Jesse Emma and the Prime Minister: Letter from Saskatchewan (photos, memoir, fiction & poems) — Byrna Barclay
I’ve been hoarding these Letters from Saskatchewan from Byrna Barclay. This is the last until she sends me more. They are a delight just for themselves — Byrna’s quick, direct sentences are packed with charming detail and wonderful to read. But then she offers the old photos, and the memories turned into fiction, into poetry — a deft lesson on the uses of the past, on the power of personality. The subject of this “letter” is Byrna’s Grandmunch, Jesse Emma, who married a tea-planter in Indian, then ended up moving to Saskatchewan with her prized violin and came to be friends with none other than John Diefenbaker, the wobbly-jowled prime minister from Prince Albert (whom I once interviewed as a cub reporter in 1972 in Saint John, New Brunswick — he proudly showed me his gold-topped cane that once belonged to an even earlier prime minister, the great Sir Wilfred Laurier).
Pics of Jesse Emma done electronically for me on disc ready in a.m. so will send them then for your selection. One of my mother & J.E. in the same boat. One of her young in India when she met my tea-planter husband some time before 1904, quite lovely, and the other of her in Canada in HBC coat, with dog likely named Diefy, most definitely in the Days of the Flapper, given the HAT…
Jesse Emma would arrive Christmas Eve on the train, dressed in a muskrat coat dragging behind her red high heel shoes, “bottled up for hours.” She always wore a black straw hat so smothered by violets purchased at the Blue Chain Store in P.A. When she was blue & alone she pinned violets to the hat, and when the top brim was full, she pinned them to the under brim, so her face was shadowed by lilacs. She also wore an Isadora Duncan scarf to hide her goitre. I could never invent such a character. I hid behind my mother, embarrassed by Jesse, which worsened when we arrived home and Jesse called Prime Minister Diefenbaker and made me screech/squawk the vilon. He always said, “That’s very nice, and don’t forget to practice.” Shortly thereafter, I received a telephone call from Mrs. Claus, telling me to go to bed, Santa was on his way. Years later, Grandmunch confessed that it was Edna Diefenbaker, John George’s first wife.
After she died, Diefy wrote me a long letter that began: I am so sorry to hear of the passing of my dear friend. I knew her from the time of my first campaign in 1925… The rest of the letter is only about him! I’m giving it to his archives in Saskatoon, along with the letter the second Mrs. D. wrote me on the night of her honeymoon. Olive. Really and truly. She asked me to write to my grandmother. I now feel guilty. But how Jesse Emma must have touched them. She had an enormous campaign poster of Diefy in her window even between elections. The junk dealer took that too. Regrets, I have some. That’s why I write. Well, not the only reason.
Halt, Those Are My People: from House of The White Elephant
THE VAULTED AND DOMED CEILING of the Canadian National Railway Station echoes with bygone farewells of troops being shipped off to Halifax, of brass bands playing Will Ye Nae Come Back Again.
Every Christmas Eve, for as long as Annika Robin can remember, her mother brought her here to meet her grandmother’s train from Prince Albert. First she took her into the Ladies’, lifted her high onto the window ledge so she could watch for the train. Farr off, at first, a haloed yellow light, but it grew stronger and larger until the rumbling of steel on steel could be heard, and just when she was afraid the one-eyed, screaming monster would crash into the umber-brick building, it slowed and grumbled past, its coaches partly obscured by steam escaping from its brakes.
They rushed into the great hall. Soon, passengers trudged up the grand staircase, none of them Grandmums. There was some kind of elaborate maze down there, with short passages and doors leading to platforms beside the tracks, and it was all strange because she had seen from the window that the train was not underground.
Grandmums could never manage those broad steep stairs.
Finally, the side door opened for a prancing redcap, his eyes rolling upward with disbelief, and he clutched under one arm a small bulging valise that Annika recognized and knew contained oranges and jars of rhubarb chutney. Its locks has long since broken and it was stoutly belted, with the ends of an Empire scarf trailing from its sides.
An outlandish, dark-skinned woman tottered on high, red heels behind him. Heavy ankle-length muskrat coat, with a matching muff dangling from a cord wound round one wrist. Her black straw hat was so smothered with silk violets, even on the underbrim, it was a wonder she could see where she was going. When she was blue she always bought a bunch of violets at the Blue Chain Store, and when the rim was full, she pinned more to the underside. In one arm, she carried her Derazey violin, and in the other her sterling silver champagne cooler, not trusting either one to a redcap she called a Darkie. Of course, she explained to Annika, she couldn’t leave her prized possessions behind for fear of those black damnable thieves who first stole her diamonds and sapphires when she lived in India.
“Halt!” she cried to the redcap. ‘Those are my people!” She suddenly had a dignified, almost regal bearing, her head uplifted; she appeared accustomed to issuing commands and having them obeyed. If the sight of her was not mortifying enough, her air of superiority and prejudices made Annika Robin cringe and try to hide behind her mother’s wide, crinoline skirts. Older now, she simply lowered her head, pretending she didn’t know the woman who caused everyone to turn their heads and stare.
The worst part was yet to come when Jesse Emma would phone her friend John George whom she called Diefy – as well as her Irish setter – and make Annika Robin play the violin for him over the telephone.
Why oh why couldn’t she have been given a grandmother who made peanut butter cookies instead of chutney and crocheted doilies instead of dancing the Can-can for the Prime Minister of Canada?
