This was my thirtieth year to heaven, Dylan Thomas wrote in 1944 in his lyrical and joyful way. I was 30 when I fell in love with that line. That was a good year for me, 1967. It was the year we moved our young family to the house under the hill, where pheasants called in the copse above, where we planted rock gardens and shrub gardens and put up a martin house and built a dry stone wall around a pool. It was the year I got a job as assistant English head at the school down the street, where my husband was head of math. It was the year Canada turned 100. Everything was going to be fine.
Of course I knew that the poet had one last – joyful, I hope – alcoholic binge one November day in 1954 and never got to write This is my fortieth year to heaven, I also knew that he had admonished us not to go gentle into that good night, but to rage against the dying of the light. It seems as if Thomas had an ambivalent attitude to death. Or life. Like many of us.
This is my eighty second year to heaven. Too late to scan. I should have written this two years ago.
I want to say I never expected to live this long and then impress you with all the reasons why: murderous parents, malignancy, suicidal inclination, but it is truer to say I never intended to live this long. At least, the conscious part of me, presumably the part that writes, did not intend to.
I intended to get my siblings to live into adulthood. Then having recklessly brought two more souls into the world, I wanted to do the same for them. So forty two?
That brought me to 1978 and a dark time when I bought only the smallest quantities of pain killers and never looked at bridge abutments on the highway. The next thing I knew a persistent vision of a grandchild called me back. Another generation to get through childhood.
Would you believe that now there is yet another? I’m not in the front line any more, of course, and this little girl is a merry soul who faces no immediate threat.
Except the world as we know it.
My belief is that the real me always intended to grow old, She kept it a secret from me because I couldn’t deal with longevity. She was right.
This week, I did the driver retest mandated for the elderly here in my jurisdiction. It involved sitting in a room of mostly little, old people who found drawing a clock showing ten after eleven a challenge. The instructor pleaded with us to make a list of alternatives to driving which we would shortly have to use. As I merged into rush hour traffic at 100 k. an hour on the busiest highway in North America without breaking a sweat, I thought perhaps the rumor of my decline was premature.
Here’s what I loved: babies, apple orchards, cherry trees in blossom, the full moon over the Tioga Pass, the beach on the Gulf of Corinth, a bunch of pre-schoolers crazy playing by themselves, a teen-aged boy of a Raleigh Racer, his older self in a racing green MGB, the bridge on the Seine near Notre Dame, mountains, pine trees, blue birds, coming about on a sailboat in a good wind, a feather bed, a kite straining at its leash high above Myrtle Beach, mockingbirds, the trade wind through an open window at 2 p.m. on Maui, orange blossoms scented from high on a wall in Morocco, Venus seen from a farmhouse veranda, a brook running with thaw melt, bells rung for victory, the Warsaw Concerto, a big, old Gardenia tree, an enormous date palm, a bench in Bois Fort, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sterling silver, barn owls, swallows, hawks. I have to stop here. There’s a party.
In my last post, ‘Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection’, I related J.D. Vance’s experience in a family from a Kentucky holler transplanted to an Ohio steel town, to my own. We left the Hill in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to come to a steel town in Ontario.
I pointed out that an elegy is a lament for the dead. But, honestly, who could lament the passing of a class of such people, prone to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of ambition, despair and, finally, sloth?
The short answer is me.
After I posted the article, I began to feel very sad. Was it just the mountain I missed, the sunny open hay fields, the granite and the slate, the noisy trout streams and the deep, sighing woods? Surely it could not be the macho male culture.
My young uncles, younger than me were my playmates initially. There was a young aunt too. Together we four, armed with sandwiches and a wire handled bottle of spring water, would hike off to the nearest brook to cool off. We jumped in the hay mow together, played ‘Kick the Can’ and held country music fests on the roof of the garage. Their father, my maternal grandfather, would sit with us on the porch as evening gathered, and point out Venus. He called the porch the ‘piazza’ to make us laugh.
