My relatives look to me for family history. They say, “I don’t know what we’ll do when you’re gone!”
“Where am I going?” I ask, without thinking.
“Well, you know…” they reply
You get to a certain age and people start flying in for that ‘last’ visit. My Belgian brother has made several of those trips. I can imagine them saying to each other, “She’s 84. How much longer can she last?” I have no opinion. I had my cancer battle in my 60’s – twice – so far in the past that I don’t even think of myself as survivor. My doctor and I have agreed not stir the pot by tests and x-rays and Ct scans. The diagnosis is ‘old enough to die’ but doing well.
It’s true that I was the only member of the family to be born in the hills. I could memorize anything and I loved stories about the family’s past. In fact, however, there are vast stretches of my own life which are lost to me. Apparently I raised two children in ‘the house under the hill’ near the school where their father and I taught. At gun point, I could probably come up with five specific memories. I taught high school English for 30-years. Ditto. At least, I have a cupboard full of dated year books in the event I need to remember. The photo albums of my family are few and undated. The 8 m.m. movies are helpfully of French cathedrals and Greek ruins.
Soooo last Saturday I got an email from Grant M. who said he had been my student in 1985 and graduated in 1990. Probably I didn’t remember him, but he told me a small story about a day I wasn’t my usual sunshiny self – pause there. My marriage had come apart in full view of 2000 students and about 100 teachers, most of whom knew it was going to before I did. Of course Grant came on the scene 7 years later, time enough for me to cheer up and my father didn’t die until 1988, at which time we got acquainted with 3 different police departments. Okay. It is possible I smiled on occasion. Grant disturbed by my gloom that day in 1985 rushed to the local market and bought the biggest, red-est apple he could find. He put it on my desk. I came into the classroom from the prep room next door and exclaimed in delight. Ah ha, I had the memory, Grant skewed his body up in a dead giveaway as he sat down. He blushed as I laughed and pointed at him. He had warmed my heart.
In his email, he admitted that I used to yell at him, but he didn’t hate me for it. I think he was in grade nine then, one of 35 hormone-driven kids, outgoing, spontaneous and funny. But that was my stage, my audience, so cool it, Kid. His friends had advised him to get a transfer when they saw I would be teaching him, but he said he was glad he hadn’t because I had taught him how to write an exam as well as much else.
By 1990, he had grown into his features and made a handsome graduate
On yearbook day, it was customary for me to hand my book around so students could write in it. His comment was on the back of the front cover, number one. I began to read other comments. I always had students fill out an evaluation of me on the last day and I always threw them away unread as soon as they were gone. The advice I gave any teacher. Never, never read them. I mean would you ask your ex-husband to evaluate you? Some of the yearbook comments alluded wryly to their differences with me, which apparently had ended in a truce. Others gushed. They sounded as if I had saved them from an otherwise unenlightened life. And I was always, always happy. If only I had known. Well, I lived in the country and I read the best books and I showed them how Hamlet was like them.
Then I leafed through the 1990 book looking at the pictures. Life in the hallways was vibrant with life. They were vibrant with life. They were in love – usually with a whole group. They were funny. They were up to no good. They didn’t have hall passes. When I was on hall duty they sent someone like Grant in to distract me. Then they sneaked in the other door.
In the halls my inability to recognize faces made me smile at one and all, really to duck and cover because sensitive little thing that I was, the noise and chaos overwhelmed me.
Grant said he told his children how much he liked me, how I’d helped make him what he is, how glad he was to have found me alive and well.
At a certain point in my career I had mentored new teachers and my job as department head had that same role. I always told them a good teacher was measured not by what she knew but by what she was. That was what the students learned.
Grant M. has a gift for reaching out and reminding me and no doubt others that alone as they feel, pandemic or not, they are loved.
Remember when the worst holiday problem was Uncle Joe who defended a point of view you hated. Now it’s literally a life and death problem.
So I didn’t fly to Los Angeles and drive up into the Kern Mountains to enjoy American Thanksgiving with my immediate family. I spend the afternoon in Mississauga researching Door Dash, Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes for roast beef restaurant takeout. This is Toronto or close enough. I don’t expect turkey. We never have turkey on the mountain anyway. Our eldest, even senior to me, and I am very senior indeed, doesn’t like turkey. We have roast beef from Whole Foods, which as I’m sure you know, entails a small second mortgage or at least a lien of the car. Three ribs usually does it.
