A GLORIOUS GHOST: MAXWELL PERKINS

On one of the many torrid afternoons we’ve experienced in southern Ontario this summer, I snuck off to the cool, dark sanctuary of the Westdale Theatre. The vintage theatre itself is a time machine, which suited my mood that day perfectly. I’d been working hard and deserved a matinee, I assured myself. Popcorn, chocolate, and seats you can hunker right down into: a kind of heaven. Cool darkness where bleating sunlight had worn me out. Also, I tend to rise at 5 a.m., so that by 4 in the afternoon, a movie is all I want. And yes, two hours of air conditioning.

Happily, the movie on offer (not that it would have mattered that day, not really) was GENIUS, about the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. If you don’t already know of him, he worked with Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway, Ring Lardner and Fitzgerald, to name a few of his more notorious authors. Some say he invented the intimate editor/author relationship but that’s one of those things that’s fairly hard to confirm or deny. He definitely cared very deeply about artistic process. Genius is not a perfect movie, but it is hardly as weak as many reviewers insisted. Maybe you have to have survived writing a novel to really click with the film? Maybe you have to have worked with dozens of writers—some of whom are nervous as racehorses, others tough and some surprisingly cheery—to see inside Colin Firth’s tender performance as Max.  I’m pretty sure that most writers in the audience would connect with Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) ripping scream of grateful exaltation when he learns that Scribner’s will be publishing his first novel. Hard not to leap from your cinema seat and cheer along with him.

Most films about writing life tend to be very Hollywood, probably because the actual act of typing or scribbling (remember that?) is definitely visual but a little dull after a while. Best to show the drinking, shouting matches and angst built into a literary life, it seems. Unless of course you’re showing a female writer, where the drama is likely drawn from her latest battle with her housekeeper, a chronic interruptor. But what Genius offers is the opportunity to leave the cinema and go on to visit or re-visit the excellent biography, Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg.

A word of caution for writers working today who read this mammoth, delicious 1978 tome about long-ago editor/author relations. Some of the initial sales figures cited in relation to Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Wolfe will make the average Canadian fiction author want to poke his or her eyes out with envy. But take heart: books in the Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Wolfe era were not competing with Netflix and Pikachu and all-the-books-you-can-download-for-99-cents websites. People still read, and they still read a lot. They just buy books “differently” now—or so we are told. The powerful book-driven bond between Perkins and his authors will make you ache, rejoice by turns, and it might even cause you to despair in moments, but it’s still a must-read for anyone even thinking of becoming a fiction editor. It’s also a beautifully written, brass tacks glimpse into the ways in which writers can get in the way of their own creative progress. True, the gaze of this book is mostly male, but if you care about high-level literature, the standards of excellence are universal, I find. If you’re feeling down in the dumps about your writing life to begin with, the revelation that The Great Gatsby was a complete commercial flop in its day will either bolster you or elicit angry tears. Admired by fellow authors, definitely, but never embraced by the book buying throng that existed in that era. It wasn’t his last novel, but it might have been, had it not been for the passionate (not to mention patient) faith of Max Perkins.

I cried watching the film and I admit that the biography stirred up some sobs too. Maybe it’s because I know a lot about the effort that goes into creating a book from both sides of the desk? I’m just very grateful, as both a writer and editor, that A. Scott Berg persisted with his carefully considered study of the equally thoughtful Maxwell Perkins. Although Perkins sought anonymity, his legend deserves to live on, if only to inspire the bravehearts who keep writing—and editing—books in the 21st century.

