Songs My Mother Taught Me

Songs my mother taught me,

The failure of order is the work / disorder is not the work.

Phil Hall, A Rural Pen



Their mother claimed there were thirteen rules to live by. Laird can never remember them all. If pushed, she might be able to offer half a dozen, and rarely the same list twice. “Don’t take anything that isn’t yours” is one she consistently remembers. “Treat people the way you wish to be treated.”


“Always leave a place better than you left it.”


She knows there are others. In all those years, no one had thought to record them.




Angus suspects there are exceptions to every rule.


The indignity of repeatedly having to explain to an in-office barricade of federal middle-management that the dictionary definition of “policy” is, in fact, “guideline.” Beyond the appearance of articulating power for its own sake, nothing should be set in stone.


But this is government. After all.


He braces himself for another marathon session of meetings. He straightens his god-awful tie.


Given enough pressure and time, even stone can wear down.





Raised on a farm, there were lessons she understood early: watch where you walk.


Now she misses little, nary a puddle nor mass of cow droppings, although in the city, the latter less likely. The occasional dog-drop. She might not have the poise her mother dreamed of, but she does have attention. She listens.


An ambulance spins on its heel at the corner, and screams through the lights. Across the street, a startled toddler gasps, and clutches her mother’s hand.


Laird spots the copper glint of a coin on the sidewalk. Since the Canadian Mint discontinued pressing new pennies, and retail refuses them, they have become quite scarce. The penny-wish from a found coin might quickly slip into history. More likely than adapting a nickel-wish, or a dime.


Wishes are powerful things, and not to be trifled with. Still, she decides to leave this particular wish for another. She was already having a pretty good day, and life can often be so very difficult.





It was the third week of Movember, and already, a full moustache the longitude of chin to the jaw-line. His fingers ran the stretch of this new map.


Pink shirt and three-piece grey. All eyes turned as Angus strolled into the pub. He felt sharp. Almost smug. He would make the air bleed. American Thanksgiving, but he would catch the game from here. As his mother would have called it: half a day’s time and a third of the effort.


Happy Thanksgiving, an American colleague emailed, unaware the Canadian equivalent had long passed.





After their mother died, the only request Angela had of her siblings was that she be free to rescue the cookbooks. It had been years since their mother had pulled down her recipes, tucked away in the small cupboard above the stove. The binding rubbed down to dust and thread, the pages waxy from age. When they were young, it was through these that their mother had instructed the girls on the finer points of baking, mastering their skills in lemon cookies, baked apples, and muffins constructed from the wild blueberries and raspberries that flourished behind the house.


Their ancient mother: final sentry of the ancestral stronghold, nearly nine decades in that fading farmhouse. After the funeral, the children, seven in all, collected themselves in the homestead with cousins, spouses, partners and children. Their mother’s two remaining siblings. Each adult cradling a glass of wine. She reached up to the cupboards to salvage. She wished, in her way, to become her.





Around the time the first of her children arrived, Miranda plucked from the vine of her grandmother’s journals, citing a list of precisely how one might live. She was old enough to know there was wisdom in her grandmother’s lines, however brutal the woman herself might have been. Spare the rod, indeed. She picked the fruit of her grandmother’s knowledge, and adapted the list for herself. Her MacDonald grandmother, who held on well into her nineties, terrifying everyone around her; who read daily from her grandfather’s Gaelic Bible, refusing to accept her scripture in English.


The closed palm, and the open fist. Lessons imparted as cudgels, bludgeons with which to assault. Her grandmother, who wore mourning black for the forty-two years of her widowhood. She wore it as an achievement.


The newspaper clippings of scripture, recipes and the occasional obituary.


Her grandmother, who saw the 1692 massacre at Glencoe as a personal affront. She took every opportunity to pass insult along to her neighbours, the Campbells. You scurvy lowlanders, she’d growl. You killed us in our beds.


Miranda adapted her grandmother’s list, crafting a variation on twelve simple rules with an extra thrown in, for luck.










































Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, a regular contributor to Open Book and both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at


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