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Around a Round Table

Years ago when I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, we talked about physical structures that resemble certain ideologies. For example, a tall skyscraper usually contained the office of the most important CEO : at the top with the best views that overlooked the city below. Lofty, in the sky, above, imposing: all associated with being at the tippy top of the ferris wheel . Similarly a circular seating arrangement where all sit equally around a table connotes co-operation, looking people directly in their eyes, not down on them. Collaboration versus coercion, perhaps.

Thinking about that shape reminded me of our dinner table when the kids were young. It was a loud and boisterous place, each one vying for their chance to be heard, to argue, to explain or expound on an idea, or just to relate the day’s happenings at school. It was raucous and understandably rather intimidating to their friends who might drop in for dinner, their heads swinging from speaker to speaker who had seized the moment to proclaim his or her views.

When I visited my cousins in Los Angeles some summers when I was young, there was no definite time for supper where we all gathered. We grabbed something from the frig, found a spot , often with friends or siblings and “hung out”. I delighted in munching bags of chips in my oldest cousin’s room, a cubbyhole at the front of the house, The Smothers Brothers a backdrop to our chats. It was “ cas(ual)”, no one requiring attendance at a particular time or spot. As a teenager, I didn’t mind as lessening of rules and protocols fit nicely with my explorations as a burgeoning adolescent.

One woman I knew had her kids in so many activities that supper time occurred in the car, driving around in circles, dropping off or picking up kids. The story followed that the children had to be awoken at 4 am to do their homework as the preponderance of after school enrichment classes left no time for formal eating. She reported that they ingested so much lettuce that their skin actually moved towards that sickly shade- until she augmented with carrots. Might I add this woman who was at the cutting edge of most trends was a bit!!!!compulsive and obsessive; but I suppose she felt a supper in the car with all the kids was better than not gathering them all together.

But for me, there is something wonderful about gathering at a table for a meal. Sitting at the table, exchanging thoughts, listening to one another, offering conjecture promotes thoughtful dialogue and teaches respect. Where else is there a place to share the problems of the day : that someone had gotten under your skin; or conversely, to express the excitement at learning a new skill: a recognition of a talent; help, support, an encouraging nod; or simply a smile. To sit quietly and observe the fleeting expressions that glaze over your children’s eyes or notice a new habit or meme. The table is a spot for observation and interaction and response to those you love as you push away the rigours of everyday work.

The rise of cooking shows suggests a return to delight in contemplating, preparing, sharing and consuming a meal with others. Although often focused on competitions such as in Chopped or Master Chef, the end result, nonetheless, is an edible treat composed and created for the pleasure of someone or self: in design and taste and texture. As well, the attention to foods that have been overlooked, forgotten or smothered in sauces is illuminating. Not to mention the attention given to expanding the knowledge of our taste buds as cultural accents and spices are infused to augment the routine into extraordinary.

When I was young and pregnant, I followed Adele Davis who was an early guru for healthy eating. Later, when I was married and entertained, I drew upon Julia Child’s recipes, especially her wondrous coco vin which required easily a day of finding the special required ingredients and preparing every element just so. Course upon course was created and balanced in accordance with the recipe and I recall being exhausted by the time the evening was done, but feeling triumphantly proud at the results. And usually the kitchen smells that laced our apartment prolonged the sensibilities of Saturday night guests. Great satisfaction for the cost, work and attention to detail!

At holidays or birthday celebrations, there is nothing so wonderful as the combined presence of family around a table set with my grandmother’s china and silver, bright flowers centring the chaos of children talking, eating, demonstrating the latest school song or dance routine in the midst of serving course number three or four. The food in a sense becomes redundant as the family sits together and communicates and gossips and jokes with one another, recalling for me the days of their childhood so many years ago. Grievances, laughter, squabbles all combine into the symphony where the food is only the backdrop, the occasion for purposefully coming together.It is no wonder that Joseph Campbell lauded the need for rituals that mark significant moments in our lives. Here too exists the paradox of the mundane establishing a corner stone for something greater than itself.

