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Reunion

Last night my California cousins breezed into town. Leaving the raging fires behind, their arrival heralded our first serious snowfall as they continue on their way to treacherous Jerusalem for a family celebration. We gathered at my sister’s for the visit. Good souls that they are, my cousins reconnected with relatives, the last surviving of their ( and my mother’s )family: one past 90 in a hospital, the other close to 90 as spry and interesting as she always was, barely a year ago setting off by herself to India. I always figured because she was French, she had a lot of style- and obviously longevity . And actually Berthe is family by marriage, and she has the edge. Still it is wonderful to hear that people of her generation are mentally and physically alert, vital and engaged. Gives one hope.

When we get together with the cousins who departed for warmer climes when I was 10, whether here or in California, our shared past inevitably comes up, but interestingly new stories are often added: or perhaps I’ve forgotten them- such as actually knowing that my eldest cousin accompanied my grandfather to the theatres where he designed the stencils for their walls. Maybe I knew, but forgot, that beside the swing in their house on Atlas south of Eglinton, there were troves of paint. I certainly remember Buddy the dog. And maybe even, I had heard about the pizza delivery man passing the forbidden treat to nephew and uncle through the basement window to avoid my grandmother’s detection. I guffaw to recall that my grandfather actually tasted and enjoyed shrimp, a most unkosher delight.

I recall to my other cousin the terrible purple and black check coat and beret type hat complete with hideous pompon that I loathed to wear to school, trudging resentfully in my cousin’s handmedowns to WestPrep. And perhaps that was the reason I vented my misery on my younger sister whom my mother finally agreed to allow walk herself to school so I wouldn’t use a scarf to lasso her around her head, and drag her here and there on that perilous journey. As I sit here maybe 60 some years later, I can feel the anger in my body of having to shepherd my sib in that ridiculous clown coat. I suppose even then, I was aware of the importance of pretty clothes uplifting the spirit.

We review our shared past, the stories distorted or believed true by individual members of the family. We laugh, shake our heads at the incongruity of the narratives my cousins are privy to during this brief stay. In our postmodern world we now realize that each storyteller believes his or her perspective of abuse, inequalities or slights to be the correct one, their particular bias informing their view on familial relations.We chortle at the realignments that we think bear no resemblance to the ones we have grown up and old on. Still we laugh, open- mouthed at a tall tale about an apartment building.

My sister produces some of my mother’s old photographs: first husbands and wives are recalled, and we debate who the little boy might be held by the neck by our grandmother in a shapely brocade dress and hat with a veil in a formal bar mitzvah picture, but even the names of Uncle Abe( who lost a leg when it was run over on a Brooklyn Bridge), and his second wife Ethel do not shed light. For the very first time I see Uncle Marks who came first from Europe, went to Boston and became a senator, his wide white moustache suggesting a bandito. I mention the family star, a second or maybe third cousin, definitely removed😜,Howard Shore, international musician, composer of numerous films scores, but he is discussed without surprise or envy, just another relation, son of Bernice and Mac , sister to Frances, Thelma, Irving and Sylvia. My sister contributes,” Terry just died”; who is Terry? I ponder. I recall my mother telling me Mac and Bernice started “ Gift’o’Fruit” so many, many years ago.

When the original family name is recalled, I explain that in fact, we are pronouncing it in correctly, for our explorations at Pier 21 to discover the true dates of our family’s arrival were futile. Futile until a Nova Scotian librarian activist produced a book that inventoried Jewish Polish names so that we could identify through the ship’s manifest the boat, the SS Amsterdam, our grandmother, mothers and aunt’s names and descriptions that had been tallied eloquently in fine penmanship. To this documentation, I remember my mother relating how painful the metal combs pulled through their hair were, digging deeply into scalp as the guards checked heads for lice. But as well, she would recall the red, red tulips they glimpsed at the port of Holland.

We note the number of cousins intermarrying in the shetl in Poland, responsible for the disease of “ the shakes” passed on even into this generation. We collectively shudder at what might still await us by this incestuous gene pool. Hopefully marrying beyond the village gates in Canada and the US has weakened the passage of such diseases.

But if the old or regenerated tales are the sand through we sift to find our common shells, we only begin in this way to rekindle the feeling we shared as energetic cousins thrown together because of blood, strange in a way because our mothers were not close at all. And yet the strong bonds developed as kids are real, we still wanting to be in each other’s lives. The famous stories of Sunday visits or Passover hoopla in the basement while grown ups droned on upstairs are legend, Allan the leader of the kids, commanding the battles between stuffed animals and rubber soldiers, the rest of us , rolling on the floor or jumping up on the bar. My visits to LA as a grade 10 student alone , changing trains in Chicago , with my lacquered hair and pink polyester pants newly purchased at Eatons ,still sharp in my head, and with the languid days roasting in a yellow pockadot two piece on Hermosa Beach, or riding on the backside of a motorcycle were the stuff of adolescent dreams, rescuing me from my dreary life where my existence of nose cosies, and shapeless winter wear dragged me down.

