The Essays

Not quite from here: What’s behind an accent?

By Sylvie Roy

“So where are you from?” asked a new acquaintance a few minutes into our get-to-know-you chat.

“I grew up in Quebec but left thirty-eight years ago.”

(Gasp!) “And you still have such a strong accent?”

The two questions never change. And neither does the response, except for the years I add as I get older.  My accent marks me as Not Quite from Here even though I grew up in Canada.

And since I’m thinking about accents and my adult-acquired ability to speak, to read, to think and to write in English, it brings Mademoiselle Dorais, my grade nine English teacher, to mind.  And not because I miss her. I don’t.  I don’t miss her or her Pen. Her Pen? Yes, her Pen, her instrument of torture.  No it didn’t stab me or puncture me or wound me. In body at least. But I spent my entire grade nine English class watching Mademoiselle Dorais’s Pen,  meandering, zigzagging, sauntering then attacking somewhere in the pool of names in front of her. When The Pen hovered at the top or even the middle of the page, I would relax for a few seconds, knowing I had escaped since I knew my name dwelt close to the bottom. But when it would sneak dangerously low, I would feel my heart racing and my hands sweating. Then The Pen would stab my name and my brain, in reaction would squeeze out any lingering thinking neurons. I never knew what she was asking.  I just knew I had no idea.  She could ask what continent Brazil sat on or what animal gave us our daily milk and all I could answer was, “Dog? … Horse?…” or any random answer from my very limited vocabulary.  Invariably she would roll her eyes and make what I assumed was a snide comment or just roll her eyes. Since I dreaded that daily dose of embarrassment, I loathed English. But in spite of that less than auspicious start into Shakespeare’s tongue, I now enjoy this language, the bane of my grade nine existence. Now I consider the Prairies home and speaking English has become so natural, I rarely give it a thought.

Spending a few days with my mother-in-law in the Alzheimer wing of her old-age home, a while back, I was struck by the theme of home creeping into the residents’ conversations, like the same refrain from different singers, Where are you going today? Home.  Or  I’m going home today? Are you? Forget that this was a locked-in ward where nobody could go out at will. Did they mean the home they grew up in or the home they created later for their families? I don’t know. It was not clear. It was clear however that the longing for home stays alive and well, even when the memory deteriorates to the point of forgetting what one had for lunch. Home clung to brain and memory like a suckling babe to his mother’s breast.

Yet my accent tells new friends I’m not quite from here.  But when I visit Quebec, where I grew up, I miss the long intervals found between Saskatchewan small towns. And I miss the Saskatchewan sky–whole skies of it, not just pieces of it.  And I miss the more relaxed driving pace of the Prairies. I feel myself cramped and yearn for the vast spaces I know I can find just outside Regina. I don’t quite belong in Quebec anymore either. So where is home now?

Is home where I have spent the majority of my adult life, raising my family, volunteering, working, voting in the provincial elections, speaking in the second language I learned to be able to communicate with the people living around me on their terms? Or is home where I was born and grew up even if I no longer live there?

Years ago, as a historical interpreter at Government House (previously the Lieutenant-Governor’s residence and now a museum), I toured a class of Muslim students. Afterwards, one little girl, Egyptian-born I later learned, pulled at my blouse and very much wanted to tell me something. Here she was in her red school uniform with a white hijab framing her beautiful dark eyes. I bent to listen. She looked at me intently and with such pride and joy in her dark gaze, told me: Yesterday I became a Canadian citizen and today I’m here!  I was so touched by the obvious delight she took in her new Canadian citizenship, I could not speak for a few moments for fear I would start blubbering. I had never seen such pride about being Canadian in any Canadian-born child, or adult for that matter.

With the shocking news of the Mosque attack in Quebec, I could not help but hear the pain and anguish of these Muslims men and women speaking an articulate French but with an accent, the way I speak English. But listening to them left no doubt that Quebec, the home of my family for 350 years, has become their home, the same way the Prairies have become mine, even if every word I utter marks me as a newly arrived Prairie girl. Accents, after all, are testimonies of the effort one makes to communicate with you, on your terms, in your language. And doesn’t it mean someone ready to take pride in Canada, our home and native land?

Sylvie Roy lives in Regina.

