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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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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”.

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

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!

Winter Tales

My mother used to say” you never know” and who would have guessed that this winter season would be so violent? (could we ever have guessed, let alone known?) The storm that overtook the trees, turned sidewalks into slippery ice paths and forced people into the dark was a revelation in Toronto. We, personally, were hit by a loss of power and with a five month baby in the house visiting, it was necessary to evacuate. Fortunately our son and his family were in Ottawa so we camped out that freezing day at his place.

The baby had been put down to bed, we had been sated with takeout sushi when there was a knock at the door. While daughter #2 feared it was looters and thieves, it turned out to be a burly hydro guy telling us we had to evacuate yet again as a live wire had been disconnected from the house and it was- in deed- dangerous. Yet, he shook his head in disbelief as he relayed that just a few blocks over near Oriole Parkway, families and children were playing ice hockey BESIDE yellow tape and pillions that warned of more live wires with voltage in the thousands. Parents today who are so safety-conscious that their children have imbibed numerous correct protocols with their mothers’ milk chose to ignore warnings. Go figure.

And just as in all good fairytales, a magical message arrived in the nick of time to inform us that our power at our house had been restored. Waking up a sleeping baby, we warmed the car and headed back. However, we feared that the message had been incorrect as we passed block after block of blackened houses and stoplights that were not functioning. Our elated mood was sinking and we began to ponder where we might stay on this frosty night. Soon we glimpsed a sparkle of golden pinpoints as we neared our house and to our good fortune, we could observe lights blinking on in our street. There is nothing so comforting as snuggling deep under a duvet in a warm room and we were thankful for the resurge of power.

However, when our son and his family arrived home from Ottawa, they camped out with us. Eventually, an electrician reconnected their broken stand pole so that the hydro line could re-establish their power. Yet, five days later hydro by the city had not been restored and their home remained chilly. No joke when there are two boys under the age of 5 to keep protected.

That week we celebrated my birthday on the 25th, so glad to be together in a toasty house. My husband had been cooking for two days and his turkey, browned perfectly, smelling as the best of turkeys will, filled the house with an unforgettable aroma. When daughter #1 and her husband arrived, we began nibblies of hummus, guacamole and the last shrimps to be found anywhere in the city with Prosecco and wine. We lolled and lazed and laughed.

I began my usual gift gifting which I refer to as “Channukah leftovers”. This year the children received an inheritance from my late mother which was kept separate from the arriving deluge of toys. The funds will be used differently as the needs of the children vary: the electrician to fix my son’s house; well-deserved vacations for my daughters; college funds to be stashed, etc.

I still marvel that my mother had been able to put away any money as my father made so little in his work. She was amazing to have been able to pay for her own apartment and caregiver until age 92, persistently worrying that her funds might run out. I will always associate her with the worn red wallet in the drawer in our kitchen behind our store on Eglinton. The red wallet where my sister and I pinched our nickels and dimes to buy a treat on the way back to West Prep after lunch, the red wallet that my father had made her during occupational therapy while in his 9 months’ stay at Riverdale hospital and subsequent polio convalescence. Something about that worn leather wallet touches me deeply, maybe as symbol of her endurance, their life.

I remember feeling so proud that when school friends who attended the dreaded Hebrew School across from our store, Tele Sound, came by, my mother always gave me enough money to buy a treat for them as well as myself. Even the rich kids who were thrown into afterschool torture might walk home with me and I would pick coins from her worn wallet triumphantly believing I possessed the beneficence of any wealthy host, guiding them to the pharmacy next door to select chips, caramel corn, chocolate bars. With some surprise, a classmate commented on our modest home behind the store. I always thought my bedroom, painted pink, the equal of the fanciest abodes in Forest Hill and was incredulous that anyone might think otherwise.

Even now, I recall the feel of that wallet as I eagerly searched for the money in its shallow depths. I’m not sure how she would have felt about how we spend/ are spending the money she took a lifetime to accumulate through her modest life, her careful balancing of funds, her restricting her own lifestyle, juggling her house accounts and depriving herself of any luxuries. I never thought of us as poor.

Wendy, my sister, and I had lessons vacations and never wanted for anything, yet it was my mother stretching and saving and budgeting that made it possible for us to live that illusion. My father once said his parents always fought over money and he never wanted that for us. Yet it must have been almost magic for her to put away money for simple investments, spinning straw into gold. I hope my mother would have been pleased. However her generation stashed pennies in the bank,concerned for the future, finding solace in institutions purported to maintain the structure and safety of society.

And even though in the past years, she sometimes did not call on my birthday date, I most often invited her so she could participate in a rowdy dinner. With beautiful flowers, children’s noisy chatter, a table set with my grandmother’s crystal and colourful plates, our dinner was beautiful in so many ways. Even if she barely interacted in the last years at that meal, I hoped that she felt part of the whole scene, chaotic and brimming with life.

During a storm and its aftermath, things change: you isolate moments and wrap yourself into what matters, feeling fortunate to be with the people you cherish.

Remembering My Mother

Today my friend said to me, “You are going to be haunted by your mother”. And she smiled. She meant a good haunting. She recalled how her own mother had left her a treasure of a loving letter and her eyes filled with tears. This woman is a relatively new friend, of say, 5 years or so, so I was touched by her quiet and personal words.

Almost immediately after my mother died, I realized I would feel differently about the loss of each of my parents. With my father, more than twenty years ago, I longed to live among the happy memoires I held of him, but when I did, it made the wound much worse. With my mother, it has been a constant ache, thinking I’ll pick up the phone and tell her something that might make her laugh. I forget that she is no longer here.

