Writing Samples

Illustration: Ray Fenwick for The Globe and Mail

“I’ve Learned to Love Dandelions” 

by Gwen Smid

As a wee girl, my first taste of earning power was obtaining 25 cents for every pail of dandelions I picked from the lawn. My attention span for the task waned, but my desire for more shiny quarters waxed until my little brain came up with a fabulous idea: If I loaded my red bucket with fistfuls of grass, I could earn money faster.

Unfortunately, my clever parents noticed I was much quicker at pulling weeds than my brother. Despite this short-lived business venture, or maybe because of it, I grew to loathe the dandelion, dent de lion, the lion’s tooth.

While other kids spent summers becoming hopscotch champs and slow-pitch pros, I morphed into a dandelion-pulling maniac. Gone were the days of arbitrary fistfuls of grass. The butter knife was now my weapon of choice against the yellow lawn marauders, and my mode of attack was perfect:

1. Securely gather the lion-tooth-like leaves in one hand;

2. Insert butter knife into the ground at a 45 degree angle;

3. Apply pressure against the root of the dandelion until you feel that satisfying pop;

4. Ignore the fact that the weed will grow back in mere days.

At night, I would dream of dandelions, their spiky leaves poking at the corners of my consciousness, preventing me from sleeping.

As an adult, the obsession with a weed-free lawn only became worse when my husband and I bought our first house. Armed with my trusty red bucket and a butter knife, I set off to extract and conquer.

My husband poked his head out the front door. “Do you really have to use our good cutlery for yard work?”

The response he received was a yelp of joy as a large cluster of weeds popped out of the ground. I held it up in triumph. He shook his head and retreated inside.

Then my neighbour arrived on the scene. “I have spray for that, you know,” he said.

“Naw. I don’t mind pulling them by hand.”

“But I have lots of spray. You can have some.” He watched me for a few moments before wandering off muttering about chemicals.

My husband returned with the lawnmower.

“No way,” I said. “You cannot cut the grass until I’m done with the weeds or they’ll get chopped up into a bazillion pieces creating a bazillion more dandelions.” He again retreated inside.

I continued to pull dandelions until it started to rain. It rained for days. My grass grew to jungle length. The weeds grew even taller.

Finally, on the first somewhat dry day, I retrieved my bucket and butter knife and continued my attack.

My husband came outside. “Are you still using the good cutlery?”

Our neighbour also ambled over. “I have spray,” he said to my husband.

“Hey, hon, he has spray you can use.”

“Really tall grass, eh?” our neighbour said to no one in particular.

I glanced at his manicured lawn. “I really do enjoy pulling weeds. It’s satisfying.”

“You didn’t look very happy a moment ago,” he said.

It’s true. I had been nursing the ballooning blisters on my palms, punishment from the Cutlery Drawer Gods for using one of their best pieces for yard work. I admitted temporary defeat, and my husband lunged for the lawn mower. The remaining dandelions were chopped into a bazillion pieces.

Weeks later, my nemesis snuck up on me in a place I least expected. There on the produce shelf of my local grocery store, nestled between spinach and carrots, were bunches of dandelion leaves. The recycled paper tag bore the inscription, “Dent de lion. Natural. Organic. Locally grown.”

“Excuse me!” I waved a bunch of dent de lion at the kid stocking fennel. “When did you start selling this?”

“I dunno.”

The dandelion leaves in my hand highlighted the blisters from my marathon of picking. I had worked so hard to enjoy a weed-free existence, and now they were creeping into my food aisle.

At home, I told my husband we needed to boycott the grocery store.

“Now that you mention it,” he said, “I’ve heard dandelion leaves make amazing salad.” I had also heard seeds of hearsay that dandelions were healthy but always dismissed such idle prattle. Out he went to scavenge what few remaining green goblins had not been chopped into infinity by the lawnmower. He rinsed them and tossed them in honey, oil and balsamic vinegar.

“I will not eat them,” I quoted from my favourite picture book. You know, the one where the protagonist also refuses to eat green things.

“Try them, try them and you’ll see!” he replied.

I tried them, and I loved them. For as long as I had been doing yard work, heaps and heaps of vitamin- and antioxidant-packed, iron-rich, dark leafy greens had been senselessly tossed out.

