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Homes of Circles

In order to avoid the overwhelming construction on Eglinton, I veer off onto Burton and drive through the stately leafy Forest Hill area where the mansions are eye catching. Even this street is full of trucks and cars and requires some slow down. I wonder who lives here, their families, friends… and I think back on where I grew up- also in Forest Hill but behind and above my father’s store at the furthest edges of the boundary of the borough. My parents had chosen the location for the reputation of the schools, but perhaps our mother had imagined her daughters worthy of the society embraced by the children of the rich. Although I truly believe her impetus had to do with education that she had dearly savoured for herself, I think she was fascinated by the artefacts of the wealthy too.

I never considered that my home was any less than my friends’ abodes. We had formerly lived in a house on Glengarry that my parents had designed before my father had succumbed to polio. Now their plan was to simplify life, and to combine my father’s living and working spaces. But this new building also on Eglinton that we were to inhabit had my parents’ stamp on ideas and needs marked on it, my mother insistent on a small yard for us planted with grass and demarcated by a fence at the end of the alleyway.

My parents, especially my mother took care to consider, plan and arrange our living space, always aware of my father’s meagre income. I was never aware that we were likely at the thin edge of the financial spectrum. Somehow we participated in numerous lessons , were well dressed, and to my child’s mind, the equal of our neighbours around the corner or in ” the village.”My father recalled so many horrible fights between his parents caused by the lack of money  during the Depression so there were never squabbles over money in our house. He did not want his children to grow up under that nagging, cheeriless gloom. Foremost, our food was the central concern purchased at the best stores, fish and chocolate cake almost necessities, bought where all the financially comfortable neighbours also shopped. In deed I believed my pink bedroom, I no longer had to share with my sister, was- palatial in size. It overlooked the lane but its dimensions were spacious enough for two girls until our sibling squabbling encouraged our parents to cut through the wall and give my sister her own room.

I remember my surprise when my best friend Nancy who lived near West Prep made a comment about how small my room was. I was stunned , taken aback , wondering if in deed she was describing my royal bedroom. Granted, I’ve never been great with spatial measurements but I truly believed my room magnificent, with matching furniture, shelves overloaded with books and personal possessions.

In those days I would tell my father that the house I would eventually inhabit would be round. Perhaps I intuited that like a wedding band, a circle has no beginning, no end, continuous for all time. There is a vague memory of a house I had once visited that if not perfectly round had no walls to divide up the rooms so there was a flow that carried you from space to space.

And interestingly when I began my search for a perfect wedding dress at the elegant Jean Pierce ,the most coveted dress shop on Eglinton back then, I pined for a gown that was circular. Somehow about it piqued my imagination. When the price made it be unobtainable, friend and department head at Westview Centennial in the Jane Finch corridor where I was newly teaching suggested her present to me would be an incredible French crepe and lace gown that she sewed by hand. We did fittings in the girls’ washroom. It hangs still in my closet- as fabulous now as forty- four years ago.

But this idea of the circle intrigues me and not surprisingly when my real estate friend in La Jolla shared a picture of a Mexican heritage house in the shape of circle, my heart sang out and I was again smitten. But like the dress, the price, and plus I am Canadian, were only dreaming points of awe and desire for an ideal not a possibility.

Perhaps part of the reason I admit to being unable to throw out and clean up my basement of my home resides in the fact that the items I have in my home not already purged are imbued with emotions. As I attempted to unsuccessfully clear out the art room last week, I was waylaid by the books that connote significance from different stages in my life. Steppenwolf and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse from university days consumed as a mantra when we dressed like hippies. Hesse played a rallying point for Boomers. Hesse predated Mindfulness and long before “ Journey” became a ubiquitous word, particularly in speeches regarding life and profession, we actually pondered its meaning : now I cringe when I hear someone, their gaze fixed loftily away, murmurs the word. Sadly, we can say -poor  tired “ Journey” has passed away, been depleted of meaning, overburdened with overuse.

In the basement of my home, there are books associated with my years of teaching of Postcolonial Literature and writing for the now defunct Multicultural Journal , my major contribution to Northern Secondary’s Gifted Program, but one gradually erased when I left to work at OCT. I have evidence of my student’s brilliance from those days in the format of handcrafted books, paintings, videos: beginning points to my students’ immersion into the study directed by the intrepid students themselves. These fill me with pleasure.These cherished items are artefacts of my life.

From OCT are the booklets and research, journal articles and two books I wrote, edited and collaborated on that contributed to the teaching profession, my favourite published by Sage. These concrete items, gathering dust, make me proud. Other heaping piles contain the standards and implementation strategies and presentations created for the more than 300,00 teachers in Ontario. And to think I worked with almost all the faculties of education in the province also writing their additional qualification courses for post study. Impressive, no? Although courses will change, reviewed every three to five years, the standards and ethics of the profession will remain as the values we should uphold. These tenets have been with us forever: respect, responsibility, care, compassion, collaboration, etc. Back when I started at the College, Dr. Linda Grant was the brains and insightful leader of that endeavour.

In university I studied Sartre whose La Nausee addressed why we keep items close, outgrown things like teddies or even hair brushes. It is because they demonstrate that we once had a relationship with them and they validate us in terms of who were at a variety of points in our lives. They are small houses for the machinations, emotions, goings on of who we were. And particularly as we age, we try to maintain that smart and vital image of ourselves preferring not to focus on the aging mind of body of today, recalling in stead the relationships, actions and pursuits, the exhilarating and inspiring contexts that formed and nourished us. The happy child of loving parents, the aloof adolescent or careless student, the committed professional, the caring lover: all the passages into self awareness. The so- called journey. 😉

So the importance of a house, especially a circular one brings one back to the start. In the home of my house lives memories and books and reminders, the exterior – whether on Burton or Eglinton, no matter.

