In Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola describe the “hermit crab” essay: “This type of essay appropriates existing forms as an outer covering to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly.” The shells are borrowed from fiction and poetry as well as common written ephemera such as recipes, social media, or lists. The contents are “tender.” Next week, I’ll be teaching a workshop on memoir writing where we’ll be exploring the use of these “hermit crab” forms: Tell It With A Twist.
My “hermit crab” story, “Telegram Memories,” was published in Issue 60 of filling Station:
- The photographs show my grandfather as a young man. He is tall with Brylcreemed hair and Clark Gable eyes. In one photo, he smiles down into my grandmother’s eyes. It is this smile that grabbed her heart and never let go, and it is this just-short-of-a-dimpled smile that brings life to his pale blue eyes and spirit to the faded photographs.
- As a small boy, my grandfather refused to eat his oatmeal for breakfast. When he came back for lunch he was given the same oatmeal. When he came back for supper he was given the same oatmeal. The next morning, he was given the same oatmeal, and he ate it.
- On his first day of grade one, a girl accused him of kicking her in the cloak room. When the teacher stood him before the class and strapped him, he recalled an illustration. In the black and white woodcut, a knight lay dying on the field of battle. The knight gazed up at his murderer through bloodied eyes, and with his dying breath intoned, “You shall rue this day.” My grandfather looked his teacher in the eye and said, “You shall rue this day.” He was strapped again.
- He feared snakes his entire life, but he told me this story: As a boy he witnessed the neighbourhood toughs trap a garter snake. They stuffed the snake into an empty Plow Boy tobacco tin and threw it into their fire. My grandfather burned his hands grabbing the can and pulling the snake to safety.
- I can see my grandfather now. He is sitting at the kitchen table, elbows holding up his shoulders — he taps the ash from his Export A. Sitting on a makeshift chair by the lake, watching for movement on the far mountainside and listening to birdsong — an Export A rests between his fingers. Leaning back in his swivel chair at the McLure train station, legs crossed — there’s that smile again and that twinkle— and an Export A pressed between his lips.
- He longed to return to his childhood home — the rainforests of the West Coast. I remember him saying, “Albruta isn’t a country fit for a white man.”
- He was longshoreman, telegraph operator, railroader, Depression Era gambler, writer, dreamer, storyteller, train operator, father, husband — and he was my grandfather.
- As punishment he forced his children to stand with their arms outstretched at shoulder height — but never me.
- His favourite meal was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding — “Good Anglo-Saxon food.” But he loved everything my grandmother made him. Even when he came around the corner one day to find her pouring Ketchup into the meatloaf mix. “What are you making me eat, Mom?” That was not his idea of “Anglo-Saxon” cooking, but he ate it anyway.
- We walked the mountains, the hillsides, the forests, and he told me stories. In those stories lived his characters: ticky bugs and piggy birds, Danny, the mouse, and Scrag, the witch.
- My aunts played a game with our German Shephard, Cheko. They pointed a stick, like a gun, and he would grab it. One day, my friend, Linda, raised a stick to Cheko, and he bit her. My grandmother took Linda home, but I don’t remember that. I remember this: I walk outside and see Cheko lying on the ground on his side — panting. His eye is open and dazed with fear. My grandfather is standing above him, a thick chain in his hand. I ask my grandfather what he is doing. He says, “You need to go back in the house.” And like a coward, I did.
- He wrote, he typed. His stories are preserved on small, yellowing scraps labeled “CANADIAN NATIONAL RAILWAYS Railway Service Telegram.” They are not enough.
- When he wasn’t writing, he was expounding. I hear his loud, strident voice: “That bastard Trudeau.” And always, “Line ‘em up against the wall and shoot ‘em.” I don’t remember who was being lined up. Maybe it was a politician that time, but it would be someone else the next.
- With Ray Noble and Al Bowley circling our Grundig turntable, my grandfather sang under his breath: “I’m living in a kind of daydream. I’m happy as a king. And foolish though it may seem, to me that’s everything.”
- He was able to perfectly imitate the West Coast Tree Frog. Krrrik-kik-kik-kik-kik. Krrrik-kik-kik-kik-kik. All the grandkids tried to copy that sound; none ever could.
- He read Sir Walter Scott, Erich Remarque and James Thurber. He quoted Rudyard Kipling, “A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair and the fool he called her his lady fair … ” That’s all I remember.
- In a very old memory, I sit in the tall grass. Like a typical, idle four-year-old, I pluck at the grass beside me. I hear my grandfather’s gentle voice: “That grass should be allowed to live, just like you and me.”
- He told me about the Nanking Massacre, and on December 7, every December 7, he’d say, “Do you know what day this is? It’s the day the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour.”
- After his first stroke, he didn’t read anymore. He didn’t write anymore. He didn’t argue anymore. But everyone agreed, he was much easier to get along with.
- I visited him as he lay dying slowly, quietly under a stiff white sheet at St. Mary’s Hospital in Camrose. “This is no ticky bug story, Bertie,” he might have said. His voice was too quiet for me to hear.
If you are in Edmonton next week and would like to attend my workshop, Tell It With A Twist, go to Third Verb for more details and to register. Participants will receive a copy of Weaving a Malawi Sunrise: A Woman, A School, A People.