Thursday, December 22, 2011

Voice of an Angel

My favourite Christmas story, written many years ago for Readers' Digest, later included in my book Waking Nanabijou: Uncovering A Secret Past, and condensed here:

A Flat
Fresh snow squeaked protests against the weight of winter boots stomping a path through the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard, and loud enough to echo off the two rows of houses wearing snowy mufflers on their rooflines and windowsills. The houses, all bungalows bunkered by snow banks, reflected the glow of lights announcing that their occupants were awake late into the night, celebrating, or preparing for the arrival of Santa Claus. I could hear singing.

I stopped to hear the music more clearly, now identifiable as singing voices escaping through an open window. I shuffled forward and listened to the notes float out crisply and clearly, then mingle with smoke rising from the chimneys. Notes and smoke rose together into an icy sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars and the frosty moon the Chippewas called Manidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon that appears small and cold early in winter.

I held my breath to hear even better and determined that the music was O Holy Night and the notes came from the window in my grandmother's room. It was open to the bitter cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then and at gatherings cracked a window to thin the smoke. They sang the first verse and when they reached the sixth line, the other voices ceased and one voice carried on alone:

"Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Night Divine! . . . ." That's the part where the notes rise higher until the singer reaches an awesome A flat.

The solo voice belonged to Louise Lafrance, my grandmother, and I knew she was hitting that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that had been her prison for sixteen years. She was crippled with limb twisting rheumatoid arthritis and suffered searing pain and the humiliation of being bedridden. The others had stopped singing to listen to her. Each time she hit the high notes at the words 'O Night Divine', a shiver danced on my spine.

My grandmother was bedridden with the disease in 1943, the year I was born. Our family moved in with her and my grandfather so my parents could care for her. The disease advanced quickly, twisting her fingers like pretzels, then deforming her ankles and knees, making it difficult for her to hobble on crutches. You could see the pain in the creases around her mouth and eyes, and from my bedroom I often heard her moaning in painful sleep, sometimes calling out crazy things like "bottle green, bottle green" when the primitive drugs she took against the pain grabbed control of her mind.

To pass the time and ease her pain, she took up smoking cigarettes. Late into the night I would hear her stir, then listen for the scrape of a wooden match against the sandpaper patch on the box of Redbird matches. When the acrid odour of sulphur drifted into my room, followed by the sweetness of smoke from a Sweet Caporal, I would get up, go to her door and see the red tip of the cigarette glow brightly as she inhaled. She would motion me in and we would talk in the smoky darkness, mostly about growing up and sorting through the conflicts between a teenager and his parents.

Occasionally she would ask me to reach down into her bedside cabinet and pull out the bottle of brandy my father placed there for when she had trouble sleeping.

She never complained or questioned why she had to bear the pain, and the humiliation of a strong, independent woman now dependent on others to fulfill many of her basic needs. She often needed a bedpan to relieve herself and relied upon her son-in-law to strip her and lift her into the bathtub. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year laying back or sitting on the edge of her bed.

None of this was in my thoughts as I leaned on the back fence and listened to the power and purity of her voice on Christmas Eve.

When she finished singing O Holy Night, the other voices started up again, this time with Silent Night and other favourite carols. I went into the house and found Christmas Eve celebrants - my mom, dad and some neighbours - crowded into the ten by ten bedroom that was my grandmother's world. After the singing we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts. I have long forgotten what I got, and it doesn't matter because my real gift came many years later.

The gift of that Christmas was the realization that the A flats were not solely the products of the lungs; they were driven by something stronger than flesh - an unbreakable spirit and the will to overcome.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thunder, Darkness and Tecumseh

December 16 is the 200th anniversary of the most powerful earthquake in eastern North American history.
About 2 a.m. that day the earth convulsed in the Mississippi River town of New Madrid, in what is now the state of Missouri. There were no measuring systems back then but it is believed the earthquake likely had a magnitude of 7.5 to 8.0. The shaking caused church bells to ring hundreds of miles away, including in York, now Toronto.
The death toll was never tabulated but populations in middle America were small and not heavily concentrated.
There were a number of eye witness reports, including one written in a letter by Eliza Bryan:
“On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o'clock, a.m., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do —the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species —the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi — the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing as is supposed, to an irruption in its bed — formed a scene truly horrible.”

The New Madrid earthquake had an interesting connection to Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who spent much of his life fighting American advancement into Indian lands.
Tecumseh travelled extensively on horseback trying to recruit tribes into an alliance against American takeover of their lands. In October 1811 while he visited the Creeks in the south, a huge, bright comet appeared and Tecumseh, whose name meant Shooting Star, told the Creeks this boded ill for his enemies.
The New Madrid earthquake of Dec. 16 occurred while Tecumseh was returning home to the Ohio-Indiana region. Some tribes recalled that the great chief told them that he would stamp his feet or clap his hands and make the earth shake, and they took the earthquake as an awesome sign of his power.

Comets, thunder, lightning and earthquakes bode nothing for Tecumseh's enemies. He was killed fighting the Americans in southwestern Ontario during the War of 1812 - 14. He and his people were dispossessed but Tecumseh became a powerful symbol of people fighting to defend human rights.

More about all this can be found in my book Tecumseh: Shooting Star, Crouching Panther (Dundurn 2009).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Alone in the Woods?

It is so quiet here in the woods that I can hear my heart beating. I feel completely alone but I know that I am not. There are animals here: wild turkeys, partridge, deer, moose. There has been no sign of the bears in days, and I assume they have found well sheltered dens for the big winter sleep.

I have brought a local newspaper with me, and as I sit waiting to see wildlife I spot an article that raises once again the theory that cougars exist in Ontario. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources says it has 30 pieces of evidence indicating the cats’ presence in Ontario, including photos of tracks and scat samples. It has investigated 2,000 reported sightings in the last 10 years.. The Ontario Puma Foundation, which follows cougar news, estimates there are 550 of the big cats in Ontario. There is no explanation of how it came up with that figure.

A cold shiver tickles my spine. I am alone, dressed in a camouflage jacket.  I have read that cougars are silent, quicksilver killers. You’d never know one was around until it was on your back. I nervously scan the rocky ridges to my left and right, then a dense thicket of conifers.

Silly. I know there are no cougars anywhere near here. In fact, I’m not sure there are any in Ontario. I treat reported cougar sightings like I do flying saucer sightings. I’m not saying that intelligent and reasonable people have never seen what they believe is a flying saucer. Or a cougar. I’m just saying I’m a guy who needs to see clear, indisputable evidence.

No one in Ontario has a picture of a cougar in the wild, despite all the outdoor activities in Ontario, and thousands of pocket cameras, cell phone cameras and game trail cameras out there. Tracks and scat are inconclusive.

The favorite prey of cougars is deer. We have hundreds of thousands of them, yet no indisputable evidence of a deer kill by a cougar. Not even in winter deer yards where they are easier prey for predators.

I’d like to believe that the speculation about cougars is correct, and that the magnificent animals do exist in Ontario as they did more than 100 years ago. (The last one was shot near Creemore in 1884). I’d love to see one myself, but not today when I am out here alone. Having one walk past one of my trail cameras, however, would make me a believer.