School Reunions

My sister forwarded me an email that West Prep is having a 75th reunion.
For those not living in Toronto, there were three “ preps” in Toronto: North, South and West Preps. They were public schools, but someone back when, must have thought they were making the local elementary schools elite by calling them preps. Many years ago, Forest Hill was its own entity, even requiring garbage men to trek to the backdoor to remove that distasteful trash from the view of the neighbours. So surrounding this predominantly upper middle class neighbourhood was an aura of entitlement and not surprisingly, resentment by the plebs in Leaside or North York who had to drag their garbage to the curb, and not to mention, their unfortunate offspring who were required to attend TDSB’s ordinary- sounding public schools. 
Although we lived on the edge of Forest Hill behind our store on a main street, my parents had chosen the location for our store on the basis of the schools’ reputation. So we attended West Prep with the usual load of teachers, some great, some awful such  as my Grade one teacher with her tie up oxfords who raked my scalp with her nails, and made me shiver at her approach. But as well, the librarian was lovely and introduced me to Ramona and Beezus and B is for Betsy books . 
Those  were the formative years of my child’s life, whooping it up at recess as we ran up and down the hills in the school yard and lining up our purée biggees in games of marbles. There we were introduced to Sex- Ed in Grade 5( I think) with a movie called Personally Yours along with square dances and rainy day movies in the auditorium where no one seemed to care if a film ( shown on rainy days) was equally appropriate for grade ones or grade sevens. I recall being kept in to redo arithmetic in Grade five when I wanted to be out screaming and skipping with my friends on the playground. My reflections of those days are filled with childish bounding, skipping, hopping and nasty tangles of little girls bickering or choosing who will be their friend and who not.. Of course, my mother always provided a nickel or dime to stop at Louis on the way so as to buy candy. I would meander slowly on my way to school, often picking flowers from the front lawns en route : to offer to my teachers.
Perhaps my favourite moment was a Friday gathering for all classes in that auditorium devoid of any furniture so that the kids sat cross- legged on the wooden floor. In our weekly assemblies I read my story that described a monkey’s confusion when he nibbled the cherries on a lady’s chapeau , believing they were the real thing. I read loudly and strongly to the assembled hoards, unlike the presentations I gave later in high school : one in which my grade 12 teacher admonished my shaking voice for actually ruined my beautifully written work, or at least that’s how I recall the excitement of being chosen being dashed by my performance.

When I reflect back on those early years at West Prep, no one name, save my next door neighbour’s, comes to mind. There was, however, one girl named Beverley. I recall her because she was different, very different. She had a funny crooked smile, was taller, more awkward with a pyramid of unruly dark hair. In the years before Special Education, Beverley was always there, moving on the playground, always by herself, not included in games or chatting groups, usually mocked or ignored. I think her parents had insisted her inclusion at West Prep, but she was anything but included. Not a bad child, not a mean child, but one who moved like a friendly ghost, circling the clots of kids playing on that barren playground, hoping for acceptance or acknowledgment, but never ever part of the numerous cliques or circles of squabbling girls who spied or lied or cheated on you. Was she delayed or just different? Why did no one, not a supervising adult or kind child, ever try and include her in our hopscotch or singing circles. And besides a “ hi” or disinterested glance, why did not one of us engage her in some form of interaction?
In grade 4 all ready, we were being divided, judged as smart and stupid.To ascertain our suitability for a musical education, which meant selecting an instrument to lug back and forth to school, we were arranged in our desks and told to differentiate high, middle and low sounds played by trumpets, violins or on piano. Unable to properly perform this task, I was separated with the group of other musically illiterate children. Besides the humiliation of floundering, unable to parse the sounds that came to me, I was now corralled, publicly scorned and made to stand at the edge of the classroom while the welcoming smiles of the adjudicator gathered the successful towards her. These small seemingly superficially tests yield a huge impact on a child’s sense of self- concept. One quickly learns discrimination as the large homogeneous association of children is now divided into smarter and stupider kids and you definitely do not belong to the first group. Later, there will be The Prefects and the German class and you will always be designated as not fitting the definition and offered the key to the best teachers and the preferred classes. Eventually you will offer sarcastic quips to announce that you really do not care. But of course, you do. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, you have all ready been marked as low or under – achiever and identified as lacking.
I think of my student at Westview Centennial and her insightful comment, and she only in Grade 12, not a graduate from a teachers education program, who considering Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Pied Beauty expressed her contention that maybe weeds are flowers to Nature. Sometimes simple thoughts can be the most profound.And I wonder about the educational environment that does not tie kids to their chairs but still makes it clear they are unteachable. Several years ago, my brilliant grandson was downcast that he was not identified as “ the star” of the week. I explained to him that he was my star, and that every child in his class was also a star, for I believe each one is so- called gifted in some way. What is required is teaching that meets the needs of individual minds and multiple intelligences( see Howard Gardner for more). So the philosophy goes today supported by multiple choice tests or those standardized ones that do not allow for one extra word to explain your thoughts.

I never wanted to be a teacher or teacher educator, but that was where my path took me and as I sift through my own memories I contemplate that my own experiences as “the average child” most often disinterested or  bored lead me to my profession. I poured over ASNeill’s Summerhill in Britain, The Hurried Child, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and so many more as I endeavoured to arrive at my own concept of good education. Eventually I decanted it to one sentence, “ If you can read and possess a curious, open mind, you have the keys to an amazing education. Perhaps, again,  overly simplistic, but research does substantiate that a “ bad” educational experience may shut you down for three years at school, so traumatizing is an event that impacts on your ability to learn. 

School reunions dredge up memories of oneself as a child, the struggles, the delights, the friends and the school yards of socializing.The crib of West Prep was overall for me a good place to begin my adventures. In spite of being shut down by my Grade one teacher, there was much else to propel me on. Most of the early bright lights did continue to  soar on at high school and into professions, however, there were the others like me who might have surprised anyone reading the roster , all those weeds that somehow were not identified as the blooming flowers.

My Mother’s Fricassee

Reading my husband’s cousin’s review of recipes of those dead but dear to her reminded me of my own mother’s fricassee. Not a particularly great cook, my mother would lament that the stove that never closed properly or the store bell that would perpetually summon her just five minutes before the completion of cookies caused the ruination of her culinary prowess.
In truth she never claimed that she rivaled Julia Child or even the Galloping Gourmet, but then I imagine she was often just too tired to even to try to discover new food concoctions. What purpose would there be to experiment, especially when a long winded client might enter our store and keep her listening when she knew something might be burning in her dilapidated oven.

Yet she could often be caught in reverie or awe over her mother-in-law’s stuffed peppers or the perfect apple pies that my father so savoured from his boyhood. And the famed family chocolate was always a topic of discussion when the tetchy aunts gathered.

