Belated Birthday Wishes

by Shaun Hunter

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On Thursday, my maternal grandmother would have celebrated her 106th birthday. Berniece Chedister Sykes was born in Alma, Michigan on February 6, 1908. The spring after she turned three, she and her parents headed north to claim their quarter section of Saskatchewan homestead.

My grandmother was a storyteller and she loved talking about her pioneer childhood. We urged her to write these stories down, and for a while, she seemed to delight in the idea and even came up with a title: Damp Furrows. But the book never materialized. I am not smart enough for that, she wrote in one of the many long letters she sent me when I was studying English literature at university. Maybe you can have a “go” at it.

I was hard on my grandmother at that time in my life. I knew she would never write a book. As far as I could tell, she spent her days wrapped in melancholy self-absorption. Her primary preoccupation? Watching herself grow old and nursing her multitude of grievances. At twenty, my own literary ambitions were insistent but muddled. I knew one thing for sure: if I were ever going to write a book, it wouldn’t be about my grandmother’s prairie childhood. 

A few years later, before I turned thirty, my grandmother died. She left scrapbooks and a handful of pencilled pages of her memories: the raw material for a book. 

A recent essay by Jane Urquhart got me thinking about my grandmother’s unwritten memoir. In the weeks after Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize, Urquhart reflects on the visit Munro paid her decades ago.

One thing she said struck me as particularly profound. Our parents, our grandparents, couldn’t have done this, she told me. They simply could not have written books. Not that they wouldn’t have had the ability – they may or may not have had that – but they simply wouldn’t have had the opportunity.

They were working people, Munro told Urquhart, engaged in physical labour, putting all their efforts into building their livelihood. At the time of this conversation, Urquhart was in her late thirties, “the unknown author of one novel.” Hearing Munro’s generous perspective, Urquhart considered herself “young enough at the time, and selfish enough, not to have thought of this…It was Alice Munro’s sense of humanity that made me aware.”

Urquhart reminds me that we grow older, celebrate birthdays, and with any luck, soften or crack open some of our tightly-held views.

These last few years, I have been writing a book about my grandmother’s life. It is not the book she had in mind, and I suspect she would take issue in places with my interpretation. My grandmother was nothing if not persnickety. Still, on what would have been her 106th birthday, I wish to tell her that I have finally had a “go” at her story. I want to apologize for taking so long to write this book. I want to say that I am beginning to understand why she did not write hers.