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Turning 70:Gasp!

I’m thinking about turning 70 and the changes in my my lifetime.

I was born on Christmas Day, a perfect day for a contrary girl to enter the world. I arrived at Womens College Hospital heralded by two women, Drs. Marion Kerr and Marion Hilliard. Women’s College was the home to women not allowed to practice with the august men in the profession. One of Dr. Hilliard’s greatest desires was to have Women’s College Hospital become a teaching hospital. She was involved with the negotiations that eventually led to the hospital becoming affiliated with the University of Toronto’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. In its early days it was located on Rusholme Road. I felt a connection to the hospital for many years soI had my three kids there, attended in the 80’s by male doctors allowed to contribute their own expertise to the women on staff.

The kindly Dr Kerr assured my mother she would return after she delivered her Christmas presents . And so she did. My mother reported that she so appreciated her doctor’s kindness and care, staying in a private room for a week. Since then periods of stay have been much shortened.

About a year and half after my birth, my father who worked installing radios in ambulances succumbed to polio. That Labour Day weekend, he mowed the lawn and collapsed. That gossip was that Sunnyside Pool was the source for the epidemic although I doubt they had taken me near the vicinity of the pool and his contact to the disease would have been second hand. He spent the next excruciating nine months at Riverdale Hospital where all the polio victims were housed. He told of being able to watch executions at the Don jail through his window.

Before the Salk and Sabin vaccine, so many people were left with twisted or useless limbs or had to spend their lives in iron lungs to perform the job of breathing. He would not have survived in an iron lung because of his asthma. He came out of that hospital fully braced, disillusioned, but with a family to support. With my mother’s immense help, fortitude and courage, he did, gracing the electronics industry with his genius. The advent of the polio vaccine made the world safer and yet now stupid people refute the miraculous discovery. When I’ve gone to concerts and watched Itzhak Perlman navigate the stage swinging his lifeless legs, I’ve often thought of my father, the immense struggles of climbing stairs or even kerbs, but like Perlman, my father’s avocation revolved around his hands and his head . My mother used to compare our plight to the Little Red Hen who learned that she had to do it herself. And so she did.

Growing up, I knew one set of grandparents had left Poland in hopes of a better life, fearful of the extinction and war. There were stories of cousins having abandoned first wives and papering their walls with money to avoid deportation. I heard of my grandfather encountering his landesmen on the street in Toronto and bringing them home to provide them with a meal or even a bed, children sleeping nose to toes in overcrowded rooms. There was this aura of antisemitism my mother carried with her, one that infected me so as to not to want to identify myself as Jewish, as if I might be betrayed like Anne Frank or hustled off to an interment camp. At the library I poured over books trying to discover the details in the scary war stories.To this day, I recall in some paperback a Nazi so taken with the beautiful turquoise eyes of a child in the ghetto that he gouged them out to set them as centrepieces in gold rings, furious they had lost their lustre.

And although my parents rarely discussed politics, I recall our family being hunched around the television during the Bay of Pigs incident as they fretted about Russia and US going head to head. They worried about a nuclear war, and feared an atomic bomb destroy the world. My aunt and uncle tried to be proactive and joined organizations such as the World Federalists and Voice of Women. Yet most preferred to keep a low profile, aware that ” Jews and dogs were not allowed”.

We worried that my American cousin would go to the Vietnam Nam war and he did. There were sit ins at the universities, against Napalm and Agent Orange and public displays of support for draft dodgers fleeing the US. I did not know my husband then but we actually attended the same university, UC at U of T in the same years, he at the centre of controversies, me chatting up guys in the grassy quadrangle. He and his friend Bob Rae organized the festival Perception 67 that invited Timothy Leary and The Fugs to the campus. I remember the black folk singers who sang about freedom and resistance, and spaghetti used to recreate the experience of being on LSD in a darkened hall. ? We were exhorted to turn on. Leary although detained with his banned speech, wrote,”

Yes, young people of Canada, I’m telling you that you must drop out of school. Your education system is a narcotic, addictive process paid for by old men and women to teach you to become Romans like them selves. You must drop out of school. The aim of Canadian education, like American education, is to narrow your mind, contract your consciousness, get you to accept this reality, the ridiculous game of the television prop scenario of Canadian industrial urban life today. You must drop out.”

I also huddled close to the television to watch the first walk on the moon and hear Neil Armstrong’s words. And we were all distraught by Kennedy’s assassination, everyone remembering where they first heard the news. I was exiting a History exam in Grade 11. We lamented the fall of Camelot, his words “ Ich bin ein Berliner, “and the glamourous life of him and Jackie felled by the tangled inexplicable shooting by Oswald and the Jack Ruby cover up, as dramatized by Oliver Stone. For dreamy adolescents The Peace Corp, hope for a better, finer world were all dashed.

Television was our main means of communication as we observed the fall of the Berlin Wall so far away. And instead of the Internet and email was the telephone, should a classmate call to ask for a date for Saturday night. There was the occasional Sunday meal out should my parents find a kosher restaurant nearby and Sunday drives to the outreaches of the city, such as the wooded Unionville , to get an ice cream cone. And I remember how deliciously forbidden a Big Mac and chocolate shake were when I visited my California cousins at the end of Grade 10 in the 60’s. Hermosa Beach in my yellow pockadot bikini was heaven.

Over time clothes changed too, white being ridiculed should it be worn after Labor Day. Girls wore skirts to school. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, we were very careful about money, although both my sister and I had ballet, piano and Hebrew lessons: the last two I would have been delighted to do without. So we travelled to Buffalo where a crisp white Susan Van Husen shirt could be purchased for $1.98 and there were great sales. But on the odd Saturday, I was overcome with shame to be standing at the corner of Bathurst and Eglinton with Honest ED bags containing underwear. I insisted my mother turn those bags inside out for fear a schoolmate might see me.Fast forward to years where jeans with tears and holes, and kids bought pounds of clothes at Good Will, mixing and matching.But for me back then, I wished I could disappear into the sidewalk.

