Now and Then: Vera Constantineau

Vera presented with Poet Laureate certificate at the end end of her 2-year term in 2022.

Patience, compassion and creativity are traits associated with this writer and poet who hails from Manitoulin. In 2020, Vera was chosen to be the Poet Laureate for the City of Greater Sudbury. She has spent the last two years sharing her knowledge of Haiku and other Japanese poetry forms with students in classrooms, workshops, and artistic celebrations in ‘Zoom’ meetings. She also has an impressive number of publications which include a mix of short fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction.

Vera’s ancestry stems from the Smith and Lockyer Families. Vera was the 11th child of George and Grace (Lockyer) Smith, born on January 16, 1951. “I weighed only three pounds and had to stay in the hospital for eight months before coming home to my five brothers, Roy, Frank, Gordon (Shorty), William (Billy) and Clifford and five sisters, Geraldine, Hilda, Patsy, Amy, and Marie.”

Vera at 8 years old.

“My mother always had a good sense of humor, was an optimist and an active lady. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about my father, George. He died before my second birthday. Mother was an avid gardener, loved games and telling fascinating stories about her early years. We heard about her brother Gordon, who once climbed up on the roof of their Bidwell farmhouse, dragging grandmother’s special quilt up there, presumably to keep warm. This was during the Second World War and he wanted to be the first to catch sight of the German planes flying overhead so he could warn the others.  Mom said he also hatched a similar plot, actioned on Christmas Eve, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa and his reindeer.”

“Reciting poetry was a strong inclination our mother passed on to some of us, including me. Mother’s favourite poem was ‘Somewhere’ by Walter Delamare. She would recite it in a low creepy voice at night while we shivered under the bed covers. It should be stated that I did the same to my daughter, years later, when husband Ralph went off on a fishing weekend. I frightened her just as much with the ‘Cremation of Sam McGee.’”

“Another intriguing custom was mother’s strategic placement of four penciled dots on a clean sheet of paper.  As she slowly connected these dots with lines, a house would magically emerge on the sheet.  They never resembled the house we lived in on Vankoughnet St. in Little Current. As a kid, I used to wake up to the engine noises of the hoists filling or unloading the big freighters at the CPR coal docks. Every spring, the birds would add their own melodies as they lined up outside. Cherry, apple, plum trees and flower gardens lived in both the back and front yards. Mom used to ‘do down’ the fruit and make preserves and pickles.”

Lucky for Vera, the Williamson family: Ann, Lynn, Shirlie, Margaret, Maureen, Valerie, Peter, and John lived next door, providing many lifelong friends. “My cousins Linda (Green) Bowerman and Gary and Nicole Green still live in Little Current. At the Little Current Public School, English was always my favourite subject. During school hours, you could count on being warm and using an indoor toilet,” Vera shares, smiling.  “I am still in contact with many of my friends today. I’m sure Mrs. Marion Smith, our teacher, was a favourite with everyone. At Easter, she kindly surprised the Grade Two class with a beautiful white cake shaped like a rabbit head and covered with white icing and coconut fur.”

“I was an avid reader, working my way through ‘The Secret Seven Series,’ a ‘cloak-and-dagger’ society of girls and boys in England, written by Enid Blythe, The ‘Bobsey Twins’, The ‘Honeybunch Morton’ books and later the Pollyanna series. I was overjoyed when I got my first, very own book, at age eight. It was the ‘Life of Edith Cavell,’ a nurse during wartime and it was such a hit. ‘Eight Cousins’ came next, and many more. We had our first male teacher in Grade seven. In Grade eight, we got Mr. Fred Smith who happened to be the principal too. For a graduation present that year, all the girls got a medallion bearing the flag of one of our provinces, I still have mine- it’s Prince Edward Island.”

Mrs. Rogers’ Grade 4 class picture with Vera third from the right second row.

Vera was nervous about starting high school but her concerns were soon settled. “My favourite teacher, a kind of hero for me, was Mr. Tom McQuay. He was the best English teacher I could have asked for. He listened, was always calm, in control and he encouraged us to be our best. When I met him later, during my working years, I told him what he’d meant to me as a teacher. He invited me to call him Tom, but I couldn’t. I admired him too much and still do.” Reading books was something Vera excelled in. “At the beginning of our high school year, we were given a number of books to read. My friend Ann Gordon and I had read them all within a few weeks, and were looking for more.”

“The dances hosted a good crowd of generally well-behaved and socialized kids. Occasionally a theatre company came to perform for us. That was special. Field Days were popular, as was the occasional school trip.” Vera’s first summer job was waitressing at the Highway Grill for one dollar an hour, and later at Ellen’s Bakery in Little Current.

