It’s early morning on the river. July 11th. The day of our fantasy book party. The sun has just come up, and a mist hangs over the water. As I boil water for tea, I hear the low rumble of boats on the river. Then a few quiet thumps and some shouted instructions as they tie up to our neighbour’s dock. All except one boat. I can see out the kitchen window that this one nudges ashore at our waterfront. Hubby grabs the ropes that are thrown to him and secures them to a couple of trees. A gangplank slides out from the boat to our front lawn. Hubby goes aboard, and I hear him chatting with the man on board. Followed by the whine of an outboard motor, and then silence.
“All set, Suz,” Hubby says a few minutes later when he comes back inside. I smile as I drink my morning tea, and wait for the other pieces of the book party puzzle to fall into place.
Meanwhile, across Canada and around the world, other women stretch, drink their coffee (or tea), and pull clothes from their closets. Pants, or a skirt, shorts or a dress? These decisions must be made.
Then, suitably dressed and coiffed, leagues of women grab their hat and bag and book and head out the door. Okay… maybe not leagues… but lots. Many pull their now ubiquitous face mask from their bag and toss it onto the counter before they leave. “No need for that thing where I’m going today,” they grin. Then they hop aboard the free one-hour from anywhere to Ottawa flight, accept a glass of champagne from the handsome steward, and settle back in their seats.
Today is the day of the big backyard book party at my house. We’ve been declared a covid-free zone for the next 48 hours and we plan to make those hours count. As I step out of the shower, and towel dry my hair, I hear car doors slam. Louise and Chloe are here to help Hubby with the food. Then amidst the clinking of plates and glasses, and ice being dumped into tubs, Louise shouts, “Where do you want the wine, Ms. B?”
Louise is a former student and so is her sister Chloe. They both work at the Black Dog Bistro here in Manotick. As a special favour Dot, the owner, has given me my pick of the wait staff for my big do. I love these girls, both of them so feisty and entertaining. I think that they will get along with my readers just fine. They may even get involved in the book discussion. Especially when Louise sees the book I’ve chosen.
By noon, I too am coiffed and dressed. And so excited for everyone to arrive. I’m wearing my navy Rag and Bone “Luna” dress, bought in 2016. And a pair of sandals from Michael Kors that I picked up last year at an end of summer sale for 60% off and forgot I had. What a lovely surprise they were!
Hubby, with help from Louise and Chloe, has set up the extra chairs, shade umbrellas, and small tables that we ordered. The girls have trays of nibbles ready, the wine and soft drinks are chilling, Hubby has warmed up the barbeques. We’re ready.
Cars begin to arrive. Wendy from York and Ann, my high school friend who now lives in Florida, have met as they strolled up the driveway. They are both flower gardeners, so they have lots to talk about. Ann has launched her own jewellery business in the last few years, but you’ll learn more about that later.
Next I see Ellen from the Netherlands. She told me that she’s happy to have a chance to wear her Marimekko dress. It looks lovely, Ellen. You may want to kick off those fabulous Robert Clergerie shoes before the day is done, though. Elaine is here from Alberta. She’s parked her bag and evening cover up and is ready for refreshments and book talk. Me too, Elaine. I hope that Chris is able to make it, but she might be late. She’s in windy Brittany at the moment checking out the setting of the book she’s bringing, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
So many friends old and new now stand in my backyard. “This is amazing!” I gush to Hubby. “Yep,” he smiles and goes back to the barbeque. Louise and Chloe circulate with drinks and small morsels of delicious things that Dot has whipped up for us. I grab a glass of red wine, and move from group to group. We’ll take a few minutes to get acquainted before we start the serious book talk.
We are eclectic readers, that’s for sure. Classic books, recent publications, fiction, non-fiction. Like me, Heather is a Jane Austen fan. Lately I’m reliving Austen’s books by listening to them. There’s nothing like a great narrator to make the characters come alive. Frances T has brought one of my big favourites from the past few years. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. Like Frances, this book blew me away. I’ve never read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, but Mary says that Didion’s beautiful memoir has stayed with her for years.