Although I must now always apologize for a not perfectly seasoned dish, a slightly askew pie, the bitterness of a vegetable, it matters little. The purpose has been served and I imagine all the dinners where lit by candlelight or electric light bulb, my relations also came together and conversed over a meal. As a child, I did not know that the meal was merely a prelude to play with my cousins whom I adored, especially the older boys who knew how to tumble and yell and avoid the scourge of parents and grandparents upstairs. We were forging pleasurable memories that lit up my childhood and dug  deep feelings of love for some of my cousins.

As a grandmother now, at my birthday table, I savour these moments with my children and grandchildren, wanting the feeling to last like chewing as long as possible on some delicious morsel so it will not disappear down my gullet. I want to take it all in, enlarge it and hold on to it tightly – as they all go their separate ways, only reuniting for a meal now and then.

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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.

 

No freedom on the freeways for me

“OH, she can do it. Just try”, they chirp at me. I look at their faces, frown and tell them for the umpteen time that I do not want to drive on freeways.

Again, these are the noises people make when they can do something and they want you to comprehend ( stupid) how terribly easy it is. “You only have to follow the signs. Really, It’s no big deal. Do it a few times and you’ll get it.”

Over the years I have driven only in the city. I have my routes and shortcuts, feeling quite in control, not worried about losing my way; however, I will not drive beyond the city because I worry that I will not know the entrances and exits and will lose my way. I chortle that I’m not much good in space .

I laugh and retort that I am spatially challenged, but it is that fear of losing my way, and like the old song, “Did (s)he ever return? No (s)he never returned… driving the streets of Boston …” that plays non-stop in my head.

This is no new phobia I harbour. Even as a girl, when it was necessary to choose between going right or left, I was pinioned at the centre of a dilemma. So I enjoyed wandering aimlessly, picking the flowers, traversing a new path,just moving at my own speed unencumbered by specific directions.

Yet I wanted to travel and in my early university years, more times than not, l’ld jump on a train, perhaps a destination in mind, perhaps not, hitchhiking on foot or boat throughout Europe, intrigued by the name or story of some location, meandering yet managing to arrive back home on the exact day planned: having seen paintings at the Rijskmuseum; rambling on the streets of Paris; checking out Checkpoint Charlie…These were the days that you could sojourn at a nunnery under a goose down quilt for $5.00 a night or barely spend $10 a day on hostels, food and transportation in Europe.

For me, it had been an added adventure, an extra bonus to veer off the usual followed paths, to discover in wandering, something new and unexpected. With time on my hands I could laze on a slow boat in Switzerland, drift on the Rhine, survey new environs, float, reflect, knowing I didn’t have to be anywhere at a specific time, cruise, snooze, relax. No pressure then, a girl by herself on the byways of someplace, rambling, stopping, discovering, not caught up in the worry of exiting at a particular sign and reaching a destination determined by a signpost along a particular route.

Years later, it is different. You must go from point A to Point B. It is not so much a ramble but a connect between locations-which might be fine; however, freeways do not work that way. Often, it is confusing when the signpost suddenly appears and you are stuck in the wrong lane, cars between you and the offramp impossible to traverse, you must remain on the freeway, no longer free.

Worse yet are the interlocking freeways from which you cannot escape to correct your error. Often when you have erred, you can take the next exit and circle back, but on freeways there is no such opportunity for second pondering thoughts. If you drive, you better know where you are going, the freeways proclaim because there will be no offramp for you for at least 20 miles and you may just arrived in Pasadena .After the rose parade. OMG.

In San Diego, they circle round and boom! You are on another freeway taking you off into a new direction. I see the signpost for Los Angeles and wonder should I get there, will my cousins be home and will they drive me back to the apartment in San Diego? Could they attach a bungee cord from their car to mine and lead me back? Maybe I should just ditch the car and find a bus? But in the meantime, I’m stuck on the freeway and the approaching exits are not venues to an end, but the beginnings of other journeys to other places, all circling back to alien destinations. Trying to correct your mistake and identify your destination becomes an exercise of frustration as you watch your destination recede further and further.

“But it’s easy, “they continue to tell you. “You’ll get used to it. “He whispers, “ She panics”. But truthfully ,I don’t panic, I am filled with anxiety : of being lost and not knowing how to get home. I know my limits and I can walk to the nearby mall filled with colourful stores and I can even drive locally for miles to other areas and remember the sequence of streets and end up where I intended to go, but freeways are an entirely different matter.

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