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Archive for the month “March, 2014”



It was 1993 and our yearly summer vacation. It was not our first trip to the Vineyard so we were eager for South Beach, Menemsha’s coloured sands, bike rides along Joseph Sylvia path, ice cream from Mad Martha’s, grinders!, video movies for extended bedtimes and all the other activities we came to associate with the island, my favourite being the magical stroll among dimly-lit cottages on Illumination Night.

The pastel coloured cottages on Oak Bluffs contributed a fairytale element with gentlefolk in vintage linen clothes, their shadows elongated by lanterns that lined the walkways. We were too polite or maybe slightly afraid to actually enter their small dwellings but just the same, we courteously nodded at the owners and renters in their rocking chairs on that special night. I’ld read Alice Hoffman’s description that commences in the campground’s Tabernacle mid –August, but being there far exceeded any words that attempted to characterize it.

 As cynical Canadians, we chortled at the sheer number of patriotic songs that set family groups swaying as the sun settled:” Yankee Doodle Dandy, Red River Valley, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, You Are My Sunshine…” We felt the well worn benches beneath our bums, moving shoulder to shoulder and side to side with the real chauvinists from everywhere in the U.S.A., our children’s roaring voices inaudible from the the rest. Maybe we even heard the echo of Martin Luther King’s deep and resonating voice as he was known to vacation and once even preach here.

 We did not know Bill Clinton would also choose to visit this summer.

We anticipated these summers with delight, selecting from the different locations of the island, never quite knowing what to expect from the properties wonderfully described in brochures. We had reserved our ferry tickets from the mainland in February, wanting to avoid the long, long lineups for the ferry, But even then, there were few spots to be obtained.  Preparing for the trip was a process shared with our children who would recall this moment or that from a previous trip.

The drive was long, hot but finally endured.

When we heard of his sudden plans, we drove to the airspace and parked ourselves on the small dusty runway for hours, waiting for a glimpse of the arriving president. When he finally prevailed, he was a mere dot at the end of the tarmac. We didn’t care, for lazing on Martha’s Vineyard has a special air to it: of watching the flowers sway, drifting talk with other tourists, sinking into the grass, soaking your senses in sights and smells that keep you warm in the chill winter. A time before Ipads, the kids chased butterflies, poked one another, stretched long in the sun.

The next day, we continued our island vacation, aware that the island had been transformed. It felt as if the air had been changed; it was charged or filled perhaps with the expectation that you might encounter a president as a real person, away from the flash: just being ordinary like you- as if he was the person lazily waiting behind you, shifting his weight from one leg to the other as he patiently reviewed the variety of flavours of ice cream on a hot Saturday afternoon at Vineyard Scoops or Mad Martha’s. We were happy to wander aimlessly in Edgartown, bicycle a bit, tease a wave, hike into town. We knew Clinton was there but the news only added to the magic of a summer vacation that prolonged summer days into months. Even the names of Chappaquiddick, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, Illumination Night, Menemsha, Lake Tashmoo and the promise of the return of Jaws all tickled our imaginations.

Around dinner time, we sauntered off early to The Black Dog on the shore at Vineyard Haven. The Black Dog is one of those restaurants for which you must turn up at least an hour early. Everyone knows about it so the lines are incessantly long and the food is always good. So we waited our time, poked into the neighbouring shops and eventually were seated.

Our waitress, a person who looked to have survived the era of hippies, braids in tact, was particularly nervous. As she dropped her tray on my husband’s head, she delightedly whispered, “This will be the most wonderful night of your life.” Too much hash, maybe? A special recipe with chowder perhaps? We rolled our eyes and giggled.

But then I noticed men in grey suits with headphones and I figured it must be a new exclusive band that was being added to the venue. They seemed to scurry much like upright mice as set themselves up in the four corners of the room. Two rather lumpy women entered through the back door and we exclaimed to one another, “There’s Hilary. There’s Chelsea!.” Our mouths dropped. Vernon Jordan followed closely behind. We turned to one another, amazed and aghast.

There were cheers outside as the president entered. My god, he was tall and possibly the best-looking man I’d ever seen. I knew at once the meaning of “charisma” as he towered well above the rest of us, easily radiant as if lit from behind in a soft and friendly light.

And then

I noticed my young son discretely leave the table and approach the great man.

“Hi, Bill”, he said, facing Bill directly.