Ostensibly, it was a teetotal society. Beer and booze in general were spoken of in whispers.
Because, at the time, I was my father’s only child, I got a glimpse into the hidden side of our community, quite unlike the church yard where the ladies stooped as the minister arrived in case their dresses were too short.
In this other world, the backwoods camps, there was plenty of hooch made by my great grandfather and served in bean cans. Rinsed at least once. The latest kill, in or out of season, would be on display. There would be much laughter at jokes I couldn’t really understand, and bad language.
Eventually, my young uncles’ voices got deeper and rougher. They left school at the end of grade seven and began hard labor in their early teens.
When my husband and I, with professional careers and two children, went back to the hill for Christmas, the ‘boys’ took my citified husband off to such a camp on snow mobiles. They didn’t come back that night. I was, of course, frantic. They had got him roaring drunk, a familiar and manageable state for them. In the morning out hunting, they handed my husband a rifle and dared him to shoot a ground hog sitting on a stump. He shot it through the eye and never forgave himself. (Either that or Hitler turned him into a really annoying pacifist.)
What’s not to love?
On the other hand, there was the Guild. The women met in the church hall, a splendid structure with an art noveau interior, a curtained stage and a kitchen. The dances that were held there were a kind of bacchanalia for us kids. The Guild meetings were more sedate. Perhaps we played with the crayons and paper from the Sunday School room in the church. The women sat in a circle and conducted business, usually about projects they were undertaking. Then they got on with the quilt they were piecing together to raffle off, or they took up their knitting, grey wool socks for the soldiers after 1939.
There was tea and home baking – cookies, squares, even a frosted cake. Not the luxurious spread of the oyster suppers or chicken dinners that ended with a glut of pie, but sugar nonetheless. Or some syrup substitute as rationing came in.
At the dances, the men would filter outside while the fiddle and the piano played South of the Border, Down Mexico Way. What went on out there, besides laughing and smoking was ignored, although female noses turned up at some of the returnees.
Guild meetings were altogether safer. For a year, I was the only baby on the Hill. I would have been adored by all those baby-loving women even if I were ugly. They led me to believe I was not. I remember lying on the edge of the stage being fitted into my snowsuit, while Maude, my mother’s cousin, or Mae, a great aunt on one side and step great grandma on the other, dressed me while singing Bye Baby Bunting. They called a snow suit a bunting bag. According to the song my daddy was out killing a rabbit to make me one.
In short, at Guild meetings, I floated in a sea of love, and this, Aunt Mae and Maude would teach me in Sunday School, was the love of God, ‘which passeth understanding’.
Still float there! I know, I know. Just hard to remember in the face of old age, distance from loved ones and even alienation. But that early grounding enabled me to continue the creation of something beautiful, not just my family, my extended family, my beautiful newly published book, but my own self.
So thank God for hillbillies!
Hour of the Hawk –joycehowe.com
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.
I saw it first at Christmas 1960 when I dragged my extremely pregnant body upstairs to my mother-in-law’s attic. She was storing it for a friend, but I could have it to rock the baby, temporary loan.
It was cream colored then. At some point, my husband painted it antique green. (When was the era of antiquing?) During a desperate teachers’ strike, our house became the place for coffee break. Deep winter. Constant arguing. Months of poverty. My two children unschooled as well, of course. To avoid insanity, I carried it down to the basement and stripped the paint off and oiled it. I loved the chair. It saved me.
I rocked my large self in it through most of a dark January 1961. When she arrived, my daughter, like her mother before her, cried. If she had cried for Canada, she would have won the gold. My father slept with his foot out of bed rocking my cradle. I rocked her in the big, comfortable chair.
