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He had us at Sundown.

I wrote this after seeing Gordon Lightfoot live at Massey Hall in Toronto, November 2012.

Textbook weather for Gordon’s concert this evening: rain-slicked streets, brisk winds, typical moody November’s eve.

His band was minimalist, as is his wont. To wit, lead guitar, bass, drummer, keyboards, and himself. All in their 60’s, minimum. I’ve seen a couple of them before.

Gord struts out – on the stroke of 8, of course — to thunderous applause, seeming still a little shy and embarrassed by it all, amazingly. (He even joked about the night before how, because of the city’s subway breakdown he’d had to start eight minutes later. Eight whole minutes. Oh the horror, he said. And we all knew he was only half kidding.

Opened with Did She Mention My Name? Closed with Blackberry Wine. In between, everything from If You Could Read My Mind to A Painter Passing Through.

The crowd was quiet (save for the one requisite (by now) shout of “We love you, Gord!”), very attentive (dare I say, Canadian?), reflective, appreciative, almost conspiratorial, you know that feeling Gord (and Gord alone) inspires in hometown crowds? It was so obvious everyone there was delighted to see him back onstage for another go.

Yes, he is frail, ravaged, bone thin, and easily looks his age (71). Actually, he looks like any of a dozen down on their luck guys who used to hang around (seemingly in rotation) outside the Wellington Hotel when I was a child living downtown above Robinson’s Hardware store. His voice wavers and falters from time to time and he whispers when he should shout, but no matter. His spirit is fully intact. His delivery is so evocative, so exquisite, he reminds you with each outing that he is the one who wrote the stuff – that no one gets it like he does — and no one, of any age or stage, will ever do it better. Michael Buble, take a seat. And be quiet.

Yes, we did hear a few pins drop, especially during Song for a Winter’s Night. (He never does that and it was transcendent.) His rendition of Step Back (one of my top five of his) was rollicking, what a great tune that is, (but watch the southern Ontario males not move to it!) and then he headed into Early Morning Rain. Ahhhh.

“Let it go/ Let it happen like it happened once before…” from the song Shadows. Another special moment. This one in particular brought to mind Bob Dylan’s comment about him: “Whenever I hear a Gordon Lightfoot song, I hope it never ends.”

His banter with the crowd was so relaxed, so unscripted, he charmed the boots off all of us. (Maybe even those males?) Riffed about writing songs on airplanes, the perfect place he says, the juxtaposition of stars above, cities below… getting his “shoulders lowered” as a boy at the town barber shop in Orillia, and his joy at being “home,” and playing for us again.

A gentleman, pure and simple. And a poet non pareil. By the end, he even makes you believe those lustrous words:

“Everything will be fine by and by.”

“The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
The shades of night are lifting
The morning light steals across my windowpane
Where webs of snow are drifting
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter night with you.”

Small Kindnesses.

How will we be remembered? By our grand strokes? Perhaps. But what will surely commemorate us are the little unexpected kindnesses we bestow on others.

I remember as a child of eight going camping with the White family. Mr. and Mrs. White were friends of my parents and I had come to know their two children. I had never experienced the outdoor life before: this was truly an adventure. We sat around a bonfire that first night, and I was bewitched. I lived in an apartment above a hardware store: The only fires I’d seen were in incinerators. After a singsong and marshmallow roast we headed inside the cavernous tent, crawled into our sleeping bags and drifted off.

I awoke in the early hours to discover the worst had happened, the singular thing I lived in abject fear of throughout my childhood. I had, quite simply, wet my sleeping bag. Not only wet it: soaked it through and through. Think garden hose. Think Victoria Falls.

There are few things more desolate to a little girl than lying fully awake in the dark, in the tent of relative strangers, her sleeping bag sodden, scared to move a muscle in case someone might suspect.

An inveterate bed-wetter as a child, I can still remember how torn I was when asked by friends for sleepovers. Should I, shouldn’t I? Would this be the night the floodgates let loose on a friend’s unsuspecting 900-count bed linens? How could I face them afterwards? And what if they talked?

Come to think of it I don’t quite know why I ended up on this camping trip, except that I decided to laugh at danger and simply let the chips fall.

It will never be a cake walk but I’m happy to see it’s a trifle easier for bed wetters now: Kids today can rely on trusty “pull-ups,” with saturation levels akin to the Hoover Dam. This is a product I would have gladly sold my next of kin down the river for. TV commercials for these thirsty little catcher’s mitts show children falling asleep with huge vacant grins, and no wonder. They’re free of the enormous burden of shame and fear that I and so many other kids had to live with.

As I waited for dawn to arrive, I listened to the forest sounds about me, trying to figure a way out of my dilemma with some shred of dignity intact. Everyone would know, I thought. And I had worked so hard at seeming grown up around the two older children. When my tent-mates finally began to stir I feigned sleep, feeling foolish and overwhelmingly homesick, wishing I could be transported to a parallel universe. I considered several options, a couple even within the realm of possibility. I thought about rolling the bag up and running with it headlong into the forest behind the campsite, shrieking, claiming that a large unidentifiable rodent had crawled inside the bag overnight. I considered disposing of the evidence in the nearby incinerator and setting it alight. Alas, these were problematic solutions at best. Resigned, I wearily awaited my doom.

