BWS 10.05.17: Mary Lou Dickinson

Mary Lou Dickinson

Mary Lou Dickinson grew up in northern Quebec and arrived in Toronto via Montreal and Michigan. Inanna Publications published her short stories, One Day It Happens (2007), and her novels, Ile d’Or (2010) and Would I Lie To You (2014). A mystery, The White Ribbon Man, will be published in early 2018.

Mary Lou shared a sample from an unpublished memoir ahead of her May 10 visit to Brockton Writers Series. Enjoy!

Excerpt from a chapter titled “Graveyard Shift”

When the end of term at university came, I went north from Montreal to work in the mining town where I had grown up. My first summer job was in a hardware store on the main street where I learned to make keys and to find the hooks, nails and screws, the paints and brushes, the paraphernalia that people shopped for. I learned what everything was in both French and English. I felt useful and even of some consequence. Even more aware that I had entered a different, almost adult, world was my experience at Golden Manitou Mine in the following summers where I worked in the assay lab doing swing shifts to fill in for regular workers on vacation. The mine was twenty miles from town and on the graveyard shift, the bus driver picked me up on the highway near our house and dropped me off on desolate mine property at close to midnight along with all the men who worked underground.

On the first day, I was introduced to Alice, an older woman who would train me. She spoke no English so my facility in French improved quickly. Before the end of the summer, I had started to dream in French most of the time.

On two of the shifts, I often worked with women other than Alice who spoke openly about their lives. They were not much older than me, but they were either involved with boyfriends or married and their conversation was quite lurid, replete with the kinds of jokes and descriptions that most people imagine happen only in men’s locker rooms. I soon learned that women  could also be  crude in their discourse, telling their own off colour jokes, competing over the length of their partners’ penises, using  words like ‘cock’ to  describe them.

“You ought to see it,” one woman was fond of saying in quite a loud voice. “Must be 7 or 8 inches. Never saw anything like it before.”

They exuded pride, a significant sniff with head thrown back, if they could give a measurement larger than the colleague who had just spoken.

At first I was not sure what they were talking about, but I was not going to let anyone know that. Or I did know really, but had never experienced what they were describing and did not have a clear idea of what such a cock would look or feel like, not like the little dinkies I saw in the younger boys like my brother, running to the bathroom trying to hide their private parts. I knew my mother would be horrified. She had tried to tell me about sex around the time I got my period, but was so embarrassed she accepted when I said I already knew about it. If any of her children uttered a swear word, she responded that she had not even heard that word until she was twenty one, as if that marker of adulthood allowed such blasphemy to be spoken. If one was tattling on a sibling for using a word, it was spelled out. So, for instance, one of us might have said, “ I heard so and so say Father Uncle Cousin King,” only to have our mother mull this over as if there were some mystery she could not quite unravel. And when she did, there would be her customary shocked expression and a lecture about the language we ought not to use.

At the assay lab, I also learned some useful things about mining from testing the samples and even knew the value of what was being dug out under the surface.  In the days and evenings, I always worked with others, probably because there was more work to do then. On the graveyard shift, from midnight to eight in the morning, I was alone. And I was aware that anyone could break into the small building across from the mill on this isolated mine property and attack me. It took a while to stop jumping nervously when I heard any sound. But the only man who ever came to the door that I locked from the inside during those long nights knocked first with a sound that I soon learned to recognize. He always arrived at the same times, twice during each shift. As soon as I opened the door, he greeted me.

Bonjour,” he usually said before handing over small brown paper bags that contained the samples I was to process.

As soon as he left, I weighed out tiny quantities from each bag on an old scale with a pan on one side and the weights to be adjusted on the other and put them into separate beakers. There were precise amounts required, as well as certain acids to test for lead, zinc and copper. On one shift, I  broke a bottle of hydrochloric acid and watched in horror as some of the liquid landed on my jeans and they disintegrated from the knees down. Although my legs turned yellow, fortunately the jeans protected me from deep burns so when I was finished with the tests, I could phone the results to the man at the mill at the same time as I did on every other night.  Pb Con. And on down the list.

The gold and other minerals were discovered in the area long before any shafts were sunk. When finally the mines opened, it became a full-fledged gold rush town with all the attributes of the frontier apparent − heavy drinking, prostitution, gambling, playing the stock market. As a child, I was oblivious. What I saw in the town seemed natural, no more than local colour. And I think that was how I saw my experience working at the mine as well. Although throughout my life, when I have told people about life in a mining town, they have responded as if there were something quite unusual about it.

Mary Lou Dickinson visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Ayesha Chatterjee, Catherine Hernandez, Ian Keteku and a special guest talk, “From Tarot to Creativity”, by Hoa Nguyen!

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