Aaaah dear Stuart, you’ve been on my mind so often in recent times. We lost you just over three years ago and we’ve missed you terribly but these recent months have created a chasm that it seems only you, and maybe a little dose of Dr. Bonnie Henry, could fill. Stu, things have been grim, glum and grating. But there have been shiny moments too. I know you would have found them, sprinkled them with your fairy dust and invited us down the path with you to see and savour these little joys. There is no way you’d have allowed us to wallow and whine. 

It’s Canada Day today and there has probably never been another Canadian who has visited and embraced as many parts of this country as you did. You and your vibrant curiosity were welcomed warmly at coffee shops, and bake shops and book shops (especially book shops!) in cities and towns, big and small. The small were clearly your favourites (though you would never play favourites) and you conveyed their very essence to us in a way that made us feel we were there along with you and the villagers. Thank you for helping us know and love our Canada and all its citizens.

I heard your voice the other day and it stopped me in my tracks. CBC was playing in the background and all of a sudden you were there with me in my kitchen. I can’t begin to explain how that felt. I know you would have found the perfect words and captured the moment. One follower of the Vinyl Cafe wrote this: “I was listening to the Current on Friday and suddenly the story came on. I wasn’t prepared. I had to lean against the counter and feel the emotions rise.” So I wasn’t alone with the surging sentimentality. Lest anyone doubt your lofty position in the hearts of Canadians, this comment made me laugh out loud: “Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s address was broadcast instead of (Stuart’s) story in Manitoba. Any way it can still be heard via another source? Was very disappointing!” You will always be the Primest of our Primes.

The CBC and its legion of fellow Stuart and Vinyl Cafe devotees recognized your voice was desperately needed in our kitchens and hearts again, and soon. The Current played a few of your stories to overwhelming delight and now, it’s been officially announced – you’re back for the Summer! I know exactly where I’ll be on Sundays at noon. And I can’t wait. I can’t wait to hear your comforting cadence, your playful pauses to allow us to catch up with your wit, your own battles to overcome the giggles … and I’ll have the tissues at the ready, for the inevitable happy tears and for the ones shed in missing you too. 

Happy Canada Day, Stuart!

(illustration by Michael deAdder)

 

Remembering Alistair MacLeod

November 11, 2014

Remembrance-by-Alistair-Macleod-001-293x450

I do enjoy the melodic musings of the CBC’s Michael Enright and was particularly captivated by the personal tone of a recent broadcast. Something in his voice caused me to stop my splashing in the dishwater to listen more carefully. Here is the text of his speech and a link to listen as well.

“Alistair MacLeod had a red moon face, twinkling eyes and the smile of a young boy. He spoke so softly you almost had to lean forward to hear him.

He always wore a cap, usually tweed. Now any middle-aged man wearing a tweed cap can look very dorky – I know first hand – or elegantly countrified. On Alistair, a tweed cap was as natural as a purring cat.

He was the gentlest of men. He always had time for people, especially young readers. This may have sprung from his decades as a university professor, but I also think it had something to do with his Celtic upbringing in the highlands of Cape Breton.

He was not a prolific writer. He published only one novel and 20 short stories. It took him ten years to write his masterpiece, No Great Mischief. He wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads. His great friend and editor, Douglas Gibson, called him “a stone carver, chipping out each perfect word with loving care.” His work is unique, unlike any other writer I can think of. It has the clarity of dialogue of Flannery O’Connor and the diagnostic precision and descriptive powers of Alice Munro.

Alistair died last April. He was 77 and had suffered a serious stroke. The mass was celebrated in St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in Broad Cove, Cape Breton. I miss him terribly.

His last work is called Remembrance; and this month, it has been re-issued in a splendid little book by McClelland and Stewart. Remembrance tells the story of three men, three Cape Bretoners, all called David MacDonald. The elder, knowing it will be his last Remembrance Day ceremony, waits for his son and grandson. His mind wanders back to the day he joined up in 1942 when he was 21 and newly married.

The story weaves his experiences of war and its aftermath together in a startling way. It’s a story that makes you sit up straight and take notice; it’s not maudlin or sentimental. And although Alistair says none of the MacDonald characters is based on his father, there are similarities. “My father went to war when he was 17,” he told a reporter, “and he wasn’t full of patriotic zeal, he was just kind of starving.” The book is only 47 pages long but it is a small, brightly polished gem. It is published to coincide with Remembrance Day.

The last time I talked to Alistair was in Moncton a couple of years ago. After our public appearance together, we repaired to his hotel room, along with his son Alexander, also a wonderful teacher and short story writer. We broke open a bottle of single malt, probably Talisker. We talked of many things, of art and writing and death and Irish wakes and the tunes of glory and the songs of the Island. It was for me, a magic couple of hours.

I don’t usually wear a poppy in November. I throw some money into the vet’s tin can but I am uncomfortable with the outward demonstration of remembrance. I’m not keen seeing everybody on television wearing one, for instance. Don’t know why. Perhaps because the First World War destroyed the lives of three of my uncles. I also think the membrane between remembrance and glorification is very thin.

But on Tuesday, I think I will wear a poppy. For the two soldiers murdered in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu last month.

For all the soldiers killed anywhere, any time.

And for Alistair.”

Listen to the recording here and to read more about the story, Remembrance, click on the cover image shown above.

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