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Updated: Jan 9, 2021

I guess I'm a packrat. My desk is clean; my bookshelves are neat; every two weeks I fill the bin with the remnants of urgent necessity (junk I bought). But I'm still a packrat -- mostly of glimpsed lives.


As a child, I was out all day playing with my friends, many of them cousins. But in the evening, there was nothing better than listening to the adults -- parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and their friends.


They talked about recipes, illnesses, weddings, deaths. Funerals -- how was the turnout? They spoke of where they were when the Great War ended. When the Second World War started. How somebody used to work at the Hydro.


I remember my father talking about playing hockey on the frozen Ottawa River and spotting two dark figures, skating far away, skimming like swallows over the windswept ice. The figures grew closer, larger -- a man and a woman -- and they began to dance together on their blades, moving in and then out, holding each other and then letting the other go, only to reach out and grasp once again.


The kids had all stopped playing hockey and were now leaning on their sticks, watching these wonderful skaters. Nobody skated like that, at least, not anybody they knew. The skaters were near now, almost upon the kids, when they spun together one last time, stopping short with a spray of ice.


'They were my Mum and Dad,' said my father.


How wonderful, I thought.


'I was so embarrassed,' said my father.


I was young when I heard that story, and I didn't understand how my Dad could ever have been embarrassed by this extraordinary moment -- extraordinary to me, anyway. The grandparents I knew were old -- and here was a glimpse of a youthful joy not even my father had conceived. He wasn't ready, that day on the ice.


As I started to conceive a series of Barrachois stories, I decided that readiness would be part of what I wrote about. When is a character ready to understand? What permits it? Time? Distance? How do we achieve the humility needed?

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