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Summer Jaunts

My son writes from Chicago, describing the activities of his family on one of their first summer trips with their young sons. I read with relish about the foam pit, exploring museums of technology and science, the planetarium, doing selfies at the shiny bean in Millennial Park, boat cruises on the historic river cruise, Beethoven in the park( no doubt in that wonderful, Gehry structure that resembles kettle drums askew), an eyepopping Broadway production of Aladdin with a real flying carpet. Even a few lines in an email crunched after an exhausting day and random photos extend the enthusiasm and joy of the family. I feel their excitement.

I’m reminded of the forays we took with our kids and try to recall the first. Was it to Boston and Tangelwood , lounging on the grass, listening to the Boston pops, and was there a star performer? I reflect that it was likely the same time we confused Sturbridge and Stockbridge, our plan to visit the historical children’s village nearby. I ponder, Was that the same time we also spent happy hours engaged at the kids science museum in Boston? I have memories of an entrance all shiny and metallic. Funny how time clouds it all. 

As a girl in the summers in Toronto, I’ld volunteer at the day camp at my school, a loose tangle of kids with nothing much to do, the rich kids all ready away in Muskokoa, but at least a handful of us organized to keep us outside in the sun and away from our homes.But for two weeks or less, usually, mid or late July , my parents would take us out of the city, usually sweaty and breathless car jaunts that we could afford, more I believe for the sense of freedom my father felt as he drove the open road, the equal of all drivers on a quest. He searched for trains, science museums, antique cars- hardly of interest to me, but fascinating to him. No tripadvisor then, just paper maps, free from the gas station, used to consult for highway routes.

I was bored, trapped in the car with my sister who was occasionally carsick and puked. We stayed at Howard Johnsons then, believed to be pretty spiffy by my parents, my delight the magazine stand where sometimes we were allowed to purchase a chocolate bar and a book. For some unknown reason one summer, we drove to Florida, one unbearably hot summer, burning our skin and indulging in pink watermelon to cool us off, my father disapprovingly admonishing my mother, sister and me about sun exposure. My father never sat in the sun, always in the shade pouring over Popular Mechanics, Consumer Reports, never a real book. I wondered why as I devoured book after book, having discovered fanciful tales and interesting people therein.

 Several times a year, we also drove to Buffalo and purchased our Susan van Husan shirts for $2.98 and if we were really lucky- on to Batavia where the toy store of our dreams existed. These were memorable excursions for setting the tone for being together, extending our boundaries, learning new things and being educated in how different life was outside our own home. In spite of my thorough dislike of the backseat ride, there was, as well, a thrill about travel, packing up, crossing borders. My mother always cringed at the US’s custom’s inquiry, afraid her folded green paper documents that did not resemble our small plastic rectangles signifying we were born in Canada, might identify her as an imposter. She carried childhood memories from her entrance to Canada at Pier 19, Nova Scotia as a five year old. She would retell stories of lice- inspection in Holland with steel combs that deeply penetrated her tender scalp, the looming imposition inquisition of guards, her quaking fear.

Yet our forays from the summer heat, these brief excursions set the model for the trips I would take with my own children years later. I never really considered whether we would go , but where. Others might plant their children with relatives or at camp, preferring alone- time with a spouse, but never my husband and me. We were a unit , adults revealing the wonder of the world to our kids, becoming kids again ourselves as we shared in their new experiences. Fresh eyes provided new perspectives and unexpected revelations from the innocence of a child’s purview. Besides, loosened from home rules, there was a certain freedom being on the road, away from constricting boundaries. That was invigorating too.

What stands out in my mind is New York when I was a girl. I must have been incredibly bored on the long drive, every few minutes, driving my parents crazy with my interminable “ When we will get there?” Their response was always maddeningly the same” Look out the window, Pat, “punctuated by The Alphabet and I Spy Something with my little eye games. Still I remember the Oliver Cromwell hotel, really a little dump, not that I judged it that way back then, but my parents’ reactions to the drab brown interior, likely way too expensive, pervaded my sensibilities. We were treated and awed by the Hayden Planetarium and Radio City’s the Rockettes. Knowing New York as I do now, I have no idea how my father on crutches manipulated this trip, his car, or us. My mother, impressed with herself, often repeated how she as an 8 year old girl had been charged to take her brothers by subway alone to the World’s Fair so many years back. Never allowed to take buses or subways by myself at an early age, I could not imagine her immigrant parents letting her!

