newspaper at great cost and twigging my interest: a life worthy of more newspaper inches. Then I make a phone call.

“The Globe and Mail” acts as a foot in the door and we’re off. I set up interviews, usually limiting them to one or two family members and one or two colleagues. Sometimes the subject of my storytelling no longer has living colleagues and so I hope, in these instances, the children flesh out details of their parent’s life and career well enough.

Ideally, they’ll be able to excavate key research documents like news clippings, CVs, or if I’m really lucky, a sufficiently well-written memoir plump with anecdotes and colour.

With each tiny speck of fact I slide deeper into the story. I become a plant, as I said, within the family: circling the lore; expanding the mythology; rooting among untruths for accuracy. And always, always articulating history.

History of an individual but also factors that shape society and ourselves, that’s a goal and I often achieve it in the obituaries I publish about the lives that interest us. But there’s a microcosm entered, as I said, between myself and family members whom I also come to know, the life in the works, as it were.

It’s reflected in the mad-dash emails to-ing and fro-ing for the duration of the assignment: fact checking; clarifying quotes; detailing of the colour of a polyester suit he wore the day he was presented an Order of Canada; inspiration behind a famed collage hung in a gallery; the truth behind a love affair that threatened to shift my subject’s life back in the 60s; a hushed adoption.

I filed an article yesterday about a 23-year-old upper class Cambridge medical student on the front lines at liberating Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It brought me into contact with his adult children who hadn’t fully known about their father’s “Belsen Diary” before he died last month.

Hugely piqued, I asked them for exclusive rights to this manuscript for a period of six months, so I could explore a wider audience for what I believe has important historical relevance and should be known.

Yes, Yes!” say his children.

Let him rest,” says his widow.

And so I undoubtedly shall.

Intrusion, violation, and exploitation are far, far from my intentions, ever. But neither do I shy away from expressing a desire to preserve what must be remembered. His widow will decide.

The picture above depicts this man, and his young friends, in April, 1945, as they prepare to surrender to the world-as-they-know-it.

For Belsen.

Thank you, to his family, who also told me stories about this man’s post-Belsen attempt at a life and why it ought to be marked in a page, not merely a notice.

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Mrs. Journalist here

ML Knight Time and Gas Collection Henry Knight

My first “Mrs.”

In my copy, I mean.

I have never been nor shall I ever be a Mrs., but the Globe and Mail deigned to snap that honorific to the woman I profiled in today’s paper. It is hard, so hard for me to bear, to see, to own up to this non-typo.

And on International Women’s Day no less!

A bit of background.

I wrote about this truly amazing, inspiring, woman-loving Toronto artist and writer named M.L. Knight.

She is another person I could have been friends with; she was someone who probably would have gone some distance in mentoring me, as a writer. She certainly performed this role for countless other women.

In her visual art, she created whimsical and evocative collages telling all sorts of stories to all sorts of people, demonstrating creativity, imagination, humour, the ridiculous–and demonstrating feminist politics.

She called one collage “Fisted Rage.”

In it, she tore ads from a women’s magazine depicting tightly wound rolls of bathroom towels in every shade of pastel.

She then drew the viewer’s eye to the similarity between this basket of rolled towels and a tightly clenched fist.

I think she was commenting on the domestic situation that demands women pay attention to such trivial details. A kind of domestic rage inspired by Martha Stewart?

She also wrote about her childhood, a little bookish girl raised by a Disciples of Christ reverend and a missionary mother in Toronto back in the 20s.

Some of the marked irreverence she later slipped into her art, I think, came from living among this fundamentalist sect.

She described churchwomen who looked kindly on shell-shocked soldiers (First World War) and the unemployed (the Depression), but not on “stupid-looking domestics.”

She outed a congregation who literally ran a suspected homosexual music teacher from town and then, in an ironic twist, offered the teaching job to this shamed man’s male “roommate.”

She describes her mother’s struggle to clean the doleful blackish carpet that had been donated by the congregation. “Into that rug one’s spirit could be sucked,” she wrote.

And so how did this enlightened proto-feminist land as a “Mrs.” on the page? My very first Mrs. as it turns out.

Because her family insisted that’s what she would have wished.

And I respected her wishes.

Gulp.

I suppose Nellie McClung was a Mrs. too.

Happy International Women’s Day to you all.

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Yeah but—Where’s the Justice?

UnknownJust fresh from a spate of research, having spent several minutes peeling names from a computer data base at the Superior Court of Justice, in Toronto. Got there at nine, thinking I had a fair chunk of work before me rummaging about in estates.

