Pandemic Journal 5/7/2020 — Myrna’s Piano

Why did I want to rid myself of this beautiful piano? Newly retired, I wanted to make the house sparser, less a revelation about the material debris. amassed during 26 years in any house. The boxes of papers. The books in piles and shelves. Collected objects, story prompts, dear debris I’ve amassed in beloved junk stores where I’ve wandered. The things that make a life.

I would call this blogpost a dilation. The lens is turned to admit more of a scene that leads us down linked but discontinuous subjects. All of them find a woman in the frame. A daughter. A writer. A political leader. Her mother. A chef. And a cook, me, writing up a storm.

A delicious surprise ending.

23 June 2013

When a young person quits piano after many years of lessons, the fear is our piano will be silent in the house. B’s last lesson with Ruth was yesterday and they hugged and Ruth and I hugged and we remembered B’s early days and I thought back to the first years of study as a tiny girl with her first teacher Miss Anne who moved away after a few years, a sad loss for all. But this afternoon, I’m out in the garden pulling weeds and moving plants around the way spring allows, the earth wet with rain – generous, black, fertile. Suddenly Bach stretches from the living room out the kitchen window to the garden and in my mind’s eye I see the little girl now almost woman at the piano, her fingers nimble and gifted with new knowledge and repetitions beyond count. Then silence and the creak of stairs as she makes her way to the study where chemistry beckons, her last exam tomorrow. The music an interlude to unsettle the tension that keeps her at her desk in preparation for what is to come. She’ll do well I know. But I’m glad to hear the piano music, an interlude that calms and soothes us both.

23 June 2020

1914 Heintzman Upright Grand

Before the pandemic lockdown, I arranged to sell the piano and then didn’t. A family was excited at the thought. And then sorely disappointed. I apologized profusely but it wasn’t enough.

My motivation to sell the piano was not financial. There is a glut in the piano market. Kijiji is awash in pianos. Children aren’t playing old pianos I’m told. Keyboards went digital.

My plan to sell the piano in the first place was banal. Post-retirement, my goal is to lighten up, to “de-clutter”. To Marie Kondo as it were. As though a piano, like a book, is ever “clutter.”

Ours is a fine piano, a Heintzman Upright Grand. Made in Toronto. Beautiful sound. Ivory keys. Walnut cabinet. Special number on a certificate pasted into the sweet-smelling Some wear and tear. A dark round stain where a glass once stood – a memory of a time Prior to our encounter. But otherwise, the piano is in splendid form.

Long before I met the piano, it played in the childhood home of the acclaimed and gifted Alberta writer Myrna Kostash.

Myrna

Author photo by Markian Lozowchuk

When I first moved to Edmonton from Toronto in 1987, beautiful Myrna was my first, best, and only friend – a friend of a friend. I cherish our ongoing friendship. Upon my arrival, she took me to her home and introduced me to the socialist feminist community of creative Ukrainian families and friends who held annual festivals and feasts with Baba Yaga witches and sheafs of golden wheat set aflame. The community cooked for hundreds. They broke down the backyard fences of an entire city block creating a park-like setting for their children. Families lived in a bricolage of stucco bungalows and two-story clapboard four-square homes. I treasured their generous welcome. One of the distinguished residents was our Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as a young girl who lived with her sister and their wonderful mother Halyna Freeland an original co-op dweller, alongside her namesake Aunt Chrystia and all the network of found kin and neighbours. [That story, a detour of sorts, is told below.*]

Myrna’s father was a beloved teacher. I bought the piano from Myrna long after her father died but soon after the death of her elegant and gracious mother Mary. It was Mary who played the piano – she taught herself when she taught school at Hairy Hill, Alberta. Myrna and her sister learned to play on a more modest piano. It wasn’t until they had left home that Mary purchased the Heintzman piano – possibly with money she inherited.

One summer afternoon, I went to look at the piano in an empty house. I imagined a kind of grief filled the air in the house at the piano’s leave-taking.

