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Coming Home

It is as the adage says, you can never go home again.

It’s not that you can never go home, and as I used to repeat to the children when at the end of the day, we eased the car into our our driveway,

Home is the place / that when you go there/ they have to take you in. That section of a poem by Robert Frost laboriously examined for our provincial exams eons ago -when language and literature were two separate papers and worth 100% of your full year’s grade- somehow stuck in my head, was repeated over and over again, and was met with rolled eyes and guffaws along with “ MOM, we know!” In other words, shut up.

It’s that parents and children change, and reminiscent also of the Heraclites’ line “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man, “suggests that walls, doors, people are not static and change and rot and deteriorate whether animate or non; and we exist in a perpetual state of flux.

Yet within the rooms of your childhood house, there are the whispers and dreams and longings cherished -and scorned like cast off toys: some we wish we could forget and others we hold close as torches towards what might be in the future.

Returning to the comfort, security and hugs of being loved as a treasured child goes hand in hand with the resentment of living beneath another’s rules, conforming to the outdated mores that no longer appear to apply. Pause, remember, and you can feel the hotness of a slap, observe the grimace of haughty look, the sound of slam of a door and re-experience the anger, hatred and despair, the solitude of pain returning to sear you and you are that individual again, that abandoned child, furious at your stupid parents.

Always it is the push-pull, avoidance and approach, the paradox of life: that backwards-forwards caught in the whirl of opposing forces. And for all of us, it is the same: for once we were all children, albeit growing up in different times where the rules continued to change as society did, and our parents expected, demanded at the very least a resemblance of tolerance and respect.

Over time in many families the distance between children and Boomers, hoping not to perpetuate the stern coldness of their own parents, altered so that gap almost leveled to “ buddies” or friends. I remember my father’s response when I , silly girl in elementary school called my sister “ a prick”. And my grandmother’s crushing behavior towards my mother that was not to be challenged. My Boomer generation tried to create an ease of communication by reducing the distances, by hanging out, acting like friends, but yet it did achieve the intended goal of easy relationships. How could it?

Although the Boomers might want to share a light hearted social exchange, when disagreements occur it is the parent who change hats and endeavour to enforce his/her view on the child who now might just scoff at taking direction from their peer. Think of Hugo in Australian bestseller The Slap and his behavior by lovingly indulgent parents, hoping to raise him as an equal.

There are differences between generations and in trying to bring them together, both groups have paid a price, I think.

I do not know what the perfect model would be. Certainly one does not want to grow up in a family of fear and forbidding rules; however, how devastating is it for parents to be dismissed when their views are contrary to their child’s who will not tolerate any opposition. On both sides there is pain, hurt and confusion.

I recall admonishing our youngest daughter not to skydive, not to tattoo herself, not to… all in vain. Now with children herself , she worries they too will repeat her youthful jaunts. Yet, I, too, hitchhiked in Europe with unsavory characters, threw caution to the wind, hung out in Dam Square, travelled on trains aimlessly and far from my parents’ scrupulous eyes, did exactly what I wanted. Rather than youth being wasted on the young, it is a time to experiment, be a wild ( well a little), find yourself, and enjoy life, before conformity to job, partner, society takes you on roads not paths,.

As parents, we love and invest, I truly believe, unconditionally in our offspring, offering ways for them to bloom into whatever flower or weed their shape might take, nurturing, giving supplements and what we think helpful advice. Otherwise, we fear they might become Rousseau’s wild child.

How much, how little, obviously is determined by one’s own values, our own beliefs that are felt necessary to the nurture. In university we were introduced to the conflict between heredity and environment and believed ourselves FREE to cast aside the impact of our genes, free to recreate ourselves. Today I understand the complexity of the interaction and with discussion of epigenetics, even more so.

I will admit that for some years before my mother’s passing, I was so furious at her that I detested spending even a Saturday lunch with her time. Yet like the fox and the little prince, we did persist and eventually that resentment I harboured towards her eased. Or maybe she moved onto a new space where we could communicate. Or maybe I did. And once again I was blessed to recapture the love I had experienced as an adoring child. We shortened the distance between generations, so we could be friends, laugh and chatter together. Still I needed her wisdom: on knitting, on life, on many things. The rough and jagged space was bridged and I was relieved to feel my mother’s warm arms around me.

