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Archive for the month “October, 2014”

Where Home Is

Like one million others( last winter), my daughter who lives in Pennsylvania has been without heat and power for three or more days. It’s no joke with a seven month old baby. Unable to get a hotel room, her small family moved in with an aunt and uncle, taking over the daughter’s room. My daughter felt badly banishing Katharine from her bed so they moved on, searching for another place to relocate. Fortunately their wonderful babysitter offered refuge to not only my daughter but also to her pets which include several dogs and cats. As the disruption of their life continued, my girl wrote, “I had a sad realization last night that I don’t know where home is anymore—our house didn’t feel like it. Home in Toronto isn’t the same anymore…I just felt so lonely and sad—despite the fact that there are so many people who have reached out to care for us.”

This put me in mind of the question that drives much of J.M. Coetzee’s work,
Where is home? And how do we get there?

I responded to my daughter that home is not a place but a feeling where one perceives they are secure and loved, yet I knew that is only partly true, for a house is filled with things that we associate with memories of who we are, where we have been and where we might go. It is an extension of our inner selves.

When I look around my living room, I view the numerous photos that line the walls; of children and grandchildren at various points in their lives. I observe objects such as a colourful beaded horse brought back from Botswana, and the incredible vibrant painting of purple and orange rocks and three blown pine trees from Canada’s North that Howard commissioned for my 60th birthday. I reflect on the pink walls of that room that are so bold but, to me, so beautiful and remember how the colour cured down after we first bought the house. I think of our little nook in the kitchen with the huge uncovered windows where I sit and paint and write and read. I note the steps upstairs where children and grandchildren carefully learned to scramble, navigating and eventually proclaiming in triumph, “I did it.” Rooms and furniture become imbued with so much more; and they carry tales. Being physically removed is hard, especially when you have not chosen to leave the premises. I can certainly empathize with my daughter’s discomfort of having to depart her home.

I used to quote, making it a mantra that always invoked from my kids, “ Yes, we KNOW, Mom!” whenever we pulled into our driveway,“ Home is the place when you have to go there/, They have to take in (Robert Frost, The Death of The Hired Man). Back when I was in Grade 13, several millenniums ago we sat “provincial exams” and this poem was required text for the literature part of the English exam, but even then, the concept of home had been seared in my mind.

There is that famous question: if you had to abandon your house immediately, what would you take with you? Of course, this was the fate of the people during the holocaust.

And what would you take?

Likely you might grab something warm like a sweater or a coat, maybe a necklace or money to barter with, and -for sure- photos of your loved ones. Book after book reminds us of a worn image stashed in a shoe or a pocket covetously sewn into a garment overlooked by harsh authorities, a photo that somehow made it through dark passages and hopeless days.

I think too of the cookbooks scrabbled on bits of paper in concentration camps so that the inmates might reimagine the warming smells of challa baking or a fragrant roast, recalling home when the family once greeted Shabbos by candlelight, warm, safe, sated by love. Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin is one such book that describes how a remembered kitchen and kuchen prolonged survival.

For writers, maybe there is a sense of discovering where the fit is right for their protagonists, where they can slump comfortably and rest and cease their journeys or quests. The expression by Thomas Wolf, “you can never go home again,” is apt because everything changes so that the notion of home cannot be recaptured. It is Heraclitus’s famous saying, you can never step into the same river twice idea, for it is never the same: one moment tossing up sticks and leaves; the next calm and clear, your toes splashed or caressed.

Only in memory can “home” remain fixed, and, thus, fantastical. Yet, the thoughts and familiar objects we associate with home persist as signposts of acceptance and love, or ones that we associate with home. Being forced to leave one’s home is a brutal shock that causes one to experience feelings of being uprooted, unsettled and lost. I reflect always of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation in which the words gleaned in her new language do not connect with her childhood experienced in another. When her name is changed to make it “American”, Eva is displaced, unable to access her former self in even small scenarios: piano classes with a teacher who communicated with her in Polish words now rendered foreign and unreachable to her in the adopted country.

Even our one day pilgrimage to my son’s during the Christmas ice storm made me appreciate the warmth of my own bed once we were able to return for a cozy night’s sleep. Ahh, snuggling deep beneath accustomed sheets. Ummmm.

