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Archive for the month “July, 2014”

An evening of civility

Just when you fear that life has been overrun with madness and the forces of evil intend to swoop down and crush life from all things, destroying the magic of possibility, you are included in a supper of celebration for a very special woman who will now head up an important professional group. You, a gloomy Gus, by nature, are given a reprieve and can re-imagine places of civility, rationality and good conversation that can wipe out the blackness of everyday events.

So I found myself in the backyard of a house on Roxborough, led through rooms where stained glass stands in for walls and into a garden so wildly tamed that pasteled lilies barely contained by strings are easily 12 inches across; and birds and bees feel so totally at home, that their presence feels natural in mid-town Toronto.

I am the “wife” of one of the invitees, an added presence requested by the lady herself. Perhaps because we have briefly discussed William Blake and Mary Pratt, or more likely as a thoughtfulness to my husband, I have been included in this evening. Unlike many gatherings for this profession, I am anticipating this one so I can see this woman again. From my perspective, I believe she is the right person to head the group although my knowledge of her to this juncture has been second hand. That she loves art and ballet, I believe, are a bonus. Not affected add-ons, she is as passionate as I am about the arts. I reflect that her commitment to her work will be likewise. I surmise that she is an authentic soul in whatever she takes on. I am drawn to her, and not just because of her rich laughter that is deep and full, but because of her humility, her humbleness. These are the qualities I adore.

The garden makes me think of Peter Pan and Wendy, and as the sun goes down, the twinkling candles might be Tinkerbell’s friends who have gathered near the table to cozily and quietly add sparkle. Talk at cocktails has encompassed those foibles of aging as we are all past our physical prime: memory loss, love of travel… One of the guests has recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with 12 others, decrying that it was not that tough. ( He is the baby of the group at barely 60. Ha!) He adds,” Of course we had 52 sherpas to cook us wonderful meals.” He chortles.

I try and remember the name of the park in Italy that plagued my falling asleep the night before. I try out “Bernini… Bulgari”, sensing they are not what I am searching for. When I tap my husband, interrupting his conversation, he immediately remembers, “ Borghese”. Ah, relief to find the word that fits that fuzzy space left wanting in my head. A friendly engaging guest describes how she has read that it is names that are the first to go and how embarrassing it is not to come up with the moniker that matches a familiar face.

Somehow I veer into the description of the chuppa that my husband and I designed for our son’s wedding, explaining we needlepointed from September to May and how the piece has travelled to New York and beyond. I laugh that its end may be at the bottom of a closet, the food of moths, but admitting it is a project I am glad we had undertaken, amazed that my husband would have laboured for hours with needle and wool in hand. But that is the trajectory of light conversation that encourages diverse topics that easily bounce from topic to topic.

At table that is nestled in front of a small pond and surrounded by trees and more beautifully encroaching flowers, the talk turns to legal politics- of Mike Dufy and his love child. The hostess produces the article in Macleans to substantiate the claim; then on to the provincial budget’s money for legal aid, veering towards stories of Montreal school days where one public school’s teachers were all Jewish refugees from WWII, to Quebec’s townships where flowered paths replaced roads, on to ordering dinner in Moosonee, to “ bare-naked’ postings on the internet. No one raises an eyebrow or scowls. We are no longer surprised, almost accepting of these lapses of adolescent judgment that occur before one realizes they are more than lapses, omissions because hormones rather than rational thought govern giggles.

One invitee tells of a soldier who confided his terror in a foxhole: fearing at 16, he would experience death before being laid. Another suggests that the author of Flanders Fields, John McCrae was gay. And still another offers that Harold MacMillian spent hours every night reading Aeschylus in Greek before he entered parliament each day: a quilt of varying textures, times and traumas.

The main discussion concerns WWI, Dieppe. One woman relates that some tombstones’ epitaphs read “ Know only to God”, tears arising from the corners of her eyes . A publisher reminds us of the veterans with lungs like jelly as no one considered that in gas warfare, the wind might change, and blow its deadly fumes into the faces of the Allied Forces. Another asks, ‘Guess who refused to allow Jewish graves to be destroyed?’ We are incredulous that sentiment is attributed to Adolf Hitler. But perhaps, it is reminiscent of the cache maintained in Prague where Hitler ordered the collection of 200,000 Jewish artifacts in his Museum of an Extinct Race. Still the narrative feels unlikely.

The publisher brings up Viet Nam and the trauma of returning home without the support of the general populace. But the talk returns yet again to World War I, the casualties, the deaths, the graveyards. I mention Pat Barker and her sensitive, human portrayal of the times, but perhaps I say it too quietly or more likely, the hearing of the group does not reach to my whispers. They are eagerly planning a service with an engaging speaker for Remembrance Day.

More loudly, I offer into the conversation Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and her description of the alarmed soldier befuddled on a bench back from war. They nod.

I tell them that when I taught Eli Weisel’s Night, the kids did not believe it was true. They are surprised, but the talk reverts to a reverie that concerns more days torn away by slaughter. I want to interject again that it is the future, the present of our protégées who must never forget. Even the books, historical retelling in novels of real events take on a mustiness, a fairytale quality that does not truly connect with our technology savvy youth whose truths live on screens – not in distant reality.

