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Horrendous Things

While having lunch with my friend, I mentioned a few of the podcasts I had heard en route to see our daughter in Philadelphia.One of them had left an indelible image in my head, one I wished I had never heard. A producer or editor of This American Life, an NPR show, had related that one of her and her peer’s earliest fears was being taken to the The Black Wax Museum in Baltimore, a terrifying wax museum that documented the atrocities and outrages visited on black people from slave holds to lynchings to the one that has uncomfortably lodged in my head- of the brutal treatment of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in the 1830’s and even worse, his pregnant wife: so as not to impart this indelible crime I will not share it here. But rest assured, you would not want the details to permeate your consciousness.

As a segue, my friend mentioned Transparent, saying she had endured only fifteen minutes of it, and I agreed, that the people on the Emmy winning show by Jill Solway can be unbearable, but like a train wreck, once hooked , viewers stand amazed, perplexed and cannot look away. But as I knit while watching and only half consume television shows, I remarked that although I hadn’t seen the Nat Turner horror, the power of a word somehow more strongly imprints on me. Interesting observation- as foremost, I am a visual person who responds to sights. But in our conversation, I mentioned as well a scene of torture from Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentine, a book I had taught to my students maybe twenty years ago. And she agreed, nodding her head and affirming, we both immediately recalling the same scene from the book.

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Viet Nam is an 18 hour visual immersion into the horror and stupidity of war, a topic almost normalized as Trump struts and threatens and preens like some obnoxious rooster before pecking the ground. Marc Maron on his WTH interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the documentary, present a 360 of views , stories and tragedies, framed as they both attested to the “ goalposts” or the chronology of dates of when the war began and when it finally ended; rather than a so- called theme or story that shaped the documentary. For baby boomers growing up in Canada, at least for ones like me , the war was backdrop to the first excitement of university , folk singers at The Riverboat in Yorkville, student protests, draft dodgers to the city, sit- ins, newspaper articles on napalm, and that haunting picture of the naked young girl running and screaming in the street. In other words, a mixture of amazement, righteousness, ignorance, dread and relief that we were living safely in Canada. The filmmakers of Viet Nam, with the advantage of years passed , archival information and the wisdom of the survivors, sought a multiplicity of views from civilians, policy makers, veterans, protesters. They underlined in the Maron interview that they purposely did not interview on tape the well known proponents and objectors such as Jane Fonda, John McCain, the recognizable voices usually associated with the war.

On a personal note, a cousin of mine, actually a Canadian having been relocated to California with his family, came back to Toronto to contemplate whether he should return to the States and participate in the war. Strange, as I often overheard how as a high school student there, he had refused to put his hand over his heart and swear allegiance to the flag every day so his previous twelve years as a Canadian must have been deep in his mind. But he did return home to Culver City and went to war. So we worried and my mother poured over his letters, coveting them as signs of his survival in a war Canadians particularly did not understand or support.Burns and Novick include the tapes between Nixon and Johnson, the deals, the treason, the wastage of young men who perished , or returned home with PTSD and missing limbs.

And I could not help but think of our visit to Saigon several years back, sitting in the Caravelle bar overlooking the city where once the military gabbed over drinks, plotting their strategies of devastation. Now western business, capitalism, the way of life, for which soldiers on both sides fought and died has overtaken the bustling, dangerous streets of Saigon with Gap, Louis Vuitton and Coach. Needless stupid suffering and earth so all that crap from the West is available. Business overtaking ideology. And at what cost?That’s what Burns film screams at me.

No doubt part of Burns and Novick’s ‘s incentive for the documentary resided in the contrast between their earlier documentary , The War that dealt with WWII, associated with a certain heroism and sentimentality whereas Viet Nam represented a failure and shamed those associated with it. They said they knew while working on the one, they had to do the other.

My friend says politicians fight for ideals, a way of life. I say it is power grabbing and grubbing, the film, Viet Nam, even documenting that the children of the top brass of communists were sent away to foreign schools to keep them safe from fighting. Hardly one for all and all for one. Congruently my friend, my husband and I have all been reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner, the story of a split narrator, a traitor, a spy, a misfit, a sympathizer, an outsider during the Viet Nam timeline. The unnamed protagonist arrested by the Communists is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a priest, his loyalties twisted, as his friendships with two of his classmates appear to be the only straight forward and clear relationships he possesses, along with his enduring love of his positive mother. He is a multi faced actor.

Apparently supportive of the America exploits and invasion of his country, in truth the narrator is a North Vietnamese spy reporting all American plans to reconquest his country in his invisible ink letters to his “ Aunt” in France.At the heart of the story is the narrator’s own unhappiness, his search for identity and inability to discover where he can belong and feel safe. On his back are the years of French colonial conquest in Viet Nam, his hatred, his cynicism and deep feelings of rejection: common to many terrorists.There is an arrogance, a smugness, perhaps because he knows he is bright, assuming he can help inject a sense of his country into a film ( resembling Apocalypse Now). This attempt affords him some satisfaction because he ironically demands truth in the movie describing the war: he strongly suggests real Viet Namese actors be employed in stead of ciphers and stereotypes. And in truth he manages to provide some of his countrymen with work, his belief being to portray or create as truthful a verisimilitude as possible. However, film and especially an American film made by Americans are little concerned for the true emotions of the pawns or enemies in their film. When an explosion lands the wounded narrator in the hospital it is a symbolic and total rejection of both him and his views.

And just as in The Black Wax Museum and the Thornton book, the author’s description of those attempting to leave Saigon in its last days , climbing on top of one another, the political bribes and money for passage out, the pressing bodies, the screams, the push and tear of flesh, the despair, the exploding planes, the carnage of bodies torn apart and especially the destruction of his friend’s wife and baby have seared my brain in indelible images. The word. Again, the words that make us( me) create pictures deeply into our imaginations. Coupled with Burns and Novick’s film, especially in Segment 8 The hideous My Lai Massacre, The Sympathizer has carved horrendous events into my mind never to be forgotten.

The brilliance of the documentary is the completeness of here and there, home and away: fresh soldiers in the field, their stories of being prisoners of war and eating a commander’s cat, their realization that a peasant’s hut where there is enough rice to feed six must hide Viet Cong, the Tet offensive, explosions if Agent Orange, crumpled dead…. are juxtaposed with the events back in the States such as the Chicago convention, the brutality of the police on the heads of the idealistic youth, the music of Clearance Clearwater, the burgeoning role of women, civil rights abrogation, films that began to protest the war. It is a panorama of years through which I blithely lived and for which I now feel like weeping.  

My cousin posted on Facebook that it was fifty years ago that he had gone to Viet Nam, never really having openly discussed it when he was home. No doubt the public attitude, the derision heaped on the vets when they returned from the war that lingered on and on, unwinnable and untenable, caused many to rethink why they had not left the country or refused on some moral ground that they would not be manipulated. But most were young, untried, many not focused on a life path between those idyllic years having finished high school, loosely finding themselves and their paths, perhaps trusting their leaders knew what was right and in truth, there was little choice but to go.But they did not repatriate as heroes. Burns’ war speaks to those vets, uplifting them by explaining in a nonjudgmental way, these are your valuable and significant stories, the true history of those days- on both sides, of brilliant young men just like you. And this was the situation- the terrible, terrible situation, but we honour you. We see you at the blaze of experience, fresh, willing, wondrous in a new place with the dream of heroism and moral good in your pockets, too naïve to know you were sacrificial lambs to party votes and politics, maybe believing the American way would be best for all folks- even those in a sweaty, swampy land whose language and traditions you could not fathom. Besides your birthday number was called and maybe it was just fate that recruited you as you sat with your friends around the television set, frozen and waiting to hear how the dice had rolled out and likely ruined your future.

Scary stuff. War stuff. Horrendous stuff.

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Visits to the Graveyard

Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one usually visits one’s ancestors at the cemetery. And so this past Sunday we found ourselves in both Hamilton and Toronto, wandering in the heat to say prayers to those who had lived and were now lost to us. 
The journey to the Beth Jacob cemetery or Gates of Heaven in Hamilton is about a 50 minute drive, eventually snaking over Snake Road, driving over a one car bridge that beneath houses a train track. The place itself edges on a mountain. Here we find much of my husband’s family, most lined up in almost straight formation and called to attention by their surnames.