Mentored by Sid and Goldie, my father’s sister and idolized brother in law , we were instructed into the educational possibilities of every trip, searching for the events and opportunities to extend our learning. My mother especially was in awe of their knowledge, names such as child psychologist gurus Piaget , Gesell, or even Dr. Spock, the lords of child- rearing. My cousin Jon was considered, in spite of the bragging rights of Goldi’s cousins, the infant terrible, the first born, the wunderkint, worthy of special schooling such as Dr. Blott’s school for the gifted, and obviously one reason for my aunt and uncle’s deep research into all books and things educative. Which obviously they must have communicated to my parents.

My other aunt, Marion ,considered herself the elite, the diva, particularly in all knowledge worth knowing. But her realm was theoretical, divorced from the practical and certainly the useful: wherein my parents actually excelled. And so we benefitted from all, although much of Marion’s insights were disregarded as high falutting fluff, worthless, but my mother’s talent in singing, her practicality, my father’s work in hi fidelity coupled with both his and Sid’s love for anything musical shaped our world. Unable to afford concerts, we were nonetheless surrounded by radio and records both classical and big band. Yet later, I found Marion a kindred soul, for her interest in the visual, for unlike the aurally- focused of my family, I could not discern the beauty of sound, discovering my solace in prints and pictures.

So we followed in the mould set out by my parents, taking our kids away for three months in Europe, staying in gites or homes, rather rentable cottages, that were close enough to castles or attractions I had pursued in Michelin, Fromer, travel,guides…Our children 10, 8 and 5 sprung from school for three months were exposed to art and churches, not the science my father had preferred because of my passion veering towards the visual and I wanted to share the stained glass, the sculpture of the medieval, the painting collections that had inspired me in the darkened rooms at university. As well, there were the hikes into mountains, the tasting of new foods and adventures we deemed specific to the children’s evolution as sentient beings. In Montebuono, we sweltered in the heat, but escaped to a nearby modern swimming pool where kids had to squeeze their heads into green Alia caps and after splashing wildly in the sanitized pool, munch pizza in the outdoor café; in Dordogne, Madame Bourret would bring us freshly baked pastries by her husband who strangely wandered the property in his underpants; in Brittany we shivered in a house recommended by Howard’s colleague where we drank cavaldos to warm ourselves in the drizzling rain in an unheated house ; in Paris, we needed two tiny rooms to house our group of five, Howard and Jordan sneaking out to ferret Chinese food, the girls and I watching those shows where people do outrageous things such as trying to grab balls the size of a house and swinging from obstacle to obstacle. I chortle to remember our son’s first tears upon having to leave his friends in Toronto brought full circle as he cried again to depart our European adventures.

Best of all was the kids’ exquisite use of language as they easily slipped into conversation with local people in France, we, the adults knowing to keep our garbled tongues to ourselves.I recall the look of the townspeople impressed by the confidence and ease with which all three communicated: the result of French immersion, that in spite of negatively impacting their Math skills, heightened their abilities to think and speak in a language different from their everyday one. In those days, with the father Trudeau, we conceived ourselves as both English and French, and a future for our children that might necessitate their knowledge of French should they travel far from our shores to pursue an international profession. There was a pride of having a dual citizenship of both founders of our country.

The years traveling with our children were some of the richest moments in my life. Surveying my life and examining it from the viewpoint of accumulated years, I can review the good – and of course the bad, the unintentional mishaps caused by stress, lack of information short sightedness, reacting too quickly, not listening properly: myriad reasons. However, we did hand down a daily pattern of living and vacationing, and a way of approaching life, gleaned from my own wise parents.

We eventually discover that one never has total freedom to choose and set their own path, yet we can set up small diversions, those family jaunts where alone and on the road, you see and hear and experience special relationships of warmth and wonder: that do endure a lifetime. At least ours have.

