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Turning 70:Gasp!

I’m thinking about turning 70 and the changes in my my lifetime.

I was born on Christmas Day, a perfect day for a contrary girl to enter the world. I arrived at Womens College Hospital heralded by two women, Drs. Marion Kerr and Marion Hilliard. Women’s College was the home to women not allowed to practice with the august men in the profession. One of Dr. Hilliard’s greatest desires was to have Women’s College Hospital become a teaching hospital. She was involved with the negotiations that eventually led to the hospital becoming affiliated with the University of Toronto’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. In its early days it was located on Rusholme Road. I felt a connection to the hospital for many years soI had my three kids there, attended in the 80’s by male doctors allowed to contribute their own expertise to the women on staff.

The kindly Dr Kerr assured my mother she would return after she delivered her Christmas presents . And so she did. My mother reported that she so appreciated her doctor’s kindness and care, staying in a private room for a week. Since then periods of stay have been much shortened.

About a year and half after my birth, my father who worked installing radios in ambulances succumbed to polio. That Labour Day weekend, he mowed the lawn and collapsed. That gossip was that Sunnyside Pool was the source for the epidemic although I doubt they had taken me near the vicinity of the pool and his contact to the disease would have been second hand. He spent the next excruciating nine months at Riverdale Hospital where all the polio victims were housed. He told of being able to watch executions at the Don jail through his window.

Before the Salk and Sabin vaccine, so many people were left with twisted or useless limbs or had to spend their lives in iron lungs to perform the job of breathing. He would not have survived in an iron lung because of his asthma. He came out of that hospital fully braced, disillusioned, but with a family to support. With my mother’s immense help, fortitude and courage, he did, gracing the electronics industry with his genius. The advent of the polio vaccine made the world safer and yet now stupid people refute the miraculous discovery. When I’ve gone to concerts and watched Itzhak Perlman navigate the stage swinging his lifeless legs, I’ve often thought of my father, the immense struggles of climbing stairs or even kerbs, but like Perlman, my father’s avocation revolved around his hands and his head . My mother used to compare our plight to the Little Red Hen who learned that she had to do it herself. And so she did.

Growing up, I knew one set of grandparents had left Poland in hopes of a better life, fearful of the extinction and war. There were stories of cousins having abandoned first wives and papering their walls with money to avoid deportation. I heard of my grandfather encountering his landesmen on the street in Toronto and bringing them home to provide them with a meal or even a bed, children sleeping nose to toes in overcrowded rooms. There was this aura of antisemitism my mother carried with her, one that infected me so as to not to want to identify myself as Jewish, as if I might be betrayed like Anne Frank or hustled off to an interment camp. At the library I poured over books trying to discover the details in the scary war stories.To this day, I recall in some paperback a Nazi so taken with the beautiful turquoise eyes of a child in the ghetto that he gouged them out to set them as centrepieces in gold rings, furious they had lost their lustre.

And although my parents rarely discussed politics, I recall our family being hunched around the television during the Bay of Pigs incident as they fretted about Russia and US going head to head. They worried about a nuclear war, and feared an atomic bomb destroy the world. My aunt and uncle tried to be proactive and joined organizations such as the World Federalists and Voice of Women. Yet most preferred to keep a low profile, aware that ” Jews and dogs were not allowed”.

We worried that my American cousin would go to the Vietnam Nam war and he did. There were sit ins at the universities, against Napalm and Agent Orange and public displays of support for draft dodgers fleeing the US. I did not know my husband then but we actually attended the same university, UC at U of T in the same years, he at the centre of controversies, me chatting up guys in the grassy quadrangle. He and his friend Bob Rae organized the festival Perception 67 that invited Timothy Leary and The Fugs to the campus. I remember the black folk singers who sang about freedom and resistance, and spaghetti used to recreate the experience of being on LSD in a darkened hall. ? We were exhorted to turn on. Leary although detained with his banned speech, wrote,”

Yes, young people of Canada, I’m telling you that you must drop out of school. Your education system is a narcotic, addictive process paid for by old men and women to teach you to become Romans like them selves. You must drop out of school. The aim of Canadian education, like American education, is to narrow your mind, contract your consciousness, get you to accept this reality, the ridiculous game of the television prop scenario of Canadian industrial urban life today. You must drop out.”

