Wednesday, June 25, 2008

a beautiful story

Summer!  It feels real.  We'll have two perfect days of blue skies and whispering trees, and then everyone will scream about the humidity.  Canadians and weather: a love/hate story.

You'll be happy to know that I am working on "narrative tension", jumping right into the heart of the story.  I can see it now: I'll give a few new pages to Wayson and he'll say, "Too much tension!  Lighten up here."  No, this will not happen.  A student asked me yesterday, "How can you stand it when there's a tough critique like that, after so much work?" 
I replied, "Stand it?  I feel blessed.  Listening to an editor's criticism is part of a writer's job.  I don't have to take every word he says to heart, but I trust his expertise, taste, and knowledge of me as a writer.  It's a huge privilege to have that kind of attention."

Of course, the fantasy is always that an editor or reader will say, "Don't touch a word.  It's stunningly brilliant, the best thing you've ever written."  I'm sure that happens.  Once in a blue moon.

And now, the beautiful story.  I teach that you never know where your writing will end up, how it might touch a little bit of the world - how Anne Frank wrote because she had to write, never knowing that her words would change the world.  I have just received a great gift myself, of learning that something I wrote more than forty years ago has had an impact today.  

Those of you following the blog have heard a bit of the story of Barbara, my British childhood pen pal who died during an operation on her heart at the age of sixteen, in 1966; how this February I tracked down her family in England and have been corresponding with her younger sister, Penny.  I kept all of Babs's letters and sent copies to Penny, but she had found only a few of mine to Babs.  I assumed they had all been thrown out.  Recently, digging through a box of stuff looking for something else, Penny found an old brown paper envelope, sealed with Scotchtape, imprinted with "Beth's Letters to Me." Barbara must have put them into safekeeping before leaving for the operation on her heart at the Mayo Clinic, the operation from which she never returned.

Penny was in the middle of her own birthday party when she found the envelope, and so consulted her children Rosy and Tom and her cousin Rebecca and Rosy's boyfriend Phil about what to do. Her kids felt that she should leave the packet sealed, as was Babs's wish.  I turn the telling of the tale over to Penny, who is a superb writer.  This is what she emailed a few days ago:

Then Rebecca, who had been sitting quietly, said, "Can I hold them?"  She just sat there with the envelope in her hands, looking at the writing.  "I have her middle name.  My name is Rebecca Barbara.  I have the cross and chain she was wearing at my parent's wedding.  I have always felt close and yet I know nothing about her.  No one ever talked about her and I couldn't ask."

She handed the package back to me, and I turned it over and very gently pressed on the tape which with age had lost its strength.  The paper unfolded and the bag was open.  Holding it like a bag of sweets, I offered it to Rebecca.  "Read one," I said.  

Rebecca dipped into the bag and pulled out a letter.  "Dearest Babs..." she read.  They looked at each other and sat up awake with interest.  No one but me had ever heard her called Babs before.  Rebecca read aloud - about you being a dreadful mess packing, with suitcases, trunks and clothes all around you ... about the Paris book showing a bit of the beautiful city you were going to be living in.  

The bag passed on to Rosy who took out a letter dated June 18, 1963, about your ballet recital and a description, so witty, of the best dancer Clare Bader, tall and skinny, light and airy, who always walks with her feet in second position, and Cathy, not so airy.  We laughed so much that tears filled my eyes with pleasure and relief.

Phil had been reading another letter which he passed across to me.  "You'd better read this," he said.  "This has Big News."

So I read - your complaints about the Dave Clark Five and understanding comments about Babs's views on Ringo, your potted biographies of the Fab Four and then the revelation of your marriage to Paul, your children Paul and Paula, your ranch-style house by the sea and your cosy summer cottage.  Do you remember it, Beth?  I so want you to remember.  And then the BIG NEWS: "We're coming to England!"  And honestly, Beth, the five other people sitting in my kitchen cheered.  

Babs was buried on my birthday, Beth, and today you broke the spell with your gift, your talent and generosity.  You worked magic in that room.  You brought my sister alive for a generation who had only known her to be dead.  We talked for an hour about Babs and why it was we never really mentioned her, other than at formal times like family gatherings, how Rosy and Tom grew up seeing her picture on the wall, feeling her part of the family but never liking to ask about her.  

So the letters will be flying across the ocean to you very soon.  I haven't read the others but with your permission, I would like to do so, although I concede the argument that one really shouldn't read other people's correspondence, especially when it has been sealed for forty years in a brown paper bag.


Pardon me while I dab my eyes.

I must protest that talent and generosity have nothing to do with it - I was simply a 13-year old who loved to write letters.  But Penny's words mean so much because after Barbara died, I reread all her letters to me and was filled with guilt.  She was often in hospital, and I was busy and didn't write to her as often as I should have.  I was so sorry that at that moment, I resolved to be a writer, to make a difference to the world with my words.  To redeem myself for Barbara.  And now, in a small way, with her own family, I learn that the 13-year old me has done so. 

A great blessing, yes?  A mitzvah.  And now, out to Ryerson, to teach the value of stories on this perfect summer night.  Heart full.  



  1. I'm dabbing my eyes too. What a moving story - and what an enduring friendship!

  2. I'm glad the story moved you, Linda. Penny and I both think it'll make a little book one day - both of us, through letters and narrative, telling Barbara's story, and in the process, the story of our own friendship (though she and I met only once nearly 45 years ago in 1964, and I don't remember a thing about it!)