I’m so happy that my friend Nancy, with whom I worked for many years, and my friend Frances have finally met. Frances has been an advocate and practitioner of social justice education for decades. She is bringing two of her favourite books by Canadian indigenous writers. Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach. And Thomas King’s Medicine River which she first read many years ago, and taught numerous times to her university students. She says this book has a wonderful knack of teaching about “systemic racism without proselytizing.” I know that Nancy will have read both books. She used to be a consultant for our school board, specialising in Indigenous Education. And her husband, Don, is indigenous.
Nancy has brought along the most recent book by award-winning Jamaican writer Marlon James. Black Leopard Red Wolf is compelling, but a hard read, she says. Nancy wants to hear what others have to say about Marlon James, and if anyone else here has read him, I’d lay money on it being Frances. I want to be sure to listen in on their conversation.
Ah, I see my good friend Maria is looking cool and lovely today. She’s brought My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which I know many of you have loved as well. Lucky Marina gets to read so many more books than I do, being fluent in French and Arabic, as well as English. I tell Louise to hurry up and fill Marina’s empty glass. Liz has brought along a book that is unfamiliar to me. She tells us that Joyce Carol Oates once called The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow her country’s “most unpretentious American masterpiece.” Wow. I should probably read this.
Soon, carrying our drinks, we move off into small groups, to the chairs arranged in groups of four or five. We’ll chat for a few minutes, then move to a new grouping. That way we get to talk to so many more people. After a few moves we will just chat where and with whom we want. Books which have been brought to be shared will be left on a table to be picked up by new owners at the end of the afternoon.
I first thought about bringing To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Scrounged from my grandmother’s book closet when I was about twelve or thirteen, this was one of the first books I read with adult themes, and it taught me many things. About the cruelty of racism, but also about loneliness, and the importance of kindness, and justice. I was lucky enough to be able to teach this book to my grade nine English classes for years. I know that many educators frown on teaching this novel today. Written by a white woman with a white man as the hero, it’s much better to teach anti-racism using a book by a black author. I get that. But that does not diminish the effect this book had on me as a child.
I decided instead to bring Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards. Adams Richards grew up in New Brunswick and attended the same university I did. The first book I read by him was For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. This book absorbed me, and angered me, and made me smile. Adams Richards writes about the social underclass much of the time. Poor working class New Brunswickers trying to scrape by however they can, sometimes by not entirely legal means. My first reaction to his writing is that I knew, know, and have known all my life, the characters in his books. They were my neighbours and friends growing up in rural New Brunswick.
But the best thing about Adam’s Richard’s works, including Mercy Among the Children, is that they are always about the value of mercy and kindness. And that we can find heroes in unexpected places. He takes people who have not had a chance in this world and imbues them with heroic characteristics. And I love that.
I used to suggest Mercy Among the Children to my grade twelves to read for their independent book study. That’s where Louise comes into the story. She adored this book. Was captivated by it. And as a student, she told me in no uncertain terms that “if the kid dies in the end” she was going to be “totally pissed” at me. Ha. That’s still one of my fondest teaching memories.
Once I stop talking about my book, I move to another group and listen to Annie speak enthusiastically about her favourite book, one she rereads every few years. Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, she says, cannot be beat for “pure merriment.” Pat from Toledo has a fondness for classic fiction as well. Pat brought her copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to pass on to a new reader.
I notice that Wendy and my sister Connie are discussing the value of the books we read as children. Wendy says that Jean Plaidy’s historical biographies which she read when she was young inspired her life-long love of history. Connie has brought her copy of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which she thinks we might all do well to read again in these dark days.
Gosh, I love to listen to book party talk, don’t you? More wine anyone? I’ve taken up the bottle of red that Louise abandoned. She’s off in one of the groups extolling the virtues of David Adams Richards. I told you she’d want to get stuck into the book chat.
Moving about with bottles of wine is a great excuse to listen in. Elaine tells her group about A Good Wife:Escaping the Life I Never Chose by Samra Zafar, who escaped her abusive marriage to become a human rights activist. And Julie is describing Alice Hoffman’s new book The World That We Knew, set in Nazi occupied France.
