‘Baking Has Assumed a Sinister Character’: My Grandmother the Writer

My grandmother (right), c. 1929 (click to see full size)

My grandmother was a remarkable woman–energetic, vivacious, difficult, independent. Above all, she was what she called a “word person”: she loved to read, and nearly half way through her life she discovered that she also loved to write. In 1955, after staying home for years to raise my father (her only child), she launched a new career for herself by offering to do a gardening column for the local paper, the Lions Gate Times. As she tells it, the editor learned she had once trained as an accountant and asked her to help with the books. Eventually she was sent on her first assignment, to cover a municipal council meeting. She had no training as either a writer or a reporter.  She recalls,

I carefully wrote down every word, shaking with insecurity and fright, and filled the front page on press day. The mayor commented, “the best coverage we have ever had.” That was the beginning of my writing career. . . . The writing was easy. My drive came from an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable urge to tell everyone what I found interesting.

Everyone who knew her would agree that she never lost either that curiosity or that urge to share her enthusiasms, which is one reason her letters were always such fun.

Editor, Lions Gate Times, c. 1965 (click to see full size)

In 1959, she became editor of the paper, which under her management was named “best community service paper” by the Canadian Weekly Newspaper Association,  and her features on local issues won awards–including the MacMillan-Bloedel journalism award in 1966. She also did travel features, including several pieces on a trip to Germany in 1964. This anecdote, sadly, was not in the published version, but she wrote it up for a scrapbook she made for me about her work. It gives a great sense of her indomitable spirit, headlong writing style, and sense of humor:

My first trip to Germany was done in style–six people on Air Canada’s biggest jet; champagne all the way; playing bridge with the crew and ending up with a police escort to our destination in Hamburg.

It was a heady experience. The reporter from Sports Illustrated, NY, Tom (the CBC engineer from Montreal) and myself stayed at the same hotel for the ten days we were there. Near the end, the New Yorker went off to Denmark and I wanted to see West Berlin so Tom crept along. Tom was about my age, very tall with a small moustache. He was not an outgoing person, sort of mentally huddled, but pleasant enough to drag around with. He was drawn to the beer halls and me to the opera. Neither of us could understand the other’s tastes.

We had a small crisis in Berlin. We sought out the efficient hotel advice expert at the airport when we landed to find the city crawling with conventions. Not a hotel room to be found. I cried out in despair. What would we do? More phoning brought up a room in a pension with a double bed.

Tom had been lounging at the door but at this good news he turned linen white and seemed about to faint. However, I had no urge to sleep on a bench in the park all night and briskly took the room, feeling we could cope with the facilities later that night. . . .

Tom was inside our room reading when I got back and I decided on strategy. I had no illusions that my elderly presence and pinched face would set his blood boiling, so I just said, “Tom, you put the paper over your head while I get undressed, then it will be your turn.” He uttered not a sound and promptly obeyed.

I got into bed, he mumbled he was going to read, and I lay, stiff and uncomfortable, on the edge of the mattress. But I had forgotten the toll on a body of an early flight, incessant sightseeing, the Mexican show, and the tension of one bed. The next thing I knew it was 8 a.m. and Tom was snoring merrily beside me. We had a big laugh, launched into the trip to East Berlin and then flew back to Hamburg.

The newspaper stories themselves are wonderful time capsule pieces. “West Berlin is one city in the world where a tourist will never see a ‘Yankee Go Home sign,’” one of them opens,

Why? Because this free city, in an unfree, Russian-occupied East German zone, owes its very life to the benevolent protection of the United States.

It is true that the three western allies are committed to defend Berlin. But a traveller quickly learns it is to strong and democratic America that Berliners have given their hearts.

The flight from Hamburg to Berlin–it only takes an hour–is an eerie one along the 20-mile-wide corridor paced off by the Russians. . . .The Wall, an unbelievable object, runs 30 miles through the heart of this beautiful city. A German businessman told me passionately that it was not a wall but a wound cut across the body of Berlin, with the flesh dying on either side of it.

She loved politics (“I found I was what is called ‘a political animal,’” she says), and in 1968 she took a position as Special Assistant to Jack Davis, the federal minister of Fisheries and Forestry. After her ‘retirement’ in 1974 she continued to do freelance writing and editing projects, the biggest of which was the 1980 West Vancouver Community Plan, a project which reflected her deep love for local history and for the community where she lived.