***Also a great read is this New Yorker piece.

 

The Litter I See Project: wintercream

A few months ago, I was invited to submit a piece of writing inspired by The Litter I See project in support of the Frontier College literacy program. As a teacher of Creative Writing, I have long believed in the power of visual prompts to stir the Muse to action. After studying the photo of the discarded spoon for all of two minutes, I wrote the piece. I was thinking about how forgiveness works–and doesn’t—in our lives as we journey along. It is a potent theme in the lives of recovered addicts, many of whom are never forgiven for personal messes, even long after they achieve sobriety. Wintercream is a very short story about unconditional love.

wintercream

(c) Marnie Woodrow 2016

The last meal we ever ate together was ice cream. I remember because she had been chewing Clorets to hide the vodka and then we spooned the high-fat French Vanilla into our mouths. And when they finally left us alone for a minute, we kissed. I was 21 and she was 46 and we didn’t mind. It goes without saying the sex was often amazing. To this day I remember that she hated her middle name and I can still picture the permanent curl of her baby finger which her brother had slammed in a door at a cottage near Perth. I never met her brother or any other member of her family but I was there when they told her they’d have to amputate her leg. I was there when she looked out the hospital window and said, “Well, that’s the end of my Morris dancing, then.” And then she sobbed out a laugh that made the nurse turn away. “Poor you,” she said to me. “Here for the bitter old end.” She fished a key from her purse and sent me to her fourth-floor apartment on Avenue Road. Take whatever you like before the sharks smell the blood in the bathwater. I had wanted to save our ice cream feast for after the operation. An enticement to survival. French Vanilla where the lame gift of my young love did no apparent good. It felt like bad luck that she wanted it before going into surgery. And it was the first time I had ever seen a refusal to fight in a woman’s eyes. We ate from the same small paper bucket and then they wheeled her backwards away from me, back through the double doors. I sat for three hours in the waiting room with the plastic ice cream spoon parked between my teeth, hunting for traces with my tongue. Please change your mind. Waited and put off going out into the barking cold afternoon storm. No one would come get me to tell me she was gone. It was before they had to acknowledge that the last person who kissed your mouth might be family. It took me seven hours to get all the empty bottles out of her apartment but I wanted them to feel how wrong they had been to never once return her calls.

Paris: Encore Une Fois

It’s strange to think quite seriously that you might never see a place again. Might never walk its streets or hear its sounds (high heels on cobblestones, car horns honking, the wind), smell its signature aromas (soap, perfume, urine) again in your lifetime. At 20 I was cocksure I would return to Paris with the love of my life on my arm, and so I have. Our honeymoon has been a dream and a half. But sitting here in the silence before the city truly awakens, sipping good strong coffee in our apartment in Le Marais, I’m not sure I will ever see Paris again. I am no longer 20; I am not Rockefeller and there are too many places on the list. Rather than be sad about it, I am philosophical, perhaps because of all the time we’ve spent sitting in cafes watching la foule. It is a beautiful city, hard on newcomers and the elderly—as many cities are—a city unlike any other.

One night we walked for three hours without a map, which is the recommended way to see Paris, simply by wandering and trusting her. Strolling and having faith that she will show you what you need to see of her narrow lanes and main boulevards. It was exquisite. In spite of it being autumn it seldom rained and we wore light jackets. There was a hot spell each day at around 4 p.m. and the cafés filled with people determined to enjoy conversation, a drink or a coffee, time away from work and time in the last burst of sunshine for the day. We saw people reading books and walking, and three times as many texting and walking, a sad worldwide development. In our ten days here I have not once missed my cell phone. I used it as a camera and thrilled to the fact that it would never ring and interrupt our promenades.

We did not see everything we meant to see, and that is as it should be, because other unexpected sights and experiences stepped in. I surprised myself at how much French is still tucked into the recesses of my aging brain, how many words and phrases I still know. We shopped for food in the local marches that we cooked in our tiny apartment kitchen. Listened to French music with the windows open. Heard the woman across the courtyard sobbing, “Molly, Molly, je t’aime” into her telephone at top volume. Her windows were always open, too. We gamely rode the Metro and hiked many more miles, our eyes amazed at the incredible grandeur of palaces, churches, galleries. The Marche aux Puces isn’t as big as I remembered, but it is still a thrilling maze of treasures and oh, the faces of the vendors and proprietors. The faces everywhere: Paris is a city filled with characters, male and female, old and young. I marveled at the courage of the tiny beings navigating scooters across the cobblestones en route to the nearest park, not a helmet in sight.