Maybe in our deepest of hearts we carry the first nomads with us, the hunters and gatherers who were searching for protection and safety from the elements. Being homeless recalls and enjoins us with our primordial ancestors who physically knew the bitter cold, the need for fire and friendship to survive. Yet at the same time, many of us long to travel, to leave home, to reach out, to explore, to encounter adventure, difference and diversity, to learn in foreign contexts –however, desirous of returning home to integrate that knowledge into the sanctity of our cherished abodes, dreaming perhaps of the excursions, but still hungry for more experiences. This is the archetypal journey described by literature. This rejoins us to our restless roots.

For my daughter, the exile from her home, there was a baby unsettled by missing the rituals of a beginning schedule and his cozy crib and Dano, the massive dog, licking his chubby body. Yet with the baby’s mother, my daughter, and his father, he must have intuited the security that he is treasured, held and cared for in the intensity of difficult situations. So home unembellished is a feeling, and a memory of being loved and cherished, rocked and resplendent in someone’s arms.

Maybe at the end of our days that is the home we will ultimately seek.

Thoughts on books, war, retirement : my week ( early winter 2014)

Why would anyone be interested in my week?

After all it is my week, a week of a boomer now retired and finally accustomed to a life that differs greatly to the hectic, crazy and wonderful workplaces I once inhabited. In teaching, there was always nightly preparation, on-going relationships and building community with the most volatile of humans, students; at OCT, it was the thrill of creating new policy, determining pathways for the more than 300,000 teachers in the province. And now instead of dashing off in traffic to be bright and perky in my office by 8:30, I sit by my window in the kitchen, watching the dark and cold day hopefully brighten.

This has been a hard winter, too early begun with a crippling ice storm during the Christmas break and temperatures that have made me feel much like the bear who wants only to sleep or find comfort food in order to wrap herself deeper and burrow
away from the chill of venturing out of my doors. Brrrr.

Yet, my spirits preternaturally down have found some solace. I returned to a painting class with Martha. She is a somewhat wacky teacher whose lunch, by the way, consists of those baked orange goldfish used to augment a salad and a cup of tea. Recently she exhibited her wire installations of an albatross across Canada. Why I continue to return every few years to Martha’s class is her attitude. She is not a bouncy, over the top kind of woman; however, she can bring together any group. She makes collaboration a reality in a way few can manage. When we practice critique of our artworks at the end of three hours, she will find something insightful to say about absolutely everyone’s work. She is able to create a coterie of like minded but also wildly diverse people and make them feel comfortable- at least that’s what she does for me. None of us will be great artists but the time spent exercising our paintbrushes feels relaxing and fulfilling. The rest of the world disappears.

More than that, if I have a comment, Martha listens. Really listens. In many classes, although I may contribute analysis based on my art history background, I can easily spot, the ho-hum, ignore this one and move on attitude of the instructor. Martha uses my words as springboards to engage others and deepen understandings of the work that is evolving in class. It feels good to have someone value and really hear me. People used to in my professional life. Really.

Thinking of books, I find a correlation – as always- in art. In The Goldfinch, the protagonist finds a resting place for his soul away from life in his pursuit of art and; likewise I hear a comment in a little interview on Q with Viggo Mortensen yesterday. Mortensen addressed art as keeping us from pondering the big questions, for example: when will I die? He reflected that art is the diversion, the distraction that keeps us moving forward. His conversation with Jian Ghomeshi made me think of having studied Pascal in university and the need for the chase. Art is the good chase, an important one to enliven our souls and make the world more beautiful, less corrupt and less broken by self-serving politics. It turns us away from the ugliness of daily events by people whose ethics, although they use them as a shield, are weak, wrong– and our fear of our own mortality. During the interview Mortensen disclosed, “When I was a little boy, my first question every morning was “ ‘When will I die?’”. I am reminded of my little girl whose life’s work has been to watch and comprehend the dying: listening, observing, unraveling their stories to allow an opening between the worlds of today and tomorrow.

