What the Candle Said: caring and melting

A candle as it diminishes
explains, Gathering more and more is not the way.
Burn, become light and heat and help. Melt.

Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks ‘Light over this Plain”

The candle gives good advice. Surely, such advice needs to be treated seriously, not ironically. Easy enough to post. Might even help somebody on her way. And there’s even a free candle picture to pretty things up.

But then – gaaaaaa – you find yourself screaming, “I’m melting! I’m melting!” like the Wicked Witch of the West doused with a bucket of water.

Age was melting me before I undertook this project. For the last four years, I have paid a younger woman to clean my apartment every two weeks, first Teresa and then Louisa. I could have been Teresa’s mother and Louisa’s grandmother, but these women brought not only their Portuguese cleaning skills – lots of vinegar and elbow grease – but also their warmth. They looked out for me.

Then I got the call. Invalid 1 was immobilized by pain and might or might not be mortally ill. What’s more Invalid 1 had assumed the care of Invalid 2 during the summer. Although she is in good health, Invalid 2 is even older than me and about to become a nonagenarian.

We’re short on available help as most families are these days. In my day, as we oldsters say, there were spare spinsters about the place, who would come and sleep in the single bed or on the couch and take on the nursing and housework. Not an unattached auntie to be found in our case, not even a biddable if somewhat challenged cousin. Moreover, we are scattered across the continent and those of us in healthcare are gainfully employed.

So I sallied forth. I flew out the next day (115journals.com/2018/10/24/mother-on-broomstick-celebrates-legal-weed/). Like many other mothers, I had already had practice answering such calls. I picture these mothers driving alone in cars, on planes, on charabancs, on buses and trains, sharing space with life stock when necessary, beating a path toward the need.

Invalid 1, my daughter, had been making the shorter trip to Invalid 2, her mother-in-law, daily, for several months and she had developed a real knack for it. She sort of sank into the whole experience. Patience wasn’t even required anymore. It took as long as it took, getting the house in order, checking the fridge for spoilage, making lunch, sitting and listening to the older woman, watching Dr, Phil at 3 o’clock.

Too bad this zen-like helper was now bedridden and had become the lump on the couch, as I affectionately called her.

For the first while, I saw my main task as taking care of her. Her mother-in-law, meanwhile drew on her own strength to manage better than we thought possible.

As time passed, my daughter’s diagnosis became clearer. (115journals.com/2018/11/08/all-is-well-differential-diagnosis/) and surgery got her on her feet. In little more than a week, she was back looking after Other Mom, while I watched in awe. And yes, she got what the candle was saying.

Me? I am melting. My share of the duties doesn’t seem onerous. I don’t even have to cook. Hubby does that. I do the wash and try to keep the place moderately clean. I go to appointments with her – she has to have a second surgery. I used to do all these jobs, work a full day and even give the occasional nod to my children. It’s humbling to take measure of my diminished ability.

The thing is, as soon as I arrived, even though she thought she had a dire diagnosis, she began to laugh. She was better just because I came.

And that is what love is after all. You give what you can. If there’s nothing left, you’re all the better for it.

 

 

 

 

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All is Well: differential diagnosis

115journals.com/2018/10/06/all-is-well-another-contradiction-to-despair/

In the middle of October, I posted “All is Well”, another contradiction to despair. Events overtook me and I posted “Interval”, promising to post “All is Well: part 2”.

I will begin by explaining the difference between renal cell carcinoma and fat poor angiomyolipomas, so far as I understand it. The latter, also referred to as AMLs – not to be confused with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (that’s someone else’s nightmare) – are made up of blood, muscle and fat. Ours was spotted incidentally during an unrelated CT scan. It was a 4.1 cm. mass in the right kidney.

Did you know renal carcinomas can be diagnosed visually? So three weeks ago we got the bad news – kidney cancer. But wait a minute, the real target had been a 3.8 mass in the hip on the same side. Could be metastatic kidney cancer.

Honestly did not know I was capable of howling loud enough to alarm my neighbors.

But, stat, there was an MRI guided biopsy of the hip lump. Hip tumor not cancer. Rather a schwannoma, a tumor of the nerve sheath, in this case on the sciatic nerve and, in this case, benign.