If I never see this city again, I will dream about it often. The beauty of travel is that it generates rich memories that, god willing, can never be taken away from you. On days when work is not going well, or when the duller routines of life get on your nerves, you can float back to market stalls and pathways along the Seine, to the tiny bistro where you ate lunch and watched a rare rainstorm, elbow to elbow. And if this truly is le derniere temps a Paris, I am so happy that I spent it with you.

Catch and Release

The days leading up to publication of a book are strange days indeed. There’s joy and excitement, but also grief and anxiety in tiny, random bursts. Comparisons to childbirth abound, but quite honestly, the older I get the less sure I am that the analogy is apt. Or maybe it’s just because that would make me one of the world’s slowest novel-birthers.

“Where did this idea come from?” is a common question, and where my new novel, Heyday, is concerned, I can only say it was born of the realization that some loves never die. And I’ve been obsessed with roller coasters since riding my first one at Canada’s Wonderland at the age of 12. As the novel grew and morphed and shifted, it cast off certain characters and themes and gained others. What it retained through every single draft was the deep conviction that we travel through life with the gameness of roller coaster riders, willingly putting our hearts on the line for thrills and spills and potential danger.  Some don’t, of course, but they were not the ones who interested me. Bravery and courage interest me. So does the journey of forgiveness.

More than being like giving birth, publishing a novel is like catching a fish, studying its glitter and throwing it back into the water, hopeful for its future swims without you. It’s catch and release: you finally finish, you can’t wait to be free of it, and yet, once you toss it back into the world, you feel a sadness, a hope and a quiet pride that you did the right thing, spending all that time, all those sunny days indoors, hunting for that elusive fish in waters that were some days crystalline and other days pure murk. No one will ever care about that creature as much as you do. And yet, with luck, someone out there will catch it, appreciate the love letter tucked in its jaws, and find their own release in it.

 

Heyday will be published September 1, 2015 by Tightrope Books. The launch party is on September 15 in Toronto at The Gladstone Hotel.

On Your Bike

When my father died, I bought myself a mountain bike. That was 21 years ago, and it is no surprise to me that I am reluctant to part with my “ancient” bicycle. There is so much history in that frame, from intrepid transport through the streets of Toronto to hauls to Toronto Island to trail rides at the Dundas Conservation area and long morning rides in Prince Edward County, where I made my home for 5 years. The frame is tough, in spite of the fact that the bike isn’t fancy. The misery-inducing original seat has been replaced by a cushy gel seat, now patched with duct tape. I have been through more locks than tires and am happy to say I’ve only crashed twice (so far) on my little green stallion.

Biking has always had a special place in my life. My father had not been keen to see me learn to ride a two-wheeler when I was a child. Thankfully, after much coaxing from my mother, and the wonderful input of my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Joe, a bike appeared in my life. I rode that orange hybrid coaster-braked creation till the next bike came along, a purple 3-speed with a banana seat and tassels. Then came the grown-up “lady’s bike” which reminded me of the blue bike my mom rode when I was little. I took it all over Orillia, riding extra laps at the high school track and coaching myself up some of the city’s more intense hills. To work, to rehearsals, my bike was a part of my body and soul. My green mountain bike was the first bike I bought for myself, on Queen Street East in Toronto, back before Leslieville was “cool.” It has been hauled up countless flights of stairs in apartment buildings, it has carried me to a writing studio on Toronto Island and it owes me nothing. Miles and miles of morning rides through the fields and trails of Prince Edward County are my fondest memory of living there. When I am riding, all problems fade, all sorrows become a thrum in my veins. Just as I was the very first day I ever rode a two-wheeler, I am proud to hop on my bike and go where my stamina will take me.

I did not ride at all last year or the year before that. Living up north in Sturgeon Falls, Highway 17 was not exactly the most enticing place to trust the cycling angels, though I passed many brave souls doing just that. When we first moved to Hamilton, I was keen to ride but the first season slipped away before I could test the trails. But now, thanks to the TLC of our neighbour, Lewis, my old bicycle is back in action and ready to transport me as far as I dream to ride. Thanks to an extensive trail network, my unwanted hiatus from cycling is over.   Brantford, Ontario: here I come!

