I always say that it takes a healthy appreciation of irony to teach English in a middle school. A sense of humor and a healthy appreciation of what we call ‘teachable moments’. After all, none of us is born knowing the deep secrets of life and literature, that our vulnerability might show through our indifferent posture, or that most of us don’t really understand what it means to be cool until well past our teens.
So, today I was conferencing with a student about how to bring out a theme in their memoir about the death of someone they loved. The conversation was rather detached, but caring, a teachable moment about writing our lives and how that writing in turn shapes us. And at 3:22, right in the middle of my prompts to explore important questions about life, I received an email from my dad, from another time zone, another part of my life, about someone who suddenly died.
I had been good friends with Mary, the grandmother who lived across the street from my parents, since my mid twenties. We played rummy on sunny afternoons by the pool in her backyard. We were keeping each other, and her grandchildren, out of trouble. After our babysitting duty, when her daughter or son-in-law got home, we might have hit the casino or possibly bingo. Or sat out until it was past dark, and a chill and damp set in.
Mary’s Parkinson’s made her shake on her stool in front of the slot machines, and I’m sure security wondered if I was trying to rob a petite old lady of her winnings. Most of the time we lost, anyways, but came home with mighty tales.
Mary knew me when moving 100 km away from where I grew up and spent the first 25 odd years of my life was both a scary and exciting move. She knew me on those afternoons by the pool before I quit smoking, when a rhythm of dealing cards and lighting the next cigarette went on and on. Old and good friends know those kind of things about you.
One New Years Eve, I walked her across the street from my parents’ house after the party had finished. It was snowing and wondrous, and as we walked down the path, she slipped from my hold and broke her arm. I slept on the couch in her room for at least the next week to help her go to the bathroom in the night. We watched old game shows, made grilled cheese sandwiches, and napped. I think we both knew deep down that we’d have done better in a showcase showdown than most people.
The last time I was home in Canada, I visited her in her nursing home. Her friends gossiped about the people who had a pint of whiskey smuggled in by relatives, about what people bought on the weekly trips to the mall, and about budding romances between the residents. After some good games of rummy, I was off with a hug and a kiss.
And that’s how it goes. I might tell my students about this tomorrow as we work on our memoirs, or I might not. Sometimes teachable moments are silent or not what you’d expect, when they come at all.
The header photograph by Joshua Fuller reminds me of the fields near my parents’ house in Brantford.