That is, I was searching for certain people who had died over the last several months in Ontario. This is one of the sidelined research tasks required of this girl obituary writer, and I generally enjoy the monotony of it.

Plus it’s nice to be out of my office, even if I sometimes have to struggle with rush hour streetcars to make it here, cursing along with the best of them and plugged in to escape the drone. Wearing a “Relax” button twisted onto my ankle-length down coat.

So. I got to the building and rode up to the 7th floor, said good morning to the security guard, and headed along the corridor a few feet to the one computer terminal they provide for this research.

I had just set up when along comes this man, fortyish, in a hurry and in a scowl. Being a nice person, I smiled at him and here’s how our conversation went, before he screamed at me and rushed through the glass doors leaving me humiliated, bewildered, and thinking about the return of mass murderers in public space.

Me: “Do you have much research to do? I have quite a bit.”

Him: “I have quite a bit too.”

Me: “How long will your ‘quite a bit’ take?”

Him: “Twenty minutes. How long will you take?”

Me: “Probably about an hour.”

Him: “An hour! This is a goddamned public computer!”

Me: “Yes, I know. And I’m a public. But I’m offering to share it with you.”

Him:  Blah blah blah bitch fuck cunt. Heads raised by gentle lurkers and men in blue.

Me: “Stop insulting me! I offered to share it with you!”

Him: More bitch fuck cunt and he storms out of the office offering these parting words: “Fuck you. Use your hour. Or six hours, whatever.”

Me: okay.

Five minutes later another man arrived. I asked how long his research would take.
“Five minutes,” he said. So I shoved aside.

Ten minutes later a third man arrived, a well-healed lawyer type hoisting one of those ridiculously gargantuan black accordion law bags, a dolly loaded knee-high with files, and a Globe & Mail tucked under his arm.

I asked my question.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, settling in at the desk beside me, propping up his Blackberry and newspaper. Prepared to wait me out. No doubt on his client’s bill.

Ah, life among the dead.

In the land of justice.

Post Script: my “Relax” button, regrettably, was lost among the debris of the moment.

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Tristan and Isolde

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Last weekend I went to see Tristan and Isolde at the magnificent Four Seasons Centre in downtown Toronto, performed by the Canadian Opera Company.

My sister Kathleen invited me because her friend wasn’t able to attend. Our orchestra seats were ten rows from the stage.  I would never have been able to afford these tickets–$165–and couldn’t wait to see the opera. I felt grateful to her friend.

Kathleen and I met at the entrance and as we handed the tickets over I asked which friend donated them to us.

“Do you remember my friend Sandra?”

“Sure I do,” I said. “I remember her very well. How is she?”

“She died last weekend.”

This woman, a lawyer Kathleen had met at Queen’s University Law School back in the early 1980s, had MS and slipped, hard, in her Toronto home.

Unable to rouse herself, or reach the phone, she bled to death.

The opera tickets were found in her condo and sent on to Kathleen.

I was stunned.

Briefly, while settling ourselves in our seats, with orchestral tune-up notes like balm all around us, we spoke about this woman.

Sandra lived alone, said Kathleen. Once she developed MS she cut herself off from everybody; but she somehow still made it to COC performances.

“She was a lesbian, wasn’t she?” I asked, wondering whether she had a partner.

“Yes, but she was in the closet all the years that I knew her.

“The only reason I knew, for sure, that she was gay was because a while back I asked if she’d like to be setup on a date with a woman.

“Sandra said yeah, sure, and met my friend, but that’s all I ever heard about it.”

“She was always alone,” Kathleen added.

The program notes for ACT III reads:

“After love, the last task in a human life is death.”

Love and death; Tristan and Isolde; central themes to this Wagner opera but there is one more theme, making this version of this myth of the two lovers spectacularly unique.

And it also makes me ponder one of the imagined themes of Sandra’s life.

In the opera King Marke, the ruler who sent Tristan on the mission to kidnap Isolde, reveals that he is in love with Tristan and right there on the stage at the Four Seasons Centre, right there on the lips of esteemed Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, Marke plants an extended kiss.

The two men had been lovers; they had devised the abduction plot together–but all that had happened before Tristan and Isolde unknowingly swallowed the love potion and belonged to each other.

I thought about Sandra’s life alone, how she was afraid to come out even to her friends. I thought about her death. Alone. And now this brave new opera…

“The love that dare not speak its name,” read to the liner notes “is as strong as any other love.”

