Learning to Die #5: practicum

Clara on her 90th birthday, Jan. 2019


On Christmas Eve in 2020, my daughter, Julia and her husband, Colin,, found his mother, Clara, collapsed. She had not activated the alarm, which was hanging around her neck, They had taken her down the mountain to her doctor the day before because she was complaining of severe leg pain. The doctor ordered more blood tests. The urine test came to a sad end. Julia insisted that he prescribe Pantoprazole again to prevent stomach acid. Lack of it seemed to have already caused a bleeding ulcer. (For the past few years doctors had been reading a dire warning that this acid suppressors caused bone thinning. My own doctor, Dr. Joe, had scoffed, citing throat cancer, never mind stomach cancer. My sister cited Dr. Joe to her own doctor.) Clara was very unwell even then at the clinic, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t see even on her best days and was lying down on the examination table.

The obvious question -is she dying and if so, what choices should be made – did not come up.

On Christmas Eve, Julia got Clara washed and into clean nightwear in a fresh bed. It was then Clara started praying. In Tongues. Although the language was unclear, it was very clear that Clara was talking to God. Very vehemently. Very loudly. All night long, while they sat or lay beside her.

We had had a few family emergencies and always Clara would phone her prayer group, thousands, waiting for the word to start exhorting God. Julia and I didn’t necessarily believe in that kind of personal God. We were more Taoists. But you’ve heard that no one is an atheist in a fox hole. Now Julia told me on Face Time, “We never needed thousands. All we ever needed was Clara.”

In the morning, she asked, “What’s for breakfast?”

So they moved essentials from their place higher up Bear Mtn and settled in, dividing the night in two shifts. Julia who had had persistent insomnia for 9 years took the shift starting at 2:30 a.m., which was when she usually woke up. Colin sat up until then.

Christmas morning breakfast was oatmeal, not instant, bacon, soft scrambled eggs, toast and jam. Clara came to the table and put away some of each and a lot of oatmeal.

“Haven’t felt like cooking,” she said. “I was hungry.”

Indeed, she was a whole size smaller.

On the phone, I went nuts. “You can’t overfeed her,” I protested. You’ll do her harm.”

“She’s burping a little,” said Julia. “She’s sitting in her favourite chair.”

“The one that shot her onto the floor where she remained for 12 hours?” I querried.

“We told her not to use the lever. Anyway we’re here. I think she had a series of small strokes, but the clinics are closed for the holiday and the hospitals are full of Covid. I know what to do now. Keep her blood pressure down. I’ll watch the stool for blood and balance out the need for painkillers.”

“Is she in pain?”

“I think she will have some.”

Julia was an acupuncturist before she had to retire because of her health and she had worked with many elderly people and their primary care-givers.

Christmas got postponed in many family places. A Dallas great-grand-daughter was in hospital with an infection. And here in Toronto, we ate breakfast with a dizzying array of devices beaming in three other households. Usually we were at one long table farther north in snowy Barrie.

On the mountain, they had ordered Christmas dinner from a local, but closed to dining restaurant. They ate it a few days late with 25-year-old Leo up from L.A.

So they fell into a routine, Julia’s breakfast -donuts on Sunday- and yes, we know but last minute wishes and all that – and Colin’s dinners. Lunch was easy to pick up from the generous left overs or Clara had a bagel and cream cheese, The good food along with the acid suppressing meds began to clear up the GI bleed.

When a urinary bleed erupted and the clinics and drug stores were still closed, I said, “Cranberry juice.” Clara hated it. She was used to orange juice but two days later, that too was gone.

My Brussels’ brother, Rob, had had a memorable experience, finding our grandmother locked up in the bedroom of a farm house, where she was patiently stripping the wallpaper and saving it in rolls. First, he made a very angry call to his father, which brought about a quick move to a better Home. Secondly, it made him a lifelong guardian of old ladies, five in all. He put in indoor plumbing -yes, in Brussels in the 2010s, he installed water heaters, he bought roasted chicken at the Sunday market, he got them to the doctor, he bathed them, he found long term care rooms when persistent burglars targeted them. This last involved the mayor. (Oh, by the way, these ladies plunked down a plastic bag containing 350,000 Euros on the desk when they checked in.) And he saw to their burial or cremation. One of these adventures involved pre-dating a document, but that’s what I like about the Europeans … no problem.

