I am crying tonight because Stuart McLean died today. He was 68 years old.
I don’t remember the first time I listened to the Vinyl Café. If I had to wager a guess, I would put myself somewhere between the ages of nine or ten. Growing up, the CBC was one of the few constants in my ever-chaotic world, and my mother and I would listen to its programming non-stop.
Careening from highland dancing competitions, to piano recitals, to badminton tournaments, we listened.
One of my most favourite memories is of driving back from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, together with my mum. I want to say that it’s Christmas, because we are listening to a Christmas story. But I remember the weather outside to be classic Maritime June: warm and wet.
It was a rain for the ages. Blanketing the world in a ceaseless, soft grey. A grey that stretched for as far as the eye could see. Fat drops breaking against the windshield, the radio turned loud to drown out the sweep-sweep-sweep of the hard-working wipers.
It may have just been a re-run.
But I can’t be sure.
The story that we were listening to followed the same trajectory of so many Dave and Morley tales: an innocuous start, a holiday to be celebrated. Plans that quickly turn into the absurd.
Dave never knowing when to say, enough. Mary Turlington, his long-suffering neighbour, frigid and uptight, ever suckered into giving him a second chance.
Upon being invited to Christmas dinner at the Turlington’s, Dave is so nervous that he eats Mary’s potpourri, thinking that it’s homemade chex mix.
It was at the point that he realized that he was, in fact, eating potpourri, that my mum and I laughed so hard that we had to pull over.
Sitting on the side of the highway, tears streaming from our eyes, my body, palsied. My mother screaming, “Oh noooooooooooooo!”
Her facial expression, equal parts horror and amusement, set me off all over again.
And we sat there, until the conclusion of the story.
I never, ever wanted that moment to end.
This past Christmas, as I lay recuperating from the flu of the century, reeling from cancellation of both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Marc wrapped our bodies in our biggest blanket, and we listened to Stuart’s Christmas stories for hours.
Dave cooks a turkey.
Morley and Dave’s first Christmas.
The year they tried to make it to Sidney, but got trapped in the snowstorm.
The winter pageant.
We listened, and we laughed, and we cried, and we laughed.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
We listened to tales of a family. A family that was both defined by,and shined together under simple truths: laughter, loss, and love.
One summer, I was cleaning out our spare room. Deciding what tennis rackets to keep, re-reading my first year essays on Milton and Donne, wondering if I’d ever again wear my wedding shoes, I listened to Stuart.
He was reading from the Vinyl Café story exchange. Listeners would write in, and he and his editor would pick different stories to share at their live tapings.
The story that afternoon was about a young man who had joined a teenage musical theatre troupe in his small town home on Cape Breton Island. The group had worked on a production over the course of the summer. Staging would take place right before they went back to school.
The writer recounted how he immediately took a disliking to one of his fellow cast mates. His rival was everything he was not: good looking and cool, at ease with the women in the troupe, and excellent on stage.
But try as he might, he couldn’t stay angry. He soon realized that, as well as a wonderful actor, his rival made a wonderful friend, and they became very close over the next two months.
On the opening night of the performance, the entire cast found out that the writer’s friend had been killed in a car accident, along with his girlfriend. The performance was cancelled, and the whole town mourned.
I was so caught off guard by the tragic ending that I just melted to the floor.
And then Stuart’s musical guests – Madison Violet – began to play their song “Small of My Heart”, and I felt as though I might never be happy ever again.
Today, it’s one of my most favourite songs.
In grade twelve, I bought my favourite English teacher a copy of Vinyl Café Stories in an attempt to tell her how much she had meant to me – she as an incredibly caring educator to myself, a weird and anxious student, who was really trying to just figure it all out.
One night in our old house, I was cooking Marc and I a tofu stirfry, and we listened to the story where Dave and Morley accidentally destroy a cabin in the Laurentian mountains.
I laughed so hard that I burnt the rice. And then, like always, at the conclusion of the story, I burst into tears.
Because that is the magic of Stuart McLean.
His stories are truth and love and light and death and everything that exists in our hearts and our souls. They are small towns and big cities; they are the chords that we all hear, and they are the cords that bind us together.
That help us realize that heck, we’re not all that different.
And in today’s age, where division and fear and hate are king, Stuart’s passing is a huge loss.
So it must be up to us to carry on his legacy.
To tell our stories. To relish and revel in them.
Because stories are how we know how to live.
How to love.
They teach us every day, how to be.