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My Mother’s Friends

We lived behind our store. My father’s hi fi workshop was the basis upon which he made his living and supported us. When he was out on service calls, my mother tended the shop as well as us. She was at the hub of our lives, rarely complaining. Every day as the store’s bell announced our arrival home from school, we would call out, “Mummy?”Like the genie to be summoned, we imagined our words conjured the smiling spirit of our mother in aprons. And always she would appear. Should she not magically vaporize before our eager eyes, we were crushed, abandoned. But it was in deed a rare occurrence that we would not be welcomed by her loving face.  

My father guarded her presence as well, disparaging any contacts that might remove her from him. Almost openly rude to her friend Mary next door, in spite of his begrudging hello or grumble, Mary continued to visit from time to time. And when our mother was overcome with the burdens of her life, it was not the brief weekend sojourn at my grandparents, but Mary’s wisdom to clean, clean, clean that brought her back to us.

But yesterday as I ran into a former acquaintance , I recalled my mother had been “ friends” with the acquaintance’s mother. And for the first time in my life, I wondered how could my mother’s relationship with Mrs. W have been possible. Although the former neighbour’s sister and mine had been duelling presences at school, each battling for supremacy in the realm of competing high achievers, I pondered how my mother had known Mrs. W. At all. I never observed my mother chat with this woman who lived around the corner in a real house. In fact, as I conjured the W. family, I had no image, just a vague dumpy shape of the woman. in deed, all I knew of this family was that there were three sisters, all apparently brilliant.

How had they become friends? My mother’s only interactions and conversations were extended telephone discussions with family, usually to allay my grandmother’s demands, or arrange times when emphysema plagued my grandmother. And these evening spurts only could take place when my mother had finished with the workload at our house . She might have been an indentured servant, or medieval slave, for the dawn-to-dusk drudgery of chores that necessitated completion: whether bopping into the store to work with a customer; standing for hours ironing our cotton shirts; mangling sheets, deep in the basement; completing the store’s bookkeeping; or preparing us for bedtime with a story. Like a single parent, she saw and oversaw every activity in our home. 

I can never recall a day she took a day off to minister to her own needs or delights. Her only “ outside” activity was to hop a bus one morning a week to pick up a cake or white fish at Avenue Road’s Margo or Penguin stores and immediately return home: likely not incurring a second fare as she moved swiftly from shop to shop. And every other week, a Tuesday as well, she might manage a quick turn about in popping down to Eaton’s College Street and returning with a bright red Girls Annual and Robin Annual, (on sale in the fall and in spring) for my sisterand me; and always in time to prepare my father’s lunch exactly at noon. Her light running steps might have been propelled on wings.  

She always decried, even at 90, not having had an opportunity for more education: as a nurse or designer. But she gleaned much from her in- laws, research and information on child rearing from Maisel or Gesell, but enhanced by her own strong common sense: that allowed her to suppress feelings of depression when in an exhausted state she sank into a chair and contemplated her own mother’s brutal means of upbringing or my father’s debilitating polio. 

Having been forced to relocate from our house after my father’s illness, she helped design our living accommodations, providing her own special touches. In the back lane behind our store, she insisted on a fenced in patio – wisely painted red so as to warn parking cars-with grass and a sandbox for us. Once into our makeshift yard, a tiny not quite completely formed birdling fell from its place under a bedroom air conditioner. We consulted Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedias (reasonably priced with purchases of groceries at the grocery store) and discovered we should feed the fledglings cooked egg yokes and provide sips of water through an eye dropper. This we did, supervised by our mother. We coaxed its transparent body for two days, trying not to transmit our finger smell lest its mother reject it, but on the third day the struggling embryonic creature vanished. 

My mother insisted that we have lessons: the Hebrew ones across the street I dragged myself to. When I complained she explained, she felt ignorant not having known how to read Hebrew herself and did not want us to experience that lack of confidence when the praying voices in synagogue knew the words to chant. I never really heard her, and spent too many years looking out of the classroom window, gnawing on candy and dreaming myself far away. So many years later, I wish I had paid attention so my utterances instead of stuttering could mix and flow with the songs others so strongly sang at holiday prayers. 

Not permitted to take tap lessons because my parents feared we might become showgirls ( I could barely walk without tripping so no need to worry there!), we were allowed ballet classes which I adored, especially the pink tutus and fairy wings for the final performance. There were as well piano lessons at the Conservatory, where my sister excelled and I floundered, never practicing and truly uninterested in the theory behind the music. My mother was so proud of our accomplishments, never bragging, but quietly enfolding her own pride that her girls had opportunities she never could have contemplated.