She doesn’t look like much (part of the appeal when you live in a city) but this bike is probably the best gauge of where my adult life has taken me, and the special feeling of liberty is sparked just by placing my hands on the handlebars once more. Sometimes I think of my father when I ride, about transcending anxiety and depression and seizing the essence of life in spite of raging fear. I think about my mother, championing my long-ago desire to ride. I think about the time and energy I wasted in the throes of an addiction and I ride harder, forgiving myself in tiny increments. I embrace the unique loneliness of the journey that is riding, that is recovery from addiction. And as I ride I remember the young girl who could not go over enough jumps, down enough snow-covered hills, around enough sharp turns for her thrill-seeking soul. I think about freedom, provided by two simple wheels and the health of my own heart and I am grateful. Oiled, washed and tires filled, she is ready for more adventures and so am I.

The Art of Play

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Did Confucius really say this? Does it matter? It’s an amazing quote, and true. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of play in work as the new year unfolds. I feel truly lucky to do what makes me happy, and to not spend time on things that make me miserable. OK, so we all have to do taxes and housework, but the core of my days is all about play because I have a low tolerance for boredom. I’ve never actually BEEN bored but I sense that certain pathways would indeed bore me.

I’ve been building two new companies, one on my own and one in collaboration with the super-talented and very generous actor and writer Joanne Vannicola. We are close to launching our new initiative, so I can’t say too much about it today. Suffice it to say it is built on a shared passion for play—and for the theatre. My own company is simply a home for something I’ve been doing for years, which is to offer and lead workshops driven by creativity. Nothing thrills me more than a room filled with heads bowed over a piece of new writing, or the sharing that goes on when writers (and those who walked in the room uncertain about writing as a valid use of time) muster the courage to read a few lines or pages out loud.

Out loud. That changes the game a lot, when we share. When we hear our own voices in rooms, on stages, it can be hugely transformative. It can make “work” impossible and play completely addictive and necessary to the soul. Because although we may age physically, we are essentially just children or at the very latest, teenagers, in our creative hearts. When the spark is lit, it’s playtime for the body too.

At a recent workshop on short story writing, one of the participants remarked on how physical I make writing seem. I guess I am invested and interested in the physical aspect of writing because so much of it is deceptively sedentary. But when you think of your brain as a muscle, your arm and hand as the connector and instigator of the messages pouring through you, writing IS physical. The stiffness and tightness we may experience as writers is usually extreme focus. We zero our minds in so tightly on the page that bodily tension is the result, and sometimes it is quite severe. Which is where the spirit of play comes in, and sharing those works out loud breaks the tension even as it seems scary at first. It’s like breaking through the surface of a lake after a long underwater swim. POOSH! You’re breathing again!

The other great thing about a spirit of play is that it is infectious. When Joanne and I have been planning our new company events, we’ve laughed ourselves silly and get twice as much accomplished in the process. Sure it helps that we speak the same creative language and share political and philosophical beliefs about art and the need for women to seize their creative mojo and run with it. But mainly what has been driving all our meetings and brainstorms has been a mutual belief, head to toe, in play. Inspiring others to play and be joyful in their “work” is a real privilege and we are so excited about the next few months.

I will add links to the two new ventures I am part of as soon as the websites are live. It’s been a playful and powerful start to 2015, and I hope you are finding work that feels more and more like play, too.

Speaking of which, my next workshop is on playwriting. Walking the talk, I am diving into revisions of my first full length play, percolating for a year now. With my novel finally complete, there are many many other projects in the hopper. And while revisions are intense, I love them, because they make the words roar forward. That’s a good feeling after a long period of creative frustration. I don’t believe in Writer’s Block but I do believe that sometimes, we can lose the art of play.