Sadly, when she died, I wish she had said something special, gentle and loving to me, rather than angry resentment of being in her hospital bed. Yet the years before and certainly her brightness to me as a child continue to illuminate my life and warm me. I know I was loved and I loved her. Each day there is something that reminds me of her and I am grateful to still be in her sphere.

I’m not sure how we will be remembered by our children, if occasionally something obscure will cause them to ruefully smile and laugh at one of our foibles . Who can say what a person packs in their memory bag to carry with them into their future?

I recall the good and the bad of my parents. I was, am their child, subject to their rules and their ways of knowing. I acknowledge that my good life was a product of their hard work, their concern and love for me. I am not just grateful, deep in my aching heart, I harbor real love for them and I miss them

Mothers and Grandmothers

Yesterday was a tough day: my daughter-in-law’s grandmother’s funeral: GIGI -short for great grandmother passed away. Every time the organ played, I wept, memories of my mother rushing in and filling me with sadness. Perhaps thoughts of my mom had also been evoked by my posting her eulogy on my blog.

On the same day as the post, I had sent out her last picture to my sister and cousins. In the photo she looks pretty good, well for a 91 year old, hardly ready for the Grim Reaper although I recall she was not in a good mood the day that picture was snapped. From one day to the next, even in a minute, our lives change. She is like a shadow who is there but whose person I cannot touch, and whose face I cannot kiss. That fixed image captures and reflects one of a thousand moods.

When people ask how old was she when she died, and I respond with the number, they look askance, just as I did when someone else revealed their mom or dad had passed at 80 some. Now I feel embarrassed at my reaction to another’s grief. Although, of course, it is much more terrible for a life to be cut short earlier, a parent is still a parent and no matter how long they have inhabited your world, you will miss them in some way when they are gone.

However, my mother’s mother, the beautiful Layah in her youth, was a tyrant and I have few sweet memories of her, which include her blunt rejection of an African violet that I presented her with one Mother’s Day. My mother’s stories of her own mother’s tirades confounded my distance from this haughty woman. How can you feel close to person who grabs books from her child’s hands, tears them to shreds and throws them in the their face? Or the person who constantly tells you that you are ugly. Although that was not my experience, my mother seemed to relive these tales often enough to make me weary. Somehow in the spirit of resiliency, my mother grew up determined to break that mother-daughter cycle with her children- and so she did.

But as the years accumulated after my grandmother’s passing from emphysema ( she was a smoker), I was amazed to hear my mother intone that my grandmother’s life had been impacted by her coming to Canada, that my grandfather would bring home “landsmen” and relatives arriving from Poland, strangers even, that he had encountered on the street and would lodge them in her parents’ house for many weeks or even months. My grandmother bore the brunt of the cleaning, cooking, and tending to all of the visitors’ personal needs prompted by my kindly grandfather’s open door policy of welcome. This Jewish tradition of treating guests as family often resulted in the children being routed from their beds to sleep toe to jowl with one another. As well, to demonstrate some familial affection, she did look after my cousin when she was a baby, the cousin who dragged the bedraggled Lassie with her everywhere…

Perhaps she was kinder to my aunt, whom she believed prettier than my mother, and her children. An aunt, who by the way, departed for California with her family, as the gossip goes, to escape the wrath of the matriarch. I wondered how my mother could set aside all of the abuse she had endured throughout her life, even after she was married, to view her mother in a kinder light, empathizing with her as immigrant to Canada, accepting a life so vastly different in status from what she had experienced in Europe.

Remarkably, my mother seemed able to hold a longer, wider view, to be able to comprehend the once haughty, beautiful, wealthy woman whose new life was not easy or rewarding. I just scratched my curly head in disbelief. Had my grandmother ever expressed affection to my mother, with a simple kiss or tentative hug, Maybe? However, it is unlikely, for my mother never revealed a moment that would have illuminated her world with the grace or wonder of an uplifting touch or caress.

I did not experience any closeness with my Buby, not even an embrace. I do recall her weighing in on my poor showing in Grade 9 where my math and science teacher, a small and bespeckled Mr. Gauthier did not encourage my studies. My Buby admonished my mother, “Send her to secretarial college.” My father, on crutches, went in to see the junior high school principal, a Mr. Chellew, gentle and soft-spoken, who reaffirmed my mother’s belief that I was not a lost cause and did in deed have potential for university. It is funny how these signposts in our lives make all the difference.

