A fine site

Archive for the month “April, 2015”

My Father’s Cousins

They are dying. But that is how it should be. As my father’s cousins grow old, fade and become ill, they are passing away. Today I read another one has vanished.

My father died young at barely 68, after a hard but courageous life battling polio, post-polio, then lymphoma, all misdiagnosed by the doctors he consulted.

And more than 20 years later, the obituaries of his cousins and contemporaries are sporadically appearing in the newspapers and I am saddened. It’s not because these people played significant roles in my life. In deed they were at the peripheries. I was introduced at large noisy but rare gatherings of his clan, bar mitzvahs or weddings when even the children of the cousins were invited to participate in these lavish events. Occasionally I might run into a cousin on the street or at a mall and they would say,” Aren’t you Solly’s daughter?. You look exactly like him”. I would quietly nod, pleased that I was recognized by these outliers.

Years and years ago I had the feeling that these cousins lived in one another’s houses on Euclid or Manning or Palmerstone. Through his rare reminisces, my father recreated a tale of a boisterous fun loving and large roving group of first generation diaspora Jews who played and stayed together. Grouped in the downtown core, they grew up together, attended “haydar” together, hung out at playgrounds together, played ball together, but were much more than cousins. They were friends. Their camaraderie was true and loving. Even as young adults their strong ties were sustained. I think my mother was dating a cousin when my father first laid eyes on her on that moonlit cruise . Easily, the cousins moved together, a loose but loving crowd until they married and moved further north away from the downtown shetl inToronto.

For us, it was my father’s polio that was the line in the sand that further separated my parents from the cousins, yet I don’t recall any badmouthing of the cousins, just an occasional wistful comment about youth before each went his separate way. And when new celebrations occurred, those reunions were happy and they laughed about their time growing up together.

Now these people I hardly knew are passing and it is like my father is dying again, that small ties that reached beyond our nuclear family are being cut, that those far reaching connections to the relatives are being severed. With each obituary, I am aware that the family is shrinking. When I mention to my children that cousin Shirley on my father’s mother side or cousin Murray on my father’s father’s side has died, they respond, “who? ” and shrug their shoulders.

For me, the cousins are kindly images usually in their festive best, images softly tucked at the edges of my life, deteriorating sepia film. These people are stuck in my head from 30 or more years ago, people whom I have not seen in a long, long time, but people with whom I felt a spider’s net connection as part of a fragile support system whose names and maybe features resemble my own. My ” mishpocha” they would murmur in Yiddish.

As I reach towards the age at which my father passed away and realize how fleeting life is, I grieve the passing of these people I hardly knew as faces silently disappearing from withering family photos, yellowed, tattered and aged.

I am surprised I feel this way towards my father’s cousins but in a way, they are my diminishment as well.

Patricia Goldblatt
187 Glencairn Ave


The security of a backseat

When we were kids, there was no money for fancy summer camps so my parents would pack us up into the back seat of the grey dodge or the blue chevy in late July and head for the States. As children we thrilled at a new adventure, believing, I suppose it was somewhat exotic.

My mother lugged the heavy suitcases while my sister and I danced around her, excited to be going on a trip. We could hardly wait to get in the car; however, by hour one, I was proclaiming, ” I’m bored, “and their response would be , faintly annoyed, “ Pat, just look out the window”. My sister would cuddle bowwowwoof woof, her ratty dog, occasionally puking on him if the ride got rocky.

I recall those days – in spite of this intro – as very special, time together when we chanced on or visited new places such as the immense Paul Bunyon statue, the Hayden Planetarium, Fort Lauderdale , Boca Raton or especially, Batavia, New York near Buffalo : the home of the special toy store my parents had located. We often stayed at Howard Johnson’s and ate our meals out: all very exciting for a pair of city kids. In the confines of the car, we played games, napped, or cuddled with our mother. Perhaps it was the embryonic start of my desire to leave home and discover new locations, experience freshly in spite of my grumpiness of always being bored.

I recall vividly one of my choices at the toy store and the feel of the make -it -yourself leather kit that contained a small change purse, key ring and fold over wallet ; and the Calling All Girls magazine in a motel smoke shop that my father let me select. These times have burned into my memory and of all the days of my growing up shine out through other darker events.

These days when we visit our daughter on the long drive to Philadelphia, it’s a bit similar as often I climb into the back seat, and often I will bring an unread copy of Vogue to pass the 8-10 hours,  depending on whether Howard gets lost or not.

