One of my all-time favourite wordsmiths is Nora Landry. We met several years ago at a creative writing course at Durham College. As she contributed her words to class each week, I found her writer’s voice so unique and refreshing that, suffice it to say, she had me from the get-go. She made me
want need to be a better writer.
Nora has a way of finding the special in the everyday. Of boiling down life’s trials and tribulations to the bare bones, then nailing her reflections to paper with thought-provoking words. Such was the case with her short story, “Singing in the Back.” Her words have stayed with me all this time, since reading them in the pages of LICHEN Arts & Letters Review in the Spring of 2007.
I tell you this back story for good reason. It segues perfectly to the Ontario Writers’ Conference’s wonderful news!
The Piano Man’s Daughter, by Timothy Findley is one of my favourite novels. I have read it again and again and found something new and wonderful each time. It is a good story, beautifully written, and it speaks to me.
In the author acknowledgements, Findley credits, “William, without whom nothing of my books would ever have existed.” I was struck by the depth of the acknowledgement of that comment. Later I learned that Whitehead had been responsible for typing all of Findley’s hand written manuscripts.
I began thinking about the supporting players in the lives of successful people. Not all of them are the supporting cast to someone famous; not all of them receive public recognition for their efforts. Without that public acknowledgement, would they recognize their own importance in the process? This short story came from that question. Martha, recently widowed and feeling lost, has a revelation about the role she played in her own life. She writes to William, ostensibly to offer condolences, but actually to confide in a man with whom she feels an affinity; they were both the supportive spouse of a successful Tim.
Singing in the Back
By Nora Landry
I’m writing to offer my condolences. I realize that I am too late, years too late, but I’m not the sort of woman who could consider sending condolences, and then not send them. I hope you will forgive me, but you see I had a Tim of my own, and my Tim was a successful man too. I had my Tim for 47 years before he passed. So you see, I think I understand.
Your Tim said that without you, nothing of his books would ever have existed. That was kind of him. Was that true, do you suppose? Do you think those glorious novels would never have existed without you? You typed for him, of course, even I know that. After all, I saw his “Life and Times” on CBC. You transcribed his scrawl to legible, neat rows of 12 pt Courier. Do you suppose he meant it literally? Would not have existed if not for you? I mean you no disrespect, but I doubt that. Did you make it easier, make success more likely? That, I don’t doubt. Of that I’m sure. Perhaps in the end, all our lives are compositions written for more than one voice.
But even without you, his monstrous talent would have surfaced, don’t you think? Cream always rises to the top, my Tim used to say. Neither of them was about to sit by quietly and watch lesser men achieve greatness that should have been theirs. They had that in common. Other things too, I’d imagine, other less honourable things.
We’ve things in common too, I think, as different as we are. We loved our Tims. Of course, you never had children. Nowadays you might have adopted, I suppose. It seems all the rage for homosexuals. But not in our day. Did you miss it terribly? Having children, I mean. Was there ever a time where you’d been sure that was how your life would unfold: a wife, children? Some would say it was all about choice, but there is so much of life that we don’t choose at all. There is so much of life that is just the way it all turns out.
I knew always that family would be my life; I never saw another path. I raised my son, and he filled my days, gave me purpose. I lost a child, early in our marriage. Tim was disappointed, but he thought I made too much of it.
“It was barely bigger than a shoehorn,” he told me.
Women take these things differently I suppose, and I took to my bed. I had failed, you see. That was how I saw it then, it was my place to keep my home, play my piano, tend my husband and give him the babies he deserved. It wasn’t so much my choice, it was the way it was.
Tim came home from work and made soup from a can, and called it dinner. But the days passed and I stayed in my bed, and finally, in desperation, he called my mother.
“He made you soup didn’t he?” momma asked me. “He loves you.”
I wanted sympathy, and the heavy softness of the covers of my bed. She would have none of that. That was never her way with things.
When I was a child I wanted to sing in the school choir.
“Only grade 4 and up,” Mr. Wiltshire, the choir director told me.
“I want to sing now,” I complained to momma. “I’m ready to sing now.”
“Then sing,” she said.
So, I did. I sang in the hallway outside the choir practice room. From there I learned the songs, and practiced with the choir on the other side of the door.
That’s the way my momma solved problems, William. Just pick up what you can carry and keep going.
Tell me, when you typed his scrawl, when you organized it into neat, tight rows of words, the kind we readers expected, did you change things? Did you add a comma here or there or what you considered to be a synonym? Would he have noticed? Perhaps he loved his words, like children. Perhaps he knew every one like a mother does. Did he place each one with care and concern and fuss about which adjectives they were wearing? He would have been sure to notice then. But perhaps he welcomed your input, solicited your advice. Perhaps the words were like children to both of you.
My Tim, he needed me in his work. You don’t rise to Vice President of Regional Sales without a wife who knows how to throw a dinner party, that’s for certain. Without a wife who can choose a wine, select the music and knows which outfit is right for an occasion. Those things are important. They make a difference.
Eventually, Mr. Wiltshire invited me to join the choir. He stood me in the back row where I had a lovely view of the back of Joy Henderson’s sweater.
When I got home I complained to momma, “I must be a terrible singer to be put so far into the back row. Behind all the taller kids, no one can even see me.”
“You’re singing,” momma observed, and went back to drying the dishes.