But food at our house, for the most part, consisted of a rather tough overcooked thinly sliced liver on Mondays with canned peas and boiled potatoes, a salad with no dressing (doesn’t need it, informed my father); hamburger on Tuesdays, but occasionally a can of Bravo tomato sauce transformed that lowly boring mess into a coveted spaghetti dinner for all but my father. My sister and I almost danced with joy. On Wednesday, a chop with more canned peas and potatoes again and the same listless salad with no dressing. The routine continued with fish on Thursdays, either halibut or white fish with The Green Giant’s peas, the potatoes and yes, the same salad. On this day, she would bounce onto the bus and head for the Penguin Fish store at Avenue Road and Eglinton , and then decide on whether she would purchase the large ( $1.10) or small ( 90 cents) chocolate cake at Margo’s cake store. Packages in hand, she would jump back on the bus and be home before noon to make my father his lunch.

Sometimes, she did something with a pressure cooker and steam thrust itself out of a hole on top of the pot, but results were not enjoyable and rather soft and brown – looking. Even my father would complain and my sister and I would scrunch our faces into distorted frowns, totally ignoring my mother’s exhaustion as she had unsuccessfully peppered our diet with something besides the repeated parade of bland foods acceptable to our father.

But- Fridays and Saturdays soared- as first, our noses detected the savoury delicious smells from the kitchen because on Friday, our mother’s secularized Shabbath, she managed to transform her ingredients- in spite of popping in and out of the store- into wonders. Her chicken soup was more than passable and treat of treats, contained little prized eggies along with lochsen/noodles. Her chicken roasted in the dark blue pan was a queen squired by carrots and potatoes glazed by Heinz’s tomato sauce. The first night was pretty good, but the leftovers still ensconced in the pot on Saturday were very, very tasty.
However, her fricassee was sublime. She said the recipe had come down to her from my father’s mother. She hand grated onions and carrots into a sauce with ketchup, adding bits of chicken parts, a quarter cup of brown sugar and water and when it bubbled, she dropped little meatballs into the mixture. Slowly cooked over several hours, the resulting taste only required soft braided yellow challa to absorb the juices.

I mentioned the fricassee to my aunt once who chortled a little and admitted that when family recipes were handed down, especially to daughter in-laws like my mother, it was not surprising for an ingredient to be kept secret, purposefully omitted, and in this case, it was the squeezes of fresh lemon to create a slightly sweet and spicy flavour, very good in cabbage rolls too, she demurred.

My mother always said the magic ingredient was not the lemon which she scoffed; it was love. So like her to say such a thing! Why was it then, that only the weekends offered food that we ate slowly and carefully and thoughtfully to pull out all the enmeshed flavours?

A relative who also reflected on her own mother’s recipes mentioned how the handwriting of her mother provided insight into her demeanour at a variety of stages in her life, the younger she was, the letters drawn firmly, confidently as she had lived. Later, the script shaky suggesting an unsure hand.

 So it was with my mother, as well, embarrassed that her perfect letters had begun to knock into one another so that a “g” might actually be a “p” or a”y”. Although not a vain woman, my mother seemed to write less and less, so annoyed that her ciphers no longer kept their integrity as individual soldiers, increasingly laxly appearing as an entire brigade at rest lolling and shifting.
I liked to imagine my mother bouncing up while we all slept soundly in our warm toasty beds to cook a chicken for a trip somewhere, usually to the States, ensuring the contents in that blue pan were well cooked before wrapping it in several layers of blankets to keep it warm on the road. The melding of the simple vegetables that just grazed the sides of the roasted chicken were celebrated under the dappled shade by the side of the road. She never complained and we never thanked her either.
We were family of set patterns, expecting without concern of the weight and responsibility it took to manage a home, store and family when our father was handicapped by polio. We thought ourselves, at least superficially, the equal of the fine girls in the rich Forest Hill houses with their country clubs and synagogues and accoutrements. We never considered that our frail, fragile mother kept us together like a spider’s web on skinny threads by her energy, devotion and nervous energy. We had no idea of the cost of those actions, and truly cared only for ourselves as girls, youths pampered by her attentions, “ her treasures”, as she referred to us.
Only as we age and mature do we pause to consider the  behaviour of our parents, our body rhythms slowing, our extremities reminding us and protesting their years of use and dis-use. Only then can we empathize and recall our upbringings as children and troubled adolescents whose interests veer far from the worries of their mothers and fathers.
Too late to enter into a discussion or smile a thank you, I suppose the acknowledgement that we had grown as they had hoped, healthy, moral, headed for a future that would be brighter than their own sufficed. My parents did not seek thanks, their desire was not for back-slapping or public declarations of the high costs of raising us as admirable humans; we were enough. Yet as I age, I wish I had had an opportunity to express or reminisce more about my mother’s tasty tomato sauce that made Tuesdays so much better, or kiss her unwrinkled face more often in silent appreciation of her sacrifices- that I believed my right, not her extreme effort: a strand of a noodle to the entire repast.

 
 
 
 
 

A Rosh Hashana Reflection on sensitivity and growing up

Maybe it is called Writer’s Block, but lately although I happily edit my blogs, embroidering them or scratching out some, I am not finding too many new topics. Applause? I shutter to think that I re-edited a blog a few weeks ago that had all ready been published ( mea culpa, please forgive me!!!) Enough all ready, do you think? The topics I usually pick over have been dissected written about, and likely have gone longer than they should have. But in my own defense, themes and topics reappear over and over again and with –perhaps the exception of technology or new scientific discoveries- everything has been said, only to be rehashed, repackaged or a new perspectives provided by brighter( or lesser) eyes.

And it is not as if I don’t feel anything, or I am merely regurgitating. If anything I am overloaded with emotion these days so that it is practically dripping from me.

I read Rucsandra’s, my Pilates’ instructor, blog on gratitude and think her logical steps should make me shake off my anger or disillusionment in 90 seconds or so, freeing myself of angst or ennui. Yet it seems to have taken up residence like the Rosh Hashana tunes that will not depart my head for weeks, these overrunning my body, and at night leaking from my eyes.

