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Times- are they a- changing?

When my cousin was a young man, he came back to Toronto from California to visit his girlfriend. The family was beside themselves because he wore white pants in winter, obviously contravening the unbreachable rule that white could not be worn after labour day. It was the cause célèbre back then, all shaking their heads at that affront to civilized society. We should have know he was a trail blazer.

When I read that Prince Harry was marrying his divorced sweetheart, I thought of poor Princess Margaret, the Queen’s harassed sister prevented from marrying her heart’s delight, Peter Townsend, because he had been previously married. Later Prince Charles and Camilla both sheared of former loves were eventually allowed to marry, the first royals allowed to divorce, Henry viii and Anne of Cleves in 1540. Perhaps for to grab at a few vestiges of prior days, Meghan Markle who attended a Catholic high school will actually submit to baptism in the Church of England.

How things change over time. From clothes to technology and mores . And what of the shame and disgrace brought on to a family should a child be conceived out of wedlock. In deed women years back were not even allowed to teach school if they were in the family way. And early paintings hid the improper condition by the empire line dress that allowed for the fabric to billow over the stomach disguising the body shape.

Michael Adams the president of the Environics that surveys, researches and consults with leading thinkers on public opinion, demographics, and trends, spoke in a forum for University of Toronto’s continuing education classes, addressing how Canada has changed as well :perhaps as a response to the country’s population that is now compromised of 40 percent of first and second generation newcomers to Canada. He postulates that around 1970, with the rise of Quebec Nationalism, Canada gradually began to embrace a new ideology of integrating foreigners into our society : one that still had considered Sunday as the Lord’s Day and hence no Sunday shopping- until 1992. How well I recall my mother telling me she, a newcomer to Canada, had been chased down the street with taunts of “tin can, popcorn, five cents a piece.” From our imperial traditions of moose, Mounties and maple syrup and the tight lipped British, we too have altered our attitudes over time. Jews recall the attitude of None is Too Many, the turning back of the ship of refugees on the St. Louis , eventually contrasting it to the acceptance of 60,000 boat people from Viet Nam years later. And ironically too,we learn that most Christmas songs were penned by Jews, reinforcing idealized traditions that never were, as they fled Russia, Poland for America, that mythic land of equality.

What a difference a day, a month or a year makes…

Adams listed our Canadian values of tolerance, respect, the desire for gender equality and acceptance of paying taxes because we trust in government to better our lives. As well, our country has, two official languages.My children in the 70’s attended a duo school that taught both French and English, but many French Immersion schools sprung up over the city. Our thinking was guided by a sense of a broader world space and although Canadian children, unlike their American counterparts, tended to return home after their college educations. But with the purposely widening of a cosmopolitan outlook and view towards the world, we foresaw that our children might permanently leave the nest and locate their futures in places where French might be spoken. I’ve often told the story of our own children’s ease in Paris where they effortlessly slipped into conversations with locals, being accepted as competent speakers of French, worthy of a dialogue. And in fact, a former childhood friend of theirs eventually became a foreign correspondent in Morocco. In considering how we differ from the United States, Adams cited , as well our healthcare and an educational system pretty well equal across the country, again unlike that great gap between public schools in Massachusetts and Mississippi. Ironically to possess the American Dream, one must come to Canada, we believing government in its power to ameliorate our lives. The Americans still debating health care, demonize ours lauding theirs. Yet just last fall, we waited for almost four hours to be seen in Emergency in California.

Maybe because I am almost 70, I can take the long view, comparing life then and life now. It is a truism that people are people and for the most part, we are still built the same with skin, bones and emotions, but we are set, as our ancestors were into changing times, lingering prejudices and a requirement to adapt. Unlike our grandchildren, we did not grow up with iPhones and IPad. Years ago when we visited Disneyland’s Futureland, the question was posed : if you could augment your knowledge with a computer chip placed in your brain, would you? I imagine soon we will.

Cars that drive themselves may appear on the roadways before boomers die. We all ready have vacuums by Dyson who replace Molly Maids. Sadly, kindles replace paper books yet paper proliferates.And the internet through email speeds messaging. New developments and greater research have increased life span. Just read the obits to see how many lives have been prolonged have into the 90’s.