Her brother arrived a year later. By then his sister was noshing on pureed food, so her colic had cleared up. Anyway her real live doll-brother made her so happy, she didn’t need to cry. He, in turn, was fascinated by her -his own non-stop performance artist/teacher, and calm by nature. Still I rocked them both before bed and at teething time, one on each knee, singing every song I knew including ‘House of the Rising Sun”
Some nights, however, I cried as I sang. Their father taught day school, night school, took night courses and tutored on Sunday. We had dinner together. That was it. A quiet, tasteful time, full of conversation. No. Two babies who needed to be fed while Daddy tried to sort out the evening lesson plan.
I had studied English & Philosophy and Drama. I was the only female survival in the Logic class by third year. I had two years of teaching English under my belt as well as teacher training. I had subdued 50 hormone-ridden grade 10s in a classroom with 48 seats. Now I was washing six dozen cloth diapers twice a week.
I started reciting Shakespeare as I bathed the kids together in the big tub.
Eventually, my husband intervened. “What would you do right now, if you could do anything?” he asked. “Put on my navy suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. “Cedarbrae Collegiate,” I replied. “You want to go back to teaching,” he said.
How could I? It was 1963. My job was to nurture these priceless babies. It just wasn’t done. But before we got up from the grey card table that functioned as our dining surface, we had the plans underway. We would hire a nanna, carefully vetted. I would get a job easily. Populations were booming and my clever husband could stop working all the time. My terror and relief could be soothed only by more rocking those bigger and bigger babies.
The rocking chair went with us to a new house. We were now making almost $12,000 together. It was an ideal place for growing children, a hill, with a flagpole and a martin house, wilderness, gardens, fences and eventually a pool. There were parks galore and a very high cliff above Lake Ontario for risking young lives. Not that we worried. They had bicycles. They had each other.
The rocking chair sat in the corner of the rec room beside the sliding door and in front of the fireplace, which any of the four of us could choose to light. Nanna kept it swept free of ashes.
Then the crying chair came back into its own. I was the one in it. It was 2 a.m., where was my husband?
The chair and I set out on our travels. Sans the others. We moved to Heyworth Ave., to Main St., to Fishleigh Dr., to the town of Zephyr, to Mississauga, to Evans Ave., to Stephen Dr. and back to Mississauga. I can picture where my chair sat in each of these places. All except 3 had my name on the deed. One had my sister’s and two I signed leases for. A good deal of rocking and crying went on in those 40 years.
Meanwhile my ex-husband had lost his much younger wife to cancer. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer the same year, 2010. We welcomed him back into the family at Easter 2012. (“Should of stuck with the old girls,” my sister greeted him cheerily.
He and I had lunch last week. A two hour lunch tires out this 82-yr-old retired teacher, but he seemed to want to come to my 14th floor suburban apartment. We did have to talk over a few details concerning his estate. There have been no bad tests recently but…
I pointed out the crying chair. This sent him into a reflective mood. He always cried easily-just maybe not over me. Intimations of mortality can bring that on. He regretted our son had not continued his painting and sculpting. I thought that a youthful art career is like a teen-aged rock band. Most people grow out of it.
Hubby, for example had chosen math and physics, over art. Even got to work with a nuclear reactor. (Is that significant?)
Anyway, grief is always the same, not so much about loss as the f-ups that we regret.
So the chair waits invitingly, inevitably.
Feel free to drop by and cry until you’re done.
Back in the Sierra Nevadas, having exhausted myself walking up the mountain at 7,000 ft., I came down to the village to walk beside the lake, really a pond that holds the water for the fire department. One side of the water is thick with cat tails and behind there is a slope covered with deciduous bushes of different hues, including a soft red. Suddenly, I had a flash of standing beside the Indian River with my grandmother, Gladys, when she was the age I am now and I was 42.
She and I had found ourselves single and living alone that summer. Her son had gone off to live with his best friend’s wife, best friend having passed to his reward. Gladys had left the farm and gone to live in a small house on the Quebec/U.S. border. Meanwhile, my husband, daughter and son had gone off in their own directions. Gladys and I were heart-broken and yet she still made me laugh.
