Pack in Haste: regret at leisure


You’ve see those movies where the grifters have to leave town asap. They throw their clothes, hangers and all, into suitcases. Easy to do, because they had only one suitcase of clothes to begin with. Or the flee-ers scoop everything out of drawers into suitcases, which they slam shut. In comedies, some personal item trails out.

This time I had a 2 hour notice that I had to get from Toronto to Southern California. (Last time I got maybe 20 hrs.) It took me a half hour to figure out how to book  ticket while in a state of shock. (Definitely, on-line. Definitely don’t pay attention to prices.) Signed, sealed, delivered, checked in, bag paid for, boarding pass printed. Now what to pack?

I had made the same trip under more relaxed conditions, in early May, four weeks earlier. No problem, pack what I took then.

I dragged the purple suitcase out of the back of the long narrow cupboard. I set it on the blanket box at the foot of the bed, opened it and began flinging clothes at it. I had to be at the airport at 6 p.m. It was 5. Okay, this isn’t working.

I phoned Blake, my ex-husband. He knew he would have to drive me to the airport already. I said, “You have to come now,” I can’t think. He was with his young female friend. Let’s call her Noreen. “As soon as he could,” he said. They were caught in traffic. I kept flinging clothes. Breaking off now and then to empty the fridge, tie up the garbage, unplug the fountains. Forget the timer for the lights. I could cancel the papers once I got there. I was a whirling dervish.

5:20, they arrived.

“Joyce, this is Noreen” etc. I had heard a lot about Noreen. She seemed amiable enough.

“Can you two roll all this stuff up tightly and pack it.” The first time I’d met her and she was rolling my underwear.

I was stuffing toiletries into a plastic bag. When they finished, I put the dresses, etc. into the top compartment where they stood a small chance of not getting wrinkled.

They dropped me at Pearson International airport at 6:15. Noreen helped me put the bags on a cart and hugged me goodbye. Big surprise. No crowds. I self-served all the way through baggage check, customs, immigration, baggage loading – a nice Jamaician man lifted my bag onto the belt and sang me a song of his own devising- and finally, that metaphysical hurdle, security check, to arrive in good time at the gate for an 8:15 departure.

I forgot to mention the stop at the exchange counter. I have several hundred untouchable U.S. dollars in the bank, untouchable unless I present myself at the bank counter to claim them. I paid $138 Cdn for $100 US.


At the first of June, on the mountain, north of Los Angeles, I survey my suitcase. What a difference a month makes! 24 times 31 little hours! It is hot, even at 5000 feet.

The grey wool suit, however light, is a non-starter. The tights will work on cold mornings or for midnight trysts. The desert cools down at night, especially at altitude. I have one t-shirt. No problem, here are 3 t-shirts from my male host. They should work. No shorts. Not even any capris or clam diggers. Well, here are 3 dresses and a wrap-around skirt that my size 2 hostess can give me. I am a size 14, but by some miracle, these are loose and flowing – on her. On me, not so much. I have brought the top of my bathing suit but not the bottom. (You should have some fun even in the middle of an emergency.) You know how they always say, “You can buy what you need when you get there.” They weren’t talking about the wilds of Kern County, but it is true in this one case. I find myself in Bakersfield and  buy a black bottom in Walmart. No sandals. No problem. I order some from Birkenstocks. I do not upgrade the shipping. Two weeks later I try to track the package. It has just been accepted by the mail service. In China. I pull out the silky tank top. It’s not the plain, soft one. It’s covered with glittery bits of plastic, like scales. I bought it for a costume.

Everyday, I discover new left-behinds: the list of my passwords for example. And no one will believe that I know my mother’s maiden name.

Bell has handed my cell coverage over to AT&T. The mountain is served only by Verizon. I send pleading texts from other people’s phones: please water the plant, did my parcel from Amazon come? Have they stopped paper delivery?

I can get most websites on my computer up here, but not my bank’s. I am reduced to telephone banking. How 90s!

They say that new experiences keep the aging brain young. I figure mine has dialed back to 17.




Cold Snap: reflections on winter and its clothes

So we’re having a cold snap. According to the news, we are all in a dire situation. The city has declared an extreme cold weather alert as well it should. More beds have been made available to the homeless. I hope the guy I saw crossing Queen’s Park, wearing two t-shirts, got one of them. I felt like jumping out of the car and taking him somewhere to buy a jacket. Maybe he had one in that pack he was carrying on his back, but I doubt it. It looked more like a sleeping bag. So I’m not against cold weather alerts. I’m against hysteria. I’m against it mainly because I am susceptible to it.