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The Essays

A work in progress: Physical rehabilitation may be slow, but mental recovery takes a lifetime

By Jerry C. Hom

1967 was an interesting and memorable year for me and my adopted country, Canada celebrated one hundred years since Confederation, Expo 67 was an impressive success and an eye opening experience for a young unsophisticated immigrant boy from Hong Kong, the hometown Toronto Leafs won the Stanley Cup and life was both sweet and promising. Standards were created to determine overall fitness for the country’s youth who logically controlled the future of this still emerging nation. I was just talented enough in sports to be labeled a jock and clever enough to avoid being called a dumb one. My immaturity allowed me to playfully bully the neighborhood brats who enjoyed ridiculing my pie shape face and haircuts from barber school trainees and I was stubborn enough to defend myself when their larger siblings and friends introduced themselves to me in dark alleys and greasy diners. 1967 was also the last year that I could run, ride my cherished Legano bicycle down Toronto’s University Avenue and walk comfortably without assistance from a cane and at first a heavy metal brace bolted onto my left shoe before I convinced a sympathetic technician to develop something more flexible. I was free and easy and suddenly I was not!

Life is mysterious, one day friends and family greet your entrance into a room with smiles and the next time they cannot look you in your eyes. Yes. you have changed a little but are still the same person! I spent the last two months of 1967 in an observation ward in The Toronto Western Hospital mostly paralyzed on the left side of my body. On one occasion a well dressed stranger excused himself from visiting his own sick family member and started to chat casually with me, about hockey and the Leafs,a little about life and about girls! We shook hands at the end of our conversation and he expressed confidence that by the next spring I would be walking again and the Leafs would be repeat Stanley Cup Champions. I did tell him that I am a diehard Montreal Canadiens fan and another Stanley Cup Victory parade in Toronto was an event that I could live without. Absent any genuine conviction, I bragged that I would get back my personal game before the Leafs won another Cup, of course it was false bravado, I have found that it is easy to put up a brave jazzy facade to outsiders while we are more honest with family, that the future can be uncertain and terrifying from flat on one’s back as a permanent perspective.

Over the many years since my injury my physical rehabilitation has been slow and incomplete; I was perhaps more scarred mentally from my injury than I knew or admitted and should have accepted some form of counseling. In the beginning I adopted a strenuous daily exercise regimen but was rewarded with little or even no improvement, slowly and inevitably I gave up trying to get better, I was beaten, overwhelmed by my bad luck! I did somehow complete my formal education but resulting more from family and societal pressure than self determination; I cared little about my daily clothes and suspect that my appearance was as dark as my mental outlook,my older brother would unwillingly cut my hair with a plastic device that held a razor blade in place purchased from a television advertisement, the effect was similar to the style worn by Dr Frankenstein’s monster,I avoided interacting with the public as much as possible and found encouragement for my own choices when I read that one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Swift lived in a stable at the end of his life preferring the company of horses to humans.

One happy sunny day, my father convinced me to make the bank deposits for our family restaurant;I would need to walk about twenty minutes both ways, some standing in line and a bit of interaction with a bank teller. This represented a social outing for me.
My parents are originally from the Quandong province in the Middle Kingdom and spoke the Toisan dialect which is rural, simple and also music to my ears, which enthusiastically perked up when I noticed a young mother with her daughter and a slightly younger son in the area to do some food shopping speaking that familiar voice, more precisely she was yelling at her perfectly obedient children to behave! She spotted me and immediately lectured her children on the grim consequences of not obeying her daily commands, that they could and would end up like me, a stranger whom she knew nothing about beyond my physical appearance and callously used as a cautionary tale. The smile on my face became a menacing sneer and for one angry moment I wanted to knock her down! There was something odd about the little boy’s clothing and I suddenly realized that he was wearing a pink Minnie Mouse T-shirt perhaps a hand me down garment from his sister. I was completely insulted by the woman’s rude comments but something also snapped in my brain at that moment; I felt that I had hit rock bottom when a woman who dressed her son in frilly rags was comfortable in mocking me, I decided that I needed to repair myself and my life so that when I next entered a room, no stranger could judge me merely by my appearance, that they would need to prove any perceived superiority that they might hold over me.I remain a self confessed work in progress but hopefully there is potential.

I have learn to experience great joy in the simplest things in my life: my wife’s perfect smile each morning when we read the newspaper together over strong coffee, that our two daughters are young adults, independent enough to have recently moved out of the family home, that I do not need to share that big bowl of cherry Jello in the fridge.Every five or six weeks I visit my friend Daniel in his Yorkville salon for a neat very short haircut and comfortable with the knowledge that I am overpaying for a little luxury.

Jerry C. Hom lives in Toronto.