The piano itself has a mythology all its own since Myrna’s family was part of the inspiration and substance of her groundbreaking story of Ukrainian migration in Western Canada. She chronicles her memories and research carving out a history that has fascinated generations in her All of Baba’s Children (1978). Decades later she collaborated with the Indigenous community to create a ceremony to mark the reconciliation of Ukrainian settlers and Indigenous peoples here – a moving event. And she produced two excellent readers that allow us to rethink and reframe prairie settler history and Indigenous resilience through historical documents, reflections, fictional accounts, and commentaries about the 1885 Frog Lake Massacre and the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks.

Myrna’s writing was an inspiration to me. Her long and distinguished non-fiction writing career included years working to improve the lot of writers through her activism in the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers Guild of Alberta. She had been inspired early on by the innovative nonfiction work of the American writers collected by Tom Wolfe in an anthology The New Journalism (1973) that made a literary movement out of Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Southern, and others. Their innovative prose beyond mere reportage enhanced nonfiction prose with the use of literary techniques and a strong personal voice.

The term called this “literary journalism.”

Later the term “Creative Nonfiction” came into being. Eventually Myrna invited me to join Betsy Warland and others to establish the Canadian Creative Nonfiction Collective, an organization that holds an annual conference and provides a community for nonfiction writers.

In October 2009, Myrna talks about her formation as a writer with Maria Schamis Turner in carte blanche:

My generation (I’m 65) didn’t go to writing school. We started off in magazines and newspapers. That’s increasingly difficult these days. There are more and more places where you can go and learn to write this stuff, I’ve done it myself. In my experience with teaching people, they seem to get a lot out of it. They read examples of what other writers have done and how they’ve done it, and it seems to be a real revelation about what the genre really is and can do. So I’m not going to pooh-pooh that at all, but I never did that. What I did was get an education, a master’s degree in my case but I think a B.A. is fine, and then I travelled and I read. The combination of a humanities education, some travel, and a hell of a lot of reading is what you need….

But without a sense of curiosity, without that willingness to be astonished at the world around you, nothing will happen. None of the rest of it matters.

Myrna Kostash

Olive

My mother circa 1942

My mother’s friend is what is missing in this image. There is so much to say about this photograph.

My grandmother had been a prairie school teacher forced by law to quit her calling when she married my grandfather. Impoverished during the Dirty Thirties, they lost the family farm. Grandma remade her best friend’s cast-off clothes into skirts and dresses for my mother and her two sisters. They spent their post-farm childhood days in Shoal Lake, Manitoba.

My mother told me about her best friend as a child, a Ukrainian girl from across town. For my grandmother, Ukrainians were forbidden. The forgotten story outlines how the poorest of them had been interned as undeserving WWI enemy aliens. Decades later in the thirties and forties, they remained not quite White enough. My maternal grandmother knew her own book of troubles having been orphaned and abandoned as an infant by her father when her mother died in 1894. She and three other children under 8 were “farmed out” in southern Manitoba and fostered or adopted. When the family immigrated to Canada in 1889, a fifth child earlier died on board ship on its arrival from England to Quebec. (A story to be continued….)

Grandma grew up in an English Canadian prairie home with the prejudices of the time. My grandmother forbade the two girls to play together.

And that was that. Or so it seemed.

My mother’s second husband is Ukrainian. Justice has a long memory.

When difference and power intersect to invent an object of hatred and disgust, love eludes us. We crush our ability to be astonished by the world.

Janice

Why did I want to rid myself of this beautiful piano? Newly retired, I wanted to make the house sparser, less a revelation about the material debris amassed during 26 years in any house. The boxes of papers. The books in piles and shelves. Collected objects, story prompts, dear debris amassed from yard sales and junk stores where I’ve wandered. The Things that make a life. Upstairs. Downstairs. And at my elbow.

Maybe move house? A condo across the river? A loft downtown? One large room where I can write and sleep and cook and have not a care in the world. Such luxury to make these plans and then carry them through or not. Perhaps newly retired, I should move cities? Victoria where so many department colleagues slid between the mountains and the sea? Or the Atlantic, a new horizon? Or Bali where I left my heart. No Eat, Pray, Love drama – just bliss.

By mid-pandemic, moving anywhere seems a terrible plan. Then a Mother’s Day visit from my daughter, a conversation about the piano, and all it took was a memory of her – there on the adjustable bench, raising her hands to play, A little Bach tonight. Or Bartok.