She recalled a day in her first home, a farmhouse. It was spring cleaning time and she had hired a French Canadian girl whom I remember later as Aunt Kate. Kate was cleaning upstairs, when she suddenly came rushing down yelling, “Gladness, Gladness, the house is on fire.” It burned to the ground. All that was left was a stone-lined cellar hole. Gladys roared with laughter as she imitated Kate.
They didn’t lose everything. The “men” -two of them would have been about 12- must have smelled the smoke or heard the sound of pots smashed together that called them back. They rushed in and grabbed the first thing the saw, the big round oak table, which immediately got jammed in the door. Gladys screamed and yelled. They pushed and shoved. Finally the door jam yielded and the table flew out, but precious time had been wasted. Other men began to arrive and grab what they could. Some things Gladys loved were lost and the family of 6 was homeless. But in the country, someone can always squeeze in a family of six.
Twenty seven years later, the family had changed shape. My mother, who was 13 when the house burned, was married as were her next three brothers. But there were still three children at home, more or less the same age I was and I was 19. This house, too, caught fire. Once again the men seized the oak table first. Once again it got stuck in the door and Gladys screamed, “Leave that damned thing to burn”. Gladys never damned anything. It was the worst word to her. They didn’t leave it. See above.
The third house was built by the community across the road from the second one. The porch was smaller but screened. There was a coal furnace in the cement cellar and no longer needed to be insulated on the outside with banks of sawdust. And there was an actual bathroom. Until 1955, the old out-house had stood at the back of the wagon shed and only little children could use the commode inside. Gladys was very happy there. Her kitchen stove had a wood side for heating and an electric side for cooking. She had hot and cold running water, which ran into a claw foot tub. Many a visit, we sat at the much despised round oak table and laughed.
We laughed about the time that four of us, aged 11 to 13 decided to jump in the hay. It wasn’t a dangerous sport once the new hay had been harvested, but it hadn’t. All there was in the mows was last years hay, so low in the mow that it could be pulled down through the lowest door. Moreover it had compacted and was hard.
I was 13, Evelyn and Ted, twin aunt and uncle, 11 and Percy, 10. The boys dared us to go out onto the side beam that led across the mow from the barn floor (ramp) and jump from there. Sure, we girls said we can do that. The boys went first, sliding on their bottoms far across so as to leave space for us. I went next, noting as I began that it was at least 20 down. I could barely move. Finally, Evelyn began the crossing. We were all scared but she was terrified. She didn’t want to lose face in front of her brothers and once, embarked, she couldn’t go back either.
My sisters, Georgia 7 and Anne 5 stood watching on the barn floor.
I was sweating and gripping the beam. First Ted and then Percy launched himself off into the air with a bloodcurdling whoop. They would crash together, I thought. Both disappeared. A few seconds later their heads appeared as they dug themselves out of the dusty hay.
I knew I couldn’t do it. “Go back, Evelyn,” I cried.
“I can’t move”, she said. Me neither, I thought.
I studied the mow. The boys were urgently calling us to jump. “It’s fun. It’s not so bad.” My stomach heaved. I had to go to the out-house. I jumped.
The worst part was drowning in hay dust and desperately scrambling out. But now we had another problem. Evelyn was deaf to our pleading. She was weeping in terror and hiding her face in her shoulder.
“Go get Ma,” Ted yelled to my sisters. They clomped off down the wooden ramp. Crying and yelling ensued while we waited. Then Gladys was there with her small grand daughters, wiping her hands on her apron, and clearly not happy.
“What in the name of heaven were you kids doing out on that beam?” We always jumped from the barn floor and never into low hard hay. “Get back here,” she screamed at her daughter.
“Can’t,” said Evelyn,” Can’t move.”
“Well, then jump!”
Evelyn protested she would die if she did.