Best of all, we continue where we left off so many years ago. As we survey our wrinkles, curly hair, grasping one another close, we re view the past but also look forward to continuing our presence in one another’s lives. In an art review today a critic refers to Shari Boyle’s “ bridge art”, saying “[i]t’s work that identifies and reinforces our connections; ancestral legends, family histories, psychological landscapes, our struggles, fears and desires: The stuff of being human”( Chris Hampton, the Globe and Mail, December 14, 2017). These meetings with people we love and happen to be related to are like that, part of our personal tapestries bound by the the shared, lost and retrieved narratives- precious and binding ribbons. How lovely to be related to these treasured personalities.

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Generations

En route to visit daughter# 2 several months ago, we turned on Marc Maron’s WTF and listened to two interview/ conversations. One was with Ivan Reitman of Meatballs and Ghostbusters fame and the other was with David Bronner scion of a famous German-Jewish family whose soapmaking tradition began in 1858. Each man spoke about relationships with family. Most specifically father and sons.

Ivan’s son, Jason, went on to produce less funny films than his father such as Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking. In the conversation that highlighted Reitman’s early work with John Balushi Howard Shore ( actually a cousin on my mother’s side!), Martin Short and others, Ivan Reitman displayed a kind of humility and forthrightness about his directing career and what he suggested triggered Saturday Night Live’s emergence into comedy programming, My interest wasn’t so much on what Reitman said, but how he said it. Touching on a plethora of topics that eventually veered towards Jason, he displayed great affection and respect for his son, without being saccharine, or over the top. I flashed to a loving portrait I had seen the day previously at the AGO of the artist Henry Moore and his mother reading to him as he curled into her body. They were shown caught in a personal moment. No words, but the loving relationship was clear. Here in the podcast, it was the timbre of the words that responded to Maron’s questions and encouraged Reitman to carry on as long as he chose.

The second interview revealed that David Bronner ( whose “ magical” soaps are sold at Whole Foods) great grandfather who had had visions and was even locked away in a mental institution. On his soaps’ wrappings were printed such thoughts as “If I am not for myself, who am I for?”, from Rabbi Hillel as well as other messages to promote self-reflection into unity, collaboration and world peace. The soap business passed to David ‘s father and uncle who appeared to have followed a more conventional style of soap wrapper. Eventually David who had scorned any previous links to the business, took over: working for a year with his father who eventually passed away.

Here the conversation came alive as David Bronner presented his own mission: to wrestle from Monsanto harmful agents, and to work towards foods that are not genetically -altered as an impetus to maintain a healthier environment. He even sowed actual seeds on the White House lawn. David obviously hoping to garner attention to his causes, locked himself in a metal cage outside the White House, protesting the illegality of growing hemp, one of his soap’s main ingredients. The mantle had been passed to the grandson from his father, grandfather and great grandfather into this generation.

Bronner seems to have almost unconsciously inculcated the visionary spirit of his ancestors: towards improving the world. He spoke with such passion, explaining that only enough money to run the company is taken out and additional profits go towards charities. I was reminded of Albert Barnes, American physician, chemist, businessman, art collector, writer, educator, and founder of the company that produced Argyrol : silver nitrate antiseptic solution for the treatment of gonorrhea and a preventative of gonorrhea blindness in newborn infants. Philosophically, Barnes believed in profit-sharing with his workers and promoting diversity. His collection of mainly Impressionist art at the Barnes Collection ( a must-see for all art aficionados) is housed in Philadelphia. Mentored by John Dewey, Barnes was considered a rebel.

Both the Reitman and Bronner families had escaped oppressive regimes, Russians in Czechoslovakia, and Nazis in Austria, risking everything when they arrived in their new countries of Canada and the U.S. Perhaps having lost family or striving to establish themselves in foreign places had refocused parental energy towards demonstrating love and relationships in tangible ways, proving to their children that values live in people, not places. By the way, on September 8, the day before 2010 TIFF opened, Ivan Reitman and his sisters christened Reitman Square, the new headquarters of the Toronto festival’s year round administration on the property left to them by their own parents. Rather than parents being just a footnote or a passing comment, the interviewees revealed a real connection to the driving forces of their forbearers, paying more than just lip service.

As a parent and grandparent myself, I segued into how I and my husband will be remembered: hopefully more than our son’s lament that he was stashed with friends on his 5th birthday and pushed down hills because we were at work; or anger at being forced to share a bologna sandwich with his sisters. Hopefully it will be a memory of a trip where he consumed a delicious pizza outside Rome in an ancient castle aptly called Il Castello. Will he recall Howard and me dressed as maid and butler serving his friends at a celebratory lobster dinner for him , all of us consumed with laughter at each courteous course.

Maybe it will be our daughter’s birthday in Montebuono during Howard’s sabbatical; or perhaps a family boat cruise to Rio or watching the Cubs in Chicago all together. Maybe it will be revisiting our faces charged with pride and happiness at a graduation here or away; or Howard’s chaperoning the CCOC to Salt Spring Island. More likely it will be a resurgence of annoyance at the overwhelming deluge of toys loving bestowed to grandkids on my birthdays that riled my children into suppressing anger; or the “horrid” bulgur chicken or “healthy” spaghetti served to them as children. I hope it will be a mixture of some things good at least.

As the years go by, I actively try and make those moments with my own parents resurface, recalling more of myself; and with myself, them. Like buds from trees, we are parts of a whole, that continue to bloom and carry on, even when the branches have withered .

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