Recently reading Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, she presents her character, Ursula, whose life first goes one way ; and then readers are shown an alternative, another direction that occurs. Throughout Ursula’s life, we observe a diversity of the same life, with some consistencies in terms of locations and people, but as Frost would say paths not taken. Atkinson once wrote books for children and there is that strong element of the fairytale in this telling : children who fly off roofs, shunting down garden lanes, disappearing. It made me think of embroidery that goes sideways. But the possibilities of following or not an experience makes all the difference.

One often wonders, why this? Why that? Why did I meet so and so, and why did his or her words stay with me and help or hinder me in making a decision? Sometimes I think about myself: that I am a Teflon brain in that that only some stuff sticks.

But it does make me ponder why of all the books that I studied in my first year at university, these lodged themselves in me : Pascal’s Les Pensees- where he explains that it is the chase, not the end ; and in particular, Jean-Paul Sartres’ la Nausee -where he says we hold on to our childhood toys and hairbrushes to remind us of our relationships and who were were at certain ages: who/m we loved, what we did, and what we cared for at that age. These books above all have remained my companions even till present day.

And why was I so moved by Le Petit Prince’s ( hmmm- I’m noticing they are all Frenchmen!)? and It is only with the heart one sees correctly; this book one was a friendless girl’s inauguration into a cadre of like-minded young women, so it is surrounded me with more than the warmth of words. As well the lilting poetry of the music of some of W.B Yeat’s ; How can we know dancer from the dance, and When We Are old… along with , Turning and turning … things fall apart…” persist where other lines and authors have fallen aside into a heap of dead leaves.

Even in my late teens these resonated in my head.

True, words echo and we hear them, directing and circumscribing our moves. We make our decisions no matter what, but I believe that so much comes from fate. When I think of how my parents’ world succumbed to his polio. And how ironic that at a young age when his parents had decided to emigrate to California his mother insisted they return to Canada because of an outbreak of polio! Was it his destiny that followed him? Was it chance that he had swam at Sunnyside pool during the polio outbreak? Or repaired radios in ambulances where polio victims had lain and put him in contact with the virus? And on that holiday weekend when his doctor was away and Doris, the rude wife of his cousin, angrily dismissed his phone call—until he collapsed, having spent his muscles mowing the grass instead of resting and conserving the nerves that would be forever destroyed…

We think of connections and missed connections, phone calls and lost letters ( not so much these days, although in Transatlantic Colum McCann works the magic of a letter never delivered!)as in Kate Atkinson’s story of Ursula and her family : lives that might have had different trajectories.

All the what ifs, the could- have- beens.

Often I feel helpless, a victim, unable to battle the co-incidences, the surprises, the onslaught of “ it shouldn’t have happened” but it did and does, as we spin caught in vortexes not propelled by ourselves. I imagine an Arshile Gorky painting of sheer swirling movement that catches one in the whirl and blur of life as it flashes past.

Maybe the ancients were right : the three fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spun, drew out and cut the thread of our beginnings so we believe there is magic afoot, things beyond our control, controlling us- falling apart as Yeats would say.

Yet, we are lectured that if we don’t smoke, if we eat beans and fish, if we exercise regularly, we will triumph over death and yet the man who succumbs to lung cancer has never smoked a day in his life. So it goes.

I always hated statistics, for they are numbers. There are no faces, no individualized scenarios- only a so-called set of facts gleaned to prove a thesis. We are like the medieval crew, wandering in the dark, banging our heads against nights of unexplainable confusion. No answers then and even the enlightened 21st Century has not turned on many lights even now.

Perhaps this is a good place to stop: the light has gone off for both GiGI and my mother. Rest in peace good ladies.

Make new friends

Make new friends but keep the old
One is silver, the other gold

Long ago I learned this little ditty. Maybe it was from Miss Alice at Dingdong School Days, one of the only children’s televisionshows available so many years ago. Along with the Story of Babar, The Little Train that Could and the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, this particular chant has lodged itself in my head from childhood.