The Music Teacher
After she died no one wanted
furniture worn beyond use,
not even the junk dealer
who carted to the dumping ground
a mahogany gramophone,
chipped records, Caruso’s voice
cracked. A metronome without a timer,
sheets and sheets of thin music
yellow as old skin. The last to go
a battered case. He didn’t know
the violin was a Derazey.
It’s all I have to give you
Bottled up for hours, she sought relief.
I failed to hide the violin under the clawfoot tub.
After chutney and oranges, she’d ring up her Diefy.
Forced to screech and squawk the violin
over the telephone, I cringed and cried.
Our Man from Prince Albert told me
not to forget to practice.
Before bed, she let down her hair, a miracle
how the unfastened braids never unraveled,
her boot-blackened bangs reeking,
olive skin sleek with glycerine. She tuned
the Derazey applied resin to the bow,
then tucked it in its nest of Isadora Duncan scarves,
chiffon to hide a goitre the size of an orange.
You must never part with my Derazey. Promise me.
After my grandmother died
her sister shipped the violin
wrapped in her moth-eaten leopard skin,
stoutly bound with her red belt,
the one she used to strap
my wrists together if I failed to practice,
preferring to turn magic circles
around the music stand, while Jesse Emma
pounded out the Sailor’s Hornpipe on the piano.
Something must be done about Grandmums’
violin. Lend it to the youth orchestra?
Give it to my own grand-daughter? Surely,
Jesse Emma would forgive that kind of parting,
never the neglect. After all these years
dare I open it?
I’m afraid to open the box. Shelved
for thirty-odd years. Against night noises.
Hinges creaking. The case might open
like jaws. Snapping. Shrieks
like a fingernail on a blackboard. Freed,
the violin will float over my bed, bow drawn
by my grandmother’s disembodied hand.
Peel away the leopard skin.
Hinges broken on the box.
Inside: the smell of old resin,
Midnight in Paris wafting from chiffon.
Coil and spring of snapped cat’s gut.
Wood warped. Neck broken. No wonder
the Derazey wailed nightly for oily palms,
glycerined fingers ringed with cat’s-eyes,
and the sweat of a musician’s brow.
In the dead of night
I dig a hole in my flower bed
big enough to bury a box
the size of a child’s coffin.
I leave off the lid, cover the violin
with rich damp loam. Rose petals.
I will water it every morning,
just as the sun that long ago set
on my grandmother’s British Empire
rises at the call of new robins.
I will tend this small cairn
until the wood absorbs the dew.
Renewed, will someone play
a new song of forgiveness?
Fear of Falling
The three-legged teak table was a trap
laid in the middle of the passage
between rooms in Jesse Emma’s suite
above the Hudson’s Bay Trading Post.
Deeply etched with thistles & exotic birds
her music pupils could not name
the tea table was a precarious perch
for her multi-dented silver champagne cooler,
a monument to more affluent days in India
where turbaned servants set the table
at sundown with quinine and soda
for artistocrats believing the sun
would never set on their Empire,
never on Jesse Emma’s. Every Saturday morning
farmers’ daughters from Duck Lake,
awkward & gangly fledglings,
failed safe passage past the table & cooler
to the ballet bar fastened above a steaming radiator
that would scorch their leotards
if they didn’t lift higher their wobbly legs & toes
often bruised from the crashing cooler
when the table’s tripod unhinged and collapsed
sending the cooler toppling, lid clanking
& to the floor hundreds of Christmas card
addressed to Mrs. Robert Hand-Burton,
postmarked Calcutta, London, Winnipeg.
Not easy putting it all back, making it
right, one hinge broken the tripod legs
unable to withstand the weight
of the cooler, so heavy two pupils
lifted & heaved while two more
tried to hold steady the tabletop,
& backing away, gingerly, hands held out,
willing it not to fall
the table crashed again, the cooler lid
cracking an ankle this time,
but greater than the students’ fear
of toppling table & crashing cooler
was Jesse Emma’s need to place furniture
in the middle of rooms, her terror of insects
red & black ants, roaches & malaria-carrying
mosquitoes & other beasties
falling from walls.
In the Same Boat
This poem isn’t about me.. I wasn’t even born when the women climbed into the boat & I don’t know where they are, the north end of Turtle Lake, maybe, because of the tall sentinel pine on the shore. Yet the poem pulls me in, like a lover already immersed reaches out and grabs you on the dock by the ankles, oh yes sweeping you off your feet so you fall, of course you do. And now I emerge inside the poem, gasping with recognition.
The woman at oars is radiant in this northern light. Her flared tweed skirt has curled up just above her knees, showing off the sheen of the white silk stockings, a gift from her intended, the man I cannot see, the one who makes her toss curls the colour of a sunset, the one who causes lights to dance on water. She will never be this happy again.
Behind the woman rowing the boat, perched on the prow, is a dark-skinned woman craning her neck like a startled drongo shrike from her homeland far away, trying to speak words of caution to the man who makes the young beauty pull bravely shoreward. All that can be seen of her are the stab of light in her black eyes, the dark stray of fringed bangs beneath a cloche the colour of sun-burnt oranges. Oh, do sit down, you juggins.
The man disappears. I never saw him, yet I know he was my father wearing his white wedding suit, moss clinging to his soft-soled shoes the way it grows on the north side of birch, He leaves forever captured there, in a moment at once as prolonged & as fleeting as the click of his Brownie Kodak, his wife and his mother. In the same boat.
Byrna Barclay has published three in a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award, YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards. Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award. She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine. A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine. Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.