About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Each boat has her own voice. Waiting at dockside, the Bruce purrs; the two exhaust pipes are just at water level and emit a gentle steam sparkling with tiny bubbles, like the upside-down rain we make with baking soda and Kool Aid. Coming across the bay, she talks to herself and to the waves, the words always just beyond the edge of comprehensibility.

Old Mr. Hungerford's putt-putt does just that. Putt-putt-putt-putt: a steady beat underway, slowing to a near-stall as she coasts in to tie up. Putt-pause-putt-pause, then when you think she's stopped, putt-putt.

The Lizzie roars.  Inside the cabin, talking is impossible. Sometimes we shout;  "Where's Georgina?" "What?" "Home!" "Okay!" This last to the pilot, forward beyond the engine block. He pushes on the throttle and the engine bellows. We sit immersed in our own thoughts, tolerating the noise, the stink of hot oil and bilgewater, the steamy damp.

There are no lights aboard the Lizzie, except for the one headlight. Inside, morning and evening, it is pitch dark, except for the occasional beam from a flashlight. The night a rat bites me, I pull the flash from my pocket and turn it on, but it's too late; I don't see the rat, just the two tiny holes in my hand, almost half an inch apart. I don't tell the adults because I know what they will do: give me a series of injections, one a day for twelve days, all of them in my belly. I'd rather get rabies. I am relieved, though, when a month has gone by and I can still drink a glass of water without choking.

When it's not raining, I like to sit outside in the stern. It's always cold, but if I huddle close to the cabin wall, out of the wind, and cram my hands up into my jacket sleeves, I am fine. At least it's quiet. Quieter, anyhow. And the spray smells of salt and seaweed and silver-grey mist.

In the daytimes, going to Tahsis, we cut in close to the land, out of the choppiness at mid-channel. The rocks and trees slip by, half a stone's throw away, silent except for the slap of the waves at their feet. I like to imagine myself scrambling over the shore, picking huckleberries in season -- so big and red they are, hanging there over the banks, unharvested, unseen by anyone but me. Sometimes the sun shines on the cliffs, making the moss look dry and warm, a place to climb to, to sit in a cushiony hollow -- there! that one! -- and examine the tiny moss-flowers and the yellow lichens.

Behind and over it all, the Douglas firs and the cedars make an impenetrable wall. Never has man set foot under those branches; no voices have disturbed their silence. We don't belong there, we are too young; we couldn't bear the heaviness of the slow centuries, of the secret musings and long watchings. And yet I wish: if the boat would only stop, I would go ashore and dare the hidden paths. Maybe.

Most of the year it's too cold and wet to sit outside at night. But in the summer, when the wash glows green with fluorescence, and tiny sparkling stars break away from the prow and rush off into the blackness, when the Big Dipper hangs overhead and the lights of the houses behind us make dancing dotted lines on the crests of the waves, I lean on the side of the boat and sing. No-one inside the Lizzie will hear me over the racket of the engine; I can shout to the stars. Stormy weather songs; "Jesus, Saviour, Pilot Me", "Throw out the Lifeline," "Peace, Be Still". Or my night-time favourite: "Could we with ink the ocean fill,.." The sea and the sky and the mountains are already inky.


In the winter storms, a derelict fishing boat washes ashore, half sunken, and comes to ground between the pier and my bedroom window.  I watch her through the early spring, as the waves nudge her one way and another until she is tightly wedged on some unseen gap in the rocks.  At low tide the cabin and the front deck are exposed, slanting towards me, beckoning. As soon as the weather is warm enough, I swim out and clamber aboard.

The cabin is tiny and dark, more from ancient grease than from paint.  My hands stick to the doorjamb. I pick my way to the wheel, sloshing through knee-deep water across broken floorboards, and stand there, pretending to steer. Straight ahead, a forest of tarry pilings underneath the old cannery bars the way. I imagine backing, turning to miss the pier, and heading out to open water. I would go north, just to see what's there; hills and trees I have never seen, islets with no name, lonely cliffs.

There is a smear of pitch on my right arm; my hands, when I turn them palms up, are black. I back gingerly out of the cabin, careful not to touch anything more. The prow deck is clean enough; for the rest of the summer, I use it as my private sun-bathing place.