I have always felt things intensely, my father frustrated at my being so sensitive, obviously a bad word. Even in early pictures, I am cuddled against a couch, small and separate, curly –haired and all ready introspective. No smile. My mother said she was worried about the effect my father’s polio, his disappearance to Riverdale Hospital might have on me as a child. I seem to have weathered it better than my sister who was unceasingly in need of his approval and love. My reaction was one of disregard, sarcasm. My own sweet personality absent replaced by bitter reaction to his absence? For always, when trying to make sense of who we are and all of our whys, we ponder nurture versus nature and likely there are equal amounts of both with likely nature putting a spin on the latter. These days, it is discussed under the term epigenics.

As an adolescent I might soar in spirits, but a subtle or even unexpected look might cause me to plummet and so I coined the expression “the bit of dust in my contact lens” to suggest that a joyful moment could be spoiled in an instant by a surprising gust of wind that interrupted or interrupted delight .And so I might be crying again. But as a teenager, I did not cut myself or act out as adolescents do today although I often chewed savagely at the inside of my cheeks.

I think I was an adolescent who felt things very very deeply. They called me Pat the Brat although my protestations were small. I laugh now to think that on returning from California at the beginning of Grade 11, my parents despaired of my change. That I tossed off words like “bitchen” and “boss” and I knew how to apply eyeliner. And that seemed to condemn me as “bad”. And my few former friends looked askance or totally ignored me for this unscrupulous behaviour. But those were the days when my cousin Allan came home to visit his girlfriend Ricky in winter, and all the family was aghast and atwitter because he dared to wear white pants in winter. My change in words and his predilection of attire sent volleys of outrage to those who preferred to condemn rather than smile, accept or extend their vision of what was appropriate: like teahats donned only at Easter parades and at bar mitzvahs.

I had supports in my adolescence: my special aunt who made me feel “sensitive” was not such a bad thing; my mucka-pucka or scribbles at art, my love of reading and my mother’s suggestion to join B’nai B’rith to socialize. I received praise from school in the realm of languages and English and so despite the horror of the social scene at Forest Hill, I did not mind going to school, even experiencing support from the Latin teacher affectionately known as “The Whip” who could reduce all the naughty confident full of themselves boys and girls to tears. How I appreciated her and the English teachers who were as strange and eccentric as I believed myself to be. My favourite was an Ichabod Crane character who wore his molars encased in a gold ring, and mesmerized us with talk of books and Broadway. Those were oases, for in the science and math classes I wished myself far far away from concepts and equations and jeers.

At university, I could wander under the arches, sit in the grassy quadrangle, flirt in the refectory. Lunch with my friends, adopt an air of insouciance, and being introverted beneath my bangs that eclipsed my eyes sheltered me so I could pretend to be sexy and knowing. There with friends and art history classes so I felt in control of my life, floating on clouds of fresh ideas and laughing chums with whom I could share. Fridays at The Coffee Mill ,the meeting place to ponder and assess the pleasure of the weekday, unconnected to the pains of the world. Except for Saturdays when I rose early because I worked in the Notions department at Eatons downtown: that was the pattern of my days. I somehow felt like the balloon that lightly drifts on the currents of soft breezes, willing to go with the streams of light and air and breath, floating, responding, just being.

It was a new and wonderful experience: to feel I belonged and to have friends at university, truly the wonder of my short life so far. I don’t know if it was the times , the hippie seventies of carefreelessness or just me. At night there were my irrelevant parents who made no demands on me and during the day there was downtown, concerts or Yorkville or parties, often achieved by hitchhiking or loading into a friend’s friend’s car, and heading off in a pack . The cold winters did not seem to bother me and in spite of spending long hours in my room usually pulling out the miscreant too kinky bits of hair, I took pleasure in my existence, encased in a bubble. What was I thinking as I pretended to study: What to wear on Saturday night? Whereto travel in the summer? What time to meet my friends?

I cannot remember every minute, just an overview of pleasurable days as I recall my memories as an almost 67 year old who can romanticize or fantasize being a girl of 18 or so. And I smile to recall the freedom, the twirl of events that spun me in a cocoon of believing that life can get better and the darkness of high school had ended.

How do we become ourselves, growing into our skins? I used to think we were rather shedding all of our extra layers, a Giacometti sculpture, stretched long and lean and somewhat scary as the bones peer through, reminding me of The Who is Afraid of the Viriginia Woolf’s scene where very affectation is torn away to reveal perhaps “the horror, the horror”, the bareness, the skinny naked self when all the illusions cannot cover the thing/you itself/yourself.

Other times I reflected instead that the illusions we wrap ourselves in become who were really are, more garments of compassion and care : MORE layers we add to that core to flesh out the essence of ourselves and insight like heavy weights that slow us into more thoughtful moves and considerations. The thoughts and insights we glean or are offered by others that add to our understanding of human nature. Like my elder daughter’s or mother’s admonishments that now make me think before I speak thoughtlessly.

I suppose in the end, it hardly matters . We are, we act, we behave and people we love accept , restrict , remonstrate and usually forgive us and we try all again, all Sysiphusians attempting to get up that damn hill, only to fall back. Trying to balance the good , the bad and the ugly every day. Sensitive, joyful, accepting, pondering: the scheme of things

Sensitivity

As my mother grew older, she seemed less invested in some of her former feelings towards people or issues; this new attitude surprised me. She might shrug her shoulders, glance away and let a grievance dissipate. Formerly, and like me, she would hold on to an upset, a slight, and strongly express bitterness, and hurt. And like me, her skin was thin, and the hurt sustained, painful, festering, was not allowed to be released for some time. Whether slow encroaching dementia or just not truly caring about world wariness, I’m not sure. She just seemed to let it go.

I always felt I shared that aspect of her character, sensitive beyond necessity, experiencing the slings and arrows of life way too intensely. In fact, my father’s attitude towards me often shouted, “ Don’t be so sensitive, Pat,” as if being sensitive was reprehensible, like smelly socks not to be exhibited in public places.

But unlike her insouciance, I developed a façade of cynicism and aloofness to battle what was seething inside. Perhaps this defence system began at Forest Hill where not being one of the sheep and demonstrating individuality was a cause for ostracism. Today I might be diagnosed with social anxiety as my discomfort in groups and an inability to converse would be treatable with Paxil. But this inner shyness lead me to pretend I was invisible, particularly later in life at cocktail parties and gatherings, that way insulating myself from pain: silent wallpaper to the tittering groups who laughed and intermingled with delightful ease in the twinkling of wine glasses.

