I have 40 new girlfriends, plus Howard and Warren. I’m leaving Ottawa to move home to East Vancouver as soon as this semester is over, and I’m going to miss all of them a lot.
I’ve been teaching memoir writing to senior citizens again this fall, and as I sort through and stow away my favourite memories of my time here, I’m finding that I owe many of them to a small group of grey haired ladies and gentlemen, and their hearts and their wrinkles and good penmanship.
It used to seem odd to me, that a group of mostly woman in their 60s and 70s and 80s would get on so well with someone like me, but I have given up questioning why this is and just learned to be thankful for being allowed the opportunity to spend time with them, to encourage them to write down their amazing lives, to remind them that the history that lives inside their skins is interesting and inspiring and important.
Last semester I had a woman named Catherine in my class. Her stories were poignant and introspective, and run through with a wide grinned humour and humanity. The class all loved her.
One day about halfway through the semester she stood up and read us a story about what it was like to transition from male to female at her job. What it was like to finally peel back a lifetime of pretending and live truthfully.
She told us an amazing account of her coworkers’ acceptance and willingness to embrace this new her. No well of loneliness tale tainted with the taste of hatred, this was a story of tolerance and respect, told with dignity and pride.
I had not brought up the kind of obvious question of my gender difference with the class before this, and now I didn’t need to. Catherine had taken care of it, reading in a soft but clear voice, her hands shaking only a little bit as she held up her papers and squinted through her bifocals.
The last day of class we had a reading, where everyone could invite a guest or family member to hear a little bit of something they had written during the class, and partake in the complimentary dessert trays and tea and coffee. I happened to overhear Warren, my only male student, approach Catherine after the reading was over.
Warren was an ex-military man, a boxer in his prime, and a big fan of facts and dates and protocol and order. He thanked Catherine for teaching him to write from his guts, to be brave enough to include an emotion or two into his recounting of events. He shook her hand at first, and then stood back, all of a sudden a little nervous.
“I was wondering if you would mind… if I might… if it would be okay with you if I were to give you a hug?”
He smiled tentatively at her from under his silver brush cut. Catherine placed her Styrofoam cup on a desk and opened both of her arms.
I can still see the two of them there, she in a respectably long skirt and sweater set, he in his button down shirt and good dress pants, locked for a few seconds in an awkward and unlikely but heartfelt full body hug. Him patting her sweatered back with giant hands, and then stepping back to clear his throat, his eyes shining a little.
Last week one of my students was reading the class a story about the day that her lover passed away from pancreatic cancer. The class knew she was a lesbian, but this was the first time she had written openly about her partner.
She talked about how they hadn’t made love since the diagnosis, how it would have been too painful, literally and figuratively, but how those feelings were still there, that the cancer hadn’t destroyed them. She read about bathing her lover well into her illness, and that one day she had leaned over and kissed her clitoris, just to show her that she still loved that part of her, too.
I felt my heart jump into my mouth, and I looked up at the rest of the class to see if there would be any reaction to a real-life lesbian uttering one of the c-words in public. Not an eyelash was batted. Except for mine, blinking back tears.
After she finished reading, Hedwig, an 87-year-old Hungarian woman spoke first, in a heavy accent.
“Tank you, Hilary, for showing us in words that love is just love.”
Everyone nodded in agreement, numerous little Kleenex packets were removed from large purses and distributed where needed, and then we moved on.
During the break, one of my students who grew up in Europe during the Second World War brought me a snack. One of those little round Babybel cheeses in the red wax wrapper, a several times recycled Ziploc bag full of green grapes with the stems already removed, and a packet of Premium Plus soda crackers.
“Eat, eat,” she says, pushing the shopping bag across my desk towards me. “You have had a long day.”
She has taken to doing this every week now. I do as I’m told, except for the packet of crackers, which I sneak into my bag when she is not looking, and feed to the squirrels in my backyard later.
I cannot bring myself to tell a woman who remembers watching the Nazis drive their trucks into her village and take whatever they want that I can’t eat the crackers she brings me because I am gluten intolerant.
It’s true. I have fallen in love with every one of them. I even like the sound of their names: Lois, Louise, Mary-Lou, Irene, Dorene, Eleanor, Elsebee, Ghislaine, Hilary, Hedwig, Isabel, Patricia, Margaret, Peg, Joan, Verna, Faith, Kati, and of course Howard and Warren. I know now why we get along so well. We all just love a really good story.