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/



What I Learned At Easter Brunch: the times they are a-changing

IBM SelectricAt 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.


Daniel, Road Warrior

(This is one of a series of posts about my estranged son, Daniel.)

bike awardI 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.

Writing About Daniel #2:

(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)

Daniel’s World: what made him

kids(One of a series of posts about my estranged son, Daniel)

So we moved six-month old Daniel and his eighteen-month old sister to a rented house in the summer of 1962 – three bedrooms, more space, our very own washer and dryer, nobody thumping around overhead and a fenced backyard waiting for children. Blake still had three jobs going on, so we could make ends meet – maybe.

The sewing machine had pride of place in the living room in the front window, just as my mother’s had for years. The bookcase sat next to it, filled with our university texts and a 12- inch black and white television set, mostly wooden cabinet, a hand-me-down.

People were poorer then.

I made drapes for the front window out of burlap, tape with pockets sewn in for a heading and wire hooks that pleated the fabric. Sort of. I had also made the baby overalls that were passed from Julia to Daniel, pounding in the rivet-like snaps that ran up the legs for diapering access. One pair lost a snap. I couldn’t fix it. Too bad. The garment got worn anyway.

I had been trained for this. Along with Latin and French and algebra, 18th century literature and Kant and logic, I had been taught home economics. I had even passed -with a little help on those blouse sleeves. I knew how to price out individual portions of a balanced meal -not that I actually did – and set a table. I could mitre bed sheets with the best of them. I didn’t need to be taught how to clean a house within an inch of its life. My mother drummed that into me. Literally.

But what was I thinking?! I absolutely hated home economics. I loved Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson and thinking about whether a tree falling in the forest really did fall if nobody was there -subjective or objective reality. (Well, okay, nobody loves Kant.) I wanted children and I wanted ideas, but I was finding the two mutually exclusive.

Television was no help, even if we could actually make out the shadowy forms our rabbit- ear aerial pulled in. The radio was better because we got CBC. And, of course there was the library, even if reading had to wait until bedtime when I was worn out.

Meanwhile Daniel learned to crawl. Whereas his sister had humped along on one hip, he used an inch-worm or caterpillar method. Such mobility began his differentiation. Julia soon discovered that he wasn’t just an audience. He wanted that toy too and could grab and hang on for dear life.

To get things done I let them play together in their child-proofed room with a baby gate across the door, but I could hear them as I scrubbed the kitchen floor – on my knees of course, my mother’s injunction ringing in my head: mops don’t work. I let them work things out until murder seemed imminent and then I would fly up the seven steps to the bedroom level. Daniel would have to go in the playpen and Julia sit in the high chair, but, hey, that was fine with them. They could watch me scrub and talk about it in baby-speak.

The evenings were hardest, especially during teething. I remember one such evening. We had moved them to separate bedrooms by then; otherwise, they never went to sleep. They stayed up chatting from crib to crib. The big green rocking chair had found its home in the middle bedroom with Daniel’s crib. He couldn’t get to sleep, so I sat him on my right knee and Julia climbed up on my left. We rocked and rocked. I sang. Everything I knew. All the old country songs from my childhood, all the camp songs, all the love songs – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, After You’ve Gone.. Still they were awake. Then I cried.

I cried because I was lonely. My husband was never home and when he was, he was marking papers or studying. I had no friends. Moving hadn’t helped, of course, but I had never had many. The neighbour women treated me warily. I spoke like the English teacher I was. I cried because I was depressed. I cried because I was bored. The kids knew that instinctively, no doubt, but now they knew it because my tears ran down their faces as they comforted me. Something had to be done.

But first …. we had the Cuban Missile Crisis. October 1962, suddenly there really was going to be World War III. The new twist was none of us were going to survive. They say it lasted only 12 days and yet I had a stock pile of canned goods down in the crawl space as well as a can opener, so the run-up to the crisis must have been menacing. I actually convinced myself that we could survive down there until the radiation blew itself off, if only Blake could figure out how to tap the water heater. We were all terrified, but I seemed to have a special gift for hysteria.

