To celebrate Storytelling Month, I’m going to tell you at least one story per week in February. These are all true stories.
Every day at noon, the bells in the fire hall in Climax (the town in southeastern Saskatchewan that was home to my mum, and to me every summer, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and most spring breaks) would sound out the Westminster Chimes, and bong their bongers twelve times. No matter where you were, you knew it was time to go home for lunch.
Or, in some cases, you knew last night had been a hell of a night and you buried your head under the pillow and cursed the English once again for every travesty they’d committed upon your ancestors, your ancestors’ ancestors, good food, and the middle class.
Either way, to this day, I associate that particular melody with everything that was good and right and wonderful about childhood. Lying on the the dry, crinkly grass (it was always dry and crinkly down there, no matter how often you watered it because the only trees in town other than the spruce trees planted by Old Mrs. J at the end of the block were two weedy and spindly poplars we planted in Nama’s yard that grew at a 60º angle because of the constant wind), staring up at the cloudless azure sky, the Chimes of Westminster would break you out of your reverie and in you’d go for toast squares and blueberry pie and a tall, cold glass of milk.
Today I walked a few blocks west of the hotel in Pasadena, letting the sun warm my bare arms and dry my hair, and I stopped in to a little restaurant for breakfast. I ate on the patio, and the part of my leg not sheltered by the sun shade grew hot, but I didn’t move it out of the sun. So what if eight inches of my right calf got sunburnt? It’s summer here and there’s no goddamned way I’m budging an inch.
I drank hot, rich coffee and read the book I’d brought with me. I made plans to stop in at the Pasadena library on the way back, because it looks like the lovechild of the Alamo and a colonial spanish ranch-style bungalow. (It turns out it has a courtyard with a fountain and a wall of books devoted to Doctor Who. I love libraries.) A few minutes after my order arrived (eggs benedict florentine with avocado and Canadian bacon), a woman arrived with a young boy – the boy probably not quite old enough for school. The woman had short greying hair and the boy had Spiderman clutched in one hand.
She ordered for them (waffles, orange juice, water, and two plates so they could share) and I read my book and ate my breakfast and drank my coffee in the sun. If this story ended here, it would be just fine. But it doesn’t. Because, as Anton Chekov says, “something-something gun in the scene, something-something better get shot”. I may have muddled up the quotation a bit but the gist of it is that if you introduce something into your story, you had better be prepared to use it.
The waitress brought my bill and I sipped my coffee and watched the grandmother with her grandson and I had An Idea. It was one of those Ideas that kind of jumps out at you from behind the topiary and then slaps you around a bit until you agree that it is, in fact, a Good Idea. Because the grandmother and her grandson were having breakfast together, on the porch of this little café, and I thought about all the times I had eaten at my grandmothers’ tables. I thought about grandmothers. About how maybe someday I’ll get to take my grandchild to a restaurant and share a plate of waffles.
I thought about how, even now, thirty years after she died in a cold and green hospital room, I miss my Nama fiercely and think of her often. I thought about how despite the differences my Gram and I had. one of her greatest joys was taking us out for a meal (and how she nearly shivved His Nibs when he attempted to pay for dinner one night). My eyes were filling with remembering, and this Idea was still beating me up.
When the waitress returned to take my credit card, I asked her to please add the grandmother’s and grandson’s bill to mine, and to please not tell them I was doing that. And the moment the waitress walked away, a church nearby began to ring out Westminster Chimes. I left a note that said “please tell the grandmother and her grandson how wonderful it is to see them enjoying each others’ company, and to always remember how lovely it is to spend time with your grandmother.” And I paid their bill and left my tip and got up and walked down the stairs toward the library.
Now go ahead and call me flaky, but I could damn near feel my Nama walking next to me. She was smiling as she told me, “that gift came from me, you know.”