Friday, November 13, 2009

Ghost Town

I was in Haliburton today, Martha.
And nothing was the same without you in it.
The Echo office looked the same from the outside. It was a sunny day and the little blue house on the hill still gazed out over Head Lake, the blue siding matching the blue water, the sky above the same sheer cyan. The back parking lot was still full of cars. I watched a customer hurry across the porch and go through the front door, a sheaf of papers in hand. Maybe she had an appointment with the editor. Maybe she wanted to buy an ad. I don't know. It looked the same, that's all I know, but it felt ... different.
I saw one of the ad reps walking along the main drag, chatting and laughing with someone. She sort of caught my eye at the last second. Her face turned towards me but I averted my head, kept driving. I should have given her the Haliburton wave – you know, two fingers straight off from the steering wheel, a subtle nod. 
When you know enough people in a small town, just giving them the wave is enough to make you look like a bobble-head doll smoking a cigarette, fingers and head up and down in time to some old Lionel Richie song on Canoe FM. I heard "Truly" today on the Canoe... only on the Canoe. I love that radio station. You hear Lionel Richie and Bach and Elvis all in a row. And the radio announcers don't have radio voices; they talk like your friends talk; and they screw up the pronounciation of weird places in Afghanistan just like the rest of us would screw it up.
No nods, though. Kept driving through town.
I dropped into Home Hardware to see my ex and buy some Christmas decorations for the new house. We had a coffee at Subway and the woman behind the counter was kinda flirting with him. I smiled and thought to myself, "Help yourself, lady." The coffee was surprisingly good and we talked about the kids and about Christmas coming up and then he said, "So, Martha's gone, eh."
"Yup," I said.
"It sucks."
You can tell," he said. "This place feels like it's falling apart without her."
Yup. I knew exactly what he meant.
Even on this beautiful day, the village seemed like a ghost town without you.
No surprise, eh?
You were here for what, 24 years? A remarkable length of time for anyone to be a the same community newspaper. Because we all know that community newspapers like the Echo are merely stepping stones for youngsters seeking greatness in larger ports. Nobody stays at the same paper for 24 years, Martha. You did. And that's admirable, but not remarkable.
What is remarkable is how you became this community's beating heart.
How your words crossed some invisible void that exists between the dry newsprint pages of a newspaper and became a living ink. 
You won over the community, became the community, really, and in the process, you made what is deservedly and honestly one of the best community newspapers in all of Canada. That's not just hot air. That's more awards that anyone can count. In the business of community newspapers, you are recognized as the very best there is. 
And I was so lucky, so incredibly lucky, Martha, to have worked with you.
I remember the first time we talked. I had given birth to my youngest son, Sam, only two weeks previous. So it was mid-September 2000. Sam and his brother, Angus, were both inside catching their afternoon naps and I was outside, catching a few Zs of my own, in the hammock. I was woken up by my mother waving a copy of Haliburton County Echo around.
"There's a job for you in here!" she said excitedly. "Take a look!"
Sure enough, there was a part-time job for a reporter/photographer. Weekend work. I thought about it after she left, then picked up the portable phone I had in my lap and called the Echo.
It was a fortuitous phone call.
We must have talked for half an hour. We made a connection. Instantly! It was like we had know each other all our lives! At the end of it, you said in your trademark, breathy, in-a-hurry voice, "Well, it was great talking with you! I'll let you know about the job!"
I hung up, grinning foolishly. Feeling buzzed, somehow. Because that's how it always is when I talk with you.
Suddenly the phone rang.
"Hi, it's me! Martha! I know you're perfect for this job! And I know this is going to grow into something bigger. Can you start this weekend?"
So there it was. 
I was hired at the Echo from the comfort of my own hammock.
No resume. No dress suit or pantyhose. Come to think of it, I was probably still in my pajamas.
I have worked with a lot of great people in this business. Peter Hvidsten, publisher of the Port Perry Star, has to rank right up there with the best. He was my mentor, teaching me how to take better photos, how to improve my lay-outs, how to write better. He taught me how to love newspapers. No one before that point, including my journalism school teachers or anyone at my first job, had bothered to do that.
And no one did after that. No one until you.
You rekindled in me a real passion for the newspaper business. Your enthusiasm was contagious. Inspiring. You had no ego for yourself, no desire to be "THE EDITOR" with the power to bend people to your will. You listened to all ideas, from everyone... whether it was someone bending your ear at the grocery store, or the publisher of the paper, or someone in production, or me. 
You see, that was your real talent. Not the writing... although your writing is the best there is.
Your real talent is listening to every idea. Every story. Every person who crosses your path. No matter who it is, or where you are, or what you're in the middle of doing... you take the time to stop and smile and listen to whatever it is they are saying. You never forget a name (if you do, you hide it well). You make that person feel like he or she is the most important person on the face of the earth. You make that person feel special. Like you are blood-sisters. Like you were meant to connect somehow on this earth. Like you were meant to be friends.
Look at the photos of us together, Martha, on this page, if you don't believe me. See that light in my eyes? I am in awe, I am bathed in the light that comes from you, I am feeling like the luckiest person on earth because I am talking to you.
I used to think I was special. But I realized how ridiculous this was on the night of your farewell celebration at the Haliburton Curling Club. How I felt... this light I am talking about ... I saw it in the faces of everyone who was there. You had touched every single one of these people, with the magic that is you.
I can't explain what your magic is. It just is. It's what makes you such a fine writer. It's what makes you such an incredible friend.
Martha, I miss you already.
We may not have talked all that often, but I carry a piece of you with me, every day. 
You may have moved on to new adventures, but your passion for newspapers lives in my head and in my heart.
And, like the village of Haliburton, I will carry on.
But I will never be the same.

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