John Kennedy fixed it. My babies were not going to die for the present.

At some point, by some miracle, Blake and I were able to sit down at the kitchen table to address the situation, a grey card table, I might add.

“If you could do anything you wanted right now, what would it be?” Blake asked.

What an amazing idea! But I just sat there, stunned into silence.

“Come on,” he said. “say what comes into your head.”

“I’d go up to the bedroom and put on my navy suit,” I said.

“Then where would you go?” he asked.

“To Cedarbrae Collegiate,” I said.

“You want to go back to teaching,” he said.

The blood rushed away from my head. I almost fainted.

“Well, I can’t do that,” I replied.

“Why not?” he said.

“What would happen to the kids?”

So we began to sort it out. Someone could be hired to come in and look after them. Even if it cost half of my salary, it would be worth it. I would have no problem getting a job. Teachers were in such short supply now. All I would have to do would be to show up at the job fair in the spring.

The next day and for the next week, I kept deciding this was a crazy idea and then deciding that I had to do it. My anxiety level got pumped up almost to Missile Crisis levels. The deciding factor was the money. Among other stresses, I was being pestered by bill collectors for the landlord’s debts, including mortgage payments. Our rent money was just disappearing apparently. If we had two incomes, we would be able to buy the house.

I got a job at Thomson Collegiate, a few blocks away. As it turned out, it was the worst job there, consisting of three different subjects, six classes and a different classroom for every class, but I would be paid the same as Blake.

I hired a housekeeper strictly on instinct. I watched her interact with the children. She was a Scots woman from Glasgow who had worked in a Canadian munitions factory during the Second War. She was tiny and feisty, smoked like a chimney and turned out to be a secret drinker. In other words, she was so wrong, but she was also so right. She was happy as a clam mothering and keeping house, and in my defense, in 1963, we didn’t know second hand smoke was bad.

In retrospect, I’m not sure whether Daniel got a worse start than his sister because I abandoned him when he was eighteen months old or whether he got a better start for the same reason.

Daniel – unknowable infant

(Part of an on-going series about my estranged son.)

Babby D.So we came home from Mt Sinai Hospital, Daniel and I and the red roses. Blake went off to collect Julia from the babysitting friend’s house and I put the sleeping baby into the baby carriage that served as a bassinet and lay down to rest close beside it. I had missed one-year-old Julia badly and wondered how she would react to this little rival.

In a few minutes, I had my answer. Her father put her down on the bed and I picked up her brother. Her face was suffused with joy. In her excitement, she leapt to her feet, over-balanced on the mattress and crashed to the floor, hitting her head and howling in pain. Blake rescued her and sat down to comfort her. She really was hurt.

Daniel barely flinched at the noise. He slept on. Evidently, this was a different sort of baby, a calm infant, not given to nervous response.

In a few minutes, Julia got over crying and leaned her tear-stained face in to kiss her brother’s round face. The next minute we were all laughing. As far as she was concerned, I had brought home a living, breathing doll for her to play with.

And he happened to be a boy. In those days, there was no way of knowing that before hand. Older women would whisper,”She’s carrying low. Must be a boy.” They had said that throughout my first pregnancy. That worked out! Boys were scarce on the ground in both families. Although Blake’s father had been one of many boys, Blake was the only one carrying the Durant name in his generation. Now there was Daniel Durant. And the only male member of my family was my little brother, Rob. My father was a man who wanted male heirs, hence my sister, Georgia’s name. Blake was pleased as well, although lineage meant little to him.

And me? I was intrigued and a little unnerved. But it didn’t take me long to learn to take evasive action while changing diapers. One face full of pee was enough.