“Well, you’ll die if you don’t, Evelyn Grace. I’ll come out there and give you such a clout…”
Evelyn threw herself headlong, screaming, and landed on her face. We pulled her out and I dusted her off, but she continued to scream that it was all our fault. The boys and I ran across the hay, through to the mow over the cowshed, down the trap door, out through the empty cow shed and up around the barn. There on the dirt ramp, stood Gladys, her face in her apron, laughing so hard her body shook. My little sisters, who were totally unused to laughter, clung to her skirts.
When I first walk into the house in the pines, I hear my mother say, “It’s beautiful!” My mother passed on in 1976, but this is the first I’ve heard from her. My grandparents, even my father-in-law and certainly my father when his time came, showed up in the days after they moved on. Not my mother. Absolute silence. So profound, that I had an existential breakdown. Now here she is- or seems to be- celebrating the tiny, jewel of house in Sierra mountains.
Of course she would be here, if anywhere, because the mountains and the pines are like her birthplace in Hereford, Quebec. And we are here, her daughter and her grand-daughter and full of joy to be together. It is the week of Mother’s Day and Julia’s mother-in-law is due to arrive as well.
We speculate that my mother has been lost in the timelessness of that other place, a purgatory of her own making, and only now has found a beacon to guide her out.
In the days that follow, her spirit seems to be doing loop-de-loops in the blue sky above the mountains. All the other mothers in our line, Janet and Jenny and Gladys, come into our thoughts as they often do, but only Lila is delirious.
She is not the only spirit there.
Besides being thin, the air is bone dry in this drought. Near the front door, a humidifier sends a jet of mist into the air. Out of the corner of my eye, I see it as a dancing water sprite.
The floors are local stone, patterned like rugs. Every step feels rooted in their strangely old, slumbering consciousness. There is a small cairn of rocks near the entry and California jade and other semi-precious stones on the desk and tables. The fireplace and massive hearth of red brick fills one whole wall. The cathedral ceiling is rafterred and wooden. A wall of sliding doors looks out on the woods. Below a lake peeks through the trees.
This is a Taoist household with altars to the ancestors and the family, but there is also a stone Buddha sitting below the bookcases. A path of beige floor stones leads up to him. One morning when I am making tea, I catch a glimpse of a figure standing in front of Buddha, the figure of a monk in a brownish robe. When I turn, he gives me what can only be called a stink eye. I hurry away. Julia tells me there is a Zen monastery nearby.
Enough proves to be enough one night as I get into bed, I have a picture of an army of brownies – no not that kind- tiny beings wearing red hats and overalls going about some work under the trees. I saw such creatures when I was a child when my father took me fishing in the trout stream that ran down through the woods. They scared me with their intensity. I always understood the Seven Dwarfs on a visceral level.
In the fields, as a child, I saw fairies – blue and pink and gold- or once in a while, a towering angel. I preferred them.
Happy ghosts, water sprites, meditating monks, nature spirits, but I don’t have to cry like Macbeth, “No more sights!” I move over to the boxcar house and don’t even see dead miners. https://115journals.com/2014/05/15/bulletin-from-shangri-la-the-boxcar-house/
At Easter brunch, I learned that a 15 lb, 3-month-old baby is too heavy for these ancient arms. I learned that a grade 3-er doesn’t read cursive writing, except her name, which she can proudly sign. I learned that a 30 year-old is baffled by the expression “ham it up” and others, which astonished elders then trotted out to further bafflement. I learned that this same young man can solve a computer problem that I have struggled over for at least an hour in a split second. I relearned that even the grade 3-er spends half her time face down to her device – a tablet, as did those 20 and 30 with their smart phones.