Before tennis or girls hockey was popular, our school offered a skating rink in the winter. Bundled into bulky grey coats or my cousins’ hand- me- downs, we would haltingly skate forward to the delight of our parents who cheered us on from the car. Sometimes we visited our father’s friend Harry Wines who had not left his house in 20 or so years, having been traumatized by an unfair firing in his workplace. Harry would flood his real backyard for his son Mike and we might be invited to join him for a skate.  They would laugh. “Pat and Mike”, as if we understood the joke. There were public swimming pools accessible by bus and we were encouraged in the summer to make our way there when the weather was muggy and hot in the summer. Summer camp would turn bitter for me when the reality of a summer away finally came my way. And I was required to share all the pistachios my parents brought with the others. However,  most summers we would load into the car, my father driving somewhere, my mother lugging suitcases in and out of motels as my sister and I fought in the back seat.

Although my father loved his work and excelled at his mastery of creating circuits in audio engineering,evidenced on every single cake box in our house, he was happy to divulge his secrets, and cared little for the money that might accompany his genius. Our mouths hung open when we heard that Peter Munk in creating Clairtone had approached our father, hoping to unit my father’s brilliance in sound with smart design. Our father felt anything that jeopardized sound/ music for aesthetics was not worth his consideration. I never heard him regret his decision not to partner with Munk who went on to make millions and billions of dollars. My sense of my father was the watchmaker at his bench, fascinated and brilliant at his profession, only requiring my mother as confidant in his life. 

In all of this was my mother whose life surrounded us, expected and anticipated. Never was there a moment for herself. And never did I consider that she should own a life outside of our family unit. Never did I project my own desire for relationships outside of our doors on her. She was the frame to the stability in our world. Yet beside un welcomed Mary next door, somehow she did know another woman on the street bordering the laneway and again, I never knew of any communication. Perhaps the woman called for a service call and then my mother chatted with her. Her children were not in any of my or my sister’s classes so no home and school meeting contacts. Yet my mother spoke warmly of Anne Ross as if she were a close friend, lightly mesmerized by her good  looks, posture and warm smile. 

We occasionally whispered my mother was martyr , enjoying her life of unending responsibilities and work. But now, of course, I don’t think that was the case at all. We say such things to rationalize our own guilt or ignorance of the complexities of a person’s situation. It’s so much easier to judge and label than scrape beneath the surface. She was a person trapped by her life’s circumstances and she learned to make the best of them. To realize at 68 years of age that my mother may or may not have had friends is shocking. And I write this with a profound sense of embarrassment that I cared little for my mother’s realm beyond our walls.  

But truly, how much do you know about the lives of your parents when you were a child? As children, we are such egocentric beings, caring only for ourselves, infuriated should a parent not immediately visualize to deal with our childish angst. My husband reflects that love flows downward from parent to child. And I know this to be true.. 

Inconsistencies between life and art: a child’s version

This week when my grandson came to play after daycare, we read Mary Poppins. Like every child, he has sung “ A spoonful of sugar… Let’s go fly a kite” and so is quite familiar with the story; however, when we began to read the book, we discovered that there were actually four Banks children, not just Jane and Michael: the twins, John and Barbara, for the most part asleep in their cots. This really puzzled and troubled C.J. Why had they not been mentioned in the movie?

On the drive home in an attempt to explain the similarity among the songs “ Happy”, Let it go and “ A spoonful of sugar”, all C.J. could only focus on was the missing twins, pondering their absence. I must admit a similar revelation in that when we watched the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” that provided the backstory for Mary Poppins, we learned that the story is not about a wonderful nanny, the spectacularly inventive Mary Poppins, but Helen Goff. Goff was the author’s birth name, and apparently the impetus for penning the tale resided in her desire to vindicate her father, Travers. He was an unsuccessful bank manager and heavy drinker who died when she was 7. In the film, he is portrayed as an unreliable, but charming drunk – albeit the person who coaxed Helen’s imagination to life, and whom she adored. She took his name “Travers” as her writing signature. Father-daughter relationships ( Electra) and mother-son ( Oedipus) that derive their origins from ancient Greece have been reinterpreted by Jung, Freud , Beckett and many others.