The thing about little Daniel was that he was quiet. At first newborns don’t seem to realize they’ve been born, but even when he got past that sleepy stage, Daniel was quiet. For one thing, he was well-fed. Bottle-fed. Not from choice. Not many mothers breast-fed in those days – 1962. I had been determined to, a year before, but it hadn’t gone well. The head nurse had screamed at my left breast’s in-turned nipple and then screamed at my doctor’s incompetence. My own mother and mother-in-law just shook their heads silently over my outrageously old-fashioned idea. My grandmother seemed to have forgotten the “unpleasant” experience. I had no friend, no group support. And Julia lost weight in the process of a session of nursing and screamed in starved protest. When she was a week old, we boiled up the bottles and began to give her formula. Now, a year later, she climbed on the traitorous mattress, sat beside me and watched me feed her brother his bottle.

She adored him. We all adored him. He was adored.

He had to be Danny because Daniel was too big.

He had big blue eyes and when they began to focus, they sought out his big sister. She was delighted to entertain him and he was delighted to be entertained.

D watches sisterMy idea of heaven was to get them both down for a nap at the same time although, of course, Julia was often busy pulling every pot and pan out of the kitchen cupboard and bashing them about while he slept. I was considered a very liberal mother for permitting this kind of kitchen chaos.

There were two baby cribs in the bigger bedroom and a second high chair standing ready. There was a playpen for containment of joyous energy when necessary.

Mostly we three were alone. Blake taught math in North York, 40 minutes away and returned there two nights a week to teach night school. On Sunday mornings, he went out to tutor an adult student. We were trying to make ends meet. So as I worked I listened to the CBC, especially from noon to 1:30 when books were read aloud. We listened to popular music as I worked or I sang to them. I loved singing and still had a voice. They seemed to like the singing and danced as small children do. Once he got into his high chair, Danny waved his arms and jumped on his seat. Or he bounced in the Jolly Jumper which hung in doorway. Later, Jolly Jumpers like bottle feeding, got a bad rap, but what did we know?

We moved when Danny was six months old. Long story there – adult only apartment building, furious neighbours….. Besides we reasoned, children need a yard. So we rented a house and moved to the Bendale subdivision in Scarborough. It had only 600 square feet, but it also had a finished basement room, with good big windows. Once again, we kept them together in the biggest bedroom, so they could keep each other company. One of the things I have stood charged with as a mother is not providing visual stimulation for these budding visual artists. Apparently, the only wall decoration was a blue thing, that I was able to identify to the adult complainers as a thermometer.

We had had to leave Dr Anchelson behind since I didn’t drive. We had only one car anyway. So I found a new doctor around the corner on Lawrence Ave.

One day, I loaded them both in the buggy and cut through the walkway beside the Catholic Church and School to his office. All morning Daniel had been crying and pulling at his ear. Holding him in my lap, I told Dr. Isaacs that he had an earache. Carefully, he examined Daniel’s ears, first one, then the other. Then he turned to Julia, who was standing beside us, and examined her ears. “This one has the earache,” he said, pointing at her.

In a nutshell, that explains why Daniel, as an infant, was unknowable. He and his sister acted as one organism.

Writing About Daniel

It’s three years and more since Daniel spoke to me privately. That is to say, he speaks to me readily enough when there are others present, at a reception, for example, or a family dinner when his sister Julia visits from California, infrequent though these events are. Then he acts as if things are normal between us. Otherwise, he doesn’t call and has specifically forbidden me to visit him at the shop where he works. At a certain point, he invited me not to update him about the family by email, saying he needed peace. What mother could argue with that? On the other hand, what mother could bear it? So, to make the unbearable bearable, I decided to write about him because that will be a way to open the flow of my dammed up love for him.

As soon as I made that decision, I said to myself, “But I don’t know him.” It’s been a long time now, for one thing, and he has always been an enigmatic character. “Proceed on a path of discovery then,” I sagely advised myself. Begin at the beginning.

