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.Hauntings

In Richard Wagamese’s novel, Ragged Company, he presents his characters who are aware of the dead, passed spirits who are somehow present- by the side of the road, or even present at movie theatres. The four protagonists in the story accept them , acknowledging them without a second thought.
How do we feel about things or places imbued by those we once knew but who no longer inhabit this earthly realm? Yesterday as I walked out in the rare sunshine we’ve had this summer, for a second or so, I thought I recognized a few people on the street, but upon reflection, realized theyhad passed away. When someone dies, these spottings happen frequently, as a certain gait, the flutter of a scarf or even a body shape seems familiar and makes us want to rush over and greet them, grab their arm and say hi. Suddenly we are caught up by the realization that it’s not the person we thought it was, someone different and we feel kind of silly, but also duped or tricked by our maginations.
One friend engulfed by a storm of butterflies and another continually visited by a cloud of blue Jays insisted it was their dead husbands who wanted their presence felt. My  daughter reminisced  of a storm of hummingbirds that surrounded the casket of an adolescent whom she had treated, an ingenue too soon gone, but whose devotion to these tiny birds was well known.

Sometimes I wish I could feel my mother’s presence, encounter her on the street or have her come to me in a dream. I fear she harboured feelings of resentment before she died because I would not, could not remove her from the hospital at the end of her life. There was her suppressed rage, her seething anger and truly, I did not know how to handle it. I turned cold and she, she too was a separate frigid island, so different to the person who had guided and ensured my growing up . In deed my lingering memories are of her refusing to talk to me, more upsetting as we  had shared a warm and loving relationship throughout her entire life, she my constant support and later, my treasured friend. When she died , I felt as if the final words of companionship had not been uttered, her blaze of indignity and my helplessness in the situation unresolved.
In contrast, my sister was there when a passing rabbi entered her room to blow the shofar the eve of Rosh Hashana and I believe they experienced the warmth of the moment together. Later Wendy fed her spoonfuls of chicken soup. Then she was gone, vanished forever. As all must. Her words for me missing, caught somewhere, hanging, never released in the warmth of a smile, a touch I knew so well.
If I believed in an afterlife, I would have called out in the forty days, some say where the spirit circles, sending a caress  to her cheek or apologizing for my own standoffish manner in those final days. Perhaps because a hospital domain is my sister’s habitat, she knew how to ease her patient’s pain, make her comfortable, assuage her wants. But like my mother who dreaded and avoided hospitals at all costs, I withdrew. She had often recalled being an immigrant child coldly examined by indifferent doctors like some migrant specimen, and then with my father’s confinement at Riverdale when he had polio, she would lament that she had had “ her belly full of doctors”, their misdiagnoses, their pronouncements, their callousness, their unfeelingness to her emotional angst. With my cereal, I ingested her attitude, fear and resentment of the profession, myself demonstrating the “ white coat syndrome” of ridiculously high blood pressure when having to be seen, even by the kindest docs. Interestingly my sister embraced and not surprisingly, I retreated from doctors.
If I knew she hovered above, or wherever the dead persist, if they do, in deed, I would have entreated her to intercede in one particular family issue, but then, maybe the dead are only observers, witnesses to how life folds and unfolds from the unseen domaine of the spirits. But why should I harbour illusions of their power? From the tales of my friends and daughter, I want to believe they can turn themselves into a clump of butterflies or leave me a message in my dreams, but in the three years she has been gone, I have not experienced either.
Wagamese in Ragged Company suggests they are voices in our heads and maybe this is true, and rather than a ruminating superego who constantly warns us against crossing the street against the lights or running with scissors, they like Casper the Friendly Ghost provide safeguards for us. He, an Ojibway writer, reflects the world of his ancestors. I’m unsure what the Polish shtetl had to bequeath about the dead.  The year my mother and Jordan, early graduated from high school, were to share a grandmother- grandson trip to Las Vegas, she was hit by a car crossing the road near the corner of her apartment. She swore my father had instructed her to pull in her legs- or they would have been crushed. A concussion, blackened eyes, badly  bruised, she never traveled after that incident, another event we would hear her relate.
Wagamese through his protagonist the homeless tender Amelia One Sky also explains that when something sad happens in some place with some people, we leave a part of ourselves there, apart that wanted or needed hints to come out differently, a part that got separated from itself, a shadow of ourselves. Likely, I hunger for a resolution at my mother’s bedside, awaiting a final word of blessing or love, something that would crystallize decades of caring and constant love between us.

