Contest Issue - Vol.10,
No.56, 2007 FIRST PLACE WINNER - NON FICTION
Drumbolt-Humbold by Nesta Primeau (BC)
My parents were great readers - not in the conventional sense of opening a book with hard covers, planting themselves in an armchair and transplanting the words from the page into their brains. Their reading was always aloud and to an audience - my brother and me. Mom and Dad read a delightful progression of poems and fairy tales along with whatever else was deemed suitable for children. Each evening, one or the other read to us, even after my brother and I had gained enough insight to understand plots written for adults.
The last book read aloud to us was Zane Grey’s The Thundering Herd, a novel of romance and stampeding buffalo on the American plains. Most of the vocabulary in this story was used in our house but perhaps once in each chapter, Mom stumbled unexpectedly on a “hell” or a “damn.” Seeing profanity in print shocked her. There was a noticeable change in demeanour and she blushed a little as if she had committed a sin. On the moment, Mother carried out her parental trust to ensure that we children were protected from unsuitable language using one of two methods. Sometimes she substituted a lesser oath such as “heck” or “darn” - not that these words were to be spoken by children - they fell into the category of adult privilege - and the rhythm of the sentence was not interrupted. But if Mom omitted the word entirely, the cadence was somehow off and my ears perked up. Something was wrong. What was wrong? I could never quite put my finger on it.
When the final chapter of The Thundering Herd had been read aloud, I was overcome with disappointment. It was so enjoyable to have been suspended on tenterhooks over the previous dozen nights that I longed for the experience never to end.
The Thundering Herd stirred a longing for something else - a need to believe that this story was true. While it was obvious several years before that pigs could not build houses, The Thundering Herd was not at all obvious to a child. Perhaps the hero really did rescue his lady-love from certain death under the hooves of stampeding buffalo. I had to know.
“Mom,” I asked, “is this story true?”
Without the term plausible fiction, my mother did her best.
“It could be true,” she said.
Time passed. The days of my own mothering years zoomed into nothingness and I became the lover and supporter of my parents as they spent their last months in a long-term care facility. With each visit I planned a small surprise - something to taste, something new to wear or a recent family snapshot. Sometimes I would read aloud to Mom and Dad.
One November day, as my special surprise, I decided to read Stuart McLean’s Rock of Ages. McLean’s story tells of a woman whose what-if boyfriend had died. With George Mills’ death, Flora Perriton, the town’s music teacher, would never know if a spark of interest could have grown into romance. At George’s funeral Flora’s voice disjoined from the other singers. Unintentionally, she turned the congregational hymn, Rock of Ages, into a solo, a tribute to her almost-beau.
It was the perfect story for my parents, aged 88 and 99. Mom and Dad had grown up in the Anglican Church; both knew the words to Rock of Ages - all verses - by heart. Then there was the best coincidence of all - McLean’s story takes place in the mythical town of Drumbolt. My mother, Alice, grew up in Humboldt, Saskatchewan where our family had visited the town, our uncles, aunts and cousins on several family vacations. As I tucked Stories from the Vinyl Cafe into my bag, I was already enjoying the coincidence.
Mom and Dad settled into their wheelchairs and adjusted their blankets in anticipation of my story. Rock of Ages was perfect. As I read, I changed each reference to the town of “Drumbolt” to “Humboldt.” It leant enormous credence to the tale. Mom and Dad were entranced. They leaned forward, relishing every word.
I paused as my eyes fell on the passage, “... George Mills had come to her house for supper and they had sat on the couch and he had kissed her and they had lain there and held each other tight on the floor by the fireplace.” Should I protect my parents’ moral sensibilities by editing the text? Should I at least eliminate the kiss? But no - they might have needed that sort of protection when I was a young woman and they were younger too. But not any longer.
Flora Perriton sang Rock of Ages and my parents’ faces took on a satisfied glow.
The story ended. My mother began to doze but my father was still on the edge of his chair. Dad turned toward me. “Nesta,” he asked, “is this story true?” His voice was eager, full of hope.
I thought of the term “plausible fiction”, then considered giving the same answer my mother had given me so many years before. I started to say, “...it could be true.” But this was not the moment to disappoint my father. If I squirmed - I did - so what.
“Yes, Dad,” I replied, “this is a true story. Flora Perriton still teaches piano in Humboldt.”