“For Expo 67, the longest passenger train ever took us to Montreal. Karen (Laidley) Linley and Sharon Aelick were part of the group. Expo itself was massive, filled with pavilions, and a carnivalesque section, ‘Rue La Ronde’ where rides were installed and with an avenue of international booths. I spent a lot of time there.  The sights were extraordinary. I recall a 20-ft table of dried rosebuds that smelled divine, native artifacts, handmade jewelry, and specialty foods. You could get a huge piece of pizza and a pop for just a dollar. It was exciting just watching all the worldly people from everywhere march by. Gazing at all the faces inspired a feeling of relatedness. I felt we were all truly connected”

“I was part of the last class to graduate from the Little Current High School, located where the public school is now. Our high school turned out several good writers; Carol Mulligan, who worked at the Sudbury Star; Terry Griggs who wrote the book, ‘Quickening’ that was nominated for the Governor General’s Award in 1991. The late Lynn Spry of Little Current was a fellow member of the Sudbury Writer’s Guild and I remember her excitement when she published her short story collection, ‘A Medley of Memories’”.

Vera, as an accomplished writer, is part of this elite group.

After graduating, Vera moved to Sudbury and took a one-year course that included typing, bookkeeping and shorthand at the Sheridan Technical School.  The Sudbury Star hired her for their Classified Advertising Department. “I had to type out ads as presented, in real time, while on the phone. Typing was not my strongest suit so it was a struggle getting the ads in and answering all the general calls too.”

After two years, Vera was working for a bookkeeping firm before joining Cochrane Dunlop Hardware in the accounts receivable department. “I loved posting all the sales on the accounts. It brought back memories of shopping at Richie’s Grocery Store in Little Current where the cash register made much the same sounds as the posting machine for the accounts receivable department. This bit of nostalgia was strangely comforting for me.” When the store closed, Vera, 23, chose a few short jobs, looking for a comfortable niche. At a collection agency, she had the difficult job of finding people and compelling them to pay their outstanding debt. “It was too depressing and I didn’t stay long.”

Campbell Chevrolet, an automobile dealership in Sudbury, came next. “I was a warranty clerk, making up bills for all the cars under warranty and those that had to be paid by the customer. That was a better fit for me. I stayed until about 1980.

In November of 1981, Vera found work at ‘Telstar Hydraulics’ where she met her future husband, Ralph. “We had a lot in common. He came from a big family in Markstay. He was selling specialty fittings and hydraulic hoses. We quickly became a good friend.” The two dated and, in due course, were happily married on April 3, 1982. “It was a small family wedding. The sun was shining as we entered the church. By the time we finished our reception dinner, we faced freezing rain and snow while heading to Toronto for a honeymoon flight to Vancouver. We got as far as Sturgeon Falls.”

April 3, 1982 at Copper Cliff United Church.

“We made it to the airport in good time the next day and flew to Vancouver where we stayed with my sister, Marie McCarthy, and her family. The ferry took us to Vancouver Island. We stayed in Victoria, visiting the touristy spots, and enjoying the sights. We had a special lunch at the elegant old Empress Hotel and a supper at a local Greek restaurant where the food and entertainment were excellent.  It was a marvelous honeymoon.” Several years later, the Constantineaus travelled back to Vancouver Island and were elated to find the same Greek restaurant in Victoria.

“Our first abode was a mobile home in Sudbury’s south side. We soon bought a home ‘with no wheels’, in Copper Cliff.” Vera’s next job was at ‘Carman Construction’ in Lively, for 18 months. I answered the phone, did payroll, and helped organize the activity of all the dump trucks.”

Chloe Renee, born on June 11, 1987, became a part of the family when she was five days old. It was both wonderful and stressful, as every new mother knows. I had to nurture my motherly instinct and quickly learned lots about formula, diapers, and clothing. My working life outside the home was over for now. When Chloe was a bit older, we took her camping and took trips to Niagara Falls and Toronto to see Marineland and Wonderland. “In fact, we have lots of fond memories of shared family times. When Chloe was five, we moved back to Copper Cliff into house number three. That was a nice move after a mobile home and ten houses. We are still here today. It has a big garage which Ralph likes.”

“We visited both the east and west coasts and Las Vegas where Ralph was working at a trade show.  Las Vegas was advertising itself as “the new family vacation destination” but most places and some attractions didn’t allow 12-year-old Chloe to enter. We stayed at the Mirage Hotel and we saw Siegfried and Roy perform with their famous white tigers. Food was good and plentiful. Three of us could have had enough from just one of the huge plates they served us.”

Vera’s early interest in writing led her back to school. “I’ve taken many writing and poetry courses. In 2013, I graduated with a ‘Certificate of Creative Writing’ from Loyalist College in Belleville.” Vera began to do ‘Slice of Life’ columns for Espanola’s weekly, ‘Around and About.’ “That was enjoyable; humour was the column’s theme. When my brother Shorty died, I stopped writing for a while. When I did start again, I wrote for Espanola’s ‘Mid North Monitor.’”

“My life so far, as for many of us, has had a lot of rewards and some challenges. Severe arthritis has been difficult to deal with. These days I use a scooter to get around. Travelling isn’t on the agenda often, but Ralph and I still participate in several activities. For me, these mostly revolve around my love of writing. Chloe has her own life. Ralph is a ‘car’ fan. He owns two classic cars, a 1966 midnight-blue Mustang and a 1951 Ford Custom that looks like a tank but is very comfortable to drive. The ’51 car has been used in several local movie shoots.”That car is a star!”

