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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.

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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. 

.

 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.

Legs, horrors and things

Several weeks before my Aunt Marion, my father’s most unfavourite sister died, she said to my mother, “You and Saul were giants.” After years of snubs, put downs and an imposed snobbery, my mother appreciated my aunt’s words. Perhaps being confined to bed and contemplating how she might manage with a recently amputated leg, Marion was expressing empathy for my parents’ struggle in life, and in particular how polio had effected them.

 And it’s true, unless you personally experience a travail, you can put your thoughts into empathy, particularly if you are a sympathetic person, but living something is very different than imagining it. Such reflection had been previously expressed by Howard; however when he tripped and fell in Berlin recently, he was able to truly empathize with the life my dad lead. Being his regular curmudgeon self, Howard soldiered on- as my father did when polio took his legs at age 28. Now on crutches, Howard wonders how did my father do it? Steps are a problem, especially if there is no railing to hold on to, going up as bad as going down. At the Pergamon and Deutsches Museum in Germany where they did have elevators, he comprehended anew what obstacles must be overcome in daily existence. Surprisingly, many airports, believe it or not, do not make it easy for the handicapped either. 

I recalled our trip to Los Angeles as a kid and how my father had to navigate the staircase up to the plane. And again, in Europe, we too just two weeks ago, had not the luxury of an entrance or exit to the plane, but steep metal steps to be navigated up onto the plane, passengers stomach to back, bunching , trying to avoid the rain showering down. My father didn’t talk about his disability, except to resent the word “cripple.” I wondered freshly, how does one trundle on in life, always encumbered with a burden that physically sets you apart? And how does that work on your attitude towards getting out of bed, moving from sitting to standing, swinging your legs or standing upright when on a moving platform? Are you caught in closing doors on an elevator, eschew of course escalators, cross the street in time while the light threatens and does change?These seem small considerations when you can pop up from your chair, stretch out your legs and bound to the door.

As an adolescent, it bothered me my father would not wear shorts. I pestered him insistently, for what possible reason, I wonder now why. He finally spit out the words at me, concerning the ugliness of his braces. I had consciously refused to consider him different to anyone else, arrogantly so and because we differed on so many things, my hardness only added fuel to opposing him, never giving any consideration at how mounting three flights of stairs to use a washroom at the CNE might exhaust him? True, he grew up a male or in a macho kind of world where men especially did not display any weakness( do men ever?) My mother confided how the ancient aunts scoffed at his lost manhood that no doubt floored them when the miraculous birth of my sister post polio occurred.

We want to believe our parents are invincible and will always be there for us. That’s one of the things about aging and approaching or exceeding the years when our parents left us. Too late, we wish we could have spoken or expressed appreciation for them. Yet, it is only when we have matured, spent the years, reflected and encountered the difficulties that aging encumbers us with do we understand and experience the ravages of time.

In Berlin, Howard and I read East West Street by Philippe Sand. Upon the death of his grandfather Leon, the author explores his grandfather’s lost years during the holocaust years never discussed or shared. Eventually as the story unravels, along with concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity, we arrive at The Nuremberg War Trials and the need for some to create a wall between the past and present in order to go on living. One woman explains that although she will not speak of it, nothing has been forgotten, the horrors always a part of her.One wonders at the bravery of so many to go forward into a future.

I think about my father and his rugged attitude towards life, only warm towards my sister and adoring to my mother: just keep on. Go out on service calls, absorb yourself in your music, don’t talk about the past. I understand now it would have been like pulling a bandaid off a wound that hasn’t healed. Too painful, too agonizing and why go back to a bad place, where you lost your legs, your independence, your partial sense of self. Why speak of the place where your dreams were extinguished and your manhood put on trial.
These are daunting journeys and I as well would not want to descend into the hell of those days.

However, there are the Eli Weisels, the writers who have returned to the Gehenna of Hell to relate he stories, some almost forgotten .Philippe Sand dispassionately takes us on a journey to a world where Jews were unwanted, despised, tortured, experimented on and made to disappear because they were Jews. The disabled and handicapped followed, like my father, afflicted by polio, their twisted stories, ghosts that shadow them. And my mind leaps to the parents refusing to vaccinate their children, believing the lies of movie stars or uninformed worriers, ignoring a future that will be corrupted and capable of ensnaring the healthy bodies of those blissfully unaware of sharing a cup of juice or kissing a chubby cheek. Propaganda that will impact on their and our world and destroy the limbs of helpless children, ruining their lives, separating them from the life they deserve. Years of research ignored, years of hard work to extend childhoods of safety.

These barbarians, dictators, the misinformed and worse are the poisoners of our world. Their narratives, told or hidden, the rocky roads that will detour the safety of untold journeys.

May we never relive those traumas of children or parents.

A  Jew in Berlin

I continue to say, “Oh, I was there before the wall came down- more than 40 years ago when I traveled as a student”, yet unlike other locations I have scant memories of Berlin and I am not sure if I’ve imagined being here when I rambled and roamed for summer months when I was a university student.

Yet I do remember vaguely K’dam as we called it and being fearful at the haughty looks of the soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie.

