Careful who you sit next to in the campus cafeteria-it
could be a life-altering lunch.
THIS PAST WEEK MY HUSBAND FLOYD
AND I stopped at Coombs Old Country Market-the
place with the goats on the roof-for ice cream.
I popped into the newly renovated bathroom to
wash my hands before choosing a flavour and spent
a good five minutes looking for the tap handles
before I realized the sink was controlled by
motion detectors. It's not that I haven't encountered
such sinks before; airports are replete with
them. It's just that this was, well, Coombs,
and you don't expect such modern technological
wonders in that kind of down-home-country atmosphere.
But then, times change.
As they have for me. Fifteen
years ago I carted loaves of bread I had baked
into my creative writing classes to give to friends
as birthday presents. That was when I still baked
bread, wore ankle length skirts and kept chickens,
selling their eggs. It seemed I was never without
a dozen eggs as I roamed the campus. I remember
giving out invitations to a party-it must have
been an Easter party-written in gold ink on uncooked
eggs. My confused guests were then left with
the dilemma of what to do with these raw eggs.
Did I expect them to carry the eggs around in
their backpacks for the rest of the day? Most
memorized or wrote down the details of the invitation
and gave the egg back. Those were the days when
I was known around campus, much to my horror,
as The Egg Lady.
I blame my husband Floyd for
this reputation. Before I came to UVic, before
I met Floyd, I'd held a job as a reporter, photographer,
and cartoonist, and had won a number of awards
for my literary fiction. I came to UVic with
the ambition of becoming a novelist. Sure I came
from a farm family, but I saw myself as somewhat
urbane, or at least mildly sophisticated. I would
not have characterized myself as The Egg Lady.
Then I met Floyd, this Alberta
cattleman, within the crowded University Centre
Cafeteria where I was forced to share a table
with him. I'd chosen to sit at his table to eat
my vegetarian pizza because I thought this unassuming
guy wouldn't bug me. Then his English prof wandered
by and handed Floyd his paper on The Horse's
Mouth and that started up a conversation. That
night we caught a movie together at Cinecenta,
and within a couple of weeks he was frying up
liver and onions in my kitchen as my vegetarian
roommate pointedly opened all the windows and
sat on the lawn to meditate.
Soon after Floyd and I were
living together in a basement suite on Argyle
Street behind Camosun College. It was from here,
in the backyard greenhouses, that Floyd, unable
to give up farming even as he studied anthropology,
raised meat rabbits. (It was here, also, that
we entertained friends from the Creative Writing
Department by introducing the buck into a female's
pen, to demonstrate what a quickie really looked
like.) Within a year, as we continued our studies,
we had moved to a small farm in Duncan where
we raised pork and chicken for customers working
at UVic and Camosun. We named the pigs, by gender,
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, to make
them easier to part with.
Floyd, missing the herd in
Alberta that his parents managed for him, became
known amongst our friends as a man who would
not look at another woman, but who would drive
off the road if he saw a fine looking herd of
Herefords. That is why, on another busy lunch
hour at the University Centre Cafeteria, as Floyd
sat with his friend John, I put on a cow suit
(a Hereford cow suit) and trotted out to kneel
in front of Floyd, to ask him to "moooarry me."
You see now, don't you,
why I ended up writing novels about farm communities?
I was drawn there by this unassuming cattleman
named Floyd. It's on these seemingly trivial decisions-which
table do I sit at?-that life, as a repercussion
art, sometimes spins off in wholly unexpected directions.
If I had chosen another table in that busy cafeteria,
sat with a different stranger to eat my vegetarian
pizza, I would have lived a much different life,
and certainly written very different novels. Just
a little something that got me thinking as I chose
that flavour of ice cream.
has written three novels and has twice been shortlisted
for the Giller Prize. She lives on Vancouver Island
with Floyd and their young family.