Some of the guests are over 80, memories much more vivid than mine and I admire the clearheadedness of their interchange. But it seems to me that we have veered into memory, not just for memory sake, certainly not for nostalgia and there is a desire beyond the words to keep those times alive. My mind flashes to Gaza and the Crimea, seething that nothing much ever changes, pondering the airplanes that will be downed, ever so many more lost boys and girls.

Yet, the evening is so still, so perfect as we sit wrapped in the darkening velvet of enchanting green foliage. The setting evokes for me other kinds of soirees, of salons where talk and poetry and politics have been eternally viewed through a veil of civility, concern and language,determined not to embellish or distort. Experiences, here this night, as morsels of ripe fruit are nibbled on, tasted, savoured, and presented to others for their consideration and consternation. All the while there is a palpable respect: for others, for words, for events that exist before us or in memory, both lived and shared.

A wonderful dinner concludes with pound cake, raspberries, blueberries, salted caramel and pistachio ice creams. When I discover the sudden stream of sugar on the cake, my senses light up, and I know I have been privileged to be among these thoughtful men and women.

A-Traveling: Looking for Home

I’m travelling from town to town…
one day I might settle down…
but you know I hanker to be free…
drifting is the only life for me…

My husband’s cousin, Harvey, is a professor at Yale. He teaches Russian. Harvey was born in Canada, but when he sings this little ditty, his words are softly slurred by an Eastern European accent and he gets a dreamy look in his eye. I had never heard this song before, but the words resonate:

A-drifting, the world is my home…

I understand Harvey’s lilting tune because I feel most at home away from home.
I’ve tried to contemplate when that wanderlust first began. Maybe, it was summer vacations when my family packed up the car and we drove across the States. Yet the smell of my carsick sister’s rangy stuffed dogs that she insisted on bringing pervades my memories and I know that was not the start.

More likely, it was the voyage to Europe on the British Empress with my socialist aunt and uncle when I turned 18. He, a World Federalist and she, a member of Voice of Women felt my education would be incomplete unless I toured old age homes in Sweden, the Tivoli in Copenhagen and department stores in Finland. It seemed ironic to cruise first class and dine at fine restaurants, but I hardly complained, taking in the sweetness of immense chocolate-dipped strawberries with the sour smells of mixed ages housing. My eccentric aunt’s itinerary included sculpture parks where we would wander for hours, exchanging insights on the solid sculpted bodies that lived amongst the greenery in Vigeland and the artists who had produced them.

But again, my reminiscences when I was barely out of adolescence are interrupted by memories of my prissy cousin who taletaled when I stayed out all night with the cabin boys. Naomi was a strange companion. I passionately loved my aunt, with her flaming red mouth and dyed jet-black hair that covered the bald spots, but my cousin was a lumpy snarling thing, inheriting my aunt’s squat figure and my uncle’s bookish introspection. Naomi resented my aunt’s mentorship of me. I recall the look of disgust on her face, standing on one side of a turnstile in some foreign place, clutching her purse to her chest, and me on the other side, entreating her to please, please, deposit a token in the slot so I could return to the hotel. She held me in her stare, hoping perhaps to make me disappear if she glared long and hard enough, forcing me to join some other family and leave hers in peace. But I met her gaze, imaging myself lost and homeless in dark alleys. Eventually she paid my way with a shrug as if to indicate that like some miserable charity case, I must, after all, be tended to.

My Aunt Marion‘s love of aesthetics most certainly played a role in my evolution. She was my Auntie Mame, hosting soirees for me alone as dazzled ingénue. She turned my father away at her door, but I was always welcome. Her invitations to me never ceased. She tempted me with strange and delicious treats, holding forth on topics as diverse as pastry-making, world peace and the disappearance of species of wild birds. Her intonation and knowledge seemed boundless and I drank it all in, traveling vicariously through her narratives that promised to go forever.

Returning from China, the Galapagos or Istanbul, she would issue forth special invitations to my family. They were to gather at her feet as she provided the context for specially chosen trinkets she had located in a remote village or market. Papier mache, tin or wood required an hour or so of her reverie on its provenance. I loved her in spite of the ramblings and the affectation duly noted by her brother, my father. He disliked the similarities between us, fearing I would adopt her high flaunting ways, odd dress and patronizing manner. She was the ambiguous art to his rational thinking. Her tone was disrespectful, mysterious and challenging and neither one could comprehend how they had been related by error of birth.

She encouraged my art, purchasing extravagant paints and books for me, never asking what I had accomplished. In truth, I did little, wasting valuable paint and opportunity. I doodled, covering all available surfaces with images of movie stars. Hardly an incipient Andy Warhol, I knew better than to share these bits of nothing with my family of logical thinkers who guffawed at my frivolity.

