Life is moments. Life is magical. Life is the mundane. Life can be hard, unjust, and cruel. Life can be beauty and light. Life in all its complexities has seasons of joy and seasons of sorrow, and as I age, life is moving all too quickly by!
In my life, with every change, whether moving to a new place, saying goodbye to a loved one, getting a promotion or attending a graduation or birth, my father would say, “Another chapter is closing and a new one begins.”
Not too long ago I closed the chapter on middle age and moved into the senior category. A bit of a shock – how did I get here so damn fast! I remember my father in his 9th decade saying, “You know babe, I don’t see myself as old, in my mind I have not changed.” And in many ways, it was true, inside he had not changed. He was 20 and he was 80.
If the fates allow, we all get to this penultimate chapter in our lives and memories, like yarn (with a nod to the knitters on the 921 Wakefield to Hull bus) released from its skein, unravel. As we pick up the threads of our lives, we discover that random events and chance meetings are somehow inextricably bound together, and perhaps not at all random.
1995 was the year my father died and the year of my re-entry into the workforce after 15 years on the home front as a stay-at-home mom. Walking on Grasshopper Hill, a park near my home in Alta Vista, I was talking with a fellow dog walker who mentioned she saw an ad in the Ottawa Citizen, calling for booksellers for the flagship Chapters mega bookstore opening in Ottawa. A student of English literature, a lover of books, the idea of working in a bookstore had enormous appeal and I decided to apply. Happy was I when the bookstore’s Assistant Manager, Lorna, a diminutive dynamo with an ever-present mischievous twinkle in her eye, called to say I had the job. And so it was that I donned my Chapters’ vest and became a bookseller. Starting out on a part-time basis and working shifts from 8 am to 11 pm, it was, in all sincerity, a blast. And contrary to the negative press about edging out the small independent bookstores and missing the knowledge and passion that those book purveyors brought to their craft, I found to my delight, that the inaugural Chapters’ crew was exceptional. Many of the booksellers had come from smaller bookstores, many were university students, one had been a librarian, all were well read bibliophiles.
There was Joyce behind whose quiet demeanor and gentle grace, lay a fierce intellect. There was Sylvia, a writer in her own right and relative of Canadian novelist, Max Braithwaite. There were the two Peters who quietly explained the ins and out of the biz and were fonts of knowledge for this neophyte. There was the ever-positive Marilyn, the ever-feisty Diana, the ever effusive and eccentric Katie and there was the wizard at the cash, Carrie. Joining our ranks was the beautiful and vivacious Caterina and the scholarly Sheryl Groeneweg. Sheryl and I shared not only our Dutch heritage, but we were sympatico. We were fast on our feet in every sense and soon developed the uncanny knack of being able to finish the others sentences. Often when I started to make a suggestion, Sheryl would cut me off mid-sentence and say, I know exactly what you are thinking. And she did! There was a cast of characters as enchanting and diverse an any appearing in the books on our shelves. Auspicious beginnings.
We took our work seriously and when I moved quickly to full-time, several of us signed on for a Master bookseller course. Beyond book knowledge we had to learn the ins and outs of the publishing business. I studied hard and am happy to say I finished second after Joyce (of course) and got my master bookseller badge. We knew our books – the bestsellers, the literary prize winners, those recommended by Quill and Quire, the classic, the comic, the adventurous and the obscure.
Every genre had its expert. In fact it was almost sport when someone came up to one of us and said… it’s about a dog; there’s a mandolin on the cover; I heard this interview on the CBC or I read in the Globe & Mail; it takes place in Kenya; or he likes books about the first world war…and just like that, usually without even a glance at the fancy new monitors, we would provide customers with a title and run and grab the book they were after. Proffering the book, you would often hear said, “if you like this, you might also love…. “ And with the madness that was the Christmas rush, we were like Energizer bunnies, tag-teaming and beaming as we stacked the shelves and helped people find just the right book.
One of the nicest tasks we had was to write book reviews for the featured or staff-recommended books displayed on the main thoroughfare on the main floor. Another task that fell to the department heads was planning promotional events. I was Lead of the Social Science Department and worked on the main floor. On the other side of the elevator my colleague Katie managed the travel, hobbies, and stationary sections.
I loved collaborating with Katie in organizing promotional events and delighted in the readings and book-signings we had with visiting authors. None of us working in 1996 will ever forget when Katie grabbed the top of the line Montblanc pen from its showcase so that Frank McCourt could sign copies of his bestseller, Angela’s Ashes. The delightful Mr. McCourt signed all the copies proffered and extras for our display table and then slipped the very expensive Mont Blanc pen in his shirt pocket, unintentionally of course, though if you read Angela’s Ashes….old habits die hard. Kidding aside, Katie finessed the situation beautifully and if memory serves me well, the pen was returned to its case.
A regular in the store was Gatineau Hills resident, Phil Jenkins. I was formally introduced to Phil by my friend Jane, a freelance writer in Ottawa, who had interviewed Phil to discuss his then new book, An Acre in Time. Chapters was always happy to feature local writers and Phil’s award-winning book on the history of the acre of land that is Ottawa’s LeBreton flats, figured largely on a wall display in the Social Science department.
