Have you experienced a time in your life that has affected you in a profound way? Do you wish to share this with others? Then perhaps you have a memoir in you.
My writing career began in my fifties as a result of a life-altering experience from which I felt I had a story that needed telling. The result was my memoir, Ready to Come About, published by Dundurn Press in 2019.
The Wellington County Writers’ Festival had its birth yesterday. It was a fantastic day, with music, puppets, refreshments, and of course dozens of authors of all genres, doing readings and selling their wares.
I had the good fortune of having the book table of my memoir Ready to Come About, positioned between members of the Wellington County Library System, who helped organized the festival, and wonderful volunteers with the Wellington County Historical Society, all of whom were fun company throughout the day. Who knew Stompin’ Tom was from Ballinafad!
If you couldn’t make it out yesterday, don’t worry. The festival continues with events at various branch libraries in the county throughout May and June.
Keriann McGoogan, author of Chasing Lemurs – My Journey into the Heart of Madagascar, and I will be discussing the Crafting of Memoir at the Marden Library, May 12th, 6:30 to 8 p.m. If you are interested in coming out to this event you can register to reserve a seat through this link.
I will also be reading from Ready to Come About (time to be determined) on the festival’s closing day, June 25th at the Hillsburgh Library.
You can find the details and updates on the Wellington County Writers’ Festival website.
I am honoured to be participating in the first annual Wellington County Writers’ Festival. The kickoff is Saturday, April 23rd, at the Wellington County Museum following which, over the next two months, there will be writerly events at various branch libraries throughout the County, and the grand finale will be Saturday, June 25th, in Hillsburgh. Check this link for schedule details as they become available.
On a global scale, there’s been a deadly pandemic, unprecedented and unnatural social isolation, racial violence, political unrest, and now an unprovoked war.
On a personal level, last July, a brother of mine died unexpectedly. He and I were close. And I miss him so much it makes me ache.
To be honest, I have never known a time of such profound sadness. It has been paralyzing some days, and focussing on finishing my novel has felt next to impossible.
But, my husband, David, has insisted that I have an important story that needs telling. So, with his encouragement and support, I am slowly getting back into it. As the saying goes, I’m putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward even when it’s difficult. And, I am able to report, I am starting to make progress.
I did not set out to write about food. Nevertheless, flipping through the pages of Ready to Come About, food, or sometimes the lack of it, was a significant backdrop to many scenes.
There were great concoctions we managed to pull together under sail, fantastic landfall meals in exotic places, and fabulous home cooked dinners around the kitchen tables in the homes of friends we met along the way. These were moments of celebration, of sharing, and of joy.
Then there were other food experiences; days of cold bean salads, simple meals to stretch out our limited reserves, meals in times of anxiety, distress, discord and sadness.
So it seems food and the human condition are inextricably linked.
When I came to, it was again night. Seeing David’s present sitting unopened where he had set it twelve hours before and him outside eating crackers from the box, I started to cry.
“Some Christmas,” I said to him through the companionway. “I had all the fixings for a special turkey dinner.”
“No worries, sweetie. Honestly, it’ll be great whenever.”
“And your present isn’t even —”
“No rush for that either. C’mon out here. You gotta see this night sky. I’ve never seen anything like it.” He slid over and I sat down. “Cracker?”
Excerpt from Ready to Come About
The rougher the passage, the more joyful the landfall. Our twelve day passage from the Azores to Portugal was particularly rough; sea sickness, storms, and fouling a rogue fishing net that disabled our engine and caused a continuous leak which we had to bail for nine days.
Once we cleared customs and Inia was safely secured in the beautiful city of Lagos, we headed into town to celebrate, “unshowered, unchanged, and unconcerned about it”. A local pointed us to a modest restaurant on the main drag, the Marina Café.
On that warm summer night, in the almost-empty restaurant, exhausted from our voyage, but so happy, we leisurely enjoyed a wonderful Portuguese meal and a nice bottle of vinho tinto. It was, indeed, a most joy filled landfall meal!
Friday night dinner at the Marina Café became a ritual. One night the owner, Ricardo, and the waitress, Karine, surprised us with the preparation of a special dish, Cataplana de Marisco. This seafood feast is a traditional dish popular in the Algarve. It was another memorable night of celebration, this time with new friends.
The Cataplana was such a wonderful discovery, I feel the need to share.
It is the name of the meal, but also the name of the vessel in which it is prepared: a hinged clam-shaped cooking container something like two small Woks clamped together.