But the Berlin I’m now visiting overwhelms me with its aesthetics, its buildings, its trees and sprawling extensions of areas. We do the Hop on and off Bus,, linking the purple and yellow lines in an attempt to locate the museums and buildings we are here to visit. I’m intent on the Pergamon because it was unavailable back when the wall separated it from West Berliners and Westerners. Why would I have carried that fact around for so many years if an art history prof hadn’t lamented the impossibility of viewing famous Greek antiquities when I first studied them?

I know for sure that I was in Munchen( Munich) and Heidelberg( “ Ahhh…if only the Fuhrer were still alive,” , crooned the old women knitting on the benches near the schloss in the 60’s) I a hitchhiker then , took a bus to Dachau and then left, bemused and angered that the camp neatly scrubbed resembled summer camp.(“ NOT so bad,” with a shoulder shrug, said a couple of strolling overfed Americans.)

Today the buildings here are incredibly impressive but I’m confused as the Hop on- off guide keeps reminding us that almost everything was destroyed during the war. The well worded and spoken guide is very careful to point out the spot where all the ‘ dangerous’ books were burned, making no judgment really, almost sanitizing the Nazis’s horrors, but the voice through the earphones almost sniffingly demures there is an empty room beneath the square to remind us. As well, when the main railway station is pointed out, I imagine all the children separated from their huddled crying parents en route to concentration camps unknown. “Yes, the station was well used,”, the guide ironically underlines.

Yet I cannot take away from the very beauty of present day Berlin, the strikingly decorated facades of gingerbread, marble, mosaics , Bauhaus and Renaissance , Art Nouveau, Gothic, antiquarian balustrades, , cast iron patios overloaded with sparkling red flowers, Greek statues, gold cupolas, masterful craftsmanship with exquisite work- that one is aware of – even from far below.The Reichestag with its new dome, glistening Kulturforum , misshapen Jewish Museum, the moving Memorial to the dead Jews in Europe where parents photograph their babies next to the slabs of concrete and even The East Side Gallery demand your attention.
In spite of the crumbled preserved ruins of the past, Berlin bubbles and enchants and excites. From the guy who carries a the brotworst oven around his middle to the one star Michelin drama of the choreographed food courses at Nobelhart &Schmutzeig, Berlin is something quite amazing.

And I consider my thoughts. What bothers me? Would I prefer the ruins of tenements and bunkers as opposed to sanctioned refurbished holocaust monuments?
My mind flies back to The Hare with the Amber Eye and After the Fire and The Book Thief and even the history of the Rothsschilds forced to live in overcrowded ghettos and endure abuse from six year olds because they were Jews, the hatred of the Prussians and the French( remember the Dreyfus affair), a long history of debasement as early as 1000 because some believed Jews defiled the host and baked bread with the blood of Christian children.

I’m thinking of the troubled past that fomented until 6 million sizzled.

The antisemitism fanned by the Lutherans and openly acknowledged in tableaux and political broadsheets from early times of hook nosed Jews as Christ killers are tunes that whisper to me. And later in Weimar, belief that wealthy court Jews controlled the country’s finances and even small shop owners cheated their neighbours. Shame!
I’m frozen before these huge lush buildings that have honoured regimes and emperors to announce to the world their power and vision and provide” protection” and custody : language used by the Nazis to hold and remove undesirables from towns, city, the country. It troubles me mightily and I’m thinking about history lessons that decimated the Germans as losers in the Treaty of Versailles, the path being paved for Hitler’s self aggrandizement that resulted in the murders of more than Jews- jazz musicians, the infirm, the elderly, homosexuals, nuns, gypsies, political opponents,Catholics, etc.etc.

On the ashes of empires and bombed destroyed buildings, a new Phoenix has risen. And yet this is not to disparage beauty or require children to inherit the blasphemous sins of their fathers or grandfathers who petted the family dogs. And yet, The Topography of Terror Museum reinforces that the “volk” or common people played a huge part in initiating and perpetuating a rolling non- stoppable machine of death.

In Copenhagen where we stopped first! I could replay the newsreels of the holocaust on the buildings I saw, shivering to think of the people with only what they could carry doggedly head – into towards the station. But here in Berlin, much has been erased, cleansed by the shining new edifices built by Mercedes Benz, Boss, Sony, rejoicing in the pure beauty of buildings that scrape the sky or so wide they overtake entire blocks.
It’s hard to take: that these gleaming streets were full of a people I never knew whose dreams and future offspring had no chance to persist and flower. Maybe their ancestors should have packed up earlier and set sail to the new world. I can understand that even with the bad talk and discrimination that they could not bring themselves to leave their own cosy houses or trips to the surrounding forests or afternoon rambles in the Tiergarten , just continuing to live their lives , go to work, raise their children, kissing them softly as they sent them off to school, imagining a better, safer future in a preposterously beautiful city, no matter, the Prussians, the French, the Nazis…

Would I have been sage or frightened enough to abandon the beauty of this place?
I’m feeling guilty that I am seduced by this Berlin, would love to engage in its art scene and walk its wide wide boulevards, so clustered by streets that they bang on the roof of the Hop on hop off bus. I’m troubled by the repetition of history, and uncertain futures that remind of a horrorful past.

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