Since Toronto is back to orange or maybe even red by today, there is no indoor dining and no outdoor either if by chance, you have a parka that warm. Chop and Cagney’s have roast beef on Sunday. It isn’t Sunday. The British pub has it every day and even has Yorkshire pudding or what it calls Yorkshire pudding but could serve as a hockey puck. The Keg seems to be confused offering every kind of delivery but impervious to ordering. I call them up. Sure I can get roast beef. I just have to pick it up. Would I like directions? No, thank you. It is our go-to place for major occasions, but how can I see a menu. “Just tell me what you want,” says Stephen. So I do. Dreaming it is Cagney’s, I order Caesar salad – it is definitely not Cagney’s superb Caesar, as it turns out – and the 10-ounce rib roast with mashed potatoes. And then dessert?
I can’t handle milk products, so, of course, I order Creme brule.
The first hurdle is that I have been shut in since March 13th except for early morning elder shopping in the grocery store. I step out of the lobby door into darkness. Whaaaat?! ‘Get a grip girl,’ I tell myself. I make my way north, do the left turn on Winston Churchill just before the freeway and park in The Keg’s empty parking lot. I call Stephen. The nice Bell telephone lady tells me to try again later. I tell her how many types of idiot she is and call again. And yes, Stephen says my dinner is waiting. I stride in the heavy door -once I had man-handled it open. The automatic thingee is taking Thanksgiving off. I present myself. Stephen is on the phone with his back to me. The young woman coming toward me looks alarmed. She stops more than 6-ft. away.
“Could you put your mask on, please?’
I already have glasses and a tight fitting tam, so I haven’t missed the additional stricture of the mask, which I have taken off one ear to talk on the phone.
Shame! I am overcome. While I am apologizing profusely, she picks up my order and says, ‘It’s not as if it will kill me.’ ‘O God,’ I expostulate, ‘I certainly hope not.’
It turns out there was a line for tip on the bill. You bet.
Here, where I live, no one fights the mask mandate. They want to go into stores. They never punch out the door person. Well, it’s true that one legislator and his looney followers demonstrate at the parliament building, but he’s been kicked out of caucus and the rallies are short and sweet, so they can get home in time for their afternoon meds.
How do you get 50 Canadians out of a pool in an emergency. ‘You say, “Please get out of the pool.”‘ Done.
On the way home, I irritate one young guy because I take too long turning left into a continuous stream of traffic. Just grateful he saved his horn concert until we were safely across. Like F—, I’m really old!
Unpacking the ‘hot’ bag, I am impressed. The main course is inside an insulated bag as is the warm bun. ‘There’s bread! And that lovely whipped butter with garlic and honey!’
I set to the hot food with my music on shuffle. It plays the Stones Paint it Black, Hugh Laurie’s St. James Infirmary and Leon Helm’s When I go Away. Eighteen months ago, I picked up my ex-husband’s ashes from St. James Crematorium, but I refuse to remember. I go with Leon who wants ‘no crying for this orphan boy’ ‘only tears of joy’.
The food is delicious, especially the bread and butter, even though or probably because I really can’t eat wheat or butter. I have opened a bottle of Berringer Chardonnay and poured two ounces. It’s true. I can’t drink alcohol. The beef is beyond description, streaked with buttery fat -I can’t really eat fat. Let’s just assume that everything on the table is an anathema to my digestion and a wonderful delight to my senses. As I am digging through the crust of burnt sugar on the dessert down to the yummy custard, I realize that I had not felt lonely once.
I’m not really an orphan. Well, legally I am but I am part of a 3 person bubble. At Canadian Thanksgiving in early October, we three singles – my sister, my niece and me – feasted together. My lovely niece cooked. We will do the same at Christmas. Usually if I am here and not in California, we drive an hour and some north to my other niece’s and join 6 to 9 children and 7 to 9 adults at a long table full of laughter.
In pictures, the youngest, Austin, is barely recognizable to me now. He is a real boy not a retiring toddler. His nearest sister, Jennifer, has lost her front teeth. Emily, their half-sister has become a statuesque young woman easily confused with her mother. Jason, the college student, is a taller mystery than ever. Quinn and Arya are still blonde and as free as ever. The other three are new step-dad inclusions and I haven’t got to know them.
We will miss the usual Christmas potlatch that my sister’s family goes in for.
Why not see them? I am 84. My sister is 78. My ‘bubble’ niece has serious health issues. We are willing giving up one Christmas to avoid dying alone on a ventilator lying prone. That last part – arrrrgh! But of course I would be unconscious by then. My son wouldn’t be tenderly sitting beside me, the way he did for his father. My daughter wouldn’t be able to show up in the ICU, from across the continent, as I have done for her.