Exposure of male abuse of colleagues is openly condemned, the hypocrisy of it previously known but allowed to persist, an open secret. Pushed into the light of day prior assaults are now being contributed by victims. And truthfully, I believe almost every woman has experienced some form of inappropriate behaviour . I remember arguing with one of my girls about a top I felt too provocative and she asserting, even 20 years ago, she had a right to wear what she wanted. Because I anticipated the impact of said top, I countered her sense of emerging self , but as raging adolescents will do, she prevailed. Years later with more experience of the world, she understood the need to modulate her clothing to avoid those lascivious looks, calls or grabs.. .( obviously not her fault) .Ironically Trump’s own words of pussy- grabbing did not stop his election to the position wherein exemplary behaviour for the nation should be modelled.

Here also, we support the battlecry of the abused, note our radio celebrity Jian Ghomeshi, accused but released for his unwanted predator behaviour. Unlike his brothers in the US, his case could not be proven, and he has slinked away from society. And although there is the condemnation and chastisement for Lindsay Shepherd, a lecturer at Laurier University reprimanded for showing a video debate on the use of sexist pronouns by a U of T professor. As Alice might murmur, life gets stranger and stranger. We seem to push and pull away and towards, unable to find as Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others preached, “the middle road.” But even as I watch Outlanders and protagonist Claire’s return to 300 years earlier in Scotland, and her knowledge of who will succeed and who will fail, I am caught as we all by the evolution and its backward thrust of society that steadfastly maintains people in its maw, twisting and turning them as the world responds to the wisdom or folly of those making and enforcing the rules of civility.

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California 

I think California is in my blood, as my family, certainly not during The Gold Rush but sometime later sought a better and warmer life in California. My father’s aunties – Dora and Annie arrived and settled in Los Angeles. They had their children, Annette, Julius and Frances who married, had children and grandchildren in that state. And cousin Harry Geller from New York moved there too, somehow involved in the music business with a record or two under his belt. When we visited to celebrate one of my sister’s birthdays, Harry’s son in a station wagon drove us through the Hollywood hills and we felt very special.
I have no family tree so there is a tangle of branches, one that also involves an Uncle Joe, my grandmother Molly’s brother I think. He died penniless in Miami. He was, so the family gossip goes, a lover of show girls, a gambler, a “ good guy”: his profession an auctioneer, flitting all over the country. The first time my family visited LA, he must have been working Las Vegas and visiting his sisters in LA because he took us to a posh restaurant called Sportsmanship’s Lodge where we caught our fish for dinner. At least surprisingly, I did. He gifted my sister and me with silver pearl necklaces which I still keep in one of my jewelry drawers. So impressed was I by this handsome renegade that I wrote him a poem. I recall he seemed touched. He seemed dashing and cool, tipping everyone and gliding through that luxurious restaurant. To a young girl, he was the embodiment of suave and charming, a Jewish Clark Gabel or Harrison Ford, a guy with panache.
LA was a merry- go- round of novel experiences and sensations when I was barely eight years old: colourful family barbecues, mini amusement parks, sparkle, fun and sun. While I was struck by the lure of an endless summer, my father struggled with the dense and poisonous air that clogged the skies and so he returned home early as the smog caused him tremendous breathing difficulties, but my mother, sister and I stayed on: to be charmed and dined by the mishpocha in this place of low houses and incredible vistas.

This was my first taste of a life style that was relaxed and welcoming. Farmer’s Market with its fruits, vegetables and Mexican crafts, Disneyland with all its incredible lands that spread for acres. We panned for gold at Knoxberry Farm and we were loved and catered to by our glamourous peddlepusher clad family, frolicking in their crystal pools that glistened in the never ending sun. My first bite of the magic apple entreated me for more.

