During our 40 years together, Christmas was always an especially memorable time for Timothy Findley and I – whether its celebration was lean or lavish. Growing up during the Depression and the Second World War involved a lot of the lean; later, commercial success in our respective fields allowed the lavish.
Eventually, too much of the latter. Our Christmas card list snowballed into more than 300 names. Our gift budget ballooned into the thousands. The four Swedish coffee cake wreaths I traditionally baked for a few close friends somehow multiplied to 30 – difficult to store and a nightmare to deliver on Christmas Eve.
All of this in the face of increasing demands on us to work.
Finally, we made a difficult decision. We “resigned” from Christmas. We bought no gifts – not even for each other – and instead of Christmas cards or cakes we sent out brief notes explaining our new attitude to Dec. 25: “From now on, please replace the thought of ‘Christmas presents’ with that of ‘Christmas presence.’ No gifts, please – but we’d love to see you!”
And then, we got busy. Tiff and I – friends and family made a nickname out of his initials – were never happier than when we were hard at work so this was a gift in itself.
Both of us earned our living by putting words on paper. Most of his were meant to stay on the page; most of mine were meant to be read out loud on radio or television.
But the interplay between words on a page and words read out loud was also a core part of our relationship and our winter rituals.
Écouter mes chevaux
In our later years, the location for this work was a small property we bought in the south of France. The lot – which swept down a Provençal valley in seven terraces (Tiff’s studio on the upper level in a garage-turned-library, the house two levels down) – was on the outskirts of a village called Cotignac. It was nestled at the foot of a towering red-rock cliff and centred on a square that featured a lovely old stone fountain and a border of ancient plane trees.
Although it was remarkable that we could spend much of the year in France when neither of us had any fluency in French. I could speak it well enough to get by, but had tremendous difficulty understanding what was spoken to me. Tiff could neither speak it nor understand it. This meant most of our days were spent in English – writing, reading and talking to each other. It also meant that Tiff rarely went into town without me.
His only solo foray into French came on a day he needed to get a haircut. I was just typing the previous day’s writing, and asked him to wait a few minutes. “No need,” he said to my surprise. He had figured out what to say: “Bonjour, Madame, voulez-vous couper mes cheveux.” Literally, Good day, Madame, would you cut my hairs? He had been rehearsing it all morning.
And so off he went. And he returned with a fine haircut.
I was greatly impressed that it had all gone so well. But over dinner he explained (confessed) what had happened. On the 15-minute walk into the centre of the village, his sentence had undergone an unfortunate change. His words to the coiffeuse became, “Bonjour, Madame, voulez-vous écouter mes chevaux?”
“Would you like to listen to my horses?”
Apparently Madame gave him a big smile, looked out into the street and said, in French, “Gladly, Monsieur ... where are your horses?” Then, laughing, she gave him his haircut.
It was honing words in our own language, though, that kept us going most days – usually into the early evening.
That was when Tiff would call me on the intercom that connected the studio to the house to announce that he was finished for the day and would be down shortly. I would then set out our dinner, a bottle of wine and glasses, lay a fire in the living-room fireplace ... and wait.
Eventually, Tiff would appear, his handwritten pages clutched in his hands, released only in exchange for his glass of wine. We then quickly settled down and I would do what I had been doing for decades: read aloud to the author from those pages.
This was not an easy task. The Findley penmanship was such that sometimes not even the author himself could decipher what he had written. On occasion, to give myself time in which to figure out just what the words were – or, if it seemed appropriate, to lighten the author’s mood – I would clown the recital up a bit.