When I investigate further, I discover that P.L. Travers/ Helen Goff in her private life intended to adopt twins, changed her mind, and took only one of the boys, one interestingly named Camillus. She never revealed the truth to the child; however, as life is in deed stranger than some fictions, the twins eventually ended up meeting in a bar as adults. It seems the truth never does stay properly hidden.

I wonder if the missing twins from the book will lodge somewhere in CJ’s mind and become one of the facts he recalls from his childhood. When I reflect on my earliest experiences in my our house on Glengarry, I can recall a red breakfast nook, tucked into our kitchen beneath a window. I remember as well a red blanket spread on the grass in the backyard where Marlene, my friend from across the street, and I were glued to The Teddy Bear’s Picnic broadcast on the radio. Was it the bright colour red that cemented these objects in my mind?

I know some people claim they recall their exits from the womb and their nascent screaming from their cribs, but if I harbour such early images, they remain darkly hidden somewhere in my mind although truly, who would want to remember, the squeeze and pressure of being pushed into the blazing light of a birth chamber. No wonder the Leboyer fanatics immediately submerge newly harvested infants into warm baths.

According to my mother, I was strongly admonished for picking flowers through our neighbour’s fence. Mrs. Bailey, my mother told me, the lady next door ,dearly loved the flowers as if they were her children, as she had none of her own. It was in this house on Glengarry where my father succumbed to polio and I began my school days.

I recall running home from school, my teacher close on my heels and announcing to my mother that my teacher was coming for lunch. My mother in her apron in a tizzy was surprised but graciously served us Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheeses sandwiches. My adult mind makes me wonder why would a teacher-on the word of a kindergarten child- accept such an invitation. I cannot resurrect the face of the teacher, only a vague image of her being young and rather slim and somewhat out of breath as she knocked at our door. And my mother mildly annoyed at the intrusion.

Likely it was the same teacher who lauded my advanced art ability on a Parent –Teacher night. MY picture that displayed an acrobat swinging through the stages of athletic flight must have been unusual, different from the hairpin drawings or pictures of multi-sized misshapen families that adorned the classroom walls. I can clearly recreate how warming the feeling of praise felt as it tingled throughout my body.

Years later I would hear of my elder daughter’s paintings being presented at a Grade one Parents’ Night as the top level of Piaget and certainly remarkable. Perhaps this was the only Parents’ Night I ever missed for my husband must have been out or I, ill at home. The news was reported to me by impressed parents who had been at the presentation. My girl would continue to dazzle with her unique and advanced interpretations in the arts.

I do wonder what marks us in our later life: what we will recall with pride or embarrassment; why certain events stick and others merely pass through our consciousness like a bird in flight. Or what I laughingly refer to as my “ Teflon brain”. I do know the extremes of emotion persist in us: the moments of supreme laughter or abject sadness that guide us towards our professions or predilections.

Will our grandson decide to write mysteries in attempt to discover where the missing twins might have been during the Mary Poppins movie? Will he decide to trace the pattern of fraternal twins in science? Will he move on towards the philosophical connections of fact and illusion? Maybe he will become a critic? Or will the memory vanish completely and find its place among the single socks that somehow disappear without a trace along with the errant umbrellas and the one important notice you absolutely must find.

At age 5 and 6, the world is filled with wonder and I ponder William Blake’s speculation on a grain of sand and the intensity with which so many ordinary things can light up the world with questions or curiosity, wrapping them in an ethereal light.

Maybe our delight in travel in visiting new places is derived from that desire to be lit with, to experience anew, to see freshly with bright eyes released from the cynicism of the de rigeur and the patterns that tend to desensitize us from that sudden beauty. So that, caught unawares, we suddenly gasp and “ see”.

When I taught high school, it was likewise: with students offering original insights that tickled my brain in previously unthought of ways that lead me towards that wonderful Bakhtin dialogic of building a ladder of original ideas onto the rungs of their conjectures. Maybe that is why I love spending time with my grandson, his way of looking and noticing: of re-experiencing what I have taken for granted for almost 70 years as he word paints with the glisten of surprise.

Indeed, were John and Barbara taking a bath, out for a lark, under the table or purposefully hidden by the movie maker? Without curiosity and imagination, we really are dullards.

Unlike children who make us think and wonder.

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