I have been putting off telling this story for weeks. The idea of uncovering for the world my love for Stratford, Ontario feels wrong in a way. Like a girl finally telling the boy she loves that she loves him, but doing it through a megaphone at a football game. It’s not that she worries the love will not be reciprocated, although maybe that’s part of it. It’s that by telling it, she reveals too much of herself and risks cheapening the love, bringing in too many outsiders into something that should be tenderly intimate. But I’ve got to take that risk, so here goes.
I love Stratford.
There, I said it. I love everything about it: the old shops along Ontario street, the Avon River, the trees surrounding the river, the Shakespeare Gardens, the tour guides who take you around the same routes telling you the same stories with the innocence of volunteers who love their town.
I love The Verandah, our home away from home when we visit Stratford.
I love the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. How could you not love the theater in this town? When I am there, I absorb the plays as if they are one layer deeper than my own skin, and I wear their memory for the whole year after, in some cases, even years to come.
This past year was my third time visiting Stratford. It was the longest visit–two weeks. We stayed, for the second time, in The Verandah, the place I dream about during the year when I have a hard day and need something soft and beautiful to remind me of joy and happiness.
Stratford is a town of 32,000 or so other people who love their town, at least that’s how it comes across. While I was there this year, we spoke with locals from different aspects of life and they all had the same thing to say: it is a great place to live. It is hopeful and lively. It is small-town life with the kind of world-class entertainment and cuisine that big cities dream of. It is thoughtful with things like recycling and seasonal food and supporting local businesses.
Of course, we cannot ever forget the theater. That’s part of the world-class entertainment and is what brings thousands of people to Stratford every year for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Still, with all the other things going on–music festivals, food festivals, daily visits to boutiques and antique shops, wiling a day away at a coffee house, luxuriating in the pleasures of a meal at The Prune or Bijou–whole days could potentially pass where no theater is experienced.
But it must be experienced.
I saw a play there this year called Hirsch. Out of the five I saw, all of which were moving and powerful, Hirsch was the most powerful. It was about the Canadian director, John Hirsch, who was originally from Hungary and had been orphaned in World War II. He watched his mother carted off and never saw her again. He watched his uncle shot in front of him. They were Jews and treated the way Jews were treated by the Third Reich in World War II.
Terrifying things happened to this man before he was a teenager. Yet, as the story unfolded–and as I wept from the depths of my humanity that connects with such things–it demonstrated the courage it takes to live a real life. It showed how life grows on, in some ways because of what one has witnessed, and in other ways, in spite of it.
The actor, Alon Nashman, was also the creator of the play. He was brilliant. Brilliant. You know how I know? Because even now as I am writing this paragraph, I can call to mind the delightful laughter and the excruciating tears he pulled out of me with his story and his acting. He connected with me, a white, non-Jewish, 40-something American woman who has never experienced such discrimination, torture, and terror, and who has never been forced to find beauty and strength in that kind of loneliness.
His play and his acting are what stays with me today. The story inspires me to do the work that I do in the world, and it reminds me that nothing can be as scary as what that man experienced in his life. What fears I may have for any venture I take on cannot be half as terrifying as facing the world completely alone and ostracized as an orphaned Jewish boy after World War II. Yet, he found the strength and courage to not only keep going, but to become one of the greatest creative forces in Canada.
This is why I go to Stratford. It inspires me, it pushes me, it nourishes me in ways no other place can. I will carry the messages of the play and the story of John Hirsch for the rest of my life.
Then there’s Elektra. I read a comment someone made on the Stratford Festival Facebook page that it was not true to Sophocles. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t know, and I don’t really care. It was a story well told with a depth of emotion, and the emotions fleshed out in the characters (especially Elektra). What happened in that theater to actors and patrons alike far outweighs how it stands up to what Sophocles intended. The physicality of the play, the rhythm of it, the costuming, all the things those actors did, which seemed to me to be flawless and effortless, pulled together to become an enveloping tale about sorrow, loss, fear, and justice that rocked me to my very bones and left me feeling very much alive.
Christopher Plummer in A Word or Two was magnificent. It was an honor to see him perform live, especially given how intimate it was and how the one-man show was about his life. I can’t say it was the most powerful play–the two mentioned above get that nomination. But it was the one that takes my breath away when I think about it because it’s as if I got to see one of the Great Wonders of the World before it disappears. (And please, Mr. Plummer, if you ever read this, which I doubt you will, forgive me for comparing you to a large, ancient monument of some sort, but you must know I mean it with the greatest of humility and respect.)