In actual fact, it isn’t that cold in Toronto, not compared to North Bay, for example, where it is -22C/-5F going down to -27C/-17F that’s -40/-40F when the windchill is factored in. Here it is only -11C/-9F with a windchill of about -17C/0F. True the snow sounds crunchy and most of us move snappishly out of doors. Still construction and road repair goes on, although I notice that they are rotating the sign guys faster than usual. Even those hardy souls need to get warm after an hour or so.

But now that we have 24 hour news, every weather event gets hyped out of all proportion. It’s hard to say whether it actually rains harder or we just think it does because of the news. Gone are the days of my childhood when a hurricane could sneak up on us. All to the good of course, but …

Today when I checked my local 24 hour news channel for the weather, I was told how to dress – my warmest coat, hat, gloves, scarf. Makes you wonder who they think they are talking to. Maybe the teenagers who won’t listen to mom.

There have always seemed to be those who can’t bear to wear a hat. They probably started out life as toddlers who tore their hats off and threw them down as soon as possible. Some of them, paradoxically, grew up to be teenagers who got their wool toques confiscated in class because they refused to take them off.

In general, I observe, that people dress more warmly these days. probably because they can. Long ago, long before you can remember, the warmest fabric you could buy was wool. Well, of course there was fur but since you couldn’t afford it, it might as well not have existed. Even the cheapest fur, euphemistically called Persian lamb, was out of the question. It was actually just a dolled up, reverse version of my grandfather’s barn coat, a sheepskin with the sheep’s wool turned in and the hide itself out. When you bought a coat in those days the most you could hope for was a chamey in the back, between the lining and the wool, to cut the wind. That is chamois, which my dictionary tells me is soft, pliable leather from sheep, goats or deer. You had to turn the coat upside down and fish around inside the lining to make sure it was there. Such a wool coat, a kerchief and galoshes over shoes did not provide much protection from fierce cold and snow.

As a child, I had worn rubber boots in the winter which, despite thick hand-knitted socks, were fearfully cold, but they wouldn’t do for a young lady on her way to Central High. One of my early purchases from my first job at 15 was a pair of snow boots.

It was children’s wear that saw the first widely produced quilted fabric. My children’s snow suits were padded with cotton and they had hoods. Still the only adult wear of that sort were snowmobile suits, one of which I acquired at the earliest opportunity even though I rode on a snowmobile only once. I still had it nearly 20 years later when I moved to a country town in the snow belt. I wore it on my long drive to work on bad days. I am happy to say that I never did need it, never having found myself stranded on a deserted road.

Then down-filled ski jackets came onto the market, but they had a very sporty look and women especially stayed with the more decorous dressy wool coat. I found a long down-filled coat in an outdoor outfitter store, which filled me with joy. It would take courage to show up at work wearing this big puffy garment but I was up to it. As I approached the women’s cloak room the first day I wore it, I met the teacher down the hall. She was wearing the exact same coat.

Now, there are sleeker, lighter, longer coats with “fur” trimmed hoods that extend beyond the face to shield it from the wind. They have zippers and snaps. Even the pockets zip. And many women are wearing them. Suddenly, being warm seems to trump looking dressed up. Not that such coats aren’t elegant in their own way. And washable to boot.

Then there are the fur-lined aviator caps with ear flaps and ties under the chin. The fur, like the coat fur, is fake or sheepskin. For a few years, I was the only one wearing such a hat, but this year, I see them everywhere. Like the coats, they are made in China, where such hats and quilted garments are nothing new.

When I hurriedly left for Los Angeles last month, I wore such a coat, not having time to consider the question. To my credit, I left the aviator cap at home and grabbed a red wool tam instead. I needn’t have worried about looking out of place. Southern California has mountains after all and down coats don’t merit a second look.

It occurs to me that somewhere people are collecting that down the way my grandmother used to collect the feathers from the barnyard chickens she plucked, hoarding it away to be stuffed into ticks to make feather beds.

