Guest Post: Elizabeth Withey on how her own life inspired The One with the Scraggly Beard

In The One with the Scraggly Beard, written by Elizabeth Withey and illustrated by Lynn Scurfield, a child tries to understand the life of a man he has seen sleeping under a bridge. The boy’s mother patiently answers his questions and explains how people’s life paths can be so different. The child observes the things he has in common with the man and wonders where his own path will lead.

Elizabeth Withey wrote a guest post for the Orca Blog, explaining how the origin of this story was rooted in her own life.

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By Elizabeth Withey

How lucky I was to grow up with Graham, my middle brother, whose life is what inspired me to write The One with the Scraggly Beard.

He was, as they say, a “character,” even as a child, this joyful tornado of a brother, spitting up giggles and dust, awesome, destructive, one-of-a-kind. Anyone who knew my brother back then has a story, a “remember when…” Graham fell off roofs, fell off chairs, fell off bikes, fell out of trees, fell and impaled himself on sticks. He was the brother with the burst appendix on holidays in Manitoba. He was the brother with food poisoning from stealthily microwaved Spam left to fester in a school locker until lunch hour. He was the brother of hornet stings, slivers, stitches. His energy and curiosity yielded countless unforgettable mishaps that, as memories, are precious to me.

As he grew, so too did the frequency and intensity of the fiascos. Drinking. Fighting. Shouting. Car wrecks. Calls at 4 a.m. Getting mugged. Getting stabbed. Going to jail. The doctors, the cops, the debt collectors, the ER. Machetes, mugshots, wanted posters. A thousand other things I don’t (but do) want to know about. How our mother carries this, I do not know.

My brother first began experiencing homelessness in 2015, when he was 37. He has been on and off the streets since. He says it was his choice, but I don’t buy that. Life is a Play-Doh ball that rolls along, collecting things along the way: hurts, loves, dreams, losses. Some balls roll too fast, or fall into the water; some get stuck partway up a hill. I think about my brother most days, rolling along, or not, in this city we both call “home” in our own way. I miss him, fear for him, wonder what role I played in all of this. Family dinners are infrequent.

Helping my young son get to know his uncle was the genesis for this children’s book. I wanted to help him see what brought us together, rather than what tore us apart, what made us family, rather than made us strangers. Because yes, on first glance, my brother and I have followed vastly disparate paths. But on closer inspection, there are parallels: learning, dreaming, falling in love, becoming a parent, working, feeling alone, making art, making friends, making mistakes, laughing, leaving, hurting, losing, searching, failing and starting over. We are worlds apart, and yet, we share common ground.

I hope The One with the Scraggly Beard will help children (and grown-ups) see that life is complicated, that sometimes things don’t turn out the way we’d planned, and that everyone has a story and people who care about them.

Elizabeth Withey is a journalist, author and visual artist. She grew up in rural Saskatchewan, reading books borrowed from the Wapiti Regional Library. A former Writer in Residence at Edmonton Public Library and staff writer and columnist at the Edmonton Journal, Elizabeth is now a producer for CBC Radio and lives in Calgary. The One with the Scraggly Beard was inspired by Withey’s son’s experience meeting his uncle, who has been living on the street since 2015.

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