Memories come as a jumble: a few from childhood such as the strains of “ Today’s the day, the teddy bears have their picnic…”, the first time I heard the music of the Beatles at a school dance, lunch time tea dances in junior high , a wallflower earnestly praying someone might ask me to dance; lovely days at university and summers hitchhiking to view the art I initially encountered in darkened classrooms; falling in love and committing to one person, the arrival of my children and becoming a family; my post- colonial literature classes and contributing to the development of the Standards and Ethics at OCT- important, valuable and thoughtful work. I have been lucky.

But the years somehow go by so quickly and as I gaze back, many of the same scenarios pop out, over and over again while more are lost in the bank of time. You wonder. : what has made me ME, and you realize it is not just one or even a few things, the happiness and travaux that raise us up and wears us down, experiences ground as fine as dust. You draw back and through the vortex of time, you observe yourself, and can only know that each person is the same, that we all arrive at the same point, maybe wiser for the journey. But not necessarily so.

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A Simple Spring Morning

I remember from my Hebrew school days one of the first prayers we were taught. It had to do with gratitude that we had actually awoken and were being given the privilege of another day. However, on some grey days we wish we could burrow deeper beneath the covers and forgo the interactions and onslaughts that arise in everyday living. But at the early indications of spring, our hearts feel brave enough to take another chance and face the world. The sight of a tiny pink bud emerging or a patch of muddy grass is cause to sing – and even smile.

Yesterday I had lunch with.my mother’s best and truly only friend. My mom would say if you have a friend like Mary, you don’t need anyone else. And she was right, of course. Mary was there every Tuesday evening to take her for fish and chips, supporting my mother’s faltering body up the stairs to the same restaurant that greeted them as old and valued friends.Mary no matter the weather was always there. Where I once considered Mary unsmiling and cheerless, in my infrequent lunches with her since my mother’s death, I find her laughing, charming and friendly, really delightful. She tells me she was my mother’s confidant, which of course I knew.

But as I get older, I wish more and more that I had probed deeper into my mother’s thoughts, stories and history. For now the few scraps I recall are in deed fragments, not well remembered because I was enduring not really listening to the descriptions of Poland, or family fracas, or who was married to whom. All these pieces make for a Jewish geography and in that, my place, my identity in a family tree that although specific to me, crosses branches with others in unexpected ways.  

Last week at Pusateri’s, I ran into a second or third cousin on my mother’s side, Pauline, the lovely daughter of more than 80 year old Bertha who still travels the world by herself- to India, and this spring back to her home in Paris, France where she plans to go with her grandchildren to aid them in discovering their origins. It occurs to me that both Pauline and I, Patricia, are named for the same person, her grandmother, reportedly patrician, who lost her life in the camps or the gas chamber.Her father was the nephew of my mother’s father,I think, my grandfather bringing as many landesman and kin to Canada as possible.

This information is only a casual whiff from the past and I have hardly wanted more as it seems everyone in the European shetls were somehow related and entwined with their cousins so unraveling the roots leads to maladies and conclusions one would rather not know: as in the familial tremor that afflicted both my mother and Bertha. And lately I’ve heard claims my youngest cousin in California had fallen victim to the family heirloom of “ the shakes “ as my mother called it so he can no longer practice dentistry. How she dreaded any emotional encounter that caused her head to independently bob yes when she was responding no, the recipient clearly confused.

Yet there are also positive good stories of loading up a truck ( a la Jed Clampett) and heading off to Etobicoke for Sunday picnics, the whole mishpucha.

And there is merit in unwinding some family history, particularly as one gets older – or if not merit, at least interest. Because unless you glance at your grey hairs or trip over fragile feet, you do not consciously think of yourself as aging. The sweet flowers outside my window are still the same, whether encountered by a seven or seventeen or seventy year old. The pleasure they offer remains neutral , but as the mystic artist Blake was aware one can” … see a world in a grain of sand “, the eyes continue( hopefully) to perceive them anew each spring, perhaps first as harbingers of new commencements, and later, as we make associations with other springs, imbuing them with memories, good or bad, happy or sad . But outright, they signal the possibility of fresh opportunities.

Perhaps that is why I’ve come to love California where every day flowers such as birds of paradise or lilies continually lend promise to the saddest of moods, keeping us in a persistent state of beginning. As Tennyson surmised a lotus land. Here in Canada, it is the spring that fools us, tempting with peeks of purple and yellow that life will renew. In any case, I wish I had listened and questioned my mother more, noting how and what she focused on as she aged, her world changing and how she pereceived herself in that transformation.

Too often I did not want to hear the family stories, shielding myself from the pain, hurt and anger at her treatment by the family, particularly their disregard once my father came down with polio. Even as I write this, I feel myself bristle. She would proudly relate with a tiny chuckle the story of  The Little Red Hen who eventually did it all by herself. And that was what she accomplished so her own little family of husband and two daughters could endure. And so she bravely soldiered on.

 But her meta thoughts… I should have opened myself to them, not pushed them away with a yawn. How did my mother process and think about her thinking about the twists and upheavals in her life? I think she could have stood at one or several removes, philosophically taking it all in at an impartial distance: that she did with my cruel grandmother who tore books from her hands and continued to berate her. Older, my mother would extol her mother’s acceptance of relatives who descended upon her- uninvited by my grandfather- for whom she shopped, cleaned, cooked, gave sanctuary, even making her own children sleep nose to toe. My mother seemed to project another, a softer picture of her mother, once beautiful, an immigrant with few choices but who had become hard and hardened, much like a server or hidden downstairs maid to the overflow of encroaching relatives. In my unforgiving mind, I recall a small purple African violet offered to my grandmother on Mother’s Day harshly pushed away and the chant to my mother, “ Send her to commercial. She can be a secretary.” Which thankfully my mother did not do. I would have been interested in how my mother saw the spring flowers, how they spoke to her.

