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The questions I forgot to ask

My mother is an amazing storyteller. She’s given us the gift of details about her sisters, parents, aunts, and cousins, as well as the cast of characters that lived nearby in their beautiful yet rugged mountain village of Pisticci, Matera, Italy.

She’s told us about our genetics – like our aunts who were 5 by 5 (as in 5 feet tall by 5 foot wide). About her malservisi – naughty behaviours and tricks she and her sisters and friends would play on the adults of the village, like wrapping up garbage to look like a gift and then laughing their heads off when two men fought over who would get to take it home. Crepava della risa: they would die laughing.

Mom the storyteller

Mom, the storyteller, holding court with my aunt, uncle and grandfather (and my cousin Sal peeking in from behind his dad)

She told us about the more shocking characters in the family, like the distant cousin in the 1800s who killed the priest who got her pregnant. Or the aunt who enjoyed the company of quite a few men.

My father, on the other hand, wasn’t a storyteller. His childhood was brutal and short. While he always spoke with guarded respect about his parents, there was a clear recognition that he was not permitted let alone encouraged to live the life he really wanted.

Dad always egged my mother on to tell her stories. In his later years, during our weekly visits, he would remind my mother of the stories he wanted her to tell. Despite the fact that my mother’s childhood was filled with illness and poverty, and was sadly overshadowed by the untimely and early death of her own mother, mom’s stories always included a lot of laughter.


The daily activities from the day my dad landed in Halifax on board the SS Argentina

Immediately after my father died, I realized there were so many questions I forgot to ask him. This morning, that realization came back again. I was reading an article about an Italian immigrant who landed in Halifax in November 1952 on board a ship called SS Argentina. My father arrived at Pier 21 aboard that same ship only a few months earlier in March 1952.

Pier 21 invites immigrants and their families to submit their stories and other artefacts from their arrivals. I would love to submit an article, but I’m not sure that I can.


In clearing out my parents’ house, we found that dad had kept the daily announcements from the ship. There’s also a picture of him enjoying a celebratory dinner with his fellow travellers. But I have no idea what his first experiences were like in Canada. I don’t have a picture in my mind of that long train ride from Halifax through Montreal to Union Station in Toronto, where my mother would have met him. My mother can fill in some of the blanks, but I wish I had asked him about those days.

Onboard the SS Argentina

Dad at the back right hand side, shaking hands with a fellow passenger

I don’t think I told my father I was writing a book. Probably because I had my doubts I would ever get it done. I have told my mother, and now I have a huge sense of urgency to get it written. The book is not a biography of my mother or any family member, but I am finding ways to weave her funny and poignant stories throughout. I get a thrill each time I’m able to perfectly place one of her anecdotes. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to share her gift with others. I just wish I could do the same for my father.








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Coming to life through song

It’s astonishing how many excuses I can come up with for not writing. One person recently suggested that maybe I only like the idea of writing a book, and that perhaps I’d never actually do it. Luckily for her, this conversation took place over text, so there was no opportunity to smite her.

It’s not that I haven’t had progress. Last summer, a weekend on the tea deck at the cottage, after months of thinking and noodling and massaging ideas, was all I needed to to finally map out the plot from beginning to end. The character profiles are done. I’ve even found the perfect pen.

But then, life happened. I had to give myself a pass for 2017.

New year’s eve, that symbolic time of renewal and hope, started with my father going into hospital for a painful, awful infection on his foot that had refused to heal and that caused him intense pain and grief since the summer. It had become such a regular pattern for him over the previous few months. I fully expected he’d heal and come home so that we could continue to limp along in the unsustainable life of trying to care for him from a distance.

Is it irony that on the day he died his foot looked completely healed?

Me and dad in 1970 on a visit to Italy.

I’ve tried to block out a lot of the pain and sadness of the months that followed. Mom, bless her beautiful heart, decided to move closer to us. That put an end to the torture of the regular and sometimes panicked drives that took anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the whims of the worst highway in North America.

Nothing about her move was easy. Grief and anxiety played out for me (and my family) at every corner. Every moment of clearing out my childhood home felt like a betrayal of my father. I remember feeling furious that we had to remove his name from the deed before the house could sell. How could we do that to him?

