Day 348 - Alannah (1st person I approached)
December 14, 2014 - Sometimes, the story simply unfolds. All I have to do is find it, and listen. Occasionally, listening means not asking many questions either. I had gone to meet a friend for coffee and afterwards I wandered. I didn’t really think about where I was going, I just headed east. I stepped into an old neighbourhood mall, more or less just to see what was happening there. It had been many years since I had last been inside this mall. And I needed to use the gents room.
As I headed back outside, I spotted Alannah sitting on one of the benches that were in the centre of the straight and narrow walkway, running the length of the mall. Leaning against the bench was a pair of exercise walking poles. I told Alannah about my project and asked if she would talk to me. I showed her the Facebook page, and she agreed. I made sure she’d be okay to let me take her picture as well.
“Oh. I’ll probably break your camera, but sure, ok,” she said.
Alannah was born at Vancouver General Hospital, as she said “during the depression.” She has one younger sister who brought some added responsibility.
“But she never really listened to me anyway,” Alannah said.
“I went to school during the war. I think that the teacher I had was brought out of retirement. Most of the men were away fighting, or farming and doing things for the war effort. This teacher had us learning how to dance a minuet. I mean, really? Why on earth would we need to be learning an eighteenth century dance? We had to form lines and swing these sticks that were shaped like bowling pins. It was so obscure,” she said.
“I never liked school. Except for art. I’ve always liked art.”
Despite not liking school, Alannah graduated and went to UBC (University of British Columbia).
“I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do. As a girl, I was to either become a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. It always infuriated me. I wanted to study art. But I went to university and studied education. I had to drop Spanish and took a sewing class. I desperately needed something that I was able to use hand eye coordination. It drove me crazy to not be using my hands. The sewing class at least let me have that,” she said, rubbing her fingers together.
“After a year of university, I left to go to art school. I went to The Vancouver School of Art, which is now Emily Carr (University of Art and Design). It was a very good school, even back then,” she said.
"I used all kinds of mediums. Oil Painting mostly, but I tried everything. I was there for two years, and then I went back to university to finish my Bachelor’s degree. I was able to apply the two years of art school towards my degree. I only had to go to university for another year and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Education,” said Alannah.
“I tried my hand at teaching, but I just wasn’t any good at it. I’m an introvert and to be a teacher is like being on stage for six or seven hours a day. It was bloody exhausting. I soon gave that up. I went to work in a library. It was calm and quiet and the people were nice. And the people who came into the library were interesting,” she said.
“I had worked at a library during my time in university. It was a way to make some money during the summer to pay for my tuition. That bothered me as well. The boys could do what they wanted, and got jobs that paid much more than the same job being done by a girl. The newspapers had two columns of jobs. Men’s jobs. And women's jobs. The men would work all summer and make enough to support themselves, and pay for their tuition for the school year. I barely made enough to cover my tuition. And tuition was cheap back then. It wasn’t fair at all.” Alannah spent four years working in the library.
“By the time my daughter was nine, I was a single parent. That’s when I changed my name. I chose the name Alannah. It was an inexpensive way to exercise a neurosis,” she said as a matter-of-fact, then laughed.
“It’s tough being a single parent. Working to provide for the child. Having kittens so she had someone there for her when she got home and I was still at work. You do whatever you can to make sure they’re ok,” she told me.
“I had gone back to working in the libraries. Not as a librarian, no, but I did spend the rest of my working life in libraries.”
“I still created art, but there were times when it was a choice between doing a painting, or buying shoes for my daughter. She needed the shoes. I took up fibre art. Weaving and the like. It was easier too. When you’re doing a painting, you have to think about every single square inch of the canvas. It can be intense. With fibre art, you have an overall view to what you're going to create, and then you just start. It takes it’s own form. It was good to have that outlet, creatively and as a way to release stress and tension,” she said.
“As soon as I retired, I started painting again and haven’t stopped. Trouble now is, what do I do with all of the pairings I have? My daughter thinks I should show them on Facebook. I don’t know, That’s just another, uh, well it’s another gadget I’d have to learn. I don’t even have a cell phone. I’ve thought about it. But I don’t even call that many people. I have a cell phone. It’s a book with paper I carry with me everywhere and it has all my numbers and notes and a calendar and everything I need in it. I make a new one every year, and I have a holder for it so the pages don’t get creased.”
“I talk to my daughter regularly. She’s wonderful. And I have a grandson. He’s fourteen and has Aspergers syndrome. He loves to play the saxophone and he’s pretty good at it too,” she says. It is clear her daughter and grandson mean the world to her. Her eyes widen, she sits right up, and there is a lilt in her voice when she’s talking about them.
“They don’t live in town, but you know, long distance calling, fortunately, isn’t as expensive as it once was.” I ask if she’s considered using an online camera so she can see her daughter or grandson while chatting with them.
“No, I haven’t used those things,” she smiles at me.
“I like to use my imagination. And I don’t want to have them see me in my pyjamas either. I don’t want to get dressed up to make phone call!” She laughs when telling me this.
We talked about dying with dignity. Alannah had recently listened to a man on the radio, who said once he reached seventy-five, he was no longer going to do anything that prolonged his life.
“Does that mean no more fun? No more cups of tea or food? No dancing? Look at (Henri) Matisse. He produced some amazing work in the last five years of his life, aged eighty. Those wonderful cut outs. He was bed-ridden. Imagine if he had lived by that theory,” said Alannah.
“I’ve talked about this with my daughter. I said as long as I’m not bored I’m doing ok. She asked how she’d know that I wasn't bored if I wasn’t able to communicate. We laughed.”
As we continued chatting, Alannah mentions a table she just finished building.
“It’s very crude, and simple. But there’s so much space to use on it. The trouble with a drop-leaf table it that you can’t store anything underneath it. The leaf and the legs underneath get in the way. So I built a table where the leaf goes up the way. As I said it’s very crude, but it works beautifully,” said Alannah.
“I’ve never liked anyone telling me I couldn’t have something. So if I can't afford it, I’ll make it myself,” she said with self-assured pride.
I asked Alannah what she was in the mall for.
“I had to buy new batteries for the remote control thing,” this time making the universal channel-changing gesture with her thumb.
“And I sat down to rearrange my purse. I bought this book.” She pulls out a large book called ‘Gardens by Design,’ and then wrestles it back into her purse.
“I was tying to figure out how I’d get that home without carrying it, and using my poles. I bought it at a sale down the way there, at the book store. I’m a lazy gardener. My garden is what’s called a Xerispace garden. I don’t want a garden that I've to spend all my time watering. I looked at a forest and thought ‘they can grow without someone standing there with a hose,’ so I use low-water need plants. I spend a lot of time weeding, that’s for sure. But very little time watering. Grass and lawns are fine for children playing, but otherwise they are so b-o-r-ing,” she said, drawing out the sound of the word ‘boring.’
I thanked Alannah for sharing her wonderful story with me, and asked if I could take her photograph.
“Oh alright, if you must,” she said. I waited a minute until there was no one getting in the way in the background.
“Can’t you just photoshop them out,” she asked. Without waiting for a reply, she says
“I guess that's just a lot of bothersome work, isn’t it?” I showed Alannah the photo I took. “Oh goodness, can you take another one? I look like I’m in pain.” Listening is enchanting. #notastranger
*Fact Check - http://bit.ly/1wvsEdq