Eventually I stumbled into an actual art class and determined that I would see for myself the thousands of slides flashed on the screen, day after day, in darkened lecture halls. Mesmerized by sumptuous details, I poured over textbooks, wondering how the originals of famous pictures might differ from the black and white reproductions. I was intrigued by bizarre stories that surrounded both artisans and artists who laboured for patron and church. I would speculate by what foul deed fingers of saints had been delivered into gilded reliquaries and whether or not fragments of cherished saintly noses or toes were authentic. I dreamed of dark cloisters where talking was forbidden, but hunchbacked monks laboured nightly over embossed Celtic letters. I wondered if pattern books of approved designs had arrived by mule or penitent, smuggled from abbey to abbey along with casks of wine. I shivered as I imagined the voice of Vincent Price intoning Edgar Allan Poe’s poems: fitting backdrops to dimly lit caverns where nefarious deeds had occurred.

I marvelled at the artistry that rendered skies transparently clear and faces so exquisitely tortured that you could feel their hearts crying out from their birdlike rib cages. Were there deadly mysteries that entwined Franciscan and Benedictine monks in the capital letters of illuminated manuscripts? Nothing would prevent me from following the routes of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. Even if I had to do it on my knees! I hungered to pray beneath Giotto’s frescoes in Italy and taste the mangoes of Gauguin’s Tahiti. I was driven to see for myself, tickled by the lurking adventures projected on screens in those lecture halls. So far from the lives of my dodgy family.

I worked at three jobs: a girl from the city, who easily chose the wrong direction when two roads intersected; a girl so caught up in daydreams that she often forgot she had feet and landed in a heap on the ground, elbows and knees bruised and bleeding. I lived in my head, preferring the intoxicating beauty of things and the lure of strange places to the daily routines of everyday people. I surmised that artists had escaped their dreary lives through their art, fantasizing life at court, calling out for reforms for the poor, soaking up moments of sun-drenched perfection, envisioning a life different from their own. They were like cousin Harvey, always traveling, hankering to be free. In my quiet moments, I wondered, were they driven by aesthetics or just running away from home?

What was I seeking? Was I recreating the conversations I had shared with my eccentric aunt? Was I turning on my family’s conventional mores and snubbing my nose at my father, his tradition of hard work dissolved by images of observant madonnas and plump cherubs? Their faces beamed at me, not scowling or inveighing that I was wasting my time and energy.
To stereotype my family as materialistic and bull-headed is hardly fair, for my father, much like an old time watchmaker deliberated in his shop, perfecting the circuits that would give rise to perfect pitch and melodious tone as he tinkered with amplifiers, speakers and tuners from which the richest of sounds of music soared. Amidst an untidy blur of parts and paraphernalia, he was the silent focused explorer, making his workbench the scene of adventures of the mind. Fixed, solitary, unmoving, concentrating, a stone sculpture, he posed, fixated, drawn into his own passion.

Paintings bored my father. For him, visual aesthetics were trivial; for me, they were everything. Tonedeaf and rebellious, I scorned his focus, haughtily lauding my predilections far beyond his. I continued to drift, further away from him who preferred the hard-headed logic of my science-obsessed sister, never able to untangle the cobwebs of wires that covered his table and our relationship.

A-drifting…I hunger to be free

I traveled to Chantilly to examine the Duke of Berry’s illuminated manuscripts, painted by the medieval Limbourg Brothers. My diversion concerned the eyelashes of peasants perhaps plucked to form microscopic brushes to paint individual blades of grass. Each jewel-like page gleamed with secrets that beckoned and taunted. Yet, when I discovered that only facsimiles were on view, the originals under lock and key in ancient libraries, I was disillusioned, put out, offended and I imagined the bespeckled pinched-faced guardians of the books, glaring down from locked towers, jeering at daughters like myself who chanced to believe they might be privileged to look on the work of Masters. I thought I glimpsed the ridicule of my father’s eyes beneath the heavy brows of a skyhigh gargoyle.

I moved on to the south of France where there were light-filled landscapes and detailed drawings of sudden nooks and hidden lanes. Songs like Starry, Starry Night that commemorated Van Gogh’s desire to create a Japan in the south of France called like a siren. A field of sunflowers. A fierce red bed tilted dangerously upward. Self-portraits. The journals. Letters to brother Theo: they also spoke of strained relationships. But I rationalized that my true quest centred on seeing where a misunderstood genius had risen and fallen. Perhaps witness, voyeur, but always I was a seeker, always on the move, wanting to understand more and look through the tormented eyes of artists.

In Amsterdam, I found the Dutch Masters. I didn’t much like his portraits of Rembrandt’s three voluptuous wives. Too much flesh and flabby thighs that reminded me of myself. I knew he had dislocated heads and rearranged bodies in his work to produce an effect, a twist of the spine, a glorified moment: a modern airbrushing or an assemblage of impossible parts that could not exist in nature. My sketches were weak, arms and legs unattractively protruding because of my lack of skill, not a desire to portray perfection. In the back of my head, my aunt’s encouragement wrestled with my father’s shaking head at his scowling child. Her smiling support to his frowning annoyance.

Sometimes I ran madly from floor to floor in art galleries, afraid I would miss a vital clue. Once at the Rijksmuseum, I lingered long and studied hard the faces before me. A meaningful look or a gesture opened up reverie that could last for hours. Often just the richness of a colour or a well-placed icon spoke of a culture, a time, a place documented in an artist’s work and I was partially sated for awhile as I escaped the time and space of my own family. In truth, I found few clues there.