As I age I do comprehend better. My mother confided that music had helped her so much , especially as she aged although she continually lamented that her operatic voice had been squelched by her mother. I think music had become her Mindfulness meditation , lifting her from her confounding drudge , her growing infirmities of age. She explained it had transported her away from daily depressing thoughts and rigours of her life. It renewed her hope, obliterating much else.

I truly believe that for baby boomers, especially getting older is a shock. We foolishly never believe we will be taking a back seat and become weary. Sudden or chronic pains persist in surprising in spite of the fact that even a washing machine rarely endures more than a few decades, and its parts are/were- metal that will inevitably wear or rust or disintegrate.

Part of our disillusionment comes from turning our eyes to the world ,as our parents and grandparents did, still plagued by war, famine, poverty, pollution , corruption terrible, terrible strife that even now threatens to expunge us from its midst and an idiot as master of the so- called free world. It is enough to encourage us to crawl back beneath the covers and turn away from the spring flowers, shattering our innocence forever.

And yet… soon other blooms may join those first flowers of spring , and heavy coats being shed, ,we can swing our arms and walk freely in the sunlight, pretending there is promise in the awakening spring.

***

To lend our hearts and spirits wholly

To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;

To muse and brood and live again in memory,

With those old faces of our infancy

Heap’d over with a mound of grass,

From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lotos- eaters

Beginnings and endings at Rosh Hashana

T.S. Eliot once wrote

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time. ( The Four Quartets)

The season of autumn is perhaps correctly dubbed” fall”. It is that midway point between summer and winter, the leaves burnished, the flowers fading, the end of sunshine and the commencement of a more somber quiet time. Fittingly for Jews, it is Rosh Hashana, the new year, days that herald the excitement of new beginnings but also atonement and reflection on what we have been less than proud of during the year. Coupled with the fading light of the day, it is a sobering time. Yet, there is an anticipation that we can renew and improve ourselves.

For me, the days of food preparation for the big supper is a combination of old favourites of the perfectly stuffed turkey, but also another attempt to emulate my motherinlaw’s perfect gefelte fish . Mine either lacks correct spicing or is too watery. Usually the food receives compliments, but at my table, I believe the fish is consumed as part of the new year’s pattern that fish precedes soup which proceeds kugels, en route to multiple deserts.( I heard once of a family that had deserts for supper one night a week and thought that sounded delicious😋). I wonder if some special ingredient is missing from my fish.

My buby Molly was legend in her realm of cookery, but my aunt Goldi confided that the” family” cabbage rolls were transmitted to others without the squeeze of lemon so that the original recipe could go to the grave with the original chef who no doubt thought it a family secret to forget one ingredient. So like a story whose sections are embellished or deleted in the telling, some recipe are not transmitted – even between relatives- completely in tact

And because I always leap to other places, my mind flies to the whispered repetitions of coveted foods in women’s sections in concentration camps during the Holocaust where a scrap of paper or shoe leather was the repository for a special dish. This reconstruction of a lost moment, a treasured memory of a tangy smell, a delighted taste stimulated the beloved faces and cherished voices of family, and a necessary hope that life would eventuall resume. The food, the preparation, the coming togethers were only just stalled until mothers, fathers, children, the entire mishpucha could once again reunite for the holidays and be together, safely around the table clothed table.
At this time of year, I too hold close the memories of my parents and the Rosh Hashana dinners at their house. Never a thought was given to the work it took my mother to rise early in the morning or fall into her bed at night after the last plate was washed or dried. There were squabbles over who would sit next to my father who always commanded the head of the table. He quickly and quietly beamed at us, taking our families all in while saying the few prayers over apples and honey. My mother darted back and forth with food, serving and perching frequenting. Her mother, I recalled, disappeared into the kitchen to eat by herself, no doubt collapsing into whatever chair she could find: to suck chicken feet, I recall – if I glimpsed her behind the swinging door to their dining room where uncles wore fedora hats and aunts wore special dresses, and cousins waited expectantly for he moment when they could leave the table and play games without adult supervision. 

We were not religious people but we came together as a family at the holidays. These suppers reminded me of Bella Chagall’s memoir Burning Lights as she narrated the annual celebrations in the shetl,Vitebsk, the end of the harvests, family arriving by horseback and carts and women labouring with heavy pots, and unending dinners that featured many many dishes.

Years ago my son invited his school friends from Vancouver and I set myself the task of seeing how many different kugels I could make: fortunately all but the potato could be frozen. From zucchini to eggplant to sweet potato with raisins, I scoured books that offered an impetus to create the puddings. Finally at table, we would chortle, attempting to identify the vegetables that all began and ended with eggs, onions and matzoh meal. Since then the meal has been pared down with only two potato kugel, one sweet , one plain, 3-4 fruit pies and of course a honey cake and at least one other completing desert contributing to eating ecstasy. Maybe the strangest event culminated in the sudden delivery of grandson two when the supper concluded. No doubt he could no longer battle all the kugels crowding his space and so decided to exit 6 weeks early.

But as well, this time of year holds unforgettable events- sad events that marked our life. My father succumbed to polio one labour day weekend when I was 18 months old. Interestingly, no one ever mentioned had Rosh Hashana been “early” or late that year. I imagined his family’s dinner seated more quietly than usual, especially my buby Molly at the edge of tears, and my mother clutching me as I squirmed in her arms. And my mother many many years later shortly after hearing the shofar blown in her hospital room passed too. She always was anxious around this period of transition.