Some visitors are overwhelmed by emotion. Sadly but neutrally I view my mother- in-law’s name in a double final resting plot, sharing it with her husband, Labol. I never knew my husband’s father who passed away at 42, but I imagine my husband’s finely tuned moral sense and art of the negotiator are derived from the man I’ve only seen in photos. In a bit of a mishmash on her grave is carved the wording, a marble marker that stands in place of the person. There is no suggestion of who she really was, her characteristics, personality or talents, the great affection she spurred in her nieces and nephews. Only the words “wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother” .

Death is certainly the great leveller. Although there are a variety of stone types and shapes, manner of inscriptions and the odd quote here, there is an overall uniformity, perhaps reminiscent of the congregants at City Shul during these holy days . But in truth, I am dry- eyed, feeling little here. She is more in my thoughts and head when I attempt gefelte fish or am reminded of a shower she once hosted for her niece also long dead more than forty- four years ago. I recall she wore white and shone over the proceedings of cake and conversation. A butterfly, in deed.
Later in the day, it is the Toronto cemetery, Beth Tzedec, perfectly maintained and with a greater sense of symmetry than Beth Jacob as there is less choice between size and decoration and inscription here on markers: rules that the mourners will respect. Yet in spite of that, the graveyard is more of a park and one might imagine youths slowly wandering through the paths here, then meandering, stopping on a bench to reflect, gaze inward and connect with their thoughts. Even the flowers decorating graves are stipulated, not a hodgepodge, but a stately collected gathering chosen for memorials , for the eye and leg of those who frequent even as rarely as we do. As is the custom, we place a stone to signify we have come to visit. My husband reads the prayers, and it is done. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem( See below).

Hoping to come and go fairly quickly on this day, we arrive around 4 but spot a graveside funeral that is occurring so close to my parents’ stone that some of the mourners are actually leaning against it, the burial exactly in front. So we make a short pilgrimage to my aunt and uncle’s resting place which is easily locatable because their marker is surrounded by overgrown bushes.

But the funeral lags on, a group under large black and white umbrellas to shelter them from the scorchingly intense heat of early fall weather. We must continue to wait, bearing witness to the passing of a woman we did not know, but unable to move towards reciting our prayers and certainly not wanting to interrupt the sanctity of another’s passing. Finally when we are able to approach, I am- again- not feeling much, perhaps drained by the sun or the frequenting ghosts have flown further skyward to also escape the heat. I read the deeply engraved words on my parents’ stone , noting the familiar design I created of menorah and star particularly for them on the stone.
My parents have been abstracted in this moment, when they should have been most near, as usually in this place, I do conjure them with love, missing them strongly, but their faces or even a sense of them does not come to me; I cannot feel them near.  

The rabbi from the funeral reaches out and takes my hands and I am overwhelmed. As he reaches over the gravesite and our hands clasp over it, I experience a oneness with place, persons, a breaching of time. His is a warm thoughtful, action that extends beyond words as if to echo the “ Heneni” we heard discussed in the Dvar Torah. In a moment, all combines, a Mindfulness moment, “I am here, mummy and daddy.” The rabbi , looking tired, makes the visit real in a sense as the pressure of his hands and mine responding seem to affirm that we are both alive, sentient, reflecting and responding in the place of death. A strange compilation of longing for the dead, standing amidst compressed memories of my growing up life with them but also a bit like Robert Herrick’s Gather he rosebuds while ye may. Talk about T.S. Eliot’s time past, time present, time future! Only later here, I analyze. There, it is the sensation , the pressure of emotion, that is outstanding. Body not mind at all. How ironic as my parents’ bodies are no more, only dust.

Perhaps for the rabbi, it is a means to provide comfort for the mourners, perhaps to him as well, a verification that he stands in the realm of the living when his service that day is to walk among the dead, move as an agent of G-d to dispense comfort, reassurance that life will continue on. The hand holding moves into another dimension for me, the squeezing, the warmth even on a day so hot that flowers wilt . It seems to attest to the ability to be able to draw breath, move in this dimension of life, at least until we no longer are able. I ruminate at the simplicity of the gesture, no elaborate words, no soulful looks, mere touch that supersedes all else in that moment. It connotes kindness, respect and care. I appreciate it, especially as I am bereft of tears.

I’m reminded of the military gravestones in San Diego, all in strict accordance for markers of service people, small rectangulars standing at attention, much like a frozen wall of waves that stretches on and on, indistinguishable, one from the other. Yet even here on this Sunday, we in this place, must hunt a bit among the dead to scout out our loved ones.

Some people visit cemeteries as in the ones in Paris like Pere Lachaise that is home to famous writers and writers. Occasionally we have also veered off the beaten track of cities to also honour the dead. As in Buenas Aires to see Evita Peron’s family tomb- where she may or not be contained. There unending sculptures of angels in pink marble, some the size of tiny houses. The rich are celebrated in death as they did in life.

In New Orleans, St. Louis cemetery in the French Quarter, showcases an interesting arrangements “ a city of the dead” because of the high water level, so corpses are baked in their family graves- the dust of generations mingling as family member after family member share the same final resting spot.Ashes to ashes..all shattered urns…

In Prague, the magnificent 14 th century surviving Jewish cemetery where the intermingling of rural and urban traditions coalesced. Usually there is no human depiction in Judaism as the Bible forbids “ images”; however here, if my memory serves me, we view depicted on the angled surviving almost toppled tombstones the profession of the one buried: a baker with his bread, for example, not just detruncated blessing hands or a flame, or menorah marking the spot, deemed acceptable by the faith.

Years back there were benevolent societies that were set aside for Jewish burials. Immigrant and even resident Jews formed groups to assist their kin: no doubt spurred in by the antisemitism they encountered at work, school and university quotas and restrictive practices and attitudes of their neighbours. Their aim in building a better society resulted in the Mount Sinai and Western hospitals in Toronto. My father once told me that his mother sold bricks to raise money for the later. Near my house, on Roselawn, precious real estate space was once the outreaches of the city, far from Kensington Market and so here far from city core was the resting place for Jews. I visit my progenitors, Molly and Sam, this week, taking with me implements to tidy their graves. Maybe once , I had visited the graves when my mother was in her middle years although on the passing of my father, I stood outside the gates and called in through my tears, “Buby Molly, do you know? Your son has died.”

There is a taboo of graveyards as if the dead will pull you in and mark your days so even the recitation of Kaddish or prayers for the dead at the conclusion of services at synagogue incites the gong that ushers those with living parents quickly out of the congregation. We wash our hands as we leave the cemetery too, water taps installed within the gates, metaphorical again perhaps.

Although we do not ruminate on the dead, during our high holidays, the visits to cemeteries stimulate sobering thoughts reminding us to put life in perspective.

Emily Dickinson’s “ Because I could not stop for Death”,

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –

The Dews drew quivering and Chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

Good People

It is in these days of “awe” that we ponder being good so we can be written into the “Book of Life”. As early as Hebrew kindergarten, our teachers drew mammoth books that sprawled across the green chalk boards and pointed to the pages wherein our names might be inscribed. Of course, there were rules that permitted us entry: prayer , good deeds, atonement, confession. And so the high holidays are the few days of attendance at synagogue where there is almost a full contingent of worshippers hoping that their presence will besiege G- d to grant them if not long life, at least another year on this earth. I think the dark and ominous Hebrew school image pervades the minds of many. However, for others as we discussed yesterday at my sister-in- law’s after shul lunch, there is a sense of community fostered in places of worship, especially at the thought of momentous events: an opportunity by choice to congregate with those related by religion or choice of religion.  
 

I’ve said it before : that Elyse Goldstein, the rabbi, who recasts a church on Bloor Street into a place of Jewish worship is able to flawlessly create that community, to welcome all who would like to come , gather, pray, attend and enable them to feel they are part of something bigger than just themselves. Having departed a more organized Conservative synagogue years ago, we have followed her throughout the city, when basketball hoops were adorned with flowers and purple convention centres made room for the overflowing mass of attendees.

 Surprisingly on the first day of the High Holidays, the Dvar Torah which is a commentary on the Torah reading was for the first time in my years of attendance -disappointing. Usually the speaker will reflect on an idea, even a personal experience and move from the self outward towards a scholarly or universal comment, spurred on by the portion of the day from the Torah. This time, the speaker focused on and about himself, forgetting his responsibility to the community to broaden , to enlighten, to move outward. I’m quite sure he felt others would see his story as emblematic , even iconic. Instead it was thin, self- serving. Instead of fast attention to new insights, people fidgeted, looked away, were disappointed. At least, we were even annoyed, as he had used the wise and painful words of a former speaker in years past to introduce his talk. So instead of a probing search that introduced a connection to inspire, we were given something that was not in the same class, even ballpark, as previous heartfelt messages.

