It had been raining for several days but I’d been housebound so I hardly noticed. Being a mom was much harder than I’d imagined and my baby girl was not one to sleep much. I was exhausted and trying to figure out how to get everything done so I could at least put the “sleep when she sleeps” platitude to the test. She was fed and safely swaddled in her bassinet so I dashed downstairs to put in yet another load of washing. How does one tiny creature create so much laundry?
I smelt the mouldy odour before I realized the basement had flooded. It was always a little damp and heavy in this dungeon but now we’d sprung a leak. Luckily the old house was so lopsided that all the water had drained away from the stairs and the appliances but our boxes had not fared so well. I abandoned the laundry and set to work pulling the soggy cardboard boxes out of the water. But only for a minute – I had a baby waiting upstairs.
At nap time I gave up my hope of extra sleep and headed downstairs again to deal with the mess. Most of the boxes were full of notes, essays, books and more books. I loved books, and choosing to study English literature had provided me with the opportunity to accumulate many. I hoped I could salvage most of them. I moved some of the boxes to drier ground and set to work on the soggiest.
The first box was all the hard covers I loved or felt I should have loved. It would be heartbreaking to lose any of them, but hopefully time had given me a bit of perspective. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were a little waterlogged but I could live with that. Sadly, Gulliver had to go; his travels ended here. James Joyce fared much better so I could still claim to have finished Ulysses, with marginal notes and highlighted paragraphs as proof. Finnegan’s Wake had drowned. Yay!
My heart sank as I extracted my most cherished book from the box, The Diviners. The dust cover was a mess but maybe the book was salvageable, I opened it carefully and saw the inscription. Ah, the memories…
My favourite professor had been Clara Thomas. She was an extraordinary teacher and mentor. Can Lit was a bit of joke back then, but she infused so much love and life into here course that was hard not to be intrigued. It was a small class, a group of students more interested in getting out into the working world than dwelling on the perils of early Canadian settlers Roughing it in the Bush.
The curriculum moved chronologically into the 20th century examining poets and authors, many interesting, some not, and then, Margaret Laurence. She captivated my mind and my imagination. I read everything I could, fiction and nonfiction, entering worlds both familiar and exotic.
Just before Christmas break,Professor Thomas invited us all to her home for a literary evening, a potluck dinner and discussion; so pretentious and grand! I arrived right on time, carrying my carefully prepared cheddar cheese ball (so perfect for 1976). As I rang the doorbell I was more than a little intimidated by the beautiful house with the Lawrence Park address but was soon welcomed into a charming and comfortable home.
I wasn’t the first but many of my classmates hadn’t yet arrived. As I walked into the living room I first noticed the beautiful Christmas tree and then the remarkable woman standing by the fireplace. She greeted me warmly with a huge smile and the offer of mulled wine. Margaret Laurence had come to our soiree! She and the professor were longtime friends, she explained and she was visiting for the holidays.
I was flustered and awestruck. I watched but barely spoke to her the rest of the night, pretending to be occupied by sipping the surprisingly spicy wine. She was friendly, witty and full of really good stories. She managed to draw all of us into her circle with tales and laughter. Clearly some of my classmates were not as shy as I, but she took it all in stride. She was warm, genuine and engaging.
The next day Margaret Laurence came to our seminar class and we learned her perspective on Canadian literature. Again, I was mesmerized by her presence, her voice, her colourful caftan and even her jewellery. I certainly don’t remember all of her discourse that day, but I do know she spoke passionately about our heritage and our nation and how they are reflected in all we do and write. This has stuck with me.
I’d boldly brought my Diviners with me that day. After class I collected my wits and my courage and asked her to sign it. I will never forget how friendly, gracious and lovely she was.
And now my book was wet. I’d try to save it, but it really didn’t matter. The words, the story, that special world could be easily replaced at my local bookshop. The inscription was nice, but the actual, physical book was of little importance. I’d always remember the author and the worlds she’d created. It was the dramas, the characters, the fantasies that I longed to collect. Not the books!
As I dashed up the stairs I felt refreshed, eager to tend to my little girl, hoping one day she’d love reading too.
Wendy Simpson lives and sells real estate in Oakville. Although her university days are long behind her she’s never lost her love of reading. She is the mother of three adult children and three (soon to be four!) grandchildren. She travels as much as possible and loves to spend several weeks each year in Victoria and the Cayman Islands.
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