In October, my little harbour is empty again. Whether the tide broke the wreck up, or she just floated out to sea, I don't know. I never saw her go.


Occasionally we take a trip down the island on the Messenger III, the Shantyman's Mission boat. Down the outside; a stop in Friendly Cove or Ahousat, and a rolling and nose-diving haul  around Estevan Point, where all the adults take to their bunks and I go to join the pilot in his cabin. He makes himself onion sandwiches for lunch; "Settles the stomach," he says. My stomach is fine, but I don't try his sandwiches.

Aboard the Messenger, I mostly stay inside. She is faster than the Lizzie, or even the Bruce; the wind in the stern catches your breath away. But she is bigger, and cleaner, and quieter than any of the other boats I know. Even in the cabin below decks, the bunks are dry. And we can talk, even play games; the engine thrums along in the next room, sounding like someone practicing his bass part for the church choir.

The wall must be well insulated, because when I go through the engine room to the head, the pounding and howling and squealing of the big machine deafens me. Close beside the monster is a narrow walkway, just a metal grid over open bilge and a rail made of lead pipes, too hot to hold onto comfortably. A sizzling water pipe juts out overhead, close enough for me to feel its heat as I pass. Over the rail, massive wheels spin, pistons leap and slam back down, belts whine. A finger in one of those, a stray shoelace; I shy away from the rest of the thought. It is a relief to hide away in the tiny head, to lock down the handle. "Occupied", the label will say on the outside. I stay longer than I need to, putting off the trip back over that trembling bridge.


The Messenger. The Lizzie. My wreck. The Bruce. And I shouldn't forget our school boat, the Donna Dene. Except that she is so forgettable; serviceable and boring. White paint, a boxy cabin, engine, benches, wheel. That's it. A boat to get to school in, to forget your homework in, to sit inside through the rainy months in.

Even the name is a plodder. Donna. No romance. The Messenger, now; the name means something, tells you its mission, to carry the Gospel. The Bruce is named after the Doctor's son, the one that drowned when his boat went down in a storm.

And the Lizzie: an ugly-sounding name, but it speaks of so many things! Elizabeth, like the queen in her blue dress and fat ankles on the front wall of our classroom. Elizabeth II Regina; very elegant. Or the Tin Lizzie, the Model T Ford, probably about as old as our Lizzie, but black instead of streaky white. Or just plain Elizabeth, with a whole list of nicknames to choose from. Betty. Lisa. Beth, like Jo's sister that died in "Little Women". Eliza. Ella. Lisbeth. When I grow up, if I do, if I have a daughter, I will name her Elizabeth. But I won't call her Lizzie, ever.

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Heat waves and other Illusions

We were driving through Arizona in the summertime. It was hot. You couldn’t sit back on your seat in the car; you would get stuck to it. Where the sunshine fell on the upholstery, it burned your skin. Dad was driving in his underwear, the red shorts with the fire-engines on them. Dave and Mark, in the back seat with me, wore shorts, too, but Mom and I were properly dressed. I lifted my skirt occasionally and fanned my legs, but it didn’t help much. It was hot, hot, hot.

Ahead of us, the highway looked as if it were underwater, cool, clear water rippling and splashing. As we raced towards it, it disappeared, leaving empty grey highway. Mom explained about optical illusions and mirages. I began looking out the side window, hoping to see a real mirage; an oasis, perhaps, with a palm tree or two, a pool, maybe a donkey resting in the shade. But I saw nothing out there but desert. Parched brown dust, rocks, half-dead shrubs, a few cacti. Nothing green, not even the leaves. Not a real green, anyway, not a live green; just a greyish, dusty, dreary pretense.

At noon, Dad pulled over on the side of the road. We unstuck ourselves from the seats and piled out of the car.

“Out of the frying pan…” Mom said.

She handed out sandwiches and we sat on the running board in the shadow of the car and ate. Dad wandered around, stretching. A little way off, he stopped, then waved and shouted, “Hey, look! Water!”

We caught up to Dad and passed him, running. Ahead, sunlight glinted off a smooth surface; no waves, no heat ripples here! I didn’t notice until later that there was no green fringe around this pond, just the everlasting grey shrubs. We slowed as we came near. Something was wrong; the water was too dark, too still. Deep and muddy, maybe. No good for wading.