Why in the midst of a crisis and radical solitude should I abandon this garden, proximity to the ravine, and my decades-long intertwining with a neighbourly community? Why make light of familiarity and collectivity or walking in the natural world – so much of what nourishes us?

Thus I didn’t sell the piano. My friend looked downcast when I told her. I felt ashamed I was changing my mind, but I could not do otherwise.

These days, I would like to begin my day at the piano. To learn to play note by note. I imagine my fingers ache but working them out on the keys is their calisthenic resistance to the anticipatory aches of arthritis. The piano sounds hollow in an empty house. But soothing. Some days I hear a symphony. A wandering.

Ravine graffiti amble
Spring again
A companionable neighbour contemplates a frog pond

*Chrystia

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, (b.1968)

A brief meandering along a story’s forked road: There is much to discuss about the talented Chrystia Freeland – her Wikipedia entry is a good introduction. I believe she may be less progressive around economic issues than her mother but she is no less committed to social justice and women’s issues. Witness her calling out of Saudi Arabia on the arrest of Samar Badawi, sister of jailed writer, dissident, and blogger Raif Badawi.

In August of 2018, Chrystia Freeland was Minister of Global Affairs when Global Affairs Canada tweeted, “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”

This move prompted Saudi sanctions and garnered no support internationally in spite of its virtuous character.

In response to this, Freeland redoubled Canada’s commitment to Human Rights: “I will say Canada is very comfortable with our position. We are always going to speak up for human rights; we’re always going to speak up for women’s rights; and that is not going to change,” she told a news conference. Canadians expect our foreign policy to be driven by and to embody Canadian values, and that is how we intend to continue our foreign policy.”

It should be noted that this occurred a few months before the Saudi leader ordered the gruesome killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist for the Washington Post.

After Chrystia’s grandfather died, the family discovered an archive of papers that revealed he had edited a Ukrainian newspaper that supported the Nazis during WWII. Chrystia’s Uncle John-Paul Himka, a talented historian at the University of Alberta, has become widely known for his series of essays and commentaries documenting and analysing the hidden history of Ukraine’s WWII Jewish polgroms and graves. Himka introduces “War Criminality: A Blank Spot in the Collective Memory of the Ukrainian Diaspora” with this contextual note: “This paper tackles the touchy question of atrocities committed by Ukrainians during the Second World War as a component, or rather its absence as a component, of the identity consciousness of the Ukrainian diaspora.The paper goes very much against the grain of that diaspora’s current consensus. In fact, I am trying to write here a text that is indigestible for that consensus, that is aimed at dissenting from it and creating a space for dissent.” I once commented positively about a short commentary Himka published in a Ukrainian newspaper. The trolls addressed me as “Mrs. Himka” as though only close relations could admire this critical research and writing. Himka’s ground-breaking writing brought much controversy to his scholarly work.

Once unearthed, the family ensured the papers were deposited in a public archive. While the father’s history was no secret and the descendants have committed themselves to social justice work, it became a fierce scandal when Chrystia first ran for office in Toronto.

While of public interest, the story gathered social media energy that was intensified by Russian bots. For Putin was no fan of Chrystia Freeland who had early on written a book on Russian oligarchs. She became Putin’s public enemy forbidden to return to Russia even though as a young women fluent in Russian she had been a stringer for major American newspapers in Moscow.

Halyna

Halyna Freeland 1946-2007

Chrystia, a marvel in herself, is also a tribute to her mother Halyna Freeland’s brave feministing. Halyna had her own political path, cut short when in 1988 she ran unsuccessfully in Edmonton for the NDP. Halyna had helped found Common Woman Books, the first feminist bookstore in the Edmonton. It was a thoroughly splendid bookstore run by their collective. I organized readings by women from across Canada at Common Women Books soon after my arrival in Edmonton in 1987 and this continued on for some years. Halyna wrote many articles, legal briefs and papers on feminist issues. To top off her law degree, years later she completed an MA in Slavic Studies at the University of Alberta. Shen then travelled with her two young daughters Chrystia and Natalka to Ukraine to help establish their post-Soviet legal apparatus. These years in Ukraine would also be key to Chrystia’s development.