 

 

Working with Writers

Working with someone on their novel, play, movie or short story collection is a powerful experience. It’s thrilling work, requiring a mix of delicacy and truthfulness that will bring forward the best results. In the fifteen years I have been editing and coaching writers, I have had the pleasure of holding published books in my hands at various intervals. Sometimes the journey to publication is swift and other times, more arduous. It depends on so many factors, and most of all, on the patience and perseverance of the writer. There may be champions along the way even as publication eludes us. There may be problems with a given book that take several drafts to iron out. Always the heavy lifting is done by the writer himself/herself, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, prose or scripted works.

When I have the thrill of holding the published work of an author I have coached or edited in my hands, I am mindful of all the solitary hours it took to get their full name printed on that cover. I hope for the writer that the finished work is as close to what he or she had in mind as possible, without regret or the kind of gutting compromise that can haunt an artist for years. That the sound of them is intact, that the kingdoms he desired to explore have the look and feel he dreamt of. As close as possible, in any case, for the final outcome is really up to the readers. How they experience the sound and vision of the writer and what they take away from all those hours of loving labour.

It’s an up and down process, reviewing one’s own work after publication. Most writers I know do not sit down and read their published books, except for the purposes of giving public readings. This may be because by the time a book is printed, the artist has moved on to some new project, and the characters pinned between covers must fend for themselves in the larger world. But before the publication process, which for so many is the be-all and end-all of the writing experience, there is the editorial journey.

Tough truths come out, but they can be delivered kindly. The most poisonous energy you can throw at a manuscript is sarcasm, and it has never, not in all my years as a writer, proved helpful. It is not about the writer being tough enough to take it. I wish I had a thousand dollars for every keen student who begged me to be “brutal” with them. They did not mean it, because no writer really wants to be savaged. Good practical advice delivered with grace and appreciation for the effort and vulnerability involved in writing stories down. To achieve best results (not to be confused with the corporate best practices mantra) there needs to be trust between editor and writer, between coach and creator. The final work is up to the author, and so at no stage of the game is the writing of a book really a “we” process. But it can be a less lonesome experience with the right person urging you on. Calling you on your crutches, giggling with you over repetitions that slipped through unnoticed. There can be laughter in the daunting process of editing a book, especially when the trust levels are high. It is a leap to choose and trust an editor or writing coach, to walk into a classroom and allow that individual at the front of the room to coax you to do more, push harder, test your resolve. Boost you with the compliments you DO deserve along the way.

This morning, sipping coffee, I am delighted to have on my desk a copy of Shawn Syms’ short story collection, “Nothing Looks Familiar.” In years past I worked with Shawn in classrooms at U of T and online as part of my weekly deadline coaching structure. A dream student, Shawn always knew what to do with a solid critique, how to preserve his own unique vision and voice while re-drafting. He did not comply with everything I suggested and I deeply respected his artistry as he shared his work with me. The happy occasion of his first published work of fiction reminds me of the delicate balance between writer and teacher, writer and editor, those precious relationships formed as a book is being created. Toughness and delicacy are required from all parties, but the real “balls” belong to the writer who keeps going, keeps drafting and crafting and making his or her paper dreams come true.

WORKSHOPS IN HAMILTON & TORONTO IN 2014-2015:

FOOD WRITING WORKSHOP: Hamilton, November 16, 2014, SOLD OUT

CRASH COURSE CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOPS IN HAMILTON

To be held at the James Street Bookseller Gallery Space, 134 James Street South, Hamilton ON, these delicious and dynamic 3-hour workshops give writers a taste of different forms of writing in a supportive environment. $45 per session. Email goodcompanyworkshops AT gmail dot com to register or find out more.

Memoir Writing: Saturday November 8 from 1-4 p.m and Wednesday November 12 from 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Food Writing: Wednesday December 10 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. and Saturday December 13 from 1:00-4:00 p.m.

Short Story: Wednesday January 7 and Saturday January 10, 2015.

Playwriting: Saturday February 7 and Wednesday February 11, 2015.

