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An evening of civility

Just when you fear that life has been overrun with madness and the forces of evil intend to swoop down and crush life from all things, destroying the magic of possibility, you are included in a supper of celebration for a very special woman who will now head up an important professional group. You, a gloomy Gus, by nature, are given a reprieve and can re-imagine places of civility, rationality and good conversation that can wipe out the blackness of everyday events.

So I found myself in the backyard of a house on Roxborough, led through rooms where stained glass stands in for walls and into a garden so wildly tamed that pasteled lilies barely contained by strings are easily 12 inches across; and birds and bees feel so totally at home, that their presence feels natural in mid-town Toronto.

I am the “wife” of one of the invitees, an added presence requested by the lady herself. Perhaps because we have briefly discussed William Blake and Mary Pratt, or more likely as a thoughtfulness to my husband, I have been included in this evening. Unlike many gatherings for this profession, I am anticipating this one so I can see this woman again. From my perspective, I believe she is the right person to head the group although my knowledge of her to this juncture has been second hand. That she loves art and ballet, I believe, are a bonus. Not affected add-ons, she is as passionate as I am about the arts. I reflect that her commitment to her work will be likewise. I surmise that she is an authentic soul in whatever she takes on. I am drawn to her, and not just because of her rich laughter that is deep and full, but because of her humility, her humbleness. These are the qualities I adore.

The garden makes me think of Peter Pan and Wendy, and as the sun goes down, the twinkling candles might be Tinkerbell’s friends who have gathered near the table to cozily and quietly add sparkle. Talk at cocktails has encompassed those foibles of aging as we are all past our physical prime: memory loss, love of travel… One of the guests has recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with 12 others, decrying that it was not that tough. ( He is the baby of the group at barely 60. Ha!) He adds,” Of course we had 52 sherpas to cook us wonderful meals.” He chortles.

I try and remember the name of the park in Italy that plagued my falling asleep the night before. I try out “Bernini… Bulgari”, sensing they are not what I am searching for. When I tap my husband, interrupting his conversation, he immediately remembers, “ Borghese”. Ah, relief to find the word that fits that fuzzy space left wanting in my head. A friendly engaging guest describes how she has read that it is names that are the first to go and how embarrassing it is not to come up with the moniker that matches a familiar face.

Somehow I veer into the description of the chuppa that my husband and I designed for our son’s wedding, explaining we needlepointed from September to May and how the piece has travelled to New York and beyond. I laugh that its end may be at the bottom of a closet, the food of moths, but admitting it is a project I am glad we had undertaken, amazed that my husband would have laboured for hours with needle and wool in hand. But that is the trajectory of light conversation that encourages diverse topics that easily bounce from topic to topic.

At table that is nestled in front of a small pond and surrounded by trees and more beautifully encroaching flowers, the talk turns to legal politics- of Mike Dufy and his love child. The hostess produces the article in Macleans to substantiate the claim; then on to the provincial budget’s money for legal aid, veering towards stories of Montreal school days where one public school’s teachers were all Jewish refugees from WWII, to Quebec’s townships where flowered paths replaced roads, on to ordering dinner in Moosonee, to “ bare-naked’ postings on the internet. No one raises an eyebrow or scowls. We are no longer surprised, almost accepting of these lapses of adolescent judgment that occur before one realizes they are more than lapses, omissions because hormones rather than rational thought govern giggles.

One invitee tells of a soldier who confided his terror in a foxhole: fearing at 16, he would experience death before being laid. Another suggests that the author of Flanders Fields, John McCrae was gay. And still another offers that Harold MacMillian spent hours every night reading Aeschylus in Greek before he entered parliament each day: a quilt of varying textures, times and traumas.

The main discussion concerns WWI, Dieppe. One woman relates that some tombstones’ epitaphs read “ Know only to God”, tears arising from the corners of her eyes . A publisher reminds us of the veterans with lungs like jelly as no one considered that in gas warfare, the wind might change, and blow its deadly fumes into the faces of the Allied Forces. Another asks, ‘Guess who refused to allow Jewish graves to be destroyed?’ We are incredulous that sentiment is attributed to Adolf Hitler. But perhaps, it is reminiscent of the cache maintained in Prague where Hitler ordered the collection of 200,000 Jewish artifacts in his Museum of an Extinct Race. Still the narrative feels unlikely.

The publisher brings up Viet Nam and the trauma of returning home without the support of the general populace. But the talk returns yet again to World War I, the casualties, the deaths, the graveyards. I mention Pat Barker and her sensitive, human portrayal of the times, but perhaps I say it too quietly or more likely, the hearing of the group does not reach to my whispers. They are eagerly planning a service with an engaging speaker for Remembrance Day.

More loudly, I offer into the conversation Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and her description of the alarmed soldier befuddled on a bench back from war. They nod.

I tell them that when I taught Eli Weisel’s Night, the kids did not believe it was true. They are surprised, but the talk reverts to a reverie that concerns more days torn away by slaughter. I want to interject again that it is the future, the present of our protégées who must never forget. Even the books, historical retelling in novels of real events take on a mustiness, a fairytale quality that does not truly connect with our technology savvy youth whose truths live on screens – not in distant reality.

Some of the guests are over 80, memories much more vivid than mine and I admire the clearheadedness of their interchange. But it seems to me that we have veered into memory, not just for memory sake, certainly not for nostalgia and there is a desire beyond the words to keep those times alive. My mind flashes to Gaza and the Crimea, seething that nothing much ever changes, pondering the airplanes that will be downed, ever so many more lost boys and girls.

Yet, the evening is so still, so perfect as we sit wrapped in the darkening velvet of enchanting green foliage. The setting evokes for me other kinds of soirees, of salons where talk and poetry and politics have been eternally viewed through a veil of civility, concern and language,determined not to embellish or distort. Experiences, here this night, as morsels of ripe fruit are nibbled on, tasted, savoured, and presented to others for their consideration and consternation. All the while there is a palpable respect: for others, for words, for events that exist before us or in memory, both lived and shared.

A wonderful dinner concludes with pound cake, raspberries, blueberries, salted caramel and pistachio ice creams. When I discover the sudden stream of sugar on the cake, my senses light up, and I know I have been privileged to be among these thoughtful men and women.

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