Friends feel so important to us. They provide us with a mirror so that we like ourselves better. They can be supportive, helpful but also destructive. Today with an emphasis on social media, fitting in, team and collaborative work, friends often substitute for family or rather, become our new families.

Let’s face it: no one loves their families 100% of the time. My mother would resentfully quote my Auntie Marion (who might close the door of her house in your face if you had not called first), “You can choose your friends but not your family”. Marion would pontificate and my mother would fume.

But it is true. However, over the years, when friends like seasons have changed, the enduring faces by your side are most likely your family’s. Like them or not.

No surprise that I had limited friends as a child. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, I did not belong to the country clubs, synagogues or in-groups where the girls with pearls and poodles on flaring skirts resided. Next door to me was a girl named Helena. We played together because we were ostracized by the others and it was convenient to have a friend who lived next door, especially one whose father was the owner of a drugstore where you could sit for hours undisturbed and devour the latest comic books and maybe be treated to an additional coke or bag of chips.

Helena was gawky, a good-hearted girl with raging untamable hair. But I don’t think we liked each other much. I recall one day making fun of her Hebrew name, Henya, laughing because the name reminded me of a horse’s laugh. She was nicknamed “giraffe” by the malevolent kids at West Prep Elementary because she was tall. In one of my less kindly moments, I too used her hated moniker that so upset her and she shot back at me by saying, “Well, your name ( in Hebrew) is Pessy” and she pointed between her legs to suggest…well, you know what she was saying. I felt betrayed, angry and decided no real friend would ever make such a horrible connection.

We trudged back and forth to school together for years and into high school, social outcasts. My mother suggested we join B’nai B’rith, a social organization for Jewish kids so Helena and I could spread our social circle. We did, and so we had a Saturday night outlet where we might meet boys from other Toronto schools such as Bathurst Heights or McKenzie. We hung together because of convenience, arguing, competing, at least having one friend each, just because it was easy and we had each other: both misfits from the popular crowd.

But in Grade 12, a miraculous thing occurred. One of the semi-popular girls, actually a prefect from high school, Sara began to talk to me. She was in my English class and I was a very good writer, and an acknowledged first rate student with serious thoughts to contribute to the teacher’s probing on books. I was occasionally asked to read my compositions, as they were then called, outloud to the class.

In spite of a quaking trembling, unsure voice, something in my story touched Sara( names have been changed) and she felt I might be worth knowing. I even recall the story that connected us and it concerned a handicapped boy, ostracized and resentful of his peers. He drags himself to a hill overlooking school and crushes bugs with a St. Christopher metal, obviously based on my myself, my father and his polio, however,the cruel remarks of the teacher, a Mr. Meeson, who announced that the reading of it did not do it justice seared and further embarrassed me. Yet Sara was undeterred.

So began a real friendship of sharing ideas, sitting outside school on the grass in the sun, and really talking about what mattered to us. I began to understand what it meant to have a friend: and it was worth much more than a free bag of fritos.

Bahtkin has written about dialectics and how we build conversations, listening to one another, as if creating the levels of a tower, joyously zigging and zagging upwards as we listen and add to our conversations as they grow sideways, broadening and deepening the topics that are brightened and made meaningful by the extensions added and queried. I felt valued, treasured as a friend. It made my heart soar. Our conversations opened up a new world; Sara’s experiences different, expanding my own.

I recall feeling that my parents were not fond of Sara and certainly her parents would not have chosen me as a confidant of their daughter, she, a prefect, top student at FHCI; me, a nobody who lived at the edge of the school’s boundary. Although I cannot fathom now what it actually was that made our choice unpalatable to both of our parents, I imagine it began because of difference in class, and later because of parent resentment : that too much time, too much kept from the scrutiny of parental eyes; fear that one’s offspring is being lead towards places and influences unacceptable or challenging to parental authority.

Maybe we did spend too much time together, confiding secrets, dreams and desires in one another too much, chortling and gossiping as teenage girls do when they feel they are insiders, parents the outsiders, to a new and magical world. Who knows? When I spent a summer in California a year before, American parents seemed to care little as their offspring like roving beachcombers checked in rarely, off day and night to do as they pleased, to watch sunrises, conglomerate at the shore at all hours,to just hang. Parents were blurry markers on a dim hillside, their voices far and intertwined in their own issues.

