Thursday, May 26, 2016

Know why they call handwriting cursive? It makes you swear.

The hand-written envelope arrived last Tuesday, in the regular mail, addressed to my wife Helena.

Demonic possession was something I could not rule out.
It was a smallish envelope, maybe 3x4 in., and up in the top right corner, a Canadian postage stamp.

The only other clue hinting at where the letter came from was the handwriting.

And it was mine.

My own messy personal scrawl, with funny little swirls and indecipherable strokes, stared at me from the middle of the envelope.

It was like seeing my own name appear on call display.

But I sure hadn't written no stinkin' letter to my wife.

Helena wasn’t home at the time but our friends Chrissie and her daughter Gwyn were visiting. Just to be sure I wasn't completely nuts,  I went to the kitchen, found some paper and a pen and wrote, as naturally as I could, Helena’s name and our address.

I showed Chrissie and Gwyn, asking, "would you say that the same person produced these two addresses?"

They both answered yes.

Here’s where my brain went next:

"I. Don't. Like. This. One. Little Bit."

I did a quick mental inventory of my family and close friends. None have handwriting like mine.

After that? The lamest grasp at the thinnest straw in the history of mystery solving.

I know a guy named Patrick Flynn who used to analyze handwriting professionally. He proved to me how people with similar penmanship share personality traits.

(Patrick was also a devout Catholic. I once asked him what Jesus’ handwriting would be like.  Pat said he could only guess but was pretty confident Jesus’s signature would start with a very big first initial, the  sign of a super-huge ego. My signature’s like that too: A big P followed by a long squiggle. But I digress.)

Here went my next theory: One of  Helena's closest buddies is named Louise Hamel. I don't recall ever seeing Louise's handwriting so it could be like mine. And I like Louise a lot and who wouldn't want to share some of her traits? She’s generous to a fault, creative, and well-travelled. She’s brilliant and funny and kind. And hey! We both like Helena.

Louise's son is getting married and I knew Louise was throwing a shower this weekend. And my phantom envelope was the kind you might send an RSVP in.  If my theory was right, maybe this envelope carried a little reminder from Louise. 

Told you it was lame.

Plus, Louise is extremely hard-working, focused when need be, well-organized, health-conscious and an excellent manager..

Ixnay on ouiseLay.

Finally, I was forced to move into what I'm calling my Stephen King-sized theory, a place I didn't really want to go.

What if, I asked myself,  I had actually written the letter to my wife? But forgot.

What if—in the middle of some dark night  that I’ve buried in the abyss of my subconscious—an evil Mr. Peter Hyde for some reason decided to jot down a few choice words aimed at, rather, meant for, the missus.

Who knows what a person might do in his sleep?

Or after, maybe having his drink spiked?

Did I mention that the envelope was sealed?  

My next question: "What would be the harm in the contents of this envelope never seeing the light of day? Heck all kinds of stuff goes missing around this house."

Before I made up my mind, Helena arrived home. We had agreed to attend a sort of concert and it was time to leave the house.

I slipped the nasty letter into my jacket pocket and we climbed aboard my motorbike for a quick ride downtown.

Our friend the professional violist  Douglas Perry had invited us to a dress rehearsal of the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan which is something neither of us had ever experienced. 

The performance was mystical and unpredictable. It was also the perfect eerie background music for the mystery that played on in my brain. (Click here. Let the Gamelan provide the soundtrack for the rest of this story.)

After the show and back on the bike. I suddenly remembered that when she's riding,  Helena’s hands often find their way into my jacket pockets. (We’ve been married a long time. It’s for convenience and warmth.)

I pulled over, grabbed the envelope  and made a pre-emptive strike.

“Ha ha!” I laughed, adding, “This arrived for you today. Ha ha! Look how similar the handwriting is to mine. Isn't that silly?"

She agreed. And opened the letter.

What she said next is exactly what I hoped she would not say next.

“You did write this."

“It’s a thank-you card. From Glenda!”

It all came back to me. 

A few weeks earlier, I attended a surprise party in Sudbury for my cousin Glenda.

As a gift for Glenda, my sister Mary purchased a stack of thank-you cards, stamped envelopes, and asked each arriving guest, if they were leaving a gift, to write their names and addresses on an envelope, making it very easy for Glenda to send out thank yous.

I had forgotten all about Mary’s kind gesture. And I'm sure I'll remember it forever.

But I will go to my grave wondering if a version of the  following conversation didn't take place somewhere.

“Darling! Before you open that! I was high when I wrote it and didn’t mean a word of it! Please!  I'll just make it simple and go now."  

Or maybe it's just me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

She Coaxes the Blues Out of the Room, Mayme

"I’m ready to go, Pete,” my cousin Mayme Millar told me yesterday, just around suppertime. “I’m ready to see Mom and Dad and Grandma and Leona and everybody else.

 Mayme on a visit to San Fransisco's Pier 39:
Comments her big sister Nancy:
 "My sister is just too good and always has been.
 I wish I were like her." 
"In fact, I think I know more people on the other side.”

