Bones and Backs: more than body obsession
When our grandparents were young, they wore shapeless clothes, laboured from dawn to dusk and fell into their soft chairs in the evening. They had little time or concern about how they looked. As a little girl, I recall my little grandmother and white-haired grandfather who arrived late Saturday afternoons to our store for supper. They came by bus. My grandmother was tiny, heavy and dowdy; my grandfather was taller, reserved and aloof.
My poor mother who had slaved all week in and behind our store now was required to cook a meal for her in-laws. She would often tell me how much my Bubby Molly adored her only son, my father, eeking out a few pennies to buy him sardines as a special treat when he was a boy and how she only truly finally accepted my mother once she saw how my mother had reacted to my father’s polio: not abandoning him, as her own mother had admonished her to do.
I don’t recall exactly what we ate on those Saturday nights, although it was likely Friday night leftovers: the remnants of a delicious tomatoey fricassee, and roasted chicken saturated in Heinz sauce. The dinner that stands out in my mind does not concern the food, however, but the actions of my grandfather and a bowl of chicken soup hurtling across the table. It was the one and only time my father actually smacked me across the face because of being goaded on by his father, outraged that I would speak up and perhaps be rude, mocking or disrespectful. Truthfully I do not remember what silly words had sarcastically spun out of my mouth, only the shaming repercussions of that terrible event. Shame, embarrassment, my father’s anger, my grandfather’s satisfaction, my refusal to cry as my cheek burned.
Usually they brought us chocolates and we would thank them dutifully. My grandmother had difficulty breathing and was said to smoke special asthma cigarettes. In my mind’s eye, they appear non-descript, her small and heavy-busted; him with that shock of white hair. They felt distant, and particularly him, judgmental.
Years later, and perhaps because I harboured that memory like a festering wound, when my husband and I gathered Zaida Sam’s last possessions from his dark house on Arlington, I refused to include the waffle-maker in the bundle we were transferring to the Baycrest or Moishe- Zakanam so- referred to in Yiddish,which I assumed meant old folks’ home. He made a plea for its inclusion but I looked sternly at him and refused to give in to his request.
Unlike today when we sit on the floor with our grandkids, joke and jostle with them, both my Bubby Molly and Zaida Sam sat ensconced in the pink brocade chairs in the corner. I think she smiled a bit. She loved my father unconditionally and maybe the first grandchild, my cousin Jon, had held them lovingly transfixed in his heart. I don’t know. Perhaps there were perfunctory kisses with my sister and me, but certainly not a lot of holding or touching.
When we visited their house for a family meal or stopped to took them for an occasional Sunday drive, I can resurrect in my mind a long alleyway of a house, couches that pressed the wall lengthwise, a television at the end, a tiny kitchen behind, very dark, badly lit and the feeling of claustrophobia. Yet welcoming smells did emerge from that kitchen and my aunt Goldi’s stories always included stuffed peppers, pies and the family chocolate cake-whose recipe I never received.
When my mother passed away, I discovered old photos of my grandparents and was amazed that Bubby Molly had once been lithe and lovely, slim and stylish instead of the baggily dressed, audibly breathing, straggled- haired woman I barely knew. In the pictures, she wears large beautiful hats and the narrative that was told was that Zaida Sam had wooed her with a very elaborate confection of a hat that he later tore to pieces before her eyes, he caught in a demonstration of rage. She was known to be modern, a procurer of new fangled things such as washing machines and frigerators, curious, loving and the scourge of her husband’s family Friday night poker games. Her life was hard.
Exercise I imagine consisted of walking to the bus stop en route to work at Tiptop Tailors where both of them sewed and beautifully executed fine cloaks and suits. Likely at the end of the day, they uncoiled their tight bodies that had been fixed to their chairs at their sewing machines hour after hour. This was the story of unions past, not quite the pits of New York or the sweat holes of Bangladesh. Certainly the Union’s desire to free people from the chains of their bosses gave rise to slightly improved situations. One has only to recall The Triangle Shirtwaist Company where 146 deaths and an unknown number of injuries occurred on Saturday, March 25, 1911. It is laughable to think any boss considered their employees needing bodily relief or even a bathroom break, let alone an outlet for stretching tired or sore bodies. Not to mention the sexual harassment foisted on young pretty women afraid to lose their jobs should they refuse the bosses’ attentions.