The Beginning

Daniel is a second child, born almost to the day, on his sister’s first birthday.  (See Daniel’s Birth Day  https://115journals.com/2014/02/07/daniels-birth-day/ ) Just this week, I learned that this makes him an Irish twin, either a scathing and racist judgement on those who have their children close together or a tribute to the Irish lust for life and vitality. Certainly, my mother-in-law greeted the news that I was “expecting” again negatively. It wasn’t wise in her opinion. But, even though it was 1961, he was planned and not an accident.

His father and I decided as teenagers to take control of our lives, although it entailed the embarrassing process of journeying to the main library branch and signing out the books on birth control that were kept behind the counter. Study and a basal thermometer had done the trick.

(The oral contraceptive, whose imminent arrival had been toasted by madcap pre-med students at a New Year’s Eve party I attended in 1957, was on the market by 1962. I did not share their faith that such a miracle was possible.)

We decided to have our first child when I was in my second year of teaching. I knew I would be required to give up my job, but by then Blake had a teaching job of his own in another city.  Obviously, pregnant women were frowned upon in the classroom then. There were a few married women on staff, but none with children as I recall.

(At the end of Christmas vacation in my first year of teaching, I came into the women’s staff room -yes, segregated staff rooms- and someone asked rather archly, “And what did you do for your holiday, Miss Hood?” I had been the object of pity all fall as I struggled with discipline. “I got married,” I replied. The sharp intake of breath around the entire table was deeply satisfying.)

Once Julia was born, the question was when, not whether, there would be a second. Blake was an only child and I was the one for those “My sister was an only child” people. In other words, I was six when my first sibling was born. Such children are regarded by psychologists as “only” children. Not a good thing, Blake and I had concluded. My reading led me to believe that waiting until Julia was two would make the adjustment harder for her. Age one or three, were easier, I had read. The trouble was that I had been terribly nauseated for the first trimester, nauseated for the second and still able to vomit right to the end. If I didn’t get going, I would lose my nerve.

Was it a wise decision? Probably not. Health-wise, for me, at any rate although Daniel has turned out to be healthy. But it would have been a better idea to give my body a rest, especially since I was actually even more nauseated during the second pregnancy and of course tired from looking after baby Julia and lugging her increasingly heavy self around.

And those were the days of cloth diapers. The diaperman showed up twice a week with 72 diapers, which I had to fold. One of toddler Julia’s favourite games was grabbing the  freshly folded pile and throwing it on the floor. When I heard hysterical laughter from the kids’ room, I knew I had to get there fast.

So it was way too much work and not the kind of work I was good at. Which may have been the reason I had them close together. I was bored by it, so doubling it at least challenged me.

(I know, I know, I’m a terrible person, incapable of settling in and enjoying the  miracle of childhood -its slowness, its playfulness, its repetition. I think that takes more mental health than I have ever had at my disposal.)

The why of it eludes me. Blame it on those selfish genes, wanting to replicate, seeking immortality.

Next time: the unknowable baby Daniel

Daniel’s Birth Day

My son Daniel’s birthday was last Saturday, so I sent him a card and wrote “Happy Birthday, beautiful boy” inside. Last year, he thanked me for his card by email; otherwise, we are “non-speakers”. I could indulge in a “Danny Boy” moment here – “And I shall hear though soft you tread above me and all my gr…” and all that malarcky, but he hasn’t been Danny since he started walking. And that was some time ago.

His birth was a notable occasion. For all concerned.

On his sister’s first birthday, I was walking the corridor of the labour ward, listening to the cacophony of vocalization attendant on severe pain from women who were getting somewhere. I was reciting Psalm 23 to myself. Because I was getting no where. Or rather we were getting nowhere, this new baby and I. Imagine the sheer embarrassment. Eventually, my husband had to be called out of class to come pick me up. Well, of course he had gone back to work. It was 1962. That’s what husbands did then or so he thought.