I already knew that my 19-year-old grandson, who was having Easter brunch across the continent, had a problem telling time on a non-digital clock and my 28-year-old grandson prefers to print rather than write. Although he must have also more or less mastered his signature – to be a doctor. That can be blamed on the “hippie” school he went to in Los Angeles. I have heard about an 18-year-old who went to apply for his passport and couldn’t sign his name. There is an ad posted in my doctor’s office for private lessons in cursive writing. My sister, Georgia says that curriculum is so demanding these days that teachers can’t give much time to practice, although cursive is still taught in the school she knows best.
In the spirit of cultural exchange, I recalled to a 20-something, my progress from straight pen and ink well to fountain pen. She knew about fountain pens, but had never much considered there was a time before the ball point pen or biro as the Brits say. She had never heard about the dastardly male-child practice of dipping the braids of the girl in the desk in front into his inkwell. She obviously had never been chosen for the momentous task of filling the ink wells. She had missed the joys of ink splatters and blotting paper. I inevitably got marked down for messy writing. We were allowed fountain pens eventually and I got one when I graduated from grade 8. And lost it in early grade 9.
The computer whizz recalled that first they had to write their essays in cursive and then they were forbidden to. In fact, even I experienced the shift to typed-only essays in my night school courses, a major pain since I had deliberately not taken typing so that my father couldn’t make me quit school to work in an office. In addition, school secretaries no longer typed material for teachers – cost cutting started in the 70s. The typewriter with corrective ribbon -an IBM Selectric- came along to save me. I could barely lift it. I learned to type one-handed, 3-fingered, quite fast, as I am doing now – while looking at the keys. My first Apple desk top computer in 1992 was a dream come true, of course no corrective ribbon, but “delete” and “undo” and “copy” and “paste”.
The conversation at brunch moved to the study of key board/ typing skills. Mostly, it doesn’t seem to be happening. It is assumed that one way or another kids have those skills once they get to high school. So much for QWERTY. The little finger may become vestigial.
The 50-year-olds watched cartoons from the thirties as children and learned old-fashioned expressions then or from Andy Rooney pictures. The 30-year-olds are more apt to have learned expressions from Rooney Mara, whose tattooed girl had computer chops they can admire.
My own colloquial history, alas, goes back to the 19th century. My grandparents were born at the end of it, and dragged their parents’ language from mid-century in to my early life in the late 30s. One internet citing traces “ham it up” to a mid 19th century touring theatre group in the U.S. led by a man named Ham, and given, I suppose, to exaggerated gestures and bombast. (The 19th century means 1800 to 1899, by the way.)
Sorry if that note is offensive, but yesterday I told someone that one of my grandsons is in California, the other in Massachusetts and she asked if they were far apart.
Earlier I remarked to a friend about the beautiful robin song we could hear and she said, “Is that a robin? I don’t know bird calls.”
What is the world …… etc?
It’s Earth Day. It wasn’t called that in 1949. It was called Arbour Day and we were herded outside with rakes and other implements of mutual destruction to clean up the school yard and we were jolly well expected to know the birds we heard there and the trees we raked under and the bushes and even the bloody weeds.
Okay. Times change. Catch up girl.
I dislike the way the French police their language. The number of French words in use – so quick research tells me is about 43,000. Samuel Johnson’s 2 volume English dictionary of 1755 had about the same number -of English words. Today’s Complete Oxford Dictionary, 20 volumes, has over 200,000 and some estimates put the number of English words even higher. The amazing thing about our language – you are reading this in it after all, so it’s ours- is its adaptability. We accommodate change and even embrace it. (I do still bristle at “grow our business”, having the old idea that you can grow carrots but not businesses.)
True, for over 30 years, I was in the business of holding the line on grammatical structure. I had that mandate, but I didn’t like it much. I saw that sentence fragments could be the best way for students to express an idea, for example. I red-penned errors that made a sentence incomprehensible, but I may have let down standards otherwise.