Punctuating the week was a lecture by Cathy Tile at her Living Literature class. Yesterday it was The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. I had gobbled up the book too quickly as the story dealt with a legless woman in Afghanistan, the story echoing Antigone’s plea to bury her brother. And although I immediately found the writing good, not boring or pedantic, I really did not want to engage with the subject matter: too dark. Tile has covered quite a number of war-themed books. I did respond positively to Toby Room’s by Pat Barker as the protagonists were artists, so an easy connection for me. And many years ago, Barker’s Regeneration Trio opened up an understanding of war on a personal level that rendered it less heroic and more devastatingly human with the depravations of a plethora of portrayals. However, The Watch, besides the centerpiece of a stranded woman who is determined to bury her brother’s body did not really attract me.

Yes, I was drawn in by the multiple perspectives of the soldiers from various places across the US whose experiences and attitudes differed towards the plight of the woman, but rather than being able to escape from the hardships and major conflicts in life, this book threw me deeper into the mire of this terrible world, preventing an escape into my thoughts, fantasies, whatever. I admit that I finished the book in an a detached witness-kind of manner, not allowing myself to be yoked to the events.

My rational mind attempted to keep me apart so that Tile’s lecture and its detailing would make sense- all in an intellectual vein. Superficially I could comprehend and process her comments as she deepened my understanding of Roy-Bhattacharya and his thorough research of visiting American service men after writing his first draft. His first hand exposure to the real feelings and thoughts of military people humanized the story, riddling with holes the entire propaganda of why America engagesin wars such as Viet Nam and Iraq. Tile’s book talk provided context, thoughtfulness concerning his approach to developing his art.

Usually I seek out historical or contemporary fiction as a springboard to hide from the big questions or confront the major issues that plaque us: the paradox of learning more but being shielded by the words that do open our eyes to new realities; and if they are well told, will reach into our times and troubles, intensifying how and why we comprehend. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony: that being shielded by language, we gain experience and pierce the theory-practice divide by empathizing with the emotions and vulnerabilities of others. Often literature removes us from or softens the edges, romanticizing, making more distant or punctuating stories with dreamscapes. The Watch is not like that. You feel the woman’s anguish. The strong, tough, enduring hard little pit of a protagonist that refuses to move or be moved.

This adamant act of courage by Nasim in the book is giant. Placed literally in the centre of the yard, she maintains her stance in spite of pain, danger, anger and wins the compassion of the soldiers surrounding her. It is a great story, Sophocles’story, that has endured even into present times. It made me remember why we must study the classics; as they truly form the back story for all significant writing.

The Watch provided a perfect teaching moment. By grounding the story in Antigone, the author reinforces the importance of the Greek myths and Joseph Campbell’s studies that underline the importance of trying, trying even as we know it will end in failure: because we are not gods, only fragile humans with limited abilities and possibilities. That the old stories, the myths have so much to give us for contemplating who we are, what we do and what we value is a triumph in writing.

As well, Tile engaged me personally regarding a few comments I had offered on Shani Boijanii’s The People of Forever are Not Afraid, a coming of age story of three young women in the Israeli army. (I think I described having heard Boijanii being interviewed by David Bezmozgis in an earlier blog.)She enquired, “Did you like the book?” Caught off guard, I did not really think when I responded, so I later shot off an email, relating the book to Coetzee’s questions of where is home and how do I get there, connecting this underlying theme to Boijanii’s ordinary Israeli girls in extraordinary times.

It took me almost 5 years to feel ok about not working. I always loved art and writing and reading, but it is very different when they are the borders not the substance of your life, when you must find time to push them from the edges to the core of your life. When you work, you fly- you are mother, teacher, daughter,wife, employee, housekeeper, driver, all powerful, crunching so much together. You command, you are powerful and at the end of your day, as you drop into the couch, you proudly, while eyes drooping, exclaim, wow! how did I do so much. There is exhausted pride in accomplishments of so much squeezed into so few hours. Retired people are the powerful Oz reduced to a squeak.

But once retired, the opposite is true. The hours are long and you eventually discover events, classes, friends to fill the day along with the reacquaintance of things you once loved and hope to rediscover meaning in. The reversal is hard, particularly when your partner still dashes and smashes about with important matters that, as you once did, effects many.