Meanwhile in another group, Christine smiles as she explains about Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson. An epistolary novel consisting of the letters between a male museum curator in Denmark and a female farmer in Britain. Christine says the book surprised her. “You have to love a book that is so much more than what you expected,” she says. Ali nods her agreement, and says she loves books that make her want to go places. Like A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle which inspired her subsequent and ongoing love affair with France. Ellen explains that she brought De Avonden (The Evenings) by Gerard Reve which she has read and reread. And because she couldn’t pick just one she also brought The Waves by Virginia Woolf. There are so many great books, it’s hard to pick just one. Everyone laughs and agrees.
And everyone agrees when Hubby announces that it’s high time we ate lunch. Louise and Chloe have set up a buffet in the sunroom. Salads and more salads from The Black Dog Bistro. Plates of raw veggies. Slices of Hubby’s barbequed Asian pork tenderloin, and lemon chicken. Homemade bread and rolls of every kind, including gluten-free. Then pots of tea and coffee. And dessert: fresh strawberries, of course, from Miller’s Farm just up the road. Raspberry, vanilla, or chocolate gelato. Tiny gluten-free brownies. And small slices of coconut cream pie and sticky toffee pudding from Black Dog.
We stop talking long enough to eat. Then as many refresh their plates, refill glasses, and sit back down again, the talking resumes. So much to say, so little time. When the last teacup has been drained, and we sit back in our chairs, replete with sunshine, good food, and good conversation, I stand up.
“Okay, ladies, I don’t know if you noticed all those luxury houseboats tied up at our neighbours’ docks.” I point up river to the adjoining properties. There are eight along each dock. They’re tied together, with walkways in between the boats. “These are your accommodation for the night, generously donated by a lovely company that runs cruises down on Big Rideau Lake. I know! Cool, eh?
“Now, in a minute I want you to grab your overnight bag, and go pick out a room, freshen up if you like, each room has ensuite facilities, and then decide what you want to do for the rest of the afternoon. But before you run off, I want to tell you what we’ve planned for the next couple of hours.
“First, Liz is here. Of course she is. And she’s brought with her a sweet little selection of items from the Nordstrom Summer Sale. A capsule collection of her favourite pieces. Three styles of jeans, three styles of dresses, a couple of different summer sweaters, tees, and a few styles of sandals, in multiple sizes. And my friend Ann has brought along some of her jewellery which she’s happy to show you. All this will take place on the boat that’s moored at the end of our lawn. Liz and Ann have all the pieces set out, and a couple of dressing rooms set up as well. They’ll be ready for you in a half hour. But first they need to find their rooms too.
“If you don’t want to shop, my friend Marina’s husband has arrived with their pontoon boat,” we all look as Bernie waves from the boat. “He and Marina are happy to take anyone who wants to go on a boat ride up the river and along the Rideau Canal to the locks at Burritt’s Rapids. There will be a guide at the locks to talk about the history of the Rideau Canal. Bernie is well supplied with a cooler of soft drinks if you get hot. And he’s happy to stop for anyone who wants to go for a dip. There are a selection of swimsuits on each houseboat and if you find one you like you’re welcome to borrow it.
“Or you can hang out here. Chat or take a nap. Take one of the canoes for a paddle. Persuade Hubby to take you on a tour of his vegetable garden. Or just kick back in your room with a book and a cup of tea. There are tea and coffee making facilities on each boat, and lots and lots of leftover treats. The books that are being shared will be on the tables on the deck if you want to browse through them. Plan to be back here for eight o’clock, dressed down, and with a sweater or shawl, since the temperature will be cooler this evening.”
Groups of friends, for that’s what we are now, rise from their seats. Everyone helps Chloe and Louise gather up the crockery and glasses and tea cups, and then saunters across the lawn to inspect the accommodation. I join them, for I’ve never even been on a house boat. And I’m abandoning Hubby for the night to join everyone else on board.
