Today, my aunt, Bernice Morgan, is being invested as a Member of the Order of Canada — which, for those of you who aren’t Canadian, is sort of like our version of getting a knighthood. Except we can’t call her Sir Bernice, or Lady Bernice, or anything. But she probably wouldn’t want that anyway. A few years ago she got an honorary doctorate but she doesn’t insist on being addressed as Dr. Morgan either.
All the richly-deserved awards heaped upon Bernice are because of her contributions to Newfoundland literature and culture. After all, she wrote Random Passage and its sequel Waiting for Time, two absolutely acknowledged classics of Newfoundland fiction. She was one of the first wave of Newfoundland writers writing stories that are deeply rooted in our place and culture, as well as mentoring and encouraging writers of the next generation.
But because she’s my aunt and I’ve known her my whole life long, I have my own reasons why this amazing lady deserves the Order of Canada. So many of my important life lessons have been learned from my Aunt Bernice and on the day she’s receiving this prestigious award, this seems as good a time as any time pay tribute (and then print this off and give to her, since she so resolutely avoids the internet). Here are the Top Three Lessons I Learned From Dr. Bernice Morgan, Member of the Order of Canada.
1. Yes, You Can Be a Writer (but that may not look like what you expect)
I’ve heard a lot of writers say that they grew up in an environment in which becoming a writer was an odd or unthinkable career choice. In fact I’ve heard Bernice herself say this, because she grew up loving to read in a time where most of the authors she knew of were dead, British and male. The idea of books written by Newfoundland women (apart from Margaret Duley, who was not terribly well-known or widely read in her hometown) was strange back then. It’s not now, and Bernice is one of the reasons why it’s not. For me, she’s the biggest of many reasons why growing up to be a writer seemed to be a perfectly normal thing to do.
In a family of readers, writers, printers, publishers and English teachers, being a writer always seemed like a perfectly acceptable vocation. I was lucky that way. I was even luckier to have Bernice’s example to show what being a writer might actually look like — lots and lots of hard work, usually done around the edges of a day job and raising a family (she didn’t quit work to write full-time until her children were all grown, at which point one might want to call it “retirement” rather than “quitting work.” Her four books were all produced after that, but she had already produced an impressive body of work in short stories, plays, radio drama and nonfiction up to that point.) Thanks to Bernice I never suffered from the illusion that being a writer was glamorous — but I always knew it was possible, and rewarding, and a worthy way to use your time and talents.
2. Atheists are Good People
To be honest, it was years before I even learned that some Christians don’t believe atheists can be genuinely good, altruistic people. In a family that was mostly very Christian, Aunt Bernice stood out a bit by her resolute lack of belief in God or any of the rest of the supernatural realm (although, as my uncle George used to point out to her, “You’re the only atheist I know who believes in ghosts.”) She’s not an angry Dawkins-style atheist; in fact she’s always been extremely tolerant of other people’s beliefs; she just makes it clear that she doesn’t share them. Whenever I’m in discussions with fellow Christians who insist that a person simply can’t be truly moral, or generous, or kind-hearted without acknowledging God as the source of all good things, I think of Aunt Bernice and then I get angry at those people for their short-sightedness.
At a very early stage in my life I observed how she acted and how she treated people — including sometimes when her behavior was more “small-c christian” than that of us Big-C Christians. One possible prejudice was removed from my life before I was even aware that it could be a prejudice: because of Aunt Bernice, it’s always been perfectly clear to me that people of all beliefs and no beliefs at at all, are capable of tremendous goodness.
3. Women should be heard … and heard … and heard … as well as seen.
Another part of my heritage for which I’m extremely grateful is the example of strong women who never taught me to sit down and shut up. My own mother has been an excellent example of this in her own right, but her feminism was more personal than political — of the “you can accomplish anything any man can, and more, and don’t let anyone stop you,” variety. For extending that attitude into a broader awareness of women’s issues I am grateful to Aunt Bernice. She and her posse of feminist writer friends more than counterbalanced any messages I might have absorbed from the surrounding culture putting any limits on my ambitions or telling me that nice ladies didn’t speak up or get angry.
Aunt Bernice always gave me a stellar example of a woman — not a lady, except in the best senses — who was willing to stand up, speak out, and rant a little when necessary. Given my personality, it’s possible I didn’t really need any lessons in that department, but it was good to have strong female role models in my family and she has definitely been one of them (along with my mom and several other memorable aunts).
Finally — there’s no heading for this one, but I think it’s the best reason of all why she deserves the Order of Canada and any other honours they want to give her.
Let’s put it this way: if I were upwards of 70 and had written four highly acclaimed books and was widely considered to be one of the most influential local writers of my generation, and one day I got a phone message to return a call to someone at the Order of Canada office … my first (unspoken) thought would be “YES!!! It’s about time they gave me that darned Order of Canada!!!!”
When Bernice got this phone message, she genuinely thought they were calling to ask her for a recommendation for someone else who was getting the Order. Seriously. It did not even occur to her that she was getting it. With all her talent, ability and spirit, she is the most absolutely humble person I know, and that’s the best reason of all give her awards.