What I once saw as a plague, I now consider a pretty sunny wash along the boulevards. After all, Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to weeds as plants whose virtues have not yet been discovered. Now, when invited to someone’s place for dinner in dandelion season, I always bring a dent de lion salad, natural, organic and proudly picked from my very own yard.

The infamous German inscription that reads ‘Work Makes Free’ at the main gate of the Auschwitz I extermination camp on November 11, 2014 in Oswiecim, Poland. CHRISTOPHER FURLONG / GETTY IMAGES

“Blue Sky Over Auschwitz as Ottawa Students Bear Witness” 

by Gwen Smid

It was surprising to see a McDonald’s minutes from Auschwitz.

During March break, I was a chaperone on Nepean High School’s European tour. We were on a bus with 46 students, driving to the most notorious death camp of the Second World War. I had always pictured Auschwitz in the midst of an empty expanse, the sky overcast, nature reflecting our guide’s warning: “We’re about to enter one of the saddest places on Earth.”

Yet, the death camp is just an hour west of Kraków, situated in the Polish village of Oświęcim – more commonly recognized by its German pronunciation, Auschwitz.

As we neared our destination, we passed a KFC, a playground, moms pushing strollers, people walking dogs. Village life was obscenely normal, the sky a disrespectful blue.

I had the fleeting thought the visit might not be as bad as I had dreaded.

Upon arrival, we saw small cafes, book stores, and memorial shops. “Please don’t call them souvenir shops,” urged our guide. We went through airport-like security and received our ‘whisper machine’ headsets. Bursts of chatter and laughter erupted from a group ahead of us. Everything was too, well, normal.

After the security hall, we were lead outside. Unintentionally, I let the door slam shut. The noise reverberated over the quiet courtyard. In front of me was the familiar black iron gate, the one I had seen in textbooks and documentaries, the one with the cynical inscription, Arbeit Macht Frei: “Work makes you free.” In an act of defiance, the B in Arbeit had been installed upside down. I touched the barbed wire as we walked through the gate. This no longer felt normal.

“Auschwitz was a death factory,” said our guide. The Nazis murdered upwards of 10,000 people a day. At least 1,100,000 Jews were murdered in total in this camp alone. I looked at my students, my nervousness reflected in their solemn faces. But still, the sky was stubbornly blue and the birds insisted on singing.

Building after building lined the orderly streets, verification of the Nazis’ obsessive planning. In Block no. 4, we were faced with an enormous display of human hair. I walked its entire length, trying to see every single braid, every single lock, every single tiny little curl. Seventy years ago, camp liberators found approximately 7,000 kilograms of hair. It was in this room that many of my students dissolved into gut-wrenching sobs. I handed out tissues, comforting them until the enormity of this death factory smashed my composure. I left, gagging on tears.

We witnessed other displays of “Evidence of Crimes”: the prayer shawls, the piles upon piles of suitcases, the kilograms of eyeglasses, the baby clothes.

Every time we stepped outside to move from one building to another, I now welcomed the blue sky, its clearness a brief reprieve.

One student whispered that the birds could be the now-freed souls of murdered children, and Taela Liebenberg, grade 12, afterwards wrote, “I have tripped over stones on the same roads dead children roamed. I have divorced those feelings for now; they are too much, too strong.”

A few days prior, our European tour had begun in East Berlin, and some of us had been admiring a graffitied, Cold War factory. A local photographer approached; conversation ensued. When he learned we were planning to visit Auschwitz, he was surprised: “Why Auschwitz?”

We were surprised by his surprise. I responded that it was an important historical monument. He countered that there were countless important historical monuments worldwide, repeating, “Why Auschwitz?”

Why? Because even though life has continued in Oświęcim – as it should – with its restaurants and parks, with its blue skies and singing birds, 46 Ottawa students now bear testament to one of the worst chapters in our human story. May this firsthand knowledge continue to inspire young people to fight for the victims in our own time.

“Duped by Grandma” by Gwen Smid0


“Take an extra corn. No one will notice.”

“Baba, that’s stealing!”

“No one will notice. Look how small they are.”