Can there be kidney schwannomas ,we asked the Google gods. Possibly.

Let’s do another scan, stat of course, to see what is going on in adjacent organs – I imagine this one as High Def – and get a good look at the kidney interloper. Two days later, a voice mail message. Not cancer, but a fat-poor AML.

We had got used to the worst – every day terror, bleak future, all that good stuff. Hearing the no-cancer news, I had to put my head between my knees. One of us fell to cursing. The patient cried.

For three weeks, we had followed doctor’s instructions: prepare for the worst, maybe 17% survival in 5 years, gone in her early 60s. Then, when it was just kidney cancer, not metastatic we had a 96% chance. Now, we were back to 100%, or as close as you can be, given traffic on California freeways. We should have been happy, but we went around muttering, “It’s Tuesday, it must be cancer.” “It’s Thursday, it certainly isn’t.” “It’s Friday…”

We didn’t trust any doctor and certainly not a radiologist. The current one still wanted to call it cancer, despite a visible few fat cells. What we read, and we read everything, told us carcinomas had no fat. A radiologist in 2012 had reported that a tumor of 3.8 cm appeared on the left kidney. We ordered the CD record of it. Definitely, on the right. The radiologist had reverse-read the kidneys. If he had not, we would never have fallen for this funny little trick Nature sprang on us.

Lucky us. Lots of patients have discovered only after they’ve lost a kidney that they didn’t have cancer.

This morning, the urologist assured us that the offending growth will be biopsied when it is removed. When will that be? Well, first the main player, pain-wise, has to go. Simple to cut a schwannoma off a sciatic nerve, just don’t cut too close or -bingo- a different crisis here in Kern County. Recovery will take 2 days. When the patient feels better, she can call and get the kidney surgery date.

The issue of getting something to kill the pain is another whole drama. Governments make doctors’ lives hell when they prescribe opiate-type drugs. As far as I can see their draconian rules have not made a dint in the opioid crisis as yet. The neurosurgeon breezily suggested a pain clinic. Wait times for pain clinic appointments are at least 30 days. We live near an opioid addicted town, we might get lucky on a street corner. But, no, the urologist came through for the next 5 days. Not the same effective painkillers, not nearly as effective and rife with side effects. Weeping over the phone to the pain clinic got us an appointment in 5 days. And this is a temporary need, until surgery, for someone who can’t get up off the couch most days.

I am Canadian. We have the same struggles with diagnosis and waiting for surgery. I once waited for 7 weeks to have an intestinal carcinoid removed. I could eat only fluids or runny pureed veg. Great slimming diet. I was prescribed liquid morphine. But I absolutely never had to think about cost. Not true in California, even with Medicare.

This is a wonderful country, don’t get me wrong. Driving up the I-5 from the neurosurgeon’s, I remembered that, if California were a country, it would be the 5th largest economy in the world. But *#@! it, why doesn’t it take care of its people. My great nephew in Belgium had a 15 hour surgery on his brain, lived to tell the tale and got no bill.

Next up: insomnia of 10 months duration.

“All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well”

 

Let It Be: contradiction to despair #9

Aslan, the Lion, turned up at crucial points in CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe books. Once He chased after Lucy, one of the child heroes, who was riding on a horse across a desert and nipped her bottom because she wasn’t getting the job done.

Today Aslan has been gnawing on my inards. Well, he’s sent other messages, which I’ve ignored. This one is not to be ignored. I have to change my ways.

One of the messages appeared on a tiny sand beach on Lake of Bays in Muskoka. I found it when I went to look for the puppy. He had been quiet too long. Any mother knows that is a danger sign. He is a sheep dog mostly beige with brown and tan and black markings and white legs. I found him in front of a Muskoka chair, dug well into the sand, sound asleep, almost invisible. He had dug the hole while he waited for his human, a 13-year-old girl, to come back on her kayak. She was taking too long and he had fallen asleep on his watch.

Back in the cottage, I found a 6-year-old girl in a red sundress asleep on the couch, her thumb in her mouth. Too much sun.