I searched on, contemplating Rembrandt’s paintings that chronicled his aging. He seemed so in love with his own image. I lingered before those portraits, desirous of learning truths, but saw only an egotist fascinated by his own face. His secrets were safe from me. But, perhaps by capturing his youthful reflection in paint and prolonging an expression, he might deter the advance of time, providing him with more time to contemplate the issues that also ate away at his soul. I knew his haunting self-portraits had survived, the topic of lengthy dissertations and art store sales, bought by perplexed seekers like me, hoping to discover the right questions to unlock the mysteries that connected life and art.

I sensed my father’s stern eyes watching me. Like Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, I longed to be swept up and receive fatherly approval. As I trudged out from the museum, I found myself in a flowermarket, my dark thoughts given sudden reprieve by the bright colours of tulips and marigolds, saved from further introspection.

My knowledge of art history grew, informing me of processes, providing me with background, context and critique, but still my imagination intervened, plotting against my rationale brain, teasing and turning my thoughts away from the actual works of art and acceptance of family at home.

Travelling propelled me on. Galleries in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin called and I responded. Obsessed, driven, fixated I was: always plotting to rearrange my relationship with my father, rendering it somehow whole, and like a jigsaw puzzle make all the sharp pieces fit smoothly together, but I moved away- not towards him. Father back home was a few expressionistic scratches on someone else’s drawing pad that maybe, might one day become a recognizable picture, but for now, for me, he remained only an underpainting.

***
Eventually, I stopped my travels, settled down, got married, had kids. I dragged them to the golden churches and tantalizing museums in Europe, hoping to fire their imaginations. I lacked my fiery aunt’s panache, low-keyed to their wide- eyed but polite interest. Soon, I lost my fascination with dried paint, arguing with myself that it was only artifice, reproduction, replica, aesthetic frivolity. I turned my attention to the frames that surrounded the art and I noted the care and materials that were most often ignored and I recalled my father as ancient goldsmith, a fine jeweller who by his attention to detail, made it possible for sound to sing. He was the paint, the binder, the means through which art could be realized. He ensured the best processes and most recent technology kept music from becoming stagnant or out of date. His fascination in producing sound ensured the communication between music and its creators as on-going conversation, a living process that relied on his knowledge of both entities. He was, in his way, essential to art.

In my quiet moments beneath the stained glass of gothic cathedrals, I realized that I had been mesmerized by the talk of travel in my aunt’s transcendent aura. I had emulated her by dashing in and out of scenarios, judging, dismissing, holding court, searching for trinkets that could represent more. I came to realize that the lure of fantastic locales and the canvases of famous painters beckon us deeper into mysteries that are merely the keys to unlock secrets. It was not Aunt Marion’s fault, my father’s, or even mine, for that matter.

We all inhabit our own universes, some collide, others just miss one another: it is the way of the world.

In the end, I had my trips, the searches, the images and maybe, that was enough. But maybe like Oz, travel was only an illusion.

A-travelling: looking for home

I’m travelling from town to town…
one day I might settle down…
but you know I hanker to be free…
drifting is the only life for me…

My husband’s cousin, Harvey, is a professor at Yale. He teaches Russian. Harvey was born in Canada, but when he sings this little ditty, his words are softly slurred by an Eastern European accent and he gets a dreamy look in his eye. I had never heard this song before, but the words resonate:

A-drifting, the world is my home…

I understand Harvey’s lilting tune because I feel most at home away from home.
I’ve tried to contemplate when that wanderlust first began. Maybe, it was summer vacations when my family packed up the car and we drove across the States. Yet the smell of my carsick sister’s rangy stuffed dogs that she insisted on bringing pervades my memories and I know that was not the start.

More likely, it was the voyage to Europe on the British Empress with my socialist aunt and uncle when I turned 18. He, a World Federalist and she, a member of Voice of Women felt my education would be incomplete unless I toured old age homes in Sweden, the Tivoli in Copenhagen and department stores in Finland. It seemed somewhat ironic to cruise first class and dine at fine restaurants, but I hardly complained, taking in the sweetness of immense chocolate-dipped strawberries with the sour smells of mixed ages housing. My eccentric aunt’s itinerary included sculpture parks where we would wander for hours, exchanging insights on the solid sculpted bodies that lived amongst the greenery in Vigeland and the artists who had produced them.

But again, my reminiscences when I was barely out of adolescence are interrupted by memories of my prissy cousin who taletaled when I stayed out all night with the cabin boys. Naomi was a strange companion. I passionately loved my aunt, with her flaming red mouth and dyed jet-black hair that covered the bald spots, but my cousin was a lumpy snarling thing, inheriting my aunt’s squat figure and my uncle’s bookish introspection. Naomi resented my aunt’s mentorship of me. I recall the look of disgust on her face, standing on one side of a turnstile in some foreign place, clutching her purse to her chest, and me on the other side, entreating her to please, please, deposit a token in the slot so I could return to the hotel. She held me in her stare, hoping perhaps to make me disappear if she glared long and hard enough, forcing me to join some other family and leave hers in peace. But I met her gaze, imaging myself lost and homeless in dark alleys. Eventually she paid my way with a shrug as if to indicate that like some miserable charity case, I must, after all, be tended to.