Between us, we had lots of advice. Get a baby monitor. Get a commode. Here’s how to prevent falling out of bed.

Every morning after Julia helped Clara to shower and lather in moisturizer, they walked up and down the covered deck and wrapped in her duvet, Clara sat and looked at the mountains until she got cold. Mostly, she slept in bed or in that dangerous chair, waking up to call for tea or toast or ‘any more donuts’. When Colin sat in it, he said he felt like issuing commands.

Clara was getting better but they were exhausted. Colin changed his shifts to the afternoon. Because it was winter, even in California golf courses on mountains were not doing a thriving business. Leo came up occasionally to spell them off. But Leo like Colin was male and, unless Clara was more or less out of it, she was too modest and proud to let them help her in the bathroom.

Gradually the pain was coming back.

A very bad winter storm threatened. And threatened. Two feet of snow. Five in the Sierras. Farther north, I assured myself. Forecasts gave estimates according to altitude. They were at 5,500 ft. The other house up 2000 more. Colin made a run up for heavier outerwear and shovels. The pain got worse.

It was abdominal. It didn’t seem to be a bleed. Julia was too tired to think. Her shift was basically 2:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Later she learned that if she slept with Clara, her hands on the pain and did Chi Gong breathing, the pain diminished and they both slept 4 hours. But now it was too much and Clara said she had to go to hospital. She had done so before, but after many cardiac tests, the verdict was anxiety attack.

Moreover it was now snowing very hard.

Julia says, “Do you understand that if you are admitted to hospital, we may never see you again?” Damned Covid.

“Yes,” says Clara.

So the paramedics come from the fire hall. The EKG shows heart damage. It always does now, because she had a ‘silent’ heart attack some time that summer she and I had lived in two rooms above the Real Estate Hotel while she was moving up from Vegas.

The ambulance at the firehall can’t transport her because a truck has rolled on the mountain road and traffic is jammed – people fleeing just half an hour too late. It is arranged they will drive her in the Subaroo to the Y where an ambulance will be waiting. Another will wait at the I 5 to take her to Bakersfield. “No,” said Julia, “Santa Clarita. Henry Mayo.”

“Can’t do that mam. The I 5 south is blocked”

The medics load Clara into the front seat of the Subaroo. But no, where are her gloves. Colin sets out, driving around the slippery hairpin turns and along the edges of cliffs until, he comes to a full stop behind a line of cars. Julia gets out and begins to walk. The walking is through foot-dragging snow for a mile or more. She passes the truck on its side. A big delivery truck.There is a tarp over the cab. When she gets to the Y, she asks the CHP officer if he can communicate with the ambulance. “No,” is all he said

She calls Colin and between them, they go to each waiting car and tell them they need to pass to get a patient to an ambulance. They meet, walk back together, get back into the car and Colin pulls out into the even less passable left lane to begin the slow slip back up the hill to the Y.

While the off-loading is underway, Clara is heard to ask a medic how long he has worked at the job.

At Clara’s house, Julia and Colin sleep for ten hours.

This particular dying practice will continue briefly next time -long term care in the age of Covid- and then I will begin to write about the study of theory, including the psychopomp, Tibetan ideas and eventually Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropomycene

Learning to Die #4: practicum


There is an ancient Chinese story about an old farmer with one son. They are very poor, so poor that the son has to pull the plow to cultivate their field. Seeing this, a wealthier person gives them a horse. The village is jubilant, “What a good piece of luck,” they say. “We”ll see,” says … Continue reading

New Novel Goes to Beta Readers

Here is the prologue to my new novel set in 2120, as climate change is undermining civilization. I Trust You to Kill Me: Al-Hallaj Mansour, a Sufi master, uttered these words on the banks of the Tigris when he was martyred in Bagdad on March 26, 922. The charge against him was that by saying … Continue reading

