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From Teacher to Friend

I first met Norma West Linder at Lambton College in Sarnia when I attended her evening Creative Writing class. I had never taken a writing class—I hadn’t even told anyone I wanted to be a writer. Just the thought of meeting someone who was a writer made me nervous.
I had written a long poem and was asked to read it. When I think back, I wonder how I ever dared to read such an amateur piece of writing. I was timid and shy; my hands shook badly while reading, and I could barely hold the two sheets of paper. I can’t even recall what the poem was about, but I realized later in my writing years that that long poem was nothing but an accumulation of melodramatic words and phrases.
But Ms Linder praised me for reading something that obviously was so close to my heart. I am sure she sensed that if she were to correct my work in any way, I would go and bury my head in the sand and probably never write anything else again. No, Ms Linder was sensible and gentle. She understood a beginner’s fears.
When the class was over, she asked me to remain back. I wondered why and worried she would tell me not to attend class again, as I would be wasting my time. But no, she only wanted to ask me if I knew Carmen Ziolkowski, an Italian writer. I didn’t know any Italian women in town who were writers, but Ms Linder went on to explain that Carmen was also a nurse and she worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the children’s ward.
“Oh,” I said. “Yes, I know of Carmen, but I didn’t know she was a writer.”
“You should meet her,” Ms Linder said encouragingly. “She started writing in English not too long ago, and already she’s getting her short stories published.”
Published? An Italian woman in town getting published? I was flabbergasted. Most Italian immigrants would not be writers. Many would be lucky if they had a grade-five education. Besides, their English would not be that good.
“How could I meet her,” I asked timidly.
“Carmen is my good friend, and I will ask her to accompany me for the next week’s class. You will meet her. I know you will like her.
I was overwhelmed with joy. A benighted soul like me meeting an Italian writer—and not to mention that Ms Linder herself was eager to have me meet a published writer. Maybe she liked the poem I read, even though she said nothing about it.
I went home overjoyed. And I couldn’t sleep that night from the excitement and wrote another poem. I already could tell the poem was a little better than the one I had taken to class. Ms Linder had found a way to give me confidence in myself.
And so began my deep friendship with Carmen, but I also came to be close to Ms Linder in a different way, one of total admiration for her talent, her writing–be it fiction or poetry or memoir—and her gentle and unassuming character.
Ms Linder had a gift of getting along with everyone and always encouraged new writers in her subtle ways.
But it was her poetry that I loved the most. I often read and re-read her poetry books. In each collection, choosing the poem I liked the best is hard. Her work reflected her character. Some of her poems made me think of feather strokes. Oh, but more than that, a feather stroke that gives rise to emotions of the heart for a long time. Her words are like precious pebbles that you want to hang on and not let go.
The last time I saw my writing teacher was many years after I no longer called her Ms Linder. When I walked into her living room, she was sitting on her comfortable sofa chair, a book in her hand. She looked so graceful, with her soft makeup and the simply brushed smooth and long silver/white hair, she was looked stately. Although COVID restrictions were partially lifted, she was not venturing outside her home yet, except to go for short walks on the sidewalk with the aid of her walker, her special friend James at her side protecting her.
I had brought her white carnations, and she was pleased. Smiling a gentle smile, Norma asked James to set the carnations in a vase. She said how much she loved carnations and that one can never go wrong with carnations, a beloved flower.
We chatted for a while about writing and family. I didn’t stay too long, as I didn’t want to tire her out. I said I would visit again, another time.
I am so glad I visited her when I did, for there was not to be a next time. And I will always remember her with gratefulness in my heart, as Ms Linder, the talented writer who was my teacher… but soon became a lifelong friend. I will forever treasure her memory.

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