While I did not know Halyna Freeland well, I met her on a number of occasions and admired her enormously. I also worked with her younger daughter Natalka during the 90s. A talented intellectual with a PhD in English from Stanford, she excelled in her academic work in the UofA Department of English.

Halyna Freeland’s gifts and dedication come clear in this testament written shortly after her premature death to her two grieving daughters:

… I did not wish this occasion to pass without me sending a short letter of condolences to both of you on the loss of your mother who was truly an outstanding citizen in so many ways. I can well remember her when I was a young judge and she was still in Peace River. It was obvious to me at that time she had all the promise of being a reputable contributor to the legal profession. She was too young at that time to recognize that she would give so much in so many different areas to a diverse population in her efforts to make our world a better place in which to live. Shortly after your mother went to the Ukraine I contacted her to ask her to address attendees at the prestigious Cambridge Conference in Cambridge, England. It was run by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Legal Studies and she was able to attend and was so well received by 300 delegates. It was obvious that she accepted the challenge of doing her best to ensure that democratic institutions were first and foremost in the establishment of a new democracy in the Ukraine which she gave so much to that cause. There were of course so many other areas in which she left her mark, all of them being positive and all of them with the sense of dedication of helping others first before herself. Your mother left this world having gained a reputation of complete integrity and devotion to others who were less fortunate than herself and she gave so much to ensure that her parent’s homeland would have all of the benefits of a true democracy. She certainly did not fail in her work. I will remember your mother for many different reasons. She left this world with the profound respect of all who knew her and we all have a sense of gratitude for what she did as a true humanitarian who never forgot her roots and the fact that her spirituality was enriched by a higher being. When a loved one leaves, those closest to that person suffer the most. It is for that reason that I write as hopefully short notes such as this from individuals you may have never met in some way ease the trauma of the pain which goes with the loss of a loved one. May your mother rest in peace, a peace she so much deserves.

Yours sincerely,
Allan H. Wachowich Chief Justice Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta

Writer’s Post Script 1: on personal narrative as restorative

Grateful for the bliss of a summer garden at latitude 53 on 6 July 2020 during an unnerving pandemic

I could be writing about world and local news, but I’m trying to preserve my sanity today and I am not writing about:

  • Hong Kong is fraught with terror as the new law marks any Hong Kong critic of China in the city or around the world subject to life imprisonment. Will we accidentally incriminate vulnerable friends with our writing?
  • Black and Asian people continue to be targeted with hatred and violence.
  • A woman soldier is brutalized and buried by their military colleagues.
  • A White woman Seattle protestor named Summer dances and dies as a white jaguar speeds towards two women running them over.
  • Our provincial government operates with the authoritarian certainty of Trump and Putin. And with their disdain for excellence, they trash doctors and nurses and teachers and professors and universities.
  • Meanwhile COVID cases increase and people advocate for mandatory masks.
  • Some men protest masks because it makes them look weak. Is this an inevitable outcome of illness as metaphor – of the militarization of the “war” on COVID. Real brave men risk death and don’t don masques.

Writer’s Post Script 2: on writing and what came after

Tray by the excellent Bao. Cup by the Selfridges, brilliant neighbour potters. Rhubarb chocolate muffin, a home-made gift from Nathalie.

I wrote this blog post in a process I would call a dilation. The lens is turned to admit more of a scene that leads us down linked but discontinuous subjects. All of them find a woman in the frame. A daughter. A writer. A political leader. Her mother. A chef. And a cook, me, writing up a storm.

A bit of a mish mash, it arrived in a series of scribbled notes. Then I bore down on it. Napped early evening last night and then wrote til 5p when I posted it. Up at 8 and walked 5.5 k with my neighbours through the river valley. Heated up a delicious home-made muffin from my friend Nathalie. Then worked a bit more on updating the blog post (longer rambling, typos and a bit of sloppy thinking but it is up.)

In the morning, I pulled some weeds. Did the dishes. Wrote some facebook posts and emails.