On July 17, the sale of the house closed, and mom was adjusting well to her new beautiful apartment 1 km from my house. I had expected that I would wake up on that Monday morning feeling lightened, ready to take on the world. Instead, I was completely paralyzed. Man, did that ever piss me off.

Have I mentioned that I am married to the most amazing man in the world? He gently and sweetly reminded me not to be an idiot. We spent as much of August and September as we could bathed in nature. Canoeing and camping in Algonquin Park and whale watching and hiking on Vancouver Island helped with the healing.

In September, I turned in my pass and got back to work. I had all but stepped away from my business over the previous months – just keeping the lights on. I am so incredibly grateful that as soon as I felt my energy return, work came in abundance.

But then there was the book. I had picked up my notes and then put them down again. I had only used my perfect pen for my clients’ words. My plot line was gathering dust and cat hair in the corner.

Each time someone would tell me about an acquaintance who had published a book, I’d say, “Oh isn’t that nice,” but I certainly didn’t mean it.

Then something completely unexpected happened, and it came to a head last night. My choir, Grand River Voices, has been a source of comfort and joy for me over the last 5 or so years. I love singing (No, I won’t sing for you – if you want to hear me sing, come to a performance). In August, it led to someting more.

Our choir director, the lovely Amy Di Nino, invited us to sing a choral part for a song her band, Cootes Paradis, was recording. It took all of 20 minutes and 2 takes, and it was transformative. I began to crave that feeling of making art. That opportunity came again last night. A few of us sang back up for Michael Gabriel at an intimate performance near Barrie. It was another outstanding experience.

The amazing studio experience singing for Cootes Paradise

I love to perform, I love being back stage at an event and being part of making it come to life. I would happily go on tour as part of a choir for hire, but it would take a whole lot of alcohol to get me to sing a solo. I am not a singer, but I am a writer.

The experiences over the last couple of months have reminded me how lucky I am to have the ability to make art with my words. Watching people who work so hard to share their talents with the world has inspired me.

Of course, life is never smooth, and the timing is never perfect. Things will always pop up that steals energy. That’s just life. So for me, I’m pledging no more waiting for all of the barriers of life to get out of my way.

This morning it started with a draft of chapter one. I will probably re-write it three more times this week, but the stopper is off. It’s time to put that perfect pen to paper and keep writing.




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Running down a dream

Today, I ran my first half marathon. It has been a goal six years in the making. I came close in 2008, but then a stupid injury sidelined me. Illness, a couple of surgeries and pure laziness kept me from succeeding.

Last January, when I was on a trip to LA with my sister, I knew I had to make a big change in my life. My health had to become my priority.

After nine months of training (with a 2 month break because of travel and a mild case of laziness), I ran the Niagara International Half Marathon

After the run, with our hard earned medals.

After the run, with our hard earned medals.

with my husband, who has also been my awesome and patient coach. It was hard. My legs are not fully functional and probably won’t be for days. My head hurts. And I feel awesome.

I finally reached this goal because I had a plan: “do this much running on these days for this many weeks.” I had to start with a walking plan to build up my fitness. Then my running had to increase to be able to run 10 minutes and walk 1. And then my mileage had to build from 3 km all the way up to 20, and finally 21 km today. It meant running when I didn’t want to. There was a lot of swearing, I won’t lie. A bit of whining too. The couch would be calling, but Dave would be in his running gear and I knew I had to get my ass in gear.

At the beginning, I was scared that I would fail again. That it would continue to be this illusive goal. Right up until I went over the finish line, I was afraid I couldn’t do it.

Stickers helped me to celebrate my progress. Apparently, I'm 8 years old.

Stickers helped me to celebrate my progress. Apparently, I’m 8 years old.

But I did it.

And now I know I can apply the same approach to writing. I went back and re-read my notes and outline. I’m pretty happy with a lot of it, but I’ve also forgotten a lot of the direction I was heading. I’ve been intimidated by the historical research I need to do. Intimidated by the character sketches and plot points.