The office bookcase behind Vera is full of an impressive number of books that she has contributed to. As the sixth Poet Laureate of Sudbury, from March 2020 to February 2022, more books and works have been added. Most of Vera’s poetry is Japanese Haiku. “I have been honoured to share this fine genre with students and community members through mentoring, workshops and a monthly podcast. It’s my hope that listeners and readers alike will come to an appreciation of this historic style. I write in four main styles, ‘Haiku’ which is ‘nature’ based, ‘Haibun’ which is a combination of prose and the accompanying Haiku (memoirs and travel writing are examples), ‘Tanka’ which are five-lined Japanese poems with a specific structure of short and long lines, and lastly Senryu, which is a ‘human’ Haiku.”

“Being a member of Haiku Canada has been both an inspiration and a motivation to create the best work I can. There have been several anthologies created to represent the work of the Ontario members of Haiku Canada. It’s a pleasure to read such beautiful writing by fellow Haiku poets.” Vera shared on Facebook in December of 2021.

“Most important event in my life? Meeting Ralph. This really changed the direction of my life. We do have a lot in common and he has a wonderful sense of humour. We each have our own interests but we garden together, enjoy being outside, and chatting together.” Favourite season? “Summer, the smell of the earth, the grass, and the warmth.” Collections? “Teacups! I have collected many over the years, starting with my wedding. Some are gifts from neighbours, family, friends and purchased in yard sales. I have 60 sets in a display case and that’s enough. I’ve run out of room.” Vera’s collection was featured in an exhibit titled, ‘Teacups and Haiku’ that was very well received at the Copper Cliff Library.

Favourite television show? “I’m a news junkie, I like the CBC and the American CNN. I like the cooking channel too and the Tournament of Champions where 23 chefs are progressively eliminated until one winner is left.” Awards won? Vera has been published as a Haiku Poet in the UK, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, America, and Canada. She won third place in the ‘Martin Lucas Haiku Award’ competition. She won in pounds, a first, in a British competition and American dollars in the ‘Autumn Moon Viewing Competition’ in Bangor, Maine.

Autumn Moon Viewing Haiku Contest 2014 in Bangor Maine:

Full moon

The baby turns

Under her hand

Third place winning poem from the Martin Lucas Haiku Award 2021 in Britain:

years since we spoke

still—this yearning

lost sisters

She has also won the Sudbury Star Short Story Contest, and the Northern Life Short Story Contest in Sudbury. “My strengths? Writing poetry and bookkeeping. I have been told I am a good cook. Recently, I have discovered ‘spatchcocking’, which is a big word for removing a chicken’s backbone so it’s laying flat for cooking. It does cook more evenly and turns out juicier.”

What did you enjoy most as a parent? “At the end of it all, having a young adult human being who is kind, generous and a lot of fun.” Favourite holiday? “I love my birthdays. I don’t have to cook, I can eat cake and celebrate the fact that I was born and survived, having started at only three pounds and being aware of the risks accompanying that.” Something you still want to do? “I just signed a contract with ‘Latitude 46’, a Sudbury Publishing Company to publish ‘Haibun’, a combination of prose and Haiku which has a long, long history in Japan.”

Associations I am involved in? “I am a member of several writing associations, Haiku Canada and the Haiku Society of America and the Canadian Authors’ Association. I am a past president of the Sudbury Writer’s Guild and I am still an active member. I’m involved with The Northern Ontario Writers’ Workshop in Thunder Bay and am the host of their monthly ‘write-in’ held on Zoom. Writers gather online and talk about their work. It’s a lot of fun.”

Most proud of? “Being named Poet Laureate and the work I was privileged to do in that role.” Most afraid of? “Dogs. I seem to have an inherent response to dog contact, possibly from something in my early past. Just hearing them bark can be stressful. I don’t like snakes either.” Is there something I would change if I could go back in time? “No.” People who inspired me? “High School teacher Tom McQuay who encouraged me to tell stories and my mother who reinforced that skill in me.” Hope for the future? “After all this world turmoil, I hope that we will see a rebirth of democracy and kindness.” A legacy for the future? “I have introduced several people to the writing field, and it is my hope they will do the same for another generation.” Recipe for happiness? “Talk it out, laugh it out, hug it out and wind up happy.”

“My family spent generations on Manitoulin Island, and they rest in several cemeteries here. Of all my siblings, only Marie is still with me. Many of my childhood memories live here. I miss the friends of The Manitoulin Writers’ Circle. My friend Ev Cardiff from the Circle has successfully published her own collection of short stories titled ‘From the Banks of Bickel’s Creek.’ Stewarded along the writing path by Margo Little of Gore Bay, authors from different levels and all genres were integrated into a cohesive group. Several anthologies resulted from our time together. One example was the Gore Bay Museum’s ‘Cross-Pollination’ event that paired writers with artists. I was twice paired with photographer Jon Butler of Willisville. These pairs created companion works in this event. Manitoulin is a unique place, a haven for artists and writers. No matter where you go, there is always a thread between you and the Island, and this thread will always draw you back.”