My mother, of all people, is the one who is at the edge of my thoughts during these days. There is so much I would share with her, questions I would ask ( about knitting, for example), so many fears or doubts I would look to her for assurance : that all would be well and turnout fine. And yet, she was fearful herself, often struggling tenuously to hold our world together like a jigsaw whose pieces might suddenly fall and need to be reassembled by her able handling and rearranging of our lives, a task she completed , like  The Little Red Hen story she never ceased to cite: “ALL by her self”, she would loudly affirm

If she were still on this earth and we were meeting at Tim Horton’s for Saturday lunch, I might behave slightly differently, not avoiding difficult conversations, attempting to banish them into non- existence, maybe probing deeper beyond the usual statements to really understand what she believed she had lost or forfeited  throughout her life. Not merely scoffing at her refrain that she had been a failure and wished she had been a nurse or an interior decorator, “ I would not counter now, to change he subject,”Well, an orange cannot be an apple”. Often I was afraid to listen, not wanting to be touched or hurt by some detail.

Once while my parents were away on a little trip and I stayed behind, I opened the bottom door of a dresser in my parents’ bedroom. Heaped inside were the remnants of their life before and during my father’s polio. I read the barely readable postcards sent from Riverdale hospital where he spent 9 months when he was only 28 years old, robbed of the muscular power of his limbs. With my father’s right arm destroyed by polio, he had attempted to learn to use his left. In their exchanges, they write my name as “Paddy”, as an Irish person would. Or maybe the crosses on the t’s are sloppy and resemble d’s, but the postcards break my heart as I glimpse the broken communication between my parents. My tears overrun my eyes as I sense the immense difficulty even a few words had taken to produce their daily interchanges, but I sense in the scribbled half formed letters the depth of my father’s love for my mother: whose countenance even when he was in a coma could produce sensation on his face.

 In my talks to my mother I did not want to re- experience these knives of pain and so we did not unshovel the past.Selfish as that may have been in my part.

So I approach new year with a mix of emotions, grateful but longing for my mother’s company, pondering my relationship with my father, but also anticipating a supper with most of my children and grandchildren present, observing their fingers coated with honey , and their chomping the Macintosh apples carefully chosen by my husband. I enjoy the look of the table with my grandmother’s silver and her fine dishes: ones I continued to refuse from my mother, but am so glad I finally belligerently accepted, even as they are ornate,  and not my style at all. Still I can appreciate their quality and ruminate on their history as evidence of immigrant acculturation in Toronto. I wonder what stories the plates hold, remembering what my mother had related to me: that a peddler would come to the door weekly, selling one precious spoon – and my grandmother would save and save until she could afford to purchase one here, one there , until she had enough to complete a full set.
No wonder that even at 90 my mother stooped to pick up a penny!
 In a recent Canadian Jewish News story, I read of a family setting aside their “ brogus” at holiday time so that bad feelings could be relinquished as the new year arrived. Yet, my mother and aunts related the weekly family gatherings of my father’s Rumanian family where everything new was mocked, such as the washing machine and refrigerator, how my grandmother was squandering money in pursuit of modern appliances, and how the brothers and sisters closed ranks on my buby Molly, making her daily existence so much more difficult. 

I wonder what my grandchildren will take from my suppers. Will they joke about the kugels, the unending offering of deserts, some strange detail that I recalled such as my own other grandmother’s delicious handmade wine from purple plums or the rollicking fun I shared with my cousins. Or the disgusting slurp of sucking chicken feet? With part of my family in Philadelphia, I feel the circle is incomplete, a gap between the beginning and the ending. We will fill that absence at the end of the week when Thanksgiving fortunately intrudes, but of course it cannot be the same. It is not that I am a religious person who looks to the suppers that fall at dusk as the commencement of the tradition.Rather, it is the meaning of passing down a closeness, a memory of what it means to participate in an event- even briefly -that is initiated by an old story, be it true or exaggerated, a story that interrupts the workday to stress what is the most important in life, that “time out of time”,as Eliot might conjecture,
” at the still point of the turning wheel”.

Tripping the Life Fantastic

We never cease to feel that we have been given a gift by my mother now two years dead. Even today as I silently fret about the too hot hot weather when my friends and family are shivering at -17 and worse in Toronto. Partly it is the lustrous colour of the sky, not quite the cerulean clarity of Venice, but a clear and lustrous blue, that wraps around my vistas. Here I view the sky through the dappled trees that recall the sidewalks of The Impressionists, so I enjoy turning my head upwards.

And the flowers. Outside our condo , the magenta Bougainvillea welcome every day. Along the path towards our door, huge fans of fringed palms frame our entrance, and at the side white flowers that recall for me the shape of Canterbury bells. The condo and its grounds establish my oasis .  

Not just overlaiden with my sweet memories of LA when I was an adolescent, San Diego too recalls family trips to the world renown zoo when the town was the site of mainly military operations. Still we have made the place our home and our own,endowing the walls with photographs and paintings we love. We laugh to reflect on our home in Toronto where rooms stood empty for years and where Howard painted the walls a shocking pink when he had the time. I think our first real purchase back then was a rug woven in somewhere distant -and eventually piece by piece, we furnished the room: the place of honour given to a huge painting we purchased in Australia and made me cry, evoking some primal emotion by its shapes and textures. Although it was an Aboriginal work that included mandalas, the feet of the artist’s child, hedgehogs and straw bags, it worked much as a Hans Hoffman abstraction, the colour black popping out as foreground, the reversal of what might be expected. It arrived in a wobbly crate barely held together by dangling hinges, somehow magically surviving the arduous trip. Funny how something can touch you so deeply.Maybe it is as Duchamp reflected on an implicit memory that triggers a narrative from within although I had no words for the feelings that emerged from me. 

Our room at home holds small secrets as does our San Diego habitat. A painting of a Muskokoa landscape Howard commissioned for one of my milestone birthdays presents three separate but adjacent trees moving to the hum of the winds. To me they represent my three wonderful and so different children. Here too on a walk in Solana Beach at Fletchers Cove,I gathered a trio of flat distinctly differently marked flat stones. I arranged them at the foot of a tiny Buddha who sits on a platform of brightly coloured Mexican tiles that surround photos of my grandchildren. Like a tiny altar, I pay tribute to my children who have along with their father fostered my growth in unexpected and unintended ways. 

