That ride led to my picking her up and driving her home each week. Not because I was being especially kind, but because I loved her at "hello".
That course, those rides, led to ten years' worth of the Brampton Writers Workshop, followed by years of only four original members, Edie Van Beek, Michelle Duff, Merci, and me. Next came the MCM group—Merci, Cathy & Michelle—keeping the fires going when we could. Keeping the friendship, despite all the enormous changes in our lives.
Twenty years my senior, Merci was always a late bloomer. She'd married late, had her two sons at an older-than-average age, began to write poetry in her forties. She was thin and grey-haired and, due to a rather long nose and pixie-shaped face, looked very conservative, perhaps even severe. You had to look into the shine of her eyes to notice the twinkle. Merci was a wild child, tamed by life and circumstance, but she retained a wicked laugh, a dark streak, an energetic impulse for love and excitement.
In the late seventies and early eighties, we were fortunate enough to be part of the Great Canadian Poetry weekends. It was a trip we looked forward to every single year. From our drive there to our journey home, we talked, laughed, learned, wrote, planned. Our years flowed from there. Sometimes the paths didn't go straight, but we'd shoulder our backpacks and continue on with optimism, flare.
Once we learned we could read at the Poetry Weekend, a kind of karaoke for writers, we began to believe in our creativity. We saw a future. Dennis Lee came up to Merci after one of these readings and complimented her poetry.
Before she left our room that afternoon to do the reading, I had had to tell her that her name tag was upside down. We both collapsed on the beds in fits of laughter.
George Jones, P.K. Page, Irving Layton, bp Nichol, Margaret Atwood, bill bissett, George Bowering, John Robert Columbo, Patrick Lane, Susan Musgrave, James Reany, Miriam Waddington, Don Coles, Dorothy Livesay, Al Purdy, Dennis Lee, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco...they were all our teachers in Collingwood. We promised each other we'd never allow one of us to read in a sleeveless blouse as Livesay did, her underarms jiggling distractedly in the backlit room.
From then on, we always make sure each other's name tag is right-side-up.
We are there for each other through ups and downs, tragedies and joys, wins and losses. Merci's son Charles dies in a terrible car accident at sixteen years of age. She is crushed, holds up only for her eldest son, Chris. Her husband's moods and problems multiply, divide, settle. The loss of two children can do that to a person and Claude doesn't know how to suffer, how to handle it.
Merci is a nurse and is working in the hospital when I give birth to my son. We ride side-by-side through divorce (mine), remarriage (mine), menopause, children's learning curves, the death of a spouse (hers), writing, publishing, sex, the bones of life and love.
We run our Brampton Writers' workshop until its death, attend courses and conferences and authors' festivals. We publish. Our own magazine with Edie and Michelle, in others' magazines, in our own books. She gives me feedback, encouragement, even plot ideas. With my and Michelle's help, she publishes her own poetry book, an achievement accomplished at 80 years old.
Our writing helps us understand our lives, the choices that led us here or there. Merci realizes she was an abused child, but she chooses not to confront the man, the boy, who did it. Adopted, she was an un-pretty baby chosen to replace a beautiful child, a perfect angel impossible to imitate. She and her adoptive mother become close in older age, but Merci was rejected by her birth mother both in infancy and later when she tries to reconnect. Yet she retains her strength, her determination, her energy.
When she moves a long distance away, we spend months without face-to-face. On the phone, we can hear the love in our voices. We kiss from a distance. Just this week, I hear her lovely lilting English accent as she says, "Oh, Cathy" and rushes into the news of the day. I can't believe she leaves me a few days later.
Looking back to catch the coincidences often results in comfort. Merci laughed over my new, lighter book, more cozy than I'd ever before written, and agreed to have her birth name used for one of the characters. She gave me two excellent plots for short stories, one of which is now published. The other is ready for submission. I have a plan for Victim, Emily Taylor Book Two, which contains Merci's poetry.
I unwrap the collection of poetry she gave me some time ago. Some written by hand, others typed on that old-fashioned instrument, the typewriter. I have plans for these poems, too. I wear the bracelet she gave me last year to my niece's wedding. On the day that I lose her, I gain a nephew. How odd life is sometimes.
I imagine that Merci is talking to Charles right now, getting caught up. It's his time with her.
But who will make sure my name tag is right-side up?