Twigs and Fire

Here’s how it was for us.

I can’t remember how I first heard about the virus. It was, somehow, a vague worry that got stronger day by day, but Peter and I had to go to a funeral in Maine at the end of February, and so we continued on to Connecticut. During the first week in March, we helped my mother edit and design the final draft of her memoir. Almost 97, she has completed the daunting task of writing the story of her life. Here are her diaries, which she has kept since she was a child.

On the week of our return to New Brunswick, March 9, the world began to shut down. We visited our family through the window or at a distance. My mother became a face on a tiny screen. We realized that our chorus could no longer meet. Here is our director, Christopher Lane, keeping our spirits up. There will be a virtual performance, soon.

My editor at Knopf, Craig Pyette, sent me edits of my new novel, The Sister’s Tale (due May 2021). In the strange, empty days, I worked on the edits; and when I’d finished, resumed work on a memoir about my grandparent’s house, the “Shepton” of “The Hatbox Letters.” Peter and I spent evenings working on the final edits, proofing, and layout of my mother’s book, “Remembering 97 Years.”


At first, there was a feeling of exoneration, like a snow day when you know everyone else is at home, too. But as the weeks went on, my feelings flickered like shadows on snow. A moment of normality, followed by stunned disbelief. Worry. Fear. Forgetting the truth of change, in the daytime, and then dreaming, at night, of all the things that are no more.

Then, gradually, I realized I was getting close to things. Close to the slant of light across floorboards. Close to the clouds, drifting across a clear sky. Close to my neighbours. Close to the outlines of trees, and the spring birds—a rose-breasted grosbeak, snipes, woodcocks. Close to the lengthening days and the spring’s new moisture.

I learned how to make baskets—from a neighbour, from books, and from a helpful fibre artist.

I resumed the baking that I used to do, back when I used a wood stove and made 12 loaves a week (no wonder I became gluten intolerant!)

I started the garden indoors.

Events once ordinary became tremendously exciting. My daughter-in-law, Sara Powning, braved shopping for us. She arrived, one day, with food and two new hens, Polly Dill and Priscilla Pickle.

Finally, New Brunswickers were allowed to pick one family; a “bubble” family. It was amazing to feel the joy of something so simple. Family in our own kitchen! I think this picture is blurry with tears.

The hens began to lay.

They are content to sit in the sun on our back step. Here is half of our flock: Mrs. Peggoty, a blue-laced red Wyandotte, Bertha, a Buff Orpington, and Nellie, a black Australorpe.


There are things about this epoch that I want to keep. One day, I picked up all the twigs on the front lawn and put them in the kindling box. I loved the weather-worn smoothness of the weathered pine and, later, the sound of its crackle in our Jotul stove. I remembered my grandfather, who gathered the family to harvest the trees’ gift of kindling.

Author Rebecca Solnit writes that we are in the “soup stage” when a caterpillar dissolves, quite literally, before it transforms into a butterfly. In this time of being stopped, I feel myself floating, waiting, watching, feeling. I never want to forget the rush of emotion when I held my own son in my arms after not having hugged him for seven weeks. I want to remember to be grateful for twigs and fire.


As the year winds towards the release of my novel, The Sister’s Tale, I’ll try to keep you posted on life in our maritime valley, along with the progress of my work.

Somehow, although you are all far away, everyone feels closer in a new way.

With warmest best wishes,