Book Review: Remember Me As You Pass By

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Remember Me As You Pass By: Stories from Prairie Graveyards

Written by Nancy Millar

Remembering that we all die has the power to put our small discomforts and minor disputes automatically into perspective. The fact of death is the truest thing I know. And nothing drives the truth of mortality home like a stroll through a peaceful cemetery on a sunny summer day. Each of the folks represented by those bronze plates, concrete markers, and granite headstones experienced their own small discomforts and minor disputes. This was called “life.”

One day a couple years back, I noticed through the large glass window in our front door that something was hanging from the exterior door handle. There was a note with the book, Remember Me As You Pass By: Stories from Prairie Graveyards. It read: “I was doing some house cleaning, found this and thought of you.”

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I was very touched by the gift but apparently not touched enough to read it until recently when provided the quiet by the coronavirus pandemic. I’m so glad I took the time to open up this paper copy and to savour its contents. This is an extraordinarily well-written and well-researched book. Besides knowing how to write and how to unearth some great stories, Nancy Millar is also pretty funny!

She writes about the “real” Sam McGee, a customer at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse, Yukon, where the fledgling poet, Robert Service, worked as a teller, and how Sam brought a bag of his own ashes home during a return trip to the North.

“When he visited Whitehorse at the end of the prospecting trip, he discovered that his old cabin there had been spruced-up as a tourist attraction and one of the items being offered for sale in the gift shop was “Genuine Sam McGee ashes.” Not only had he died, according to the tourist bureau of Whitehorse, but he had been such a massive man that his ashes would apparently supply tourist demand for some time.”

I also enjoyed how Nancy Millar describes Canmore, Alberta:

“Canmore is a pleasant mountain town on the edge of Banff National Park. Part of it wants to be big and rich like Switzerland; part of it wants to be small and modest like Canmore.”

There are a few really good chuckles in this read and they are placed alongside heartbreaking tales of tragedy that brought tears to my eyes for people long dead who I never knew. In the introduction, the author tells of a young couple who homesteaded in the early 1920s in the Innisfail, Alberta area. To earn money to help get them established, the husband went to work in Innisfail for a few months, leaving his newly-pregnant bride at home. He never did return. When his work at the brick plant in town was done, he started out on the twenty-mile journey on foot. He was robbed and killed along the way, his body left in a ditch.

“When the police found him in the spring, after the snow had melted and revealed his body, they rode out to tell his wife. But she had died too, in childbirth. Her twin babies were dead beside her.”

This book isn’t only about death and cemeteries. Instead, the graveyards and grave markers serve as jumping off places for Nancy Millar’s explorations of Canadian prairie history. It’s also a book that makes me want to explore prairie cemeteries even more than I have prior to reading Remember Me as You Pass By. At the end of the book, Nancy Millar includes a practical section called “How to Explore a Graveyard.” Handy! She reminds us to visit respectfully and to close gates. Then she goes into more detail for those readers interested in doing further exploration and maybe conducting some research.

If you love Canadian prairie history, old places, and colourful stories, then you will thoroughly enjoy this 1994 publication.

 Then think as soft and slow we tread

Among the solitary dead

Time was, like us, they life possessed

And time shall be when we shall rest.

~ from the Calgary grave marker of George Park

 

A Post About Nothing

Hi there! Welcome to my post about nothing in particular. I posted a new blog yesterday and I wanted to mention some of these things there, but they just didn’t fit. So here I am, putting those bits and pieces together, a jumble of fun in the midst of chaos.

In the time before social distancing…

Unfaithful

A New Book to Read

Remember Me ImageA couple years ago, I glanced out the large window in my front door and thought I saw something hanging there from the knob. I opened it up and there was a book in a bag along with a note: “Doing some house cleaning, found this and thought of you.” Yes, I am a fan of cemeteries and of history. Some would also say I’m uncomfortably comfortable with the idea of death and dying. So this book was a good pick for me.