My ex-husband Blake and his young second wife came to visit me after I had the carcinoid surgery. That was the week before my brother rescued me. I still couldn’t eat and I was too weak to get out of bed. They had come from our high school reunion. Blake and I were high school sweethearts. Presumably, she had registered as me, since I couldn’t. They brought me my key chain souvenir and showed me pictures of the old gang, the drama club. They were very much changed. Blake had the same lean physique – see above -. He was still diving at the yacht club to check the moorings in cold early May. She was just a year older than my daughter. Very kind of them. (What am I not saying? Well, at least, I was a very thin, if pallid 65.)

Some years later both of them were diagnosed with cancer. Both of my malignancies were no longer detectable. Then, suddenly, she was so ill that we were making last visits, and then she was gone. Blake’s stage 4 diagnosis didn’t worsen even then, although he nearly walked the legs off his shiba inu pup up and down Toronto’s river valleys. My sister folded him back into her family as she had me. “Should have stuck with the old girl,” she quipped.

Blake asked me to be his executor. Here’s a hot tip: no matter how much you want to make sure your own children don’t get cut out of the will, never agree to be an executor. I did. I know.

In the spring, Blake found himself too busy to answer our invitations. Too busy was blonde and young and hung around the yacht club. They were teaching disadvantaged teens to sail. Blake and I had lunch together or sometimes dinner that I cooked, so I could keep up. I had to drive him to make a will, dividing the estate into three parts, two for our adult children and one for his step-daughter.

In 2018, I had spent several months in southern California helping me daughter, who started out with stage 4 kidney cancer. The diagnosis changed weekly with every new test. Tuesday it was cancer. Thursday it was angiomyolipomas. Or was the kidney tumour something else? This involved two surgeons, one in Santa Clarita and one in Bakersfield, wandering surgical dates and, as it turned out, a brilliant pain specialist. (Never get an angiomyolipoma in your sciatic nerve. But if you have to get a tumour, at least, it’s not malignant.) I got home after three months in early January on the last night time flight, walked into my apartment, took off my shoes, went into the kitchen and broke my little toe. (Something else: never break a toe, even a small one, in winter.)

My son, who had not wanted to worry me before, phoned to say his father was in a bad way.

For the first week, I just called Blake. Anyway, he said, I couldn’t visit him because the house was a mess and Christy didn’t want visitors. I was well on the way through a whose-house-is-it sermon before I could stop myself. Finally, I limped to the car after getting him to agree to meet me at the door when I called to say I was there. I couldn’t see into any of the main floor rooms, nor the second-floor bedrooms as we two invalids climbed to the top, his lovely bedroom with a sunny balcony. Only it was no longer lovely. There was no sun. The windows were heavily curtained. The place smelled of very old dog, territorial cats, very ill master and the remains of several meals. He had a small frig and a microwave. “Christy brings up food when I call her,” he said. the en suite hadn’t been cleaned in maybe 5 years. The self-cleaning kitty litter was in there. (Never believe that marketing line.) When I started scooping out the smelly bits, he yelled angrily, “Don’t do that. You don’t know how. Christy will get mad.” I went to the door and stared at him. Had I taught high school for 30 years and was I now afraid of Christy? Or him, come to that? That was just the beginning of the fun.

The entire house was a hoarder’s delight and beyond dirty. The second floor office was jam-packed with Amazon packages still, packed packages. “Wait till you see the garage,” my son, Daniel whispered. We crept down past the dragon in the living room. (That’s where she slept, having decamped from a perfectly good second-floor bedroom. Too near Blake, I assumed. She had declared, “Old men disgust me.) Daniel opened the door to the garage.They had dealt with recycling by standing in the door way and flinging it. There was a foot of airspace near the ceiling.

