Thursday, February 10, 2011

In Memoriam: Dorothy Strandquist

There are many mysteries in the life of my grandmother: why her mother left in 1934 and how different her life would have been had she been able to attend university are just two... Yet the reticence she'd learned by the time I knew her was irrevocable, and the manners she'd taught me precluded my asking her the impertinent questions that might have offered me the enlightenment around this issue that I have always craved. Alas, by the time I'd unlearned those manners she - and her answers - were gone.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1922, Dorothy Strandquist was a gifted writer whose ambitions - it could be said - were undone by her times; having won a full scholarship to the journalism program of the University of Saskatchewan in 1939, she was unable to accept it (or so she always said) because her father couldn't come up with her room and board on his carpenter's salary. Instead, she ended up moving to Saskatoon anyway, to aid the war effort; for years she spent all day on a factory floor packaging powdered eggs, and all night dancing with soldiers headed for the killing fields of Europe. It was at one such dance where she met my grandfather...

I suppose I should be grateful with regards to her decision, as without it I might never have come to be, it being just another in the string of accidents throughout time that have caused me to be sitting here now and writing this. Yet something else I've never understood about her is why, when it was obvious that she would not be able to attend university, she quit writing altogether, why she didn't try to work her way through school as so many others have. Given how much it meant to her, I am at a loss to understand why she essentially she gave up; even though I seem to have inherited her dim view of my own chances of success as a writer without a degree I still continue to write, diplomaniacs* be damned.

All my life my grandmother encouraged my interest in history but was curiously passive-aggressive when it came to my ambitions as a writer; she seemed to enjoy that I was developing a critical understanding of the past, yet was wholly apathetic to the desire I've always had to share that understanding with an audience. Perhaps she was preparing me for the shit storm of rejection which is a life in the arts. Nevertheless, from an early age it was her personal mysteries about herself and her life (and indeed those of other people too) which have added fuel to the same fire in me her disdain tried in vain to douse; it's almost as if the more she tried to stop me the more I wanted to do it, or as if she was encouraging me with one hand while discouraging me with the other.

After her death in April 1998 I harboured a not-so-secret desire that amongst her things I would find 60 years' worth of secret journals, detailing what it was like to be the child of a single father during the Dust Bowl, her life in Europe in the 1950s, her insights into the life of a military officer's wife, not to mention her perspective on the world gone mad that was the late 20th Century (in the observation of which she was never less than fully engaged) but they did not exist. She seems to have written right up until the fateful moment when her life turned, and then never wrote again.

She would be appalled that I wrote this about her, that much I know; so I guess that is the difference. As gifted as she must have been, she was never a real writer, whereas I guess I am. Had she been a real writer she could have squirreled the stories and musings which were a feature of her conversation into notebooks and onto scraps of paper as I always have, worked at it during odd hours, and maybe even in later life been a published author.

I have always intended my career to be her career, and even now she informs every word I type; on what would have been her 88th birthday I would like to renew this vow.

*People who are so utterly convinced that a piece of paper makes them talented that they've succeeded in convincing editors and publishers of the same, and whose tyranny only works to the detriment of the arts everywhere.

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