Words come easily for Minden’s prolific poet
By Sue Tiffin
The first thing Beth McWatters does after sitting back down in the armchair next to the window in her living room from which she gathers inspiration as life outside happens, is show the visitor to her apartment a poem she has written in their honour.
The second thing she does is show how arthritis has affected her hands, and explains she won’t be able to write the poems she has become so well-known for by neighbours and within her community any longer. The 92-year-old doesn’t have pain, but using traditional writing tools is difficult.
“If I write one poem, it takes me an hour to print it,” she says, “I can’t do anything about it. I can’t write with my left hand. I never did that in my life, I wish I had’ve. We didn’t do that. When I was in school, we weren’t even allowed to write with your left hand.”
Jim, her neighbour downstairs, “puts the poems through his machine,” and prints them out so that they are legible despite what McWatters said is her difficult-to-read handwriting. He’s even written a poem about McWatters, noting her spunky adventures slipping poems under the doors of people who live in the same building.
“I kept going and going,” laughed McWatters. “In here, the bulletin board is filled of poems I made for the gal that runs the place here, the cleaning lady, the maintenance man. They’re all on the bulletin board.”
McWatters has also written poems for people and businesses throughout the community she sees often: the OPP, Troy Optical, TD Bank, Tim Hortons, even the Minden Times.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” she said. “It just happens.”
Born in April 1927 to Bella and Ted Arsenault on Prince Edward Island, McWatters grew up in Summerside, a city she notes as being the next biggest to Charlottetown. Her father worked at a foundry, which he ended up running, and her mom, “all she did was bake,” said McWatters.
“We were a big family,” she said. “We were 14, but one little boy passed away with cerebral palsy, and we were 13 all the time. We were outside playing, playing hockey and ball and skating, doing all the things.”
Without electricity, McWatters remembers a different life than she lives now.
“As a matter of fact, when I got home from school, my job – we all had jobs, the kids – my job was cleaning the lamp flue, we called it,” she said. “You had to have that nice and shiny at night so you could see to do your lessons.”
As a child raised Catholic, she went to a convent until Grade 9, at which point you had to go to public school if you wanted to continue schooling.
“We were brought up with the nuns,” she said, and then, when asked what that was like: “Ohhhh. Some of them were nice, and the one, she was cross.”
The nun who taught Grade 3 was nice, as was the one in Grade 5, both who McWatters remembers by name despite the years gone by.
“You just remember the ones that were nice to you,” she said. “But you still had to behave. Really, really behave.”
McWatters did not always behave. Her family lived in town, with “a big yard, a big garden, and a big apple tree,” as well as raspberries and plums on the land. It’s there that McWatters thinks she might have become interested in poetry.
“We had a big yard and my neighbours had a big yard too,” she said. “We always played together, the kids there played with us, and we were out playing this one day. The neighbours, they had their grandmother with them on the weekend. We were all playing out in the yard, eh, and she was watching us from the window. It was the summer. And I said, Ol’ Maryanne, she didn’t give a damn, she lift up her petticoat and peed like a man.”
McWatters’s father was also outside, and when he heard her poem, she said he took her by the arm, into the house and questioned why she said it, then made her stay inside. She was maybe nine or 10 years old.
“Wasn’t that awful?” she asked. “That was awful.”
McWatters also got a pointer on the hand at school when she rhymed the word spell with a less appropriate word, to her nun at the time.
“I don’t know what did it,” she said. “I just started rhyming.”
After the convent, McWatters helped her mom at home and worked in a potato bag factory after school, before moving to Toronto to work in a factory where swim caps and jar rings were made. She met her husband in Toronto, and later they lived at their cottage on South Beaver Lake, near Norland.
“But I did an awful lot of poems,” she said. “I lived at the cottage for years, near all the animals: the fish, the snake, the beaver, the chipmunks. So I wrote about them all, you see? I don’t know why I did it. I just did it.”
A binder in her living room reads “Poems by Beth” on the outside, and includes the poems McWatters has written throughout the years.
“I don’t care for TV all that much, but I do watch the hockey all the time, and the baseball,” she said. “When it’s not on, I miss it. The news is always so bad, right now especially, it’s terrible. I don’t know, something comes to my head, and it just flows. I’ll think of something and I’ll just write one word. Then maybe later on, something else and I’ll put another word. Then later on I’ll put it together. I don’t know how I do it. I can’t explain it. It just seems to be so easy or something that I don’t really think that much about it.”
McWatters is disappointed that she physically isn’t able to keep writing her poetry, something she hoped to do even as she turns 93 in a few months. Technology isn’t easy for her to use, so she isn’t sure how to keep writing while the poetry continues coming to mind, but that might not stop her just yet.
“Well, I have to write one more, I know,” she laughs, noting that she hasn’t yet written an ode to the building’s security guard.