Pulling this thread, over a decade later when my son got his first teaching job in Dawson Creek, BC (a town named after Canadian geologist and surveyor George Mercer Dawson), and Wakefield’s main drag included a charming bookstore called Solstice, I was delighted to attend an after-hours talk by Phil in which he shared excepts from his then recently released book, Beneath My Feet: The Memoirs of George Mercer Dawson. A Christmas gift for Shaun and his grandmother. I was very sad when Solstice closed as I had loved going to the village to leisurely browse books and have a long chat about all and sundry with Ellen, avid reader and master bookseller in her own right.
The new millennia began, and I closed the chapter on my life in Alta Vista and my time as a bookseller.
In my last year at Chapters, I cut back on my shifts and passed the baton of Social Science Lead on to a young divinity student named Blake. Blake was originally American. I believe he did his undergrad at Dalhousie and was completing his divinity studies at St. Paul’s in Ottawa. In one of our earlier discussions, finding connection, I mentioned the rare gift of oration that certain ministers possess, and that while I had not personally encountered many, I had occasion to know two who could move mountains, and both were very theatrical. One was Gervis Black, Minister for many years at Ottawa’s Parkdale United Church and the other was a Methodist Minister that I came to know when I lived in New Delhi, Reverend Richard Smyth. And here is where Blake proceeded to pick up a thread that I had dropped long ago.
Blake surprised me by telling me he had met Reverend Smythe in New York several years ago, and there was no question as to his commanding presence and inspiring oration. Blake told me he had learned that Reverend Smyth had been a Shakespearean actor before he was called to the ministry. Smyth sure looked like he could be Shakespeare’s Falstaff and with his deep baritone, he was perfectly suited for the stage. Picking up this thread from my past, I told Blake how I had come to know the Reverend John Smyth.
It was Christmas Eve 1971, and we had just surfaced from a period of blackouts as India and Pakistan had been at war again. And to the east, the horror of war raged on in Vietnam and Cambodia. While not regular churchgoers, my father thought we should join with others to pray for peace and share in the Christmas celebration. We set out for the US Embassy compound in Chanakyapuri to attend the candlelight service being held at the compound chapel. When we got there the church was full, there was standing room only and people were spilling out into the halls and down to the common rooms in the basement. It was uncomfortable, it lacked atmosphere, it was not to be. We stayed for maybe 5 minutes pushed together like sardines with people chattering about before my father with a grimace on his face said, let’s go. My father had a true sense of occasion and this was not remotely his idea of a Christmas eve service.
A disappointed and sullen father, the car was quiet as we left the compound and headed into the dark night down the Lodhi Road, which but for a few cars and bullock carts was surprisingly quiet. Suddenly we heard the ringing of church bells, and out of the darkness loomed a tall structure with its long, large windows illuminated. As we neared the edifice, we saw the sign Centenary Methodist Church. And my father, pulled by the hand of fate, parked the car, and marched his little family of four into the candlelit church.
It was impressive even to my brother and I in our early teens. In fact, it was awesome. The church was not full, there were places in the pews as we quietly took our seats at the back of the church. We were handed four candles as the ringing of the bells ceased and the triumphant music of an organ played as Reverend Smythe walked to the pulpit. His sermon was stirring as his deep, smooth and mellifluous voice washed over us, but what was perhaps most memorable was the closing incantation from the pulpit to the balcony where the deacon stood, calling to each other as heralds, telling of a humble birth in a manger and a light that had come into the world. Figures rose from the shadows to light the candles we had been given, and the Reverend Smyth closed the service telling all to go forth and remember, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
I think in our family annals, that was one of the most unforgettable of Christmases with big impact on all our lives. I invited Reverend Smyth to speak at my high school graduation. He beat out Indira Gandhi as the one who would give the commencement address. And my father for the rest of his life through whatever adversity or challenging situation he or his children or grandchildren would face was known to say, “it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
Reaching the end of this thread, as it continues to wind its way through time, is a discovery made in the fall of this pandemic year when my friend and fellow activist, Ilse Turnsen and I were speaking about her introducing the six speakers participating in a webinar the La Pêche Coalition for a Green New Deal had organized. Ilse said to me, “I love a quote I heard today from a biography of Buffy Saint Marie, “I’d rather light a candle than rail against the darkness.” She suggested that this would “perhaps be an appropriate expression of gratitude for their candle-lighting work, perseverance and positive leadership and that we stand in solidarity!” To which I enthusiastically responded saying I thought that it was perfect! Thinking back to the first time I first heard this proverb, I told Ilse that my father had often cited this biblical quote in times of darkness. Ilse said she did not believe it had its origin in the Bible, which set us both off on a Google search to discover that it had many adaptations and attributions, and that while not biblical, it first appeared as part of a collection of sermons by American preacher William L. Watkinson in 1907.
As we close the chapter on the devastating pandemic year that was 2020; a year of fires and floods, of hardship and loss, sickness and sorrow, we all must not only get through it together, but we must begin a new chapter where we work together to urgently address the multiple crises and injustices that plague humanity and compromise our very existence. World leaders would do well to read Watkinson’s sermon, The Invincible Strategy, and ponder his immortal words, “But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works and proves a popular temptation.” “Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.”