Just this morning I started reading Remember Me As You Pass By and it drew me right in. Here’s the kind of stuff I love. The author, Nancy Millar, begins the introduction to the book with this epitaph from a cemetery not too far from where I live:

Remember me as you pass by
So as you are, so once was I.
As I am now so soon you’ll be,
Prepare for death and eternity.

~ On the grave marker of William Henry Erichson, 1859-1927, in the Gadsby, AB Cemetery

The last paper book I read was Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories. Since then I read her gothic novel Wise Blood in digital form. I’m looking forward to touring with Nancy Millar some prairies graveyards and discovering her insights into the lives revealed there, the stories etched into granite.

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Language Learning: A Humbling Experience

You can’t stay arrogant for long when attempting to learn a bit of a new language. While in Mazatlán, we were out for a lovely dinner on Cerritos Beach. I must have been feeling particularly elegant that night because in my best Spanish I inadvertently ordered a mug (taza) of the restaurant’s finest white wine. The word to use when ordering wine is copa, unless of course you’ve had a mug-of-wine-kind of day, and arguably we’ve all had some of those lately.

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Sometimes it’s best not to understand what folks are saying. I was out for a morning walk on the beautiful beach. As I passed a family, a young boy scooted out in front of me to catch up with his parents. His mom told him in Spanish, “Watch out for that gringo” which I took to mean as, “Don’t crash into the nice white lady.” But the thing is, I’m a gringa because I’m a woman. The Spanish language is unrelentingly specific about the gender of its words. If I’d been braver, I would have pointed out my gender to the mom but alas, I was not, and that funny moment has passed me by.

My Backyard Is My World

And I’d better get used to this fact. This spring I was looking forward to packing a picnic cooler of delicious drinks and snacks and exploring nearby parks and historical sites with my husband. We even hoped to be away so much on these short excursions that we had decided not to plant a garden. We thought, “We won’t be around to weed and water, so what’s the point?” Now the point might be our survival in the post-Apocalyptic world. (I’m exaggerating. For now, I hope.) Oh, how circumstances have changed!

I might not be able to tour the parks and enjoy a sandwich in a public space, but I can still photograph the birds that come to my backyard feeder. Here’s a cute little dark-eyed junco, freezing his feathers off this early April.

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I’ve Got Time to Write

Obviously as this is my second post in two days. Recently I did some editing work for a client so it would seem that others are also finding time to write. Here’s what Alynne had to say about working with me:

“Working with Lori was a wonderful experience. She was fast, affordable and professional.  She offered great feedback and with her expertise the story magically came together. She understood the audience we were trying to reach! I hope to work with her again in the near future. Thank you Lori!”

How nice is that? If you’ve got a memoir idea or family history you’d like to tackle, now’s a good time to do it. It’s not like you’re going anywhere. And I’ve got time to help you as an editor or as a writer or as both. Just ask.

Well folks, that’s about all I’ve got to say today about pretty much nothing. Keep safe and healthy, and have that mug of wine if you need to take the edge off. Take care! ~ Lori

Wheres Waldo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories

A Good Man is Hard to Find

When 2020 dawned, I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. Instead I promised that I would nurture some positive habits and choose some activities that would improve my life in small ways. One of the small changes I promised myself was to read at least one of Flannery O’Connor’s works.

Years ago I loved reading Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner and Mark Twain. They took me right to the edge of the mighty Mississippi and there I sat listening to the river boat’s whistle blow. They all showed me the darker places in the human spirit and flavoured their words with the hope that maybe, just maybe, our species can rise above our basest nature. This is the quality I was hoping to find in O’Connor. She did not disappoint.

Listen to me read this review:

A decade ago I was fortunate to visit Savannah, Georgia, and a trolley tour took us right by the childhood home of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor. In 1938, when O’Connor was a teenager, her family, mother Regina (Cline) and father Edward, moved from Savannah to Andalusia Farm near Milledgeville, GA. Mary Flannery O’Connor was the couple’s only child.