If you are putting your hand up for that, you’re a ‘better man than I am, Gunga Din’. (Literary reference there. Google it.)
When I put on a mask, even now as the weather grows cold, I don’t breathe well and I get sudden hot spells. But I have absolutely no doubt that they work to prevent me infecting others and others from infecting me. Staying home except for essential shopping has protected me. Staying at least 6-ft. away from ‘non-bubble others’ has kept me safe. Luckily, I don’t have employment concerns because of my age. I do lose my mind staying in, on a fairly regular basis. On the other hand, I spend at least 2-hrs a day talking to others on video. Once a week or so, we three bubblers see each other in person. We don’t wear masks but we don’t hug either.
Nine and half months of living alone has been an education in mental health. Every emotional collapse has brought some more insight. It is very painful. It is nearly a year of invested time that I’m not about to throw away. But what if someone told you all you had to do to save your life was cover your mouth and nose and sit on your couch.
Some of us are hard to like. Apparently. I count myself among that number. I don’t feel dislikeable and I don’t dislike other people. I have five friends, but four of them are related to me. Despite my age, it’s not that most of them have died off either. I’m not aware that I have made enemies, but then I didn’t need to. I kept my father’s name most of my life, so I inherited his enemies, an even longer list than Barbara Amiel’s. A new Facebook friend from Dad’s old home town mentions she has friended me to someone and promptly blocks me. All you can do is shrug. Nothing personal.
I observe that lack of friends runs in the family.
Barbara Amiel, who recently published her memoir, Friends and Enemies, has listed all of both at the back of the book, a separate list for the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. The Friend list runs to a page and half, double-columned for each jurisdiction. The Enemy lists are shorter, comprised of the judges, lawyers and bureaucrats, chiefly American, who set out to ruin her husband Conrad Black, the Hollinger newspaper baron. A good number of people she thought were her friends turned out not to be, dropping Lord and Lady Black to preserve their own reputations. On the other hand, some people who weren’t even in the Black’s inner circle were astonishingly supportive.
Barbara Amiel is well aware that her caustic wit and fixed, somewhat libertarian views- her support of Israel for example – she is Jewish – grind on some people’s nerves. She began as a model for Eaton’s catalogue in Toronto. She was and is very beautiful, reason enough for dislike by some women. She became a columnist in Canada, then the editor of the Sun newspaper in Toronto and was eventually featured in the Sunday Times and the Times of London. She was dropped by nearly all of them when Chicago prosecutors went after Conrad.
Conrad Black is an amiable fellow, who quickly made friends at FCI Coleman, the federal prison in Florida, as he served his 78 month sentence. He taught history to other inmates. He was jammed, the third person, into a two-person cell. Being very tall, he habitually hit his head on the bunk above him. He has a reputation for kindness and generosity. Very early in his career, he was also pilloried when he sold the Dominion Grocery chain in Canada and raided the employee pension fund. He considered this legal and astute. I was one of those outraged by this action, but in view of his 15-year struggle with the American justice system, his 3 1/2 years in prison, the fact the appeal court dropped most of the charges eventually and he lost much of his wealth, I have forgiven him. I’m sure he’s relieved.
He also has a reputation for being long-winded, and pompously well-informed. More damning, his columns in the National Post support Donald Trump. Only natural, you say, President Trump pardoned him. Personally, I believe that Conrad would not publish something he did not believe in repayment. That seems to imply that I feel he is as a person of integrity if of poor judgement.
Barbara, who had had three husbands before she married Conrad, married up in two cases, men of considerable wealth.There used to be a rumour that Margaret Atwood’s novel RobberBride was based on Barbara. All must be forgiven, for Barbara describes sitting with Peggy Atwood in the garden on Park Lane Circle. In fact, she came away from her marriages with only a relatively small settlement, which she gave back eventually. But then she famously said, “My extravagance knows no bounds”. It wasn’t even altogether true. Her jewels were no where near up to those of the other socialites in her Manhattan group. But true enough to become the watchword once the ‘scandal’ broke.
Barbara tries to understand why these women do not take her to their bosoms on p. 201 of the book. She concludes that being over 50, they don’t really have the energy to get to know someone new and they do not share her interest in politics, policy or even music.
I would say they were numbskulls myself, but that proves why I have no friends. I’m a snob – intellectually -without really having the right to be.