My Aunt Marion‘s love of aesthetics most certainly played a role in my evolution. She was my Auntie Mame, hosting soirees for me alone as dazzled ingénue. She turned my father away at her door, but I was always welcome. Her invitations to me never ceased. She tempted me with strange and delicious treats, holding forth on topics as diverse as pastry-making, world peace and the disappearance of species of wild birds. Her intonation and knowledge seemed boundless and I drank it all in, traveling vicariously through her narratives that promised to go forever.

Returning from China, the Galapagos or Istanbul, she would issue forth special invitations to my family. We were to gather at her feet as she provided the context for specially chosen trinkets she had located in a remote village or market. Papier mache, tin or wood required an hour at least of her reverie on its provenance. I loved her in spite of the ramblings and the affectation duly noted by her brother, my father. He disliked the similarities between us, fearing I would adopt her high flaunting ways, odd dress and patronizing manner. She was the ambiguous art to his rational thinking. Her tone was disrespectful to him, mysterious and challenging and neither one could comprehend how they had been related by error of birth.

She encouraged my art, purchasing extravagant paints and books for me, never asking what I had accomplished. In truth, I did little, wasting valuable paint and opportunity. I doodled, covering all available surfaces with images of movie stars. Hardly an incipient Andy Warhol, I knew better than to share these bits of nothing with my family of logical thinkers who guffawed at my frivolity.

Eventually I stumbled into an actual art class and determined that I would see for myself the thousands of slides flashed on the screen, day after day, in darkened lecture halls. Mesmerized by sumptuous details, I poured over textbooks, wondering how the originals of famous pictures might differ from the black and white reproductions. I was intrigued by bizarre stories that surrounded both artisans and artists who laboured for patron and church. I would speculate by what foul deed fingers of saints had been delivered into gilded reliquaries and whether or not fragments of cherished saintly noses or toes were authentic? I dreamed of dark cloisters where talking was forbidden but hunchbacked monks laboured nightly over embossed Celtic letters. I ruminated over whether pattern books of approved designs had arrived by mule or penitent, smuggled from abbey to abbey along with casks of wine. I shivered as I imagined the voice of Vincent Price intoning Edgar Allan Poe’s poems: fitting backdrops to dimly lit caverns where nefarious deeds had occurred.
I marvelled at the artistry that rendered skies transparently clear and faces so exquisitely tortured that you could feel their hearts crying out from their birdlike rib cages. Were there deadly mysteries that entwined Franciscan and Benedictine monks in the capital letters of illuminated manuscripts? Nothing would prevent me from following the routes of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. Even if I had to do it on my knees! I hungered to pray beneath Giotto’s frescoes in Italy and taste the mangoes of Gauguin’s Tahiti. I was driven to see for myself, tickled by the lurking adventures projected on screens in those lecture halls. So far from the lives of my dodgy family.

I worked at three jobs: a girl from the city, who easily chose the wrong direction when two roads intersected; a girl so caught up in daydreams that she often forgot she had feet and landed in a heap on the ground, elbows and knees bruised and bleeding. I lived in my head, preferring the intoxicating beauty of things and the lure of strange places to the daily routines of everyday people. I surmised that artists had escaped their dreary lives through their art, fantasizing life at court, calling out for reforms for the poor, soaking up moments of sun-drenched perfection, envisioning a life different from their own. They were like cousin Harvey, always traveling, hankering to be free. In my quiet moments, I wondered, were they driven by aesthetics or just running away from home?

What was I seeking? Was I recreating the conversations I had shared with my eccentric aunt? Was I turning on my family’s conventional mores and snubbing my nose at my father, his tradition of hard work dissolved by the images of observant madonnas and plump cherubs? Their faces beamed at me, not scowling or inveighing that I was wasting my time and energy.
To stereotype my family as materialistic and bull-headed is hardly fair, for my father, much like an old time watchmaker deliberated in his shop, perfecting the circuits that would give rise to perfect pitch and melodious tone as he tinkered with amplifiers, speakers and tuners from which the richest of sounds of music soared. Amidst an untidy blur of parts and paraphernalia, he was the silent focused explorer, making his workbench the scene of adventures of the mind. Fixed, solitary, unmoving, concentrating, a stone sculpture, he posed, unaware he was transfixed.

Paintings bored my father. For him, visual aesthetics were trivial; for me, they were everything. Tonedeaf and rebellious, I scorned his focus, haughtily lauding my passion far beyond his. I continued to drift, further away from him who preferred the hard-headed logic of my science-obsessed sister, never able to untangle the cobwebs of wires that covered his table and our relationship.

