In writing about the past, you inevitably end up writing about people that pass on, be they emperors sitting upon gem-encrusted thrones, or lowly feudal peasants who laboured hard all their lives under their overlord's boot. Today I feel as though my words are as sawdust, insignificant and without richness as I utter them. But I must write, for I wish to speak of the passing of a friend and mentor, a true poet: Leila Pepper.
Leila, or Danny as she was known to her friends, passed from this world on New Year's eve at the age of 96 and the world of words is the poorer for it, as are the lives of those with whom she connected, including myself. Danny was my friend and one of the only mentors I have had. Her own mentors included W.O. Mitchell and Alistair MacLeod when she studied writing at the University of Windsor. I remember the first time I met Danny. I was back home from St. Andrews, Scotland , visiting family. My mother and I were walking in the shopping mall and we ran into my mother's friend and her own mother. We sat for coffee and perhaps at first I would rather have been doing something else but that sentiment lasted but a second. The lady with my mother's friend enveloped us in kindness as soon as we sat down and words started bouncing back and forth like orbs in a pinball machine, bright and quick.
This was no 'old lady', for such a term is a true injustice. This was a force of nature, of emotion. "You know," my mother said, "Danny is a writer too." I looked at Danny where she sat smiling. "You know, Danny," my mother pushed on as mothers do, "Adam is writing a book." Danny's eyes suddenly fixed upon me. "Oh really!" And that was it. We were locked in conversation for another hour and a half as though we were old friends. I quickly discovered that Danny was not one to be locked within the confines of age for she was as young and spritely as a seventeen-year-old. At the same time however, her experiences told of a life of great joy and of pain that can come only with years. She had lived through WWII and the uncertainty of awaiting her beloved Howard of whom she spoke often while I was in her company. Her eyes danced when I told her of my own experiences abroad, of green glens and desert sands. For a moment or two she would close her eyes while listening, as though remembering the feeling of a far away breeze upon her face, perhaps something she had shared with Howard. She asked about my book and said she wanted to read some. One might have thought that perhaps she was being nice but she truly meant it, her interest ever so sincere.
After more than an hour we stopped talking briefly, perhaps to sip the coffee-gone-cold, to see my mother and Danny's daughter staring at us smiling. I think we might have looked guilty, like two kids that had escaped their parents at the playground in order to take a few more turns down the slide or flights on the swing. But Danny was the parent here and we spoke a bit longer for good measure to the amusement of our observers. "Isn't she a great lady?" my mother said in the car on the way back home. And I said yes, "Awesome."
Danny did come over to my folks' house to read over my work, the first draft of Children of Apollo. I was nervous handing the pages to her but she put me at ease, smiled as though she looked forward to reading it over and did so with quick eyes, a chuckle here, a serious nod there. After about thirty pages or so, she leaned back on the sofa and told me how she liked it, the story, the environment and some of the characters. She also didn't hold back when she told me what I needed to change and I am glad she didn't. She said that I wasn't writing a history book, that it was a story and that I should focus on that. Also, as I was not writing a history book she said I should not italicize the Latin words as that slows the prose down, jolts the reader with a different font when those words should become a part of that world. She also pointed out how some of the characters and their speech were stunted and not realistic. "These are soldiers!" Danny said. "Make them talk like soldiers. Get them dirty! I want to see the sweat as they march, taste the sand in their mouths." Needless to say, I was grateful for her sound advice.
That day seems like yesterday when it has in fact been many years. There are probably many people who likely can say more than I about Danny, and that more eloquently. It would not do however, for me to remain silent now, especially after the passing of a lady whose advice to me was, "Just write it down! Write, write and keep writing". I feel sure that in whichever Elysium Danny now finds herself, she is writing, perhaps with her Howard next to her. She is certainly smiling, remembering a life well-lived and well-written. A true daughter of the Muses.
Here is one of the poems that Danny wrote:
A dizzy head
spins me tonight
whirls my thoughts
like autumn leaves
mixing all the days
I am tired yet
wakeful and confused
I see faces I once knew
still so young
the phone will ring and
I will hear their voices
I still ask
whose arms do I desire
brings most pain?
- Leila Pepper
(from a thousand yellow leaves, Cranberry Tree Press, 2004)
Thank you, Danny, for your advice, for your example and for your friendship.
Photo: file photo, The Windsor Star