 I gasped to think this child, my child, was referring to possibly the most famous man in the world by his first name. While my boy fiddled with his camera, Bill stood quietly and softly smiled. My kid, hardly a crackshot, tried again, and then again, and still again, with little luck.

And Bill stood there,

patient, smiling, waiting for a child to finish fumbling with his camera and take his picture. No attitude, no hint of annoyance. Unable to work the camera properly, my son finally shrugged and returned to his chair. Bill smiled that smile of his and went to his table directly across from us. My son turned his camera yet again towards Bill, and Bill again, unaffectedly, smiled warmly.

Jordan, our son, had captured an image of the President of the United States and I recall thinking this was one very kind man.

The spell was broken as our waitress popped back to our table and promised that we could stay as long as we liked. After a while, we finished our coffee and pie, ordered a second coffee but decided those people at the other table were also just eating their pie and drinking their coffee and really, how long could you watch people just eating pie and drinking coffee. So we departed.

There was now a yellow rope that cordoned off The Black Dog from the celebrity watchers, keeping them out from the space we had just shared with Bill. The gathered hoards, eager for the glitterati, or even those who might pose as such, cheered as we exited as if we were part of the entourage. We returned their pleasure with a wave- as the Queen Mother might have offered.

We printed the photograph and sent it to The White House. Bill signed the photograph and it sits on our mantelpiece in our living room. 

We had many vacations with our children while they were growing up, as I had with my own parents to places less exotic; and from each, there remains a memory, a faded reminder – of a person, of a place, of an experience that has lodged itself and reminds of a day, a keepsake or tiny treasure that occasionally rises to the surface of one’s consciousness, is turned over and grasped anew.


Of princesses and presidents: brushes with the Royal and Famous

I think everyone at one time or another in their lives has crossed paths with a movie star, politician, someone notable or notorious. Just yesterday a cousin referred to a comment uttered by Carlos Santana overheard as she sat closeby in a restaurant. Andy Warhol is credited with saying that we all will experience 15 minutes of fame. I’m not sure if that includes close brushes, or being thrust directly into the news with the rich and famous. For us, it was a princess and a president.

Back when Bob Rae was Premier of this province, we were invited to dine on The Grand Britannia when Charles and the then very vibrant Diana visited Toronto. The year was October, 1991.

Receiving a phone call, we were queried, “Will you attend?”, before a formal invitation would be sent: a small dinner for a select few with the Royals seemed the stuff of society mags or daydreams. The glitterati would include Norman Jewison, Cido Gaston, Lincoln Alexander, John Tory, Howard and myself, a gaggle of ladies in waiting and others. The protocol included dress length, curtsies and information on how to behave when confronted by the Queen or her family. At first we giggled, believing we were being set up for a wild prank or ruse, someone thinking we were so gullible to actually believe we might be asked to break bread with the prince and princess. But in the end, it was, in fact, a real invitation.

On a stormy night by the harbor, our car magically disappearing into the hands of men in red, we were whisked beneath huge umbrellas onto the ship and then formally welcomed. I remember the ship feeling very British with Currier and Ives prints, slightly frayed carpets and a long stairway that lead upwards. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming: we might have been in the living room of an aged aunt’s who could care less about impressing. A smiling Captain at the doorway greeted us as if we were old friends, his comments easing the tension of the idea that we might soon might feel the press of a Royal handshake. Almost immediately, we imagined we were regulars at Court, accustomed to the low key fanfare, the quiet swish of servants preparing an evening for guests.

There was silent milling around, but no music in the background, just a sense of expectation or brightness on that dreary fall evening during thundering storm. Eventually a receiving line formed, our names announced as if we were debutants emerging in ball gowns to be introduced into society. A relaxed Prince Charles appeared charismatic and charming, even handsome: conclusions that I would never had drawn until I stood so near that one arm’s reach could have poked him in the royal ribs. More than appearances, his warmth of interaction, his ability to focus, listen and respond, no doubt polished and perfected throughout his public life, impressed me. He spoke with Howard about the architecture of Osgoode Hall and was knowledgeable and passionate on the subject. Although he must have been prepped on our bios; and his handlers would have connected pertinent aspects of our backgrounds to real interests of the Prince, his interest in architecture was not feigned, and for 3-5 minutes, a lively conversation occurred. Then, perfectly choreographed, our chat seamlessly concluded without a feeling of abruptness, slight or boredom ( on his part); the next in line commencing a new discussion, ushering in their own few minutes of fame.