The highway shimmered in the autumn heat. You could smell a rainstorm approaching. My grandmother’s body was an apostrophe. Her head dangled at bosom level, her shoulders, bent with age, dipped forward as her hands searched the pile of cobs strewn on a denim quilt at the side of the road.

“Baba, it’s going to rain soon. We should get going.”

“They trick you.” Her whisper was barely audible.

“Who tricks me?”

“These farmers.”

“I rolled my eyes. The grey sky bled into the billowy white clouds. “Baba, we really need to hurry up.”

“We get wet. So what? You made of sugar?”

My Saturday had been spent chauffeuring my grandmother to stores, the bank and then to this roadside vegetable stand. I plodded as she plodded down the aisles of her favourite haunts. She knew the clerks at the deli and the waitress at the Zellers restaurant.

“We’ll stop for French fries,” Baba had said earlier while scrutinizing the linens at Zellers.

“Baba, I need to get going. I still have to mark essays this afternoon.”

“Hurry, hurry. You always hurry.”

Her comment was a barb. It was easy for her to negate time restraints when she spent her days tearing apart old knitted sweaters and transforming them into balls of yarn. I would gladly trade an afternoon of absentminded knitting for a marathon of marking Grade 10 essays on To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Baba, it’s starting to rain,” I said as she poked through the corn.

“Wait in the car then. These farmers trick you into buying the scrawniest corns. I’m taking 13.”

I sighed and watched the $3/dozen sign blur in the rain.

With 13 cobs tucked safely into a plastic bag, Baba and I finally drove away. The wipers beat a steady rhythm against the foggy windshield.

“Do you need to go anywhere else?” I asked, hoping the answer would be no.

Baba looked at me and then out the window. “Do you need to go anywhere else?”

“I just need to get to those essays, but I don’t want to rush you.” Baba continued looking out the window.

We pulled up to her apartment. I looped grocery-bag handles around my wrists and refused Baba’s attempts to take a bag. The elevator ride to her fifth-floor apartment was quiet and soggy. I helped her unload sour cream, beets, cabbage, gherkin pickles, ginger ale.

“Stay for chai?”

I tried to glance covertly at the clock.

“Ah. Your essays. That’s okay. Next time, when you’re not in a hurry.”

“Baba, I’m sorry. I have tons to do.”

“That’s okay. Next time.”

“I’ll see you soon.” After stepping into my rain-soaked runners, I gave Baba a hug. She hugged back with uncharacteristic fervour.

“This weather reminds me of Alexander,” Baba whispered into my shoulder.


“Never mind.” She smiled, but I caught a shifting sadness in her tone. “You’re in a hurry.”

“I’ve never heard that name before. Who is he?”

“Was. Rain brings back too many memories.”

I insisted that she continue. She reached for my hand and led me to the living room. Side by side, we sat on the prickly velour sofa.

“When I was 16, back in Ukraine, I worked for the farmer who sold us milk and eggs. He was very kind and he …”

“Was he Alexander?” I interrupted, but quickly apologized when Baba cast a frown in my direction.

“No. The farmer had a son. And no, the son wasn’t Alexander either,” she added when I opened my mouth. “I would milk the cows and the son cleaned the barn.”

“Was he cute?” I couldn’t believe my grandmother was talking about boys.

“Ugly as the cow dung he threw at me. Oh no, it was his handsome friend who was Alexander. Alexander fixed the tractor because the farmer’s son wasn’t only ugly, he was useless too. We liked each other a lot. Then the war began, and Alexander went to fight.”

Baba paused, picking at the crocheted doily on the armrest.

“The war ended and I heard nothing from Alexander: no letter or telegram. Nothing. I had no idea if he was alive or rotting in a field somewhere.”

She looked at me. “I received a letter one rainy afternoon.”


“Do you know this is the longest you went all day without looking at your watch? ‘And?’ you ask. There’s no ‘and.’ I made it up. I wanted to see if I could make you sit around and relax for a few minutes. And I did. So there.”

My smile took a few seconds to ripen. I took off my watch, tossed it to the ground and settled into the prickly sofa for a much-needed, unhurried visit with Baba.

For more of Gwen’s writing (including picture book reviews), please visit her Mary’s Atlas Blog .