It is strange how things can creep up on you. You think things are one way, and then you realize that they are something else altogether. I was going along, raising our child, cooking our meals, cleaning our floors, playing our piano. And one day I noticed that something was not quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it right away, but the beat of my marriage had changed, the tempo had shifted.
Then I caught a glance he shared with someone else, and I noticed what should have been a half note, was held a full beat. And I tried to think about the last time he came to my bed with that need and I couldn’t remember. And I told myself that it wasn’t my fault, that there was nothing else I could have done. I made excuses and I found reasons, and they were all good ones, all valid. After all I had our son, and there was the volunteer work with the Library Board, and the United Church Women, and the new house, so much bigger and took so much more to keep up. And the entertaining, the cocktail parties to be planned and attended to, and the dinners. I mean, who did he think I was doing all that for? All those things, they had to be done, and they were for him of course. All for him.
So, I bought fancy nightgowns, the kind you can see through, and I stood in the bedroom doorway and leaned just so, with my arm at my waist, or maybe, if I were daring, or desperate, tilted up over my head.
“I’m so tired,” Tim would say, smile lightly, and roll away from me.
These days young wives are advised to confront, to fight for what they want. I wonder if that is what young people do, in their real lives, I mean. I certainly didn’t in mine. Did you ever in yours William? Did you confront and demand? Could we ever have done anything differently from the way we did it? I let the crescendo build in my gut instead of my voice, and I waited, I waited for the day when he’d make me soup from a can and call it dinner.
I was good at waiting. I’d had a lot of practice. I had waited for Mr. Wiltshire to notice me and move me out of the back row of the choir. I went to every practice, learned every song and strained to catch a glimpse of the drumstick that Mr. Wiltshire used to lead so I would be in time. But he never moved me up. To the very last day I sang in that choir, I sang in the back row. When I went to high school, I studied Italian and French, and played the piano, but I didn’t try out for choir. It was a big school, lots of people, too much competition for a back row singer.
My Tim’s cancer took him slow, and we had time; time to talk, to explain.
“The others,” he tried to tell me, “They didn’t mean anything to me, Martha. It was always just you in my heart.”
A woman knows her man, she knows what’s in his heart – true enough, but that doesn’t mean that the others didn’t matter. You’re lucky I think, William, you’re a man. You knew your man’s heart too, I suppose. Does it matter, do you think? Am I wrong to think it matters?
Did you make your mark William? Was there enough of you in the story? Is there ever enough?
I went to buy a new chair after Tim died. A new chair for the TV room. I watch a bit of TV these days you know, the rhythm of my life is slower now. It was the first piece of furniture I’d ever purchased without him. I thought I would be happy, I could even pick out one with flowers if that’s what I wanted. Tim hated flowers on furniture.
My son came and drove me to the store. I stood in the giant warehouse, and the sun was streaming in through the wall of windows and glaring off all the glass topped tables and gleaming wood finishes. I looked around and saw one little imaginary living room after another. Blue ones, and green ones and brown plaids.
My son walked from one make believe happy home to the next, “What about a wing chair, Mom? How about a recliner? You could put your feet up.”
And through it all, I just stood there, a hapless, lost old woman. I ran my hand down the side of the chair closest to me, it was soft and warm in the sunshine.
“This will do,” I said.
“Don’t you want to sit in it ma’m?” the salesman asked. “Just once before you buy it?”
When they delivered it, I sat in it and cried.
How are you, William? People ask me that all the time. I must look discordant. I hush them up, and tell them I’m fine. They don’t understand. The question isn’t how am I now, it’s who am I now? I am his widow now.
I received an invitation last month, to attend the 75th Anniversary of my elementary school.
“You should go, Mom,” my son insisted. “You should get out, see people.”
And so I went. I wandered around the old school, an old woman, among other old women and some old men. I went to the Music Room, it had changed, it was carpeted now, and had a small stage built into one end. Mr. Wiltshire, the choir director was long gone of course, there was a young woman sitting behind the desk.
“Did you sing or play an instrument?” she asked me.
“I sang in the choir,” I explained, and she went straight to a large book on her windowsill.
“I have old choir pictures,” she said. “Let’s find yours.” With all her youthful vigour, it took her only a moment, and there we were, in all our sepia glory.
“Where are you?” the young woman asked, searching the photo for a face that would be mine, almost 60 years ago.
“There,” I said, pointing to the top of the small head peeking out from behind Joy’s shoulder. “There in the back, that’s me.”
“You must be a fine singer,” the young woman remarked looking at the photo.
“Oh, no,” I laughed. “I was always in the back row, always hidden behind Joy Henderson.”
“But that’s just what I mean,” the young woman said. “In a choir, you always put your very best singers in the back row, always. That way the clear, true voices act as a guide to those in front of them, keeping them on key, in time.” The young woman smiled at me and turned to the door to greet someone else. I stood for sometime looking at the picture, before I put the book away.
Thank you, William for listening to the ramblings of an old woman. I wish the best for you. I wish the best for us both.
Mrs. Martha Edwards
On behalf of the 2013 OWC organizing committee, our heartfelt thanks goes out to you, Nora Landry, for paying it forward in the most exquisite way.
As for you, Gentle Reader, in case you haven’t guessed it already, the Ontario Writers’ Conference is elated to announce Bill Whitehead as its 2013 guest luncheon speaker!
If you haven’t already registered for the conference, now’s the time. Registration closes March 31st!