Today I hobble to the store because again I have tripped. Yesterday at Mission Beach. My one knee is permanently purple from its meeting with the ground. Last summer,at a vineyard wedding, I lost my footing on a hillock. Blushing with anger and embarrassment, I quickly popped back up, hoping that those with their tinkling champagne glasses were more focused on cascading flowers entwined in boughs than a tumbling mature lady. But a thoughtful guest came by to express that she had never seen anyone tumble so elegantly.That comment eased me back into the gay mood of the event and fortunately for me, I did not tear my pink dress from Thailand nor dirty my silver heels from Spain.  

Only my burning knee now surrounded by torn layers of coloured skin spoke to the fall. Sometimes I do worry about my balance except for the fact that even as a young girl and a teen, I would appear at our store, always with scraped, bruised and bloodied knees, having daydreamed and tripped on the way home from dreary school days many many times as I unsuccessfully navigated curbs en route home.. Even my sister recalls my return from a grade 12 exam wherein I burst through the store door, crazily crying, my black tights in shreds, seeping and gushing rivulets of blood trickling and gushing from the holes newly created in my foot’s folly. In my self congratulatory mood of praising my responses to the history exam, I stopped short to revisit the exam question in my head and realized I had answered the question on the Stuarts not the Tudors! Awakened from my heady reverie of an A exam, I fell hard to earth, pride and hubris at the heart of my tumble, broken in both body and spirt. 

At Mission Beach , the walkway is varied and slightly rocky, much as if the ground had been creased and pleated and so I once again lose my footing. As I began to trip, I tried to straighten myself, feeling I was in deed regaining my upright stature,balancing and righting my position.. But in a second I perceived I could not do it, my innate lopsided senses seeking their own points of reference. And so once more-flesh meets hard concrete . 

So it goes with me. If I cast my eyes to the ground to observe the undulating surface I encounter a pole, a tree, a door. Should I gaze straight ahead, my feet tangle with the unevenness of the street. So it is a conundrum for one so awkward in connection with the pavements beneath because truly my paths exist somewhere deep in my heads, or imagination, truly unconnected with my wobbling feet. 

The result this time are badly crusted medallions on both knees but worse yet, a leg that refuses to bend. And so each day I ice and re- ice, elevate, walk for brief amounts of time and eventually and slowly attempt to extend the knee’s angle a few degrees. I am angry to miss my yoga and Pilates classes as I cannot transition from floor to standing without support . I am humbled to think of my father and his polio because he could not stand or move at all without his crutches, every dip in the walkways, every uneven sidewalk a possible invitation to a fall- from which he might not be able to regain his mobility. For me, it is a week or so, for him, it was a life sentence after the age of 28. It is as they say, half full or half empty glasses. So we/I should not complain.   

The sun is back out and the variety of greenery draws my eyes as I drink my coffee and my mind rests. 

Maybe wearing knee pads is the answer.

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.

 

What’s ( so) good about Rosh Hashana ( Part 2)

We were never shul goers in our family, strange in a sense since on both sides, the family were founders of both Beth Shalom and Adath Israel. In the latter, my grandfather’s steely haired and aristocratic looking brother lays claim to being one of the earliest presidents.

We lived across the street from the synagogue and my father, feeling betrayed by G- d when he lost the power of his legs to polio, refused to worship in the sanctified halls. Instead he would decry his credo and ethics as a good man, quietly instilling in us that a good person does not need to go to shul. And never was there a more honest, truthful or hardworking person than our father.

So growing up, In spite of having to attend Hebrew School three nights aweek, our true religious immersion consisted of the family celebrations of family feasts usually held at my grandparents house on Atlas, many children and grandchildren somehow fitting into a tiny dining room encircling a table that usually sat a handful now expanded to fit the needs of more than twenty, the men in hats, the women wearing bright lipstick and holding squirming babies. Only my grandmother after cooking and serving sat by herself in the kitchen, sucking chicken bones or just resting.

So perhaps it is the inheritance of family gatherings that has translated into my own enactment of the family meal:

I buy fish that is all ready chopped to craft my gefelte fish. I use a mixer to whip the whites of my eggs for my matzoh balls and I wonder at old stories of people who kept live fish fresh in their bathtubs for their appetizers, not wanting to think how that squirming fish was somehow subdued onto special holiday plates garnished with a medallion of carrot. I cook and freeze several weeks before, only leaving three days before the actual supper for the perishables such as potato kugel which must be made the day of. I ponder, truly amazed, how did they manage all of that exhausting work, standing, hucking, stirring, etc?

I love my Rosh Hashana table. It is set with heirlooms of my mother and grandmother, sparkling, glistening, light catching silver and treasures upon which I mount countless offerings. And always at the center there are purple orchids, pink roses and snowy dahlias, for me, the stars of the evening. The tablecloth is crisply linen and much like Downtown Abbey I try to align the forks and spoons, eyeballing them from the edge of the coordinating napkins.

When I was young, the grandkids would drop to the basement rec room at my grandparents as soon as possible , the oldest cousin ordering us around. And we adored him. Here at my table are only part of our brood because some live far away and others have not arrived into our earthly realm yet. My heart longs for those missing.

The day in synagogue also differs. Once members of a large synagogue, we have now departed, modern day nomads for a congregation led by a woman who can make any ragtag group feel like family. Whether a service is held in a gymnasium with basket ball nets festooned by garlands of flowers or in churches where the aleph bet cleverly hides Christian icons, she has magical ability to create community of diversity. We listen to two devor torahs that are so sensitive we want to wrap our arms around the speakers and hold them tenderly. My husband turns to me and whispers, These people are thoughtful; They are thinkers. Imagine the chutzpah to publicly interpret Sara’s treatment of Hagar as cruel or proclaim Avraham’s disobedience to G-d in sacrificing Yitzhak as his greatest moment, announcing that doubt in religion tempers fanaticism. I do not know any of the people who sit side by side with me but their greetings, their smiles are sincere and welcoming. I sometimes think I might join a study group here, but never do.