That is the problem with being haunted: it hurts. It hurts because you miss someone you have truly loved and there is pain that only through memories you will see or feel close to them. Without the actual presence of a body that will respond or absorb your interactions, your thoughts float, not attaching themselves to the one to whom you have directed them.

In the days after her death I put together a eulogy that might capture her for the sake of her funeral. They were “outside” words because how do you explain what the lift of an eyebrow, a smile or a warming arm around your shoulders really means? The other words are in my heart as I think of her constantly.

Here is the eulogy I gave at my mother’s funeral. It was a difficult speech but one that I believed honoured her and her memory:

I have wrestled with the idea of speaking to you today because if you knew my mother, you would know what a particularly private person she was. She never boasted or pretended an upper hand. She kept her thoughts to herself.

However, Howard has encouraged me to share with you some thoughts and my cousin Elaine Levine wrote “that Eve ( my mother) was the family historian, and the truth teller. So I have decided to tell some of my truths about my mother.

But first, let me say this: these are my truths and every person on earth is sweet, sour, kind, harsh, simple, and complicated –so much more than mere words can impart. It has often been said that words can illuminate as well as obscure.

My mother began her life as Chava. She came from Poland at age 5 with her mother Layal, sister Sura (Toby) and an Aunt, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She had once described to me an interrupted picnic in Poland that ended with her father scooping her in his arms as he ran from Cossacks on their horses. She adored her father Joe and in my mind’s eye I can see them in our living room waltzing , him humming a song.

Her comfortable life of fur coats and dolls In Poland was transformed when she landed here. Like the displaced writer,Eva Hoffman, in Lost in Translation, she was given a new name she never liked, Eva, She preferred to be called Eve,. She was often chased by children screaming “ Green horn, tin horn, popcorn, five cents apiece”. Yet the buoyancy, the ability to overcome was already evident and she would tell us that she would climb to the highest rooftops on Markham Street and sing – in a voice that caused a radio show producer to go to her mother and ask permission to put her on air. My grandmother said No.

Not only could she sing, she exceled in many areas, but these were not the best of times for girls to be allowed to prove their excellence. Throughout her life, my mother regretted her lost opportunities.

On a moonlit cruise, she met my father and as he laid eyes on this lithe lovely 18 year old, he determined he would marry her and he did. Until the day he died, he adored her.

Their life began well but when he contracted polio, she once again, became the force that had to overcome and subsume her own ambitions. He was in the isolation ward in Riverdale hospital for 9 long months. They did not know if he would survive. Every day, by bus, she would deposit me on Atlas at my grandmother’s and then head out to visit him, admonished by her stern mother not to stop either way.

Her aim was to make our lives as normal as possible. She carried my father’s heavy tools to the car, she a mere 100 or so pounds. She sat alone at night, fearing he had fallen in the snow- and sometimes he had. She was partner, bookkeeper, cleaner, store manager, cook, but always treasured mother… My first words through the store door after school were, “Mummy…?” and she would always appear with a smile to greet me.

My sister once confessed that she thought my mother a princess . My thoughts of her were more utilitarian. I thought of her in neat shirtwaists, as she bounced downtown by bus every Tuesday morning to Eaton’s College. She smoothed out the corners of our life, even ensuring ballet, art, piano, and Hebrew lessons at the cost of a new winter coat for herself. She never complained. And at lunch time, we would fish for nickels and dimes from her worn red wallet that my father had made her in the hospital She held us all together.

I had no complaints, imagining that our home behind our store was equal to any mansion in Forest Hill.

There was little time for her. Her attempts to put a cake in the oven were always interrupted by a customer coming into our store, staying too long: those cakes raw or burnt.

But Fridays even before they moved to Alamosa Drive, she managed to create the perfect fricassee that complimented a perfectly roasted chicken. The smells of those dishes permeated our small living space for days. And before vacations, she would jump from bed before we all rose, make the chicken and wrap it in a blanket to keep it warm. We would stop roadside to devour the carrots and potatoes soaked in Heinz tomatoe sauce, cooked along with the chicken. It was yum. And on my birthdays she insisted on having her entire family over, this time a turkey and a cake from Patisserie Francoise. I resented sharing her-and my special meal-with her relatives that only appeared for suppers. In the evenings, she sank into bed, exhausted.

Life is so much more than chicken and fricassee. With my father, she created a home of love where music mattered, where my parents supported and encouraged my sister’s genius in piano and were so very, very proud of our accomplishments. It was a home where honesty and ethics were the driving force behind every single decision. Above all else, you had to tell the truth and behave like a mensch. I have always wanted to emulate my mother’s child rearing model.

Life changes . My mother told me that when my father passed away she cried so much, there were no tears left. She continued to miss him intensely. She said that in 1996 when she was hit by a car, she had heard his voice telling her to get out of the way, thus, saving her life.

As years passed,my mother’s constant running, moving, bouncing, constant motion was stripped away and she resented her lack of mobility.

But on Saturday at Tim’s ( Horton), I found her an affable companion. As always, I could confide anything to her and she would safeguard my secrets. Most times we were girlfriends, gossiping and sharing stories. She was my support in the worst of times as I drew deeply on her strength and wisdom.

At first, her needs were few: a supportive arm, a smiling face, a welcoming bed. She insisted on staying in her own apartment and controlling her life as much as she could. Even at the very end, as the world became increasingly circumscribed by the inability to walk, her fragility and the need for caregivers, she made her own decisions, not pleased by our objections.

What can you say about a life whose cornerstone is love and caring? Whose husband and children, grandchildren and great children value and understand that you are the tree from which they have sprouted.

Erich Fromm once said of a mother’s love, “The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.”

I believe my beautiful, wise, brave and intelligent mother did that for Wendy and myself.

My truths and memories now belong to all of you along with your own.
Thank you.

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