 

Says Amelia or her street name, One for the Dead, “If we never get right with it and we’re asked to move to the spirit world , that shadow stays here, revisiting those places and those people, hoping maybe that it can reclaim the part that got lost. By watching us learn to deal with our hurt, our losses, and reach out to life again. It tells them we’re okay. That they don’t need to patrol, revisit, or haunt those places anymore.”( p.213)

For me, I suppose I have not reconciled those final days, smiting myself for not finding some softness within to draw her to me and exterminate her anger. How ironic that in my father’s passing, she facilitated a last meeting where my father softened and was able to express love for me as I rubbed his feet, and yet there was no final resolution here at her bedside.
Mindfulness teaches to forgive ourselves past experiences, to permit an acknowledgement that we did the best we could at the time- and move on.

Were it so easy, I would. 

But as yet, I am trapped in a place where there are no butterflies or blue Jays, just empty space and the whiff of chicken soup.

Laying her to rest

Yesterday was a tough day. I hadn’t expected it to be so difficult. It was the unveiling of my mother’s tombstone monument. Although she passed away a year ago, she has been with me every single day since then. An invisible friend who has been hovering close to me as I’ve participated in my daily activities. It’s as if there has been a constant stream of her words in my head, as I go about my shopping, when she reminds me to hold my tongue, when I remember I must share an event with her at our regular lunch at Tim’s on Saturdays, when I’ve needed help to unravel a knitting conundrum, or just share a tantalizing piece of gossip. She has been my constant companion as I hear her words in my head.

I knew, of course, she was no longer on this earth, but I hadn’t really let go of her. I heard her voice, her wise words of instruction, thoughtfulness, support and her laughter.

Yesterday the rabbi read the words on the tombstone and talked about the profound gap between the dates carved into the stone, the gap that connotes the many, many years of living.

And now I saw her.

She flashed through my mind, wearing an apron, presiding over the Friday night chicken soup dinners; the walking up and down with crying babies; the running towards the bus with a light foot and returning with a chocolate cake and white fish. I saw her carrying heavy loads to the car for my father; and dashing up flights up stairs to retrieve an object. I saw her with her arms around me, knowing when an embrace was needed. I saw her in purple suits and green velvet dresses, always a fashion sense at sale prices. I saw her standing and ironing every Monday night behind our store. I saw her engaged in lively conversations with customers and rising early to get us on the road for a summer family vacation- always a bubbling roasted chicken wrapped in blankets for the trip. I saw her both young and old. I saw her sunburned on a trip to Florida. Always on the move, always flying towards someone or something, never thinking of herself.

And I witnessed the lesser moments when her legs failed her, her energy waned, a stony silence corrupting her face. The many faces of Eve that ranged from my young active smiling –faced mother to the too quiet seated ninety year old.

But standing in place by the stone yesterday, I, the official mourner, experienced a finality to the sounds and sights of my dear mother. The rabbi said she was now with the eternal; and like an angel rising, she felt as if she were ascending upwards, released from my earthly connotations and bindings, no longer strapped to this earth by my sense ties that had kept her here for me. It was a painful to allow her to leave. And as I recited the kaddish, I began to quiver and cry. The terrible release of both her and me.