And we came to the edge and stood staring.

“What is it, Dad?” Dave asked.

“Tar. Melted tar. It’s a tar pit.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Out of the rocks. Don’t fall in!” This last sharply, to Mark, who was poking at the surface with a dead stick.
It was Dave that found the second pool, just beyond a clump of shrubs. It was a smaller pit, but with an interesting addition. Shoulder-deep in the tar, struggling, was a skunk, furry black in the smooth black of the entrapping tar. We stood and watched as the tar crept up its back. The more it fought, the faster it sank.

“How did he get there, Dad?”

“Fell in. Probably thought it was water and tried to get a drink.”

“He’s going to drown. We’ve got to help him!”

Dad found a sturdy pole and poked at the tar. It was up to the skunk’s muzzle now, lapping at the white stripe in the centre of its back. With the pole, Dad managed to pry up the chin – just a bit. “I’ll try under its belly,” he said. Sweat ran down his face; he brushed it away with the back of his hand and buried the end of his stick deep in the tar. He grunted, then; “It’s coming!” he said. The stick brought something black and sticky out of the tar; the skunk’s tail. Progress!

And then the skunk sprayed.

We were lucky, Mom said later, that the rest of us were standing on the opposite side of the pit. Dad used up all our drinking water trying to wash the skunk smell off. Behind the car, he changed into a clean shirt and his old stripy underwear. Mom threw his shoes and the fire-engine shorts into the ditch.

We drove away from there. It was hot and the car smelled, even with all the windows down, and the desert was dry and dusty. I didn’t look for mirages any more.

“I’m sorry, little skunk,” I thought. “We tried. That was all we could do. I’m sorry.”

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Trophy

To begin with, the Martins were old. Not fortyish, like my parents; really old, older even than my grandma.

She -- Mrs. Martin -- was shaped like an engine block; almost as wide as she was long, and giving the impression of squareness, even though there were no right angles about her. A small engine; she was no taller than I, a mere five feet. Her steel-grey hair was always pinned firmly into a bun at the nape of her neck, her sober skirts fell almost to her ankles, her shoes were black and sturdy. No nonsense about Mrs. Martin.

The mister was larger and rounder and softer. Just barely, though. He always wore a workman's shirt and baggy wool trousers, held up by suspenders. Sometimes a hat; a city hat, but much oil-stained and sat upon.

I have a picture of them, standing side by side in the hospital gardens, holding hands and smiling identical smiles. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, without the battle.

I first saw them in the staff dining room. We kids came down to lunch early that day and found the room empty, except for the Martins. He was already sitting at the table, she was on his lap, and they were kissing. Energetically. This was nothing like the hello-goodbye peck Mom and Dad indulged in, twice a day; they were kissing like people in the romantic stories from the magazines my grandma hid in her basement. Long, breathless, face-crushing kisses, both his arms around her ample waist, her hand on the back of his head, fingers parting his grey hair. They didn't seem to notice us in spite of the racket we had made, pounding down the stairs, the boys shouting.

We kids were struck dumb; we slid into our places on the long bench under the window silently, without any of our usual jostling. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to look.

The grown-ups, when they arrived, were less circumspect. There was a slight pause as each of them came through the door at the bottom of the stairs, a quick grin, and then a jocular comment.

"Making up for lost time, Walter?"

"What's this, dessert first?"

Chairs scraped, silverware clattered. Doc MacLean came in through the back door from his office. "Okay, that's enough, you two love-birds," he called out. "Behave!"

I was embarrassed for them. For Mrs. Martin, especially. Caught like that, between pleasing her husband and maintaining proper decorum! How she must feel!

Or not. She stood up, laughing, and deposited a kiss on Mr. Martin's bald spot. And he, playing to his audience, pulled her back down again for an encore. One final, slobbery, noisy buss. "Mmmm--wah!" he said.

Doc MacLean said grace, and the cook brought in the meal. Mrs. Martin had to cut up her husband's meat for him. He had no teeth. From the jokes people made, I gathered that he had lost them in a honeymoon mishap.

 Mom told us the rest of the story after work that evening.

