Reflecting on life, one column at a time

For the past eight years, Paul Benedetti, a Western Journalism instructor has penned a Saturday column for the Hamilton Spectator. This month, Dundurn Press is publishing a collection of his columns, You Can Have a Dog When I’m Dead: Essays on Life at an Angle.

Special to Western NewsFor the past eight years, Paul Benedetti, a Western Journalism instructor has penned a Saturday column for the Hamilton Spectator. This month, Dundurn Press is publishing a collection of his columns, You Can Have a Dog When I’m Dead: Essays on Life at an Angle.

Paul Benedetti’s columns – in his view – are about nothing. They’re also about everything.

For the past eight years, the Western Journalism instructor has penned a Saturday column for the Hamilton Spectator, garnering awards and praise with readers, authors and fellow journalists, all praising his humour and his candid musings on life’s happenings – big and small.

This month, Dundurn Press is publishing a collection of his columns, You Can Have a Dog When I’m Dead: Essays on Life at an Angle.

“The essays have been a wonderful chance to write about the world – hopefully in a funny way – but also about my own life and family. I write about the regular stuff of daily life. Some of it is pretty ridiculous – like getting lost in the grocery store or forgetting to pay for gas – and sometimes it was writing about important things, like dropping our youngest child off at university, or the death of my dad, and then my mom,” said Benedetti.

He’s thrilled, he said, to see the book come together. And at the end of the day, he’s happy to see stories and memories of his family and friends immortalized in the collection.

“You hope you can make people laugh or move people, or at least, keep them awake. It’s not always easy. I know people see themselves in the stories, and they tell me that. I try to make sure the person I make the most fun of is me.”

Benedetti, whose essays have also appeared in the Globe and Mail, Canadian Living and Reader’s Digest, has won the Ontario Newspaper Award for Humour Writing and Canada’s National Newspaper Award (NNA) for Best Short Feature. Below is an excerpt from You Can Have a Dog When I’m Dead, a Christmas column from 2010 for which he received the NNA. The piece was reprinted in Reader’s Digest.

You Can Have a Dog When I’m Dead hits bookstore shelves Feb. 18. Benedetti will attend the faculty author reception at The Book Store at Western March 30.

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For weeks now, our daughter has been busy preparing her Christmas present.

This is surprising behaviour and utterly unlike that of her two brothers who, much like their father, will dash around madly in the final shopping hours before Christmas vainly trying to find presents on a small budget, and an even smaller gift-giving imagination. The results are predictable – a box of scented soap, an Old Spice gift set, a tie, maybe a set of steak knives. It’s all okay, of course. It’s the thought that counts, even if the thought comes late and without much funding to support it.

No, Ella is getting ready, but not in the usual way. She has not been saving her babysitting money or checking online catalogues. She’s been practicing – learning, slowly and sometimes arduously, the complicated and beautiful passages of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

She does this almost every night, sitting at the piano in our living room. The same piano, a lovely Heintzman baby grand her grandmother played on many evenings, many years ago. Ella never heard her grandmother play, but has heard countless times about the song she loved most – Clair de Lune. One afternoon, a few months ago, Ella asked her mother to drive to the music store where she bought the sheet music, came home and began to practice.

Ella did not know her grandmother. My wife’s mother, Elin, died suddenly at the age of 46. She suffered a brain aneurysm, was rushed to hospital, monitored for several days and then operated on. After the surgery, she never regained consciousness, and a few days later, she died. When she passed on that July day in 1977, she left seven children, a husband and an army of relatives and friends who loved her. My wife was only 16 when her mother left this world, just a couple years older than Ella is today.

Though Elin has been gone now for a long time, a vivid picture of her remains indelible in her children and in the people who knew her. Oddly, considering she died more than three decades ago, she is spoken of often, and in a way that makes you sad if you did not know her. I have never once heard her name mentioned, by both men and women, without the word beautiful in the same sentence. There are old photographs of her, though not many, and they show a slim blonde with fine features and large, blue eyes. In the pictures, she is often smiling. She was, by all accounts, a striking woman. When she was young, she did some modeling, and later, even while managing seven children and a busy household, she could, with a touch of lipstick and a hastily pulled on dress, present a simple elegance other women admired. But she was not only beautiful, she was fun. When people talk about her, they often mention her infectious laugh, her favorite cocktail, scotch on the rocks, the signature string of white pearls around her neck, her sense of joy – she would sometimes perform an impromptu dance on the living room coffee table – her natural grace, and always, the elegant sound of her playing the piano.

She would, when the mood hit her, usually after dinner while the children cleared the table and washed the dishes, sit at the piano her father had given her, and play. And frequently, she would fill the house with the haunting, stirring strains of her favorite song, even a few bars of which today can instantly evoke her memory. Perhaps this is how people endure, in a passing hint of perfume, a familiar laugh heard across a room, in the smoky scent of Scotch whiskey on a winter night, or in the rising notes of a haunting melody.

And so, this Christmas, when the dinner is done and the table is cleared and the gifts have been opened, Ella will give her mother a present. A gift with no wrapping paper and no bow. She will sit down at the piano and her fingers will move across the ivory keys filling the room with music, with the soaring, shimmering sounds of Clair de Lune. And a young woman will bring back, if only for a fleeting moment, the grandmother she never knew for the mother she loves.