I always desired that I might go to the camps that the rich kids attended in my area. Our summer aways were car excursions, drives to some place for a week and less: what felt like a trip there and then a turn around, a stop for a historical monument or nature reserve, an overnight stay at a Howard Johnson’s hotel and if I was really lucky, a magazine at the check out : the purchase of a Calling All Girls or Jack and Jill magazine.

Many memories are overwhelmed by the smell of vomit as my sister was a poor traveller and the tedium of sitting in the car for hours. So I lusted for those summer camps, imagining they would do for me what the slipper did for Cinderella and I would become the beautiful star of the golden pumpkin, exchanging bon mots with all the other lovely ladies.

As an elementary school student my parents agreed to send me to Mr. Salmon’s ( he was the principal at West Prep in the 50’s) camp. Even then I must have fantasized that camp was a magical place. My mother arranged for two of my cousins to attend with me so I would not be alone. What I remember is this: because I loved pistachios, my parents on visiting day showered me with several pounds of the salty crunchy green treats. But the rule – and I always followed rules- was that we had to share our goods with others. So I turned my luscious pistachios into the camp office and received only three shrivelled morsels. Yes, three single pistachios! Sharing did not displace my disappointment or feelings of stupidity of how I might have savoured those tiny nuts in secret.

But even at that age, I found that camp was no panacea .One of my cousins, Rima, had an incident with ketchup and demanded her parents immediately remove her from those two weeks of torment. With the exception of being put to bed with Nancy Drew stories in my head, I deemed camp all right, but no nirvana.

It was years later when camp again assumed the illusion of a golden holiday where even the nobodies in everyday life might became special, relaxed, happy and I imagined passing through the looking glass of camp that would transform me into a socially acceptable being, complete with manageable hair, no glasses and twirling skirts.

When I was old enough I applied for a summer job at one of the coveted camps. It should have been no surprise that I did not fit. One night as I pretended to sleep I overheard my co-counsellors trash my hair, my body, my behaviour. It was as if I were in attendance at my own funeral where the guests are not your friends but people who truly hate and ridicule you venomously, with such hatred that you feel yourself charred from top to toes.

Eyes tightly clenched, I did not bob up and face them eye to eye. Most likely they surmised that I was listening to every hurtful word, winking at one another and suppressing their laughter. For me, the unraveling of me seemed to continue for hours. Nor did I confront them the next day. I merely plodded on. Every detail that I had tried so hard to make conform had been torched, observed and found wanting in their privileged midst and I would always be the outsider, not a belonger or part of the circle where talk is easy and smiles that glaze over you further amplify your self-confidence.

It was a contest of endurance that summer and although I found other outlets, even the head of the division suggested that perhaps I might prefer the sister camp for disabled kids the next summer.. One campfire night as the cool guy from London strummed his guitar, crooning from the Beatles, “Do you need anybody…?” I loudly and emphatically proclaimed, NO! The camp I had l imagined was certainly not my life raft. Did I hear a giggle close by?

A normal person might have just let the camp incidents go, but they seared my soul, branding me to myself as an outcast. I don’t think I would have gone on line as Amanda Todd did, but the feelings of rejection certainly stayed with me and coloured my actions and interactions with others for some time after. The bullying I received was not outright, subtler: the kind dropped on the naive with looks, smirks and condemnation.

The obsessiveness of my thoughts and the label, particularly from my father of sensitivity seemed to damn me further in my inability to approach or make friends and interact with others. Where I was a slightly shy toddler and friendly little girl, my experiences at school pushed me towards the edge of loneliness so that the discovery of another little girl in the lane next door to my house stood in as a convenient prop to walk with to school so at least I might appear to have a friend, even as she was as ostracized as I.

As I write this I reflect I am again making too much of this, being too sensitive, that perhaps it is only in memory that I felt myself so alone, for I can easily picture myself as a little girl fairly content, involved in art classes, going to the show on Saturdays with my cousins, hanging out with them, being my parents’ daughter. Perhaps too I am overlaying this blog with too much “ sensitivity” , standing back as an adult and sifting through moments that have arisen to enable me to review my years growing up. What do I make of the image of myself as a little girl curled up on the sofa, always troubling with a scab, quiet, not really withdrawn, but quiet and introspective. Or in the blurry photo posed with my only tall and gawky friend in the back lane?

As we recreate these narratives, as we try to piece together who we were, the fiction grows and entwines us with some truths, some imagined , some pure fabrications. Without documenting how we actually felt at a particular moment, we cannot remember every event  or thought,only conjecture the event with what we think we might have felt. Yet I do strongly remember the pistachios and the girls in my cabin. But those were single incidents, not the overall symphony of my life.And in the midst of this, my mother, too, making wise suggestions or planning events to help integrate me into groups. A not always perfect person but an insightful support who tried to smooth out the  awkwardness of growing up.

When I think of my life at this standpoint, I can see in context the rollercoaster ride of adolescent angst, one that thankfully eventually passes as you begin to comprehend the mentality of the herd, the gift of sensitivity that allows you to see deeply and intensely, and light your way to relationships of meaning. The hard part is getting past those teenage years, waiting them out and learning to accept yourself, and discover how your special qualities work or do not work with others, re-evaluating what you once believed important. As Emerson and many others once said, “ Know thyself’- even if it takes years to do so.

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

Last year, like this one, the winter was particularly ” brutal” : actually the word most people used, but eventually spring arrived. As my husband was preparing planting beds, I walked out to pick up a few things for supper. Outside of Havergal ( a private girls’ school), I notice coloured hot pink chalk markings and it looks as if someone was or practicing their Latin. I stopped and chortled for some things never change. The clever person had scribed : Semper ubi sub ubi. And for you non-Latin types, I translate,‘”Always wear underwear. “ Good advice, No? I laugh out loud.

I am catapaulted back to Grade 11 and the Latin class with the teacher nicknamed The Whip. To my surprise, I loved learning latin. It was a game as we were taught the declinations: agricola, agricolae, agricolae, agricolam, agricola, agricola: each responding to a specific placing in the syntax of a sentence, much like our parts of speech. There was a predictability to the placement of these words, somehow for me, a logic and a game of placing the puzzle parts in a particular order.