Yet my High holiday experience here brings me deeper into what I think a religion should be, with people who do not just repeat or spout paradigms, wagging their fingers and accepting without question the ways of the old and well troden.

Now I do not mind sitting longer, singing barely audible or nodding amicably to the participants here to whom I am joined. It is a happy pleasure I embrace every year. The blowing of shofar is long and sweet and I nod in delight, feeling this may in fact be a very good year.

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

The Roosevelts and Me

Like most of my generation, I hold a special place in my mind for FDR. The Boomers growing up and away from the shadow of war were familiar with the name of the disabled president, studied him in history class, later heard rumblings of his foibles and love affairs, but overall, considered him a persistent star that had lit the way back from the Nazi threat and on towards the free world.

In high school classes, we absorbed the names of Harry Hopkins, Louis Howe, Frances Perkins and the New Deal. Learning that a woman had been placed in his prestigious cabinet and that artists like Thomas Benton, Diego Rivera and so many others had been given jobs in the WPA made us feel proud. The Depression known through stories like The Grapes of Wrath imparted a whiff of those hard dark days and what it must have meant to truly not know where your next meal would arrive.

My father would retell how his own mother left the door ajar at night because she felt that if anyone were poorer than them, they deserved to come in- and even take what they needed. My father longed for brand new drafting tools, not broken, like inaccurate second hand ones that he had no choice but to use.

The symbol of those days seemed to me to be men riding the rails from town to town, seeking employment so they might support their families. Little blips in the world after the war overshadowed by the Cold War, but a world where a sanctuary meant ostensible things and trips and people with flashy money and few thoughts of destruction in spite of nuclear bombs.

Our teenage focus on Kennedy was all flash, big teeth, great hair and smiling extended families romping on the beach, footballs tucked into armpits: a beacon of security for teenagers who danced along with Dick Clark’s rock after school or hugged their pillows when Elvis sang Love Me Tender or madly screamed and fainted in their rapture of the Beatles. It was the light to the years of darkness where we chose not to ponder the piled high stacked bodies at Auschwitz or mountains of children’s forlorn shoes

Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelt, An Intimate History puts meat on the bones of the history classes and recollections of our grandparents; and so brilliantly teaches this generation the power of film and media as a supreme tool of education, one that is not dull, boring or patronizing. With experts such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough , the commentaries on events aid in explaining the Roosevelt presidents we thought we knew.

And our knowledge is deepened in a human way. For example, Teddy Roosevelt, fifth cousin of Franklin’s and the brother of Eleanor’s father, Elliot, was a sickly asthmatic. We are apprised that his prognosis for surviving beyond his baby and early years is grim, that his father carried him in his arms night after night as Teddy struggled to breath. We learned that all the Roosevelts fought depression : that Teddy’s way was what he called “ action”; and FDR’s was a false face to hide his true emotions.

The documentary pierces the real lives of the real people, rendering them less symbolic icons and more flesh like like us -with fragilities and doubts and loves lost and illnesses.

For me of course, the story resonates more personally painfully because of FDR’s polio. My mother once told the story of how they had asked my aunt for help so that they might go to Warm Springs, FDR’s place in Georgia so that my father could take the curatives of the spa waters and maybe regain some of his mobility destroyed by polio. The film reveals how passionately FDR worked towards creating a haven for children and adults, bringing physiotherapists, doctors, all manner of support and encouragement for those afflicted like himself. He interacts personally, listening to the stories of others. I think that, like FDR, my father never truly accepted that he would never walk unaided again. My aunt said no to the request and that was that.

My mother who left no opportunity to build my father’s resolve :whether a magical drug from Russia that claimed to restore muscles and nerves reported in the newspaper, or a stationary bicycle that promised to strengthen the destroyed muscles in his legs. She too, never really gave up on a way to improve his condition and build on the altered state of his ravaged body: likely her “ action” to slay her own personal demons. However, she deeply resented my aunt’s refusal, and my father even more so. No possibility of restoration, they must have thought, betrayed by his own family.

The documentary revealed that FDR threw himself into Warm Springs. It stated that he loved being in the water because he could stand without the crutches. My father built a small swimming pool in his house for the same reason. As well when Post-polio hit, he frequented the Sunnybrook pool where a contraption raised and lowered him into the water. I occasionally wondered how the slippery floors were managed by his crutches to avoid the wet that could cause him to loose control and fall, but I preferred not to know. So I never inquired, only happy he had had some time to stand and move without his crutches.

Burns’ film tells of FDR en route to nominating Wendel Wilkie and how he is somehow jostled and falls, unable to get up, and requiring many others to right him. My father occasionally tumbled as well, but determinedly refused the help of strangers, only accepting my frail mother’s assistance if she were near. If not he would crawl towards a wall, any upright structure so he could maneuver his dissipated limbs and prop and somehow push himself upwards.

We never saw our father fall although I do carry memories of him crawling occasionally. He was a proud man, a very handsome man who believed in his dark looks and brought up, a bit like FDR’s adoring mother Sara Delano, his mother Molly had told him he could do anything, favoring him with affection and special treats like sardines when he was a cocky kid.

Watching The Roosevelts, I am enlightened and gratified that such fine men with future looking policies lead the nation. From Teddy’s invitation to Booker T. Washington to the White House to FDR’s secret correspondences with Winston Churchill and his Lend-Lease plan for arms to battle Hitler, both Roosevelt men were unafraid to challenge their opponents.

Yet, I cannot help but watch with the eye of the daughter whose father was encased in those rigid braces and the gloom that spread over his face when he had to combat icy winters or a fight a flight of stairs with no bannister.

