This is a series of blog entries that celebrates those who have empowered, inspired, and helped me create my journey, dreams, and values up to this point. These are my stories of opening and becoming that celebrate these people.
She was a Senator’s wife, I was a gangly, awkward 12 year old with dreams bigger than the rural Saskatchewan town of 300 where I lived. She had an exquisite home overlooking the lake; that in my adolescent mind looked and felt like a castle when I stepped inside. Everything in it was perfection. From the beautifully tiled floors that she hired me to scrub, to the extraordinary art work on the walls that I dawdled over as I dusted the frames. There was always music playing, usually opera, and she was surprised that I knew many of the melodies as I would hum along softly as I worked, unaware she could hear me. She noticed I liked books and after a while she offered to lend some to me. I greedily snapped up as many as I could carry home, staying up late at night to read them—beautiful books on everything from opera synopsis and world history to the fascinating lives of politicians and actresses. I loved them all.
She thought I was older than I was. I looked older and had always felt generations older than other kids my age. I stopped going to school at age 12 and never went back. My days were spent caring for my infant sister, working in the family woodworking factory, or as a maid at the local hotel. There were rare moments that brought a combination of plentiful energy and quiet space when I would work on some schoolwork by correspondence, but I was hopelessly behind my grade level and soon gave that up all together. Finally, once the workday was over, I would practice my violin late into the night. Practicing in the darkened woodworking factory, which doubled as our home after the workers had left. I worked so I could play, so that I could keep playing. The flailing and mismanaged factory ensured that finances for violin lessons were almost nil. Playing became my coping mechanism to deal with the confusing chaos of a dysfunctional and abusive family life.
In the midst of this turmoil I met Muriel. I can’t exactly identify the time and the place, but she heard me play violin somewhere. Meeting Muriel offered me a glimpse into another life, another way of being. She was unlike anyone else I had ever met. She thought I was interesting and talented. And she had heard I was good at cleaning. She kept several residences and needed help maintaining the one in my town. Walking down the dusty gravel roads I felt like the luckiest girl around; I was on a very important mission to clean the nicest house around. She paid me twice as much as the hotel did and always gave me nice things to eat. It felt like a holiday when I went there to clean twice a week.
We didn’t talk very much, but she understood me. She knew I needed to leave, to escape home life, and the small town. Although we never spoke of it, I am sure she understood at some level the trauma and turmoil my family life inflicted. We both knew that music was my escape plan. Music was my way through this and a key to a better way of living, being, and creating my life. She was the only person who ever spoke of my future having possibility and encouraged me to go to university and beyond. Sometimes I would bring my violin to play for her on workdays, but after a while she would ask me just to come over to visit. I felt like she was my only real friend.
When I turned 16 the stifling issues of home life and extreme poverty had created in me a deep desperation to escape from my circumstances, although it seemed impossible given the number of obstacles I faced. My visits with Muriel were nourishing- she would come home from amazing trips, bringing with her special souvenirs she gave to me as gifts. She would tell me stories recounting the amazing concerts and productions she had taken in. Muriel was unconditionally supportive and I always imagined her sitting in the front row whenever I performed.
On a whim, and with Muriel’s encouragement, I hitched a ride with a friend to a small university several hours away when she went for an audition. Although I had not completed any type of formal schooling since Grade 7, I hatched an escape plan on the drive up. By the time we got there I had firmly resolved to go to that university. I managed to arrange an impromptu lesson with the violin prof and, having found favour with him, was allowed to audition off the books. I was accepted on the spot. To top it off, the professor pulled some strings to land me a full four- year scholarship when he learned of my financial situation. He also saw to it that I was provided with a housing stipend and a teaching job. In an instant it seemed my new life was on the way. I felt like I was literally living on miracles, one right after another. The fact that I was 16, in university, and without a high school diploma to my name was the least of them. All of a sudden I was living in a dorm with a roommate instead of in the three-room dust-filled quarters of the factory offices where my family of five lived. It was a luxury I couldn’t have imagined even days before. And cafeteria fare seemed lavishly abundant compared to eating from the food hampers my family regularly received from the church. I was thoroughly thrilled… and terrified.
Muriel sponsored and organized a fundraising concert for me in town to raise money for my miscellaneous expenses. Due to her influence and advertising, the event sold out three nights in a row with people coming from outlying towns. For the first time in my life I felt celebrated, empowered, truly special, and provided for.
As I started my new life away from home with all of the adventures, triumphs, and struggles that came with being an undergrad music student, Muriel was always there, sending support in the form of notes, cheques, and beautiful books every few months. The stringent conditions of maintaining a 3.8 GPA as a condition of my scholarship, and with the gaps in my education becoming more apparent with each course I took, the pressure I felt was immense. It seemed each time I was truly overwhelmed by what was ahead throughout my university years I would check my mailbox to find a handwritten note from her, full of love and unconditional belief in me.
We don’t talk as often anymore, but there is hardly a day that some aspect of my relationship with Muriel doesn’t come to mind, or that my eyes don’t settle on a book or item she gave me. I rarely get back to Saskatchewan to see her in person, but she is never far from my thoughts.
With all my gratitude and love, I celebrate Muriel with the music she enabled me to create today and every day.