Raising the Dead
April 19, 2023 § 10 Comments
By Rona Maynard
After my friend Val died at 57, I kept trying to write her back to life. Thirty years of memories flared on my screen. The young journalist, a recycler ahead of her time, who turned in a story on scraps of paper stitched together with yarn. The mentor who helped me land a better editing job and promised me I’d “knock their socks off.” I tasted the hot and sour soup we always ordered at the Chinese dive where the waiters spoke in grunts.
Writing my friend pulled me into a meditative state. I’d focus on the sharpest corner of a memory, then wait as the whole picture came into focus. Many minutes went by between perceptions, but more time with Val was the whole idea. Detail by detail, I conjured the moment until she seemed more real than anyone breathing. She returned in a blog post, a magazine piece, and assorted vignettes for a memoir-in-progress. It seemed I could raise her from the dead, if only for a few minutes.
Years passed. I wrote the last time I saw her well, a chance meeting on a busy corner one unseasonably mild fall evening. Bound for a birthday party, she carried a high-heeled slingback in each hand. The slingbacks—cream, I think—unlocked other details. Office clodhoppers protruding from the scuffed leather tote bag she lugged everywhere, crammed with books and notes to self. Bare feet, no nail polish. Her smile radiant as we laugh about booking a dinner date to celebrate two upcoming birthdays: our own, three days apart.
It never happened. A seizure in the newsroom happened, followed by a diagnosis: brain cancer. And yet for as long as I polished the vignette, the birthday dinner was about to happen. Maybe that’s why I never finished. I had to stay a little longer on that corner with my friend, willing every precious detail into second life. Her toenails began to obsess me. Perhaps I’d misremembered. No polish or a neutral shade, complementing her peach linen dress? I could have asked her husband (perhaps he was one of the rare ones who notice his wife’s toenails). But that would be cheating. Memory was supposed to see me through.
If you write more than fleetingly about your life, you’ll get around to your dead a time or two. I had made the trip before, always with a surge of pride in the power of my words and memory. I heard my mother tear a strip off teenage me. Saw the sweat stains on my mentor’s purple silk shirt as she leaned back in her chair, arms crossed behind her head and Western-booted feet on her desk. With Val that fall evening, memory failed me. And I’d run out of stories to tell about her. My friend and I were stuck on the corner of Yonge and Roxborough, with nowhere else to go.
I couldn’t get stuckness off my mind. After five years of work on a dog memoir, I had scores of vignettes (in multiple versions), three drafts and no idea where this problem child of mine was going. I would contemplate my outtakes file, searching for clues. I meant to tell a simple story of a life cracked open by the rescue mutt my husband talked me into bringing home. Most dog books end with the death of the dog; our Casey was still giving rodents hell and stealing balls from other dogs. Good for me (I had come to adore him), but not for the book. If Val were alive, she’d give me hope. Once as I teetered on the edge of depression, she sent a white orchid to my door. The memory unleashed a torrent of grief, as if she’d died minutes ago
Val never met Casey. She died seven years before he joined the family. In nearly three decades of friendship, I doubt we ever spoke of dogs. Then one morning in a daydream, I saw Val and Casey together. I slipped from wherever I was in real life (my couch, perusing the New York Times? Casey’s morning ramble in the park?) to a hiking trail I once explored with Val, back when it seemed we had all the time in the world. I used to think we’d repeat that hike someday, but we never got around to it. And now here she was, leading the way along a stream bed. I saw her muscled legs, brown from a summer of walking. Heard her joke of Casey, who had thrust his nose into something rank, “There lives the dearest foulness deep down things.” Gerard Manley Hopkins, who celebrated “the dearest freshness” of the natural world, was her favorite poet. I hadn’t tried to conjure Val, but she had spoken with her customary sense of fun.
Writing the scene into the memoir seemed ridiculous at first. I had to silence the inner voice that nattered, “Readers want a true story, not a daydream.” Things looked up when I listened to my friend instead. Like the white orchid, her quip surprised me out of my funk. I still wasn’t sure where this memoir was going, but I could trust myself to bring it home.
Val is forever middle-aged. At 73, I am old and glad to be. Every story I tell, including my tribute to a dog, is informed by a sense of time—what it carries off and what I make of the dearest freshness that surrounds me still. Memories keep me writing, but memories fade. What I can still see matters less than what I know to be true. Val may have been the only woman in my circle to shun toenail polish in sandal season, but so what? Without a doubt, she was the only person I’ve met in my three score and ten (and counting) whose conversational style would yoke Gerard Manley Hopkins to a dog’s investigation of a carcass. This I know. Even better, now so do you.
Rona Maynard is the author of the newly-released Starter Dog: My Path to Joy, Belonging and Loving This World, published by ECW Press, and My Mother’s Daughter. Formerly Editor of Chatelaine, she lives and walks her dog in downtown Toronto. You can follow her discoveries on Facebook, or meet her at www.ronamaynard.com.
What an interesting essay on remembering and writing, Rona.
Your description of “the sharpest corner of a memory [bringing] … the whole picture … into focus” is a wonderful description of how the mind can work. The trick is to take note of that sharp corner when it enters our mind, and then to take the time to be present to the unfolding.
Also this line: “What I can still see matters less than what I know to be true.” When knowing moves from the eyes to the heart — that’s when the memory is secure within us forever. My father is long dead, but I can still feel the pride he had in me for landing on my feet after being let go from a corporate job.
As always..so touching ..loving and wise from the heart..thank you..we are starter people
Best best best essay. Best
Beautiful stream of memories and how you capture them in your mind, especially of our dear friend Val.
Time and friendships…you put them together well. Our memories are beyond the scope of time.
First of all, what a beautiful picture of you Rona. I am reading this, and the article your friend wrote about Alice Munro, on the anniversary of my mother’s death. April 19 was also my Dad’s birthday. I too experience that the dead never truly leave us and actually see that as a blessing. I can still seek my Dad’s advice, my Mom’s gentle support, or the connection of dear friends past through the bonds and beautiful memories I hold dear. Sometimes I am acutely aware of their presence with me, like I am today with my Mom. Thank you as always for your wonderful stories.
The part that’s staying with me: “I’d focus on the sharpest corner of a memory, then wait as the whole picture came into focus.” Puts me in mind of images from an old Polaroid that bloomed while we waited. Starting with a sharp corner is a brilliant way to begin. I’m so glad you wrote this beautiful and inspiring piece.
This is so poignant and heart-warming. Thank you and although I am 10 years older than you, I was probably reading and enjoying Chatelaine when you were editor there.
This is beautiful, Rona. When I write about my dead, I often hear a variation of that old Motown song playing in my head. “I’m writing my way back to you babe, with a burnin’ love inside.”
Dear Rona. Thank you for your beautiful, vigorous story of friendship and memory. It is a captivating read and tugs at me to capture more of those moments I see from the corner of my heart. As you say “What I can see matters less than what I know to be true”. Thank you for your inspiration and wise words.