The Essays

Cleaning house and saying goodbye

By Maria Hypponen

You expect to be a bit nostalgic when your parents sell the family home. My parents are preparing to downsize to enjoy their golden years in more comfortable and compact surroundings. The old house is a bit of a rambling behemoth (four bathrooms and a sauna? Really?). It’s just too much space for my mother and father who don’t need a big house anymore. The new house, which they will move into in June, is smaller and has fewer bathrooms to clean and stairs to climb, but still boasts an enclosed backyard and lots of space for the grand-kids to run around in.

I don’t envy them the purging and packing they’re going to have to do before moving day. There are enough textbooks, vases, winter coats, Tupperware containers, cassettes and jigsaw puzzles to satisfy any yard-sale addict.

When they told me of their plans to move, I didn’t really think about missing the old house, even though my family has lived there since I was four years old. I was well prepared to approach the sale of my childhood home without too much emotion. I didn’t live there much beyond age 14, and for a couple of years before I left, home wasn’t exactly a bed of roses—for me or my parents. I was one of those sulky, defiant, belligerent teenagers who listened to punk music, slammed doors, dressed in black and experimented with hair dye. I sampled the trifecta of teenage contraband (booze, boys and drugs), much to my parents’ disappointment, and did my best to distance myself from my family.

When they reached the limits of their patience, and their “tough love” tactics didn’t have much effect, it was time for them to clean house.

In 1991, just a few days shy of the start of grade 11, I was unceremoniously shipped off to boarding school in Saskatchewan. I still have pictures of myself from that day. There I was, smiling at the camera in Toronto’s Pearson airport, wearing a second-hand bomber jacket, dirty jeans and ox-blood Doc Martens—and clutching a teddy bear.

The tale of why I was sent to boarding school has become part of my personal narrative, and I like to tell it to new friends with a wink at what a nonconformist youth I was. “You’re so smart,” they say, “You were probably bored.” As flattering as that may be, I think I was just a kid, asserting my independence and testing my family’s limits.

I read somewhere that children who attend boarding school are poorly equipped to develop intimate relationships when they grow up. In some ways it’s true—I learned to make friends quickly, and to say good-bye to them easily. I learned that nothing is permanent, and that each change of scenery is a chance to re-invent myself. I grew a shell that I call self-reliance—although it might just as well be called fear of pain. That shell went with me wherever I went, like some kind of psychological Winnebago.

Boarding school helped me smarten up. After Saskatchewan, I went to university in Kingston and Montreal, but eventually settled back in southern Ontario. Today, I live a 15-minute drive from my parents’ old house, and Burlington feels like my hometown. My parents’ old house however, just doesn’t feel like home. When my parents first talked about downsizing, they asked me and my sisters if we were okay with it. I encouraged them to sell without a second thought.

Now, the move is becoming real. The piano in the family room—the one that travelled with me from Kingston to Montreal and retired in Burlington—has to find a new resting place. My mother has vowed to pack at least two boxes a day, although I foresee late nights spent frantically wrapping dishes in newspaper and shoving them into any handy container. My SUV will likely be commissioned for active duty.

Throughout the process of packing, the house will give up its secrets. Like the screen in my old bedroom window, which I cut open to break back into the house when I forgot my keys one afternoon. There may be one or two desiccated chocolate Easter eggs playing permanent hide-and-seek behind the old bookcase in the basement. I’m not sure if the War of 1812-era musket my dad kept hidden in his closet is still there—along with my parents’ copy of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” that we girls were forbidden to listen to—but it could give the movers something to sell on eBay. The new owners might come across some cigarette burns in the carpet from an ill-advised and oft-remembered party I hosted as a teenager one summer when my parents were away.

But maybe I’m more emotional than I thought. After all, some critical milestones in my life happened in that old house. My grandfather died on the second floor, where he and my grandmother lived in a tidy little suite. I had my wedding photos taken in front of the fireplace in the living room—in fact, my sisters and I each spent our last few hours before matrimony primping and giggling in front of the hallway mirror. Since then, my sisters and their spouses and children have returned from their respective corners of Canada and gathered at the old house for vacations, holidays and big, rambunctious family meals. The house was an emotional hub; a place to solidify the familial connections that can weaken over time and distance.

I may still be that mutinous middle child with my own life and my own house now, but I am still part of the family. I’m not ready to completely give up that psychological Winnebago of mine. But maybe it’s okay for me to grieve a little when I say good-bye to my parents’ old house—my old house—when moving day comes.

Maria Hypponen is a member of the Restless Writers and lives in Burlington, Ontario.

 

The Essays

When your neurologist says it’s no laughing matter, laugh anyway. It just might work.

By Anna Zagodżdżon

“I saw your husband on TV last night,” said my former colleague. I was confused since I didn’t think she knew my husband, and besides, while he works in PR, he hadn’t done any recent interviews.