Later when I had completed Grade 10, I was allowed to travel by train, sitting up, for three days and nights -all by myself, even having to change trains in Chicago- to visit my mother’s sister’s family who also had recently relocated to LA. I chortle now for I would not have allowed my fifteen year old daughters to set off by themselves, but I do recall low voices arguing at night between my parents before that summer trip, but my mother surmising that my grandparents would be there later in the summer to supervise. Ha! Only then did my father finally succumb to our consolidated nonstop pleadings.
That summer was a whirlwind where I learned parents existed as only landscape, that teenagers moved in packs, rose before the sun or stayed out all night, apparently hunting grunions, that girls did not wear girdles, that they knew how to apply eyeliner and the only way to get to the beach was on the back of a motorcycle. It was froth for me that summer. I felt I belonged, that I had friends and I was liked not for what I did, how much money my parents had, what synagogue or country club I belonged to (NOT), how I looked, or what I had accomplished in school, but for me: whoever that might be and was evolving.
When the summer was over and the grandparents much more solicitous that summer of my aunt than myself, drove me to the train station, I wept copiously and clung to my cousins who had provided me deep insight into how adolescents should live, and the true meaning of freedom. My grandfather in amazement remarked he had only seen such grievous parting when families were torn apart in Europe to avoid the holocaust.
For me the sweetness of those days, of belonging to a roving herd of happy accepting kids contrasted markedly to the snobs at my school who had demarcated the lines that separated cool rich people like them with unkempt, socially awkward skrags such as myself. Even when I began my life back at home, my few friends disparaged of the language I had acquired during my summer sojourn. Into my sentences, I casually dropped such exclamations as ”bitchen” or “boss” as my Californian friends had as they lazily tanned and hung around Hermosa Beach or by the surfside of warming fires at night. In spite of the looks and raised eyebrows in Grade 11, I felt lighter, happier for my summer experiences.
I would return to California every few years, as my cousins inviting me, wanting to be part of their gang who partied, ate new and different foods and relaxed on the beach for hours. I even met my first real boyfriend there. I certainly learned how to tame my curly hair and rid myself of split ends.
Still, there was a shadow of disbelief regarding this lotus land, in stories passed down. For once my father’s grandparents had also packed up, intending to cast their lot with Dora and Annie in the Golden City. The story I heard was that polio had begun its devastation there and my grandmother fearful that her chubby children, but especially her beloved Solly might succumb, prevailed on my grandfather to return to Toronto.
She must have been terrified as I had heard that my stern and haughty grandfather who spent every Friday with his family ,berating my grandmother and accusing her of wasting their hard earned cash on new fangled and modern appliances such as washing machines, actually prevailed and they came back here. Life was hard and both grandparents labored for Tiptop Tailors, artisans, and perfectionists both. Ironically my father succumbed to polio when he was 29, I wondering if he had stayed on in Lala land, would he have escaped the cumbersome braces and necessary crutches and lead another life, free to walk holding his grandchildren? Would his attitude towards me differed?
My aunt Marion, born Minnie, hated her father’s father who was blind. According to her and her sister Goldi, it was rumoured he groped the granddaughters. My grandparent’s courtship that had begun with his gift of extravagant hats devolved into my grandfather tearing them to ribbons before my grandmother’s eyes. As well, my father would retell bitterly, his father hid chocolate medallions that the children loved, rarely sharing them. My father vowed never to argue about money as his parents had. So no matter how small his income, he never fought over finances with my mother, leaving her to figure out how to stretch the small amounts he earned from his passion: the perfection of sound from his investigations with condensers, tubes, circuitry that covered all of our cake boxes en route to creating the perfection of music and sound. When I think of my father, I see him, sitting at his worktable, focused inward, still, and listening to some sound he is coaxing from a piece of equipment, centred, unmoving, fixed in his investigation and pursuit of musical excellence.
Although our family did not derive much from his work, we always had the best of food and that was sufficient. Several times a year we would drive to Buffalo and purchase our clothes, or search the sales in Toronto. As a girl, my profound embarrassment involved standing at the corner bus stop of Eglinton and Bathurst with shopping bags that I implored my mother to turn inside out, bags that hid underware purchased from Honest Ed’s. I, fearful that some deb from school might see me and laugh at another transgression.
So my father’s parents had returned home to the drudgery of the sewing machines at Tiptop Tailors. I don’t think they ever forgave one another, only adding fuel to their fire. I recall the Saturdays that they visited. As the sun was setting, they came to the back of our store and into our living room behind the door, sinking deeply into the deep pink chairs in the corners of the room.
I think my grandmother’s face lit up when she saw my father. My poor mother always with the burden of cooking, running up and downstairs, ironing, cooking, making life seem as normal as possible, even interrupted should she try and bake a cake because customers had come into the store. When the grandparents approached every Saturday, she was always ready with supper, barely able to conceal her week’s exhaustion on her thin body, often lamenting why Saturday for those suppers?
Nights were the worst for her as she feared my father on a service calls to install hi fis or fix television sets might slip and fall in the snow, and how would he lift his braces-enveloped body from the ice and mounds of snow. I remember her sitting hunched on a couch, her eyes far away in worry. Only on Tuesday evening would the limping hunched Mrs. Ward appear to babysit us so my parents could go to a show.
So many years later, the call of California in my ears, with my own young family, we explored the coast line, delirious in Napa’s wine country, haunted by San Simeon’s Hearst castle, driving along Big Sur even in the foggy mornings to that miraculous zoo in San Diego where my parents had taken me long ago.
California holds for me so many memories at pivotal moments in me life, moments that buoyed me up, and floated me away from my ordinary self back home. Not surprisingly I continue to return, seeking the sun and friendship I experienced so long ago.