No more. It’s time to at start by walking, not just talking about it. So it will start with dividing the work I need to do into one month chunks, researching one key topic at a time, then developing character sketches, then moving on to those plot points.  I won’t do it if I allow the intimidation to stall me or if I try to do everything at once.

I know today won’t be my last half marathon (not quite ready to commit to a full marathon yet). I am thankful for how it has prepared me to go after the biggest goal of my life.


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So maybe the title is a bit of click bait, but in honour of Valentine’s Day, here are some thoughts on writing about sex.

Also known as “Dear God, my mother is going to read this.”

How weird is it? Well, apparently my phone was so weirded out by the word “sex”, it insisted on changing it to “six”.

I can easily blame my hesitancy on my Catholic school upbringing. Sex was included as part of religion class. That won’t mess you up at all. I remember being in grade 4 or 5 and having our theology teacher show us a film that included a line drawing depicting how it all “fit together”. Afterward, she tried to remain calm while she slowly and oh so methodically wound the projector’s power cord around her arm… over and over and over again. She couldn’t make eye contact with any of us and we were all mildly terrified. She said “Well, that was very grown up, and that’s ok.” Everything about her voice and body language screamed “THIS IS SO NOT OK.”

Contrast that with my experience in grade 7, when my oldest sister was volunteering for Planned Parenthood. Along with stellar birth control talks, I also got a Love Carefully pin… which I proudly wore to school. They had a very different attitude about it all.

So that just scratches the surface of my issues.

As for the business of writing a love sex scene, I played with sexuality a smidge in Sometimes Marco Polo Can Go All Wrong, but for a full novel featuring the life of a young female character, there’s going to be love and sex. The question for any good (recovered) Catholic girl is, how far do I go?

The mom issue is mostly imaginary, but it’s real in my head. I’m going to dedicate this book to her. My mom is 87 years old. Sex was not a frequent topic for us. However, my mother is incredibly well read and is by no means naive. So that is a neurosis I just have to get over.

I will also need to get past the feeling that I’m laying myself out there on the page. Writing is already an activity that leaves you somewhat vulnerable because you are putting a piece of yourself out there. When a colleague mentioned he had read my blog, I felt exposed. So to get descriptive about sex feels very revealing. Heck, I feel vaguely naked when I don’t wear my glasses. Yet, I have a feeling my friends would not buy me portraying myself as shy and innocent.

And then there’s the technique. Writing out a sex scene is not very easy. You run the risk of being clinical, lewd or ridiculous. Proper terminology does not make for inspired reading. I could use steamier vocabulary, but that just doesn’t seem right for a piece of historical fiction. There’s always the romance novel route, with such hot phrases as “throbbing manhood”. I think I threw up a bit in my mouth.

So that’s my challenge: how to be true to my character and her story, keep the reader’s interest and not accidentally cross the line into smut. Clearly I need to read more “literary” sex scenes. And practice. Maybe, I should probably get it out of my system and just write a full on erotic short story. Of course, you’ll never know. I’ll be writing it under a pen name.


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Starting over

About a hundred years ago, I was in fourth year university, working on my thesis. One particularly deflating day, I left my advisor’s office close to tears wondering how I was going to find it in me to fix the problems she’d pointed out. I remember how I had miserably whined to her, “You practically want me to start over.” She didn’t let me off the hook.

A few weeks later I was back in her office, thesis re-written. She gave me the thumbs up that I was almost ready to defend it. I’ll never forget her encouragement, “You were so worried about re-writing it, but you did it. Was that so bad?” In reality, the thought of it was much worse than actually digging in and doing it.

My life this past year has had a lot of starting over. Professionally I took a leap of faith that hasn’t quite turned out the way I thought, but now I have an opportunity I thought I’d have to wait years for. Personally, I’m starting over on a few goals that have been dogging me for years. This is my year not to give up on me. And then there’s writing.

After taking a bit of break from blogging and writing, I’m back, and, I am starting over. Over the last few weeks, I have been working through the mechanics of writing, character development and story structure. I had to admit that my beautifully crafted treatment, was boring and soulless. A great big yawn.

