As the family canary, Uncle Feather, shows off his talents for a guest, Mary Brackenbury talks softly about retirement, self-publishing and art.
Once a member of a radical student association at the University of Calgary - she and her husband marched against the Vietnam War and harboured draft deserters - Mary eventually made her way to the teaching profession where she found years of fulfillment and friendship.
Unlike some professionals who want to forget about their working life when they end their careers, Mary still had stories to tell.
“I would wake up dreaming about teaching,” she says. “I would be driving all over a strange city unable to deliver the report cards.”
She also had “cozy” dreams of teaching where “I’d wake up and have to remind myself how hard I had worked.”
In the beginning, her goal was amorphous. She just wanted to get her stories written. Old Teachers Never Die, she says, came out of a “perfect storm.” Mary had just published a short story, she was part of two writing groups - the University Women’s Club and Goward House - and she was back in the classroom volunteering at her grandson’s school.
Mary found the writing groups “wonderfully supportive.” Some of the group’s members had been published, while others wrote memoirs and works of fiction. They kept her motivated and offered helpful feedback and critique.
“But memoirs need structure, and it was during a walk at Beaver Lake that a solution for the problematic formatting came to me,” she says.
Rather than trying to capture 20 years of experiences, she would structure the stories into one school year with each chapter representing a month of school.
After three years of writing and polishing, with her husband in charge of editing, layout, and design to keep the costs down, the book was completed. She chose not to risk the possibility of rejection letters, and decided to self-publish with a local printer that prints books on demand. Mary says that distribution and selling are the least interesting part of the process, which makes it difficult to be finished with the book. Like many writers, she would kill for an agent.
Although she taught art for many years, Mary went back to school after retirement and earned an art diploma. Her artwork, exhibited so far in five shows, offers a break from her writing; her art has moved in another direction because of her writing.
The hardest thing in the world, she says, is to teach students that the creative process is a journey, not a race. Many of the lessons she learned from working with clay can also be applied to life.
“For every successful project there are 10 experiments,” says Mary. “You can’t break your heart with every piece that doesn’t turn out the way you want when the firing in the kiln and the glazing are out of your hands.” For her, it is not the product, but the journey that truly enriches.
With that in mind, last year Mary took up belly dancing. Despite no longer having the “rubber body” of youth and needing lots of post-dancing ice, the instructor makes it joyful.
Mary says she may have yet another story to tell. Her grandmother was born in Scotland in the early 19th century. She fell in love with a soldier who went off to the Boer War leaving her with a child. He never returned, and grandmother Sinclair came to Canada as an indentured servant, unable to bring her daughter to Canada until she was a teenager.
Mary’s brother has taken charge of tracing their Scottish heritage, and next year he is taking Mary to visit the restored Sinclair family castle and chapel (the chapel featured in The DaVinci Code.)
Perhaps a movie script as well as another book is in Mary’s future. If that happens, surely an agent will come calling, and rather than figuring out how to sell books, Mary will happily spend her time writing, painting and belly-dancing.
AUGUST 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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