My sister, my daughter, my niece -count ’em three – and I were so busy establishing and maintaining careers while raising children, that we had no time to lunch. Socially, we might have gone to one party a year, usually work related. When life finally spewed us out into stiller waters, we looked around and found a book club. But no, that didn’t work. Being frog-marched through books of other people’s choosing and having to listen to their ideas was painful. Or we found a yoga group taught by someone less limber and knowledgeable than ourself. I do try to temper my snarkiness – except in the company of the family. I will probably never be a match for Barbara. She will not remember ever meeting me, but in a glancing pass, she once insulted my sister. In retaliation, I announced loudly, “And you’re just a brain in high heels.”
It doesn’t matter. All is forgiven. I dare you to read her book and not like her by the end.
The Park Lane house had been George Black’s and Conrad had lived there all his life. It was the last of their four houses to go. Barbara had sold the Palm Beach house, the Fifth Ave. apartment and the London house in an effort to pay for lawyers good enough to win the case, but each time the relevant bureaucrat stepped in to seize the proceeds. At one point, they had no more than the change in their pockets
It is my opinion that whatever wrongs people think Barbara may have committed were more than balanced out by her 15-year support of her husband. If not quite enough, we can count the kindness and care she gave George Jonas, her second ex-husband when he was dying slowly of Parkinson’s.
Next week Netflix is going to premiere Hillbilly Elegy starring Glenn Close and so I am re-posting the two posts I wrote about J.D. Vance’s book and how it related to my family’s life.
I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy not as a political explanation of why a crazy man is in the White House, or why a generation of white men is unemployed and opioid addicted – although it is both – but as a personal reflection.
At the age of 5 in 1941, having just moved to a small town 30 miles from the ‘hills’ I came from, I screamed, “Runaway horse, runaway horse”. My cries led to much merriment. It was the first time I had seen a horse-drawn van. When I was 12, a city classmate asked me why I talked and walked funny? I thought my difference was safely hidden inside. I set about immediately losing my hill twang and my bouncy stride in desperation to ‘pass’. The drama society helped immeasurably, although in my 6th decade, I still imagined I would drop the crystal wine glass, and somehow shatter it on the deep pile of the Persian carpet. I knew how to behave in a five star hotel, but I wanted the staff to stop grovelling.
You can take the girl out of the hills, but even in her old age, you can’t take the hills out of the girl.
J.D. Vance poses the question: how can a hillbilly develop the confidence to go to Yale, become a lawyer and write a best seller. He has always been J dot D dot, but he was born James David Bowman. After his father allowed his mother’s third husband to adopt him, he became James Donald Hamel. After that his mother, a trained nurse, went through a string of men, a lot of alcohol and a good many drugs including heroin. J.D. was saved by his maternal grandparents, the Vance’s, Mamaw and Papaw. Their house near his mother’s was a refuge.
The Vance’s had left the holler in Jackson, Kentucky when Mamaw got pregnant at 13. Papaw was then 16. They went north. She lost that child, but Papaw got a job at the Armco. He enjoyed a drink or two with the other Kentuckian immigrants.Whole families moved up to Middletown at Armco’s encouragement. Out of the coal mines into the steel mill. Mamaw eventually kicked her drunken husband out, but he had reformed by the time J.D. needed him. It was true even in her old age, Mamaw could still take down grown men and did so whenever necessary.
My family came from a northern branch of Appalachia in Quebec, and twanged and drawled more New England than southern. When the war ended in 1945, my 4H father lost his job to a returning veteran. He moved us in a borrowed gravel truck to Ontario. My seat was in the gravel bed wedged among the furniture under a moldy tarp . I was armed with a package of Asper gum to quell motion sickness and a flashlight to be used only in emergency. My companion was a 14-yr-old Ontario boy, Daddy’s moving assistant. In those days, before super highways, the distance measured 800 miles and took all night and well into the next day. I remember only the first hour. The banging and bumping of shifting furniture and the steel gravel bed, hitting the tarp, trying not to throw up or panic is mercifully all but forgotten. The gum and the game of shadow animals had lost their effectiveness. I was convinced that my parents and two little sisters were forever gone. A gravel truck bed doesn’t access the cab’s window. The gravel never has to pee.
Thus we arrived in the much more advanced province of Ontario, Canada, in true hillbilly fashion, and finally ate sandwiches for breakfast on the grass at the side of the road.
We ended up eventually in the heavy industry town of Hamilton. Three of my mother’s five brothers arrived in due course to get jobs at Stelco and turn into alcoholics. My father never needed any help achieving an altered state. He could turn on a dime, faster than we could duck and run.