We bought a small, inexpensive one in Lagos which we brought back with us across the Atlantic. It is a “go to” kitchen utensil which we now reserve for special occasions.
They are available in stainless steel, copper, or aluminum. If you can’t make it to Portugal, you can find one online.
It is a versatile cooking method, great for fully vegetarian meals, but also good for combining meat proteins and seafood. Essentially it is like a small pressure cooker to “steam” the ingredients. You can find many recipes online.
As far as the “steaming” material … I like the Portuguese approach! Lots of olive oil … and lots of white wine!
Here is a kind of made-up recipe we have prepared for company. Everyone raves about it. Hope you give it a try.
Green bell pepper
Red bell pepper
4 Cloves of garlic
Other stuff (use your imagination: could be pickles, or basil leaves, or cilantro, or combination)
Dash of Piri-Piri (or diced Jalapeno pepper) if you like it hot
Prepare the ingredients in advance. Slice the onion and both bell peppers into thin strips. Peel the potato and slice into thin rounds. Slice carrot and tomato as well into thin rounds. Slice or dice the garlic (or leave whole),
Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the bottom of one shell of the Cataplana. Add a layer of onion, then a layer of red and green peppers. Add a layer of sliced tomatoes, then a layer of potato and carrot. Add the garlic. Season with salt and pepper.
The Cataplana half shell should now be about two-thirds full. Add another layer of onion, bell peppers and tomato. Then throw in extras as desired (like sliced pickles, or a bunch of chopped cilantro). If you wish to spice it up, add a dash of Piri-Piri or chopped Jalapeno peppers.
Add white wine … then a bit more white white, then another splash of olive oil.
One more ingredient that David discovered that works well is mint. On top of the veggies and proteins in the container, after adding the oil and white wine, top with a bunch of mint leaves tied together. The mint will add flavour to the meal, and, after about twenty minutes of steaming, the sweet aroma will permeate the room.
Close and clamp. Simmer on the stove top for about 30 minutes, then open and serve. The Cataplana itself can be brought to the table as a serving dish.
To my surprise, I discovered writing is a lot like crossing an ocean.
When writing my memoir, Ready to Come About, there were many moments of: ‘What the hell was I thinking’. ‘This is way more than I bargained for’. ‘I’m not equipped to do this; was I ever stupid to even think I was’. ‘Will I survive? If I do, I swear, never again!’
Then I stumbled onto Brian Henry’s creative writing courses, the very first of which was Writing Personal Stories. These courses were jam-packed with information that helped equip me with what I needed to get through to the other side.
However, writing a book differs from an ocean crossing in that it is a journey of years, and it is necessarily a solitary endeavor, most of the time. But you can’t do it entirely alone. It’s important to meet people who talk the same language, who consider writing a worthwhile endeavor, who too spend whole afternoons inserting and taking out commas, only to insert them again in the morning. Through these courses I was introduced to a wonderful writing community, the support of which was essential.
So it feels extra-special to be a guest speaker in Brian’s fabulous upcoming online course, “Writing Personal Stories” where, eleven years ago, my memoir-writing journey began. Check out the details here.
Carol Kane Neilson, known as C.K., was born October 1, 1884, in Far Rockaway, Queens County, New York. He was one of the five sons of Louis Neilson and Anne Perry Rodgers Neilson. And he was David’s grandfather.
The Neilsons were well connected, New York City high society types. J.P. Morgan was a close family friend, for whom C.K. worked as a bike courier in his teens. C.K.’s brother, Frederick, hob-knobbed with Charlie Chaplin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Douglas Fairbanks.
A career on Wall Street might have been expected for C.K., but, as with many an interesting life story, there were struggles. And there were turns.
C.K. had a severe stutter. This stood as a barrier in elite social circles.
A trip to Texas would further influence his life’s trajectory. While on a mission to buy polo ponies for the movers and shakers of Long Island, he became obsessed with all things western. He discovered he was a cowboy at heart.
In 1905, at age 21, C.K. received an inheritance with which he bought a ranch and apple orchard in Colorado, and left his New York City world behind.
Over time, C.K. got to know the couple who owned the neighbouring ranch. They were friends with a young woman, Elsie Deems, another well-to-do New Yorker who spent part of her youth on the Rockefeller estate. Elsie was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, the first U.S. college for women. So her family had big expectations for her too.
This couple next door had a feeling C.K. and Elsie would hit it off. So they invited Elsie to Colorado for a visit. Although it was years before online dating, their objective was the same. And their hunch was right.