At my UBC graduation, 1990

At my UBC graduation, 1990

I wish I had more of the letters she sent me over the years. We used to have long phone conversations too, but she always loved to rattle off her correspondence on her trusty manual typewriter, full of anecdotes and excerpts from her current reading. An ardent natural history enthusiast, she had a particular fondness for earthworms and often wrote about their contributions to our world (she would have loved George Levine’s podcast on ‘worm excrement,’ I know). In one of the letters I do have still in my box of family papers she has been reading a Carl Sagan book we’d sent her for Christmas–it was 1992, so I think the book may have been Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors–and after several paragraphs of excited summary there’s this:

I’ve come to the part where Sagan says, “It seems clear there is only one hereditary line leading to all life now on earth. Every organism is a relative, a distant cousin of every other. This is manifest when we compare how all organisms on earth do business, what genetic language they speak. All life is kin.”

I love that. Rohan, we are brethren of our worms that so fascinated us.

She was always so confident that her fascination would be contagious–and usually it was. She also could not resist making a story out of everything that happened, a trait that could sometimes be tiresome if you happened to be a character in one of them and weren’t sure her version represented your truth, never mind the truth. Here’s one that made me laugh and then cry a little bit, because it brings her back so vividly. It features her very best friend of many years and his long-suffering wife, who patiently tolerated their great closeness.

My news is all wrapped up with Stewart. He and Joan went to Hawaii for 2 weeks and arrived home Monday. It was the day I decided to make muffins. Baking has assumed a sinister character in my life. I hate it now and am glad my feelings parallel Dorothy’s so I know it is endemic with the elderly. Anything to put off even boiling an egg. But I decided to make bran muffins for health’s sake and my doctor’s orders and instead of getting dressed and clearing off the sink and lining up the ingredients like sensible people do I rushed into it in my usual sloppy fashion with my old dressing gown with its floppy sleeves in the act as well. I became depressed when I forgot if I had put 2 cups or 1 of brown sugar into what I was blending then hand beat up the eggs and when the handle got caught in my sleeve and whipped the eggs onto the carpet I was ready to throw everything into the garbage. But I pressed on which turned out to be a bad decision. I floundered along with the huge recipe — it makes 30 muffins — and flour and bran and chopped dates were all over the place as I got sick of the act and dumped everything in one huge bowl instead of folding and delicately coupling wet with dry as the recipe says. I then got the muffin cases in the pans, all 30 of them, and started to ladle out the sticky dough. By now it was over my fingers and I was wiping them on my dressing gown when the phone rang and I rushed to answer it. WHY? Don’t ask. Over the wire came the thrilling, sonorous voice — “greetings from Aloha!” It was Stewart, fresh off the plane and full of joy and good will. My eyes looked at the mess of dough and the 30 little beds awaiting it and decided it was not the time to have one of our long visits so cried that I was muffining and would call him back. He did not understand and waited 5 minutes with phone in hand for the sound of my voice. We finally got connected again and well into the news of Hawaii. . . . By this time my muffins were busy in the oven and a nice fragrance came into the office, followed by a darkening overtone. I searched my soul to cut my friend of 35 years short in his high-spirited saga of lotus land and felt the damn muffins were not worth such a long friendship. . . . We finished our talk on a high note and I drew the muffins out — burned thoroughly at the bottom and around the edges, and so well-cooked they fell apart when I tasted one. I stuffed the 29 in a plastic bag and threw them in the freezer and cleaned up the joint. Well, I had to, as Stewart was on his way, “with a gift,” he says.

Next time I’ll carry on with the story of Stewart and Joan and the silver spoons.

2 Comments to ‘Baking Has Assumed a Sinister Character’: My Grandmother the Writer

  1. Janice's Gravatar Janice
    May 6, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I love the story about sharing the bed in Berlin. What a character shining through!

  2. May 9, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Janice. A character indeed, and yet one of her many contradictions was that she claimed to be a mousy little person, “just Whistler’s mother,” as she used to say. She also claimed to believe women should always flatter and pander to men–though I think this was not because of any idea that women should actually be subordinate but because she believed men to be feeble creatures who nonetheless held a lot of the power, so to get your own way you had to play to their weaknesses.

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Essays originally published in
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