A-drifting…I hunger to be free

I traveled to Chantilly to examine the Duke of Berry’s illuminated manuscripts, painted by the medieval Limbourg Brothers. My diversion concerned the eyelashes of peasants perhaps plucked to form microscopic brushes to paint individual blades of grass. Each jewel-like page gleamed with secrets that beckoned and taunted. Yet, when I discovered that only facsimiles were on view, the originals under lock and key in ancient libraries, I was disillusioned, put out, offended and I imagined the bespeckled pinched-faced guardians of the books, glaring down from locked towers, jeering at daughters like myself who chanced to believe they might be privileged to look on the work of Masters. I thought I glimpsed the ridicule of my father’s eyes beneath the heavy brows of a skyhigh gargoyle.

I moved on to the south of France where there were light-filled landscapes and detailed drawings of sudden nooks and hidden lanes. Songs like Starry, Starry Night that commemorated Van Gogh’s desire to create a Japan in the south of France called like a siren. A field of sunflowers. A fierce red bed tilted dangerously upward. Self-portraits. The journals. Letters to brother Theo: they also spoke of strained relationships. But I rationalized that my true quest centred on seeing where a misunderstood genius had risen and fallen. Perhaps witness, voyeur, but always a seeker, always on the move, wanting to understand more and look through the tormented eyes of artists.

In Amsterdam, I found the Dutch Masters. I didn’t much like his portraits of Rembrandt’s three voluptuous wives. Too much flesh and flabby thighs that reminded me of myself. I knew he had dislocated heads and rearranged bodies in his work to produce an effect, a twist of the spine, a glorified moment: a modern airbrushing or an assemblage of impossible parts that could not exist in nature. My sketches were weak, arms and legs unattractively protruding because of my lack of skill, not a desire to portray perfection. In the back of my head, my aunt’s encouragement wrestled with my father’s shaking head at his scowling child. Her smiling support to his frowning annoyance.

Sometimes I ran madly from floor to floor in art galleries, afraid I would miss a vital clue. Once at the Rijksmuseum, I lingered long and studied hard the faces before me. A meaningful look or a gesture opened up reverie that could last for hours. Often just the richness of a colour or a well-placed icon spoke of a culture, a time, a place documented in an artist’s work and I was partially sated for awhile as I escaped the time and space of my own family. In truth, I found few clues there.

I searched on, contemplating Rembrandt’s paintings that chronicled his aging. He seemed so in love with his own image. I lingered before those portraits, desirous of learning truths, but saw only an egotist fascinated by his own face. His secrets were safe from me. But, perhaps by capturing his youthful reflection in paint and prolonging an expression, he might deter the advance of time, providing him with more time to contemplate the issues that also ate away at his soul. I knew his haunting gazes had survived, the topic of lengthy dissertations and art store sales, bought by perplexed seekers like me, hoping to discover the right questions to unlock the mysteries that connected life and art.

I sensed my father’s stern eyes watching me. Like Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, I longed to be swept up and receive fatherly approval. As I trudged out from the museum, I found myself in a flowermarket, my dark thoughts given sudden reprieve by the bright colours of tulips and marigolds, saved from further introspection.

My knowledge of art history grew, informing me of processes, providing me with background, context and critique, but still my imagination intervened, plotting against my rationale brain, teasing and turning my thoughts away from the actual works of art and acceptance of family at home.

Travelling propelled me on. Galleries in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin called and I responded. Obsessed, driven, fixated I was: always plotting to rearrange my relationship with my father, rendering it somehow whole, and like a jigsaw puzzle make all the sharp pieces fit smoothly together, but I moved away- not towards him. Father back home was a few expressionistic scratches on someone else’s drawing pad that maybe, might one day become a recognizable picture, but for now, for me, he remained only an underpainting.

***
Eventually, I stopped my travels, settled down, got married, had kids. I dragged them to the golden churches and tantalizing museums in Europe, hoping to fire their imaginations. I lacked my fiery aunt’s panache, low-keyed to their wide- eyed but polite interest. Soon, I lost my fascination with dried paint, arguing with myself that it was only artifice, reproduction, replica, aesthetic frivolity. I turned my attention to the frames that surrounded the art and I noted the care and materials that were most often ignored and I recalled my father as ancient goldsmith, a fine jeweller who by his attention to detail, made it possible for sound to sing. He was the paint, the binder, the means through which art could be realized. He ensured the best processes and most recent technology kept music from becoming stagnant or out of date. His focussed examination, his passion for his art ensured the communication between music and its creators as on-going conversation, a living process that relied on his knowledge of both entities. He was, in his way, essential to art.

In my quiet moments beneath the stained glass of gothic cathedrals, I realized that I had been mesmerized by the talk of travel in my aunt’s transcendent aura. I had emulated her by dashing in and out of scenarios, judging, dismissing, holding court, searching for trinkets that could represent more. I came to realize that the lure of fantastic locales and the canvases of famous painters beckon us deeper into mysteries that are merely the keys to unlock secrets. It was not Aunt Marion’s fault, my father’s, or even mine, for that matter. We all inhabit our own universes, some collide, others just miss one another: it is the way of the world.

In the end, I had my trips, the searches, the images and maybe, that was enough. But maybe like Oz, travel was only an illusion.

Winter Tales

My mother used to say” you never know” and who would have guessed that this winter season would be so violent? (could we ever have guessed, let alone known?) The storm that overtook the trees, turned sidewalks into slippery ice paths and forced people into the dark was a revelation in Toronto. We, personally, were hit by a loss of power and with a five month baby in the house visiting, it was necessary to evacuate. Fortunately our son and his family were in Ottawa so we camped out that freezing day at his place.