A week and a day later, I was back at being a toddler’s mother, getting dinner, when it slowly dawned on me that this “new” baby was going to make an appearance after all. My husband had moved smartly enough the week before, but now he was inclined to take things easy. He delivered daughter Julia to our friends around the corner in Don Mills and came back to find me waiting in my winter gear and it must be said in an agitated state.

“Surely, there’s no hurry,” he said. Julia had taken the better part of a day to arrive.

“I don’t think we have much time,” I replied, gesturing at the puddle of water on the floor.

Fortunately, the Don Valley Parkway had just opened and this north/south freeway would take us downtown. And Blake was nothing if not good at speeding. As it turned out, I had a skill I was not aware of. Unable to sit, I found I was able to climb over the back of the seat while the car careened around curves at 70 MPH. I was even able to conclude that underwear impeded birth and take appropriate action. I did a quick review of what would be involved in self-delivery. All the while clinging to whatever I could grab and more or less ignoring the shouted questions from the front seat.

Once we hit the surface streets, Blake leaned on the horn and cut in and out of traffic, running red lights as necessary. I was way past fear by now, off in some zone, trying to hold on, in spite of the urge to let go, but in the end, of course, the urge got the upper hand. Anything, anything to resolve this awful pain.

He pulled the Dodge up to the emergency room door and ran in screaming, “The baby is coming. The baby is coming.”

“Calm down. Calm down,” I heard voices say, as I climbed -very awkwardly- out the back car door.

A stretcher appeared and I was helped up onto it. The nurse took a look and all hell broke loose.

“The baby’s head is here,” she screamed, as she tore off my clothes.

In a split second, I was being wheeled stark-naked down the hall at very high speed. Who cared? Just get me out of here. Ether, epidural, whatever it takes.

In the delivery room, all was calm.

“I seem to always make you miss dinner,” I said to Dr. Anchelson.

“Oh, I’ve had my dinner,” he said.

“The baby’s heart is fibrillating,” someone cried.

“Have you eaten,” the anesthetist asked.

“No,” I said.

He brought a mask to my face. “Breathe deeply,” he said.

Absolutely, I thought, and passed into oblivion.

It was a glorious dark, deep sleep, but someone kept trying to wake me up. They were laughing and shouting.

“Wake up. Wake up and see your son!”

“I only have a daughter,” I said, grumpily. I wanted to be go back to sleep. “I don’t have a son.”

“Well, you do now,” they laughed.

And sure enough, there was a boy’s bottom being presented for inspection and a beautiful round pink baby face.

“What happened to you? You went out like a light,” the doctor asked.

“He gave me something,” I said, gesturing at the anesthetist.

“Oxygen,” he said and everyone fell about laughing again. “That’s why the baby’s so pink. No anesthetic, just oxygen. Now that’s what I call suggestible.”

I arrived at the hospital at 6:03 p.m. and Daniel arrived 3 fun-filled minutes later. Daniel just turned 52, but I still shake to tell it.

Not that you owe me, Daniel.


Living in 3 Time Zones: a matriarch’s tale

There were stars overhead. A long-legged eight year-old had plunked himself down in the bed beside me. We could hear the revelers downstairs, but youngest and oldest, we craved rest. The stars on the ceiling glowed in the dark and I remembered sleeping under just such stars 20 years ago in Venice Beach, California, an ocean and a continent away. This is how far my family has spread. This is how far I have had to spread my arms to keep them – what? – not safe, for that is impossible. Let us just say “to keep them”.

Technology has made the job easier in the last 15 or 20 years. E-mail was a great help, so much faster that snail mail. Answering machines and FAX machines appeared. Then long distance rates started to fall, the mobile phone came along, and texting became possible. Distances were easier to bridge.

In Brussels last week, I watched the last episode of the BBC’s David Copperfield in which the Micawbers embarked on a sailing ship for a new life in Australia. Something had finally come up, as Mr Micawber so optimistically kept on saying it would, throughout his disastrous life. The villain of the story, Uriah Heep, was also on his way there, barefoot, chained to other prisoners, to pay for his crimes. His mother cried out, “My poor boy. I’ll never see him again.” Australia was just too far then, even supposing Heep lived to get released. Letters might be exchanged, but probably only two or three a year, given the time the voyage took.

