Putting in a Good Word

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About a year and a half after my therapy at the Genesis center, a few of my fellow graduates and myself had founded a fraternity whose membership was exclusive to those who had also completed the program. Shortly thereafter, I had begun to publish and distribute the fraternity’s newsletter.

My admittedly limited editorial experience in producing that little monthly paper, in French mind you, had allowed me to discover a passion for composition, as well as help develop competency as a budding author. In the Spring of 2005, I had decided that the time had come to begin writing, among other projects, the stories on this website.

I am a native of Alberta, and my mother tongue is thus English. Having learned French at a very young age however, and using it every day, I have developed a habit of thinking in both languages. This has long helped me to clarify my thoughts: if an idea expressed in two highly different ways retains its meaning, then to me it is truth.

Although a resident of Quebec since 1972, I chose to write my stories in English for the very simple reason that the market is oh, so much bigger. Then again, I have this inevitable tendency to compare French, my second tongue, to that which had grown in pace with the awakening of my own consciousness.

Fluently bilingual, and quite at my ease in either language, I still come up against an often amusing, sometimes frustrating, yet inherent obstacle in my way of thinking: knowing a term or an expression in only one of the two languages. (This often gave rise to some savory conversations with my father, who was multilingual.)

As my literary projects had progressed, and had taken on weight and substance, I had become aware that I was lacking some very practical tools: dictionaries. I could not afford a home internet connection at that time, nor did I need one, and buying time at an internet café to search for the occasional word or turn of phrase seemed ridiculous.

Sipping my coffee before leaving for work one day, I gave myself over to a thorough scrutiny and analysis of my finances. My obligations and regular activities were barely covered by my income which left very little leeway for unforeseen expenditures.

I had estimated that a new set of decent dictionaries – made up of separate English and French volumes, as well as English/French and French/English ones – would set me back about $80-100 CDN. That amount being quite above my means at the time, it had come to me that I could most likely find some second-hand volumes at about half that price. Even so, I had figured, the expense would require the sacrifice of the majority of my video rentals for the next month or two. (As a movie buff, that meant sacrificing one of my favorite pastimes.)

The apartment building where I lived was located in a neighborhood where book stores, selling both new and used, could be found on just about every block. They are so popular that several can sometimes be found sitting together in neat little rows. I had understood then that my search would be that much easier. Thus, before heading off to work, I had decided to scrounge and forage through those shops on my next day off. I knew also that if I found a good deal, I would be watching TV programs for a while.

Upon my return home that very afternoon, I had noticed a pile of books, mostly paperbacks, which had been haphazardly dumped in the recycling bin against the lobby wall. As ardent a book-worm as I am a movie buff (fantasy, sci-fi, espionage and adventure are my preferences, but I’ll go in for any kind of fictional escapism really), the discovery had attracted me like a bear to honey.

I began grubbing through the somewhat mildew-tainted pile for any titles that might just evoke my interest, and serve as a satisfactory alternative to video rentals. I came then upon a hefty volume way at the bottom of the bin. The hardcover thing was a good 12 centimeters thick and bound with springs and screws. Flipping it over so as to reveal the front cover, I read Dictionnaire de la langue française au Canada & Dictionnaires Oxford français/anglais, anglais/français.

Despite the fact that it was a 1957 edition, and that many of the more modern terms would thus most likely not be referenced, I had seized that treasure with both sweaty hands. Catching my breath, I had wheezed out a heartfelt thank you to…

So then, accepting to sacrifice certain whims in order to maintain a long-term passion or achieve a worthwhile goal, while neither claiming nor expecting any rewards, is a perfect opportunity for Life to offer an immediate compromise.

A Christmas Gift

Old woman in window - addiction recovery
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This fellow, who was blessed with a corpulence quite adequate to the task, had developed an annual habit of donning a Santa Claus outfit. He did this in order to bring a bit of joy to golden-agers in local retirement homes. He would drag along an enormous red-velour gift bag stuffed with knick-knacks and doodads – some of which he received by donation from friends and family, others he would purchase at reasonable prices from discount stores.

To bring this joy to the greatest number possible, he would visit three or four homes each Christmas; for more than five years he had stuck to the same ones. One fine holiday season though, he had told me, he decided to change his usual route and add a visit to a home which had opened that same year in his municipality. Being a man who saw to his commitments, he had inquired as to the exact number in residence a few days before his visit to ensure that he would bring along enough gifts.

Once he arrived there, he had discovered that his visit had been anticipated by the staff who had gathered all the residents together in the rec room, which had been nicely decorated for the occasion. In spite of the advanced age of the majority there, his arrival had been greeted with the happy smiles of children. One could even hear little cries of joy as he gave out all his presents. As he had drawn near to the bottom of his bag of gifts, he noticed an old woman slouching in her chair near a large bay window.

Wrinkled and shriveled, she held around her hunched shoulders a ratty old afghan which was about as worn out as she looked herself. As he had only one gift left – his count was right on – he had gone and knelt down next to her. He saw then that the old woman’s eyes were half-closed, and that rivulets of tears stained her weathered cheeks. Gently taking one of her tiny, fragile hands in his own, he laid there his humble gift: a little picture frame. She laid her other hand over his two and lifted her gaze. All he saw there was the sadness of a heart longing for tenderness.

“Are you really Saint Nicholas?”, she asked him.

He answered. “I’m just a friend”.

“No”, she said, “I think you’re the real one”.

“What would you like then for Christmas, my dear?”

“I would just like to see my son again before I go to heaven”, she replied with a sigh.

Thinking only of what little good he could do for her, he had tried to comfort the old woman. “You’ll see him. You’ll see him, sure enough”, he told her.

He left the retirement home soon after that to head off to his own home, quite happy with his day. But his heart was heavy with thoughts of that sad, old woman.

A few short weeks later, he had received a phone call from a nurse at that home who asked him if he could come back once again. He had inquired as to the reason for her request, but she answered only that it was a surprise.

Once on the premises, that same nurse took this Santa Claus aside and, with a tone that betrayed her surprise, had shared with him her joy at learning that he could speak German. It was his turn to be surprised, for he understood only English and French. The nurse had then told him that the old woman he had met near the window had just arrived at the home, and that it was her son in Germany who had arranged for her admission. She had been living in Quebec for only a little while, in another home, and had never spoken a word other than in her native tongue…!

“Here is the real surprise though”, the nurse had then said, and handed him a little package wrapped up in brown paper, addressed to Saint Nicholas. Upon opening the package, he found the picture frame he had given the old woman on Christmas day. In the frame, he saw a photograph of her sitting next to an unknown man.

The nurse then explained that the man was the old woman’s son who had come to visit her only a few days before she passed away. Scribbled at the bottom of the photograph, in an unsteady hand, he saw one simple word: Danke.