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Collins Canadian Dictionary 1000-Word Challenge

Winner: Lady of the World, by Marie Wilson Add to ...

HarperCollins Canada, publisher of the Collins Canadian Dictionary, invited readers to submit 1000-word short stories that contained at least 10 examples from a list of distinctly Canadian words. Here is the winning entry.



When we reach Anarchist Summit, my mother pulls over and stops the car. The view of the Okanagan Valley is magnificent but that's not what we're here for. My mother reaches beneath her seat and pulls out a twenty-sixer of rye and a small bottle of 7UP. As she pours herself a drink, she asks if I want one. I'm seventeen years old and have shared the driving of our eight-hour trip. Although we still have some notorious hairpin curves to negotiate before we reach her farm, I accept a drink, viewing it as my mother's version of a rite of passage for her daughter.

We toast the success of our drive through the winding heights and steep descents of the Crowsnest Highway. I have driven her metallic-blue Ford half the way; while she drove the other half, I propped my bare feet on the dashboard and belted out the latest Leonard Cohen tunes: Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free...

My mother downs the last of her highway highball, then starts up the engine for the final stretch. I sip the strong liquor and wonder if they named Anarchist Summit for my mom.

In the Vancouver press she was once known as the Lady in Red and the Speed Queen. But despite the sound of those monikers, she was no shady lady strung out on bennies. Her other newspaper nickname was Queen of the Cinder Track. Yes, my mom was once a track and field star. And she wore red track suits.

At sixteen she was deemed Olympic material and sent to Toronto to compete for entry into the games that were to be held in Berlin that year. But when wind of Hitler's anti-Semitic rule swept the nation, my mom never got her stab at the gold. Like so many others, her coach boycotted the '36 Olympiad.

Years later when the story of my mom's kiboshed shot at international fame was legend in our household, the only Speed Queen around was the washer on our porch where she did the laundry for her husband and four children. She was still the Lady in Red though: her lipstick, crimson to go with her black-as-night hair, and in winter her red toque. But perhaps more evocative of that sobriquet in the late '50s was her clandestine sexual life. She had an affair.

My friend down the road from us had a good Catholic mother who was always in the kitchen. While she was in her apron whipping up strawberry shortcake, my mom was out drinking rye and seven in her high heels and pencil skirts. Not that my mom hadn't ever made Jell-O or cookies. When I was little she'd baked with the best of them, and I can still remember rushing home after school to sink my teeth into a warm butter tart, fresh out of her oven. But when I (her youngest) was old enough to take care of myself, my mother got her real estate licence and was off travelling Vancouver Island, listing houses and showing properties-and much more, as it turned out, for this is when her cheating began.

In one of our home movies my mother smashes a sledgehammer into a wall and laughs. So began our kitchen renovations: new pine cupboards, stainless steel sinks, a garburator. Just months after its completion, my father would discover her infidelity. She may just as well have taken that sledgehammer to his heart.

My dad left, never to see my mother again. Nor did he ever mention her to us, except once when out of the blue he noted that "the man who broke up my marriage was named Jeb and the man your mother ended up with is named Seb." In time I would see that this observation of rhyming names contained all the bewilderment he felt over the loss of his bride.

Following the divorce, my mother took my sister and me on a road trip through B.C.'s interior. We stopped in little towns, where I bought souvenirs: a pocket knife from Revelstoke, a pennant flag from Golden. The Ookpik purchased in Olalla snuggled with me that same night on a Winnipeg couch in a Keremeos motel.

When I search my memory for that defining mother/daughter moment, the one story that describes our relationship, those words of motherly wisdom she left me with, I come up blank. There was no day when she revealed her dreams to me or let me in on her secrets.

But I can still hear her voice, deep and soothing, and her laughter. I wonder now about her extraordinarily wacky sense of humour. Was that part of the "drinking problem" I later learned of? Was she impaired half the time? Or half-cut all the time? Was she authentically loopy or just looped? Though I never heard her slur words or saw her tip over, I understood as I grew older that she was fond of tippling. When the Bloody Caesar was invented it instantly became her drink of choice, a taste of saltchuck in a shade to match her lips.

The last photo I have of her shows a woman of eighty-three, her hair still dark, her bone structure still chiselled, posing with a bobcat she'd just shot from her kitchen window. He'd been trying to get at her chickens, and she took him out at a hundred yards.

But the image that stays with me is one of my mother standing at the edge of the creek that ran through her farm. It's a hot afternoon and we're there for a dip. She is wearing her blue bathing suit. Her skin is as brown as toasted coconut and her hair is as black as ink, grey strands glinting like silver thaw in the night. She stands as tall and calm as a tree, and in that moment I understand everything about her.

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