And then she laughed.

Mayme’s 64th birthday is this coming Friday. Although she’d like to make it to her birthday, she might not.  But, she says, that would be okay, too.

About a decade ago, doctors told Mayme she had very serious cancer. Ever since, she says, she knew the end was just around the corner. This morning she told me that every day since her diagnosis has been a gift.

Mayme remains with her husband Grant at their home in Crystal Beach, just a few minutes west of downtown Ottawa. Their daughter Jessa, 28, lives in the capital and their 30-year-old chef son Peter was at home with his folks when I visited today.

Exactly two days ago we received a surprise email from Mayme’s sister Nancy.  Mayme was fading fast, Nancy wrote.  I hadn’t seen her in a few years, but in a family like ours, time doesn’t matter. “You have to go,” my wife Helena said.

I arrived in Crystal Beach mid-afternoon Monday and that’s when Mayme told me she’s ready to see her folks again.

Mayme’s mom, Inez, was my late father’s youngest sister. Get this: Inez died in 1965, on her 43rd birthday.  Mayme was just 13. Nancy was 14. They had three younger brothers, Mike, Pat, and Joe, and another sister, Marjorie, my age.

Six kids under 15. That’s what their father Walter Scott was left to take care of.

I was eight. An eight-year-old wouldn’t have the foggiest how hard that life would have been.  All I knew was that whenever we visited the Scotts at their place in the country, I was guaranteed a good – and in many ways—educational—time.

Maybe because they were country cousins; or maybe because they had to grow up fast. But Mayme and her brothers and sisters always seemed to know stuff I was completely in the dark about. Cars, motors, animals, guns, girls, the works.

Once when we were little the three Scott boys and I were poking around an old pick-up truck on a property next to theirs. One of them told me to check under the truck so I’d see goslings. Not having any idea what I was supposed to be looking at, I commented “cool” and then reported the fact to my dad, later. The truck was no only blue and in good shape, it came with goslings. Whatever they were.

I thought "goslings" were part of the truck engine
Two years after their mom died, 16-year-old Mayme was in a near-fatal car accident.  I’m fairly certain she never completely recovered from the injuries.

These days, knowing how much money they didn’t have and how many foundation-shaking problems can arise with a family of six teenagers crammed into a small house—never mind that one of them almost died in a car crash—I shake  my head in awe of their resilience.

People who make it through such times are my heroes.

Not only that, but Mayme’s entire family has always been super good to me.

When I travelled from Sudbury to attend Carleton University in Ottawa, Nancy and her husband Don, Mayme, Grant, Mike, Pat, Marj, Joe, their spouses and eventually their kids were my second family. They fed, watered, and entertained me. They kept secrets and helped me find my way out of trouble.
Their kitchens were always open or, if I needed a place to crash, they offered up a couch.  

I also really really love the fact that Mayme and Grant chose for their handsome son the elegant handle Peter. If you ever want to win a relative’s heart for life, dare to give one of your kids that person’s name.

Here’s an aside I’ll never forget. The second-last time I visited Mayme’s homestead in Fallowfield, it was for some other family gathering and I drove out to St. Patrick’s Church, which is just up the road from where the Scott kids were raised.  In Irish Catholic families like ours, the local parish is as much a part of the household as your kitchen. And among Walter’s parish jobs was tending the parish cemetery. Which is where he was when I arrived.

I drove to the graveyard, got out of the car, and saw two men standing among the tombstones. One was Walter, who introduced me as his nephew, from Toronto. 

“Toronto, huh?” the guy says, “We just buried a guy from there.”

I like people who take death in stride. As if it’s part of life.  

While I was visiting Mayme yesterday and today, she had a parade of visitors and phone calls, so much so that Grant now acts as her fulltime personal assistant. Between carefully feeding her ice water, adjusting the bed, offering food and  words of encouragement, he greets  and provides full detailed reports to the various health-care and personal-care aides who drop in to check on Mayme’s well-being.

Grant is also manning a carefully scripted calendar to keep Mayme from being overwhelmed by visitors.  And with such nonchalance!  It reminds me of that Far Side cartoon where two devils in hell are standing over a guy shovelling coal and whistling. One devil says to the other: “You know we're just not reaching that guy.”
A little light reading
 at Grandma Carter's place

When I think about it, it was wasn’t only Mayme, Grant, Peter, Nancy and the rest of them made saying goodbye far easier than I expected.  All of us have grown up in a very specific culture that is just plain comfortable around the whole death thing.  

Religion helps to be sure, but so does that fact that Mayme and I were able to laugh—yes laugh, yesterday—about the fact that our Grandmother Carter had a book called  “Irish Wake Amusements" on her living room coffee table.

And after we finished laughing, I told her I had to head back to Toronto.

So we gave each other a rib-threatening hug and a kiss on the cheek. Our last conversation went as follows.

Me: “Mayme, you’ve always been a role model for me.”

Her: “You’ve been a role model for me, Pete. I love you.”