Elsie and C.K. married in 1917. Their first child, David’s mother, Nancy, was born in 1918 in Paonia, Colorado. And life was good… for a few years at least.
In 1922 a river overflowed, washing out their ranch and wiping out their investment. So, they packed up what little they had left and headed further west to the hot, dry central valley of California.
In 1923 C.K. landed a position with Cal Pack, a huge farming and food packing company associated with Del Monte. There they had their second daughter, David’s aunt, Caroline, in 1928. A year later C.K. was given full management of a 700-acre farm, Langdon Ranch, owned and operated by Cal Pack. And the little family moved into the ranch house on the property.
Years later Elsie would recount how the ranch house had been the meeting place for the county where big ideas were born. One of those big ideas was the development of the Merced County Park System. C.K.’s focus was Lake Yosemite, particularly the installation of a pleasure craft boat dock.
After the dock was built, and race night became a big thing in the area, C.K. figured he needed a boat to join in. So he bought a kit and built an eighteen-foot sloop in, of all places, the second floor of the ranch house. According to family, a wall was knocked out and a rope system rigged to extract and lower the finished boat which, they added, did not go smoothly!
In the early 1980s, just after David and I got married, David took me to California to meet his family. And we made a side trip to Langdon Ranch. There, in the heat, surrounded by dust and dirt, beneath towering Eucalyptus trees stood the old ranch house. This once grand estate with splendid parlours and gracious rooms, was now empty and boarded up, but I could feel its majesty, its history, the beehive it must have been in C.K.’s days.
In 1946, due to C.K.’s failing health, the family left Langdon Ranch and moved to a smaller 28-acre ranch near Atwater, California. And, in 1947, C.K. passed away.
So how does this relate to my memoir, Ready to Come About? Well, in short, if it weren’t for C.K., and that intrepid family gene, I’d have never crossed an ocean in a small sailboat. So, thank you, C.K.!
“Didn’t even know you sail,” I said as evenly as possible.“Oh yeah. I did. My aunt Caroline gave me a small sailboat my grandfather had built. I used to sail it on Lake Yosemite, an irrigation lake about seven miles from our house. My mom would drop me off there on her way to work. I’d sail back and forth all day long and imagine I was crossing an ocean, even though it was only a mile wide. Silly.”
Excerpt from “Ready to Come About” (Dundurn Press)
In my memoir, Ready to Come About(Dundurn Press), I recounted that, while sailing along the north shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway, heading toward the Atlantic Ocean, David and I navigated an unfamiliar channel to a marina in the dead of the night. It was against our better judgement, but we were exhausted and cold. Carrying on had its own risks. So, we chose to put in.
The entrance was dark, but beyond the stone breakwater a twinkling marina nestled among rock cliffs and tall pines unfolded and we were warmly greeted by locals on the lamp-lit docks.
In the morning light, we were awe-struck by the pristine beauty of this little-known harbour, Port de Refuge de Cap a L’Aigle.
Last week, I was contacted (through Vocamus Press) by an author, illustrator, and gardener-extraordinaire, Janice Wiseman. She had just finished reading Ready to Come About, and reached out to connect.
In our email conversation, Janice informed me that, within mere kilometers of Cap a L’Aigle, is another Canadian best-kept secret; Les Jardins de Quatre-Vents, the mostly private gardens of Francis H. Cabot, yes a direct descendant of that Cabot. Who knew!
Developed and enlarged by Francis H. Cabot, the Gardens of Quatre Vents are considered among the best private gardens of our times. They are a source of exquisite enchantment for those fortunate enough to visit them. Wandering through the sets of gardens, visitors can discover over 1000 different species of plants that are revealed in original, unexpected and audacious ways.
So here we are with the pandemic. We have been in this for a long time. We are tired, and want things to go back to normal. But, on this last day of 2020, the news we are hearing is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
After having a problem-filled first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, David and I became friends with a young Polish sailor, Nick, on the European side. He acted as our “weather router” on our second, longer crossing home.
When heavy weather was forecast, Nick’s email advice was:
“Grab the opportunity to fuel up, charge your batteries, eat up, sleep up; make sure all your way points are in the GPS and all your charts are on the table. For there’ll be some spray flying high.”
Eventually, through the dark storm clouds, a sliver of light emerged.
Wishing you and your loved ones a safe passage through the storm, and sunny days ahead in 2021!