But also, fortunately, yesterday on the poorly attended second day( people must feel one day will suffice to secure their life in earth), the second Dvar Torah  presenter played on the meaning of Heneni,  meaning Here I am, the words used by Abraham when G- d bids him take his son to slaughter. (In a provocative way, Jonathan Safran Foyer has used the expression in his novel, playing off this exclamation that suddenly initiated a cessation of all activities ,causing Abraham to stand rock still ,listen and become accountable for his actions.). As well,at Goldstein’s place of worship, a rabbinical student provided a riveting story, worthy of Ira Glass’s NPR entitled, “ I walked into San Quentin jail.” Lenzner( spelling apologizes) addressed “ the torah within” as he recounted the “ Torah stories” shared by people he met en route to the jail, their special sparks, and godlike qualities. Removed from the vagaries and daily concerns, we were reminded of youth as the torch- bearers into issues of social justice, thoughtfulness and reflection.
Yet,  in this era of cell phones, people are primarily concerned with themselves and have to be told to turn off  the damn things. As I  ruminate on the contrasting speeches, I think  of Transparent whose ground breaking work in television showcases trans people and  I experienced dislike for the characters in the show. I never responded to the Seinfeld people either,  judging them selfish, self- centred types whose own reoccupations with themselves  most often  overtook the interests or concerns of others. Yet in their defence, usually they were a funny outrageous lot. Yet Transparent’s people continually wound , hurt and disregard the feelings of others. The topic ,of course, is serious stuff so as a spectator to their unravelling lives, I have empathized,  considered and felt myself open to their inactions. But I have noted Maura insisting on a Kaddish at the end of an inspiring community havdalah that turns the end of the Sabbath into a dirge- even as the rabbi tries unsuccessfully to stop him. In this case, I don’t disagree on his insistence of wanting to honour the dead, but woefully, it is the time and place , forcing her own desires on everyone else, asserting them over any one else’s, ignoring the rabbi’s voice, deaf to the pleas entreating, “Please stop!” We see this time and again in Transparent where individual needs impact painfully on others, no one apparently self- reflective enough to put another first.
Here I am not being critical of this community as Seinfeld’s and people we meet every day share in this me- first attitude. Sadly, it is these aspects of human behaviour that rear their unkindly heads.

I was taught somewhere that Hillel, the sage was asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Non- plussed, he replied: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” I like the wisdom and the simplicity of the statement. But I suppose that means to think before acting, contemplate, be mindful, reflect.

For my parents  on these high holidays, they sought the community of one another. They did not attend synagogue, even as both sets of grandparents had been the founders of two established synagogues in Toronto when immigrants arrived. My father felt betrayed by G-d by his polio so he found his own way of praying as he still considered himself a Jew. He and my mother would spend the two days in Agawa Canyon or some other beautiful place in Northern Ontario, appreciating the fall weather, riding a train into the landscape, participating in their own way in the coming of the new year. They did not work on that day, as Sandy  Koufax refused to play the World Series game. They chose to be part, yet apart from the larger Jewish community. And I have no problem with that.

My father demonstrated that to be a good Jew meant to be a good person and he lived that mantra in his speech, interactions, behaviour and decorum. The essence, I believe, of Rosh Hashanah and the days of awe leading up to Yom Kippur, with the ritual cleansing by fast. For him, his life was humble, exemplar. Without fancy dress, elaborate words, over bearing presence and certainly no public declaration of “ his goodness”, he did what he did. So too, do numerous people who do not use the pulpit for self- aggrandizement. And worse yet, many do not even realize they do. As the first speaker at the pulpit for the Dvar Torah did.

Yet at City Shul, it is also community and the weird connection that is sustained by everyone reading the same words , whether in San Diego, Berlin or Jerusalem, at the same time, coming together for the same purpose: to greet another year with thoughts of the past year and how we might atone, go forth, improve ourselves by our actions.
In truth, humanity is expressed by simple gestures. Last week I received a note from a fellow who had worked with my father in 1950, a note that opened a river of emotions and allowed me insight into my father that I had forgotten. Instead of parents and protectors, my hardworking good parents were warm, bubbling , reserved but friendly people: a perspective we tend to overlook or forget as the years go by, solidifying  them into stereotypes and moments that have come to be frozen in our heads. Harry( Harold) gave my sister and me a precious gift, a renewed way to remember them. His kind gesture meant the world to us. It is in this way, that kindness, remembrance, renewed thoughts and feelings can occur in the new year: to trigger by reflection a way to move ahead.
As it is written,

Our origin is dust,

and dust is our end,

Each of us is a shattered urn,

a grass that must wither.

a flower that will fade, 

a shadow moving on, 

a cloud passing by,

a particle of dust floating in the wind,

a dream soon forgotten.

Holiday Food

It happens every September: the holidays.

Yet, somehow preparation seems less this year, Rosh Hashanah always providing an opportunity to try out new recipes, but I’m feeling laid back and so in contemplating deserts, the end rather than the kickoff to the meal, I revert to a low fat chocolate cake. Truthfully, it is sweets more often than the savouries that entrap me. The Canadian Jewish News presents, as always, an tempting array of apple cakes in multiple ways so I decide to combine two recipes. But one delectable desert offering will never suffice as my eaters will groan, but actually anticipate at least a second or even a third. My friend a thespian from Stratford, a superlative chef once made a plum cake, explaining the purple- blue plums are only available at this time of year. So instead of the Silver Palates’ great apple pies, I take the road less travelled by and hope that doesn’t result in lesser taste: even though the firmness of peaches this year calls out for a home in a pie. I’m excited to see if Joe’s plum tart is as delicious as I remembered it to be. I do worry that freezing may play with the flavours, but I have no choice but to shuffle down to the basement where our discarded unit lives besides the Whirlpools. 

However my continuing motto is to have more than just one happy ending and so, if fruit is not to your taste, or if the result is less than anticipated, there’s that backup chocolate although I’m not sure how different kinds of sugar renders it “low fat” as decreed by its title. I seem to recall this recipe was also clipped from the newspaper when Mike Harris tightened and destroyed our economy . Something ironic like a play on Marie Antoinette’s Let them eat cake, I conjure. But I know at least that this concoction , in spite of its labelling , is tasty, tried and true.

The starters are typical for a traditional meal: gefelte fish, never a choice for my son in law. Maybe it is the naked look of poached palish yellowish fish that turns him off. And of course, the menu must contain chicken soup- which reminds me I need to make another set of matzoh balls as mine from the Lillian Kaplan recipe book were so light that I fear they will disintegrate into greyish globs in the soup. Maybe the peaks of the frothy egg whites painstakingly separated deserved more time at the mismatched prongs of the mixer.

 

Gefelte fish is the true challenge. Although I’ve attempted it for years now, it does not resemble my mother-in- law’s in spite of her bequeathing her recipe. I recall quizzing her about a stage in the process because I was afraid the balls would glom together as they cooked. Her response was“ You’ll see. They won’t.”
I do order the finest freshest chopped fish although she would always comment that the fish were kept really fresh in her family’s bathroom tub in Hamilton. My fish shop may wonder why I only appear at their store only once a year, but no matter, as the exorbitant cost results from hand chopping of several varieties of white fish and pickerel and a touch of salmon, bloodied heads and bones included in a separate plastic bag. But my issue revolves around the flavouring as I tend to go light on spice, afraid of overwhelming taste buds. When I first attempted it, I despised the smell. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace the aroma, feeling it impregnates with the sweet smell of the fish gently poaching in the shallow pot for two or more hours. Although the smell is long gone by the time my guests come to the table, perhaps it is this imagined odour that causes my son- in- law’s lips to curl.

I am aware that the latest fashion is to purchase a gefelte fish loaf and cook it in the oven but, I am a hard- nosed purist, wanting to know exactly what is in the product. Except for my children’s insistence on Kraft Dinner, I have always cooked from scratch. I followed Adele Davis when they were young, so aware of preparing their baby food from vegetables and meats purchased only hours before to preserve their ingredients.