Before me was the lifeless hunk of stone heavily attached to this earth, a symbolic memento of years passed in joys and trials and devotion, truly only a marker but the simple words, the briefest of words, the single adjectives of “ beloved… treasured…cherished “ carved into the rock. The rabbi’s insights unleashed a storm that cracked my indifference to the coldness of the funerary stone.

Later, I thought of an article I had read by Hillary Clinton who, on the passing of her own mother, reflected that when someone dies when s/he is young, we grieve for all they have lost: children, grandchildren, future possibilities; however, when the person is older like my mother, our thoughts are for ourselves: what we will miss without their presence. Yes, that was it. I selfishly wanted to hear, see and touch my mother again, say good-bye properly, and tell her how much I loved her.

Then the rabbi read a poem about how at first we are our parents’ dream; then they are ours. Simple but true. Particularly now. More words, but now they were his, not ours, not hers, but words unable to call her back. Commentary on the days we live and the emotions that underpin them.

Jewish people say this powerful prayer for their dead,

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter;

We remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn;

When we are weary and in need of strength; We remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart; We remember them.

When we have decisions that are difficult to make; We remember them…
 (Sylvia Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer)

Will I only hear and see my mother at crucial moments in my life now, or associate her with the opening of flower buds or the last dribble of snow? I don’t know.

The official ceremony of the unveiling of the tombstone has changed things for me. Perhaps that is what it is supposed to do: those milestones in our life marked by ceremonies that connote beginnings and endings.

(As i publish this, I realize today would have been her 94th birthday!)

Clutter

I’m not sure why certain books or sayings lodge in our brains. I often say I’ve got Teflon brain because not much seems to stick; having said that, there are things that I think I remember clearly and one in particular is lodged from a first or second year French class at U of T ( University of Toronto).

We were studying La Nausee by Jean-Paul Sartre, likely the translation back in the 70’s, that imprinted on me. I recall Sartre saying that we keep objects around that we have had relationships with- that our teddy bears and even our hairbrushes speak to us. The connection between the object and our consciousness of it reasserts our identities because it connotes who we were at a particular time and in a particular place. It extends the “I think, therefore I am” of Rene Descartes, as our selves are reasserted by the toys and paraphernalia with which we engaged once upon a time. I shouldn’t be surprised that many of the great philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and others were well versed in the magic of mathematics and science, going deep beyond numbers and ciphers to contemplate an “otherness “ that stood for something more.
Think of how the word “Rosebud” and the role it played in the film “ Citizen Kane”, supposedly based on William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper magnate. Interestingly the film was praised by Jean-Paul Sartre so he must have admired the connection between word to evoke a life story.

I recall a Friday night dinner at my parents when my son was a small boy. He paused peering over the edge of his chicken soup and queried, “Maybe I am just a thought in someone else’s mind. “My mother guffawed, “ Jordan, just eat your soup”.

But in terms of “rosebud,” and the precious trinkets we feel unable to pitch, I’m not referring to those who hoard like my Auntie Marion whose library was overflowing with books or magazines she was unable to discard. We had to navigate through piles of past newspapers even in her livingroom to reach a chair in her house. She recalled Dickens’ Mrs. Haversham to many of her nieces and nephews.

I am talking about those objects we keep around us that do remind us of events, people or specific times. As I sit here by my kitchen window at my computer mid- December I glance at the 10 or more cards on the granite island from my husband’s birthday (July 31) and even our last anniversary (July 2). I even spy one from past Valentine’s Day. Besides what I rationalize is an informal art arrangement, this impromptu exhibit provides colour, design and texture to a room that holds pots of orchids, my recent paintings, a corner full of my grandchildren’s pursuits such as Mad Libs, markers, puzzles and stacking bears…. Yes, I admit “clutter”.

However, my table is a place where my family gathers and where I paint and write. There used to be a birch tree outside that practically cradled the house, but recently it had to be cut down. An outsider arriving here might wonder at the carefully arranged chaos and only realize it is a kitchen because of the stove and frig.