Last weekend en route to visit our new granddaughter with the wondrous name Remy, we listened to Marc Maron interview Norman Lear. At 92, his mind is crystal clear and still producing new revelations on his life. He described how his father was jailed and his mother abandoned him at a young age , but with no trace of malice,laughingly referring to his father as a ” scoundrel” as if he had hidden the cookies in the jam jar. He continues on about the impact of missing parents , but not with discontent or anger, having arrived at a place of solace and understanding. For some, this process of finding serenity never occurs. His life’s work in television that tackled the biases in society such as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, All in the Family, etc. are legend. He has presented the importance of the individual with all its warts and imperfections, comprehending the good and the bad in each one of us, simple yet so complicated human beings: tossed cupcakes of a variety of coloured sprinkles and nuts.

Later as we tuned into This American Life, we also heard Lindy West, journalist, outspoken feminist and film critic discuss the Trolls who via the internet attack her, harassing her for not only her stand on rape but also her weight and appearance. She wonders why these techno- followers choose to painfully lampoon people whom they have never met and who have done them absolutely no harm, just taking exception to posted piece with which they disagree. She revealed she has been continually attacked for her views,but one speared barb actually pierced her otherwise made-tough skin, most hurtfully because it entwined her dead father, a musician she adored.
She Expressed her feelings in The Guardian as well,

“My dad was special. The only thing he valued more than wit was kindness. He was a writer and an ad man and a magnificent baritone (he could write you a jingle and record it on the same day) – a lost breed of lounge pianist who skipped dizzyingly from jazz standards to Flanders and Swann to Lord Buckley and back again – and I can genuinely say that I’ve never met anyone else so universally beloved, nor do I expect to again. I loved him so, so much.,”

Instead of just ignoring  her troll as the biz tells writers not to feed them by answering them, West responded.She communicated her pain and he actually apologized, merely explaining that he was at a bad point in his own life and he needed someone to attack. She weeps quietly on air, the grief seeping through her mumbled words that suggest something pure, private and personal has been ripped from her and been sullied by a Troll with an axe to grind. The cruelty levelled at her, pointless, rueful, sharp , and stinging has found its target: for no real reason. She has been a handy place to shoot the dart.

In her telephone call to her attacker on This American Life, she finds he is not a bad sort and although he mildly apologize, she writes reflectively again,

“We talked for two-and-a-half hours. He was shockingly self-aware. He told me that …he hated me because, to put it simply, I don’t hate myself. Hearing him explain his choices in his own words, on his own voice, was heartbreaking and fascinating. He said that, at the time, he felt fat, unloved,  and purposeless. For some reason, he found it easyto take that out on women on line… I asked why. What made women easy targets?…But he did explain how he changed. He started taking care of his health, he found a new girlfriend and, most importantly, he went back to school to become a teacher.

I didn’ mean to forgive him, but I did.”

We wonder at the cruelty of being an anonymous attacker, the cowardice of these betrayals that can even fell the hard veneer of those in the public eye. Lindy’s troll seemed a bit amazed, promising these Internet attacks will,stop, that he is not a woman hater,and that he even likes female co-workers with whom he works. Thoughtless actions by a person only interested in their own needs, blissfully uncaring that there is a real person receiving his barbs,a mouthful of thick spit that lands in the face of someone who displays an opinion.

These podcasts bring so much to the listener, whether sitting on the bus, riding a bike or in the backseat of the car careening towards Philadelphia. The world as global village is a truism. What impresses is the multifaceted approaches taken by interviewers and the range of topics. We also heard 30 minutes on earwax!😎

A Ramble on 19th Century Artists and Critics

Ottawa in the summer –even if the weather is less than summery- is a delight: markets, galleries, the joy of walking by Parliament Hill. For me, an unexpected pleasure last spring was the show at the National Gallery that focused on Gustave Dore.

Doré aspired to be the Michelangelo of the nineteenth century, and was respected as illustrator and engraver of Rabelais, Shakespeare, Perrault, Cervantes and the Bible. Yet he was frustrated by his status, desiring to be taken seriously as an artist, feeling rejected and devalued by French society, especially in the salons that found his oil paintings wanting.

Remember as well, the Impressionists were also on the rise during the mid-19th century and much of their work was scorned by the Academy. Dore was embittered by the lukewarm critical reception that his paintings and sculpture received. Considered prodigious even as a child, he did possess talent. Established in 1725 the official art exhibition, the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France was the mark of approval all artists sought. Everyone in Paris, from the silk top hats to the laundresses attended: to view the works deemed acceptable for the show.

While the work of Monet, Cassatt, Seurat was breaking new ground in technique by illuminating canvases with dazzling light and fresh colour, and demonstrating new techniques ( the neo-impressionists believed in using dots –much like digitalizing colours; and the Impressionists painted brightly, local scenes out of doors), theirs was likewise dismissed by the salon although the odd Manet, Renoir, and Degas were included with the traditional classist pieces .