“You know, the ad where the guy drops the phone,” she added. I clued in – I’d seen it myself recently and it had strangely affected me.

Three weeks earlier, my husband had called me at work to say he was going home early because of a bad headache – unusual since he is never sick, in fact, he had run a half-marathon a week before.

But he had visited his parents on the weekend and they had both complained of flu-like symptoms. So I let it pass, focusing instead on whatever “pressing” work issues I was dealing with. At the time, they’d seemed important.

Around 5 p.m., Joe called me to say he was feeling better and would pick me up. As we drove home he said, “well, at least I broated.” I thought I’d misheard and asked him to repeat, which he did, with additional emphasis. “I broated. You know I went to the school and broated.”

I looked over at him – there was no sign he was fooling around. I said, “you mean, you voted.” “Yeah,” he said, “that’s what I said! I broated. There, am I saying it right now? Broa-ted.”

Panicking slightly, I googled severe headache and speech difficulties on my phone and up popped the word stroke. Joe said I was being ridiculous and pulled the car into the driveway.

And so began a new chapter in our life.

Once inside I called Telehealth Ontario – they dispatched an ambulance. I walked into the sitting room where Joe had just turned on the TV. He could read my face. “What have you done?!” he asked, a definite note of panic in his voice. “They’re coming here? Look at this place, it’s a mess!”

I tidied as much as anyone can in five minutes. The doorbell rang, I answered and let the two paramedics in. They checked Joe over – everything seemed normal. Nonetheless, they told him to come along to emergency. “Better safe than sorry,” I heard one of them say. Joe of course refused, signed a waiver to that effect, but conceded that we’d check in after dinner.

An hour later, we arrived at the hospital. In the first triage, Joe seemed fine. By the second triage, he’d started to mix up words.

We were quickly shown to a bed in a darkened corner of the Emergency Department and began meeting with a revolving cast of medical professionals. The tests showed he was healthy and by midnight he started to get angry, complaining, “This is a waste of time – let’s just go home.”

A very patient nurse explained that if he were to go home, he’d have to wait months for the rest of the tests. By staying put, he’d get them the next day. Reluctantly Joe agreed to her logic.

As I was heading back the next morning, the phone rang. It was my mother-in-law. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” she said, “but Jack (Joe’s dad) is in the hospital.” Although I had not wanted to worry her, I couldn’t explain Joe’s absence and blurted out what had happened.

Back at the hospital, I tracked Joe down in a hallway, waiting with some other patients. The family grapevine was in good working order and it wasn’t long before one of his sisters joined us. We got to know everyone else’s story – some had been there for weeks, waiting for MRIs, waiting for an available bed, waiting for death or recovery.

By early afternoon, Joe was sounding a bit like Elmer Fudd. And then his mouth started to droop slightly. We joked about his accent. A nurse practitioner stopped by and said she’d managed to get an MRI scheduled.

In the short trip down the hall for the MRI, Joe, a professional communicator, lost his speech altogether. He couldn’t read the release form or sign it.

After the MRI, the neurologist came to talk to us. I’d been doing my best to stay positive, making jokes and trying to make Joe laugh. The doctor said, “You’re laughing? This is serious, you’ve had a stroke!” In fact, he looked downright perplexed, adding, “I don’t know what to do.”

Let me tell you, when faced with a medical emergency that involves someone you love, those are the last words you want to hear.

Unlike the television commercial, there was no phone dropping. There was no one waking up to the words, “you’ve had a stroke, but you’re going to be ok.” There was just a man talking about an inoperable blockage, deep in the brain of my formerly infallible husband, now silenced.

Two weeks later, Joe’s dad died. By then, Joe had been released from the hospital.

Despite his initial reaction, the neurologist did in fact know what to do. His solution, the hospital’s care and the thoughts and prayers of our family, friends and colleagues, along with lots of laughter, saved my husband. And while Joe didn’t feel confident enough to give his dad’s eulogy, he was able to write it and hear the priest deliver it beautifully.

My moment of truth? The morning I came into Joe’s hospital room and he clearly said: “Anna”. And then, “The Leafs won last night, 4-1.”

Guess I’m now a fan for life.

And we are both laughing still.

Anna Zagodżdżon lives in Oakville, Ontario.

The Essays

Decaffeinated truth

By Andrea Montgomery

I didn’t see it coming. I had no intention of stopping. I had been doing it every morning for over 25 years. I loved the ritual. Loved the smell. Loved the jacked-up feeling I got when I did it…until one day, I didn’t.