Perhaps too, I liked Latin because I was the president of the Latin class. Likely a position no one else wanted, but one I actually won in a class election. All that meant was that when or if the teacher was late or drawn away from class, I would run the show, and because I was very good at Latin, I had garnered some respect from the others.

I also appreciated the tactics of The Whip ( who later ditched teaching and went on to law school, clever woman). In several seconds, she could slice and dice through a student’s pretense of having prepared a homework assignment and reduce to tears even the most popular or haughty classmate. Strangely although. I admired this talent in latin I might have been the hapless victim in say, math or Chemistry.

Yet in this class, I guess I was experiencing Schaudenfraude where one enjoys the pain of another, and not because I could empathize but because I so loved to see one of the Forest Hill aristocracy, often the object of even fawning simpering, sycophantic teachers brought low with a few crackling brushes of The Whip’s sharp and non-emotional tongue lashings.
Did I imagine a wink at me from under her Boston brown haircut and no nonsense piercing eyes? Not likely.

As I surveyed the words on the sidewalk, I wondered if the girls at the school were also taught by someone whose mind was as razorsharp as The Whip’s and did she make even the dull-eyed, lacklustre types like myself feel they could shine.

Reading Vogue this month, an article by Hilary Clinton caught my eye. It was the same paperthin stuff one expects but then a story about her mother, Dorothy , perked my interest. Dorothy Clinton had a very difficult upbringing , raised by a hard grandmother, leaving home at age 14 to work as a nanny, etc. Hilary asked her mother how she had managed to maintain a positive outlook and her mother replied that small acts of kindness had enlivened her soul and given her hope.These were small acts, but kindly ones: when her employer noticed that Dorothy’s one shirt was washed nightly, the employer demurred that she had bought a shirt that was too small for herself and would Dorothy like it? Generous and thoughtful, people had saved Dorothy’s pride through offerings that might appear insignificant but were intensely meaningful to the young woman.

Was it an act of kindness the The Whip bestowed on me, treating me with respect and throwing the occasional smile my way when others received such scowling looks that could scorch any composed exterior?

We think of random acts of kindness that occur daily. I hold in my mind, a trip to Eilat in Israel when my foot caught in a crack along the waterfront and I tripped, falling so hard that I feared my arm was broken. My husband who did not notice I was no longer at his side , was many strides ahead, while I, stunned, lay flat out on the uneven ancient pavement. Although people gathered to help me up, one woman, pulled my skirt down that had flown up over my exposed panties.

I don’t think she was offended by the sight , but rather considered my humiliation as being laid flat and on public display and splayed, momentarily stunned and helpless. Although the arm took months of physiotherapy, my focus is on that one small act of covering my embarrassment. I remember a light hand, in a second of anonymous movement and my embarrassment was made less so.

The event also made me more intensely aware of how my father must have felt when his crutches lurched from his control and he fell, laid prone. He refused the help of others, insisting on somehow making himself erect. Only my mother might help him. For him, besides pride, I think it had to do with the concept of being a man who managed –even walking – for himself.

Jews say the best way to give is anonymously : that way the recipient does not feel indebted.I think that is wise and thoughtful. Not a huge granite cornerstone where we can murmur homage, what a good soul that was to donate…although many gifts are given in the pure spirit of giving, name or no name.. And like the unselfconscious act of Dorothy’s employer and the woman who pulled my dress back down, we so appreciate the thoughtfulness shown to us when most needed.

Make new friends

Make new friends but keep the old
One is silver, the other gold

Long ago I learned this little ditty. Maybe it was from Miss Alice at Dingdong School Days, one of the only children’s televisionshows available so many years ago. Along with the Story of Babar, The Little Train that Could and the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, this particular chant has lodged itself in my head from childhood.

Friends feel so important to us. They provide us with a mirror so that we like ourselves better. They can be supportive, helpful but also destructive. Today with an emphasis on social media, fitting in, team and collaborative work, friends often substitute for family or rather, become our new families.

Let’s face it: no one loves their families 100% of the time. My mother would resentfully quote my Auntie Marion (who might close the door of her house in your face if you had not called first), “You can choose your friends but not your family”. Marion would pontificate and my mother would fume.

But it is true. However, over the years, when friends like seasons have changed, the enduring faces by your side are most likely your family’s. Like them or not.

No surprise that I had limited friends as a child. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, I did not belong to the country clubs, synagogues or in-groups where the girls with pearls and poodles on flaring skirts resided. Next door to me was a girl named Helena. We played together because we were ostracized by the others and it was convenient to have a friend who lived next door, especially one whose father was the owner of a drugstore where you could sit for hours undisturbed and devour the latest comic books and maybe be treated to an additional coke or bag of chips.

Helena was gawky, a good-hearted girl with raging untamable hair. But I don’t think we liked each other much. I recall one day making fun of her Hebrew name, Henya, laughing because the name reminded me of a horse’s laugh. She was nicknamed “giraffe” by the malevolent kids at West Prep Elementary because she was tall. In one of my less kindly moments, I too used her hated moniker that so upset her and she shot back at me by saying, “Well, your name ( in Hebrew) is Pessy” and she pointed between her legs to suggest…well, you know what she was saying. I felt betrayed, angry and decided no real friend would ever make such a horrible connection.

We trudged back and forth to school together for years and into high school, social outcasts. My mother suggested we join B’nai B’rith, a social organization for Jewish kids so Helena and I could spread our social circle. We did, and so we had a Saturday night outlet where we might meet boys from other Toronto schools such as Bathurst Heights or McKenzie. We hung together because of convenience, arguing, competing, at least having one friend each, just because it was easy and we had each other: both misfits from the popular crowd.

But in Grade 12, a miraculous thing occurred. One of the semi-popular girls, actually a prefect from high school, Sara began to talk to me. She was in my English class and I was a very good writer, and an acknowledged first rate student with serious thoughts to contribute to the teacher’s probing on books. I was occasionally asked to read my compositions, as they were then called, outloud to the class.