The baby had been put down to bed, we had been sated with takeout sushi when there was a knock at the door. While daughter #2 feared it was looters and thieves, it turned out to be a burly hydro guy telling us we had to evacuate yet again as a live wire had been disconnected from the house and it was- in deed- dangerous. Yet, he shook his head in disbelief as he relayed that just a few blocks over near Oriole Parkway, families and children were playing ice hockey BESIDE yellow tape and pillions that warned of more live wires with voltage in the thousands. Parents today who are so safety-conscious that their children have imbibed numerous correct protocols with their mothers’ milk chose to ignore warnings. Go figure.

And just as in all good fairytales, a magical message arrived in the nick of time to inform us that our power at our house had been restored. Waking up a sleeping baby, we warmed the car and headed back. However, we feared that the message had been incorrect as we passed block after block of blackened houses and stoplights that were not functioning. Our elated mood was sinking and we began to ponder where we might stay on this frosty night. Soon we glimpsed a sparkle of golden pinpoints as we neared our house and to our good fortune, we could observe lights blinking on in our street. There is nothing so comforting as snuggling deep under a duvet in a warm room and we were thankful for the resurge of power.

However, when our son and his family arrived home from Ottawa, they camped out with us. Eventually, an electrician reconnected their broken stand pole so that the hydro line could re-establish their power. Yet, five days later hydro by the city had not been restored and their home remained chilly. No joke when there are two boys under the age of 5 to keep protected.

That week we celebrated my birthday on the 25th, so glad to be together in a toasty house. My husband had been cooking for two days and his turkey, browned perfectly, smelling as the best of turkeys will, filled the house with an unforgettable aroma. When daughter #1 and her husband arrived, we began nibblies of hummus, guacamole and the last shrimps to be found anywhere in the city with Prosecco and wine. We lolled and lazed and laughed.

I began my usual gift gifting which I refer to as “Channukah leftovers”. This year the children received an inheritance from my late mother which was kept separate from the arriving deluge of toys. The funds will be used differently as the needs of the children vary: the electrician to fix my son’s house; well-deserved vacations for my daughters; college funds to be stashed, etc.

I still marvel that my mother had been able to put away any money as my father made so little in his work. She was amazing to have been able to pay for her own apartment and caregiver until age 92, persistently worrying that her funds might run out. I will always associate her with the worn red wallet in the drawer in our kitchen behind our store on Eglinton. The red wallet where my sister and I pinched our nickels and dimes to buy a treat on the way back to West Prep after lunch, the red wallet that my father had made her during occupational therapy while in his 9 months’ stay at Riverdale hospital and subsequent polio convalescence. Something about that worn leather wallet touches me deeply, maybe as symbol of her endurance, their life.

I remember feeling so proud that when school friends who attended the dreaded Hebrew School across from our store, Tele Sound, came by, my mother always gave me enough money to buy a treat for them as well as myself. Even the rich kids who were thrown into afterschool torture might walk home with me and I would pick coins from her worn wallet triumphantly believing I possessed the beneficence of any wealthy host, guiding them to the pharmacy next door to select chips, caramel corn, chocolate bars. With some surprise, a classmate commented on our modest home behind the store. I always thought my bedroom, painted pink, the equal of the fanciest abodes in Forest Hill and was incredulous that anyone might think otherwise.

Even now, I recall the feel of that wallet as I eagerly searched for the money in its shallow depths. I’m not sure how she would have felt about how we spend/ are spending the money she took a lifetime to accumulate through her modest life, her careful balancing of funds, her restricting her own lifestyle, juggling her house accounts and depriving herself of any luxuries. I never thought of us as poor.

Wendy, my sister, and I had lessons vacations and never wanted for anything, yet it was my mother stretching and saving and budgeting that made it possible for us to live that illusion. My father once said his parents always fought over money and he never wanted that for us. Yet it must have been almost magic for her to put away money for simple investments, spinning straw into gold. I hope my mother would have been pleased. However her generation stashed pennies in the bank,concerned for the future, finding solace in institutions purported to maintain the structure and safety of society.

And even though in the past years, she sometimes did not call on my birthday date, I most often invited her so she could participate in a rowdy dinner. With beautiful flowers, children’s noisy chatter, a table set with my grandmother’s crystal and colourful plates, our dinner was beautiful in so many ways. Even if she barely interacted in the last years at that meal, I hoped that she felt part of the whole scene, chaotic and brimming with life.

During a storm and its aftermath, things change: you isolate moments and wrap yourself into what matters, feeling fortunate to be with the people you cherish.

Vacations

When I was a kid at West Prep, I longed for summer, the space between the beginning and end of school. I wasn’t a bad student, just maybe disinterested. Vacation was a space that suggested freedom. Yet as I remember back, it was not two long months of lazying out on beaches. I often fantasized about attending at a fancy camps as most of the Forest Hill kids did and sunning and swimming at golf clubs: all of those destinations that held magical mystery for me.