I didn’t choose to stop drinking coffee. My body made the choice for me. I even fought it for a while, saying, “What’s wrong with you? We love this stuff. We’ve always loved this stuff. This is just what we do in the morning.” But every day I tried to negotiate, my body held fast and simply said “Nope. We’re done.”

I couldn’t figure it out. How could I suddenly no longer enjoy that creamy, steaming cup of wonder that had enlivened my senses for so many years?

Now, I have been more committed to my health and overall wellbeing. Dumb bells, squats and aching muscles have become a part of my new regime, followed by kale and spinach smoothies as per the latest health trends. I have also been going through reflective practice gearing up for a significant life transition. Out of restlessness with my current grey-walled, cubicle world existence, I have been examining my life’s purpose to determine a new, more vibrant way forward. But why has giving up coffee been one of the unforeseen consequences?

There was nothing dramatic about it. These things usually aren’t. Every day I brought my red, somewhat dented Thermos to work. As part of my usual arrival routine, I’d hook my jacket and perform a quick email scan to ensure no PR alarms had been going off needing my immediate attention. From my Thermos, I’d fill my Las Vegas Paris hotel travel mug from a wedding anniversary trip five years ago and head to my first meeting. There, I’d join the cult of others who followed exactly the same ritual, each with their own brand of Las Vegas mug or, for the more rushed, a take-out Tim’s cup. Together we’d drink and deliberate on how we were going to move the strategic goals of the organization forward that day.

And so each day would begin.

Until, with each sip, came a slight wince. For some reason it felt harsh, not comforting my throat nor tingling my senses as it once did. But that didn’t make any sense. So—clearly in denial—I kept sipping again and again and again, until I realized that I wasn’t making it through my first cup, let alone a second each day. I soon found myself waiting at the communal office sink to drain the leftover coffee in my mug while Dan finished washing his daily bowl of oatmeal. Until the day I drained the entire red Thermos, without having opened it once.

Then I had to admit it. I had stopped drinking coffee.

When I paused to reflect on the change, I realized I felt purer somehow. Calmer. Liberated in a way. It was like a crutch I had been leaning on every day no longer needed to bear my weight. I didn’t need coffee’s drug to rev me up. I’ve certainly never had problems having sufficient energy. In fact, it’s easy for me to get the caffeinated pulsating sensation on my own. In years past, I have even visited a psychiatrist and taken medication to help calm my nerves before singing while in theatre school. My heart would race. My hands would quiver. My breath would be shallow. My voice would shake. A bad scenario when you want nothing more than to be a performer. My mother would also never give me non-drowsy medication as a child because it would make me too hyper. So for all these years, I’ve been blindly succumbing to coffee culture pressure regardless of superfluous personal effect.

Funny how life tells us little truths when we’re not looking for them (or at least we don’t think we are). And often, these moments of new understanding are tied to bigger life lessons.

For years I’ve been struggling with my personal power. Giving it away to others and not keeping much of it for myself. A former stage seeker turned office mouse, I’ve let life happen to me, and for too long, I’ve been fighting to stay balanced on a tightrope of time. I teeter with demands pulling me one way or another, while the length of the rope seems to get shorter and shorter with each passing day.

So, I’ve re-evaluated who I am and what’s important to me. I’ve sought answers in books, on websites, from friends and loved ones…until it finally struck me. The answers I seek are not in any of those places. They are in me. Only me. Just like the vitality I need for each day. It was never in that damn red Thermos.

Andrea Montgomery is a member of the Restless Writers and lives in Burlington, Ontario.

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Nurturing a community of writers, one rejection at a time

Was your personal essay rejected by a certain Canadian national newspaper for their daily essay feature? Has it happened to you more than once, like it has to each of the Restless Writers? Don’t despair!

Before you relegate your essay to the recycle bin, consider submitting it to the Restless Rejects blog. We welcome submissions of personal essays on any topic, not to exceed 1,000 words, that have not been published before, and that, specifically, were submitted to and rejected by a certain Canadian national newspaper. As long as your essay meets our submission guidelines, you won’t be rejected by us.

We want to build a forum for new and established writers who, like us, have shown immense bravery in submitting their personal stories for publication, and who may feel daunted by rejection. We know what it feels like. Rejection hurts. It makes you want to throw in the towel, er, keyboard. So let’s nurture our fledgling or mature creative egos, and encourage each other to keep writing and keep submitting.

Have we piqued your interest? Check out our submission guidelines. Visit the Restless Writers blog to get to know us a little bit better. And drop by once in a while to hear from new members of the Restless Rejects family.