 And in truth, many of those loaves are delicious although none meets the standards of my mother-in- law’s fish, now passed away.Alough she does not people my thoughts on a regular basis, her ghost frequents on Rosh Hashanah. Similarly, it is Friday nights with which I associate my mother, jumping from the table to fetch and serve, her fricasse and simple roasted chicken the stars that teased our drooling mouths. Good on Friday, but so delicious on Saturday as the leftover carcass and potatoes allowed to deepen their flavours over night.How she completed an entire meal was astounding as the oven door never closed completely and she knew not to even try to bake as customers to our hi fidelity store, situated in front of our living quarters, would inevitably appear at the crucial time of removing the cake from the oven. But the memories, naturally, differ between my mother and my mother-in- law, my mother, a gentle hovering spirit surrounding the meal with her presence.

My chicken soup I admit is divine. A concoction of carrots, celery, onion, parsley and parsnips passed through cheesecloth is based somewhat on that supreme dowager of Jewish cooking Lillian Kaplan.For some reason she suggests adding and then removing an eggshell, which often I do, rosemary and tomato paste and accent, which I don’t. I make the soup the day before so all, well at least, most of the congealed fat, can be skimmed from the surface in a hard piece, where it has risen after a night in the downstairs refrigerator. Into fine teacup shaped soup bowls of the finest porcelain that once belonged to my mother’s mother, I will spoon a matzo ball, egg noodles, sliced carrots confiscated from the soup and possibly a chicken kreplach. One of my forever guests nibbles only at the kreplach, the one store bought commodity of the meal and apparently the only part of the meal she finds appealing. I note this but do not enquire why. But I notice her plate rearranged to suggest eating.

As we move to the main course, it is a beautiful turkey stuffed with a combo of freshly made cornbread and shitaki mushrooms. My mother combined rice and button mushrooms and it too was very pleasing , but my husband’s concoction from the Frog Cookbook is the best, a lovely combination of slight crunch from the cornbread and velvety smoothness from the mushrooms. Herbs of course are purchased fresh, not dispensed from a container or jar. I believe they enhance with their pungent flavours. I do a combination of cranberries and oranges for the sauce although again I note many eaters go for the canned variety. The Frog salad has also become a staple although the croutons, first cut then baked in the oven, then sautéed in loads of butter with fresh thyme, salt and pepper are only one of the several ingredients in this assemblage of romaine, artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. Often time I serve it in a bowl my aunt Marion once gifted me so her presence also hovers near.

Most Jewish people I know opt for brisket, but something about the stringiness of the meat puts me off. I’ve overheard people say that either marinating it or cooking it in Coca-Cola makes a fantastic dish although most prefer hours of slow cooking. I’m unaware of where my aversion to brisket is derived. I don’t recall my mother cooking or overcooking it. And even I have glimpsed its presence in the showcases of butcher shops,  where truly it looks quite nice and entreats me to give it a chance in my menu. I ignore its pleas.

In years passed, my son’s friends from Vancouver would also come to our house. One year I made as many pancakes as I could find recipes for: zucchini, potato, yams, whatever vegetable was available. We laughed at the mounds of colours, shapes and sizes that were continually pouring out of the kitchen. In other years, chicken wings, various kugels, raw Brussels sprout salads, chicken wings, carrot and raisin combos and an attempt at stuffed knishes: whatever caught my eye in a magazine or cook book. Now with the addition of Harvard beets, the dinner is scaled back to fish, soup, two kugels, salad, turkey, stuffing and the deserts.

Perhaps the original concept of the huge supper had to do with a long journey into a new year where one should be fortified for the trials of the excursion by food that would support long walks to the market, through the shetl and on to see the mischpuka. As well, I’m sure it was Jews who lauded the notion of brain food- schmaltz greasing the wheels of cognition. As well, Marc Chagall wife’, Bella’s memoir Burning Lights is never far from my thoughts as she described the family suppers that punctuated the seasons with family arriving in Vitebsk, Russia, with  pekalah of food on their backs, days of walking in order to join family in supper prayers for the new year.

So it is that I prepare for the supper, a gathering to herald a year that we all pray will be kind , peaceful and prosperous in many ways. Best of all is to have the family all together, though longing for my grandchildren in Philadelphia to be present at the ritual dinner, to be able to romp with their cousins, laugh at the misshapen matzoh balls, wrinkle their noses at gefelte fish, chomp done on turkey. Yet, I am blessed to be able to provide food, company and support to those who come, welcoming the others away to the entourage in my head : reminders of what is truly important in the times to come. 

Brushes with the rich and famous:Diana

With the arrival of TIFF, Lady Gaga and Jessica Chastain, Andre Leon Talley in the city, I think about some of “the stars” , one in particular whose memory was conjured by her passing twenty years ago last week. Pictures and media reminders of Princess Diana sparked a memory of my own, one that along with a dinner sitting practically adjacent Bill Clinton in Martha’s Vineyard Black Dog, reminded me of chance encounters in our lives. 

Back when Bob Rae was premier, we were invited to the yacht Britannia with the Royals for a supper on board. When an invitation arrived, we believed it a hoax perpetrated by someone with a deliciously wicked sense of humour. But when it was followed up a day or so later by a thickly- accented attaché on the the telephone, we knew we would be in for an adventure.Instructions followed on proper protocol as we were instructed on bows and curtsies , dress lengths and no touching of the bodies of the Prince or the Princess, should I decide to greet them both in great bear hug. As the day approached, I fretted over velvet or taffeta and hair- dos, curly or straight, manners and behaviours that were deemed appropriate and proper for the event.

The night was rainy and dark. We stopped our car in line, told to wait until a uniformed person with a huge umbrella escorted us towards the boat and our car disappeared. The captain formally met us at the door, smoothly welcoming us on board as if we had known him for ages. I marvelled at his ease of making tinkling conversation, relaxing and settling us into light and charming conversation. I glimpsed Norman Jewison, Cito Gaston, John Tory,Lincoln Alexander, a few others of the chosen gathered for the opportunity to gawk at the monarchy at close range.

We heard all food and drink had been brought from England, thus dispelling the worry of anyone attempting to poison his and her highnesses. Years ahead of Games of Thrones, the attendants on the royal yacht were not taking any chances that the wines, each perfectly aligned to food courses, might be laced with more than vintage wine.

We searched with our eyes to find some prized trinket, engraved soap, list of seating arrangements for visitors to take home, discreetly removed while we supped, but sadly nothing lay about to testify to our presence there that night in 1991 : only our memories would survive the few scheduled hours.

Greeted by Prince Charles, I was surprised by his warmth, his knowledge of architecture pertaining to Ontario and especially Osgoode Hall, his learned ability to chat, converse, even raise knowledgeable insights. He had memorized our bios well, poised and attentive, providing us with several pleasant minutes. All stylized and customized, but mesmerizing. I even found him attractive unlike his newspaper pictures.

But interrupting this choreographed reception entered Diana- regally tall, exuding a presence of aloneness and no desire at all to be present. I noted her stunning black dress and her huge pearl earrings , the like I have never seen before or since. Enclosed in her self- contained circle momentarily, she seemed to rebuff any interaction with the invited on board.But suddenly the spell was broken as her boys, William and Harry, appeared. She ran towards them. She swooped towards them , gathering them into her outspread arms, and pulled them close. No longer, the unapproachable distant icon, she was transformed into the adoring mother, a person who was smitten by her children, instructing them to shake hands and nod to the visitors. In that instant, she became human, the ice melting around her. The Currier and Ives photos, the slightly frayed rug, the others in attendance all vanished. The emotion of love eclipsing all else, dispelling the Cinderella myth for the reality of pure parental adoration. Not the pretence of royalty, but the simple pleasure of a mother with her children.

She never spoke to us, inclined her head, or even managed a smile during dinner- once her boys had been taken back to their suites. No doubt where she longed to tuck them into bed and read them a story. Without even a passing look between Charles and Diana, they were obviously two very distant constellations.

So many years later and especially last weekend when she was chased to her death by the paparazzi, I think of that evening, but especially of Diana. And as it has been reported and retold, she was so much more than her position, the people’s princess.

Summer Jaunts

My son writes from Chicago, describing the activities of his family on one of their first summer trips with their young sons. I read with relish about the foam pit, exploring museums of technology and science, the planetarium, doing selfies at the shiny bean in Millennial Park, boat cruises on the historic river cruise, Beethoven in the park( no doubt in that wonderful, Gehry structure that resembles kettle drums askew), an eyepopping Broadway production of Aladdin with a real flying carpet. Even a few lines in an email crunched after an exhausting day and random photos extend the enthusiasm and joy of the family. I feel their excitement.

