05 April, 2007

963: Not Far Behind

My late grandmother Mary was a poet also, and a very great lady. My aunt, Katie Pittman, her daughter-law, recently wrote this remembrance of her for a Woman's Day event at which she spoke in St. John's. My cousin Erika posted it on her private blog, but I asked for Katie's permission to share it with the world, which she has generously granted.

I was very close to my grandmother, and have always been told I resemble her, physically and personally. I should be so lucky.—k.

Len Margaret was born Mary Margaret Leonard in St. Leonard’s, Placentia Bay in 1913, where her family had lived since the early 1700’s.

Although she left St. Leonard’s in her 20’s, her birthplace continued to be the creative and beloved source she drew on throughout her lifetime.

In 1980 she published her first and only book, Fish and Brewis, Toutons and Tales, in which, remarkably, she wove stories and poems recipes and recollections of St. Leonard’s.

As Ray Guy said in his introduction “ Fish and Brewis, Toutons and Tales, tells us about bright lamps, warm kitchens and full, contented people. It proves we not only endured but we also enjoyed”.

More remarkable, perhaps, was the map she drew showing each and every home and landmark in St. Leonards and the list she compiled of all who lived there. The book blended tales of ghosts and fairies that inhabited the place, along with the very real people who shared the magical landscape.

She writes in part: “a short distance from Lodore (a st. Leonard’s landmark) were the ruins of the old stone church where we were not ever supposed to go, but where we went anyway. We made sure we got out of there before the sun went down because of ghosts, especially the “two black dogs with no heads” that walked through the churchyard gate between daylight and dark, and vanished in front of your eyes. On the other hand, we would have welcomed the sound of the Sanctus bell that the old people said they had heard on Sunday morning for months after the church was destroyed by fire.”

When I met Len Margaret, I was fourteen, and she was Mary Pittman, a very sophisticated woman of 48. By this time, she had moved from St. Leonard’s to Bell Island to Corner Brook. She had taught school, helped her husband manage a hotel and a chicken farm, was still raising many of her eight children. Little did i know that five years later, she would become my reluctant mother-in-law and that for the next 35 years she would be a huge part of my life and the life of my family.

During the years of raising her children, Mary’s writing took a secondary role, although following her death, scraps of scribbled paper tucked in every nook and cranny gave testament to the fact that she never abandoned her love of writing.

What she did do during those years was encourage her children in all aspects of the arts, supporting their every effort at writing, drawing or acting. Today that legacy lives on in her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Above all though, she passed on to all of them a deep curiosity about life.

In the 1970’s Mary’s son Al was beginning to achieve some notice as a poet and it was al who encouraged his mother to begin submitting work for publication. She chose not to use her married name partly, I think, so that her work would be seen for its own merit and partly in homage to her family name and birthplace. Soon, Len Margaret’s poems began to appear in publications. At this same time, Mary was teaching adult education in Corner Brook and this experience inspired one of her earliest published poems and what i think may well be her best poem – Night School - in which she describes several of her adult students and maybe herself as well. I’ll read it for you though I can hardly ever do so without crying.

Night school.
By Len Margaret
(published in Scruncheons, Sept. 1973)

1. (Ernest Hearley)

i hear the teacher’s
heels clicking
on the stone floor

i smile good night
pretending i’m brave

i sit in the back
so that she
won’t see me
watching her

she catches my eye
i look at the wall

she comes down through
rows of desks
and takes my

three gold rings
and herring scales.

2. (Jack Brewer)

i’m late because
i had to wash up good
on account of i was
clearing the storm sewer

the kids got
at my scribbler and
tore the leaves out

i’m so goddamn stun’d
i forget from one night
to the other

you’re looking good

3. (Noel Slaney)

i’m 56
and tired
of taking orders
from people
who don’t give a damn
that i’m dying
shift by sweaty shift

when i’m done
what will they do
give me a pick and shovel
and tell me to dig
myself in

let me sit here
a while miss
where i won’t hear
the rocks falling on my grave.

4. (Phonse Decker)

how can i learn
to write
when the pencil
takes crazy steps across
the page and my
hand shivers
i can swing the sledgehammer
and it
goes where i want
but the pencil
won’t stay with me

maybe i could do better if
my hands wouldn’t

5. (Billy Hynes)

they say i’m crazy
i go to night school
but today i could read
all the names on all
the bloody cartons stacked
on the truck

i sat beside the driver
and smiled.

6. (Miss Crowley)

how can I tell Ton Chung
that his skin is
the color of
summer hay
his eyes like
brown spring pools
and when he speaks
I see butterflies
hovering over plum blossoms
in a tea garden

Other publications followed and although she was proud of her achievements, unless someone else mentioned it – she never did.