The Weight: Take a Load off Annie
he Weight by the Band from The Last Waltz

I’ve just shed weight in preparation for winter. No not that kind. I would like to lose pounds of actual me, but it goes very slowly about 2 lbs a month if I don’t even look at sugar and wine. The weight I have lost has come out of closets and storage spaces.

This is what I have thrown out/left on the curb/shredded/taken to the thrift shop in the last week:

a full length mirror with gilt frame;

a favourite Indian rug too big for my room;
all floppy discs, a floppy disc reader, the ZIP drive and its discs;
4 years of tax returns,
12 steno pads detailing flight options,
packing lists and hand-drawn maps, dating back to ’97;
10 tiny notebooks with grocery and to do lists;
pay stubs dating back to ’80;
2 boxes of research for a book that has been finished for years;
a large collection of postcards bought while travelling;
a large, puffy, pink elephant with a top handle;
a red velour hat that looks as if it were lost by the Mad Hatter;
some very bad poetry (I kept the somewhat bad poetry);
the white suit my 4 year-old wore as ring bearer;
a vase made by one of my children at summer camp;
their first books with their childish signatures.

The christening dress is due to go, we all agree. Not only has church-going fallen off en famille, people persist in marrying Jews. Anyway, it isn’t silk. It isn’t hand embroidered and although it was as much beauty as we could afford back then, it has to be admitted, it is ugly. Clearly, my courage has faltered or it would not still be in the keepsake box.

Late Breaking News: it isn’t.

Here’s what I haven’t given up: the 100 year-old portraits of my grandparents -I bought them a plastic storage box; my first novel – I might be able to use some of that detail about Greece -I certainly couldn’t actually read it; the pictures minus the negatives (but they could do with weeding); the canner – whaaaat?; the roast pan and lid; the portable sewing machine.

Here’s what I need to do: sort through the clothes hanging at the far end of my long, narrow closet – the houndstooth suit -what was I thinking?-, the gauzy red flowing  Indian thing, the jaloba from Morocco, not to mention the multiple  jeans in size 10 and the same number in size 12; my mother’s costume jewellery, and my mother-in-law’s and that third box that belonged to the stranger I used to be; my degree handwritten in Latin with a plaid ribbon! – these decisions require courage.

I feel much lighter in spite of what the scale reports. The air seems fresher. It is easier to breathe. All that past I was dragging behind felt like the slime of a dragon’s tail. Why did I think I needed it? I never looked at it. It seems to have functioned as insulation or protection, not effectively of course. Come to think of it, whenever I have been able to fit into those size 10 jeans, I have always felt on the verge of vanishing.

Is there a lesson here?

Septuagenarians in the Wilderness: part 2

There is, thank heavens, no 15 minute wait at the train crossing. The crews apparently take the opportunity to climb down from their freight trains in this little town. Unfortunately, this means that the train’s mile-long tail blocks the road to the cottage. Today I quickly turn onto the road that runs parallel to the tracks and it changes from pavement to black top to gravel, getting ever smaller. Signs warn me repeatedly that the tiny dirt road is now private so what am I doing there and, moreover, I am ordered to stop for snakes and turtles neither of which I see. Finally, after the usual panic that surely I have missed the hidden turn, I find it and bump over rock and hillocks into a clearing in the woods where the cottage sits basking in the sun.

Beach picture from previous year

I step out of the Yarris into 95 degree heat with my usual grace after long sitting and hobble around until I can get things stretched and operational. Then I carry my Tim’s tea around the cottage down to the beach where I can see the others. On either side of the clearing, a 50 or 60 year-old wood of birch and maple and beech stands, unmoved and calming.

There are 4 children playing in the water and 5 adults sheltering under a white canopy, one of whom is my sister, Georgia, the founder of the feast, for it is Georgia who has rented the cottage with her carefully saved substitute-teacher’s pay.

The cottage can sleep 12 in its 2 bedrooms and loft, but there is also a brand new cabin hidden in the woods where the children and their parents are staying. It, like the main building, is fully screened against insect predation. Both have screened porches and the larger one has a big deck looking out on the lake.

A group of 6 has been there already for a week. Georgia and my older niece arrived yesterday. My niece moves from the bedroom she has shared with Georgia and re-makes her bed in the loft, not an easy choice to make because the loft is open to the noise of the main room below. She is honouring her elder.