I absolutely need these props. Birthdays, celebrations, bric-a-brac or photos that speak to my life filled with significant events that fill me with happiness and establish a barrier to the bad things that creep into my mind and torment me with worry. They are a shield, a panacea of love and establish balance.

I am an admitted worrier, although as my husband points out, worrying does no good and neither stops what might occur. Superstitiously I reflect that worrying is an amulet that will outwit bad events from unfolding. After all, Jews believe that if you give a sick person a new name, the Angel of Death will fly over him or her unrecognizable and hidden by a fresh moniker. However, I can think of many times, I did try to think good thoughts, but they failed to stave off the inevitable onslaught of trials and tribulations.

I think I am not alone in my penchant to surround myself in good vibes. Many of us cherish our photographs: usually group shots of families, vacations, trips that remind us, make us feel lighter, happier. And how many holocaust victims rudely forced from their warm beds and permitted few possessions did not grab for a photo? I once read a book about the inmates in concentration camps maybe Ravensbruck or Terezin who curried together scraps of paper, and cut into bits of leather recipes from their former lives that were resplendent with memories of warmth, love and family. Some dreamed of the aromas, felt the press of their children’s bodies or re-envisaged the smile of mother: all evoked by the words “ cream… butter…”.

I have been called a cynic but for most of my life I actually naively expected people to behave honorably, but for the most part, have been disappointed.

That is the miracle of Nelson Mandela. In spite of an excruciating hard life, separated from his family and home along with the daily punishments and bonebreaking work, he did not lose his optimism. In deed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1996 where murderers, arsonists, rapists were given amnesty when they admitted their crimes was a miracle of belief in the power of forgiveness.

Films such as Cry Freedom that give voice to Steve Biko’s tortures, Dry White Freedom, or The Power of One deplore apartheid. When I developed my Post-colonial classes at Northern, these movies taught the students more than I could. Most contained montages of images that dramatized moments that were fraught and composed in the pain of the people in South Africa,1976. Imagine my delight when visiting the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, South Africa and discovering the images in the films were the real stuff, actual saved documentation used in the production of the movies. A film is, of course, a distribution of images that can endure and together form a work of art. Fortunately someone decided these pictures were worth saving to record the past.

So I am back to my perpetual theme of art, a clutter of things that holds meaning for me-or for you. That clutter that reaffirms what we find important, what we treasure and hold close, what we maintain that encourages us to continue on, persevere.

It is however, the Nelson Mandelas who are so much more than the scraps that surround us in our daily ventures. The Nelson Mandelas who stop time, who do not allow us to linger in the past and drone on about the good, bad or particularly ugly old days. And yet, it is all paradox for without the past, the memories, the photos, the mementos that evoke a former me or you, we could not forge on, and we could not hope to change what has gone before, resurrect what has been good, human and worth preserving.

Bones and Backs: more than body obsession

When our grandparents were young, they wore shapeless clothes, laboured from dawn to dusk and fell into their soft chairs in the evening. They had little time or concern about how they looked. As a little girl, I recall my little grandmother and white-haired grandfather who arrived late Saturday afternoons to our store for supper. They came by bus. My grandmother was tiny, heavy and dowdy; my grandfather was taller, reserved and aloof.

My poor mother who had slaved all week in and behind our store now was required to cook a meal for her in-laws. She would often tell me how much my Bubby Molly adored her only son, my father, eeking out a few pennies to buy him sardines as a special treat when he was a boy and how she only truly finally accepted my mother once she saw how my mother had reacted to my father’s polio: not abandoning him, as her own mother had admonished her to do.

I don’t recall exactly what we ate on those Saturday nights, although it was likely Friday night leftovers: the remnants of a delicious tomatoey fricassee, and roasted chicken saturated in Heinz sauce. The dinner that stands out in my mind does not concern the food, however, but the actions of my grandfather and a bowl of chicken soup hurtling across the table. It was the one and only time my father actually smacked me across the face because of being goaded on by his father, outraged that I would speak up and perhaps be rude, mocking or disrespectful. Truthfully I do not remember what silly words had sarcastically spun out of my mouth, only the shaming repercussions of that terrible event. Shame, embarrassment, my father’s anger, my grandfather’s satisfaction, my refusal to cry as my cheek burned.

