All any of us want to be is seen and heard and, if we’re lucky, understood. Stuart McLean’s greatest gift, one that he shared with gleeful abandon, was to reassure us that we are fine, we are normal in our abnormality, and our little, seemingly insignificant lives do mean something after all. He revelled in the regular. He got me. And he got you. He saw us. Stuart held up a big mirror and in that reflection we looked just fine thank you. Better than ever actually. He polished us until we shone with his affection for the every day.
Reading other people’s email these days is asking for trouble (Hillary!) but in this case I think we’ll all be forgiven as they reveal something valuable about an extraordinary person. Stuart McLean was a friend and inspiration to me and I choose to show you some excerpts from our correspondence to illustrate what a thoughtful and kind man we was, even when no mic’s were on, no tapes were rolling and nobody was looking.
Perhaps you know that I got booted out of commercial radio a few years ago. We left town but we took the best part of Canada with us- – the Vinyl Cafe. My daughter, husband and I would listen to podcasts of Dave, Morley and the gang and feel not so far from home when we were about as far away from home as you could get. Somewhere on an autobahn or a mountain or a maybe tropical island my young daughter tossed a firecracker in my lap.
“Mom, why don’t you write something for the Story Exchange?”
“Hmmm. What would I write about?” I asked her.
“I don’t know.” She said “Something super Canadian, Stuart likes those best.” She used his first name. Like they were tight.
So I wrote about my Dad’s circumnavigation of Canada on his bike. Soon after, I got a reply from Jess Milton telling me that Stuart liked the story and could they please use it for the show? I was astounded and did a little dance. Of course they could! Have-atter! So began our email correspondence.
Stuart razzed me about travelling for so long and to so many different places “Don’t you McGuires ever stay at home?” He apologized when the recording was delayed because he wasn’t feeling well. “I want to be my best self when I read your story, Tara.” He said “I’m sorry to disappoint your family who were there in the audience but we’ll have to do it next time.” He told me of his trips to Montreal to visit and care for his ailing mother. We talked about how important mothers are. He told me how he worried about her. Mostly he gently encouraged my writing and coming from Stuart McLean that made me begin to believe that maybe I could write something worthwhile one day.
I can’t imagine how many hundreds/thousands of emails he would receive but Stuart always took great time and care in replying. He was not big on punctuation or even spelling. I could tell he was often in a hurry, or maybe like me, his thoughts were firing faster than his fingers could run. I loved that he used the same squiggle I did signing off ~ and that he always used humble lower case for his own name. His notes often looked like poems to me.
I am so glad you liked and approved of what I did.
Your piece was so well written that I was loath to change it.
I actually edited | wrote two versions. One in your voice and one in mine.
I read themboth to Jess.
She chose the one in my voice primarily because our listeners know me and trust me and by delivering it in my voice gave it more authority.
The writing, as you no doubt recognized was the same anyway.
You wrote both versions. You are a wonderful writer. Clear and simple.
And you have a good understanding of structure.
I haven’t heard the show yet. I will do that tomorrow.
Enjoy the rest of your trip.
I loved working on this piece – working with your lovely essay and meeting your family.
My best wishes to you and Cam and Lyla.
While we were about as far away from Vancouver as you can get, in the Seychelles, the Vinyl Cafe was recorded in Chilliwack, BC. My Dad, his partner June and many of their cycling friends attended. My sister and brother were there too and so was my son Holden. He got the chance to meet Stuart briefly after the recording and said that they had shook hands and Stuart “seemed like a pretty nice guy.” Stuart emailed me afterward to tell me in his endearing way about the show and the warm response the audience gave Dad for accomplishments:
It was a fantastic ovation
certainly grander than what I got that night
and all of his friends sitting in the front row were chuckling quietly during my read
(quiet sort of chuckles of recognition)
we did a brief interview on stage after it was over
and when I mentioned that I received the story from you
he said you were the most wonderful daughter a man could have
all in all I thought it was a real success
I hope he felt that
Oh, he felt it alright. Dad was thrilled to be honoured and applauded that night. I was so happy that he was recognized for all the hard work he had done. Recording is one thing. Broadcasting is another. We were incredibly excited to hear the story played on the good old CBC. Especially when we were so far from home. That kind of experience is about as Canadian as you can get. We streamed it on-line while we were crammed into a chilly loft apartment overlooking the bus station near a walled city in Sicily. To hear Stuart’s warm melodious voice utter words I had written… well, I could have died happy that day.
Later that summer when the worst of the worst happened and our son Holden has passed away, Stuart was there again to try and show me he understood in the most honest and sincere way.
I dont know what to say except
you have communicated your pain and grief
When my father died I felt like I had been handed a suitcase of grief and told I must lug it with me wherever I went.
It was all I could think about at first. Over time, the suitcase grew lighter, and became more like a briefcase, and I could set it down, and even forget about it for a spell. But I was never without it and still am not. It is easier to carry these days. I can join friends at supper, or in whatever happy thing we might be doing, but when I stand at the end of the meal, the briefcase is always there, waiting, “Oh, I know who you are,” I say to myself as it catches me again, “You are my little briefcase of grief.” And I pick it up and head off. I don’t know how I would cope with the suitcase you have been handed. By writing I guess. And by trying to accept the love of those around me. But also, probably, by trying to crawl down a hole. It is a struggle, I am sure.
Imagine how busy a man Stuart McLean must have been. Imagine how many tugs on his time and the as yet publicly unknown struggle he was facing with his own personal health. Yet, he took the time to reach out, to care, to ask. His childlike curiosity would never melt. He told me he wanted to know more about Holden and maybe when I had the time or the heart for it I could tell him a little bit about my son. He must have known that in writing about Holden I would be able to spend more time in his presence and perhaps be comforted. So, one day I did. And I did feel better for a while. I sent Stuart part of the eulogy I had written for Holden’s memorial service and a few other little stories about him as a young man. Of course I didn’t know yet that he was ill. And then…
I finally found a peaceful moment this cloudy afternoon
to sit and read your lovely and loving note
thank you for sending it and for (properly) introducing me to Holden
it sounds like he was a wonderful young man
and an extraordinary little boy on the way to getting there
I loved some of your memories
the afternoon in the museum when walking began, the spilled cereal
i would have loved to have gone out with him and written a piece about his street art
I have never understood that genre
and your introduction | understanding has given my a peek into a world that I have never had
so thank you for that too
I feel a connection that I haven’t felt before
so thank you for all this
and for the kind invitation to dinner
we didn’t even make it to Vancouver (sigh)
but i appreciate the offer
and I’m sure we will collide again and I look forward to that
It’s the (sigh) that gouges me most. The memory of a pin poke. I didn’t really know Stuart McLean, we never met in person. I never shook his hand or got to share a coffee with him at a roadside cafe like I wanted to. We never took a selfie together. I really wanted him to write the forward for my book. I know he would have. He’s like that. He would have given that matter serious consideration. He would have written something so eloquent and simple it would have made you cry. And now, like too many other things, that will not happen.
But I know for sure of one thing that did happen. He saw me, he got me, he understood me.
This is the original podcast. Not sure if it’ll still work. Dad’s story begins at about 21:00.