Except for a couple of years in the 1960s when the family lived in Labrador City, Corner Brook was home. Mary, in her own words, loved every minute of living in Corner Brook but when the opportunity came in the 1970’s to move with her family to a little cottage on the Humber River, she jumped at the chance. As she said in a family letter:

“…the river became my school, my church and my line of communication with birds and beasts.”

Here she reveled in the outdoors and spent many evenings in her boat fishing in the quiet water of the river. In a poem dedicated to the late Dermot O’Reilly, she wrote about this love of her place in the Humber Valley.

Poem For Dermot O’Reilly
(published in 31 Newfoundland Poets 1979)

Since I came
to this quiet valley
how many dawns
have I seen stealing
over the river
blushing the mountain tops
like candle flames
on a high altar
and how many nights
with the candles blown
have I listened
to the sounds
of flowing!

Some day soon I suppose
I will have to sit
And tat lace edges on pillow cases
To show my usefulness

In this late year
however I’m afraid
I would rather lie
on soft leaves left
by last fall’s heavy breathing
and flirt with a sparrow
whose only purpose
is to keep a tree
between me
and him.

After her husband died, Mary had to move once more. This time to Grand Falls where she would be closer to family. We all worried about her leaving the place on the Humber she called “Innisfree.”

A few years after leaving the Humber she wrote:

“I thought I would die the evening I left to live in Grand Falls, it was in late fall. The valley was bursting with color. Time to pick autumn leaves to press and place them in the big brown jar in front of the fireplace. I had given the hens and rooster away. Freckles was on the back seat of the car, wagging his tail and in his dog’s mind thought it was another great adventure like crossing the river in the canoe or scattering ducklings from their nest in the reeds. I went back to spend three summers on the river after that. It was different.

One learns to deal with the past in his or her own way. There’s no way to describe that.”

And deal with it, she did.

After a year or two in Grand Falls, Mary jumped into action. She became the driving force of the senior citizen’s association. She lobbied government, she organized learning events for seniors, she oversaw the building of a senior citizen club house, she supervised community service for young offenders, and she spoke to school groups about her writing. For all of this, one year, she was made Grand Falls Senior Citizen of the Year.

As with every place she had lived, she made that place home and established life long friendships. Her home was always open to visitors and you would be welcome to stay five minutes or five days. She always had interesting things to tell you and an interest in what you had to say. Everyone was welcome as long as they behaved themselves – and I do mean everyone. There is an often told story how she received visits each summer from members of a motorcycle gang – this after she had taught “those nice boys” to cook a jiggs dinner.

Whether Mary was writing as Len Margaret for publication or as Mary Pittman in letters just for you, she wrote about the things she loved. She wrote about people, about plants and trees, about birds and seasons changing and trout fishing and she told stories that wove the past and present together and made it real to the reader. Every line she wrote told so much about her and her optimism about life.

I’ll leave you by paraphrasing the close of a letter she wrote to us late in her life from Grand Falls because it seems appropriate for today:

“Another week or so and March will be over. The worst is done. March may be blustery, lean and hungry but April is not far behind.”

Written by Katie Pittman, reprinted with permission.


Blogger blogsearch.sg said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:25 AM  
Anonymous Dave said...

I really loved the first set of poems -- Night School. There's so much in it that transcend time even though it was written in the 70s. Each poem contains a lot of deep working class values that totally flowed and worked in concert when telling the story of the class as a whole. Simply beautiful.

7:50 AM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

have you posted the eulogy you wrote for nan? it was so beautiful. you must. i love that she dedicated a poem to dermot. i've been mourning him......

4:48 PM  
Blogger 180/360 said...

This was amazing!

12:21 AM  
Blogger Petit Elefant said...

So what you're saying is that wicked talented writing runs in the family eh?

12:57 AM  
Blogger Wee Two said...

My son is studying Night School in his English Class. Thank you for posting the poem and the information on Len Margaret. She seems like quite a remarkable woman. Your family is very generous to share this with us.

PS Do you know what 3 rings and herring scales means?

11:31 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

I assume the speaker is a fisherman. The herring scales are on his hands. The rings could be either the teachers or his.

Nice image of aspiration either way.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Hi I am currently doing a poetry analysis on the poem Night School. Can somebody help me identify the structure, the speaker, importance of the title, major themes, use of figurative language, and recurring ideas? It would be greatly appreciated! Thanks

10:22 AM  
Blogger Roger Langen said...

Amazing to find this! I helped found the short-lived Scruncheons (I'm responsible for the name - big fight!) while I was a grad student at MUN. Wonderful connection for me!

I'm still publishing poetry, but out of Toronto now.

Roger Langen

3:46 PM  

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