Becoming History: a life told in poetry

·9 min read

Osceola -- For those who think of poetry only as irrelevant memory work involving such things as “A host, of golden daffodils.” … Ottawa-Osceola poet, Blaine Marchand, shows us how to take the stuff of ordinary life and transform it into an evocative portrayal of a person, a place and an era.

In his recently released book, “Becoming History”, Mr. Marchand documents a century of life -- his mother’s and his own childhood -- in Ottawa and the Valley in a time when “everywhere there was chanting. ‘Red rover, red rover’ and ‘September’s dust, like our voices, rose into the air’”.

The recollection takes in his mother’s life with ‘Aunt Kathleen’ who rescued her as a child from a Protestant orphanage after their war-stressed father ‘scarpered’. Aunt Kathleen was engaged to be married to a young man with Valley connections and it was Jimmy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Irish who raised Mr. Marchand’s mother, Dorothy, during the era of an earlier epidemic, that of “diphtheria, the strangling angel”. Despite all precautions, the strangling angel struck and, in 1922, young Dorothy is in an Ottawa hospital ward, confined to an iron bed with railings, dreading the doctor ‘bearing a red-hot cork’. The nurse commands her to “open wide” and her ‘nose plugs with the burning flesh of my throat’. When the epidemic finally ends, she must leave her clothes and her doll behind to be burnt. Diphtheria is contagious.

Well again and released into freedom, Dorothy explores the exuberant growing city, taking the street cars to Sparks Street with its fine shops… Birks, Darwins, Scrims. She turns her ‘very nice hand’ at penmanship into a Saturday secretarial position at the Canadian Tuberculosis Society and graduates from the Rideau Street Convent School in 1931, “proud and fresh faced but anxious about what lies ahead.” A chance encounter with the vice-president of the prestigious Ogilvie’s Department Store leads to a “good job” and Dorothy reflects that “luck always seems to be on my side.” Luck, it seems, would also later play a part in her son Blaine’s life, bringing about a chance encounter with an 1898 schoolhouse in Osceola.

He recalls. “My partner, James Robertson, and I were trying to find Connaught Nurseries, which I had read about somewhere. We stopped at the Cobden Information Kiosk and they directed us to the Micksburg Road. As we came into Osceola, we saw the schoolhouse and we both said, “What a beautiful building!”. Then we noticed a small sign that said, ‘For Sale’, along with a telephone number.

That was 24 years ago. Both avid gardeners, the couple have since surrounded the historic building with what Mr. Marchand terms “a mini Experimental farm of heritage Canadian apple trees, lilacs, crab apples, an extensive collection of daylilies and over six hundred peonies. When you see the peonies in bloom over seven weeks, they take your breath away and the fragrance is heavenly. As visitors to Osceola often say, ‘This is a little bit of heaven’”. Mr. Marchand, who also gardens extensively at his long-time residence in Ottawa’s Wellington neighbourhood, finds gardening creates the quiet and reflective space that writing demands. His four decades of gardening expertise is shared as a volunteer at the Ottawa Experimental Farm, as a former president of the Canadian Peony Society and as a former editor of Paeonia Nordica.

Mr. Marchand jokingly says that his interest in his favourite flowers began when he confused the words poetry and peonies. It was a Grade 7 teacher, Mrs. Davis, who gave him the poetry bug. He says, “I had been writing stories, but she loved poetry and would recite it to us. I became fascinated with how poetry worked and by the power of imagery of language. We had to write an essay that year and when she read mine, she said to me, ‘Blaine, you could be a writer’.”

He began a long career as a diplomat with CIDA (the now defunct Canadian International Development Agency) but played a major role on the Canadian literary scene, founding the Ottawa Independent Writers, the Ottawa Valley Book Festival and serving as President of the League of Canadian Poets. Now retired, after eight books and extensive international travel, including long stints in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr. Marchand wanted to tell the story of a vanishing way of neighbourhood life in Ottawa and the Valley.

“When I was writing ‘Becoming History’ and the poem about my grandparents, it made me think very much about their roles in my life.”

His father’s widowed mother, Elizabeth Quilty, still lived at the time in a farmhouse near Calabogie and he remembers his childhood and spending weekends in the summer at the farm on Whelan Road.