The Wilderness Effect

I have shared houses with my daughter’s family and never experienced the wilderness effect in them. They were in Los Vegas, however, the last place on earth for the wilderness effect. Even though there were just as many people and emotionally charged events – a memorial service for grandpa and a wedding, there were no meltdowns. Plumbing disasters, inconvenient babysitting expectations, varying standards of housekeeping, but no need for interventions or group therapy sessions.

On the other hand, not one of our camping trips in the High Sierras passed without it. Others at the same campsite above the Kern River dealt with the wilderness effect by drinking copious qualities of beer and howling like wolves to scare off bears. In our camp, usually on the 3rd or 4th day, we found ourselves sitting in a circle listening to an older child express his angst or holding a screaming younger child or shaking heads in disbelief when gran nearly perished from insomnia. (Something about the altitude and all those stars wheeling overhead.) It must be all that fresh air, all this patient trees, the safety net of the family that brings it on.

In this case, it starts with wind. Saturday morning, Georgia has just come up from sitting under her new orange umbrella, 4 others are sheltered in the shade of the canopy and the children are hunting mussels in the lake. I am in the cottage with a view out the glass front. Suddenly, the umbrella’s neck is twisted and broken and the children watch in disbelief as a great funnel of sand flies up. Those under the canopy shield their faces. The canopy, metal frame and white cover intact rises, hovers six feet over their heads, turns on its side and speeds thirty feet across the clearing to land 15 feet up in the trees.

True the cottage sits at the end of a long stretch of water, wooded on both sides, that forms a wind-alley but this is ridiculous.

Much of the rest of the morning is spent debriefing and fishing the canopy down with oars.

Dinner at a hibachi bar, in a town an hour away, is scheduled this evening, to celebrate Georgia’s approaching 70th birthday. We have reservations for 14. Three more, including Georgia’s other grandchildren are expected to arrive soon.

I am on the screened porch when I hear an uproar from the cabin.  One parent arrives, very het up, seeking intervention. A passionate difference of opinion has arisen over appropriate child discipline.  The most objective of our group is sent forth to reason. One half of the blended family, having secured the car keys, departs precipitously, leaving the other half without transportation. A less objective person, that is to say a mother, makes the trek to the cabin. The remaining children and parent are whisked away for lunch in the aforementioned town.

Those of us left behind contemplate the wilderness effect.

I make a quick trip down the private road and over the tracks, to buy Georgia a bunch of Gerber daisies and a bottle of Moet & Chandron. I stow them in the cabin to keep them out of sight. When I carry them to the main cottage later, I meet an exasperated 7 year-old.

“What are they for?” she asks.

“They’re for Grandma Georgia’s birthday,” I reply.

“I guess you didn’t know my birthday was on Wednesday,” she says.

“I didn’t,” I reply. “Sorry. What would you like for a late birthday present.”

“I’d like to find my pink dress,” she declares and stomps away.

Alas, it turns out that her pink dress had been carried off by the departing parent in hastily packed luggage.

As a fitting end to a perfect day, the hibachi chef sets his hat of fire.

More to come.






Dress Code #2

In the list of search terms that brought viewers to my blog post, Dress Code, I found “panty hose worn with short shorts”. I cringe a little wondering whether this was a search by a girl seeking sartorial instruction or a guy with a fetish. Nevertheless, it spurred two of us to come up with the rest of the outfit. The shorts have to be white and the shoes white, high-heeled strappy sandals. A tube top in hot pink and yellow stripes is the perfect addition to this outfit, which will be just the thing for a summer funeral.

Dress Code

“What should I wear,” he asked. It was a hot day. We planned to take the dog for a hike through the woods before dinner and Blake preferred shorts, the shorter the better.

Many years ago, he had cut off a pair of jeans, rather, it must be said, too short and had worn them for many years to every family gathering from Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving, thereby, scandalizing his mother-in-law.

“Bring a pair of long pants,” I suggested. La Veranda Osteria took reservations so perhaps it was somewhat formal.

I was loathe to say that. For the most part no one tells us what to wear anymore. Mostly but not entirely.

A  week earlier, he had asked a few of us to the Sail Past at his yacht club. “The invitation calls for dress whites and navy blazers,” he added, “but people ignore that.” I had planned to wear white and navy anyway, seeing it as an occasion to play dressup.

