Finding the Words
is a compelling new anthology in which 31 well-known writers contemplate their craft -- revealing surprising and often deeply personal insights into the writing process. Published by McClelland & Stewart
, the anthology is a fundraiser for PEN Canada
, an non-profit organization that works to defend freedom of expression and support those around the world who suffer persecution for what they have written.
Over the new two weeks, CBC Books is proud to present four excerpts from the anthology, taking you inside the minds of some of the literary voices you know and love. Here, Heather O'Neill shares a story from her family's past.
A Story Without Words
My dad was the youngest of nine children. My grandmother's first husband, with whom she had four children, never returned from the First World War. They buried a little Canadian flag and his favourite hat in the backyard. Later, there were rumours that he had indeed come back and had changed his name and was living a few streets away from his family. The way my father tells it, he would be spotted on Saint Catherine Street dressed in a fur coat, swinging a cane around his finger, with his head thrown back, laughing.
My grandmother's second husband -- my grandfather -- had a big laugh. He would stand on a table and sing. His name was Oscar, but he liked to be called Louis Louis. He gambled all his money away, but my grandmother said that they were never, ever hungry when he was around. He died when my father was only three years old. My grandmother was left to raise the nine children on her own in 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression. Fathers were a bit of a mystery to my dad. They were legendary creatures that you stopped believing in after a certain age, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
One of my father's brothers was run over by a horse-drawn beer carriage. The beer company offered to pay the costs of the funeral if the family didn't press charges. My father and his brothers walked down the street in new little black suits. The whole neighbourhood came out to admire the little boys in their tailored suits.
It was an age in which children died all the time. There was a booming business in little white coffins back then. People were always at funerals. They had to rush home from work and school to go to funerals. My father's mother was always dressed in black because she was always in mourning. Her cheeks were always as pink as roses from standing out in the cold at the graveyard every weekend. That was why she appeared so lovely to men. And her eyes were enormous from crying. Life was much, much more unfair back then. They cried all the time back then. They had proper things to cry about.
My grandmother made my father light candles in the church for all the little babies who had gone to heaven. He imagined heaven was filled with babies with ribbons in their little curls, clutching dolls in their round fists. The babies stood up shaking the bars of their cribs, crying in heaven. The babies wanted angels to pick them up and rock them the way their mothers had. But angels were very busy. Angels had to listen to all the petitions and prayers from insensitive people who would call on them to win a baseball game.
The priests would always ask my grandmother how she was coping, but she would hurry away. The only people she told her children not to talk to were priests. Eventually, they took two of my dad's older brothers away and put them in orphanages when my grandmother wasn't looking. The priests were always taking children away. They would get money from the government for every child they collected. The way my dad tells it, there were priests in their long black coats, hiding behind garbage cans with big butterfly nets waiting to swoop up unsuspecting babies. There was no point in trying to get your children back once they believed in God. They looked down on you and thought that you were mad. They insisted that you put your nickels in the collection plate.
In terror of the priests and death, my grandmother returned for a time to Prince Edward Island, where she was from. She had moved to Montreal looking for dashing men and wondrous fortune and she returned with nothing but hungry boys. My dad doesn't have many memories of Prince Edward Island. He says that a goose fell madly in love with him. It followed him everywhere he went. The goose was incredibly demanding. He could never love the goose the way it needed to be loved. Who can really love anybody the way that person needs to be loved? It's hard enough now; it was impossible during the Depression.
He and his mother spent the days going to big houses trying to get work, or charity. One old lady they were visiting handed my dad a plate of lemon cookies. He devoured them greedily. Afterwards, as they were walking home, his mother asked why he couldn't have at least saved one cookie for her. He says he never felt so bad in all his life.
His mother decided to return to Montreal. The goose wept and wept when it heard the news. What could my father say? He never knew what happened to the goose. That's the way things were back then. You lost one another so easily.
Read more excerpts from Finding the Words:
Lisa Moore: "My Character"
Annabel Lyon: "Alexander"
Michael Winter: "Thinly Veiled"
Excerpt from "A Story Without Words" by Heather O'Neill, from Finding the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile, and Breaking the Rules edited by Jared Bland, published by McClelland & Stewart/Emblem Editions. Excerpt copyright © Heather O'Neill. Used with permission of the author and the publisher.