CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence: Objects have stories, too

Monique Polak began collecting stories as a little girl hiding under her parents' dining table during dinner parties. Here is the first story the award-winning author penned just for us as the CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence.

How a monkey-man charm, a bullet and a pair of hockey pucks tell the stories of three Montrealers

Celine Polak, a Holocaust survivor, gave her daugher Monique the monkey-man pendant given to her when she was 13 - and a story to treasure. (Monique Polak)

I used to think only people had stories.

Over time I've learned that objects have stories too.

A few years ago, after I wrote a book for teens inspired by my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp, my mother gave me a small brass monkey-man charm – and told me his story.

It was her thirteenth birthday, shortly after her arrival in Theresienstadt in what was then Czechoslovakia. My mum was sitting on a stoop, crying, when a tall, beautiful woman tapped her shoulder and asked, "Little girl, why are you crying?" My mum explained it was her birthday – and she had no presents.

Monique Polak wearing her monkey-man pendant, which she never takes off. (CBC)

The woman reached into her pocket and gave my mum the monkey man.

"Did you ever see her again?" I asked my mum.


Here's what I know: When prisoners arrived at Theresienstadt, their valuables were confiscated. That means it is more than likely the woman shared the fate of most of Theresienstadt's prisoners – that she was transported to Auschwitz, where she would have perished.

So the next morning, I bought a simple brass chain and made myself a promise: to wear the monkey-man around my neck every day for the rest of my life.

Though I never met the tall, beautiful woman, I am the keeper of her story. Her monkey-man reminds me that kindness is possible even in the hardest times, and though people die, their stories can live on.

Stories lead to more stories.

When I tell people about my monkey-man, they tell me about the objects that mean the most to them.

An uncle's gift

For fourteen-year-old Tazz Pilurtuut, it's a bullet he keeps on his desk at his home in Dorval.

Pilurtuut, an Inuk, was seven or eight and visiting family in Wakeham Bay, Nunavik, when he used that bullet to shoot his first caribou – a rite of passage in the north.

Monique Polak met Tazz Pilurtuut at his school in Pointe-Claire recently, where he shared the story of his treasured bullet. (Monique Polak)

"That bullet makes me happy because it's from my first catch. It makes me think of my first time hunting with my uncle," Pilurtuut told me when I visited his school in Pointe-Claire earlier this winter.

Pilurtuut's Uncle Tuumaasi spotted the caribou. "He gave me his gun and I shot it. I only used two bullets," Pilurtuut explained.   

Pilurtuut's Uncle Tuumaasi died of a heart attack in 2013. The bullet reminds Pilurtuut of a momentous day spent with his uncle.

"It makes me happy. I don't want to lose it."

'Hawkey' trophies

I met Dave Moran at a holiday party in NDG, where he was regaling guests with the story of two precious objects: a pair of hockey pucks.

A singer and songwriter (his credits include the song "Canada Rocks"), Dave has been a Chicago Blackhawks' fan since he was a kid growing up in Verdun.

Last year, for his fiftieth birthday, Moran's friends sent him to Chicago to see a Blackhawks game. He and his wife Trish were sitting in the reds when a puck whizzed by his head. People jostled for the puck; Moran was disappointed when someone else got it.

Dave Moran holds up his Hawkey trophies. (Dave Moran)

"I wanted it as a souvenir for my birthday. Then the woman sitting next to us said, 'Don't worry. I'll get you a puck,'" Moran recalled.

The woman turned out to be the wife of a Blackhawks' coach.

After the game ended ("The Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Hawks, but I didn't care," Moran said), she introduced the couple to her husband, who gave Moran the pucks – and invited him into the Hawks' dressing room.

Moran keeps the pucks on the mantel at his home in Candiac.

"It's my Hawkey shrine," he told me, looking over my shoulder to make sure I got the spelling right.

"When I look at those pucks, the only thing I think about is there are nice, great people in this world who are unselfish and kind. It makes me feel amazing."

Sure, Moran treasures those pucks. But as is true for my monkey-man and Pilurtuut's bullet, it's the story that matters most to Moran.

"The funny thing is," he told me, "the kind act is much more important than the objects."

… If you're like me, you have a lot to do, and time passes too quickly.

Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that say, "I brake for squirrels" or "I brake for tailgaters?"

I brake for stories. I hope you'll put on the brakes again next month for more of my Montreal stories.    


About the Author

Monique Polak

CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence

Monique Polak is the author of 19 novels for young adults and a non-fiction book for kids. She is a two-time winner of the Quebec Writers’ Federation Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. She has been teaching at Marianopolis College for 31 years and is a frequent contributor to the Montreal Gazette.


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