Mr. Martin was a recent widower. In the last months of his wife's illness, they had sold the farm and moved into Vancouver. He found a good church there, and attended as regularly as he could, given his wife's condition.

After she died, he cast about for something to do, something useful. He heard about the mission hospital and sent in an application.

If he were to go out to the wilds to serve God, he decided, he would need a wife. He started examining the women in the church. Most were married, some of the single ones were too flighty. Some came only Sunday morning, dressed in their showiest hats, carrying Bibles that looked as if they were rarely opened.

He concentrated on the few women who came to the Wednesday evening prayer meetings, the very few. One, a Miss Peters, was there regularly. Her Bible was worn and stuffed with notes, her dress was modest. She looked a sensible woman.

He asked around. "Miss Peters? Oh, yes. A good woman. A willing worker," he was told.

He had never spoken to her, but he wrote a note and handed it to her at the door, after prayer meeting. "Miss Peters," it said, "Please excuse my writing to you like this. I have been accepted by the Nootka Mission Association to work in their hospital on Vancouver Island. However, I feel the Lord wants me to go accompanied by a wife. Will you marry me?"

He saw her Sunday morning and evening, but apart from a cautious smile in his direction, she gave no response. It did seem, also, as if the pastor's wife were looking at him strangely. And the organist. He refused to worry, though; Miss Peters was a good woman. God would tell her what to do.

Wednesday evening she passed him a folded slip of paper. "Yes," it said. Nothing more.

So here they were, wed less than a week, smooching in our dining room. Miss Peters -- now Mrs. Martin -- would be working in the hospital laundry; her husband was our new handyman.

Mom would have ended the story there. It was an instructive little tale, a good example for a daughter just beginning to think about womanhood: be good, go to church, read your Bible, be patient, and you'll be assured of a nice husband. But Dad was prodding her to go on.

"Tell the kids about his teeth," he said.

At dawn on the morning after the wedding, the Martins boarded the Princess Maquinna for the trip north. It would be a beautiful honeymoon cruise; the weather was balmy, the cabin comfortable, the scenery postcard-perfect. They ate a hearty breakfast in the dining room and went out to the deck to watch the tip of Vancouver Island glide by.

On the "outside", the water open to the wide Pacific, the boat began to roll, just a little. And it soon became apparent that Mr. Martin was not a sailor. Before lunch, the couple had retired to the cabin; she went up to the dining room alone. He wasn't interested in food.

Further north, the swell increased; there was a slight breeze. The Maquinna plowed through the water, climbing and diving, rising and falling, always twisting on a slight angle from the direction of travel. They rounded Estevan Point; West-Coast seamen call it "The Graveyard of the Pacific". Up, down, roll, climb, drop. Roll, and up again. Mr. Martin's breakfast left its moorings. Mrs. Martin held the basin.

When it was over, Mr. Martin lay back on the bunk, groaning. Mrs. Martin opened the porthole. She reached out and dumped the contents of the basin into the salt chuck.

"My teeth!" her new husband shouted. Too late. They rest, still, just off Estevan Point.

Dad loved this part of the story. He kept supplying the details Mom wanted to leave out. And he ruined her lesson. "Be patient, dress modestly, go to church" and all the rest, and what do you get? A lousy sailor, in suspenders, with no teeth.

There had to be a better plan.

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Recipe for a poem, Latin American style

Disclaimer: I love Spanish-language poetry, but cannot write it. Another frustrating attempt led to this spoof.

These words are of the essence:
heaven, wind, stars, heart
Delight and anguish, infinite
green forgetfulness and purple night.

Mix well, fold in a well of sleep,
a grave, abandoned by the sea.
The purple sea, under the aching stars;
forgotten hearts' delight: forgotten, false!

Green heart, green heaven, abandoned night.
A sleeping grave,
the purple sea, under the anguished stars.

For seasoning: it was mid-summer, the wind
high in the heavens, false promises of rain.
Do you remember? The weeping rose scenting the breeze,
the purple night, the anguished sea.

Pour into hearts and bake under the summer
moon - do you remember? What grave
abandon! What delights! Such stars were never seen!
The aching night beside the purple sea.

Poems, Humour
©Susannah Anderson, 2001