 

Why I Hoard

 

I’m not sure if all baby boomers hoard, or if hoarding is just another one of my traits. Maybe now it is called being thrifty or possessing eco or green-consciousness. As children, boomers certainly heard tales of The Great Depression, or of the fear of atomic blasts when people stockpiled their bomb shelters with canned goods and other necessities of life. Just watch the news of a tornado-sightings and view the long snaking lines in grocery stores and the empty shelves. But my hoarding is not presently based on real events that may cause one to ravish the shelves, it’s much more psychologically-driven.

I squeeze the last drop from toothpaste tubes; I keep university notebooks full of information that I will never use and when I purchase something, frivolous or not, I absolutely have to ensure that I have retrieved its value before I toss it.

 We were in China some years ago and after touring the silk production plant, I decided that a prudent and lovely investment would be a duvet. I slowly wandered among the cover choices, eventually deciding on a yellow reversible, tone on tone pattern, congratulating myself that it would last twice as long and provide a variable accent to the bedroom.

 Not so.

 For if you ever purchase a silk bed cover, you will discover that the silk slips right off your bed- because it is silk. However, in spite of my husband’s pleading to get rid of the damn thing, I insisted that as we had paid out quite a bit for it, and that it was actually quite beautiful and complimented the décor in the room: that we must endure chilly nights when our duvet had found its own resting spot on the floor as it wiggled to the floor like the silk worms who must have hypnotized me into believing that this purchase was a wise one! For two years, we put up with the silk duvet until I finally decided that we had retrieved our money’s worth from it. Do not enquire why two years is an acceptable amount of time. Perhaps it must vary from object to object as there are pieces of clothing in my cupboard that have returned to fashion from twenty years ago and are still being held hostage with cedar balls to keep them fresh.

 As a child, we did not have much money, my father having had polio; and we lived frugally behind our store. My mother was very careful with her spending, saving for special occasions. I think of the worn red wallet my father had crafted for her in Rehab during the polio epidemic, the wallet living in the drawer in the kitchen where my sister and I were allowed to pilfer nickels for treats at Louie’s en route to West Prep. We were never told we were poor, but my parents like most of their generation saved until they had funds for a purchase. Visa, the grandchild of Chargex, was not even on the horizon. My mother an able bookkeeper and balancer of monies once even delegated funds she had painstakingly stashed for a fur coat towards a baby grand piano for my sister. The piano although used every day still sat much like some lost child among the clutter in our living room. And somehow, my ingenious mother put away enough money to pay for all of her own caregivers and apartment expenditures until she passed away recently at more than 91 years of age.

 Although I considered our home the equal of my classmates who lived in Forest Hill ( our store was at the edge of the boundary) , and although I did not expect more than sale items, my sister coveted expensive clothes on Yorkville and at Holt Renfrew. One famous story recalled her invitation to a bar mitzvah, and our Saturday visit to a store called Potpourri in that posh area. Here my sister fell in love with a stunning brocaded turquoise dress. My mother, wanting to please my sister, purchased this luxurious extravagance. However, once at the festivities, the silly bar mitzvah boy suggested she was wearing sofa material and my sister refused to ever put it on again. 

If I buy something that is expensive such as a Red Valentine dress, even at 80% off, it will, for the most part, hang in my cupboard. From time to time, when searching for  an appropriate outfit for a Saturday date with my husband, my special garments peek out, lost children in the dark, perhaps wondering why they rarely see the light of day or dark of evening. I pause, touch the sumptuous fabrics, linger a minute, smile with pleasure, and return them to their enclosures. I have so many lovely things: rich silks, delicate satins, exquisite laces, soft velvets, but sadly, their home is a closet. I know why they are confined and not permitted to frolic with the ordinary monotone tee-shirts from Jacobs or the torn pairs of Gap jeans: they are too good to wear.  I fear that if I spill a glass of wine or inadvertently catch the precious fabric on a rough surface they will tear, be ruined or spoiled.

Again it may be a throwback to living at the edge of Forest Hill where the adolescent girls shone in their navy poodle skirts and luminescent pearls. Standing at the bus stop one Channukah, I overheard a conversation describing how the eight days of the holiday would be celebrated: with bounteous presents such as magazine subscriptions, jewelry, trips to exotic places… I had been hoping my mother would give me the same red angora hat and gloves that she was busily knitting for my cousins. I was so drawn to the texture, the hot red colour, the shape of the garments that even 50 years later, the softness of that yarn my fingers can still touch. The passing conversations of the girls at my school opened my eyes to an entirely frivolous and strange standard of living.  