In spite of a quaking trembling, unsure voice, something in my story touched Sara( names have been changed) and she felt I might be worth knowing. I even recall the story that connected us and it concerned a handicapped boy, ostracized and resentful of his peers. He drags himself to a hill overlooking school and crushes bugs with a St. Christopher metal, obviously based on my myself, my father and his polio, however,the cruel remarks of the teacher, a Mr. Meeson, who announced that the reading of it did not do it justice seared and further embarrassed me. Yet Sara was undeterred.

So began a real friendship of sharing ideas, sitting outside school on the grass in the sun, and really talking about what mattered to us. I began to understand what it meant to have a friend: and it was worth much more than a free bag of fritos.

Bahtkin has written about dialectics and how we build conversations, listening to one another, as if creating the levels of a tower, joyously zigging and zagging upwards as we listen and add to our conversations as they grow sideways, broadening and deepening the topics that are brightened and made meaningful by the extensions added and queried. I felt valued, treasured as a friend. It made my heart soar. Our conversations opened up a new world; Sara’s experiences different, expanding my own.

I recall feeling that my parents were not fond of Sara and certainly her parents would not have chosen me as a confidant of their daughter, she, a prefect, top student at FHCI; me, a nobody who lived at the edge of the school’s boundary. Although I cannot fathom now what it actually was that made our choice unpalatable to both of our parents, I imagine it began because of difference in class, and later because of parent resentment : that too much time, too much kept from the scrutiny of parental eyes; fear that one’s offspring is being lead towards places and influences unacceptable or challenging to parental authority.

Maybe we did spend too much time together, confiding secrets, dreams and desires in one another too much, chortling and gossiping as teenage girls do when they feel they are insiders, parents the outsiders, to a new and magical world. Who knows? When I spent a summer in California a year before, American parents seemed to care little as their offspring like roving beachcombers checked in rarely, off day and night to do as they pleased, to watch sunrises, conglomerate at the shore at all hours,to just hang. Parents were blurry markers on a dim hillside, their voices far and intertwined in their own issues.

At university Sara introduced me to her other friends, friends from fancy camps where rich kids go every summer; we took family car trips to Florida that at least got us out of the city and allowed my father a chance to drive the cars he loved.

Of all of Sara’s friends, I was drawn to Catherine. She seemed the more introverted, deep and unapproachable. I was being permitted to enter into the holy binds of a friendship club where The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery was our mantra. I concurred as the little prince did, that what is essential is invisible to the eye: that only with the heart, does one see correctly.

In the social realm as well, life had improved although I would never understand why the taming of my own wild hair and the discrete application of eyeliner would open a whole new world for me, how fellows who had passed me in the hall with ridicule in high school, would now awaken to see me with new eyes. At university, they would literally beg for a date. It was my greatest thrill to permit them to take me for an expensive dinner and then I would dump them: retaliating for my former treatment in high school. “ What? You went to Forest Hill?”, they would intone in absolute surprise. I merely batted my newly-mascaraed eyelashes, smiled my rueful smile and refused to speak to them ever again.

How was it possible that they could not see I was the same person as in those dull high school years, only now better packaged? I proceeded to add their names to a long list of those dated and dispatched: A for Alan and Arnold, Alex; B is for Bob J, Bob C, Bill… It became a way to fall soundly asleep, counting the boys I had refused a second date.

But having girl-friends was like warming oneself in the glow of a fire. Every Friday noon, my friends and I would dash to hold court at The Coffee Mill, on Yorkville at the edge of U of T’s campus, delightedly languishing over lunches and coffee. And one incredible year, my friends treated me to celebrate my birthday in a cosy corner at the Benvenuto restaurant. I can still taste the incredible onion soup, softly candle lit, a welcoming banquette but more so, the comfort of acceptance, love and reassurance of being surrounded by people who not only “get you” but share the same appreciation of books and art. You are the marshmallow in the hot chocolate and you want that experience to last forever, feeling more of yourself to be amplified and made better by those surrounding you.

But life changes, people may grow apart and so did all of us.

Today I have accumulated new friends, easily. From my Pilates class, there is Julie and Ralph whose various interests and travel have lead us into new areas of exploration. Their excitement for travelling to Africa, especially the gorillas in Ruanda, triggered our own safaris to Botswana and South Africa. Previously I taught about Africa , but never dreamed that I would ever go there. Their excursions made me pursue it as a reality.

And Bailey approached me in a painting class. Still unspeaking, introverted, I did not reach out to her and yet, somehow we connected. We share similar conflicts and her comprehension and support have overwhelmed me.

Sandra is my mentor. She has children maybe 10 years younger than me, but her intelligence in knitting, sewing and quilting have resulted in out trips to Haliburton to further pursue our craft interests. I see her as a Renaissance woman, wise in areas beyond the crafts, thoughtful and interesting. She is also a business woman.

Andrea is a former teacher with whom I once taught, our relationship surviving where others did not. We spend more time together than when we were colleagues.Her insight and friendship substantiate one of the most important corner stones in my life.

Emma and I share a love of art history and interest in medical issues. We both love figure drawing.

Lately Mandy introduced me to the lunchtime concerts at the Richard Bradshaw where I am transported and opened to a new level of musical magic. We lunch over at the AGO and talk for hours.

Laurel from my old work position offers me new work opportunities. She made me feel valuable as a capable employee and a friend with whom I can enjoy a leisurely and long discussion at a professional level.

There are others too, and I think we add to each others’ lives in diverse and intriguing ways.

When my mother passed away, I heard from two former friends and to thank them , I arranged lunch. Careful not to revisit reasons for the parting of ways, we sat for an hour or so, reconnected, relaxed and I could recall why our relationships had endured for years. But interestingly after the lunches, neither former friend nor I hurried to set up another meeting. It was pleasant, a lovely sojourn but unlike the meetings with present friends, I ( and they, obviosuly) did not burn- as in the old days to see one other again.

Maybe people grow and harden into the people they always were meant to be, in spite of accruing experiences: children, parental issues, spousal upheavals and work situations.

Life is flux, change, adaptability, sadness and occasional moments of happiness. Even if our first friends do not last, we carry with us the memories of those encounters, and we treasure them as we move on.

Remembering My Mother

Today my friend said to me, “You are going to be haunted by your mother”. And she smiled. She meant a good haunting. She recalled how her own mother had left her a treasure of a loving letter and her eyes filled with tears. This woman is a relatively new friend, of say, 5 years or so, so I was touched by her quiet and personal words.