In the poem ‘Que sera, sera’, the poet describes how the farmhouse “still echoes with the Ottawa Valley lilt of his grandparents, aunts and uncles” and recalls how the growing family, including himself and four of his siblings, made regular trips with their now ailing father, steering the Mercury Park Lane up Highway 17 while his mother sings along with Doris Day on CFRA.

Que sera, sera - whatever will be, will be. Dorothy’s life as a busy mother is portrayed in vivid detail. “Eight children brought to term, their voices echoing down the halls, filling the kitchen with the rich simmer of grousing and mirth” “and the rattle of the back-of-the stove-kettle as it boiled”.

Mr. Marchand acknowledges that the portrayal of Dorothy’s life in ‘Becoming History’ was shaped by his mother’s tacit endorsement.

“My mother knew I was a poet and was proud of my accomplishments as a poet. I never told her I was writing poetry about her last years in Grace Manor, which is how the book started. And I think she knew and wanted me to capture her stories. In a way, the book is about my mother’s life but also about mine and how I was shaped.

“My two younger brothers and I would walk through the fields and along the roads near to the farm. There were a number of ‘cousins’ as my father would call them in the area. I was never sure of how we were related, but it gave me a sense of place, of belonging.”

The purchase of the schoolhouse in Osceola led to a growing interest in family connections.

“When we bought the schoolhouse, there was no running water. The first summers were incredibly hot and we were building gardens. So, we would go down to Walsh’s store to get a cold drink and Mamie Walsh would say to us ‘sit a spell’ and she would tell us all about the town and the early years and the people who lived there. A lot of my knowledge of the town’s history is from Mamie. In the 24 years we have been in Osceola, much has changed. Walsh’s General Store is gone. The rectory of St. Pius V church is gone. People have moved or died. We now have been there longer than some others.”

His interest in family genealogy led to a role in researching local history.

“Being involved in the creation of the Bromley Historical Society fulfilled the need in me to connect with my family history in Bromley – Father Quilty in Douglas, its cemetery, where my paternal grandparents, my father and my wife are buried. And now that the township is Admaston-Bromley, to my family history in Admaston. The woman who took my mother in was Margaret (Murphy) Irish who grew up on a farm in the Eganville area. Most of the Irish children are buried in St. James the Less cemetery. So, there is that connection too.”

Inevitably, the poems in ‘Becoming History’ move the reader along into the final years of his centenarian mother’s life. The poet has already witnessed the emptied rooms of the family home, and “the century-old maples marking the edge of the yard, their rings encircling the years of our growing, and their branches ‘sails that billow with the surge of change’.”

Frequent visits to his mother in the nursing home inspires the poem ‘Memory Box’ which tells us that there are the mementos “chosen by distant children” on shelves in the hallways while ‘in a haze of puzzlement, women cry out ‘please come and get me. Take me home’”.

The poems in the last section of the book titled ‘A Capella’, record the struggle to retain memory between mother and son. “’Help me out. Help me out.’ Your hands tap your forehead to dislodge the word. Frustration in your scowl when it will not shake free like the jaundiced leaves the wind enunciates against your window.”

As he witnesses his mother slipping away, the poet-son acknowledges that, “soon your hands will be tucked below a sheet. Already grief descends, fits me like a shirt, tailored to the contours and misshapes of my skin and mood.”

Mr. Marchand as writer and traveller is no stranger to documenting the universal experience of grief, whether in an Ottawa nursing home or halfway across the world. His poetry written during his time in Afghanistan tells us. “Don’t forget us, the camp poet pleads. Listen to the wind.

Its howl is our voice. It has seized our pain and throws it

back at us. We are the dust it scatters here and there,

hurting our eyes like the torture that has scarred our bodies.”

We are reminded again that grief, death, change, parents and, yes, even Afghanistan, are eternally relevant. ‘Becoming History’ reminds us that these moments, whether simple or profound, create the shape of a life. Even for us, the moments we spent in a grade nine classroom memorizing, “A host, of golden daffodils.”

Anyone interested in obtaining a copy of the book ($25 - postage included) can send an e-mail to becominghistorypoetry@gmail.com. A virtual launch reading is planned for September 23 and more information and a Zoom link is also available at the same email, as well as inquiries about scheduling future readings for libraries, book clubs or historical groups.

Johanna Zomers, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader

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