Thursday, November 11, 2010

Forty-four Years Ago

I think it was on our last return from Kaslo, as we drove through that part of the lake shore where Marianne grew up, that her late mother's spirit - it is All Saint's Day, early in the morning, that I write - said to me, "Aren't you glad that I insisted that she go to Saint Joseph's?"
It was a very sweet moment, and because Father Matthieu had become well accustomed to the ordinary level of the household conversations, being an attentive child of Francis of Assisi, I was able to share it immediately. This has rarely been easy with Canadian priests, never been easy with our diocesan priests, especially the home grown ones, but it has become a given with Matthieu and our Capuchin bishop. No wonder my "first priest" was Padre Pio, and my second saint's biography - after Cardinal Newman's Apologia - was Jorgensen's story of the stigmatic. Marianne laughed, of course, because in the summer after grade six she had made up her mind that she was not going to submit to a martinet, especially one so fanatical about grammar. I heard about this decision, to my surprise, when I stopped in at the garage one afternoon in the latter days of my cooking duties at the diocesan summer camp. Marianne had been cutting the grass on the front lawn as I wheeled in, and I simply asked her as a matter of course about seeing her in the fall.
At the time, the word from Heaven  was simply a nice moment, as I said, something to chuckle over in the course of an hour's drive in the evening, now dark as we were nearing Nelson. Like any lunkhead of an earth-dweller, I had no idea of what the Almighty Muse and his little friend from Valmadrera, northern Italy, had in mind.
It was not until the autumn of 1966, the early weeks of my last year in the classroom, that Providence finally began to explain one of the major reasons I had been inspired, right at the beginning of knowing Shawn, to think of settling in Nelson, and why it had been so worth it to endure the slings and arrows of a totally unsuspected fortune, that of being so disappointed in the university. It was in that fateful autumn that I discovered, through a writing assignment, that MT had the very valuable talents of a story teller. (This was Providence beginning to explain; the rest of the revelation did not come until a few weeks after Christmas, when I gave another assignment in original work, this one in religion class.)
You could not really blame the twelve-year old for her reluctance. To her and the rest of that huge grade six class, I had been merely the demanding old grammarian who roared through the door three afternoons a week to splatter the blackboard with such annoying terms as nouns, verbs, conjunctions, subordinate clauses and so on, and also had the infernal cheek to insist, not at all timidly or in a soft and gentle voice, that these things were the stuff of ordinary human life. Hardly the way to win the academic heart of a poetic young lady. In my own classroom I also drilled the grammar until they reeled, but at least there were all the other subjects, and a great deal of music and art and literature. Apparently the grade sevens had not shared the history of their good fortune with the grade sixes, or else Marianne, living miles out of town, had not been around to hear the stories.
But, as I said, Mercedes Tremblay, diminutive little person though she was, put her foot down, and the daughter returned for her final year at Saint Joe's. A good six or seven of her female classmates, on the other hand, moved on to the junior high, leaving me with ten girls and twenty boys, one of whom became a star in the NHL, and two others heroes of the eventual war in the Balkans. They were no more loved or disciplined than the others, but all teachers spend a little time now and then wondering where their charges will end up.
She did manage to sit as far away from her teacher as possible, electing a seat in the farthest corner, day after day quietly doing all her work very well, leaving me with no complaints about her attitude or behaviour and therefore that much more time to spend with the harder wills and slower minds. And living out of town, she did not volunteer with the rest of the girls, who showed up in spades on a Saturday afternoon after I had asked for help with the vegetable preparation for a mighty stew Shawn and I cooked up for a parent-teacher get together.
But not long after, I laid on an assignment in creative writing, insisting that it be more or less authentic, with names changed to protect the innocent or guilty, and the quiet, albeit orderly and productive mouse from the back corner roared with a voice that  utterly shook the teacher. I wanted short stories, and I wanted them to be more fact than fiction. Everybody had a life worth looking at with a judicial eye, even adolescents, and in my second year of teaching in Terrace, before we came to Nelson, my grade eights had proved this in spades, each raconteur reading aloud to the class during art class. We'd all had an enormous amount of fun telling the truth. Part of the trick was to tell the kids they should write dialogue if it came up, something I  can't remember thinking of when I was faced with the burden of a school room sketch.
For reasons I can't remember, I did not ask for the first stories to be read out, but simply took them in to be marked. A lot my boys played organized hockey, so I received all sorts of Foster Hewitt and Danny Gallivan, and of very respectable length. My future warriors wrote hugely of tank battles. But it was MT who came up with some humourous realism, so craftily done, so utterly beyond anything I could have written at the same age, even if my spelling had always been more consistently better than hers has ever been, that I was simply amazed as well as very much pleased, because she had so justified my pedagogical intuitions. It  had helped the tale no little, mind you, that I myself made an excellent protagonist, being the camp cook pretty much responsible for setting the tone of good order and discipline, but at my best, I was still only a foil for the four girls as lively and quick as any heroines of that age I had ever read about, and this story was actually true, as well as artlessly told, right to the last sentence. I kept waiting for the initial sparkle to fade, finding it difficult to believe that a child could sustain such a robust unfolding of the imaginative memory, but the tale rolled on, quite effortlessly, to a fitting conclusion. A real beginning, a real middle, a real end, without any of the common resort of importing incidents and characters actually outside, and often well outside, the actual history of the author. I think especially of Mark Twain and L.M. Montgomery. It also helped that the setting was the diocesan summer camp for children, located on a lake with a fine beach and all the paraphernalia that goes with a well established facility. I had quite loved my first summer in camp kitchen, and was delighted to have it brought back so well.
Was this simply phenomenal luck, a one shot that she would never be able to repeat, or had a mere classroom teacher stumbled across a genuine writer of significant stories, one whose name was destined to go down in history, and therefore, possibly, much more of a responsibility for his own knowledge of the trade than would be your ordinary student? I did in fact, later, spend a certain amount of time talking with her about writing more fiction, but nothing conclusive in that genre really worked, no doubt because what did begin to come out, some weeks after Christmas, was the series of letters between us that led to Marianne's becoming a contemplative, and eventually, the bane of wicked or sluggish clergy and religious and an advisor to Popes. All of this, of course, was of much more use to God than an anecdote about four young girls in conflict - I forget who won - with a camp cook.
And so, for years, we left it at that. Then, in 1978, six full years after entering the domestic monastery, she was moved to write a short story about a high school football match and its aftermath. She wrote it quickly, shrugged, and put it away in a folder with some letters, and it never turned up again until three weeks ago when Father Matthieu, for reasons unknown to me, asked to see some of the correspondence that had passed between Rome and ourselves. In the course of getting out the relevant folders, MT found the hand-written draft of the story.  She instantly recognized the life, the truth, and the way to put something up on her blog. The rewrite was done in a weekend, and though I am generally against rushing where creation is concerned, I found myself with the good old school teacher/editor's corrective pencil in hand by Sunday night, thoroughly enjoying myself, and the post went up not long after.
She insists she doesn't have another story in her, but then she talked that way about poetry for a long time. We shall see.

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