Usually they brought us chocolates and we would thank them dutifully. My grandmother had difficulty breathing and was said to smoke special asthma cigarettes. In my mind’s eye, they appear non-descript, her small and heavy-busted; him with that shock of white hair. They felt distant, and particularly him, judgmental.

Years later, and perhaps because I harboured that memory like a festering wound, when my husband and I gathered Zaida Sam’s last possessions from his dark house on Arlington, I refused to include the waffle-maker in the bundle we were transferring to the Baycrest or Moishe- Zakanam so- referred to in Yiddish,which I assumed meant old folks’ home. He made a plea for its inclusion but I looked sternly at him and refused to give in to his request.

Unlike today when we sit on the floor with our grandkids, joke and jostle with them, both my Bubby Molly and Zaida Sam sat ensconced in the pink brocade chairs in the corner. I think she smiled a bit. She loved my father unconditionally and maybe the first grandchild, my cousin Jon, had held them lovingly transfixed in his heart. I don’t know. Perhaps there were perfunctory kisses with my sister and me, but certainly not a lot of holding or touching.

When we visited their house for a family meal or stopped to took them for an occasional Sunday drive, I can resurrect in my mind a long alleyway of a house, couches that pressed the wall lengthwise, a television at the end, a tiny kitchen behind, very dark, badly lit and the feeling of claustrophobia. Yet welcoming smells did emerge from that kitchen and my aunt Goldi’s stories always included stuffed peppers, pies and the family chocolate cake-whose recipe I never received.

When my mother passed away, I discovered old photos of my grandparents and was amazed that Bubby Molly had once been lithe and lovely, slim and stylish instead of the baggily dressed, audibly breathing, straggled- haired woman I barely knew. In the pictures, she wears large beautiful hats and the narrative that was told was that Zaida Sam had wooed her with a very elaborate confection of a hat that he later tore to pieces before her eyes, he caught in a demonstration of rage. She was known to be modern, a procurer of new fangled things such as washing machines and frigerators, curious, loving and the scourge of her husband’s family Friday night poker games. Her life was hard.

Exercise I imagine consisted of walking to the bus stop en route to work at Tiptop Tailors where both of them sewed and beautifully executed fine cloaks and suits. Likely at the end of the day, they uncoiled their tight bodies that had been fixed to their chairs at their sewing machines hour after hour. This was the story of unions past, not quite the pits of New York or the sweat holes of Bangladesh. Certainly the Union’s desire to free people from the chains of their bosses gave rise to slightly improved situations. One has only to recall The Triangle Shirtwaist Company where 146 deaths and an unknown number of injuries occurred on Saturday, March 25, 1911. It is laughable to think any boss considered their employees needing bodily relief or even a bathroom break, let alone an outlet for stretching tired or sore bodies. Not to mention the sexual harassment foisted on young pretty women afraid to lose their jobs should they refuse the bosses’ attentions.

Jogging, stretching, massages lay far in the future, we only imagining how exhausted, tight and twisted their bodies felt. Maybe the Italians understood better that an evening promenade around the town square would ease the endurance of a long day’s arduous work, especially of sitting unmoving for long long hours. Research now shows that getting up from your desk and strolling even the length of the office frees your mind to be more creative. But then, no one was much interested in the creativity of drones wrapped around their machines, doing piece work.

My parents also never spoke of their bodies or appearances as anything but the mules that drove the work load, although my mother had her hair done once a week, sprayed and lacquered. My father laughed at men who styled their hair, ones who did not visit actual barbers, believing it an offense to one’s manhood. But she always looked nice and my father would compliment her. She dressed very practically, rarely in pants until she was older, reveling in the freedom from stockings and garter belts. Yet, even prostrate, practically comatose in his final hospital days, my father’s eyes would follow my mother around the room, approvingly savouring her freshly washed demeanour.