The other plays, Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were the two Shakespearean plays we saw out of the five. Of course, it is hard to go wrong with Shakespeare, but these two were not the ones that will stay with me all year. The acting was superb, of course. The costumes, amazing. The staging, incredible, especially the use of that massive door for Henry V, which they utilized in a million different ways to portray different scenes. Both plays were worth seeing. If I was in Stratford all season, I would go see them several times–but Hirsch and Elektra would be my picks if I had only time and budget for two.
When there are no plays to see–the theaters are dark on Mondays in Stratford–there is a wealth of things worth seeing and doing. It is important to point out, however, that part of the charm of Stratford is slowing down and not rushing from one thing to another. I do that all year in my regular life. I don’t need to do it in Stratford.
Summer there is lush with flowers and brimming with life. It is in Stratford that we might pause and enjoy this beauty. Starting at the Avon River, we watch as it lolls slowly under the stone-arch bridge.
The beloved swans parade their regency of the waters and surrounding lands with their little cygnets. The trees dip their knobby elbows and fingers into the river, and their leaves provide a golden curtain to shield land lovers who sit on benches along the shore.
On one of the first days we were there I discovered the magic of sunsets in Stratford. I heard bagpipes coming up to the town from near the river and was drawn to see what sort of group was serenading the sun as it went down.
Two boys, one playing the bagpipes and one playing the snare drum, were in the plaza standing next to a war memorial. Beyond them was the Avon River, peaceful and permissive to their music. People gathered in the plaza, surrounded the boys, listening. Two little girls–about six and four–danced and hopped to the beat of the drum.
When I arrived, there was a feeling of reverence toward the boys and their music. It seemed the perfect way to end a day. I scooted up on one of the half-walls that lines the plaza and listened. No one wanted to move while they were playing. If we did move, we were slow and respectful, as if we were in church and had just taken communion.
While the boys played, two little girls with bright orange hair came with their mother and sat across from me on the foot of the memorial. Were they put there to make the scene more authentic? Of course they weren’t, but the picture of Scottish music playing over a plaza with two wee girls of that heritage could not have been more complete. How adorably Scottish they were with their rolly cheeks and their shining braids. They sat sweetly in their little dresses, licking delicately at their ice cream cones, and they listened. While I was there, I imagined their souls being drawn to this music of their ancestors. I wondered if it was at all familiar to them. They surely were not out of place. Come to think of it, I have Scottish heritage. Perhaps that is what drew me as well, while my Polish-bred husband went on to the house, unmoved by the sounds.
Finally, I walked to the river. The music followed me there, to a leafy cocoon on the shore. The branches of the massive tree before me bent over and into the river. I imagined I was beneath the arm of a giant boy sticking his fingers out of a boat to feel the water on his fingertips. The stillness, the joy in my heart, the poetry of music and sunset, it all formed this love I carry with me.
When it was time to return home from the pipes and drum, I made my way across the familiar path I had come to know the year before–up the hill to town, across the busy street of Ontario, through a parking lot and down the graveled path of the pastoral Verandah.
Debbie and Denis Harrison, the owners of The Verandah, clearly love their town and the home they open to others. The house is divided into two. On one side is where they live. On the other side is where we stayed for the second year in a row.
Debbie has decorated it with things she found all over Ontario, many of which had to be given new life with scrubbings, washings, sandings, new coats of paint–whatever it took to make it live again. She has breathed life into The Verandah, both in the structure of the 100-plus year-old home, and the things furnishing it.
The gardens surrounding it are cared for by her and her husband Denis. Even without the plays or the river, I would go to Stratford to stay in The Verandah. It is a retreat and a blessing to be there. If you knew how many pictures I took of their house so that I could look at them over the year when I cannot be there, you would think I was quite crazy. And I am–in the same way that someone is crazy when they fall in love.
I told myself I wouldn’t cry while writing this love letter, but it’s too late. And now I realize why it truly took me so long to compose it. I didn’t want the pain of missing it to scrape at my heart like it is doing now.
Times like these call for remembering what I have rather than what I don’t have and being grateful for it, so allow me a moment to be thankful.
I am thankful to my husband for making it possible for us to visit Stratford every year. I am thankful for such a place as Stratford, Ontario. I am grateful to Debbie and Denis for opening one side of their home so we may enjoy their hospitality and friendship. I am thankful for having such memories, for experiencing such joy. I am thankful for being in love and having something so worthy of my devotion that I can make a pilgrimage there every year to renew the wonder and joy it brings me.
And I thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me during this love letter. It makes me feel silly to gush, but I can’t help it. I hope you can see why. This is the only thing I will write in this way. Tomorrow we get back to business as I demonstrate how easy it is to walk Stratford from The Verandah, so stay tuned for “Walking Stratford”.