A word or two about memory, memoirs and waterfowl

The kaleidoscope of memory is a wondrous thing.

A quarter twist, and tiny fragments tumble themselves into a startling pattern of perception.

Another twist, another vista of the past, another “aha” about the present, or the future; perhaps an insight into an unknown temporal dimension.

And, like the river into which you cannot step twice, even a reverse quarter twist won’t make the kaleidoscope repeat itself.

Two separate events this week set my personal kaleidoscope twirling.

The first was hearing Ruth Armson speak about how she coaxes members of her memoir-writing circle to use their senses to tap into the past and frame it for the future (see Write from the Soul, page 10). She mentioned the word mandala.

A quarter twist and my mind conjures the rose window in the Basilica of Saint-Boniface in Manitoba, three days before fire destroyed it in 1968.

Another twist and mandala morphs into my daughters’ Spirograph, then a print of van Gogh’s Starry Night on a doctor’s wall in Edmonton.

A final quarter twist and it’s seasons and cycles, and Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, from mewling and puking all the way back to childishness and mere oblivion.

The second event was seeing Juliann Fraser’s whimsically beautiful illustrations for Todd Pilgrim’s book, Angie, the Tundra Swan (page 16).

They’re the kind of illustrations that put a lump in the throat of anyone who has ever read Goodnight Moon, or Lamont, the Lonely Monster, or The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck to transport a child to sleep.

Wait. Did someone say PuddleDuck? A slight twist of memory and it’s no longer Jemima, or even Angie. It’s another waterbird: Slappy.

It’s 1949 in Verdun, Québec. A student from Turkey named Nuritten Ertűrk – a superb photographer – is living with our family for a year. On my sixth birthday, his gift is a book about a discontented duckling who refuses to practise quacking and wants nothing to do with swimming lessons.

Unwilling to be a duck, Slappy wraps a change of underwear in a spotted handkerchief and sets out to see the world and learn to be a “pusson”. Memory summons my Mother’s vivid rendering of Slappy’s outbursts of annoyance, “Piffl ewink and pooey,” and “Fishcakes and flyboots!”

I recall the smell of almond and honey and who-knows-what wafting through the rectory as Nurettin prepared some elaborate Turkish delicacy as a Thank You before returning home. I hear the Turkish numbers he taught me: bir, iki, üç, dört, beş. A short list that starts with “beer” easily gets a child’s attention.

Why is this all so clear? Because that slender little book about a reluctant duckling remains one of my most treasured possessions. At six, I had no idea what “Nurri” meant by his inscription: “Man’s best friend is a book.”

I had no clue what Elsie Church and illustrator Cathryn Taylor were saying about embracing your inner duckness (or “pusson-ness” as the case may be).

More than six decades later, as I slink toward mere oblivion, each twist of the kaleidoscope presents a fresh perspective. Perhaps I should write a snippet of memoir.

Perhaps I just did.

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