In 1945 when my father moved us from the Eastern Townships of Quebec to Hamilton Ontario, my nine year-old self seriously doubted that I would ever get back to the mountains and the family I loved. Letters were posted and received weekly, but we had no phone. In the event of something momentous like a new baby brother, we could borrow the neighbour’s phone and pay the exorbitant long distance cost. In fact, we did return the summer after my brother Rob was born, in 1947.

Rob was the first family emigrant, hying himself off with a backpack at the age of 19 to explore the world. Our mother cashed in his life insurance policy to finance his getaway. By then it was a tossup whether our father would murder Rob or Rob would murder our father. All of the three older girls in the family harboured the same homicidal urge, but were not as capable of the deed.

Rob stayed safely out of reach of familial harm in Afghanistan, India, and Turkey, where various strangers had a go at him. Finally, he settled in Belgium. Where he had a phone which I could now afford to call to tell him our mother had been given only weeks to live. He thought it was a trick, and indeed, our mother survived against all odds for another 6 years. She had that ace in her pocket though -imminent death- and he came back for a visit – 3 years after he had left. He invited us to visit him and  2 years later I did, with my young family. We formed a friendship then that had not been possible before. So I began the process of long distance living. What time is it here? What time is it in Belgium or Italy or Sweden, wherever his career as a film gaffer took him?

Just when I got the knack of that, my daughter Julia took off for New York City. No problem, same time zone. But -what’s this? She’s off to the west coast. She’s getting married in Las Vegas. And so I began living in 3 -count’em – 3 time zones.

It’s quite dizzying. Whenever I want to talk to Rob, he’s already asleep. Initially, after I returned from Brussels last week, I woke up at 4 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, thinking it was already 10 a.m., and called him then. My daughter up on her west coast mountain would be snoozing away in her 1 a.m. world. As I acclimatized to Toronto time, I kept missing windows of communication. I ended up texting Rob while he slept and getting his reply when I woke up. Julia is beyond the reach of cell phone texts at present, but I catch her at odd moments as she builds the fire in early morning.

As I lay there on Christmas Eve, looking up at the stars, I thought about all the grandparents who travel great distances to be with their far-flung families and sleep as like me in children’s bedrooms. I thought about older women alone in their cars on lonely highways and on long distance flights. Like me, they may well count over 50 such trips and see the results in maturing children who know they are part of something bigger.

That something is family. I can’t help it. I have to communicate, to be there. Someone needs to hold the family together and time has made me the matriarch.

Let us Consider the Fortunate Fall Again

Someone has just read my post Fortunate Fall: change the future in a blink, so I decided to reread it myself. https://115journals.com/2012/12/11/the-fortunate-fall-change-the-future-in-a-blink/ and https://115journals.com/2013/01/12/the-fortunate-fall-a-further-exploration/

Events connected with the initial family crises are gradually working out and, any day now, we will begin to see happy results become manifest. In the meanwhile, we have forged new bonds. Yes, it’s a cliche´ but those connections seem as if they were welded in fire. You can probably guess that they were cooled by salt water.

Now a young man is dying. When he came home as a 3 day-old baby, I showed his mother how to bath him. When he was 7, I remembered his curly headed, mischievous- self when I fell into suicidal despair. How could my death be explained to him? It couldn’t. So between him and the crisis line of the Salvation Army, I kept on living.

He doesn’t know that. Indeed at this point, he doesn’t know what is happening.

I am writing this to honour him because I cannot talk to him. What I am honouring is not just his worldly achievements but his inner being, his perpetual light that will not be put out by disease and death.

And to thank him for his shining face that gave me hope and kept me here to aid and comfort others in my turn.