However, life whether you want it to or not, changes. Lingering over a newspaper, lunch with a friend, little things become bigger. Life just changes and events expand to fill the hours that once contained multitudes of responsibilities.

Yet this week and particularly Tile’s lecture revived my soul- a bit. It reminded me of larger matters than just cramming a day full of activities: the important questions we minimize when we work, the bigger issues that underpin and mobilize our society. Like many good moments, her lecture was a surprise, to peer through the fog, the bad weather, the noise of times gone by, and reflect on what is germane.

As I edit this last year’s blog, I am sad to link it to this week’s attack on Parliament Hill and the murder of Nathan Cirillo at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here it is a real war story on our own land. No words. Just grief. Sadly, another war story from which we cannot turn.

Why ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ ?

Last night we saw Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m not really a fan of the Coen Brothers in spite of the fact we do go to see their films: Fargo, of course; Brother, Where Art Thou with George Clooney; Barton Fink ; and No Country for Old Men. Something about Llewyn Davis reminded me of Raging Bull, maybe the misty and gloominess of the atmosphere. I recalled thinking, if they got rid of the word “fuck” in this movie there would be no dialogue whatsoever. Interesting in the years that have passed, even the million times refrain of “fuck” in Wolf of Wall Street has become like wallpaper, maybe noticeable, but pretty lah-de-dah, as Diane Keaton might have murmured to Woody.

When I worked at Northern, my colleagues and I liked to pepper our private conversations with swear words, colourful exclamations, a kind of rebellion against the notion that all English teachers are prim and proper and only the prose of Shakespeare fell from our parted rosy lips. My friend Joe, a former actor was particularly prolific and wonderful in his range and rage of spicy language, continually punctuating conversations with swear words which tickled us and transformed our dowdy office into a hall of warm laughter.

But eventually as all pursuits become the pap of the public, even brilliantly coloured words lose their appeal with their rise in popularity of the masses. Soon everyone was swearing all over the place and I realized that it was impossible to insult anything or anyone once those so nasty darts became as eponymous as daisies. How to press a point dramatically or actually reveal disgust or displeasure at a person or an act?

Years previously I had to demonstrate proficiency in three languages along with my pursuit of my Masters in Art History. My friend and I would read Italian together and translate passages from a novel so that I could pass the exam set by the university. Over tea in her sunlit front room, we would chat about a multitude of topics. She was a very wise woman (she even had a grey bun!) and reflected that this was the first time in history that people actually dressed down, wanting to emulate the poor, rather than striving to imitate the cultured dress, speech and deportment of an aristocratic or upper class.

Theoretically, one might think speaking “bad” might herald democracy at work, equalizing the populations to prevent the most expensively clothed from receiving the perks afforded by the attention to appearances alone of fancy clothes or elevated speech patterns. Well, lad- de- dah again, because breaking down barriers that may appear at first glance to be positive may also metaphorically suggest other breakdowns: in traditions that just might be worth preserving ( are you asking yourself, what side is she on?). One might even proclaim, although I cannot concur, marriage or religion. Ironically my desire to curse which I suppose was once considered shocking to the most cultured of society is still frowned upon by some as if we should all still know better : our language powerful enough to overturn the flower pots of societal mores.

Much like full sleeves of tattoos or saying “like” before, in the middle and at the end of every word, bad language is still seen as a lower expression in polite circles. Hypocritically that all the lusty men might scream out in “Wolf” was somehow sanctioned as the conversation of rutting successful business men, and “fuck” was neutralized, acceptable in some circles even by the rich who sneered at the lower, badly dressed classes who dared dirty their presence by befouling the language. Perhaps in Raging Bull, one just expects fighters to charge and fling out into the air grunts, expletives and bloody insults.

Yet in the films, books and even in the news, those words are presently considered de rigeur, causing rhetoricians to wonder: Acceptable or not? Where and if? Who and why? Tasteless or appropriate to context?

Ironically the jeans with the holes and tears go for big bucks, perhaps only the intact labels connoting the cost. But along with the clothes also went deportment. And that meant even bad language. I choose to believe ethics are an entirely different matter.