Wearing white pants on the deck of a sail boat is a challenging affair at the best of times, what with winding wet sheets around winches, but that Saturday turned out to be rainy: you step into the sailboat by stepping onto the seat cushion with your muddy shoes. At the skippers’ meeting, the decision was made to cancel the sail because the lake was too choppy for dozens of boats to sail in close quarters past the commodore’s boat to salute him.  All the more time to hang out, waiting for the reception, dinner and dance, and so we found ourselves in the bar. Strictly speaking, it was not the bar, but the dining room and “strict” is what I am speaking about.

The air conditioner was running full tilt despite the cool weather, pouring cold air down onto the top of my head and my neck. I can’t abide that. I reached over, picked up my hither-to-unnecessary straw hat and put it on my head. It had barely settled my hair when the waiter appeared at my elbow and whispered something unintelligible. I needed translation. She was telling me to remove my hat.

She was telling ME to remove my hat. But I am female. I have a licence – just a minute, it’s here somewhere. I got it when I was born into this western society. Not only am I allowed to wear a hat anywhere I want, there are still places where it is mandatory. Aren’t there? I spent the first half of my life, travelling with a kerchief (a square scarf which is folded into a triangle- oh, just picture Queen Elizabeth with her dogs on a wet day) in case I wanted to visit a church or cathedral. And now  I’m being told not to. Apparently, I had walked right by that sign that said so.

I took it off. I didn’t want to make a scene, pull out my six shooter, so incompatible with the genteel chapeau.

I could just imagine that oh-so-politically-correct discussion where it was deemed unfair to tell men to remove their hats in the dining room if women were wearing theirs. The rule was a great leveller. I had been levelled!

What if I were Muslim, I wondered. I fantasized coming in wearing a headscarf. Then let them try to tell me what to wear!

 Wait a minute, wasn’t that more or less what France had just done and Quebec was threatening to do?
Who gets told what to wear these days? Hapless bridesmaids are probably still suffering in ugly dresses and bearing their expense. My Californian grandson unwrapped a red toque with genuine gratitude; his science teacher had just seized his last one. Catholic girls have to remember to roll their skirt bands back down before they go back to class. But from the looks of red carpet fashion and the girls in the club district, dress codes have gone the way of boned corsets and farthingales.
At the age of 22, weighing all of 120 lbs. I set off to teach my first high school class encased in a girdle. No rule book mandated this, but a well-bred young woman knew she shouldn’t jiggle. On extremely hot days, pre-air conditioned schools, I was mortified to have to slough it off in favour of garter belt and stockings.
Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end!
Boys were not yet suspended for wearing baseball hats. They knew better than to try. It was several years before they were suspended for wearing shorts. I remember one who demonstrated the resolve of Thomas More, defying Henry VIII. It was reasonable in his opinion to wear short pants in the June heat. As soon as his suspension was over, he came back to school – in shorts. I passed him coming down the up staircase.
Blake recalls arriving at that school’s first ever staff meeting in a pink shirt and forever sealing his reputation as a renegade by so doing.
In the depth of sub zero winter, my small daughter set off for school wearing pants under her wool skirt, permitted to do so only if she removed them in the cloakroom. We saw that women were beginning to wear what we called slacks to work on television, but always with a jacket. Eventually, word came down from on high, that female teachers would be permitted to wear “pant suits” so long as the jackets were of a modest length. (Code for over the bum, babes)
By then someone had invented panty hose. You didn’t need all that rig and tackle to hold up stockings after all.  There was a new and dangerous freedom in the air.  GIrls as well as boys wore jeans. GIrls started wearing short shorts. Bras became optional. My favourite anecdote on that score concerns the vice principal who, in his role as inspector, evaluated a fellow teacher and wrote in his report that she was wearing false nipples. She, of course, was not, but she had a good idea what he had been inspecting.
In the larger world, the smelly wool jacket loaned out to men who arrived at, say, Honest Ed’s Steakhouse, improperly attired, got retired from duty. Blake stopped sending five dress shirts to the laundry every week. We relaxed and let it all hang out, even at the prom, well, especially at the prom. There even came a time, when some of us vowed never again to encase ourselves in pantyhose like a nyloned sausage. And even that was doable.
Dinner at La Veranda Osteria was excellent, really fresh greens in the salad, mouthwatering lobster stuffed pasta and  Blake remarked he was glad he had changed into his pants. It was that sort of place. And I wore my hat throughout.