Thank you, Sandra, for the little bit of you I was fortunate to have known.
And thank you for the opera.

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The saga of intellectual revolutionaries

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(NOTE: TROUBLE WITH FORMATTING THIS POST. SORRY.)

Many recent mornings my name has jolted me awake, stamped there on top of an obituary in the Globe & Mail.

Coffee, first, but always on the way back from the kitchen I pop out out to the front porch, still before daylight, and pick up the paper and that’s when I remember that I’m in it. My work, my words, the end result of living inside the life of my subject.

This morning it was the storytelling I did about Roxana Ng, the rich details of her political work, the struggles she faced in confronting challenges in the hierarchy of the academy; what I believe was great satisfaction she got from allying herself with the right cause, the left cause, in every way.

I have a new editor. When I filed the article with him yesterday afternoon he wrote back with one correction.

“You ID’d Gramsci as a scholar, but he’s much more an intellectual revolutionary, so I changed that a bit.

Intellectual revolutionary…in the pages of the Globe and Mail!

I smiled, thinking that Roxana Ng would appreciate that.

Then I remembered that it was she who inspired it.

When I picked up the paper this morning and read the headline I had another pleasure jolt when I read the headline to this article on Dr. Ng’s life:

“Roxana Ng: An activist who fought racism and sexism.”

But here’s the rub: she no longer lives.

There is, perhaps, no reason to celebrate but rather to mourn.

I want to describe now how difficult that often is for me, and why it is difficult.

Because when I research and write these articles the subjects are very much alive to me and I fully absorb myself with the details of their experiences, the ways in which they mattered.

This woman, this academic cum activist roaming the halls at OISE, University of Toronto,  is there today (that’s how it seems), urging Tai Chi on willing colleagues; carting her trolly laden with tea, flowers, reams of paper, pens, and a busy Iphone on vibration.

After the obituary was published I sent a pdf to her friends, people who helped gather anecdotes, like fishers with nets gliding on top of the waves.

Ripples led to more ripples, soapy foam silently splashed on sand.

I was there to absorb the stories and wished to show my appreciation for these helpmates.

“Thank you for the excellent obituary of Roxana,” one of her friends wrote, after receiving the pdf.

 “We miss her terribly every day. What a friend she was.”

Here is my response to this woman.

“I am so sorry about the tremendous pain you must all be feeling.

When I write about people they always seem so alive to me. I grow excited about their work and achievements and quirky ways.

“It’s not right that I forget, for a small time, the loss her friends and family feel every moment.

“Thank you for the reminder.”

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Writing about housewives

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How do I write about housewives?

It has been my consistent belief that there is a story, nay, many stories, in every individual life. It’s just a matter of finding them. Sometimes it means sitting someone down, making this person trust you, and fishing.

She trusts you because your interest in her is genuine and is reflected in your face and body language: “Tell me more, please.”

It’s not so much a story around every corner; I believe there’s a story in every person.

But–how do I write about a housewife? I mean how do I write a Globe and Mail obituary about a woman often viewed as lurking in the shadow of her husband’s notoriety? I must coax her out. But she is no longer alive.

It’s Brenda Davies I’m now referring to. She is my current obsession. She was married to Canadian literary giant Robertson Davies for a fistful of fat decades. During his years as Founding Master of Massey College, at the University of Toronto, she stitched altar clothes and kneeling runners for the chapel there.

She entertained visiting scholars and dignitaries like the sculptor Henry Moore.

She read Canadian authors for him because he didn’t want to read them himself. They might cramp his style. Margaret Laurence was her favourite.

She even shushed women so they wouldn’t disturb him while he wrote–women students protesting in front of the college back in the 1960s because they were excluded from membership in the all-male bastion.

Oh, but there was so much more to her.

Before Rob whisked her into holy matrimonial, back in 1940 when she was 23 years old, Brenda worked as stage director of London’s Old Vic Theatre among the likes of Laurence Oliver, Tyrone Power, and Vivienne Leigh (that was a year after Leigh hammered down Scarlet O’Hara.)

Nearly 15 years later, Tyrone Guthrie offered her the job stage managing the Stratford Festival in Ontario. She turned it down. She was a housewife who took on the august job of stage-managing RD so that he could write the books we love. (She even came up with the title for Fifth Business.)

One more thing: Brenda was dyslexic.

“We pool our resources,” said the great man once upon a time.  “Mrs. Davies can drive a car and I can spell.”

If you get a chance to read my version of Mrs. Davies’ life, you’ll see that she managed to do a lot more important things — than spell.

 

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