I also huddled close to the television to watch the first walk on the moon and hear Neil Armstrong’s words. And we were all distraught by Kennedy’s assassination, everyone remembering where they first heard the news. I was exiting a History exam in Grade 11. We lamented the fall of Camelot, his words “ Ich bin ein Berliner, “and the glamourous life of him and Jackie felled by the tangled inexplicable shooting by Oswald and the Jack Ruby cover up, as dramatized by Oliver Stone. For dreamy adolescents The Peace Corp, hope for a better, finer world were all dashed.

Television was our main means of communication as we observed the fall of the Berlin Wall so far away. And instead of the Internet and email was the telephone, should a classmate call to ask for a date for Saturday night. There was the occasional Sunday meal out should my parents find a kosher restaurant nearby and Sunday drives to the outreaches of the city, such as the wooded Unionville , to get an ice cream cone. And I remember how deliciously forbidden a Big Mac and chocolate shake were when I visited my California cousins at the end of Grade 10 in the 60’s. Hermosa Beach in my yellow pockadot bikini was heaven.

Over time clothes changed too, white being ridiculed should it be worn after Labor Day. Girls wore skirts to school. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, we were very careful about money, although both my sister and I had ballet, piano and Hebrew lessons: the last two I would have been delighted to do without. So we travelled to Buffalo where a crisp white Susan Van Husen shirt could be purchased for $1.98 and there were great sales. But on the odd Saturday, I was overcome with shame to be standing at the corner of Bathurst and Eglinton with Honest ED bags containing underwear. I insisted my mother turn those bags inside out for fear a schoolmate might see me.Fast forward to years where jeans with tears and holes, and kids bought pounds of clothes at Good Will, mixing and matching.But for me back then, I wished I could disappear into the sidewalk.

Memories come as a jumble: a few from childhood such as the strains of “ Today’s the day, the teddy bears have their picnic…”, the first time I heard the music of the Beatles at a school dance, lunch time tea dances in junior high , a wallflower earnestly praying someone might ask me to dance; lovely days at university and summers hitchhiking to view the art I initially encountered in darkened classrooms; falling in love and committing to one person, the arrival of my children and becoming a family; my post- colonial literature classes and contributing to the development of the Standards and Ethics at OCT- important, valuable and thoughtful work. I have been lucky.

But the years somehow go by so quickly and as I gaze back, many of the same scenarios pop out, over and over again while more are lost in the bank of time. You wonder. : what has made me ME, and you realize it is not just one or even a few things, the happiness and travaux that raise us up and wears us down, experiences ground as fine as dust. You draw back and through the vortex of time, you observe yourself, and can only know that each person is the same, that we all arrive at the same point, maybe wiser for the journey. But not necessarily so.

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JFK and Roads not Taken

Several months ago marked the 50th anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Everyone in my generation remembers where we were when we heard the news that the president had been shot in Texas. I was told this is referred to as a “flashbulb” memory that stands out like no other.

I was exiting a Grade 11 French exam and was confronted by students frozen in wailing tears and silent sobs. To many, he was our beacon of hope then, young, handsome, energetic, the quintessential role model. The Peace Core, striving for a better world, civil rights, corralling nuclear bombs made us feel that our generation could finally shake off the doddering Eisenhowers and the scary Hitlers. We would eventually be tagged the baby boomers in love beads and long hair, and we would be young and free forever, dancing our way into the future. Or so we thought.

When news of Kennedy’s indiscretions were revealed, we were all ready living in a world of birth control, free love and we were maybe a bit miffed, but cool. The icon, the image of the man overrode our criticism although it did give pause as we hadn’t really intuited the cracks behind the carefully presented façade. We hadn’t seen him hobble on crutches as FDR had; we didn’t know Dr. Feelgood was pumping him full of vitamins and amphetamines so he could confront Nitika Khrushchev and stand his ground during the Bay of Pigs. Maybe we were vaguely aware of his response to Soviet tanks that instigated East Germany’s erection of the wall that divided East and West in Berlin. The gossip about Addison’s disease was disabused and he shone before us: the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, graciously reflecting her luminescence; and the adored father who even encouraged Caroline and John-John free reign in the presidential office.