I’m reminded of the forays we took with our kids and try to recall the first. Was it to Boston and Tangelwood , lounging on the grass, listening to the Boston pops, and was there a star performer? I reflect that it was likely the same time we confused Sturbridge and Stockbridge, our plan to visit the historical children’s village nearby. I ponder, Was that the same time we also spent happy hours engaged at the kids science museum in Boston? I have memories of an entrance all shiny and metallic. Funny how time clouds it all. 

As a girl in the summers in Toronto, I’ld volunteer at the day camp at my school, a loose tangle of kids with nothing much to do, the rich kids all ready away in Muskokoa, but at least a handful of us organized to keep us outside in the sun and away from our homes.But for two weeks or less, usually, mid or late July , my parents would take us out of the city, usually sweaty and breathless car jaunts that we could afford, more I believe for the sense of freedom my father felt as he drove the open road, the equal of all drivers on a quest. He searched for trains, science museums, antique cars- hardly of interest to me, but fascinating to him. No tripadvisor then, just paper maps, free from the gas station, used to consult for highway routes.

I was bored, trapped in the car with my sister who was occasionally carsick and puked. We stayed at Howard Johnsons then, believed to be pretty spiffy by my parents, my delight the magazine stand where sometimes we were allowed to purchase a chocolate bar and a book. For some unknown reason one summer, we drove to Florida, one unbearably hot summer, burning our skin and indulging in pink watermelon to cool us off, my father disapprovingly admonishing my mother, sister and me about sun exposure. My father never sat in the sun, always in the shade pouring over Popular Mechanics, Consumer Reports, never a real book. I wondered why as I devoured book after book, having discovered fanciful tales and interesting people therein.

 Several times a year, we also drove to Buffalo and purchased our Susan van Husan shirts for $2.98 and if we were really lucky- on to Batavia where the toy store of our dreams existed. These were memorable excursions for setting the tone for being together, extending our boundaries, learning new things and being educated in how different life was outside our own home. In spite of my thorough dislike of the backseat ride, there was, as well, a thrill about travel, packing up, crossing borders. My mother always cringed at the US’s custom’s inquiry, afraid her folded green paper documents that did not resemble our small plastic rectangles signifying we were born in Canada, might identify her as an imposter. She carried childhood memories from her entrance to Canada at Pier 19, Nova Scotia as a five year old. She would retell stories of lice- inspection in Holland with steel combs that deeply penetrated her tender scalp, the looming imposition inquisition of guards, her quaking fear.

Yet our forays from the summer heat, these brief excursions set the model for the trips I would take with my own children years later. I never really considered whether we would go , but where. Others might plant their children with relatives or at camp, preferring alone- time with a spouse, but never my husband and me. We were a unit , adults revealing the wonder of the world to our kids, becoming kids again ourselves as we shared in their new experiences. Fresh eyes provided new perspectives and unexpected revelations from the innocence of a child’s purview. Besides, loosened from home rules, there was a certain freedom being on the road, away from constricting boundaries. That was invigorating too.

What stands out in my mind is New York when I was a girl. I must have been incredibly bored on the long drive, every few minutes, driving my parents crazy with my interminable “ When we will get there?” Their response was always maddeningly the same” Look out the window, Pat, “punctuated by The Alphabet and I Spy Something with my little eye games. Still I remember the Oliver Cromwell hotel, really a little dump, not that I judged it that way back then, but my parents’ reactions to the drab brown interior, likely way too expensive, pervaded my sensibilities. We were treated and awed by the Hayden Planetarium and Radio City’s the Rockettes. Knowing New York as I do now, I have no idea how my father on crutches manipulated this trip, his car, or us. My mother, impressed with herself, often repeated how she as an 8 year old girl had been charged to take her brothers by subway alone to the World’s Fair so many years back. Never allowed to take buses or subways by myself at an early age, I could not imagine her immigrant parents letting her!

Mentored by Sid and Goldie, my father’s sister and idolized brother in law , we were instructed into the educational possibilities of every trip, searching for the events and opportunities to extend our learning. My mother especially was in awe of their knowledge, names such as child psychologist gurus Piaget , Gesell, or even Dr. Spock, the lords of child- rearing. My cousin Jon was considered, in spite of the bragging rights of Goldi’s cousins, the infant terrible, the first born, the wunderkint, worthy of special schooling such as Dr. Blott’s school for the gifted, and obviously one reason for my aunt and uncle’s deep research into all books and things educative. Which obviously they must have communicated to my parents.

My other aunt, Marion ,considered herself the elite, the diva, particularly in all knowledge worth knowing. But her realm was theoretical, divorced from the practical and certainly the useful: wherein my parents actually excelled. And so we benefitted from all, although much of Marion’s insights were disregarded as high falutting fluff, worthless, but my mother’s talent in singing, her practicality, my father’s work in hi fidelity coupled with both his and Sid’s love for anything musical shaped our world. Unable to afford concerts, we were nonetheless surrounded by radio and records both classical and big band. Yet later, I found Marion a kindred soul, for her interest in the visual, for unlike the aurally- focused of my family, I could not discern the beauty of sound, discovering my solace in prints and pictures.

So we followed in the mould set out by my parents, taking our kids away for three months in Europe, staying in gites or homes, rather rentable cottages, that were close enough to castles or attractions I had pursued in Michelin, Fromer, travel,guides…Our children 10, 8 and 5 sprung from school for three months were exposed to art and churches, not the science my father had preferred because of my passion veering towards the visual and I wanted to share the stained glass, the sculpture of the medieval, the painting collections that had inspired me in the darkened rooms at university. As well, there were the hikes into mountains, the tasting of new foods and adventures we deemed specific to the children’s evolution as sentient beings. In Montebuono, we sweltered in the heat, but escaped to a nearby modern swimming pool where kids had to squeeze their heads into green Alia caps and after splashing wildly in the sanitized pool, munch pizza in the outdoor café; in Dordogne, Madame Bourret would bring us freshly baked pastries by her husband who strangely wandered the property in his underpants; in Brittany we shivered in a house recommended by Howard’s colleague where we drank cavaldos to warm ourselves in the drizzling rain in an unheated house ; in Paris, we needed two tiny rooms to house our group of five, Howard and Jordan sneaking out to ferret Chinese food, the girls and I watching those shows where people do outrageous things such as trying to grab balls the size of a house and swinging from obstacle to obstacle. I chortle to remember our son’s first tears upon having to leave his friends in Toronto brought full circle as he cried again to depart our European adventures.

Best of all was the kids’ exquisite use of language as they easily slipped into conversation with local people in France, we, the adults knowing to keep our garbled tongues to ourselves.I recall the look of the townspeople impressed by the confidence and ease with which all three communicated: the result of French immersion, that in spite of negatively impacting their Math skills, heightened their abilities to think and speak in a language different from their everyday one. In those days, with the father Trudeau, we conceived ourselves as both English and French, and a future for our children that might necessitate their knowledge of French should they travel far from our shores to pursue an international profession. There was a pride of having a dual citizenship of both founders of our country.

The years traveling with our children were some of the richest moments in my life. Surveying my life and examining it from the viewpoint of accumulated years, I can review the good – and of course the bad, the unintentional mishaps caused by stress, lack of information short sightedness, reacting too quickly, not listening properly: myriad reasons. However, we did hand down a daily pattern of living and vacationing, and a way of approaching life, gleaned from my own wise parents.

We eventually discover that one never has total freedom to choose and set their own path, yet we can set up small diversions, those family jaunts where alone and on the road, you see and hear and experience special relationships of warmth and wonder: that do endure a lifetime. At least ours have.

Summer Roundup

As a child, I believed summer stretched forever, an unending beach that unwound along the endless shore. And even though I now spend part of my year in San Diego, summer here at home always beckons with the feel of promise, a break from routine. 

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 But this summer has been unusual and has vanished in a flash, but as I reflect on it, I have to admit there have been some really wonderful moments. In spite of Howard’s fall, our travels in overcast rainy Europe were fun, particularly wandering through Copenhagen’s Fredericksberg park and watching the baby elephants nuzzle their moms; and as tourists feeling welcome in that city as we sought out differing varieties of cinnamon buns at local cafes. But even as a girl traveller I was drawn to Copenhagen time again, maybe the magic of the Tivoli drawing me in.

