Last week, Joan taught me a card game that she learned from a solider on the train from Newcastle to London when she was nine years old. Her mother had gotten a job as a housekeeper on an estate in Surrey, so the two of them were in the midst of moving from their home in north England. No doubt there were risks – especially at night – for trains passing through the countryside on their way to London, since it was 1943.
Joan has patience in spades. When I couldn’t figure out some of the rules of the card game, her face crinkled into silent laughter. She’s in a wheelchair, people have to lean close to hear her, and she can only move her hands a little, but that doesn’t stop her— she’s fun to be around. She’s one of those involved in the Eldertree Project at the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home and Highland-Crest Home in Antigonish. The project began in May 2014, and throughout the summer, Stacy Doiron, (my writer-in-residence partner) and I gathered the stories of elders.
Stacy has worked with about fourteen elders up to this point and she’s now busy writing their stories: “The first piece I wrote was a poetic ballad for a wonderful woman named Chrissie Pike. I was inspired by an incredible photograph she has in her room: she’s driving a motorcycle with her friend at the Frasers Mills Fish Hatchery after World War II when they were about fourteen years old. I also intend to write a song for Hank MacDonald, an experienced and well-known country music singer in Canada in the fifties and sixties. I have a poem on the go for another elder, a prose piece, and perhaps I’ll try for dialogue-centric and collaborative pieces. One elder in particular, Everett Baker, is game to try and co-write a piece with me; we’ll see how that goes!”
We’ve brought together all the stories we’ve gathered so that a group of talented young artists can rehearse a performance out of what we’ve shaped thus far. None of what we’ve done would have the energy it has without Mary Beth Carty, a musician and visual artist, Donald MacLennan, a musician, Noella Murphy, an actor and visual artist, and Rebecca Wild, a musician and photographer. They joined us on the Eldertree Project in June, and have given several concerts at Highland-Crest Home and the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home. Mary Beth has learned how to call square dance sets from Colleen Benoit, while Noella has been making linocuts from photographs of elders. Rebecca has taken photographs in both homes, and Donald and Mary Beth have been learning songs from a virtuoso fiddler.
Elders have had a say in what will be brought to the stage. And we already have an idea of a few things we’d like to see in the performance. Some of the elders have told us about – or sung – their favourite songs. Gerry LeBlanc has sung “the French song” (he’s also a great player of the spoons) and Margaret Bowie loves St. Anne’s Reel. And then there’s Hank MacDonald’s own song, “The Bachelor Train”.
Performances of The Eldertree Project are set for December 2nd at the Clare Marie Auditorium at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital and for December 10th at 1 pm at the St. Andrew Junior School.
There will also be performances at Highland-Crest Home and at the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home, and, in March 2015, there will be a performance at the Bauer Theatre at St. Francis Xavier University.