At the end of November I attended a fiction writing workshop at Hamilton Public Library that was given by Claire Tacon, author and lovely human being. Claire’s novel In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo was one of my favourite books from this past year and so I was more than excited to attend her workshop and hear her thoughts on writing. At the start of the evening she had the attendees go around the room and introduce ourselves by giving our names and then telling everyone gathered there a little bit about an object that fascinated them as a child. Claire started the introductions by telling us about an ancient apple press that had fascinated her, and then it was our turn.
This is the story I told about the object I remembered. I’m massively expanding on it here because I can.
For as long as I can remember the hat rack had been on the wall at the cottage. My memory blinks on and off as to which exact wall it hung on, and I think my mother moved it occasionally, but I am nearly positive it was on the south wall, just above the wood stove, a skinny Quebec heater that resided in the corner of the living room. The living room also included the dining room and the kitchen, divided up into rooms by the merest suggestion of walls. I suppose if I was a different kind of person from a different kind of family that room might have been known as The Great Room. But to us, it was really just the living room or even the “front of the cottage.” The house had been built in pieces: first the main room, a rough cabin structure designed to keep the rain out on days when my grandparents drove up for the day to picnic and swim. Then later, no longer wanting to rely solely on picnics, a small area to cook meals and wash dishes was added to the main room. Bedrooms were built later, when picnic days wanted to turn into overnight stays, and after that the outhouse, deemed too rustic now that my family were becoming “cottagers” was replaced by indoor facilities. Later still, the front of the house was pushed out toward the lake to accommodate a dining table and chairs and the little patchwork quilt of a cottage was complete. I might have the order incorrect, this was all happening long before I was born, but if you look at old photos of my parents and grandparents enjoying the place, or if you look very closely at the walls of the house itself you can trace its evolution.
The hat rack, as I knew it, was a bit of an oddity, and seemed to me a strange thing to have in a rustic cottage. We didn’t even have a hat rack at home and yet here was this solid wooden structure, hung close to the ceiling and over our woodstove – an odd location indeed. There were six pegs, three on each side, that came out of the back and angled slightly upwards. The top was about 6 inches deep and held a variety of treasures – tchotchkes, knicknacks, whatever you want to call them. Those nursery rhyme character figurines that came in boxes of Red Rose tea; novelty salt and pepper shakers, purchased in touristy places like Niagara Falls, Cape Cod. Probably also some shells and rocks from our beach.
The hats it housed were changeable, much like the people who lived there. There was always at least one Toronto Blue Jays cap (after 1977, of course) as well as cloth sunhats for children, and a wide brimmed straw hat belonging to my mother. At one point my father had been given a traditional Greek fisherman’s hat by a friend and so it lived there for awhile too. Sometimes other things were draped over the pegs; a dog’s leash and collar, a decorative scarf, a skipping rope. As my brother and I grew taller and were able to better reach it, it became a catch-all for hats and more.
The most fascinating part of this hat rack was the drawer at the bottom. The drawer spanned the entire width of the rack and it had a lock. The key had been lost years before and the drawer, unlockable forever now, held batteries, other keys, sunglasses, some fishing tackle, fuses for the electrical panel and other bits that required housing. It was the equivalent of a kitchen junk drawer, a hall closet, that black hole of detritus and lost and found that resides in many homes.
Did anything change when I learned it was actually a gun rack?
My dad had been a hunter in his youth. Mostly deer, sometimes moose. Our photo albums are filled with pictures of him and his grubby, bearded friends posing with their kills… Did I say filled? Filled with grimy looking men who’d spent a week or so at a hunt camp, yes, but I really only remember one or two with an actual deer present. Dead, but present. And never a moose.
I’d never put the two worlds together in that way, but that legendary gun rack turned hat rack was one of the last remnants of my father’s younger self’s hobbies. That and a tattered hunting jacket and a 1950s-style sleeping bag that smelled permanently of wood smoke and cigarettes.
My father stored his guns on, you guessed it, that very same gun rack. It would have originally resided in my parents’ apartment in west Hamilton, I imagine (there is no one left now to ask, I’m afraid.) The lockable drawer made sense now, you would lock your ammunition away, of course. Safer that way. Space for three guns (on those pegs we tossed our hats on) a drawer for shells. I suppose it should have made me wary of it, but by 1976 it was so far removed from its original use that it was laughable. Imagine, weapons of ungulate destruction removed to make way for left over Lego pieces and packs of playing cards with most of the face cards missing.
When I asked him about the gun rack and the guns that were conspicuous in their absence and had been for as long as I could remember he told me this:
In 1966 we lived in a tiny apartment. I sold the guns before you were born in ’67, that was always my plan. I didn’t want them there once you came along.
I asked him if he missed it. The guns and the hunting.
No. My priorities changed.
But you kept the gun rack.
It makes a good hat rack.
Can’t argue with that.
The gun rack slash hat rack is no more. Eventually, after more than forty years of living through sweltering summers and frigid winters, the glue that held it together dried and cracked, the pegs fell out and the facing of the drawer broke and the whole thing just fell apart. My mother was, I believe, secretly happy about its demise because when I think back to it, this gun/hat rack was, while fascinating to us as children, deeply, deeply ugly. So she bought pegboard and hooks and our hats and other things were moved to the hallway. Now, I don’t think I could write 1000 words about pegboard but you know what? I bet there is someone who could.
I love the object exercise as writing prompt, it’s one of my favourites and I loved that Claire incorporated it into not just the beginning of her writing workshop during our introductions, but that she also brought along several objects for us to write about throughout the evening.
She encouraged us to choose one that spoke to us (not literally, of course, how weird would that be) and to think not only about its intended use but how it can end up out in the world to be used in other unintended ways. Think of its backstory and describe it in great detail using all your senses and then imagine how your character might use it or see it or react to it.
In her handy guide 5 Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark (which you yourself can and SHOULD obtain at no cost from her newsletter via her blog picklemethis.com) favourite blogger and lovely human Kerry Clare encourages us to explore the hidden lives of ordinary objects because so many of them have a story. You might not have a gun rack, but you definitely have objects with stories. What are they?
And even if you aren’t a writer, the object exercise can be a excellent one for mindfulness. Developing your observational skills, using all your senses to describe something thoroughly can help you to be more present in your day-to-day life, and taking the time to notice the world around you in greater detail can help you move through that world at a less hectic pace.
I’m so grateful to Claire and her wonderful workshop and to Kerry and her always on-point newsletter for reminding me to take the time to dive deeply into the world of observation, to mine memory and see where it takes me.