And recently, our time in Berlin was something very special too, the echoes of the clang of the war incongruous with the present day ascendancy of an incredible aesthetic, particularly in its magnificent eclectic buildings. There is a buzz here, particularly the art scene, exemplified in the outdoor East Gallery marking where one section of The Wall demarcated the city. Even hobbling and waiting in line, Howard responded to the Pergamon, museum of antiquities, remarking with awe at the turquoise tiles of the Gates of Ishtar with its dragons, serpents and strange creatures assembled piece by piece in the museum by wise architects -way before IKEA numbered their pieces, and the Marketplace at Miletus from 2 AD reconstructed by the Germans after an earthquake in the 1900’s.

We wandered and read and tried to imagine Berlin divided into quadrants. We walked and walked, each morning there at a tiny bakery where the fraus upbraided Howard. Their kuchen fresh from the oven, fragrant with heat and spice, a perfect way to begin the day after our nights spent at the fabulous boutique Hotel Am Steinplatz , an art nouveau designed hotel where Brigitte Bardot and Nabokov slept- but not together.

Berlin hustles and throbs, the people aloof and mainly unhelpful. Yet a supper at Nobelhart and Schmutzig, greeted at the locked door by a man with a messy man bun askew at the top of his head was memorable for its rose blush on venison, tiny new potatoes dusted with lavender and fennel ice cream. Along the long bar, we were seated beside a hotelier from Hawaii whose lover lived in Norway. The restaurant reminded us of Allo, Canada’s number one restaurant, but focused on locally grown ingredients allowed to shine in themselves, not entwined with myriad others- quite spectacular, except perhaps for the frozen, grated pinecones! They described their cooking art a “performance” and their chefs “actors,”and it was true that we were served with great confidence as our offerings were meticulously described.

Berlin overwhelms as you never can see it all, museums, intriguing spaces, that contrast of old and new that is difficult to assess and evaluate. As a Jew, I wish for an enduring rebuke to the past, but as a human touched by the evolving growth of an incomparable city, I applaud the beauty of advancement, that beat of art and architecture that pervades this perplexing city.

And in the raggedly beautiful Dubrovnik overrun by cruise ships, reminded me of Italy’s Cinqueterre with orange tiled roofs amid overgrown shrubbery. It too was an amazement, the quiet of tainted Lokrum where one cannot stay at night or die!, so the legend warns, reached by the gently rocking ferry. And later home watching Games of Thrones and recognizing the throne from which the wicked Geoffrey and manipulative Cerses committed their disastrous crimes, and the comment by a salesperson in the old city on the origin of the tee- shirts: “They’re crap”, he gleefully offered,”but the tourists love’em”. Huge smile.

And in spite of the torn thigh muscle for Howard , a milestone birthday where the stunning grandchildren all in sparkling white, assembled to pull off a surprise that even the all knowing Howard had not uncovered. An evening in the Cave Springs Winery, really a soirée of a tiny familial group prancing and dancing to the guitars of father, son and teacher as they strung and sang. Children well behaved, twirling, whirling and delightful to be caught by the artful photographer in a night not to be forgotten. Perfected scenes frozen forever we will want to return to and wonder at : four month old Georgia’s twinkling smile ; the mischievous antics of the boys; Aaron’s wild fling of a dance in a secluded corner; Carter’s impeccable rendition of Hallejuah on the recorder; or Remy finally breaking into smile at the black eyed susan; an overtired Rhett by the end of the evening, running around the table, signalling it was time for festivities to end . And Howard, who in spite of insisting on no celebration, had celebrated, the rock star of his own event. And me, quietly appreciating the ephemeral bliss of family when every carefully planned element falls into place, even the weather gods calling off the storms in the nick of time. Just wondrous.

There were quieter times too as we went to Stratford to catch a play.

We are aware but unaware of time, only marvelling in the photos of how we have changed: stomachs less taut, wrinkles more, faces softened by the years. One protagonist in Wagamese’s Ragged Company book reflects on how we cannot stop time, but how it is in us, as we change, but hold our memories of what has passed in ourselves and in photos as well. There is no evidence of time, no tangible proof. We cannot grab a handful of it, or take a picture of it as it moves: slowly, when I was a schoolgirl contemplating my days away from school; quickly as an adult when years appear to disintegrate and I ponder what events occurred just three or five short years ago. Yet I know poets have lamented, contemplated and considered on the passage of time, the incongruities as they explored times past, present and future, attempting to capture all in thoughtful, meandering words , a response to the unending march that eventually consumes us all.

This summer, the terrorist attacks, the idiocy of a Trump response to Charlottesville and the threat of North Korea elicit my thoughts of years long gone, of how my mother hoped for a better world for her children and the future. But even today, the 21st century, we are insecure in a world threatened by bombs, antisemitism and discrimination. Yet my friend Anne rebuked by her brother for her narrow view of the world submits there is beauty and good in the world too and she chooses to focus on that rather than the wider circle of the awfulness we read of, and experience vicariously every day in the news media.

Perhaps that is why my small candles in the light wash over me today as I seek to share them in my blog.

Gratitude.

.Hauntings

In Richard Wagamese’s novel, Ragged Company, he presents his characters who are aware of the dead, passed spirits who are somehow present- by the side of the road, or even present at movie theatres. The four protagonists in the story accept them , acknowledging them without a second thought.
How do we feel about things or places imbued by those we once knew but who no longer inhabit this earthly realm? Yesterday as I walked out in the rare sunshine we’ve had this summer, for a second or so, I thought I recognized a few people on the street, but upon reflection, realized theyhad passed away. When someone dies, these spottings happen frequently, as a certain gait, the flutter of a scarf or even a body shape seems familiar and makes us want to rush over and greet them, grab their arm and say hi. Suddenly we are caught up by the realization that it’s not the person we thought it was, someone different and we feel kind of silly, but also duped or tricked by our maginations.
One friend engulfed by a storm of butterflies and another continually visited by a cloud of blue Jays insisted it was their dead husbands who wanted their presence felt. My  daughter reminisced  of a storm of hummingbirds that surrounded the casket of an adolescent whom she had treated, an ingenue too soon gone, but whose devotion to these tiny birds was well known.

Sometimes I wish I could feel my mother’s presence, encounter her on the street or have her come to me in a dream. I fear she harboured feelings of resentment before she died because I would not, could not remove her from the hospital at the end of her life. There was her suppressed rage, her seething anger and truly, I did not know how to handle it. I turned cold and she, she too was a separate frigid island, so different to the person who had guided and ensured my growing up . In deed my lingering memories are of her refusing to talk to me, more upsetting as we  had shared a warm and loving relationship throughout her entire life, she my constant support and later, my treasured friend. When she died , I felt as if the final words of companionship had not been uttered, her blaze of indignity and my helplessness in the situation unresolved.
In contrast, my sister was there when a passing rabbi entered her room to blow the shofar the eve of Rosh Hashana and I believe they experienced the warmth of the moment together. Later Wendy fed her spoonfuls of chicken soup. Then she was gone, vanished forever. As all must. Her words for me missing, caught somewhere, hanging, never released in the warmth of a smile, a touch I knew so well.
If I believed in an afterlife, I would have called out in the forty days, some say where the spirit circles, sending a caress  to her cheek or apologizing for my own standoffish manner in those final days. Perhaps because a hospital domain is my sister’s habitat, she knew how to ease her patient’s pain, make her comfortable, assuage her wants. But like my mother who dreaded and avoided hospitals at all costs, I withdrew. She had often recalled being an immigrant child coldly examined by indifferent doctors like some migrant specimen, and then with my father’s confinement at Riverdale when he had polio, she would lament that she had had “ her belly full of doctors”, their misdiagnoses, their pronouncements, their callousness, their unfeelingness to her emotional angst. With my cereal, I ingested her attitude, fear and resentment of the profession, myself demonstrating the “ white coat syndrome” of ridiculously high blood pressure when having to be seen, even by the kindest docs. Interestingly my sister embraced and not surprisingly, I retreated from doctors.
If I knew she hovered above, or wherever the dead persist, if they do, in deed, I would have entreated her to intercede in one particular family issue, but then, maybe the dead are only observers, witnesses to how life folds and unfolds from the unseen domaine of the spirits. But why should I harbour illusions of their power? From the tales of my friends and daughter, I want to believe they can turn themselves into a clump of butterflies or leave me a message in my dreams, but in the three years she has been gone, I have not experienced either.
Wagamese in Ragged Company suggests they are voices in our heads and maybe this is true, and rather than a ruminating superego who constantly warns us against crossing the street against the lights or running with scissors, they like Casper the Friendly Ghost provide safeguards for us. He, an Ojibway writer, reflects the world of his ancestors. I’m unsure what the Polish shtetl had to bequeath about the dead.  The year my mother and Jordan, early graduated from high school, were to share a grandmother- grandson trip to Las Vegas, she was hit by a car crossing the road near the corner of her apartment. She swore my father had instructed her to pull in her legs- or they would have been crushed. A concussion, blackened eyes, badly  bruised, she never traveled after that incident, another event we would hear her relate.
Wagamese through his protagonist the homeless tender Amelia One Sky also explains that when something sad happens in some place with some people, we leave a part of ourselves there, apart that wanted or needed hints to come out differently, a part that got separated from itself, a shadow of ourselves. Likely, I hunger for a resolution at my mother’s bedside, awaiting a final word of blessing or love, something that would crystallize decades of caring and constant love between us.