 

What to Read and Where to Write

I have a bookshelf that once belonged to the writer Elizabeth Smart. It sits in my writing nook beside my stand-up desk, made for me by my Prince Edward County friend, Bruce. The bookshelf has been through many moves, and needs a little help standing erect, as we all do from time to time. It is where I house my beloveds, the books I want close to me as I work, or as I gaze out the back window. There’s a vintage tin toy typewriter on top of it, and a selection of chapbooks I have collected over time. You get the drift, it is a special little corner of my world. This morning, I have renamed the bookshelf The Supernatural Shelf. I was checking out the rain, standing beside this shelf, when something made me turn to the toppermost shelf. To the Timothy Findley section of paperbacks from his days at Penguin. This in itself is not unusual, because his books are so positioned for easy visiting. But I have not read The Telling of Lies in years. Today it called out for re-reading. It’s a mystery novel of sorts, and like so much of his work, completely different from the other books he wrote. I have no idea why this of all novels spoke to me this morning, but I will heed the summoning and curl up and read a good chunk of it. When asked why I have so many books, this is the main reason I cite: re-reading them is a curious pleasure that is vastly different from starting a new reading journey. Old friends. Old loves returned to with new eyes.

Ironically, this writing nook is not where I actually write of late. As I close in on the final draft of my novel, the one that will soon go out into the world in search of a home, I find I want to work in the kitchen. Or facing it, at our big wooden dining table. The table is solid, the window lets in a gorgeous breeze now and then, and I can see the stove and fridge and the coffee pot when I look up from my labours. The trick is to forego the urge to make soup instead of writing…so much easier and with the promise of immediate gratification…

I am fascinated with where writers choose to write. At a recent workshop I offered, we discussed the where of writing at fair length. It struck me that it depends on personality where we write. And where we are in a project that determines which location works best. When working longhand, I want nothing more than to be at my beautiful stand-up desk, but when engaged in the tedium of re-drafting and fixing all that is meh about a longer work, I want the dining table. I want a big flat clear space where I can spread out my manuscript and see the flow of it. Very soon I will go back to my nook and begin something new, while also running downstairs to revise a play. I am lucky to have two places to work. And projects to be excited about.

Now to find out why The Telling of Lies was saying hello so urgently this morning. I think it might have something to do with going out on literary limbs. The timing would be right for such a “message.” I have no other way of knowing except to dive in and re-read. And then to assume my position at the dining table tomorrow morning at 5.

I wonder where you like to read and where you love to write?

South North

Jane welcomes us in a brimmed hat and leads us into the garden we will eat from all evening. Those delicious Niagara ions are in the air, softening any edges one might have. The repeated (accidental) cruises through Niagara on the Lake aside, we loved our drive along the Parkway en route.

The dog is particularly enamoured with the squash labyrinth, which promises all manner of late summer delights. Tomatoes plump on vines and eggplants shimmer darkly under thick leaves. The popcorn patch stands regal as it waits for the perfect harvest time. To think that this is where we will be for hours and hours. We are in a little corner of heaven.

We all help to prepare the giant meal of vegetables and laugh as we do so. It’s a perfect afternoon and evening, so there is no dramatic arc to this story, no hairpin in the narrative where an unwelcome guest arrives and drops a bomb, emotional or otherwise.

The kitchen has been a factory of sorts, pumping out peach chutney and salsa just the day before. There is some chopping and some blanching and some purging. Slices of things are plunged into salt water and wherever possible, peels are left on. Fried green tomatoes are prepared vegan-style and greens are sautéed. We discuss the possibilities for an eggplant. Whether to grill or bake, whether the baba ganoush will dollop onto a seared round or not. We decide to keep the eggplant virginal. Jane makes the most insanely delicious “fried rice” out of cauliflower and fresh peas and chopped fresh beet and shaved corn. It would feed anyone on any diet happily. By the time we pile our plates with the bounty of the harvest the sun has set and we sit in candlelight on their amazing back porch. There are 5 of us plus Hank and there is so much laughter. By midnight, Hank is asleep on the floor and only the drive back home prompts us to say good-bye.

