WINCHESTER – Who doesn’t love a good story? Especially if that story is told by your grandmother while you warm your toes by the cook stove as a howling thunderstorm lashes at the tin roof outside.
Most people can recount a time in their formative years when a family member told them a tale that captured their imagination and sent them travelling to unknown worlds full of laughter, tears, mystery and heartbreak.
Marnie Fossitt is one that took those stories from her beloved grandmother, Annie McKee, to heart. So much so that she felt compelled to collect them and share them in her first-ever published book entitled Is Zat You Myrtle? The Life and Times of Annie McKee.
“My grandmother was a real character. If she got mad she was over it in two minutes. I never saw her sick, or complaining or depressed. She just got on with stuff,” said Fossitt. “Her life was a rollercoaster ride filled with laughter, heartbreak, and courage.”
That ride is what makes this book so rich in emotion, detail and oozing with personality.
The book is separated into two parts. The first is the story of Annie in her younger years when she suddenly finds herself living under the strict rule of a nun at a convent near Moose Creek. Her quick tongue and temper got her into hot water until she left at age 13. She went on to find work as a nanny, a funeral home housekeeper, and then as a cotton mill worker. She married at a young age to a Dundas County man, Hugh McKee, and began life as a farmers wife and a mother.
The second part of the book is when Annie morphs into Nanny and is primarily focused on Fossitt’s countless childhood memories of her, many of which were spent by Fossitt and her siblings huddled around Nanny as she spun tales to fight the fear of stormy weather.
“She was terrified of thunder and lightning storms. So when we girls would stay there, she would get us up in the night when it was storming and she would sit us around the cook stove. We’d be all wrapped up in blankets and we’d be complaining ‘Oh Nanny, let us go to bed.’ She would reply, ‘No, not until the storm’s over’ and she would tell us stories of her life. My sisters and I would always say these ‘nanny-isms’ like ‘I hate him worse than poison,’ ‘God Lord bless us and save us.’ So one day I just thought, all these stories that she told us need to be told. I did it for my kids. They remember her,” said Fossitt.
More than just a storyteller, Nanny was a woman with an endless energy and thirst for adventure.
“She loved to smuggle stuff from the States. She’d wear nine pairs of underpants so that you couldn’t tell. This innocent little old lady and she thought she was really getting away with stuff,” said Fossitt. “Even when my grandmother was in her 80s and someone pulled into the farmyard on a motorcycle and said ‘hop on Nanny,’ away she went. She was game to go anywhere and do anything.”
For Fossitt it was more than just a jaunt down memory lane, it was a chance to get to know her beloved narrator better and realize what incredible strength she had.
“As I researched and interviewed cousins and different relatives, I got to know her better and realized what obstacles she had and what a tough life she had. She had a little boy that burned to death, she lived through the war; all these things that she dealt with, but she always seemed to mush on.”
Writing a book, especially one about a woman that exceeded so many descriptors and was hard to categorize, is no small feat. The project has taken Fossitt more than seven years, but she feels that people will get more out of the book than a few anecdotes.
“People should be inspired. She had nothing and yet she thought she had everything. No matter how hard she was working, it was family first. She always had time to play with us… I don’t know how she got it all done or how she did it,” said Fossitt.
Everything about the book seems to have a tale or ‘nanny-ism’ attached to it, including the title.
“There was a fellow named Cecil McIntosh and he had this gramophone. She wanted it so badly, but it was during the Depression and she couldn’t afford it. So, she sewed for him to pay for this gramophone. She could do just about anything, but she couldn’t sing. There was this old record and we would come in and she would be singing ‘Is zat you Myrtle? Do I hear papa.’ She’d be making her bread, singing and we would just roll our eyes and say ‘oh God,’” remembered Fossitt.
The book has a distinct local flavour not only because many of the stories took place in the area, but the book was edited by Ann Brady and it was published by Stephanie Berry of Chickadilly Studio. Appropriately, Fossitt will hold a book launch and reading on Sat., March 10 at 2 pm at Winchester United Church in celebration of International Women’s Day.
While Fossitt is excited to officially release the book to the public, she has already started work on her next projects. The first is a children’s book that she had originally worked on with her son Colin when he was younger that never really got finished the way they wanted. The second is a fictional novel entitled Runner’s High, which has been temporarily put on hold to prepare for the launch of Is Zat You Myrtle?.
When asked to describe the spirit of Nanny McKee, Fossitt was quick in her description.
“She had a hard time holding her tongue. She said what she thought,” Fossitt said.
Readers will be the benefactors of that spirit as they weave through the pages of a life well lived and a passion shared.
An excerpt from Is Zat You Myrtle? The Life and Times of Annie McKee
Chapter 27: Two Extraordinary Christmases
by Marnie Fossitt
In 1965 we moved into the bungalow that Dad built on the farm property. That Christmas the six of us piled into the old Ford and drove the short trek up to the farm. Under Nanny’s watchful eye, the turkey roasted in the oven of the old cook stove. Meanwhile in the parlour, there was a tornado of wrapping paper as we excitedly opened our gifts.
Poppy sat back in his armchair, eyes sparkling as he took in the annual spectacle. Looking back, I have come to realize how relieved and grateful he must have felt to see us alive and well, given the accident of just two years earlier.
Nanny wrapped her gifts much in the same way a butcher would do up a pound of hamburger meat. The gifts were never in boxes. Clothes were just rolled up and covered in paper and lots of tape. We children always got new flannelette pajamas – several sizes too big – and this year was no exception. I remember what a nice surprise it would always be, later, to unexpectedly have a new pair of jammies.
Nanny had dishes of chocolates and colourful ribbon candy set out on the coffee table. Mom tried to get us to wait until after dinner to pop the treats into our mouths, but Nanny sneaked it to us, behind her back.
I felt sorry for our Poppy. When it was his turn to open presents, he would ooh and aah over his new woolen long johns and work socks. I thought they were the worst gifts ever and told my mother so. After dinner, strains of his battered old fiddle could be heard as he attempted to play his favourite tunes. That year, Mom heard that Poppy’s beloved Don Messer’s Jubilee show was going to be performing nearby. Money was scarce, with Dad laid off from his construction job and Mom working shift work at a linen mill. But Mom had a plan. She would approach the other relatives for assistance.
That Christmas morning, I sat at Poppy’s feet amid his new homemade pajamas and socks. He sat in his chair smiling as Mom handed him a long box.
“Aha,” he exclaimed, “new long underwear.”
Everyone sat still as he carefully pulled off the ribbon and unwrapped the gift. I will never forget the expression of surprise and joy on Poppy’s face as he lifted out the new fiddle. And tucked inside were two tickets to the Don Messer concert. We were all crying.
Sounds of The Orange Blossom Special and Maple Sugar could be heard long into the evening, and for several years thereafter. Real music.
Everyone, young and old, should have a toy on Christmas morning.