 

Says Amelia or her street name, One for the Dead, “If we never get right with it and we’re asked to move to the spirit world , that shadow stays here, revisiting those places and those people, hoping maybe that it can reclaim the part that got lost. By watching us learn to deal with our hurt, our losses, and reach out to life again. It tells them we’re okay. That they don’t need to patrol, revisit, or haunt those places anymore.”( p.213)

For me, I suppose I have not reconciled those final days, smiting myself for not finding some softness within to draw her to me and exterminate her anger. How ironic that in my father’s passing, she facilitated a last meeting where my father softened and was able to express love for me as I rubbed his feet, and yet there was no final resolution here at her bedside.
Mindfulness teaches to forgive ourselves past experiences, to permit an acknowledgement that we did the best we could at the time- and move on.

Were it so easy, I would. 

But as yet, I am trapped in a place where there are no butterflies or blue Jays, just empty space and the whiff of chicken soup.

Privacy

I’m not a prude, but some things just bug me. That Scaramucci was fired for his Reince Priebus diatribe did not bother me. I laughed at his obnoxious comments that could not be fully printed.Apparently oldster John Kelly, White House chief of staff, also felt the omitted words totally unacceptable .I can read all kinds of language, and always have, and it doesn’t really raise my ire or even one eyebrow. I remember when people banned Sons and Lovers and Catcher in the Rye for its naughty bits. I couldn’t understand the fuss. Still I’m glad another idiotic Trump minion has bit the dust.

However , in spite of the tender relationships among sibs and forthright sincere talk of “ Moppa”, in one of the initial scenes in Transparent , I did not enjoy was the pinching of Sara’s nipples by her partner Tammie in sexual foreplay. Is it absolutely necessary to present every detailed nuance that sends a person into erotic raptures? Is an audience incapable of knowing what tickles and sucking is involved in the bedrooms of couples in love? Might you think I have an issue with same sex romps, I’m no fan of explicit heterosexual many faceted penetrations either. Often I reflect, I’m not wild about the in depth examination of the workings of the inner ear either. I much prefer the well groomed façade to the sweaty interior excavation of body parts. Listening to WTF’s Mark Maron’s podcast interviews with stars from GLOW( Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) on explicit bedroom scenes also query, why is there no towel for messy mopups or where are we disposing of the condoms? So if shows are going for verisimilitude, where are the other corollaries of scenes that go into high detail of every grunt and groan? Breasts OK? Messy, wet sheets not?

Similarly I do not enjoy watching television characters on toilets, followed by the wiping of their bums. Should a character be checking for evidence of pregnancy I can allow for the collection of urine: it works with the plot. However, we all know what occurs in the bathroom, grunts of relief, fast whooshes of the hot chilis only partly digested, straining noises to avoid ruptures. Do you get my whiff? Have you enjoyed my foray into toilet talk too? Plop, plop.

 

Why must every intimate nuance, even ones that cause my grandchildren to tightly fasten bathroom doors and scream “privacy,” be made explicit on the screen. I add to that explosive puke of heavily seeded green vomit that we are treated to when personages hurl? I just don’t get why these instances that even a three year knows are private are treated as filmable and sharable? 
Interestingly, I can read about ablutions or the variations of lovemaking and do not turn the page to avoid the depth of descriptions, but I do not want to view them in living colour.Some people would conjecture that violence could be considered similarly, but often there is a thematic point, a metaphor or an explicit reason for the inclusion of these terrors: to advance the plot, to provide revenge to tactics, to examine concepts of victims and victimization, even to provide contrast to quieter moments…; although some are in deed gratuitous, there for the titillation of those who get off on slashing and mashing and mutilations. Noise and blood for edification. But as in the above of needless pain and suffering, sexual and bathroom intimacies stretches my understanding of their inclusion in a narrative where lovemaking or constipation/ diarrhea is hardly the point, just the de rigueur of daily existence.

I can’t recall but likely did cringe at the famous first scenes of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, the anonymous sex necessary for the plot; however the backstory that Maria Schneider was unaware of the use of butter during the rape scene violated her as actress and human, even as part of the story line. Even Brando expressed regret. Gratuitous violence and sex may titillate but is an easy crowd grabber that is flagrantly dishonest. And truthfully, even some younger members of the audience will avert their eyes- in distaste, disgust, disapproval or annoyance.

So perhaps you are thinking I should keep my nose in my books, and stick to Anne of Green Gables.It is a tough call as I do respect artistic integrity and long have argued against censorship. I suppose I would like to believe in artistic integrity( does that concept still exist?) of the creator, of the art form, and I would wager Lena Dunham might agree, but like most things gone the way of the dodo, it’s business, profits and money as the bottom line and I am increasingly cynical .

Today’s generation ( sounds like my mom, I know) seem unable to separate public and private acts, Facebook so overloaded with the tedium of superficial happenings that boomers like myself wonder why someone would include daily events that range from their cats’ antics to their relationship status. Maybe my generation who was constantly admonished, or maybe just me by angry parents, “ To think before I spoke” lest revealing our families’ secrets (????) might have lessened the burden by adding, ” anything you post may embarrass you in the future because the Internet has the longest memory- never erasable, kids”. Some facts of your life should be discussed with your parents, your therapist or your best friends in camera, not to all the hundreds of Facebook friends you may be loosely acquainted with.

From television and social media, we imbibe manners, mores and morals.That sexual congress is easy, unmeaningful, and as uneventful as a hi five just is not true, especially for adolescents. Sharing one’s body means something more. Perhaps the crazies who protest sexual education are also reacting to the loose goose of sexual adventures on tv, another axe to grind. Vital to growing up, sex education is more important now than ever, STDs still rampant, hearts broken, genitals in sexting a game for ridicule and worse-not love.

Hey, I’m not against sex. It’s the intricacies that we are made privy to during prime time tv along with other body functions best left in the privacy of one’s own home that I’m ranting about in this blog. And it’s true what we cannot see, but imagine is a helluva lot sexier- except in the bathroom. To which my grandsons would defiantly slam the door and loudly scream, “Privacy, please!”

To Party

Even for the most droll of us, there is some kind of party that is doable. Whether a soirée, an all out crazy dance time, a choreographed family gathering or even a simple lunch, there is a way to interrupt the flow of one’s daily routines and break up our ongoing days. I am not a party person, but even as a girl who would imagine herself invisible as she blended into the wall, preferring not to engage in any chatter or move to the beat of the music,  I occasionally craved a party.  And sometimes, we do in deed, need to party.

However, what I have always enjoyed is party prep, either as guest or giver. As guest, finding the right outfit, how to self style could fill several hours with fascination, contemplating the location, time and tempo of the event. How to straighten bangs that curled at the first hint of moisture in the air? Jeans or bling? But  even better for me , is to be the arranger of events, deciding how to enliven the mood, enhance the celebration and make the honouree of the party really shine .

Although my husband who does not meet his milestone birthday till next Tuesday had insisted without pause he did not want a party, I felt a party was exactly what was necessary.Optimism peppered with my strict commands and outright threats, for last year’s family birthday dinner had erupted into a diatribe between sibs about the existence of aliens( no joke) that left his 69 th in angry ruins, I decided to persevere with plans. In deed, children were sworn to good behaviour, avoiding such contemptuous topics. So without his consent but their promises, it had to be a surprise.  