Using computers and emails has destroyed actual letter writing wherein cursive calligraphy writing ( no longer taught) and creamy papers used to exist. Nothing was so nice as unfolding a handwritten note from your Aunt Suzie that promised a special trip or a holiday visit. Now, I shudder to think of museums without letters or missives, or even handwritten books ! Imagine those Celtic monks laboriously drawing out the microscopic scenes and details in the curlicues of the first letter of Bibles, their time better spent weeding the medicinal herbs in the back plot. Alas!

Woe to us when computers go down or a virus eats up all of our personal and professional histories accumulated over time- not to mention the passwords, addresses and irreplaceable lists generated over a lifetime. And oh yes’ I know they are safely flowing over an iCloud, somewhere deeply hidden from our frantic fingers’ attempt to resurrect them. And what of the paperless society that was imagined by the progenitors of technology when now just to be sure, we print ( and if like me, LOSE) the facsimile that represents the original communication?

The breakdown in language ran rampant even when I taught students peppering their essays with “wouldof” or “ couldof”, thinking their spelling translated their speech accurately, and who then were surprised that my red pen had identified an error. Still Amazon’s on line book service has grown and with the demise of Britnells and so many wonderful independent book shops, huge warehouses of books have managed to endure. One hopes there are people who still cherish the word, be it hot purple or dull gray. Perhaps the Indigos and Barnes and Nobles do own a greater purpose than just as a place to do homework or check out whether the local hottie has wandered in for a lifestyle product.

Just last week a friend told me she was reading Shlomo Aseh in Yiddish with a group of Yiddish readers. I asked her how was that possible as the writer who was not exactly the Philip Roth of his day has been long dead for generations. She explained that she had gotten hold of a translation on the computer so she could follow along. Amazing. As in an earlier blog, I must reassert that all is a ( if you read my blog) “ a pair of ducks/paradox.”

So why did I begin this ramble with Llewyn Davis?

The film recreated in part my life as a university student :the smoky coffee shops in Yorkville, the concerts at university where freedom fighters were championed by folksingers, lunches with friends at the now defunct Coffee Mill, thinking deep thoughts as people of that age profess to do, or at least used to do. Those grey, sheltered closeted spaces where we sat hunched, chatting and listening and poring over Descartes and dancing angels on the heads of a pins and the future, feeling very philosophical and righteous, word play. loud and varied, late into the night

Llewyn Davis is the symbol of those days. Yet he’s not much of a talker. With those dark rueful eyes of a poet, he looks very depressed, caught in his own demon thoughts. Yah. He’s a musician and has accumulated friends, or at least places where he can sleep for a night, but he hardly strikes one as a very nice person, except if you consider chasing down someone’s lost cat is an act of kindness. The “Inside” part of the movie title is bogus because you don’t get inside Llewyn at all. We have no back story except a bitchy sister and a demented dad: but otherwise, most of the film is atmosphere.

Still, the film sticks with you. It is haunting ( maybe it’s the eyes). And, that although I didn’t lead the life, I knew the life: that it represented the times within which I grew up. I never really liked folk music but it was the backdrop that surrounded my comings and goings. The slowness of the people, the repressed thoughts and hidden looks, the relationships and conversations between people were what I remembered from my days as a girl with love beads and braids who sat in the Refectory at U of T, looking mournful, but interesting. I knew those guys who answered in one word answers and who might burst into poetry as Johnnie 5 in the film. Although those types appeared to be without pretense or façade ( or so I wrongly imagined as an ingénue) untouched by television’s gloss or marketers’ false fronts., I wanted to hang with them but never really imagined an enduring relationship with someone so deeply intellectual or wise ( or so I thought these fellows to be- note: where were the women?)

Llewyn’s world is sad and tragic and as he is warned by the Carey Mulligan figure, who assumes no responsibility for her own fate, that his life will persist in repeating itself and that sucks. Even when he might succeed with his Mr. Kennedy song, life has derailed him, yet again. Even with baby steps, he cannot get beyond the grasp of his behavior and yes again- bad things happen, whether you yourself are good or not!