Once she had bursitis- likely pulling her shoulder when she, a mere 100 pounds, carried my father’s heavy equipment or televisions in from the car as he possessed no power in his legs. For the most part, neither of them complained of aches and pains. My father had experienced such searing pain as he succumbed to polio at Riverdale hospital that he confided that he willed the pain into the night table. It was excruciating. He dragged one foot ahead of the other, Sisyphusian, his life’s philosophy unspoken but emphatically conveyed to my sister and myself: keep on going.

Physical effort was difficult for someone in his condition. He resented being labeled crippled, much preferring the term “ handicapped’ as a golfer might be, but not a handsome man like himself who stood a proud 6 feet.

Once when my husband and I took him to the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition), he asked us to wait while he visited the men’s room. It seemed as if he was taking a very long time. Only then did we notice that he had had to climb up three flights of steep stairs and then back down again. Not much different than scaling Manchu Picchu for able-bodies persons. He did not complain, doggedly accepting while resenting this was the fate cast him. Fortunately? there were side rails so he could drag the heavy crutches along with him. No broken down curbs or accessibility washrooms back then. But I absorbed his living mantra: put one foot in front of the other and keep on going.

Having fallen out of bed the first night home from the isolation hospital and needing to be hoisted back, he told my mother he wished he would have died. Somehow the two of them trudged on. Much later, he would somehow get himself to Sunnybrook’s pool where a contraption lowered and raised him into the pool there. He did love swimming where at least he could stand free and without his hated supports. He’d laugh as he swam with the grandkids in the small pool he had designed for their house years later, calling out to the grandkids as he managed to chase them :that he was the big fish or shark. They laughed and played along. He was happy.

Still that generation, by and large,did not indulge their bodily concerns. My parents understood that life was hard and told themselves: get on with it- in rain, and snow and slippery surfaces, bodies sore, painful and throbbing. No matter the obstacles.I suppose in the past, people merely accepted the physical pain, plodded on and felt it was their due to suffer as generations before appeared to have also persisted in silence, with perhaps a small, wealthy handful, visiting chiropractors and knowing how to soothe that uncomfortable knee, painful shoulder or that more than troublesome pinch in the hip joint.

Today you rarely meet someone without an issue that revolves around their body, usually a back complaint. I have three herniated discs, no doubt incurred by an uneven gait and a wild ride down the Truckee River in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. So I personally know the torments of back pain. Recently I encountered a dentist whose twisted stance over his patients for so many years has resulted in a back that must be shot up with epidurals and will eventually result in surgical procedures. He too comes regularly to Pilates classes. Ah, the relief.

I cringe to remember myself instructing at Vic Tanney’s in the 60’s where I put people on a vibrating belt that jiggled their fat. I knew nothing about physiology of the body or kinasthetics. I was a pretty girl in a sparkly tunic, smiling and encouraging unhealthy people to stay with their program. After work, I would visit Sutton Place’s coffee shop for a chocolate soda.

In many ways, although I’ld bet my grandparents and parents would disagree, things are better and improved today. An awareness of our aches and pains has sparked an industry of real sportsclubs, massage therapists, acupuncturists,caring Pilates and osteopathic professionals who through education and course have learned how to treat or at least ameliorate the ravages of the work day. Classes are part of our routines and we miss them when a class or appointment needs to be cancelled.

Today many boomers still do endure; however, many make attempts to find the person or people who will aid in easing the agony of their aches. For me, it was five long years at Pilates to begin to tame those discs that caused me to lie flat on the floor after teaching a full day. Thank goodness no university girl ever put me through the paces that would have further damaged the disks. When I mutter about my back, I sometimes think of my father, his struggle to literally propel one foot before the other and how he and my mother made a life that continued on in spite of all its rigours.

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