For me, Dore’s work forms an extension of the celebrated painters of his time such as Bouguereau, his cupids, and the mythological figure Venus, Dante and Virgil, these topics and images evident in Dore’s exhibition in Ottawa, themes well accepted and that echo back to the German Caspar David Friedrich, his allegories and notion of the Sublime. Friedrich’s work goes beyond to idealize the British landscape artists such as Constable and Gainsborough and even the inscrutable J.M. Turner.

However the Academies did in fact nod to the Pre-Raphaelites in England, and in France, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, although the latter’s was tinged with nostalgia, along with the brilliance of Édouard Manet: displaying their works for exhibition. Mary Cassatt like many others despaired of the rejection of her pieces, but was warmed by Edward Degas’s suggestion to paint for herself.

However, more often than not, it was the landscapes, allegories, notions of the sublime and sentimental religious paintings that won approval by the Academie as opposed to social realism. Interestingly with social and economic upheavals in society, and culture becoming accessible for all classes, everyone flocked to the salon. Viewers themselves, a new motif to establish their presence in a painting, was a new trend. Previously painting had been theorized as a window through which one gazed. Tissot’s opera attendees, the laundresses captured by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s, Renoir’s boating parties were all brash new subjects for painting. Degas’ pastels of the “petits rats” of ballet and the almost pinhole perceptions of women at their bath shocked the sensibilities of the art world, but confirmed the presence of a viewer both inside and out of these pieces.

In art, there are trends, often shifted by the critic’s diatribe: as suggested in Robin Oliveira’s novel, I Always Loved you. In a tense but powerful discussion between Emile Zola and Mary Cassatt, they clash on the power of whether words or paint exerts the stronger impact on mass audiences. I recall an art history class discussion in the 60’s that scorned Griselda Pollock’s psychological insights into Van Gogh’s painting of worn workboots, yet the same critic was the official voice of the AGO many years later.

Where the paintings of Matisse were once decried as being done by wild beasts or labeled “ fauves” by influential French art critic Louis Vauxcelles in the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibit, we, the public now embrace and delight in his exotic design. Similarly Norman Rockwell, his work first presented in Saturday Evening Post first seen as capturing the homey quality of America and celebrating America with the 1943 Four Freedoms, later to be considered a kind of kitsch reproduced on teacups and acceptable for family display, is presently being reconsidered as a caustic commentary of the times. Examples cited showcase the integration of Ruby Bridges, a fourteen year old girl at William Franz School In New Orleans in 1960, her staunch attitude, her freshly starched clothes juxtaposing her deriders. So it seems, beauty or criticism resides in the reactions of the official perceiver, able with his or her words to provide interpretation, to sway, to make sense or cast aspersions.

Although Dore saw himself as an outsider of the elite and a misfit, he exists perhaps midway between the pack of accepted and those openly denigrated by the salons. Reading Richard Harris’s An Officer and A Spy casts light on the shallowness of French society. The wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus exemplifies the frivolous , corrupt world where coverup, anti-Semitism and pretense stand in strong opposition to honesty and the truth. Likely it is in this way that some artists are the canaries in the mine shaft, willing to provoke or alternatively ignore the forces that hold and maintain society. The Kathe Kollwitzes, the Max Ernsts, the Daumiers, Ai Weiweis and certainly Pablo Picasso’s Guernica moved art far beyond technique to outright challenge and condemnation of the evils of their world.

Changing thinking occurs through words and images, educating and opening the doors to re-conceiving previous patterns. So said Emile Zola, “J’accuse.”

I’m not sure about Dore. I can admire his work, understand his angst as being overlooked, but I think again of Oliveria’s book and Degas’ advice to Marry Cassatt to paint for herself. He says,

“…Everyone will have an opinion of your work… they will claim that your style parts too much from standard taste… these are people who cannot even mix a color…But they ( the critics) will believe themselves right and influence the public for the worse. They will be wrong, of course. What I want you to understand is that they should not allow their ignorance to destroy you…”( Oliveira, I Always Loved You,2014,187)

Coming Home

It is as the adage says, you can never go home again.

It’s not that you can never go home, and as I used to repeat to the children when at the end of the day, we eased the car into our our driveway,

Home is the place / that when you go there/ they have to take you in. That section of a poem by Robert Frost laboriously examined for our provincial exams eons ago -when language and literature were two separate papers and worth 100% of your full year’s grade- somehow stuck in my head, was repeated over and over again, and was met with rolled eyes and guffaws along with “ MOM, we know!” In other words, shut up.