The phrase coined after his death by Theodore H. White and prompted by Jackie Kennedy was “ Camelot” and we clung to that, wanting to believe that the man behind the smile was mythic, able to drive evil away and stand up for good.

Watching American History ( television show) over the last few days provided a balanced overview of the man and his times. Perhaps because I am now so much older, I can appreciate the reality that was once overblown into fantasy. Without smudging from the truth, the documentary presented Kennedy’s naivety as he wrongly accepted the advice of his chefs of staff and so-called specialists in the CIA during the Cuban debacle, positioning the world on the brink of war.

For my family, growing up, it was one of the few moments we huddled around the television and I truly comprehended that my parents were afraid. And that it had to do directly with the televised message the President was solemnly intoning.

The American History show explored the lies and half-truths self-righteously proclaimed in the local and foreign press that were fed to the public during his administration: Kennedy’s original disinterest in the first bus bombing of civil rights in Alabama was disheartening; Kennedy’s decision to go into Viet Nam to turn American minds away from domestic turmoil and stop the further advance of Communism disingenuous, aligning himself with a weak and corrupt head of state. The show did not flinch from presenting the facts as they were exposed. They were laid out without rationalization, without nostalgic explanations or pandering. Bare, and ugly, they spoke to a badly informed, young and unwise leader.

However, Kennedy was also portrayed as the hub of a great constantly turning wheel who absorbed information from the multi-spokes. Responsible for making the ultimate decisions, Kennedy’s demeanor and decision-making processes exposed the paradoxical nature of the man. On the one hand, arrogant and self-contained to make those decisions by himself; on the other, willing to listen to diverse views but taking responsibility as he navigated the hot seat of his presidency.

However, as bad decisions accumulated and the pitch towards war mounted, Kennedy began to grow into the man we had imagined he was. To his war-mongering chefs, he stood alone in saying NO. To Khrushchev’s reneging on his private promise of continuing to build missiles in Cuba, he said, No more. He trusted that Khrushchev felt similarly : about the threat of actually engaging in nuclear warfare and the real fear of annihilation, granting him the empathy Kennedy himself was experiencing.

From Joseph P. Kennedy’s dominating wings, the son emerged, thoughtful, taking his time, cautious, weary and willing to weigh the consequences of his actions that would impact on every single person in the country.

In spite of his initial reluctance and motives, Kennedy announced the bill to end segregation. On June 19, the president sent that bill to Congress. If you listen to Kennedy’s address on the occasion of University of Washington 100th Anniversary Program, November 16, 1961, you will hear in stunning rhetoric an appeal for peace, acknowledging that America is neither ”omnipotent nor omniscient”. He speaks for diplomacy and defense, explaining that there are two dominant groups of citizens: those who call for appeasement; and those who are warmongers. He quotes Winston Churchill and reaches out so that any agreement or compromise provides an acceptable solution for the countries involved. Given at the university, the goals of Kennedy’s speech are aptly lofty as he addresses the challenges of defending freedom while maintaining peace as a world power. It is compelling as he describes the state of American international relations. There is empathy as he displays a willingness to collaborate and compromise, ensuring a livable result for all players. It is a stand down from war and a deep understanding of what is at stake. It is brilliant.

Watching the television production, I felt this is the best of reality TV. I respected the thoughtfulness and honesty enabling me to re-evaluate the man. Once drawn into the magic and glamour, maybe too young to be critical; then scornful and dismissive at Kennedy’s womanizing and treatment of domestic issues, now I could look at the entire man, and consider the complexity of parts.

I admit to being impressed.

I could applaud the growth and the acceptance of responsibility. I could acknowledge an understanding of peril, the awareness of reaching out with an olive branch, working towards compromise, and reconciliation and not allowing himself to be pushed towards war.

Exposing the human sides of his flaws made him more human, less godlike. Brought down to earth, the glitter now worn thin, he provided us, I think, with what is best about people and in some cases- if we are fortunate- leaders. He was finally capable of listening to informed perspectives of others as well as his own quiet voice within that moved him towards what he believed was right.

We became the baby boomers who heard his drumbeat as we wove our flowery mantra around a man who was both buds and weeds. Perhaps not considered by history as one of the greats, he has- for me- been re-established with the respect and magic with which he originally dazzled.

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