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My Job as Chief Listener by Jonina Wood

Three Sisters, walking with umbrellas
August 29, 2018

My Job as Chief Listener by Jonina Wood

       

          I’m working on a novella called "Halli’s Boots".  Originally HB was supposed to be a short story, but it wanted more out of life, so I caved in and set aside the other novel I was working on—called "Monsterology".  

          Halli’s Boots is actually two wings joined by an interlude, during which everything that does not get said in the wings gets said.  Writers can do things like this, I realized, and no one says anything.  Prior to this, I spent my life in the backwaters of sentence construction, a mean-assed grammar cop.  The rules are the rules.  Now, I break the speed limit everyday.

What happened?

Anyway, Halli’s Boots is a story told by a very old Icelandic woman to a very young millennial hired to care for her.

            Hekla—at 93 and counting—bears a slight resemblance to a forefather of her's known as "Erik the Red", who was such a hothead, they threw him out of Iceland. 

            Henry—barely grazing 21—is the most beautiful character ever—can’t quite figure where he came from—and also the storyteller, so he has a lot of power in my life.

This is what happens when you break the rules. 

So that’s what I am currently up to, and now for why.

First, my mother who was a great storyteller.

Mesmer on hormones; she held you in her thrall.     

My job was Chief Listener.

            The stories were mostly about her people—those intrepid Icelanders who drove in from Iceland in the late 19th Century, to root in mostly Manitoba—and also, the Great Depression, during which Mom came of age. 

            “We went hungry,” she would say. “You kids have no idea.”

            “Okay What’d ya eat, Mom?” I would ask, frilling the words with teen ennui.

             “We had flour. We had lard. We mixed the two with water, fried it in strips over a woodstove and covered it with sugar. And then…we drank coffee brewed in an old sock, black as tar.  You have to understand, in our house, a dime was money.”

            Mom’s storytelling rooted in me, and was at first a thin poplar tree.  This was the period during which I chased other dreams and wound up in Paris.  Paris was the "Moveable Feast", just as Hemingway said.  I went where he had gone, and found myself in La Closerie des Lilas. A soft hedge of weeping branches circled a terrace with wicker chairs and small round tables. In the evenings, candlelight and excited voices and wine. Open to the skies. The air was mellifluous, if charged with Gauloise that curled into the slight wind.

             I could understand how the cafés of Paris could seduce the Lost Generation. They offered a solace to the solitude of writing.  One could look up from one’s table and see others and imagine their lives and bring them into one’s stories. Paris was the place where I learned to dream.

            Paris promised the truth. And we—the pilgrims—wandered her worn cobblestones, down streets and alleys, finding quiet places to absorb the light and to write.

Eventually, one comes home.

Mom passed a couple of years ago. She was 96 and tired. One day, not long before, she asked my brother “What time are you getting up yesterday.”

            “Mom,” he said, with a twinkle, “yesterday’s gone.”

            “No it’s not,” she said. “That’s just crazy.”

And then, one day, she left us. In her sleep, peacefully, just as she had wanted.     

But not to be gone, not really. 

Like yesterday, she’s still here, in the stories she told me and my bro.

Come to think of it, every day lived offers us a yesterday and every yesterday holds a story.   

Jonina WoodJonina Wood graduated Sarah Lawrence College in 2014 with an MFA in Creative Writing.  Prior to that she studied at the University of Winnipeg, earning a B.A. in History and at Carleton University in Ottawa, earning a Bachelor of Journalism.  She worked at the CBC in Ottawa as both a television and radio news reporter, and then spent two years in Paris, where she studied the language and French history at the Sorbonne. She was the Editor-in-Chief of the Canada Year Book and Canada: A Portrait, two Statistics Canada publications that chronicled the social, economic and demographic life of Canada. She now lives in the wilds of Quebec with her cat Odin, God of Wisdom, War, Death, Poetry and Magic.

Illustration by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. This piece is called “The Memoriaist” which appeared in issue 299.1, Winter 2014.

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