Almost immediately after my mother died, I realized I would feel differently about the loss of each of my parents. With my father, more than twenty years ago, I longed to live among the happy memoires I held of him, but when I did, it made the wound much worse. With my mother, it has been a constant ache, thinking I’ll pick up the phone and tell her something that might make her laugh. I forget that she is no longer here.

That is the problem with being haunted: it hurts. It hurts because you miss someone you have truly loved and there is pain that only through memories you will see or feel close to them. Without the actual presence of a body that will respond or absorb your interactions, your thoughts float, not attaching themselves to the one to whom you have directed them.

In the days after her death I put together a eulogy that might capture her for the sake of her funeral. They were “outside” words because how do you explain what the lift of an eyebrow, a smile or a warming arm around your shoulders really means? The other words are in my heart as I think of her constantly.

Here is the eulogy I gave at my mother’s funeral. It was a difficult speech but one that I believed honoured her and her memory:

I have wrestled with the idea of speaking to you today because if you knew my mother, you would know what a particularly private person she was. She never boasted or pretended an upper hand. She kept her thoughts to herself.

However, Howard has encouraged me to share with you some thoughts and my cousin Elaine Levine wrote “that Eve ( my mother) was the family historian, and the truth teller. So I have decided to tell some of my truths about my mother.

But first, let me say this: these are my truths and every person on earth is sweet, sour, kind, harsh, simple, and complicated –so much more than mere words can impart. It has often been said that words can illuminate as well as obscure.

My mother began her life as Chava. She came from Poland at age 5 with her mother Layal, sister Sura (Toby) and an Aunt, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She had once described to me an interrupted picnic in Poland that ended with her father scooping her in his arms as he ran from Cossacks on their horses. She adored her father Joe and in my mind’s eye I can see them in our living room waltzing , him humming a song.

Her comfortable life of fur coats and dolls In Poland was transformed when she landed here. Like the displaced writer,Eva Hoffman, in Lost in Translation, she was given a new name she never liked, Eva, She preferred to be called Eve,. She was often chased by children screaming “ Green horn, tin horn, popcorn, five cents apiece”. Yet the buoyancy, the ability to overcome was already evident and she would tell us that she would climb to the highest rooftops on Markham Street and sing – in a voice that caused a radio show producer to go to her mother and ask permission to put her on air. My grandmother said No.

Not only could she sing, she exceled in many areas, but these were not the best of times for girls to be allowed to prove their excellence. Throughout her life, my mother regretted her lost opportunities.

On a moonlit cruise, she met my father and as he laid eyes on this lithe lovely 18 year old, he determined he would marry her and he did. Until the day he died, he adored her.

Their life began well but when he contracted polio, she once again, became the force that had to overcome and subsume her own ambitions. He was in the isolation ward in Riverdale hospital for 9 long months. They did not know if he would survive. Every day, by bus, she would deposit me on Atlas at my grandmother’s and then head out to visit him, admonished by her stern mother not to stop either way.

Her aim was to make our lives as normal as possible. She carried my father’s heavy tools to the car, she a mere 100 or so pounds. She sat alone at night, fearing he had fallen in the snow- and sometimes he had. She was partner, bookkeeper, cleaner, store manager, cook, but always treasured mother… My first words through the store door after school were, “Mummy…?” and she would always appear with a smile to greet me.

My sister once confessed that she thought my mother a princess . My thoughts of her were more utilitarian. I thought of her in neat shirtwaists, as she bounced downtown by bus every Tuesday morning to Eaton’s College. She smoothed out the corners of our life, even ensuring ballet, art, piano, and Hebrew lessons at the cost of a new winter coat for herself. She never complained. And at lunch time, we would fish for nickels and dimes from her worn red wallet that my father had made her in the hospital She held us all together.

I had no complaints, imagining that our home behind our store was equal to any mansion in Forest Hill.

There was little time for her. Her attempts to put a cake in the oven were always interrupted by a customer coming into our store, staying too long: those cakes raw or burnt.

But Fridays even before they moved to Alamosa Drive, she managed to create the perfect fricassee that complimented a perfectly roasted chicken. The smells of those dishes permeated our small living space for days. And before vacations, she would jump from bed before we all rose, make the chicken and wrap it in a blanket to keep it warm. We would stop roadside to devour the carrots and potatoes soaked in Heinz tomatoe sauce, cooked along with the chicken. It was yum. And on my birthdays she insisted on having her entire family over, this time a turkey and a cake from Patisserie Francoise. I resented sharing her-and my special meal-with her relatives that only appeared for suppers. In the evenings, she sank into bed, exhausted.

Life is so much more than chicken and fricassee. With my father, she created a home of love where music mattered, where my parents supported and encouraged my sister’s genius in piano and were so very, very proud of our accomplishments. It was a home where honesty and ethics were the driving force behind every single decision. Above all else, you had to tell the truth and behave like a mensch. I have always wanted to emulate my mother’s child rearing model.

Life changes . My mother told me that when my father passed away she cried so much, there were no tears left. She continued to miss him intensely. She said that in 1996 when she was hit by a car, she had heard his voice telling her to get out of the way, thus, saving her life.

As years passed,my mother’s constant running, moving, bouncing, constant motion was stripped away and she resented her lack of mobility.

But on Saturday at Tim’s ( Horton), I found her an affable companion. As always, I could confide anything to her and she would safeguard my secrets. Most times we were girlfriends, gossiping and sharing stories. She was my support in the worst of times as I drew deeply on her strength and wisdom.

At first, her needs were few: a supportive arm, a smiling face, a welcoming bed. She insisted on staying in her own apartment and controlling her life as much as she could. Even at the very end, as the world became increasingly circumscribed by the inability to walk, her fragility and the need for caregivers, she made her own decisions, not pleased by our objections.

What can you say about a life whose cornerstone is love and caring? Whose husband and children, grandchildren and great children value and understand that you are the tree from which they have sprouted.

Erich Fromm once said of a mother’s love, “The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.”

I believe my beautiful, wise, brave and intelligent mother did that for Wendy and myself.

My truths and memories now belong to all of you along with your own.
Thank you.

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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