The week-end before I was at a beautiful writers’ retreat in Northern Ontario, mindful of crisp blue sky and a decadent tastiness to the air. Heavy rocks hunched down over the highway as we traveled to our destination and the forests were thick with pine and cedar and it was a whole other world. I had the distinct pleasure of leading a small but hugely talented group of writers through 3 and a half days of creative exploration. Meals eaten in the screened-porch dining room were delicious and it is a property dear to our hearts, this land on the Spanish River, owned and operated by Beth Mairs of BAM Spanish Riviera. By sheer happenstance, the writers were all women and there was an amazing feeling of adventure and security. I was reminded that one of my favourite sounds in the world is pens scratching with abandon on paper. While I may occasionally trigger that sound with a prompt or an idea, the freedom of the scribble is all about the writer’s willingness to voyage out into unknown terrain.

We are definitely having a summer wherein we get to explore our new home in southern Ontario and return to our former home in Sturgeon Falls. There are weddings and babies en route and there is something magical about moving between peach orchards and escarpment trails to the incomparable rock faces of the northern highways. Keeping us mindful of where we came from and where we have come to, we never stop feeling intrepid. Everything is new, from first world problems like finding a new hairdresser to navigating new friendships, a fine art after the age of 40.

And now, back to work on the project I have promised myself will be done, and handed over to another party, by the auspicious date of Thanksgiving.

Essay: Hi, Helen

(c) Marnie Woodrow 2014

We both hated eggplant. Both loved Leonard Cohen. We were both born under the astrological sign of Aries. All this I learned in the basement laundry room of the apartment building where we both lived—imagine—on the fourth floor. She was camped out at the little café-style table: cookies, cigarettes, crossword puzzles, cane. She found it easier to just stay down there, do her laundry in one go and haul it back upstairs. I didn’t offer to help. Something about her demeanor said I am just fine thank you very much. I said I hoped we’d bump into each other again.

Outside the apartment building, on a balmy spring day two weeks later, she emerges from a taxi. Hi, Helen, I say brightly, how’ve you been? She tells me she’s been better: her husband died this morning. A woman alone in the world stands facing me on the sidewalk. I know nothing about her except that she detests eggplant as much as I do. I want to say more but there is really not much you can say to a woman alone in the world. I’m in 412 if you need anything at all, I tell her. I hear her cane tapping in the hallway, coming and going with the business of her husband’s death. Finally I write my telephone number on a Post-It note and put it on her door. I sense she is too tough a cookie to call.

The real change in our relationship came because of laundry. I offered to carry hers up one day. Her leg was bothering her. I suggested that I could save her a lot of trouble by just doing her laundry and dropping it off. I was already doing mine, after all. We then decided to go grocery shopping together, share a cab. There came a Wednesday when she wasn’t feeling up to the trek: I offered to do her shopping. All of this was infuriating for her in a quiet way. For me, skipping along the pavestones of my life on two sturdy legs, no health problems, it was no trouble at all. I felt foolish counting out exactly 22 green beans at the grocery store, but it was her way of testing to see if I would comply with her rituals. 1, 2, 3, 4…

I began calling her every morning for a little chat before I commenced work on my novel. If it was my gym day, I called her just before 9. So it was on a sunny September morning. My work out had been particularly strong and I felt wonderful as I sat down with my coffee and dialed her number. “Hi, Helen!” I said cheerfully. “TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION!” she screamed. When I tried to ask what was wrong she shouted again for me to turn on my TV and get off the phone. The second Twin Tower of the World Trade Center fell as I wept into my hands. We spent the rest of the day glued to CNN, making coffee, trying to determine, along with the rest of the world, what the hell had just happened.

Helen decided to quit smoking at the age of 74. Two major heart surgeries and severe circulatory issues were not the inspiration but rather, that she’d been ripped off by a con artist at the mall and she was disgusted with herself for having been duped. He’d offered her a carton for ten bucks cheaper than the going rate and she agreed to wait for him to return with the cigarettes. Her money disappeared with her trust in herself. I continued to smoke, amazed by her willpower. Smoking is for idiots, she reminded me, showing me the deep scar on her leg. I know, I said, I simply can’t write without smoking and I have a deadline. Hmph, she said, although she was very excited about knowing a published author. Right there in the dumpy little building where she had lived for more than thirty years.