Me: “I love you too, Mayme. Sweet dreams.”

Us: “Goodbye.”

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Campaign Starts Here!

Saint Alexander Graham Bell.

It sounds like it’s already a thing, doesn’t’ it?

Saint Alexander Graham Bell. What a terrific name for a new Catholic Elementary School.

Saint Alexander Graham Bell, the Patron Saint of Social Media.

They could build the Saint Alexander Graham Bell Shrine on the shores of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lake, where he died in 1922.  (Bras d’Or. Isn’t that the prettiest lake name ever?)  

An Alexander Graham Bell statue sure beats that “Mother Canada” monstrosity that was planned for just up the road. Plus guys like me, when they visited, could make the following Dad joke to their kids:  “Know why there’s a statue to the inventor of the telephone? Because the first thing lots of people say when they pick up the receiver is, ‘Stat you?’”

I should mention that Alexander Graham Bell is not really a saint. Yet.

We're just starting to work on it.

And though it's a terrific notion, I can't take credit. My late mom Huena said--with some regularity--that if the Vatican's looking for new saints, Bell would be a terrific first-round draft choice. (Not her words but her idea.)
“In order to be a saint you have to perform miracles,” Huena used to say, adding "Show me something more miraculous than the telephone.”

Huena died in 2005. On Valentine’s Day.

But this past Wednesday evening, I was at a meeting of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors and talking to my fellow editors Allan Britnell and D.B. Scott.  I mentioned how much better the world is because of things like Facebook and added that my mom always felt Bell should be made a saint.

D.B. just sort of lit up at the thought.

“So the campaign to canonize Alexander Graham Bell starts now!” he said, and we toasted the notion.   

And because it was my mom who thought of it, Mother’s Day is the ideal time to get the wheels moving. I’m not sure how to start, it’ll probably involve contacting the Vatican.  

You can bet when I do get the Holy See’s attention, I’ll be like: “BTW Pope Francis?  I think you should know Huena’s second name was Frances. My Dad was Thomas Francis. My daughter is Ev Frances. I’m Peter Frances. I used to have the 'is' version until the passport office saw that my passport and birth certificate had two different spellings so I had to go one way or the other. Just thought you should know. We're big on Francis'”)  

If anybody has any ideas how to proceed, please send them my way.

But back to Huena and Alexander Graham.

First let's agree. The telephone has of late indeed morphed into a computer. So when I'm talking "phones" I'm talking Skype and everything else. At heart, it’s all still a phone.  And it’s still miraculous.

Phones reunite families. They keep parents from freaking out when the kids are late coming home. Or travelling in, like, Cambodia.  Phones warn you when bad weather’s coming.  Or when a half-drunk uncle is on his way over to visit.  

Excellent jokes get phoned around.  News of really great sales gets passed along. New babies arriving and cousins being sprung from jail. Phones make it possible to phone in sick. 

I would argue that phones help avert war.  (They’ve certainly provided great material for Bob Newhart.)

You get the picture.

If a saint needs a mortal champion—or earthly cheerleader type—I nominate my mom. She excelled at phone.

If you could have visited her in the later stages of her life, you would have seen what I’m talking about.

Huena had nine brothers and sisters, 10 kids, a heck of a lot of grand and great grandchildren and she stayed in touch with old friends. Even though she was pretty much housebound in the last few years, she never once stopped being a mom, aunt, sister, friend, grandma, nurse, social worker or alibi provider.  

I wish somebody had video’d Huena when she was doing her phone thing.  From morning until bedtime, she sat in her rocking chair and played the phone like one of those switchboard operators in an old Charlie Chaplin movie.

She’d get word about an ailing cousin in Halifax and somehow pass the message to all the relatives who needed to know in Niagara Falls. Then she’d hear about a son’s rent increase in Toronto and after making sure he still had enough to get by she’d pass the news along to a daughter in Little Current, who told her about a five-year-old hockey-playing grandson’s first ever two-minute penalty.  If, say, an FLQ bomb went off in downtown Montreal, Huena would know in moments whether her sister’s son Bert was anywhere near the scene and when she found out he was safe she would tell her world about it. 

We  didn’t need CNN we had Huena.

If she were still alive she would be on Facebook 24/7. She’d burn up Twitter. InstaGram would be a great Twitter handle for her. Get it? Gram? Never mind.

Huena also had a way of sculpting every single story so as to elicit the most joy or least distress to the listener, depending on their needs or her intention. Everything I know about magazine editing I learned from Huena.

Thanks to the phone, Huena never missed a thing.  And she loathed missing out. She was, after all, a card-carrying party animal. It said so right in the newspaper. “Huena loved parties and God,” her obituary read.

I bet she hates being dead.

I sure wish she weren’t.

Meantime, I’m starting my Saint Alexander Graham Bell campaign. 

And it just occured to me. If the Pope Francis is going to be handing out sainthoods, I might as nominate Huena Frances while I'm at it. What the hell.

I’ll keep you posted.