Then I happily corresponded with a genealogical pen pal in Sussex about a distant relation who sailed several times to Canada during the war. An archeologist is investigating graffiti in a quarry site where British soldiers gathered. We commiserated about a woman named Noel whose husband may have been according to family lore a B.C. logger. Or was a rancher? Where did they meet or marry? The marriage certificate hasn’t yet appeared on either side of the Atlantic. (Such are the minor obsessions of the amateur genealogist. But I so appreciate connecting with others. A mysterious kind of familiarity exists between us as I imagine somehow in touch with the ghost tree of my past.

Made a delicious lunch for my friend Sheila, a single mom and retired journalist who loves talking about Alberta politics. What a treat! We shared Sunday dinners with our littles for years and now both of us are somewhat reluctant empty nesters. We ate in the garden. Torrential rain of past few days stopped. A hot sun emerged. Out of gas for the bbq, I broiled marinated chicken breast shishkabob and left over cooked veggies from dinner the other night (potatoes, peppers orange and red, onion, fennel, mushrooms, touch of hot chilli, thai mint and lemon basil.) 

The night before I made Doreen’s delicious miso ginger salmon for what Kim calls our kinship pod. Four women who live alone now. For a few years we shared Sunday dinners. I loved the continuity and pleasure of their company. An ongoing delight.

I detail all of this because I can’t quite imagine daily life in this period of my life. No grading or meetings. No chance encounters with friends on a street.

Some of these gatherings turn to talk of daughters or sisters or mothers who live in the U.S. or France or elsewhere. Everyone seems so much further away these days as space stretches in pandemic time. What a pity there is no time travel and airplanes may be forbidden territory for years. On CBC’s The National, a University of Toronto epidemiologist thinks that the U.S. border will be closed to Canada for at least a year. And he muses that airlines may be subject to class-action lawsuits for creating unsafe environments on board for travellers who sit shoulder to shoulder with every seat including middle seats sold.

Things will never be the same. For some, friends and relations die. Or the health of patients will lead to immune complexes. They may never recover. For others, pandemic job prospects will not improve. Under the strain of lockdown and economic stress, families may disintegrate. Life under COVID can be so very cruel.

Must nap now but not before my Monday at six mountain time zoom call at six with a few writer friends across the country. If they were closer, I would invite them for dinner too. And if they were here, I would whip up this fabulous dish.

The sauce was created and recommended by my dear friend Doreen Prei. “Communist Chef” she calls herself half-jesting : she tells me she was raised on cabbage and potato in East Germany before the wall came down. Her beloved mother and grandmother are still in Germany far away from their daughter and grandchildren. Unfathomably far away during these COVID times.

Ginger Miso Baked Salmon
Sautée shallots with ginger in butter and sesame oil. (I used lots of sliced fresh ginger – half a big thumb.)
Deglaze with white wine.
Add lime juice and a stick of butter.
Cook at low heat for about 10 minutes.
Cool down for 5 minutes.
Stir in ample spoonfuls of miso when it is off the heat.
Pour over salmon fillets.

Marinate for a bit or just wrap in parchment paper with liquid and bake at 375F for 16 minutes or so until moist pink but not raw.


(Post expanded & updated through July 7)

8 thoughts on “Pandemic Journal 5/7/2020 — Myrna’s Piano”

    1. Oh so glad. Writing gives me pleasure too… In these weird and unnerving times. Thank you for writing.

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    1. Oh thank you Caterina. I’m enjoying writing them. Somehow documenting the everyday drift of my mind feels like an accomplishment during a pandemic. Even the trivial & perhaps especially the quotidian details feel necessary.

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    1. Thank you, Constance…. The writing keeps coming. Strange to be so nourished during a pandemic.

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  1. Our dear Janice – as I call you, by the communal-possessive – keep on writing these feuilltons rescued from the declutter demon. I have always been enchanted by the atmosphere in your house/home, delightful mementos and memorabilia on all surfaces (with B’s been and gone except for the top of the piano) – and in the same way I am delighted to wander through the unlocked gate and into your dilations. (Love the gallery of wymyn!)

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    1. So wonderful Myrna to hear you here!… And I am so fortunate to live in “the communal-possessive.” Your friendship buoyed me up so long ago and it continues to give me such great please…. love, j

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