At university Sara introduced me to her other friends, friends from fancy camps where rich kids go every summer; we took family car trips to Florida that at least got us out of the city and allowed my father a chance to drive the cars he loved.

Of all of Sara’s friends, I was drawn to Catherine. She seemed the more introverted, deep and unapproachable. I was being permitted to enter into the holy binds of a friendship club where The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery was our mantra. I concurred as the little prince did, that what is essential is invisible to the eye: that only with the heart, does one see correctly.

In the social realm as well, life had improved although I would never understand why the taming of my own wild hair and the discrete application of eyeliner would open a whole new world for me, how fellows who had passed me in the hall with ridicule in high school, would now awaken to see me with new eyes. At university, they would literally beg for a date. It was my greatest thrill to permit them to take me for an expensive dinner and then I would dump them: retaliating for my former treatment in high school. “ What? You went to Forest Hill?”, they would intone in absolute surprise. I merely batted my newly-mascaraed eyelashes, smiled my rueful smile and refused to speak to them ever again.

How was it possible that they could not see I was the same person as in those dull high school years, only now better packaged? I proceeded to add their names to a long list of those dated and dispatched: A for Alan and Arnold, Alex; B is for Bob J, Bob C, Bill… It became a way to fall soundly asleep, counting the boys I had refused a second date.

But having girl-friends was like warming oneself in the glow of a fire. Every Friday noon, my friends and I would dash to hold court at The Coffee Mill, on Yorkville at the edge of U of T’s campus, delightedly languishing over lunches and coffee. And one incredible year, my friends treated me to celebrate my birthday in a cosy corner at the Benvenuto restaurant. I can still taste the incredible onion soup, softly candle lit, a welcoming banquette but more so, the comfort of acceptance, love and reassurance of being surrounded by people who not only “get you” but share the same appreciation of books and art. You are the marshmallow in the hot chocolate and you want that experience to last forever, feeling more of yourself to be amplified and made better by those surrounding you.

But life changes, people may grow apart and so did all of us.

Today I have accumulated new friends, easily. From my Pilates class, there is Julie and Ralph whose various interests and travel have lead us into new areas of exploration. Their excitement for travelling to Africa, especially the gorillas in Ruanda, triggered our own safaris to Botswana and South Africa. Previously I taught about Africa , but never dreamed that I would ever go there. Their excursions made me pursue it as a reality.

And Bailey approached me in a painting class. Still unspeaking, introverted, I did not reach out to her and yet, somehow we connected. We share similar conflicts and her comprehension and support have overwhelmed me.

Sandra is my mentor. She has children maybe 10 years younger than me, but her intelligence in knitting, sewing and quilting have resulted in out trips to Haliburton to further pursue our craft interests. I see her as a Renaissance woman, wise in areas beyond the crafts, thoughtful and interesting. She is also a business woman.

Andrea is a former teacher with whom I once taught, our relationship surviving where others did not. We spend more time together than when we were colleagues.Her insight and friendship substantiate one of the most important corner stones in my life.

Emma and I share a love of art history and interest in medical issues. We both love figure drawing.

Lately Mandy introduced me to the lunchtime concerts at the Richard Bradshaw where I am transported and opened to a new level of musical magic. We lunch over at the AGO and talk for hours.

Laurel from my old work position offers me new work opportunities. She made me feel valuable as a capable employee and a friend with whom I can enjoy a leisurely and long discussion at a professional level.

There are others too, and I think we add to each others’ lives in diverse and intriguing ways.

When my mother passed away, I heard from two former friends and to thank them , I arranged lunch. Careful not to revisit reasons for the parting of ways, we sat for an hour or so, reconnected, relaxed and I could recall why our relationships had endured for years. But interestingly after the lunches, neither former friend nor I hurried to set up another meeting. It was pleasant, a lovely sojourn but unlike the meetings with present friends, I ( and they, obviosuly) did not burn- as in the old days to see one other again.

Maybe people grow and harden into the people they always were meant to be, in spite of accruing experiences: children, parental issues, spousal upheavals and work situations.

Life is flux, change, adaptability, sadness and occasional moments of happiness. Even if our first friends do not last, we carry with us the memories of those encounters, and we treasure them as we move on.

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