When Mary was fifteen her father died of systemic lupus erythematosus, more commonly known as lupus. This same disease would afflict Mary at the age of 27 and finally end her life at 39 years old.

Following her father’s death in 1941, Mary and her mother stayed on the farm at Milledgeville. There, Mary attended Georgia State College for Women (GSCW) where she edited Corinthian, the college’s literary quarterly. It was during this time that Mary’s talent became obvious. She wrote fiction, essays, and sometimes poetry which she contributed to this publication.

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Andalusia Farm, Milledgeville, from: http://www.exploregeorgia.org

At GSCW, Mary majored in the social sciences and took several English courses besides. Her classmates remember her as being very shy. When Mary completed her studies at GSCW, she received a scholarship to study journalism at the State University of Iowa. After Mary’s first term in that program, she asked Paul Engle, the head of the Writers’ Workshop at the university, if he would allow her to enter the creative writing program. From there, O’Connor went on to establish herself as a strong voice in American literature.

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.
― Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was a delicious surprise to me. Her writing is dark and her characters, twisted. She spices up plotlines with dashes of sudden violence and pinches of unexpected humour.

I started with Wise Blood, O’Connor’s 1952 novel. It is strange in the best way, filled with creepy people that exist on the social fringes and stare for uncomfortably long periods of time at normal life as it passes them by. It’s this gothic quality that has me in suspense and keeps me reading on. Everyone and every situation in which O’Connor’s creations find themselves feels so tenuous, so tightly stretched that I’m just waiting for something to snap. And snap it will. I got halfway through a digital copy of Wise Blood before a paper book arrived for me from the Edmonton Public Library.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories is a collection of O’Connor’s short stories published in May, 1955 by Harcourt, Brace and Company. I set down my tablet, picked up that book, and began turning those good old paper pages.

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Flannery O’Connor

A few years ago when I first opened up Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I recall feeling like his work was a literary vitamin, something I should swallow not because I’d like it but because ingesting it would be good for me. Admittedly, I felt mildly the same way about Flannery O’Connor’s writing.

Imagine my delight when she took me on a wild ride with men who steal women’s glass eyes and wooden legs; with outlaws who shoot children and women just to get them to shut up; and people who kill out of fear but lacking a real reason to be afraid.

No, O’Connor doesn’t reveal the best in folks. Instead she shines a light on all our human pettiness, prejudice, neuroticism, and racism. Somehow, though, hope of redemption is there in her work, a theme as silent and as strong as the Mississippi’s undertow. Grace is offered to her misguided and profoundly-isolated characters if they would only choose to accept it. Mostly, they don’t.


An excerpt from A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Here I am reading an excerpt from the title story of O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories. The story begins with a bickering family in the living room of their home preparing to leave for a short vacation. The grandmother is telling the family about The Misfit, an outlaw she’s just read about in the newspaper and how he’s on the loose in the area. The children’s father, Bailey, is grouchy and his wife is quiet and seems disengaged. The children are complaining and disrespectful.

The grandmother doesn’t want to leave the family cat alone for three days because she is afraid he would miss her too much and not be safe in the house alone. She smuggles the cat in a basket that sits with her in the backseat. All is well with this arrangement until it isn’t.

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Mistfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

– The Misfit, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories

I start reading the story after the family has been on the road for a while. They’ve already stopped at a restaurant for lunch and are continuing their journey when the grandmother remembers a plantation she used to visit as a girl. She convinces her son to turn back a ways and head down the dirt road where she is certain the house still stands. Before they reach their destination, the grandmother realizes that the house she recalls was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.

Listen to me read this excerpt:


I wanted to include a little bit about my mother’s experience with an autoimmune disease that’s related to lupus. This personal information didn’t suit the book review format and so I created a page here where you can read that story.

Take care and thanks for visiting.

~ Lori

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”
~ Flannery O’Connor