At first, my stomach dropped. I got that mildly throw uppy feeling. My face twitched a bit. In that moment, I had a choice to make. I could go all Hulk and throw my notebook across the room and yell, “I don’t want to play anymore” and give up, or I could get to work. I decided to keep Smash Etta at bay. I’ve learned it’s much more productive to get excited about the possibilities than to mourn what didn’t work out.

Besides, writing is like a constant exercise in starting over. If I can’t handle that truth, I need to put down the pen and step away.

The thought of starting over is a bit like having a big white wall to climb, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. I don’t have to do it without ropes and steps – that’s what planning is about. It won’t be easy, but it really isn’t impossible. And, unlike any other part of  life, on the page, I can take insane risks and really let loose, without worrying about the consequences.  Giuliana is going on some adventures, some of which may actually make it to the finished product.

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Serafina has come to life (deadlines are beautiful)

I haven’t blogged in a month. There’s been a lot of distraction in my life. A lot of noise.

Despite the noise, I have some good news to share.  With 5 hours and 34 minutes to spare, I submitted my short story to the CBC Canada Writes short story competition.

This blog and the support of my friends and even strangers who have taken the time to follow me or hit the like button, help me to not give up. Each week that I didn’t write here, I felt disappointed. Mostly I took a break from blogging because I could not stand the idea of writing about how I wasn’t writing. That’s a one note song I was sick of sharing.

The block was getting me down, the calendar had flipped forward. I realized I had 2 weeks left to get the story done. The story of Serafina had become something huge. Actually sitting down and writing the story scared the hell out of me. The story is very loosely based on a story my mother’s mother being forced to give away her wedding band for Mussolini’s economic campaign. This story was precious to me. What if I got it wrong?

Then I took a trip to Washington, DC with my husband and my sister and brother-in-law. I had never been before. This trip and the Smithsonian Institute specifically, helped me to finally understand how deep a passion I have for history. Not sure why this came as such a surprise – I have a degree in history. At one point, I terrified my husband by saying I should go back to school to get my Masters in History.

He can relax. I’m not so much intrigued by the dates and the events. I came home inspired and motivated to want to learn more about the people behind the history. And, I want to tell their stories.

So with the deadline looming, I took my time and crafted Serafina’s story. It took me about 20 hours and 6 drafts and the editorial advice and encouragement of 4 people. My favourite tip: “My son is 5 years old and he is significantly taller than a rooster.”

In about six months, I’ll be able to share it with you. I don’t think it will win any awards, but it will tell the tale of a little girl, grief, a gold ring and the kindness and love of a stranger.

Now… I do believe a I have book to research.


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Creative Outlets

Earlier this summer, I decided that, come fall, I would join a choir and play hockey. I was hoping that being in a choir would give me a creative outlet while hockey would allow me to hip check to my heart’s desire. Well, fall is here here (September 22 – not even the calendar will let me deny it), and the thought of strapping on skates has me heading straight for choir practice.

A few people have been shocked by this turn of events. The hitting of hockey they could understand. But choir? What the what?

Their confusion can almost be excused (just barely). I’ve never had aspirations to be a rock star, although I did have an outfit when I was 7 years old that made me feel like one.

I may look ready for story time - really, I was ready to rock!

I may look ready for story time – really, I was ready to rock!

I have always loved to sing and usually I only subject my husband and my best friend to my voice. A choir will give me a place where I can blend my voice with others. And just like the exercise I’m supposed to be doing, it will also give me a healthy release. A way to express myself out loud that won’t get me in trouble.

I’m hoping to use this creative space to help keep me going through the research phase of the book. Being the super active person that I am, I like to think of it as cross training. I need a creative kick in the ass. I caught myself choosing to clean instead of studying up on character development. That’s just wrong.

While it does seem that there are a few characters in the choir, I doubt I’ll find the blueprint for Amelia sitting next to me. But maybe the challenge of spot reading music and managing to actually stay in the alto part enough to kick start an obviously dormant part of my brain.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll see if I can somehow integrate hip checking into the mix. It won’t motivate me, but it will make me happy.

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