Jogging, stretching, massages lay far in the future, we only imagining how exhausted, tight and twisted their bodies felt. Maybe the Italians understood better that an evening promenade around the town square would ease the endurance of a long day’s arduous work, especially of sitting unmoving for long long hours. Research now shows that getting up from your desk and strolling even the length of the office frees your mind to be more creative. But then, no one was much interested in the creativity of drones wrapped around their machines, doing piece work.
My parents also never spoke of their bodies or appearances as anything but the mules that drove the work load, although my mother had her hair done once a week, sprayed and lacquered. My father laughed at men who styled their hair, ones who did not visit actual barbers, believing it an offense to one’s manhood. But she always looked nice and my father would compliment her. She dressed very practically, rarely in pants until she was older, reveling in the freedom from stockings and garter belts. Yet, even prostrate, practically comatose in his final hospital days, my father’s eyes would follow my mother around the room, approvingly savouring her freshly washed demeanour.
Once she had bursitis- likely pulling her shoulder when she, a mere 100 pounds, carried my father’s heavy equipment or televisions in from the car as he possessed no power in his legs. For the most part, neither of them complained of aches and pains. My father had experienced such searing pain as he succumbed to polio at Riverdale hospital that he confided that he willed the pain into the night table. It was excruciating. He dragged one foot ahead of the other, Sisyphusian, his life’s philosophy unspoken but emphatically conveyed to my sister and myself: keep on going.
Physical effort was difficult for someone in his condition. He resented being labeled crippled, much preferring the term “ handicapped’ as a golfer might be, but not a handsome man like himself who stood a proud 6 feet.
Once when my husband and I took him to the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition), he asked us to wait while he visited the men’s room. It seemed as if he was taking a very long time. Only then did we notice that he had had to climb up three flights of steep stairs and then back down again. Not much different than scaling Manchu Picchu for able-bodies persons. He did not complain, doggedly accepting while resenting this was the fate cast him. Fortunately? there were side rails so he could drag the heavy crutches along with him. No broken down curbs or accessibility washrooms back then. But I absorbed his living mantra: put one foot in front of the other and keep on going.
Having fallen out of bed the first night home from the isolation hospital and needing to be hoisted back, he told my mother he wished he would have died. Somehow the two of them trudged on. Much later, he would somehow get himself to Sunnybrook’s pool where a contraption lowered and raised him into the pool there. He did love swimming where at least he could stand free and without his hated supports. He’d laugh as he swam with the grandkids in the small pool he had designed for their house years later, calling out to the grandkids as he managed to chase them :that he was the big fish or shark. They laughed and played along. He was happy.
Still that generation, by and large,did not indulge their bodily concerns. My parents understood that life was hard and told themselves: get on with it- in rain, and snow and slippery surfaces, bodies sore, painful and throbbing. No matter the obstacles.I suppose in the past, people merely accepted the physical pain, plodded on and felt it was their due to suffer as generations before appeared to have also persisted in silence, with perhaps a small, wealthy handful, visiting chiropractors and knowing how to soothe that uncomfortable knee, painful shoulder or that more than troublesome pinch in the hip joint.
Today you rarely meet someone without an issue that revolves around their body, usually a back complaint. I have three herniated discs, no doubt incurred by an uneven gait and a wild ride down the Truckee River in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. So I personally know the torments of back pain. Recently I encountered a dentist whose twisted stance over his patients for so many years has resulted in a back that must be shot up with epidurals and will eventually result in surgical procedures. He too comes regularly to Pilates classes. Ah, the relief.
I cringe to remember myself instructing at Vic Tanney’s in the 60’s where I put people on a vibrating belt that jiggled their fat. I knew nothing about physiology of the body or kinasthetics. I was a pretty girl in a sparkly tunic, smiling and encouraging unhealthy people to stay with their program. After work, I would visit Sutton Place’s coffee shop for a chocolate soda.
In many ways, although I’ld bet my grandparents and parents would disagree, things are better and improved today. An awareness of our aches and pains has sparked an industry of real sportsclubs, massage therapists, acupuncturists,caring Pilates and osteopathic professionals who through education and course have learned how to treat or at least ameliorate the ravages of the work day. Classes are part of our routines and we miss them when a class or appointment needs to be cancelled.
Today many boomers still do endure; however, many make attempts to find the person or people who will aid in easing the agony of their aches. For me, it was five long years at Pilates to begin to tame those discs that caused me to lie flat on the floor after teaching a full day. Thank goodness no university girl ever put me through the paces that would have further damaged the disks. When I mutter about my back, I sometimes think of my father, his struggle to literally propel one foot before the other and how he and my mother made a life that continued on in spite of all its rigours.