Maybe it is due to the fact that I recognize Davis’ beat world and although do not pine for slow songs or miserable guys, even ones who managed to evolve like Bob Dylan, this milieu and its people with turtle necks and Irish sweaters are recognizable to me, a part of my life, leaving it behind as a stone to overturn, hold in my cupped palm, write a blog about, but move on to more adult pursuits and behaviours. What works at 18 recedes quickly at 28 or 30 or 35.

Sometimes things such as the breakdown of societal mores such as restrictive women’s rights, race barriers and folk music are good things and lead us on towards a better life, yet I wish swear words had been left in tact.

Family and Cousins

Yesterday while a friend and I were exchanging grandchildren pictures, she stated, “ Your grandson looks exactly like your son who looks exactly like you.” While it is true that my son does resemble me and my late father, my darling grandson less so. I see more of his mother’s side in him.

My husband laments a baseball trip back from Florida where families were invited to approach the Customs’ desk at the airport. As father and son approached, the guard barked, “Only families, sir”. From the eye of the official, the tall dark and handsome young man appeared to have had no connection- at least resemblance- to – the older man standing close by. We laugh but Howard ponders why all three of the kids look much more like me than him. Physical traits aside, they share, at least we say they share, other attributes of his- intellect, stubbornness, brilliance.

As I was falling asleep last night I was ruminating about some of my cousins and how different my own nuclear family is from them. I think this was prompted by a Facebook posting by a cousin’s daughter from Nashville and pictures of her nephew. Someone had written, “ Gosh. Never realized how much Jonah looks like Josh”. Actually, this may have been in response to my post, “ All these kids look like Levines” because they reminded me of their mom, Julie, and their dad, Jon, who is my cousin. But if we look closely enough, I think we can MAKE association with almost anyone. In that, oh yes, he has Uncle Freddie’s eyebrows or gee, isn’t that Auntie Flora’s smile!

I grew up playing with my cousins. Best of all were Sunday romps in High Park, the kids running wildly up and down hills, parents grouped in foldup chairs at the top, solicitously watching. My father preferred one of his sisters, Jon’s mom, to the other but still the family would gather for these outings, my father usually grumbling that he really didn’t want to go, my mother insisting that it was family. In my mind’s eye, I see my father talking and laughing with Jon’s father, Syd, about something musical, technological, likely speakers or amplifiers. When my parents were first married, I think they lived on a flat near or with Jon, newly born, and his parents and the grandparents. It seems to me, that was what people did in the 30’s.

Part of my resentment to my mother’s side, perhaps, is centred in their celebration of my birthday on Christmas Day. Like flock of birds they descended, feasting on the turkey my mother had risen to prepare in the early hours and devouring my precious layered cake from Patisserie Francois, leaving her with the cleanup-and not much else. I recall one scrawny great aunt who given the thinnest piece of cake I could cut politely whispering if she could please have another slice. No wonder my family called me “ Pat the brat”, The cousins on this side were less friendly, one always with a non-cousin in toll; the other with a Lassie-dog, my preferred ones having moved to California. My mother, half- dead from preparations, scurrying about to make sure everyone had what they needed. Me, seething, that my birthday had been chosen for the site of a family gathering.

Howard too tells of his family’s childhood reunions every summer near the Love Canal where apparently dead fish floating in the water and lines of tar that did not deter his family’s summertime visits. But that’s his story.

We were reflecting that usually one side of the family gets preference. As a kid, I considered my father’s side more intellectual as they all loved music and my favourite aunt was an art aficionado who doted on me. I, unlike the rest of my family, could arrive unannounced at her door and be welcomed in with exotic teas and cakes. She had included me in a tour of Scandinavia, bypassing my sister and another niece. I was aware of her affectation but her topics of discourse were endlessly fascinating to me. So I played along. And for once, it was nice to be the one who was made to feel she deserved undivided attention, not my sister with her high marks in school studies or piano-playing expertise: that someone felt I was worthy of being singled out.

This morning as I responded to a bar mitzvah invitation, I wrote,

“You will not remember me as we only met briefly at my mother’s shiva in September.