Talking to Georgia, I said wealth distribution is changing so that a small percentage of people -1%?- have most of it and I think there is a similar disparity between the percentage of people who read and those who don’t, between the intellectual and the non-idea people. Of course they are not at all the same group. In fact, apart from Conrad Black, the 1% and the readers seem exclusive of each other. (I know, really, me bad, as the kids now say. Dumbed down from my bad. Even dumbness can be dumbed down.)
I failed to transmit my knowledge and love of the King James Bible and the Anglican liturgy to my children. I made a stab at it by giving my bar mitsva-ed grandson the King James Bible and he used it as a literary resource. The younger one eats up marketing books. He believes strongly in the necessity of being cultured, but his definition differs from mine. He seems to mean “becoming fully human”.
Looking at my past, I see that apparently, I don’t want to set our culture in stone but I am uneasy with the rapid change I observe. I suspect that my uneasiness comes from the fact that I am cut off from what is replacing it, out of touch, a relic of a bygone age. Except at Easter brunch.
(This is one of a series of posts about my estranged son, Daniel.)
I opened the front door, looked down and almost fainted. There was my small son, clutching his throat, blood spurting out between his fingers. I screamed. His father came running and pried Daniel’s fingers open. It was his chin, not his throat after all. Blake swept him up and into the car while I stood there, immobilized. The small tricycle lay overturned on the sidewalk. The other children, including Daniel’s sister Julia stood beside their tricycles, most of them larger models. They had been racing like maniacs up and down the sidewalk and shouting in glee.
Daniel had had his first serious bike fall. It would not be his last. In the years to come, he would take many spills – on his first small two-wheeler, on his banana-seat bike, on his mountain bike, on his road racer, on his commuter. He would up-end over handle bars, somersault over car hoods, narrowly escape leg crushing in traffic, get doored, get run off the road on highways. He would bleed from road rash; his wounds would turn red, then blue, then yellow, but curiously he would never break a bone.
I didn’t know any of that then. I just knew that my husband who couldn’t stand the sight of blood, who fainted in movies that depicted blood loss had just leaped into the fray while I stood helplessly by.
After a few hours, they returned, Daniel sporting a series of brown stitches under his chin, which he rushed to show the other kids. He has that white scar still, just out of sight until he lifts his head.
(Strangely, it always turned out that when Julia was bleeding, I handled it. Daniel shut her in the oven of the toy stove – at her insistence – and I dealt with her bleeding hand, holding the compress in the emergency ward, etc. But whenever Daniel turned up bleeding or even reported a close call, I got weak in the knees.)
In summers in Guildwood Village, the kids would take off on their bicycles in early morning, riding off to the cliffside parks, ditching the bikes to climb the bluffs, coming home late for lunch, dusty and scraped, only to set out again. No questions asked. Well, none answered anyway.
When Daniel’s doctor recommended exercise to deal with his incipient asthma. we foolishly enrolled him in soccer. In full regulation gear, knee socks and all, he spent his time avoiding the action, hanging back, taking an ego hit until he decided that he was meant for racing. He began by racing on his feet and was soon doing training runs up the big hill and around our neighbourhood. It was later when he was in his twenties, living with me in my country village house that he moved on to bicycle racing. It’s a complicated sport because it involves a machine as well as physical conditioning. A bad tire or a dropped chain can finish off a skilled, fit rider. He started with road racing and moved on to mountain bike racing and then to cycle-cross. For many years, he was guaranteed a top spot in his category. Training consisted, probably still consists, of hundred mile group rides on the weekend. (Much hated by some country types.)
The scariest time for me was the year or so he worked as a bicycle courier. Speed was imperative and this interval found him at his road-warrior scariest. Eventually, he quit to save his life, but he carried that style over into his commute to his safer job. He tangled with a car on Bloor St. and ended up because of our no-fault insurance having to report it to my car insurance company. An agent called me to confirm details. He asked me if Daniel was married. I said no. Then I said, “Hang on. He is married.” The agent said,” What’s with you people? Your son said exactly the same thing.” For political reasons, Daniel had been married for five minutes to a girl he loved. Politics changed. They had moved on, neglecting divorce.