Violent, alcoholic, check and check, but did we have the Kentucky code of loyalty to family. I don’t think so. J.D. got in early, clobbering boys who said as little as “Yo Mama.” If anybody needed clobbering around me, well – I was the oldest, girl or not, and my weapon was mainly a loud, nasty voice. Once, all four female family members jumped on his back and took down our father as he whipped the smallest Then hurled his belt into a hay field. By the time he found it, he was sweating and not in the mood anymore. I want to say he was giggling, and perhaps he was, but my father’s giggle was just another danger sign.
In short, our family home reverberated with loud verbal and physical violence as did Vance’s home with its serial father figures – he said living with his mother and one ‘Matt’ was like witnessing the end of the world- as did the homes of hillbillies in general.
Vance’s grandparents still had strong ties to Jackson KY which was only three hours away and they visited often reinforcing the values of family loyalty, hard work and hard play.
As a 9-yr-old, I was convinced we could never go back to the hill. I would never again see the great aunt who had taught me to love Jesus. She had also helped me become a friend of an older cousin. His mother was ‘the teacher’ at the one-room school, and he was going to university himself. Never again see the ‘rich” and educated woman across the street I had befriended when I was five.
My mother grieved as though she could never go back. On the hill, she had had all of the women she had known since childhood, no matter how annoying, as backup. In the small town, she had had her cousin from the hills at the other end of our rented triplex. Now she had no one and she lost her mind. She locked me in a trunk. If not for my 3-yr-old sister, I would have stayed there until my father came home from the gravel pit in Orangeville the next weekend.
Still I did well in school. I was determined to. It made my father proud.
Vance was not such a good student. It was hard for him to find a quiet refuge to study, except at his grandparents. Fortunately, my father worked two jobs. After supper, I could count on the time until midnight to quietly study.
As well as his more or less stable grandparents, J.D. had his Uncle Jimmy Blanton who flew him out to visit him in Napa Valley. These visits and trips with his grandparents expanded his possibilities. When J.D. graduated from high school, he knew he was absolutely not ready for college. He joined the marines. In three years, including a stint in Iraq, he learned an altogether different code of living – disciplined, orderly, self-controlled, He came back to do three college years in two, and to get admission to Yale law school. He credits one of his professors for mentoring and guiding him. And most of all the woman he fell in love with and married.
The boy I fell in love with came from working class Yorkshire, England, but his mother worked as a secretary in a law office and was a terrible snob. I was way beneath her son, but caving in to the inevitable, she took up my education, lending me books I hadn’t found in libraries, introducing me to English eating, gin, sherry and trifles. Then I escaped my violent home by insisting on living on the university campus. There the dean of women and all the middle-class girls continued my training in social niceties. I even ended pouring the tea at one of our white gloved afternoons. The manager of the retail department store which had given me money for tuition, was fond of asking me to pour tea for his guests. Much to my humiliation, for I had to sit still while he praised for 5 minutes. Hillbillies don’t cowtow.
The coal mines in Kentucky shut down. Armco and Stelco went steadily downhill as car manufacturing turned from solid steel to steel frame and plastic. My mother, who had worked in an aluminum plant, and the two uncles who stuck it out in steel, died young of cancer. My father stayed on as a mechanic at Ford, Oakville until he retired.
The three girls in my family earned degrees and had careers. Our dyslexic brother got his education on the road -Europe, India, Afghanistan, Turkey. He married a Belgian French girl and made a career in film and antiques. He never in his life borrowed money until a few months ago. In the 3rd and 4th generation, most have college degrees and all have jobs, although one is caught up in the gig industry. Economic downturns have left some of us the worse for wear. I no longer own my home, for example, but I am constantly surprised that we didn’t end up homeless addicts considering our impoverished and abusive beginning.
J.D. Vance’s book is called Hillbilly Elegy, a song of lamentation for the dead. In this case a whole class of people, without cohesion or identity. Gone. The hillbillies had valued family loyalty, hard work, God and the American Dream. They moved north in large part to give their children a better future, as our father did. When industry failed and they couldn’t get work, they continued to pay lip service to industriousness, even though they never worked a day in their lives. Vance says they practice avoidance and wishful thinking, living on welfare, addicts and alcoholics, like his own mother and her string of boy friends.
Vance regrets that.
Our hill culture has been assimilated. We live in Ontario, California, Belgium and Boston. The hill itself is nearly depopulated. The fields, so laboriously cleared, are going back to trees -plantations and wild woods. I keep a picture of our mountain on my computer. I do not think I will see it with my own eyes again.