My mother eventually sent me to Mr. Salmon, the West Prep’s principal, summer camp, where those fantasies should have dissipated after my two week’s stay. I was surrounded by my two cousins, Rima and Carol, somehow engineered by my mother for staying with me. The memories except for listening to Nancy Drew at dark were not good and I so resented sharing the bags of pistachios brought on Visitor’s Day by my parents: an extravagant gift from them. I received a stingy 2-3, following, even then, the rules of handing over the bounty I longed to gobble all by myself.

With the exception of the above sojourn, I would help out at the free summer programs at West Prep, swing on the swings there, dawdle a bit, daydream in the school yard , the same place where I endured the rest of the year.

Usually in late July or early August, for a week to ten days, we would take a family vacation which meant my father driving somewhere and my mother dragging the heavy suitcases in and out of motels.

Once we headed to Florida where all of us, except my father who did not sunbathe, were fried hot red in the sun. Only cooling watermelon in Georgia seemed the salve for even burning bubbled lips. Howard Johnson Motels had just opened up in the 50’s and the price must have been affordable because we did stay there- but only for one night as the point of the trip, it seemed, was to drive to a specific location, and turn right around and head back. On reflection, it may have been a way for my mother to rationalize we were like all other families; and for my father, to DRIVE, and pretend he was as capable of the same mobility as all other dads. Or perhaps, more truthfully, he truly enjoyed the feel of driving and being on the open road, even as his kids, meaning me, squabbled and complained in the back seat.

During those trips, I think I did develop a love of seeing new things. We were introduced to the Hayden Planetarium , the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York, a gigantic replica of Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Ausable Canyon also in New York, our special toy store in Rochester, and any place that featured science museums or musical associations.

My sister was a terrible traveller and occasionally would puke. She was always accompanied by her stuffed toy, Bow-Wow Woof Woof for whom we once had to double back to some small town because she had left him beneath the covers. I used to announce at regular intervals, “I’m bored” and was repeatedly instructed to look out the window. I was still bored and harboured no understanding of how houses flying past or straight highways were supposed to assuage that tedium. I just wanted to reach our destination, throw off my sweaty clothes and heave myself into a pool. My parents would play the usual games with us“ I spy something with my little eye” or the geography one. All for me were continually boring, particularly as my competitive sister would jump in and know all the answers.

Once I recall an incredible treat as a hotel had a small cache of magazines and candies for sale at the checkin. My father let me choose whatever I wanted and I selected “ Jack and Jill”, a magazine much like Readers Digest . I cherished it because my father had offered me such an incredible prize and he had seemed to have melted a bit from what I considered his hard façade. Of course, I read it from cover to cover , beyond incredulous that my father had been so magnanimous to allow me such a treat. Holding it close was like a warm hug or kiss from him.

We greedily anticipated these summer outings, these trips that like a straight line reached its target and then doubled back home. For my father, I suppose it was the freedom of the open road, his car replacing his legs claimed by his illness. He had created a special hand control with which he could feed gas, a forerunner really of cruise control. Yet even as a boy he had followed the train tracks, fascinated and delighted by all things that moved electrically. My mother wondered if he had picked up the polio bug working on the radios in ambulances.

For my mother, she was always the uncomplaining slave, lugging, carrying, managing every aspect of our lives whether at home or on the road. I think of her as the porter, the go-between, the co-ordinator, her head turned out towards the window as the scenery flashed by. I do not recall resentment on her part or perhaps I was too young to empathize or understand the burdens weighing on her physically and emotionally: in her attempts to render our life “ as normal” as possible in a constructed world where my father’s disability had altered every aspect of her life.

Was he embarrassed not to be able to load or unload the trunk. Probably, but he hid it well in a gruffness that often turned to ridicule at me, particularly my being too sensitive. He had this bitter sarcasm—at life, I think that had felled him to his knees.

She made up for everything, or at least tried to smooth out the numerous wrinkles so we might grow up thinking we were an ordinary family: our lessons, our trips, our achievements at school. Both fact and fantasy. I’ve said it before: she was the glue that held our lives together.

Still I wonder at my longing for summer between kindergarten and Grade 7, away from the hot confines of school rooms in June , not being made to redo my sums.

Thinking harder about life at West Prep, I do recall the square dances in Grade 3 with Joey Marano, and being asked to read my story about a monkey who ate artificial cherries off an old ladies hat at a Friday morning auditorium assembly- before the entire school population. I remember with a rush of embarrassment, a movie called “Personally Yours” about getting your period, and a boy throwing my briefcase into the boys’ washroom. I recall signing all my valentine cards with the moniker ” Anonymous” in Grade 6 and then wishing I had identified myself, especially to Harold Goldstein in my class. I remember the music listening test to differentiate higher and lower tones where some children were identified for playing musical instruments, and I was not. I remember auditioning for a talent show singing, “ Around the world I searched for you ”, and not being chosen. And of course, I recall mean Mrs. Young in Grade one in her lace up oxfords, raking her nails through my hair when I could not perform a simple cutting task. A hodge podge of memories.

What shines through, though, is the summer vacation, the image of our family in the car: mother, father, sister and me.

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