After that accident, he gave up wearing a helmet. He said it was the only way, he could make himself slow down. Work that logic out.
When I was recovering from heavy duty surgery in 2001, he showed up, just back from a race and gave me his winning medal, pictured above.
So there it is, a snapshot of my reckless son, who has unorthodox principles.
(This is one of a series of posts about my estranged son, Daniel.)
I began writing about Daniel as I explained earlier (https://115journals.com/2014/02/08/writing-about-daniel/) because I wanted to “open the flow of my dammed up love for him” in view of the fact that we are not communicating. I talked about his birth, his unknowable infant self and considered the external world and its influence on him as a toddler. In the process, I have arrived at the spring of 1963 when he was 15 months-old. So how is it going so far?
I thought I would gradually uncover the little person he was then and slowly move forward as he became his own person, distinct from his sister who was a year older. Instead, something else happened.
Out of the dusty attic of my mind, I retrieved another memory. It was of my father, leaning close to my ear as he was leaving after a visit, and whispering to me. He said, “You know I’m going to kill them both, don’t you? I’ve told you so.” Then he sniggered and got into his car.
By the time, Daniel was a year old I had heard this more than once. My father was a monster. Goes without saying. We all pretended this was not so. He was violent and abusive when the fit took him, but he genuinely loved children, especially these grandchildren. Unfortunately, his idea of love was way off-base as I knew from experience and I had warned him to keep his hands off Julia and Daniel. This was his revenge.
So why not report him to the police? The most I had ever been able to do was report him to a neighbour when I was eight. She was a pillar of the community, but her intervention consisted of scolding him soundly, with the result that I thought he was going to murder me, my mother, and my two baby sisters. Moreover, he always seemed to have the local cops in his pocket and, anyway, in those days, no one- nobody- believed such allegations.
I had assured him that if anything happened to my children I would write down everything he had ever done to us, mail it to the powers that be and kill myself. His giggling response was, “You’d never do that!”.”Wait and see,” I said. (We hadn’t yet learned to say “Try me”.)
So he sniggered in my ear and took off with my mother, back to Burlington where two of my siblings still lived under his roof, too old to tempt him and old enough to have designs on escape.
I didn’t believe him, but he terrified me. He had been terrifying me for years and years. He had almost killed me when I was six, but he deeply regretted it afterwards. (Is the sarcasm clear there?) Once he understood that I opposed him, he kept up a campaign of terror, oddly or perhaps not so oddly, combined with taking me and my sister, Georgia, with him whenever possible and referring to us as his angels.
So writing about this time on Benleigh Dr. in Scarborough in 1963, I came upon this whispered confidence and lost my mind. Post traumatic stress will do that for you. Transport you right back into the thick of things. Suddenly, you are in the midst of a flashback of feeling as intense as it was originally.
Basically, I feel a homicidal rage. I feel as if I could kill him. Then I remember that he is already dead and has been for 26 years. He phoned me and my sisters on the morning of the day he died and said to each of us, “If I have done you any harm, I’m sorry” -he couldn’t get hold of Rob in Europe. He knew he was going to die and not from natural causes.
I was late for class and I muttered something in reply -“That’s all right” probably. I had spent his old age trying to love the shambling wreck he had become.
Today, weighing the harm that got passed down the generations, I told my sister Georgia that if he died violently everyday, it would not be enough. And sure, that feeling has to be acknowledged, given some head room, but I can’t stay there. I must let it go- for my own mental health. I must forgive that monstrous old man. He asked me to.
I can speculate about why Daniel won’t speak to me but I don’t really know, except that somehow this lies at the bottom of it. It is bred into us and into our relationship.
It was supposed to be a secret. Now it isn’t.
(Never Tell, my e-book tells the story of my childhood more fully. See 115journals.com)