It seemed like forever as I waited for the family to fire up the frying pans and eat their breakfast. At this point the temperature inside my sodden enclosure had dropped to sub-zero temperatures, and along with it the appeal of camping forever more.

Mrs. White’s daughter poked her head in the tent suddenly and asked if I wanted to go for a bike ride with her, her brother and her dad. From the confines of my cocoon I begged off, claiming a tummy upset. “Maybe I’ll be okay later,” I said, trying to sound buoyant.

Once they’d left I unzipped myself from the crime scene, got dressed, stashed the bedding, and went out to meet my fate. Mrs. White was clearing the breakfast table. I approached her cautiously: I had no idea what to expect. She turned toward me, obviously happy to see that I had finally surfaced.

“Good morning dear,” she chirped, warmly. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ve had an accident,” I blurted out, trying not to cry.

“What is it?” she said, gathering me in her arms. “What’s wrong?”

“My sleeping bag: I’m sure I’ve ruined it,” I squeaked, finally unable to hold back my tears.

“Not to worry, lassie,” she said, without missing a beat, squeezing me tighter. “It’s past time they all had a good cleaning anyway. Let’s bring them all out and give them a good scrub.”

I was only too happy to help. I broke a land speed record in the next few minutes, gathering up all the bedding, including my own slightly weightier bag, and piling them out of doors. By the time the others had returned from their outing all five of our sleeping bags were blowing in a stiff breeze on a wash line behind the tent. Mine looked no different than the others: I was exultant. That night when I crawled into the now-pristine sleeping bag I discovered that inside was a thick plastic sheet atop a cotton one. The next morning and for the three following it I was dry as a bone upon waking. Mrs. White never mentioned the incident again.

As I write this I can’t recall exactly what Mrs. White looked like or whether I ever saw her again, but I will never forget her compassion that sun-drenched summer morning.

By one small exquisite act of kindness that summer morning, she made it possible for me to go on.

Gordon and His Triumphant Return.

Gordon and His Triumphant Return.

We thought he was but a memory.

For two years now we have searched in vain in the rock face at the front of our cottage for a trace of our pal, our faithful mascot, the groundhog we christened Gordon. Truth be told we first named him Georgina, until a biology major in residence made the startling announcement that this was in fact a male of the species we had befriended. So Gordon it was.

Gordon had a favourite crevice out front between two outsized boulders. The generously carved niche fit his rotundness perfectly. From this chosen perch he was able to survey all of our comings and goings, which he did religiously, but it offered more — a fallback position in that he could scoot backwards into his tunnel in a micro-second if he felt the need for safety. Or some alone time. Or a nap.

On sunny days he would stick his snout out to catch some rays and doze. When feeling emboldened he would lay his corpulent self on the upper level of rock, often belly up. He looked so comfortable I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him tuck his little arms behind his head as he lay, and a cocktail at his side with an umbrella as garnish.

During more mellow times he withdrew into the opening out of the glare and the spotlight. Only a glimpse deep inside would reveal to us his two bright eyes shining back out of the dark.

On a visit two years ago I noticed after a few hours that Gordon had not favoured us with a visit. No sign of our furry friend anywhere, throughout our stay. We locked up and left, feeling puzzled and bereft.

Alas, Gordon was nowhere to be seen that year or the next. Everyone had a different opinion of Gordon’s whereabouts but it was all just guesswork.

I hoped it was simply that he had moved to greener rock faces, but I had good reason to expect the worst. None of us were unaware that gophers are creatures reviled by many. (We all saw Caddy Shack!). They are infamous for tunneling their way through rock gardens and across manicured lawns, eroding all landscaping as they go. But Gordon had lived on our property for two years and we noticed no such damage.

The next trip up I went looking for Gordon and discovered a thick plastic tarp stuffed deeply into his crevice. I pulled the sizable contraption out with considerable effort, wedged tightly as it was, drawing with it a cavalcade of soil and small stones.

It seemed someone in the area was taking no chances on gopher tomfoolery and had taken the matter into their own hands. But what to do? Do you go to a neighbour’s door and ask calmly if they smoked out your pet gopher? We decided to assume the best possible scenario for Gordon, that he had chosen to grace another cottager’s rock formation. But we missed his holding court out front through weekends and vacations, how he appeared like clockwork at the mouth of his crevice at our every arrival, our little wordless welcome home.

Indeed, a visit here never officially began until we had communed with Gordon. I felt sad about the whole business and somehow responsible. Every time I looked at his little spot out front my heart sank.

That was two years ago.

Today we returned to the cottage for a few days. While I was unpacking I glanced out my bedroom window to the rock wall that lies behind the cottage. There sat contentedly a portly brown gopher, and although I have no proof this is indeed our Gordon, I choose to believe that it is.

I mean, he tilts his head at the sound of his name, for starters, and even noise at the window and the flash of my camera when I took the above photo didn’t send him scurrying.

I hope that means he’ll learn to trust us again and decide to stay.

After all, he’s chosen a better view this time. Now he can watch us swimming in the lake while he suns himself.

Welcome home, wee Gordon.

Writer and Poet

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Tricia McCallum

Always be a poet. Even in prose.
Charles Baudelaire.

In essence I am a storyteller who writes poems. Put simply, I write the poems I want to read.[…]

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