Sunday, February 12, 2012

In Memoriam, my Nana

My grandmother, Joyce Barkhouse, died on Thursday, February 2, 2012. (Here's a lovely commemorative article about her on the CBC News Web site.)

She and I were very close. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to spend a lot of time with her over many years and also to have enjoyed a lengthy correspondence with her.

I wanted to write something here to commemorate her life and express how she has always been one of my greatest inspirations in my creative work.

My Nana was a children's author who published almost a dozen books and countless short stories, articles and poems. It was not easy being a woman and a writer in Canada in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Any one of a number of setbacks or discouragements would have caused another person to give up in despair (and no doubt, did). But not my grandmother. The flame of her creativity was so strong that nothing could quell it. She had a tenacity and a joy in her work that would not be dampened or destroyed.

After writing and publishing countless short stories, my Nana had her first book published when she was 60 years old. That was George Dawson: The Little Giant, which remains my favourite of all her books. The book is excellent and always makes me cry, but more moving than the book itself is the fact that Nana had the courage not to give up or let it be "too late".

She worked hard at her craft and took great pleasure both in the process and in her successes. She loved children and believed that literacy was the greatest gift a child could receive: a lifelong gift that gave pleasure and greater liberty to every child who achieved it. She often told how, as a teacher in the 30s and 40s, she could immediately tell which of her students had access to books in their homes and which did not. She was a passionate advocate of early reading programs.

Nana was a matchless storyteller who shared family stories and Canadian historical stories with equal zeal. She taught me a love of place, a love of people and the importance of narrative and humour in our lives and in our creative work.

My Nana was one of the first people to sing to me and teach me a love of singing. She often visited when we were children and we would always ask her to sing the longest songs she knew at bedtime, just to stretch out the fun of being put to bed by her. She was not known for her singing voice and always said that her grandkids were the only people who enjoyed hearing her sing. I would just add that, despite her fairly accurate self-assessment, her singing voice was one of my very favourite ones in the whole wide world.

I was in my mid 30s when I realized that I could not deny the call to join the "family business": writing. She always cheered me on as a songwriter, and encouraged me to write about the things I found in my heart. She bought many copies of my CDs and kept them on hand to give as gifts to people who visited her.

I miss her terribly and, at the same time, I am filled with a profound gratitude that I had knew and cherished my Nana – and that I always will.


  1. Hi Alex. Thanks for posting your tribute. It's great to hear again of your grandmother's fierce focus and creativity - strong dame!
    I know something of how much your grandmother meant to you in the way you counted yourself lucky over the years I've know you, always being inspired by her. Of course she is present in you, so we all score.
    Always a pleasure to connect Alex... VERY COOL re the new DC Your grandmother would certainly have been cheering you on! xo Deborah

  2. Thank you so much, Deborah, for your comment. It's great to hear from you. I hope all is well with you and your clan. xoxo! Alex