Upstairs, I gazed out my bedroom window at the maple woods, rising to the ridge above the lake. Last evening, it had been lashed by heavy rain. I had cranked the window open to hear the rush and fall of the water. Surely, there is no greater pleasure than to be safe and dry with a good book during a summer storm.

There were 11 of us at the cottage, my sister, Georgia’s family, four generations. The oldest was 82, the youngest 4, teenagers, mother, grand parents and Georgia, great grandmother. I’m aunty. There are many delights to be had while playing aunty. Being bed-crashed by a 4-year-old who calls you “Poopyhead” with great glee, being overwhelmed by a full description of family ancestry by a solitary breakfast companion, sitting by a campfire with a man who loves to build one and took it upon himself to know when the fire ban was lifted (cf heavy rain).

It was a family, so there were also sulks, parental irritation, crying jags, defiance, sudden loud explosions of joy, differences of opinions and mild panic over wandering dogs. There was to Georgia’s delight much book reading and some discussion.

There were DVDs but no television. One cell phone and computer were called into play for work, but not for long. I made one phone call. Well, two if you count the one my phone made on its own as it charged up. It was 4 a.m. in Brussels, but there was my brother sitting up in bed.

Aslan is on my case because of the other call. If you going to call someone to help them out, and let yourself get drawn in, you are not doing the job.

Worry was the problem. Apprehension about a negative outcome. How effective is worry? Can it change outcomes?

I have conducted this experiment countless times in my long life, and I can reliably report that worrying has never altered any outcome in the smallest way. It has had considerable effect on the present, however, and not a good one.

The alternative is awful.

Letting go. “Let go and let God”, so speaketh the fridge magnet. Which is fine if you have a fridge magnet’s faith. “Let it be” as John Lennon’s mother Mary told him. (No points for knowing how that turned out.) “Whatever will be, will be,” as the old song says. “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Just goes to show that I’m not in charge.

Isn’t that the point?

 

Joy: contradicting despair #1

Infant Joy

I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!
Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.
I have been reliably told that I spent the first months of my life crying inconsolably, and yet, I was called Joy. I was Joy for many years, unsuitable name though it was, until the people who called me that were gone, and I became Joyce. Even my children and grandchildren call me Joyce. I don’t complain. It is my baptized name after all, but I liked being called Joy. It reminded me that joy existed.
Just today, I got short video texted to my phone, which showed my 14-month-old great granddaughter rising to her feet, free-style with no support, and setting off to walk toward her joyful mother’s out-stretched arms, moving with sure speed toward laughter.
Joy is not contentment, nor even happiness. Dwelling in joy sounds challenging. Ancient Chinese medicine warned that excessive joy damages the heart. We are told that winning the lottery is a stressful experience, for example, and can lead to negative outcomes.
I have known only one person who came anywhere near dwelling in joy. That was my Aunt Mae. I didn’t see her often because I lived hundreds of miles away from her, but when I went back to visit my grandmother, I always walked to Mae’s tiny house under the mountain. The last time, I did so, I was with someone, my sister perhaps. As we neared the little porch, we could hear her singing. She had always had a dreadful voice and she was belting out, Jesus Loves Me at the top of it. It took a while for our knock to penetrate her ecstatic hymn. Then she threw open the door and cried out with such welcoming love that you would have thought Jesus himself had come to see her.
Mae had seen many dreadful things in her life and suffered poverty and abuse. I had watched her grieve enough to finish off most people, but now in her old age with legs like stove pipes and the agony of a declining body, she was joyful.
When I think of her, I can’t decide whether she was a saint or senile, an old fool, she would have called herself.
I propose to continue my contradiction by looking at ecstasy, contentment and happiness in future posts in order to set them against the deep and abiding depression that I share with several others in my life.

On Turning 82

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.

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

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 Hawkjoycehowe.com

 

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crying Chair

This is the crying chair. It sits in my entrance way on a tiled floor. Good rocking there and tissues at the ready.

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.

 

 

 

Bouts of Joy

Not us. Another group of haymow jumpers

Not us. Another group of haymow jumpers

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.

 

 

Bulletin from Shangri-la # 4: spirits

trees outside windowWhen 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/