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Gossip and the art of storytelling

The word “gossip” comes from “God-Sisters” which were traditionally the friends who were close enough to a woman to attend her in childbirth.

In those days before the Industrial Revolution when a woman went into labour, all her gossips would descend on her home. Clean the house, cook some food, care for the older children, and help support the woman in labour. 

Of course during these, often long, hours of care, work and love there would be a lot of chatter. Secrets were told, information was shared, and women banded together against what was often a difficult patriarchal society. The fact that the current connotation of gossip is idle and malicious talk simply reflects the misogynistic misunderstanding of what happens when a gaggle of women are working together. My friend, Vania, is one of my gossips. We have worked together for almost 40 years. She is a trailblazing family physician, novelist and administrator, dedicated to the care of women and children. We started in the Family Medicine Obstetrics group together when we took them from three to five members. We had some of our children at the same time. 

We have always loved to sit and gossip. We are sitting in a café, having a ladies lunch of soup and salad. This is only a few weeks after the death of her husband. I need to be there for her, and I think she is feeling the need to speak to a contemporary. I’ve known her for a long time and, in many ways, I’m someone who’s known sorrow. 

I’m still struggling with the issue of whether or not to retire. I’ve cut down my clinical work to a half day of supervision, and two women’s health clinics per week. Three half days of clinical work don’t seem like a lot, but with the complex patients I have at one of my clinics, where I care mostly for immigrants and refugee claimants—not to mention the general chaos and breakdown of the medical system which leads to endless paperwork and stress—makes drawing class and tai chi look like a good thing.

On the other hand, I know I am doing good work as a clinician and teacher, and I love the patients, the learners and my colleagues. 

Vania, however, has no such conflicts. While she no longer delivers babies, she still works at the Maison Bleu, the multidisciplinary service she founded, where women with multiple psycho-social risk factors and their children receive care. In addition she’s just started a new role as a Coroner! 

But, what I am going to do with myself, if I do retire? Traditionally, women in my family become visual artists once they leave work. If you look at my picture at the head of this column, you can see two sculptures: a bronze walking man with his nose in the air and a beautiful alabaster head. Both these sculptures were done by my Great-Aunt Sema, who took up sculpting after retiring from the Shmatta (garment) business, where she worked as a seamstress and pattern maker. 

My mother, my cousins, Olga and Leiba, all became accomplished visual artists in retirement. No reason why I shouldn’t take up the paintbrush or the silkscreen and hone the skills of my youth from before I decided that I didn’t have enough ego to think that I was going to be a brilliant artist and that the world would be better served by a good enough doctor than an adequate painter. 

I do have issues, however, with the amount stuff visual art generates. My mother’s walls were stacked three deep with paintings, lithos and etchings when she died, and there were stacks and stacks of sketchbooks, watercolors and paint sketches in all her cupboards and under the beds. Sorting through this collection was one of my hardest tasks following her death. 

I do like stories, as you well know, I could just concentrate on that, maybe take some courses, actually write a memoir, but that is solitary work. I am a very social person who loves the schmooze and cruise of dealing with other people. 

So I took a storytelling workshop. There is an organization in Montreal known as Confabulation, They put on shows of “true as we can tell them” stories and also give workshops where people can learn to perform stories in front of an audience. Our group was about a dozen people, ranging in age from me and a well-known director in the francophone theater community to a 20-year-old woman who was working with special needs children. A lot of people at the workshop were in the theatre, there were writers of various stripes, an engineer and a diplomat, but I was the only doctor. We learned how to hone our stories, we gossiped, we supported each other and we went out for the occasional drink. 

At our “graduation” performance I told the story about the moment I fell in love with my husband. Dave sitting in the audience blushed with pride. People came up to us after, to ask us the secrets of having a long-term marriage. I pretended that I knew.

I was very pleased that my two group leaders Michele and Deb, asked me to pitch for a real show. 

“So I am thinking of telling my Dr. P. story” I told Vania, “Do you remember it?” 

“No,” she said. “But you know, I have my own Dr. P. story?” 

“Yes I remember. That’s why I am telling you this.” So, I told her my story. 

After I finished we were laughing so hard, that people in the restaurant were staring at us. 

“Whatever happened to him, do you know? He must be dead by now.” I asked Vania.

“Yes,” she said. “He’s gone now, for many years, but he was forced to retire early when the College, took his license away for abuse of his patients and learners.”

In a moment of Schadenfreude, we clinked our coffee cups together, laughed a conspiratorial laugh, like the pair of gossips we are.