I was never jealous, just in awe, but something in me must have thought “ one day, I will be able to have so many beautiful things”.  There must have all ready been the seeds of embarrassment in me because on our monthly or so traverses down to Honest Ed’s on Bloor and back home, I would insist that we turn the store’s plastic bags inside out. Little did I know that Value Village and second hand clothes would be the attire of choice for teenage girls years later. But at that time I was ashamed of the undershirts and socks balled up in the bottom of the bags, fearing one of the haughty girls might pass by, giggle and point at me. Still, there is a difference between choosing to look poor and knowing there are limited funds so certain choices need be made.

That is not to disparage all that I had. We took trips to Buffalo quite often, and my mother would allow us to purchase Susan van Heusen blouses ( only $2.98), considered the desirable shirts of popular girls at school. My fashion-conscious mother even identified a shop in the downtown area, Robinson’s ( I think ) where she purchased for herself a plum suit with a short trendy jacket that I swear could have rivalled a Chanel number. She would regale us with her tales of having had all of her clothes handmade as a girl and even prompting her dressmaker to add hoods to her tops.

On our fast jaunts to the States, we also drove to a special store in Rochester to select one incredible toy each for my sister and myself, a toy that was as yet, unavailable in Toronto. Imagine an hour to peruse, touch and decide on your own enchanted goodie in a location only accessible by several hours drive away from home. I remember a leather kit with multicoloured laces and various shaped holes and numerous items with which I could create back in my own living room. It must have been an extravagance for my parents to offer us such diversions: toys being beyond the pale of necessities that my father’s very hard- earned cash might allow for. Yet I recall he enjoyed these sojourns along with us, investigating new puffing trains, mathematical-based games, new trends in building or erecting constructions. I think we were being given a protocol of values: that things that stretch the mind by play are worth the cost; that education in all forms is valuable. With my own grandson, I try and delight him- to the consternation of his parents- with what I call “ interesting things” on Thursdays when he comes for supper and to play. A throwback to what I treasured about my growing up.

We had subscriptions to magazines from Disneyland( also before they were available in Canada), and had even flown on an airplane to Los Angeles when we were five and eight to see family. We had after school lessons, ballet, piano, unfortunately religious school three times a week where I stared out at the free children playing marbles in the laneway. My parents never ever talked to us about their dwindling finances. But, little did I know how my mother scrimped, being so careful with the few dollars my father garnered from the work he would have done for free; an avocation more than a vocation. He called himself an audio engineer, brilliant in his quest to create perfect sound emitted by tubes, circuits and amplifiers. Peter Munk, Sol Mendelsohn, all the glitterati of the television and hi fidelity world came to our store Tele Sound for help, advice, insight into the workings of electronics. Passing my guru father in conversation with these men, I noted him relaxed, smiling, knowledgeable and happy: characteristics not always associated with his taciturn, quiet and introverted personality.

But the Channukah conversation opened a window on excess for me, more than anyone might need, but what a person, a silly adolescent girl might want: if they were able to manage it. I’ll never forgot that day, waiting at the bus stop, the girls flaunting their greed so nonchalantly. I, the bystander, looking askance towards the apartments across the street, pretending I was enveloped in my own deep thoughts, and affecting a scornful, haughty, self-protective downward stare, indicating that I did not care. Hah. No doubt they had no more awareness of me than the pole that designated the bus ‘s arrival.

I rationally know that my present day hoarding, particularly of expensive goods, is ridiculous because garments should be worn-enjoyed and given their place in the limelight, combined with other goods so that they can dazzle or give delight to their owner-ME. Truthfully, they are shut in, but not forgotten. They contribute to my notion that I am the equal of any socialite and should I decide they deserve an outing, I am able to command their presence. In truth when I wear something that has a label that I have fancied and finally succumbed to buying, I do feel good: the curly hair tamed, the makeup well applied  and I walk taller, more erect, feeling the equal of any rich girl who sneered at my nose cozy so many years ago. But all thoughts are not rational.

Like Sharon Stone who combined a Gap shirt and a designer skirt at the Oscars one year, I can put together on my body the expensive and the less so. As my mother wisely did, I, too, look for sales. 

We are so much a product of our parents’ ways, our contexts, good and bad, ourselves. It makes us unique, special, fearful, sensitive, wise and strange. Maybe years later we are able to examine the pieces and attempt to rearrange the jigsaw. Maybe not.

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