Soon, Bernie and Marina chug away from shore with a group who are interested in the history of the Rideau Canal, or who just want to go for a ride and a swim. From the boat moored to our waterfront, I hear Liz and Ann talking about fashion, and laughing, with another group. A few ladies go off in search of Hubby to arrange for the canoes or to take a peek at his squash crop. I head inside to make sure the plans for this evening are in place, and to take a nap.
By seven-thirty, Hubby and I have napped, showered, and changed clothes. I’ve swapped my dress for my Frame high-rise, straight-leg jeans, and my sleeveless “muscle shirt” from Vince. Similar here at Everlane. I’ll throw my Vince navy cashmere sweater around my shoulders, or even pull it on, if it gets cool.
Then, a refrigerated van pulls into the driveway. At last. The step-son of a hockey buddy of Hubby’s, who owns a popular local fish store and restaurant, has arranged for a special shipment from New Brunswick for our party. From Shediac, “the lobster capital of the world.” Plus two very capable young men to unload, set up the ginormous lobster pot, and shuck and boil the corn on the cob. They’ll also arrange the tables of potato salad, rolls, green salad, butter, fresh lemon, and the rest of the accompaniments. We’re having a good old-fashioned, down-east lobster and corn boil.
Louise is back for the evening shift, although not Chloe who has a toddler at home. Louise and I replenish the wine in tubs of fresh ice, load one up with beer, and one with soft drinks. My sister Connie helps. I laugh and say, “It’s just like old times.” When Hubby and I had our wedding at home, Connie helped me clean house the day before the wedding. And the morning after served us morning tea in the honeymoon suite in the backyard, aka our tent. Ha. Sisterly duty strikes again.
Soon everyone else has gathered, helping themselves to wine or beer or whatever. “No serving tonight,” I tell Louise. “Help yourself and have fun.”
We swap stories of our afternoon adventures. Some are wearing a new pair of jeans or a tee shirt they didn’t own yesterday. Is that one of Ann’s pendants I spy on Wendy?
We eat salad, and fresh homemade rolls, and corn on the cob with butter. The boys call out that the lobster is ready. Those who are partaking get in line. Then Hubby gives a lesson in how to crack a lobster for the uninitiated. Everyone tucks in and great hilarity ensues. This is not as easy as it looks. Hubby is up and down helping ladies to crack claws, and open tails. Finally he quips, “Okay, ladies, you’re on your own from now on. A man could starve around here.” The boys from Shediac step in to assist.
I see that John and Jan Purcell have arrived and are enjoying their own lobster. John is a hockey buddy of Hubby’s. His wife Jan plays the fiddle, and John, the guitar. They are amazing blues and country singers. They used to tour the summer musical festivals all over, and are a fixture at hockey parties. You can’t have a downeast lobster boil without fiddle music.
The sun has set, although it’s still light out. Hubby goes off to light the bonfire and Jan and John set up their equipment on the deck. The boys from Shediac have eaten, packed up their truck, and headed off for home. It will be a long drive for them through the night. I invited them to stay, but they demurred. I guess a party of book-loving middle-aged ladies is not their jam. Ha.
But it is our jam, isn’t it ladies?
As I settle down with a glass of wine to listen to Jan sing, I look around and smile at all my friends. What a day we have had. And it’s not quite over.
Later, much later, after more great music and conversation, we will retire to the houseboats. Some of us will smuggle an extra bottle or two aboard. Some will make pots of tea and coffee in the small kitchens. And we will sit out on deck in our pyjamas, with our cups and glasses in hand, chatting. Watching the fireflies flit across the river. Calling to others on the next boat. Laughing. Sharing a few more moments of togetherness, of conviviality, of freedom from all the dark things that have plagued us for so many months.
And it sure feels good. Really, really good.
I know that lots of you who weren’t mentioned in the post were here for the party. Everyone was welcome, last minute guests, spur of the moment guests. Guests who didn’t even realize they wanted to come until they started reading this post. There was lobster and a glass of wine set aside for all of you. So, be sure to let us know what book you brought in the comments and why.
I’m going to gather all the book choices together in a post later next week.
P.S. You can see Ann’s jewellery here at Blue Lark Creations on Instagram.
P.P.S. There are affiliate clothing links in this post. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will make a commission.