Vin and John have both raised good points about writing, as of course Neil did.
Several years ago I was told very firmly by a niece of Neil’s that I should be writing about the experience I have describe below. Somehow time flies, and it is curious that the memory of the sound of hand-pushed lawnmower should lead to a whole train of thought. Interesting how the mind works, as Vin says so eloquently. Although it feels to me that writing, like art, comes from a deeper place in the pysche. Plus, of course, with some help from the brain at some point.
It’s as though a vast reservoir of creativity is within each of us, but we have difficulty accessing, until like Neil, we keep at it long enough so it just flows.
It was so much fun working with Neil on our ski book. He simply took the 300 pages of oral history I had collected, edited it and wove it in with all sorts of other interesting stuff into one smooth-flowing paragraph after another.
I mention this to encourage all aspiring writers of whatever age never to give up.
I was also told by a wise friend not to discuss what I was writing while I was actually doing it. Not to dissipate the energy it takes. What do you think of that advice?
What summer sounds do you remember from your childhood?
A conversation at lunch reminded me that whenever I hear loons calling, I remember summer at my mother’s cottage at Lake Simcoe. There I was, playing yet another game of prisoner’s base or baseball with some of my fifteen cousins; or trying to learn to dive head-first into the water off a diving tower which terrified me; or falling happily off the old upturned canoe which we used as a make-shift raft.
Thanks to the generousity of my uncle Goldie, who hired a swimming teacher Mr. McCutchen, I learned to swim, which still stands me in good stead.
And thanks to my twin cousins, Bob and Lou (Robert and Louis if we are being formal), one fine day these two characters (five years older) decided to maroon their cousin, me, on the small family raft anchored about 20 feet out from the shore.
They thought they’d scare the living daylights out of me. And indeed, my cousin Lydia’s grandmother Mrs Bentley, was jumping up and down on the shore clinging for dear life to her open umbrella, shouting at the top of her 75 year old voice. ‘Come back, you dreadful boys.”
In fact, I was in seventh heaven, there on the raft in solo glory, out of reach of all grown-ups, picturing my seven year-old self sailing down the Mississippi with Mark Twain’s young hero Huckleberry Finn.
This train of thought about summer sounds started today during a luncheon conversation with a friend who had a gardener to do his lawn.
Neil was the gardener in our house. The house itself was located in the middle of an apple orchard on the original farm in what is now Victoria village. When it became our home there were still three old apple trees in the backyard, inhabited by a family of squirrels, who would turn somersaults for no good reason, much to our delight.
The lawn had a way of growing very fast in the summertime. Neil went out immediately to the Salvation Army and for 25 dollars purchased one of those old-fashioned lawn-mowers that you have to push quite hard to make the blade turn properly. He worked non-stop up and down under the critical eyes of the squirrels, until the last blade was mowed. Then out came his deck-chair and three or more newspapers.
I can still hear the pleasant sound of that old lawnmower, combining with the heavy scent of newly-mown grass.
That smell of summer grass is connected in my memory with the smell of newly-mown hay on my grandmother’s farm, Donlands. I grew up there until I was ten, with my mother, two aunts, an occasional uncle and my beloved grandmother, Lydia Orford Fleming, who died in India at the age of 70.
The farm was on the east side of Don Mills road, with fifty-six cows in a big barn where the hay was also stored and a maple grove stretching down to one branch of the Don River.
Early in the spring, I used to love to walk (about age three) beside my granny, as she inspected the beds where auld Dick, a retired sheep-herder from Scotland, had planted tulips, and then later in the lower field, fresh asparagus. It was a spacious way to grow up.
Amazingly, I was allowed to wander all over the acreage with little supervision – something not possible today. I would spend hours riding on the hub of the big red tractor, driven by Angus the farm foreman as he ploughed the back fields. To my delight the Aga Khan has bought 17 of those Donland acres for of his museum of Diversity. Of course, those broad fields have long since disappeared under concrete.
When I was seven, my beloved granny Fleming left on her third journey by sea to India. She was involved there in medical services for women, raising money for a whole village around one of the hospitals. Her daughter, my aunt Evelyn, practised as a surgeon for twenty-five years in India. On my seventh birthday, in September 1937, we received the sad news that our granny had died in India in Aunt Ev’s arms. Her coffin was brought back the long way by ship. I can remember it piled high with flowers in the living room at Donlands.
A year later, when I was about eight, I was alone one evening in my tiny room at the top of the stairs in that old field-stone house that was my home. As I leaned out of the window the strong smell of the Petunias, planted by my grandmother rose up from the flower-bed beneath my window, blending with the soft persistent hum of the insects. The sun was sinking away on the left-hand side, from the big barn to the north I could hear the cows stirring restlessly in their stalls as one by one they were being milked. An occasional calf would ball its’ heart out.
As I sat there leaning on my elbows on the window sill, I was wrapped in silent connection with my friend, the great Dutch elm tree, which spread its’ arms up towards the sky where the first evening star was just appearing.
The grown-ups were downstairs having dinner in the long dining room with windows open on the garden. Uncle Murray presided at the head of the table, in full evening-dress. His sisters wore their long evening gowns. My uncle had Amos and Andy going full blast on the radio so he wouldn’t have to listen to the twitter (as he saw it) of his three sisters. My mother would soon come upstairs, smelling of meat and potatoes, while the plates were being cleared for dessert, to tuck me in for the night. Meantime, I was on my own, completely absorbed the smells and sounds around me, and intent on communing with the great elm.
Gradually I could sense a whole vast universe opening up, as though the whole back of my head and body had become transparent and my spirit could reach up to the stars and beyond.
At that moment, I knew with complete certainty that I was being held and I was being loved.
It was a certainty that would be shaken and tested many times in my life, but that returned in full force in intervals when I most needed it.