Niagara from Goat Island, James Pattison Cockburn, 1831. Watercolour and graphite on paper. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.
I was thinking about how I want to celebrate Canada Day, the day of our nation’s birth, and the best answer that came to me was with literature. I do not need to dig very deeply into my bookshelves to find delicious, exquisite literature. These snippets happen to be by women authors, although this is not intentional.
It was true about my father. But he was usually away, taking a cure, resting in a sanatorium, traveling. Before I was born he had been a Member of Parliament. He suffered a great defeat in 1911, the year Laurier went out. Much later, when I learned about Reciprocity, I discovered that his defeat had been only a corner of a national calamity (if indeed you were inclined to see it as a calamity), but when I was a child I always believed that my father had been personally, tauntingly, shamefully rejected. My mother likened the event to the Crucifixion. He had come out on the balcony of the Queen’s Hotel, to speak, to concede his defeat, and was prevented, jeered down, by Tories carrying brooms on fire. I had no idea, hearing this, that such were the scenes politicians sometimes have to face. My mother dated his downfall to this time. Though she did not specify what form the downfall took. Alcoholic was not a word spoken in our house; I don’t believe it was spoken much anywhere, at that time. Drunk was the word used, but that was in the town.
My mother would no longer shop in this town, except for groceries, which she had Robina order by phone. She would not speak to various ladies, wives of taunters and Tories.
I will never darken their door.
That was what she would say about a church, a store, somebody’s house.
“He was too fine for them.”
She had nobody but Robina to say these things to. But Robina was satisfactory, in a way. She was a person with her own list of people not to be spoken to, stores not to be entered.
“They’re all ignorant around here. It’s them ought to be swept out with a broom.”
And she would start telling about some injustice done to her brothers Jimmy and Duval, accused of stealing when they were only trying to see how a flashlight worked.
~Alice Munro, Executioners (Something I’ve been Meaning to Tell You)
Catherine Parr Traill, one could be quite certain, would not have been found of an early morning sitting over a fourth cup of coffee, mulling, approaching the day in a gingerly fashion, trying to size it up. No. No such sloth for Catherine P.T.
Scene at the Traill Homestead, circa 1840
C.P.T. out of bed, fully awake, bare feet on the sliver-hazardous floorboards – no, take that one again. Feet on the homemade hooked rug. Breakfast cooked for the multitude. Out to feed the chickens, stopping briefly on the way back to pull fourteen armloads of weeds out of the vegetable garden and perhaps prune the odd apple tree in passing. The children’s education hour, the umpteen little mites lisping enthusiastically over this enlightenment. Cleaning the house, baking two hundred loaves of delicious bread, preserving half a ton of plums, pears, cherries, etcetera. All before lunch.
Catherine Parr Traill, where are you now that we need you? Speak, oh lady of blessed memory…
Morag leaped over to the bookshelves which lined the two walls of the seldom-used livingroom. Found the pertinent text.
In cases of emergency, it is folly to fold one’s hands and sit down to bewail in abject terror. It is better to be up and doing.
(The Canadian Settler’s Guide, 1855)
~Margaret Laurence, The Diviners
People the wide world over like to think of Canada as a land of ice and snow. That’s the image they prefer to hang on to, even when they know better.
But the fact is, Ottawa in the month of July can be hot as Hades - which is why the Fletts’ supper table is set tonight on the screened porch. There will be jellied veal loaf, sliced tomatoes, and a potato salad and, for desert, sugared raspberries in little glass bowls.
You should know that the raspberries are from the Fletts’ own garden, picked only an hour ago by the children of the family. One of these three children, Warren, seven years old, got raspberry stains all over the front of his cotton shirt, and he has just been sent upstairs by his mother to change into something clean. “Lickety- split,” she tells him, “your father’ll be home in half a wink.”
The memory of our “lady-slippers” discussion has, of course, led me into wondering whether you perhaps viewed our marriage in a similar way, as a trap from which there was no easy exit. Between us we have almost never mentioned the word love. I have sometimes wondered whether it was the disparity of our ages that made the word seem foolish, or else something stiff and shy in our natures that forbade its utterance. This I regret. I would like to think that our children will use the word extravagantly, and moreover that they will be open to its forces…
Do you remember that day last October when I experienced my first terrible headache? I found you in the kitchen wearing one of those new and dreadful plastic aprons. You put your arms around me at once and reached up to smooth my temples. I loved you terribly at that moment. The crackling of your apron against my body seemed like an operatic response to the longings which even then I felt. It was like something whispering at us to hurry, to stop wasting time, and I would like to have danced with you through the back door, out into the garden, down the street, over the line of the horizon. Oh my dear. I thought we would have more time.
~Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries
The trail’s winding now through high ground where there are boulders coming up out of the earth, carried and dropped by glaciers, moss on them and ferns, it’s a damp climate. I keep my eyes on the ground, names reappearing, wintergreen, wild mint, Indian cucumber; at one time I could list every plant here that could be used or eaten, I memorized survival manuals, How to Stay Alive in the Bush, Animal Tracks and Signs, The Woods in Winter, at the age when the ones in the city were reading True Romance magazines: it wasn’t till then I realized it was in fact possible to lose your way. Maxims float up: always carry matches and you will not starve, in a snow-storm dig a hole, avoid unclassified mushrooms, your hands and feet are the most important, if they freeze you’re finished. Worthless knowledge; the pulp magazines with their cautionary tales, maidens who give in and get punished…, fractured spines, dead mothers or men stolen by their best friends would have been more practical.
~Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
In his hand he held a small bronze paperweight fashioned in the shape of a cow. “This,” he cried, “is Laura Secord’s cow!”
Patrick, thoroughly convinced now that he had lost the thread of the conversation, merely stared stupidly at the object in the other man’s hand.
“Imagine it,” McDougal continued, “the young, slim woman alone, walking through the enemy-infested, beast-ridden woods, and she has the presence of mind to bring a cow along to fool the enemy sentries. Twelve miles over a rough terrain…” McDougal began to walk the bronze cow over the mountains and valleys of his paperwork. “And then…” he paused and wedged the cow between two portfolios…”and then she arrives at her destination only to find her path blocked by a company of Indians…reinforcements, working for our side, but how was she to know? Indians in the moonlight…awesome! They let her pass, however. They escorted her, in fact, to Fitzgibbon, whereupon she gave him the message and we surprised them before they could surprise us. “SURPRISE!!!” he shouted at Patrick, who jumped nervously in his chair.
Silence filled the room as the two men pondered the dead woman’s heroic deed. Patrick looked across the cemetery on the hill. “What happened to the cow?” he asked, for want of anything better to say.
~Jane Urquhart, The Whirlpool