As a kid, you want to believe that your parents are invincible, no different than anyone else’s parents and you protect yourself by ignoring the realities of life that make every move difficult and challenging. Maybe you turn sarcastic or turn away from that parent and you feel their scorn that you do not excel at their expectations or that you cannot even communicate for more than a few minutes before an argument erupts. Maybe like two similar magnets you repel one another although beneath there is attraction more than just a familial one and a deep desire to be loved and understood and hugged. As a child, you cannot know or even try to break the bridge that connects them with the other sibling. You merely scoff and turn towards the other parent, sad, mad, longing for more, but not knowing how to facilitate a better interaction.

My sister says that when there is illness in a house, dynamics alter and change. I believe that is true. My mother was often reprimanded by my aunt for trying to pretend our life “ normal” when it was not. I think I must have followed in her footsteps, not giving an inch to my father’s disability. FDR is shown cutting himself off completely from his children after his polio. He turned outwards towards remedying the evils in the world. He turned away from Eleanor, too, but consulted her in matters of state and importance , however gaining emotional sustenance from Lucy, Missy and Daisy.

Eleanor grew in her own stature and FDR respected her, even having her give the speech in his place to nominate his vice president during his third term. Her words so powerful that his Liberal choice, formally rejected, was accepted after she spoke. My mother too was a giant who managed life much better than might have been expected. Roosevelt trusted, and believed in Eleanor but as known now, they lead parallel lives. FDR was father to the country, yet his own family was bereft: 19 divorces, 2 children who espied university education, one son even working in Filene’s basement.

In contrast, my mother kept our family together, my father adoring her always, even on his last stay in the hospital unable to speak, his eyes following her as she moved near his bed ( he was 68 when he died) and so our fortunes as children of a polio victim prospered: my sister a doctor, I a teacher;our family intact.

The Roosevelts open old wounds for me. In the Infatuations by Javier Marias, the protagonists laments that the dead do not stay dead, that they haunt us.

Yes, it is true. We carry such burdens from our past lives that can be easily awoken, actively bidden or not. I suppose this is the case for all: a tune, a smell, a photograph all remind us of past histories and catapult us to a place we would rather not be, yet remembering allows us to revisit lost memories and emotions-hopefully that can be unburdened when we let them go.- as here in my blog with you.

Hurdles, Art Books and the Handicapped

Last night The Jays lost 8-0 to Tampa Bay ( remember I write several months ahead and then edit later), but we left before the end of the game. As I huffed my way up the stairs to the exit, I thought of my father. Not that he was a sports enthusiast although he enjoyed watching an odd golf game or even awkwardly dropping a ball to bowl occasionally. But the impossibility he would have had mounting those stairs caused me pause.

My father was a victim of polio, his legs forever destroyed so for the rest of his life from age 28, he required braces and crutches to keep him upright. When he left Riverdale Hospital in 1949, he was fully braced in something that would conjure a Hannibal Lector cage of straps and bars. Later he relied on half braces and wooden sticks much like Itzak Perlman’s to balance his body as he swung his legs. Eventually some design fool had decided that a plastic substitute should replace the rubber tips at the bottom of the crutches so that sliding on wet surfaces became another obstacle to overcome when moving from place to place.

As I puffed up the stairs at the ACC, I reflected on how many venues are inaccessible to the handicapped. Although my father had been forced to navigate before “ Handicapped” signs were designated for special parking privileges and broken down curbs or ramps were even a cloud in a city planner’s mind, he and others had somehow travelled the city.

Once he had brought me an art book from Queen Street and only years later did I ponder, how could he have parked his car, gotten into the store on that busy street, and carried that over-sized book back home? I was so amazed and overwhelmed by the act at the time, that thanking him for his feat did not even pass over my consciousness, so consumed was I by my prize.

When we chose as our first home, an apartment with two flights of stairs, there had been no thought of the effort required to hoist his 180 pound body to our door for dinner. I recall as well when I continued to demand he wear madras shorts and he finally retorted that he had no desire to expose his braces.

Now I reflect or rationalize with embarrassment that perhaps it was a need to believe that one’s parents are forever strong and invincible, like all other able bodies parents, or truthfully and more honestly, it is a lack of empathy, particularly when we, ourselves, are strong, bold and young, unmindful of the ravages that a disease or age can impose: in weighing down the body with limps, shakes, gasps or pain.

At more than 60 now, I regret such brazen insensitivity.

And now that my father is gone, I can never express to him that I am so sorry and so unmindful of how difficult his life was. Yet, he would have scorned my pity., brushing away my comments, perhaps not wanting to even discuss such matters.

As I struggled with my grandson’s carriage at Starbuck’s this summer, no person my age or much younger, jumped up to open the door as I fought to push the stroller through. Even directly meeting their eyes which did not flinch from my questioning gaze to suggest that they momentarily leave their frothy cappuccinos to aid diverted the course of events. Similarly on a bus or subway ride, it is not the young who rise to offer a seat, so ensconced are they by their earplugs. My friend Anne said a woman her own age offered a seat. Anne smiled but refused.

So when no one offers you a seat, or even deigns to open a door: you do it yourself.

That was what my father did. When even his and my mother’s family did not leave him a parking place in the dead of cold slippery winters, he somehow dragged himself through the ice, set on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling.

Year later, as a society we do pretend that we care and have put in place some support- or so we say. Perhaps it has to do with boomer aging as we find the stairs a bit more challenging or lose our balance so much easier than when we twirled effortlessly on ice skates. I often say that the boomers never believed that would lose the golden haze of youth and perhaps that is part of the everlasting Mic Jagger or Bon Jovi tours. We gaze at the wizening faces but applaud the flexibility in their limbs.

My mother used to use” you never know…” and it is true, you never do know until you experience the reality of a situation yourself.

Sorry dad!

Family Reunions

We are not what I would consider kissin’ cousins. In fact, at the mention of family gatherings, I often grimace and forgo the pleasure.

Part of the reason has to do with my parents’ feelings transferred to me, that were intensified by my own anti-social attitude. So perhaps to rationalize, I have not attempted to keep in touch with most of my clan, adopting my parents’ resentment.