By the time I was shopping and doing her laundry and cleaning her apartment, we were bosom buddies. Helen’s leg bothered her a lot; going out had become a painful chore. We now had Christmas dinners together as a custom, after which she contentedly slept through the original version of A Christmas Carol. We celebrated our birthdays together over Swiss Chalet or Chinese take-out, insisting we shouldn’t have bothered when it came to presents and quietly delighted that we had.

On the advice of her doctor, a nurse came to her apartment to provide foot care. The pain was severe and she had fallen using a walker, scaring her cat who then bit her. It was a rough time, during which she alternated between refusing to call for help and demanding it.

At around this time, the assumption that I was her daughter arose at appointments. I was about to correct one such query when Helen interrupted. “Honorary daughter,” she said firmly. Helen had had no children. I was it. Who knew how much a few laughs in a laundry room could change two lives?

When the necrotic gangrene was discovered we were in the Emergency ward of Toronto East General Hospital. In a whirl of examinations and grim looks from nurses Helen’s life as she knew it collapsed. She would lose her leg, the hospital diabetes specialist informed us. Arrangements for a move to a care facility would need to be made immediately.

As they wheeled her toward anesthesiology, I promised her vanilla ice cream—ONE scoop. Her fondness for chocolate and candies and ice cream and cakes would become a legendary battleground between us once she was in residential care, where hoarded sugar packets and chocolate bars posed further diabetic risks. But while they performed the removal of her leg from just above the knee, I sat in the waiting room and cried, and vowed to use my healthy legs for walks and runs, to cherish them always. I had quit smoking a few months before, cheered on by Helen, who wanted me to learn a thing or two from her mistakes. Don’t be such a tit, she told me when I started drinking again after an 18-month stint of sobriety. The gospel according to a former drunk, she added.

Now her advocate, I toured what we used to call nursing homes to see which one would be “home” for the most independent woman I knew. These places were dark, or smelly, and I knew collective dining room meals would be anathema to someone who liked eating her three squares in front of the blaring TV in her apartment. But one had to be selected and pursued, for her life depended on it. The one care facility she most wanted to consider had been the very women’s residence where she lived from age 16 until her first marriage, a house on Sherbourne Street where she had skipped out on curfews several times a week, rising fresh as a flower for work at the travel agency at Simpson’s department store each morning. She was mighty pissed off when I gently informed her that Fudger House was full, so we opted for her second choice, True Davidson. A woman she used to know had lived there and they had a resident cat on every floor, she remembered. Although no cats still resided therein, Helen was happy-ish and very well-liked at True Davidson. They were quick to spot her minor stroke in time. Tolerant of her impatient streak and amazed by her fondness for computer games. But rushed hospital visits became more frequent. I was the person to call, and though I had moved away by then, we would celebrate her 79th birthday over Swiss Chalet in the residents’ dining room, at a table set for just us two. That was the plan.

The words you should come right away never mean anything good. I drove the three snowy hours to East General hospital in silence. It was the day before Helen’s birthday; her True Davidson nurse, who knew we’d planned to have dinner, had told me I would be saying goodbye. I bought a thriller in the hospital gift shop—Helen loved trashy novels—and sat down at her bedside. “Hi, Helen,” I said, stroking her silky hand. “There’s no eggplant where you’re going,” I assured her. I began to read the thriller aloud and she immediately moved into Cheyne-Stokes respiration, a signal that death is approaching. “Oh come on, you, the writing’s not that bad,” I joked, and then her heart rate dropped, then dropped methodically to zero on the monitor. I watched in awe as she slipped away from the world. “You can sit with your mother for as long as you like,” the Emerg nurse told me through the
gently parted curtain. “Thank you,” I said.

I kissed Helen’s forehead. “Only geniuses die on their birthday,” I whispered. “Close enough, lady.”