Squeezing The Colour Button

When I got the call last week that an old friend had died, I experienced it where most people first feel their grief. Like a pain in the heart, or a blow to the gut. All the energy leaked out of my body and was replaced with sand. I had not seen him for some years but always assumed that of course I would again. My grief focussed on just how well loved this man is; and as the news was picked up by one newspaper after another, I could feel the impact on me of his passing joining with the collective grief being felt across the country.

By Monday the sand was up past my knees, almost to my thighs, and I knew I had to get out. It was hard to lift my legs, so heavy the weight, but I got past the Jacob Haldi Bridge and a ways down the beach before I had to sit again. The sun was so beautiful and the area deserted. I found a fallen tree to sit down on and lay back on its branches, giving my face up to the sun. Going down to the river was the right thing to do. It released all the flashbacks, how can you not have them? When I first met Willie I was sixteen years old. Beneath my lids the years progressed; the images of our lives clear and in focus, held up as if from a deck of cards that a great hand was pulling up and showing one by one. All the years of music, listening to Willie play his songs; being one of the swaying, bobbing heads in the audience that recognized that love song, that favourite, that anthem of inimitable Willie P. Bennett hi-jinks.

It struck me that he is one of only a handful of men in my whole lifetime that have immediately skipped my name and shortened it to Di. It turns out that’s a shortcut to my heart. There’s some indecipherable code for why they would and why I’d love it. Instantaneous affection. My memories don’t fill a bucket as much as they are long, span these decades, and bring back sweetness. Willie P. had so many people in his life, and so many invitations. But when he was tired and knew another party or all-nighter would do him in, he would stay with us in the big house with all the kids. He could sit with his coffee, me with my tea, and we’d talk about the books we’d read. We were a couple of romantics. He picked up a book on one of his trips to Vancouver and couldn’t put it down until he found out what happened to Hannah and Tim. In a series of short stories in an Elinor Lipman book, “Into Love and Out Again,” shy and gentle Tim falls helplessly in love, while in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, with beautiful, nine months pregnant Hannah. During Willie’s stay with us, we took turns sharing the book in snatches, breathless to find out, like a couple of soap watchers, whether love would have a happy ending for Tim and Hannah.

When I was a kid, we didn’t phone our friends to see if they could play. We just showed up at the door, whoever got there first. Sometimes on a Saturday morning when I called on my best friend Margaret, she’d still be doing her chores. She’d come outside with a plastic bag of a white malleable substance, that had a little black button in it. And that button was full of colour. Her job was to squeeze the colour button and spread the golden yellow dye uniformly through the vegetable oil, to make it the margarine they would eat.

I thought of that childhood pastime this week. Remembered Margaret and I walking around her yard, taking turns kneading the bag, making sure the colour was evenly spread to every corner. And when someone you love dies, you do have to squeeze the colour button. Push that black thing until it’s obliterated. Let all the sweetness and regret (should have called, should have looked past the chaos of my personal life, should have bridged the past with the present, should have taken the time to say, “I remember you,” and “How are you?”) mix together and become one, and accept it for what it is. It’s the hand that we hold.

And I thought of the concentric circles of things, and how sometimes it is not until the looking back that we’re able to see the mystery of the design. I had gone in to Vancouver last Tuesday and was in my son Jonah’s living room looking at his massive CD collection. I picked a few to borrow but it was Willie’s that I played night and day. Returning them on Friday when I saw my son again, not yet knowing what this Friday would come to mean.

So I sat on the beach and pushed and pushed on the colour button, and the sand drained out of me and I left it behind when I stood up and walked away. I sang Willie’s song, Down To The Water, “Let’s go down to the water, and show me what you think is so true. Let’s go down to the water, I’d show you my crown if I could.” And I remember the sweet card of friendship, of Willie P. standing in the doorway smiling, saying “Hi Di,” to me. And I am grateful for the legacy of his beautiful music, the honesty of this wordsmith will not fade away. Willie was a musician’s musician, and I am in awe of the numbers, all the good men and women that are crying and crying for their friend. And I sent my love from where I sat by the water, back home to his lover, to his family, and to the people who spent time with him, and the friends that knew him best.

It took two days of going down to the river. As I walked back over the bridge, looking out past the railing and across the water, I could hear the sound of my footfalls scuffing along the sidewalk. And I feel lighter and lighter on this earth. Godspeed Willie. And thank you.

Good Life

2 Responses to “Squeezing The Colour Button”

  1. e says:

    oh mamma

  2. Roly says:

    Good one, Di!

    Your message expressed so well exactly what I have been experiencing for several weeks now. Will had a support group, a net really, of people across Canada that he could rely on for solice and support. These were the people who mattered to him, and with whom he stayed and visited with during his travels.
    He stayed with us often, first in Calgary and then in Edmonton. He knew that with us he was safe, that we would treat him with love and respect and he could be as one of the family. He always left in better condition than he arrived, and I think he appreciated that. We were honored to have him.

    I always thought that he should be the Poet Lauriate of Canada.
    I will miss him forever.


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