I became Cinderella that night. I had had to rent a long velvet skirt because the protocol was such. Although I later noted that Dixie Jewison flaunted the rule by wearing a dress shorter than required. And when my husband’s secretary had murmured, “You’re not going with that curly hair are you?”, I decided to have my hair done up so I felt beautiful and charmed that evening. Perhaps a fairy godmother had touched her wand to my head and transformed me from an ordinary teacher- that I was back then- to one of the few chosen to dine with the most famous couple in the world at that time. I felt the magic dust adhere that entire evening: until our coats magically reappeared and we were standing in the rain on the ship’s deck, listening to the band discharge its salute.

That night I looked for souvenirs on the ship: a copy of the menu, soap, something tangible as a keepsake, but place settings and even the posted menu were whisked from our hands by smiling ship’s table attendants. The three course meal had been brought from England so as to avoid any tampering- as in the Borgias- as was the wine that was artfully and perfectly paired with the perfectly seasoned dishes. I sat just three places from the Prince and was fascinated by an evening in which the person on your right engaged you in conversation for one-half the meal; and then like a programmed dance, your seat partner turned to his companion on your left for the remainder of the meal. A seated ballet where the participants were all ready cognizant and well practiced in the steps. When the Prince and Princess finished their meals, ours were likewise removed. The ballet concluded.

Immediately after, men were ushered into one room for cigars and ladies into another. Swift, smooth, effortless: the dance coming to an end as it had done so many times before in so many locations, flawlessly executed, no rattled cutlery, not even a sneeze or suppressed cough to destroy the fairytale quality of the evening, no cue missed.

For me the diva of the night was Princess Diana. She was a quiet withdrawn diva, not one who cast herself into the spotlight by choice, but one created by her role. I say “diva” respectfully as there was a quality of quietness, or aloneness of her being pushed into the center of activity and knowing she must- if not perform, hold her presence on stage for a certain amount of time before she could retire.

Clearly star struck, I was surprised how majestically tall she was. That night she wore black and the most gorgeous huge pearl earrings, I had ever seen, hung from her ears. I reflected then –on the solitude that also hung on her, and that she really didn’t seem to want to be there. I felt that isolating loneliness that encircled her even as she was encircled by polite but overtly interested guests. With a certain weariness in her eyes, she was conveying ( at least in my mind) that she was putting up with another laid-on rubber chicken dinner (an expression! – as the food was delicious and flawless). She seemed withdrawn, fulfilling her expected role, but clearly not smiling nor enjoying the company as her husband appeared to be. I witnessed no relationship between them although one could not expect sexy or knowing looks, winks or some such behavior at this kind of event- even between spouses. Simply two unattached people in a room of strangers who were likewise strangers to one another.

Yet, there was a moment when Diana did come to life and it was with her adored boys.

She was doggedly enduring, waiting until Wills and Harry emerged with their nanny. When she saw them, she dropped to her knees, threw open her arms and they came running to her –delightedly throwing themselves into her adoring arms. She swept them up and the rest of the stuffy, suffocating crowd ceased to exist. She dropped her cold royal tinsel and was transformed into a loving mother, like any mother in the world who is crazy in love with her children. That was the magic moment in the evening for me.

And when she instructed them on how to shake hands in the receiving line, she was again transformed, just like you or me, a mom preparing her children for grownup life and the proper ways in greeting and meeting. She was a revelation.

Likewise, it was the same humanity I experienced when I saw President Clinton ( in the next blog), respond in a natural thoughtful way to my ten year son in Martha’s Vineyards: the extraordinary made ordinary.

There are always people who put on airs because they think their money or position singles them out for special attention or favors. I learned that as a kid at Forest Hill, my former school mates, the girls with pearls and golf club memberships, assuming that society has blessed them to be viewed as society’s elite and thus deserve better, more…

What mattered for me then and now is the inner person, that Little Prince mantra, that what is essential is invisible to the eye- that the one who drops pretense and acts as a human, displaying true care, love and just being a mensch is truly the person upon whom light shines.

For all of Diana’s flaws and faults and so-sad end to her unhappy life, she was someone who let all of the façade drop on the Royal Britannia as she gathered her boys to her in a way that proclaimed her essence. Perhaps what makes the rich and famous so special is that they are just like us in our best moments.

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