I’m one of the thousands of people who would regularly sit in my car on the driveway to listen to the end of a Stuart McLean story or sometimes even sit listening to it in the Zehrs parking lot. I would laugh and sometimes I would cry in my car. Once in a while I would drive home listening to him and then run desperately into the house with a bag that had perishable food and call out to my kids “please take this ice cream, or whatever else I had in the bags, down to the freezer for me” and they would know that I had to listen to the rest of his incredible tale and couldn’t spare a moment to go to the basement myself. Often they would come back up and listen to it with me. When the CBC radio hosts talked about Stuart McLean’s death this morning my poor kids had to watch me cry while I packed school lunches but I was laughing while I cried because it was that story of poor, beleaguered Dave as he realizes that he just might have let Morley down by not just forgetting to defrost the turkey but never purchasing it at all.
We are lucky here at WPL because although the Vinyl Cafe was such a beloved radio program we have Stuart McLean’s books and voice here on the shelves and available through Overdrive (eBooks and eAudio books). Many, many weekends I have checked out favourite stories so that I could enjoy them again. Also, for the pleasure of listening to that voice, each word so well-planned, adding in a pause because he knew that if he didn’t take a moment he might start to laugh himself (which he would, if you ever had the chance to see him perform) I adored the opportunity to check out one of his CDs to play in my kitchen whenever I wanted to.
Fans often spoke about his ability to make the everyday special in his writing. The stories that he wrote about Dave, Morley, Stephanie and Sam allowed us to see them grow from a young couple who met and courted (remember those early days or when Morley was pregnant with Stephanie?) and then as they wrestled with the big parenting decisions, so many decisions. We all felt like we got to know Dave and Morley’s extended family and there is probably nothing that I loved more than a visit home to Big Narrows – it’s almost like Morley’s mother Helen is as comforting to me as the mothers of my friends from elementary school and I could say the same about Dave’s mother Margaret.
Many of the stories involve well-meaning mistakes that Dave made, you know, forgetting to cook the turkey or losing his wedding with the duck, that incredible tale of him trying out a racing bike – a Pinarello – by climbing on top of a neighbour’s car, clipping his feet into the pedals and then becoming trapped up there. I laugh and laugh every time even though I know exactly what will happen next. It’s exquisite timing and perfect word choice. I think that I prefer the more subtle moments he wrote though. I think I liked it best when he talked about Sam and his best friend Murphy and their adventures at school, or how Sam got his first job, what it was like when Stephanie started university or the sweet things that they did with their elderly neighbours Eugene and Maria. And, neighbours! Oh, my goodness, the Turlingtons, the Andersons, dear Carl Lowbeer and his sourdough starter that Dave tried to keep going for him. I’ve always been a bit afraid to try making sourdough bread after reading that book.
And yet maybe I will give that sourdough starter a try because in the radio shows, live shows and in his books Stuart McLean was really telling us about a world where people were connecting with their friends and neighbours and trying things, making life better. He was an optimistic writer but it was never a perfect world that he was writing about. I feel like the newspaper tributes are wrong when they call him ‘folksy’ because he told the truth in his work – he didn’t shy away from the darker moments in life – there were misunderstandings and heartbreak in some of the the things he wrote. It wasn’t all turkeys and Christmas cake. He also took the time to write about important moments in Canadian history and crossed the country doing 150 shows a year. Each time he did his live shows he would stop and talk to people, using those moments as an opportunity to find something new and true to life to write about. He won the Stephen Leacock Medal three times for humour writing – so well deserved and so very lucky for us. In December of 2016 he shared a statement about his health to let fans know that The Vinyl Cafe wouldn’t be on the radio as it was just playing repeat episodes, taking up space on the radio that could be given to artists and producers who were working on new material. He said that “things don’t always go exactly as planned” and that we should all “look after ourselves and each other” which is always such good advice. So, let’s all do that. Let’s read a story written by a creative and thoughtful man or better yet, you can listen to him read it in his own voice. Let’s take some time to read and laugh and cry, all thanks to Stuart McLean.
– – Penny M.