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Stuart McLean Was Nice to Me When Nobody Was Looking

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. 

Tara

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.

~ stuart

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:  

Hi Tara

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

best

~ s    

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.

Tara 

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.

warmest regards,

~ stuart  

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…

Tara 

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 

warmest regards 

~ stuart 

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.   

~ tara

This is the original podcast.  Not sure if it’ll still work.  Dad’s story begins at about 21:00.

10 Comments

  1. Catherine Bennington

    Oh my goodness Tara, thank you for sharing!
    We certainly have enjoyed many hours of Stuart McLean’s podcast..and I have fond memories of my
    brother-in-law, who has since passed, reading to his little girls from one of Stuart’s many books…that was how I was introduced to Stuart McLean…I guess when I heard his podcasts it brought me to a happier time when my brother-in-law was with us. Yesterday I was just saddened by the email received from the Vinyl Cafe…we so hoped and prayed that one day we could sit in a live audience and hear/see and feel the experience of Stuart and the Vinyl Cafe.
    Hugs to you!

    • Catherine Bennington

      PS: Tara, I loved the story on your Dad…it was amazing…I never met you but had listened to you on the radio…and won a trip to Dominican from you!! Was devastated when you were let go…:( as you were our morning commute….Anyway–thank you for your story, keep on writing…it is a pleasure to read!

  2. Rose Birney

    Hey Tara
    What an insightful and heartfelt peek into stuart’s life (and yours).
    It made me cry. Well done.
    I never met Stuart but I did go to his Christmas show in 2015 at he Royal theatre in Victoria on what I guess was his last Christmas tour. My friend Reid Jameison was the musical guest so I had to go as I’m a long-time fan of both Reido and the Vinyl Cafe. It was a wonderfully entertaining show. I’m so glad I went.

    On another note you alluded to a book. That is exciting news; can’t wait. I can’t believe what a great writer you turned out to be….I knew you were an uncommon talent when we went to radio school together but you continue to amaze me even after all these years!
    xox Rosie

    • Hi Rosie O,
      I never met him either but don’t we all feel like we did? He was magical that way. I don’t think anyone had more friends they never met. Except Facebook friends and everyone knows they don’t count.

      Oh, and that ‘book’ thing I said was wildly hypothetical. Please don’t hold me to it.
      xx ~ t

  3. Erin Bird

    What an extraordinary tribute to both you and Stuart! I could hear his voice so clearly while reading your piece – thank you so much for sharing your incredible words. L❤️VE you!
    ~ Erin

    • Dearest Er,
      Isn’t it amazing how you can hear his voice so clearly? I think the sound of his voice will last in my memory even longer than the image of his face. Because of course, that is how we all knew him best.
      I Love you too!
      ~ t

  4. Patricia

    Dear Tara ~ I’m probably the only Canadian that hasn’t listened to the Vinyl Café. Because of your beautiful story about stuart I will listen now . I’m very interested in reading about your fathers journey across Canada. Like your father my step father was a avid bike rider. He rode to Mexico from Vancouver on his bike. When he passed we sold oh about 15 bikes from his garage. Everything from a unicycle to every speed bike imaginable. He grew up in Vancouver where his dad owned a bike shop, so he came by his passion naturally. His demise was a accident on his bike in Kelowna a few years back.
    Thank you for sharing stuarts heartfelt personal note to you after Holdens passing. So many of us carry that suitcase ….. and then becomes a briefcase in time. I will always remember this saying.
    I hope your suitcase has become lighter Tara and one day it will become a briefcase .
    Thank you for your stories Tara, they are so from your heart. I enjoy reading them.
    Pat from PH

    • Dear Pat,
      Thank you for your note. As my brother said yesterday — “one day you might have a clutch purse, or whatever those things are called.”
      Though I can’t imagine that is possible at the moment, I can hardly wait.
      ~ tara

  5. Philippa

    Tara. Many us will miss Stuart McLean and his incredible gift of story telling . Your writing and story of your father’s journey across Canada and his determination is a gift to all those who heard and were moved by it. There are so many things that make us proud to be Canadian but our greatest treasure is our people and telling their stories makes us all the better – thank you for sharing your private emails with Stuart as well as your story and that of your Dad.
    I have been moved by your writings about your most painful loss, Holden’s passing. Stuart’s words were so heartfelt and true. I know he touched you and thank you for allowing us to see a more private side of Stuart McLean.
    Philippa

    • Philippa,
      Thank you and you are most welcome. It’s interesting what a person does in public but it’s fascinating how they conduct themselves in private. Stuart was a man of great care whether he was being observed or not. That’s the mark of a truly great man.
      xx ~ t

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