It’s that parents and children change, and reminiscent also of the Heraclites’ line “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man, “suggests that walls, doors, people are not static and change and rot and deteriorate whether animate or non; and we exist in a perpetual state of flux.

Yet within the rooms of your childhood house, there are the whispers and dreams and longings cherished -and scorned like cast off toys: some we wish we could forget and others we hold close as torches towards what might be in the future.

Returning to the comfort, security and hugs of being loved as a treasured child goes hand in hand with the resentment of living beneath another’s rules, conforming to the outdated mores that no longer appear to apply. Pause, remember, and you can feel the hotness of a slap, observe the grimace of haughty look, the sound of slam of a door and re-experience the anger, hatred and despair, the solitude of pain returning to sear you and you are that individual again, that abandoned child, furious at your stupid parents.

Always it is the push-pull, avoidance and approach, the paradox of life: that backwards-forwards caught in the whirl of opposing forces. And for all of us, it is the same: for once we were all children, albeit growing up in different times where the rules continued to change as society did, and our parents expected, demanded at the very least a resemblance of tolerance and respect.

Over time in many families the distance between children and Boomers, hoping not to perpetuate the stern coldness of their own parents, altered so that gap almost leveled to “ buddies” or friends. I remember my father’s response when I , silly girl in elementary school called my sister “ a prick”. And my grandmother’s crushing behavior towards my mother that was not to be challenged. My Boomer generation tried to create an ease of communication by reducing the distances, by hanging out, acting like friends, but yet it did achieve the intended goal of easy relationships. How could it?

Although the Boomers might want to share a light hearted social exchange, when disagreements occur it is the parent who change hats and endeavour to enforce his/her view on the child who now might just scoff at taking direction from their peer. Think of Hugo in Australian bestseller The Slap and his behavior by lovingly indulgent parents, hoping to raise him as an equal.

There are differences between generations and in trying to bring them together, both groups have paid a price, I think.

I do not know what the perfect model would be. Certainly one does not want to grow up in a family of fear and forbidding rules; however, how devastating is it for parents to be dismissed when their views are contrary to their child’s who will not tolerate any opposition. On both sides there is pain, hurt and confusion.

I recall admonishing our youngest daughter not to skydive, not to tattoo herself, not to… all in vain. Now with children herself , she worries they too will repeat her youthful jaunts. Yet, I, too, hitchhiked in Europe with unsavory characters, threw caution to the wind, hung out in Dam Square, travelled on trains aimlessly and far from my parents’ scrupulous eyes, did exactly what I wanted. Rather than youth being wasted on the young, it is a time to experiment, be a wild ( well a little), find yourself, and enjoy life, before conformity to job, partner, society takes you on roads not paths,.

As parents, we love and invest, I truly believe, unconditionally in our offspring, offering ways for them to bloom into whatever flower or weed their shape might take, nurturing, giving supplements and what we think helpful advice. Otherwise, we fear they might become Rousseau’s wild child.

How much, how little, obviously is determined by one’s own values, our own beliefs that are felt necessary to the nurture. In university we were introduced to the conflict between heredity and environment and believed ourselves FREE to cast aside the impact of our genes, free to recreate ourselves. Today I understand the complexity of the interaction and with discussion of epigenetics, even more so.

I will admit that for some years before my mother’s passing, I was so furious at her that I detested spending even a Saturday lunch with her time. Yet like the fox and the little prince, we did persist and eventually that resentment I harboured towards her eased. Or maybe she moved onto a new space where we could communicate. Or maybe I did. And once again I was blessed to recapture the love I had experienced as an adoring child. We shortened the distance between generations, so we could be friends, laugh and chatter together. Still I needed her wisdom: on knitting, on life, on many things. The rough and jagged space was bridged and I was relieved to feel my mother’s warm arms around me.

Sadly, when she died, I wish she had said something special, gentle and loving to me, rather than angry resentment of being in her hospital bed. Yet the years before and certainly her brightness to me as a child continue to illuminate my life and warm me. I know I was loved and I loved her. Each day there is something that reminds me of her and I am grateful to still be in her sphere.

I’m not sure how we will be remembered by our children, if occasionally something obscure will cause them to ruefully smile and laugh at one of our foibles . Who can say what a person packs in their memory bag to carry with them into their future?

I recall the good and the bad of my parents. I was, am their child, subject to their rules and their ways of knowing. I acknowledge that my good life was a product of their hard work, their concern and love for me. I am not just grateful, deep in my aching heart, I harbor real love for them and I miss them

Post Navigation