My father used to scorn those gatherings where the family was present. I recall my once favourite uncle’s wedding. My mother had purchased in Buffalo the most beautiful deep green velvet dress. She looked truly lovely; in my mind’s eye, the puffy sleeves and full skirt combined both high fashion and the look of a princess. Silly me in my fuzzy pink number had decided to fix my curly bangs and continued to savagely trim them to my hairline so those furry squirming buglike protrudents suggested a monk’s fringe with no framing wisps of hair to soften what was referred to as an intelligent forehead.

On that wedding day, my father was moving particularly slowly and seemed to be digging in his heels as my mother was growing more and more frustrated. There was some interchange between them and she was in tears. In their bedroom was a huge mirror to match their bedroom set and I could see from the small hallway, her crying, her eyes now reddened; the day ruined.

Likely my father had cause to want to avoid the family, but more than anything he had taken the day and spoiled it for her. After all, this was the family whose monthly “Kousins Klub” never gave any thought to the fact that a man on crutches might need a parking spot close to the host’s house. Never complaining openly, they would venture perilously through the high drifts of snow and ice to reach the Saturday night location.

His avoidance of family events was freely absorbed by me. He was no fan of most of the get- togethers with his own family, either ,although he eagerly anticipated time spent with his brother-in-law Sid from Windsor, yet the meetings were hardly familial. They focused on technology and music: the passion of both technologically-oriented men.

I see them in my mind’s eye, sitting together, heads inclined, laughing easily, talking privately. It seemed to me that Sid always had a new scheme, an idea, an adventure that captivated my father’s intellect. I imagine this jovial friendly side as a kind of boys’ club attitude, maybe what the old days were about, the endless rounds of good pals and gatherings before polio robbed my father of so much of himself.

And before all the friends fled, fearful of catching the virus.

In a word, Sid and Saul were friends, so much more than family. And If Sid were around, there was no need to call my father more than twice, my mother announcing” Saul, Sid’s here!” Meetings with Sid were so unlike the palpable resistance of attending the family parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs that bored him : no draw for my father. So I admit I embraced my father’s aversion to these assemblies, shying away from these people.

When I heard that the Rotman family was planning a reunion I was less than thrilled, hoping in fact not to have to attend. But my husband insisted, even strong arming the children to come and bring their children. In fairness, I actually do quite enjoy the presence of Howard’s cousins from Texas and Chicago who always, at their own expense and long distance had made it to our own celebrations in Toronto.

Howard’s mother was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. In this group were the children of Ida, the black beehived, smoking sister from Buffalo. Imagine Marge from the Simpson with a husky voice and a cigarette always in her fingers, knitting needles at her side. She was a character but unlike my mother-in-law, on the day I was introduced to Ida, she looked me up and down and in her very American accent loudly proclaimed, “I like you Patty.” I warmed to her immediately. Her children as well were interesting people, amiable, friendly and accessible.

Old grievances die hard and even so many years later, the children of the dead brothers, Max and Nathan, were not in attendance at the Rotman reunion. ( In deed, they might have been purposely left off the invite list!) From my early entry into this family, I had always overheard gossip regarding the contentious one-legged Stella – who once berated my own mother when my mother-in-law’s wedding guest selection had not met Stella’s approval ( in fairness to the sharp-tongued Stella, my mother-in-law cherry-picked who she chose to invite in every family grouping); and the haughty Rosa who had remarried too soon after her husband died at an early age was often the topic of conversation. The legendary Max had assumed hero status as a well known community figure in Hamilton with athletic centers named for him. I’d been introduced to some of their offspring somewhere who remained a blur in my memory, their names Sylvia, Stewie, Debbie….

Howard contributed to the stories of his family as a happy, loving group and I had in my head the narratives of when the cousins were young and they were all babbling buds. Most strongly were his descriptions of the huts along Love Canal where this family congregated every holiday weekend year after year. Where dead fish washed up on the shore and lumps of greying tar matter rose up through sizzling sands under snaky hydro wires, sparkling in the hot sun; where the kids danced and played and cavorted avoiding the debris littered on the beach. My husband reminisces fondly about other trips to hear Michael Tilson Thomas ‘s symphony and the zoo in Buffalo where Ida lived, and her handsome dashing aviator husband. He revelled in the time spent with his cousins.

So he was looking forward to reuniting with his cousins, Marcia and Michael and Susan and Michael, and their children from the States.

As most things in life, there is nothing is without flaw, no perfection anywhere. Sadly my mother-in-law, the world’s favourite aunt would not be able to grace the reunion. Ironically 30 minutes away at Shalom Village, she was blithely unaware that the clan was even gathering. Her last home would be this care facility where she once volunteered. With dementia destroying her mind, she would not be present. There was no attempt to bring her to the party, for we worried that she might be confused, disoriented and frustrated, even angry at the people she once cherished.This would have been too much for her.

Yet her 91 year old twin attended, and in full command of her facilities, introducing her family table, she exchanged more pleasantries with us than she had ever done throughout her life. My mother-in-law even a year earlier would have shone, been the queen of the day, well loved by her nieces and nephews. The healthy twin ,obviously having had enough, announced, “Time to go. My sister ( my mother-in-law) was the party girl!”

I have to admit: it was fun. With close to 70 people, many we had not seen in years, it was an astounding. So many relations in one spot with their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren in attendance. The feeling was not uncomfortable. It was an easy meet, people milling around, stopping to chat, introducing new additions or reacquainting. And always snippets of years gone by where forever memories had been established, laughter spilling forth at the foibles of youthful adventures or incredulity at now sepia coloured adventures shared as youth.

Sadly, as I rewrite and edit this 8 months later, my mother-in-law and one of the Michael cousins have died, passed to that nether world along with the dreams and memories that entwine our everyday existence: comings and goings, meetings and dissolutions.

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