My mother, Auntie Eve- to you- thought you and your brother were so wonderful. She was so happy when your mother brought you both over to visit her from the time you were babies. I would always receive a report about what you were doing and what you did. How quickly 13 years go. She felt a special pride in you because you are named-as my own son is- after her father, Joseph. When people speak of him, they talk of his kindness…”

When I reflect on my cousins now, I count one suicide, one who is a rambler in Vancouver, one doctor, another who has cut herself off completely from the family, refusing even phone calls, one social worker, one lawyer, one landscape architect, two dentists and one retired teacher-track star, I ‘m surprised that I number them, for the most part, by their professions. Perhaps as we are not children anymore ( long past that) and we don’t tend to spend time together, I list them by their careers or jobs rather than their personalities or activities we once shared.

For example, for years when I thought of my eldest cousin Allan in California, I would reminisce on how he would lead all the younger cousins to the basement of our grandparent’s house on Passover. While the grownups lolled over- stuffed and usually the men wearing borsalino hats at the table, and the women chattering, had just re-enacted the exodus from Egypt, Allan was engineering battles between stuffed animals and rubber army men, all cousins, all ages happily rolling on the floor and participating. Later years when I thought of him, it was of us together consuming more bags of chips than even I could eat and records of the Smothers Brothers or George Carlin littering his tiny room in Culver City.

Likely, the cousins might say about me that I was quiet, pretty, or maybe “ she was a teacher” – not knowing that I developed policy or strategy at the College of Teachers, that I had a doctorate and had dined with Princess Diana. However once Jon said to his kids, “She’s like Cher”??????

Truly now- except for the odd family gathering, funeral or wedding, I hardly know my relatives and then I fumble for something to say, attempting to retrieve a childhood story to pass the time as I am very bad at making conversation. Unlike Joseph’s “ kindness”, I have narrowed my cousins to signposts of what they do in the world. ( See above “ doctor, social worker, lawyer, etc) Yet my friend Anne reports that she and her elementary school friends are meeting on a regular basis, having rediscovered one another, so years later, and are still enjoying one another’s company. Perhaps if we all still lived in the same city, that might be the case. Maybe not. Little kids grow up and out.

In some families they work at maintaining the connections as in my daughter-in-law’s where they take cruises together and seem to always be at one another’s houses. I think when people lived closer to one another that was usually the case. And so, if you were running next door to borrow a measuring spoon, you might have sat down for five minutes that grew into an hour to chat; or maybe when you had to take the kid to the doctor, the cousin or aunt next door might have popped in to watch the baby.

I must admit that the summertime family reunion with Howard’s mother’s family was enjoyable. From Texas and Ohio, they came and some even partied for three days of mainly eating. It was fascinating to observe the changes of people over time. We had seen Linklater’s “ Boyhood” recently and in an encapsulated three hours the boy protagonist went from 5-18 years of age. The film surprised me: that the endless boring conversations we have can be so telling. When an older Mason admonishes his father ( Ethan Hawke) for having sold his prized car, a GTO, once promised him, Hawke has no memory whatsoever of ever committing to that act. Similarly I recalled my mother’s vow that my father’s car was to be given to my son, with the same results. But that is what happens in ordinary familial conversations, one focusing and keeping those words as amulets, small treasures that are savoured like tiny jewels, incandescent; the other forgetting them as soon as the words have left their mouths. The film is real in that the moments portrayed are quiet little moments, such as watching the clouds in the sky, hanging out with friends, witnessing parental anger. Just small everyday occurrences that mean so little but equally so much to the fabric of one’s life.

It’s like that with the cousins. They had a role in your/my growing up, being part of a family, making you/me who we became: learning about life, relationships, secrets, and your/myself. I think fondly of my cousins , funny, likable individuals who extended and deepened my childhood experiences. Even now as I write this, I focus on the laughter, the companionship, the ease of being a family at a certain space and time, of good times and friendship.

To my mother’s disgust, my aunt Marion would pontificate, “ You can choose your friends, not your family.” And it is obviously true, for often some friends are more like family. Yet sometimes it is your family who is there when you really need them: the bonds of blood stronger than anything else. For me, it was my mother who was my rock when I needed her. Cousins come and go, but mine left an imprint like a foot in the sand, now barely discernible but still there.

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