Over the years, I have been able to surprise him for his fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays. The former was a trip to Boston where the children carefully fashioned for him a tourist map of all the activities planned, from five star restaurants to baseball games to museum trips . The sixtieth as well included two ball games in Chicago, this time our children and their partners coming along for the weekend. Special hotels, meals, diversions were all carefully considered although the sixtieth also included a backyard party with our close friends who shouted “ surprise” on cue. 

But this birthday party was to be different and I tried very hard to meet the challenge. Because I am now in California during the winter, I had to plan a July birthday in December before I traveled. I decided a small family dinner was just the thing amidst his continual grumbling that he did not want anything, particularly when friends and family persisted with, “ You MUST have something.” I pretended to support his irreverent decision, even planning to be in North Carolina when the day arrived.( Who knew he would trip in Berlin and make that trip impossible?)
No matter, the date chosen for the surprise was a week earlierthan his  actual  birthdate.

Our family has a special relationship with On the Twenty where Jordan proposed to Gillian. In the sweetest of family lores, over a dinner date more than ten years ago, he produced his journal for her to peruse over dinner, romantically kept from their earliest meeting. On the last page, he had written as she read, “ Tonight I will ask Gill to marry me”. So the out of town -usually 1 ½ hours if the traffic is good was far enough away and the stunning spot at the Cave Springs Winery was lovingly imbued with our own family history. Besides that, Howard and I, ourselves, had experienced the quality of farm fresh and locally crafted artistry of their fare numerous times when we needed a special dinner.

Fortunately there was a private room that would accommodate our family and so I booked it. Yup , back in December. They described the room as The Wine Library , not Cellar so there would be light and seclusion from the rest of the restaurant’s lively kerfulle. Knowing the Shaw Festival nearby and summer visits to Niagara Falls would fill the hotels and B&Bs, I also reserved accommodations for the kids in Niagara on the Lake and at White Oaks, putting Howard and myself at the Inn on the Twenty. Even back in December, believe it or not, not one location could meet the needs of all four families. So I spread them them out through the sumptuous wine country. 

Later in March and May, I could finetune the party. As the photographer suggested a colour scheme, I chose white, figuring all male members including kidlets would wear white polo shirts, the gals left to their own choices, but also whites: these, by the way, included one stunning Grecian number, two summer tops, one embroidered, the other peekaboo and my fav Max Mara maxi linen. To ensure the look, back in the the spring, I had ordered the shirts and sent them to my daughter’s house. If they had arrived here at our house, I would have throw them in a cupboard and retrieved them the day before.  

Wise woman that she is, Ariel opened the packages to discover a collection of black tee shirts, tank tops and mini dresses. One might think an exchange no bigee, but after fighting with a phone representative for half an hour, I finally demanded the manager who calmly and simply allowed an exchange.

.

For party favours, my preference is always chocolate. On line I could have Howard’s head inscribed on M&Ms, silver, pink and turquoise. Candy $6.98, mailing; $34.00. Gulp. Then came the great debate over the butt picture for the mini chocolates, both dark and milk chocolate. For really special events, I contact Simone Marie of Yorkville fame for her Belgian delights. On the wrappers she will provide your choice of photo and so there were three photos in the running: one official shot from Howard’s office; one with his back gazing out at the mountains at Joshua Tree ;and our fav of him in his Blue Jays shirt relaxing at The Tin Fish in San Diego. However the last also included a backdrop of another patron’s butt. Furiously back and forth, the children debated the pros and cons, the Joshua Tree could be any one in a park, the official one too stern, but what to do about the butt? In the end( ha), I could fortunately crop out the offending butt and we had ourselves a winner. 

Nervously I approached the day of the party, providing a ruse of wine tasting and a romantic weekend to entice my hubby to the spot. Although the newspapers promised a perfect sunny day, the rain thundered on the roof of our car and the traffic conspired to delay us. I worried that the children had not left in time, that accidents on the road would delay them. And what about our outside photo shot? Could a boardroom provide a dry albeit boring background?Would the drenching rain sour even the sweetest event? As I nervously picked the skin off my fingers as the car stopped in traffic, Howard casually marvelled at how his former partner had planned an outdoor wedding for his daughter on another vineyard several years ago. I recalled it had threatened rain that day but the sun had shone through with no need for the huge white umbrellas stored by the casks of wine. We had no umbrellas stored. But in spite of the favourable forecasts and even the radio’s assurance rain would end by 5!( our photographer arriving at 4), we were now caught in an annoying downpour. I frantically messaged the inn, the co- ordinator, Ariel, begging for another photo spot option. But only later did I realize I had no wifi and the cries for help failed. That worked to our benefit because the rain  eventually ceased and wound up bestowing interesting lighting in the garden dappled with hydrangeas, black- eye susans and lovely greenery. Post rain renaissance 

A public garden adjacent to our suite was to be the spot for the kidlets to cavort, and magically, thank you Weather Gods, it dried sufficiently for the grandkids to climb up and perch on the wooden bench. Even a pouting Remy was persuaded by a flower easily detached to contribute her two year old smile. Four month old Georgia only had to listen to the strains of Green Acres in order to burst into gurgling smiles.

And my curmudgeon husband , when our handsome soninlaw knocked at the door, was truly surprised. And somehow, too, Howard had chosen a white shirt for our outing so he even blended with the family colour scheme.

I knew what would please Howard was the presence of his guitar teacher Nick. Howard said that at first he didn’t recognize the long haired guy with the guitar who casually entered our dining room. Obviously not anticipating his Toronto teacher to be part of the celebration, Howard was again caught off guard. Jordan. Howard and Nick jammed on Howard’s latest hits that included Margaritaville ! Wonderfully Howard was the rockstar of the event, a command performance where his captive audience groved to his playing. Carter added his recorder to the mix to heighten the strings of Hallejuah. The kids danced, romped and even Aaron did a wild arm- flinging body swaying thing near the table, but all were engulfed in a fun evening, the delicious food enhancing the festivities.

A few people spoke, some did, some didn’t, but I contributed a brief speech, attached here:

In life, we are given gifts. I had no idea that my greatest gift would involve a guy in a funny flowered shirt on a blind date that has continued for 44 years of romance and adventure.

When you’re a kid, you take in a lot of information: on how the world works; who are the good guys and bad guys, what rings your chimes, how to live your life, and what you might want in the future. 

I was pretty ordinary, but had parents who loved and cared bout me. And I liked art- a lot. 

But when I met Howard suddenly my world came into focus. He made me feel I was special and smart and for the first time, I really believed in myself. As well, the values my parents had modelled became more real as I observed in him the integrity, honesty, intelligence and the strength to speak out. Even his admonishing an ancient lady who had skipped the line at Gryfes Bagels to get back in her place. 

Howard isn’t impressed by money or power and he is not judgmental.And he continues to teach and guide me every day. Ours is a give and take relationship. I’ve often repeated how before email technology , he made it a point to be home to have supper with the kids every night, returning to the office only after you guys were asleep in bed, sometimes midnight. He encouraged me and supported me to become a doctor of education, thus allowing for your truly wonderful dinners as the fighting family in the window of St. Hubert’s Monday nights when I was in class.

As a father, he has been exemplar, always there for you- whether calling with an attack of blindness from Albany; visiting for a weekend in London; or just hanging out at a Jays Game. Not to mention the family trips to Europe: of shivering in Brittany, eating pizza at Il Castillo in Montebuono and dumping scorpions out of our shoes, going down the wrong lane at Borghese Villa or blaming that poor Japanese tourist at Giverny.  

It is also true, life is no picnic, but dad is the cup full, not cup empty kind of guy. And win or lose, he soldiers on, putting life into context for me. 

So much goes into a relationship, the spaces between the pearls, as I said at Jordan’s wedding.But here on this magical night with my beautiful children, their spouses and  the grandchildren, I think we are all part of one another, and this spectacular man you call dad and I call Moo, I toast you as my heart my soul and my love. 

**********

Short and sweet. And he even cried as I did. Happy tears. There are those moments in life that we want to revisit and hold close. The night of the party and the next night the memory of the party and its preparation reverberated in my head. Truthfully I was delighted at the perfection of planning that brought together the family for the celebration of their father.He truly deserved every detail, every word.  A party to cherish.

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