When we started cleaning, Christy yelled we were only doing it to sell the house out from under her. I assured her, we were trying to avoid being charged with elder abuse. Blake thought it was funny when passers-by intervened when Christy cussed him out in the grocery store. I asked where the clean sheets were and she thudded back up the narrow stairs and flung a lump of rolled up cotton onto the bed. Later, I saw that was how she stored them in the linen cupboard.

It was obvious that Blake was at the stage where he needed home care, but that department wouldn’t even talk to Daniel or me, only to Blake, who couldn’t remember from one minute to the next that we were trying to get him a home hospital bed and a visiting nurse to monitor his pain and pain meds.

Just when I was getting a handle on dealing with dragon-Christy, she suddenly changed and began phoning me in hysterics because she couldn’t handle a new development. For some reason, she always did this while I was grocery shopping. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to tell her I couldn’t talk. I would huddle with my face against the cereal boxes shouting ‘quietly’ to get her to stop talking. My default advice was always, if you can’t handle it, call the para-medics. She did. Often. They would carry him in a chair down the winding stairs and take him to an emergency room. Hours later, she would Uber him home. Or he would be admitted over-night. Or she would Uber him to the hospital. Having done that once and been admitted for the foreseeable future, he demanded to check out against orders. She called Daniel who showed up in a car and found himself the getaway driver.

It was the pain and Blake’s howling response that got to her. No phone call necessary.

The getaway stay had been in Toronto Western. His home hospital was Mt. Sinai. But sometimes he got stretchered across University Avenue – winter or not – for more scans – or even to Toronto General.

I was gobsmacked by how his mind worked. He muttered that he was leaving an awful mess. Well I could see that -two defunct vacuum cleaners sat in his closet blocking the sliding doors. But no, not what he meant. Later I learned he hadn’t filed a tax return since 2015. Later I learned that he owed about $40,000 in tax. Later I learned that Miss Younger Blonde – who WAS NOT a gold-digger, thank you, had enjoyed $380,000 he had borrowed on the house.

My daughter decided to come from California and her two sons, one in Dallas and one in L.A. decided to come as well. It was intended to signal to Blake that he didn’t need to hang on in misery. Blake was home that week and able to go out for lunch. My grandsons sat with him and recorded the sad story of his evacuation from the Blitz to Canada. A whole boatload of children had been torpedoed earlier. I had fallen for that hook when I was 16 and I was quite sure I was not the last woman to do so. They looked at all his photos. When the three of them left, I was devastated.

Then he finally got a place in the hospice in Grace Hospital. Christy came in waving the power of attorney for health. What were they going to do to treat him? “No, no,” I said. They had to take her away to a private area to explain what a hospice is.

Daniel, the step-daughter, Christy and I took turns sitting with him. The three of us tried hard not to overlap with Christy. She shouted at the nurses and the porters and even the lunch ladies. There was another dying man behind the curtain, not to mention the kind patient carers who watched people die every day. Blake slept more and more until he was unconscious all the time. One day, I fled to corridor to cry and Daniel came out and put his arms around me. Up until his father got worse, Daniel had not spoken to me for years. Something I had said really annoyed his wife. Now I saw the boy I had known, for in his father’s angriest days, he had quietly tended to him.

I dealt with this phase more easily. I read Rumi poetry to Blake and recited the 23rd Psalm. Blake had pretended to be an atheist and I had told him he was in for a big surprise.

The last day was that same anguish. He had been moved to a single room. The four of us sat around his bed, reminiscing, even laughing and crying of course. The chaplain came. The on-duty doctor came. I had my marching orders from the head nurse. There was no mortuary there, so I had to notify the undertakers pronto. Blake took those last suspenseful breaths just before dinner. We sat silently crying..

When I stood up, I found I had forgotten how to walk. The step-daughter scooted around me to get the nurse. Once in the hall, I couldn’t remember how to use my phone. I leaned my weight against a wall and I heard myself report that Blake Durant had passed on at Grace Hospital. I had already signed the contract.

It couldn’t be true, I thought. It couldn’t be true that my Blake was dead, my other half even after all these years. The five-year-old on the ship in the middle of the Atlantic, watching the destroyer on the port side. The 18-year-old who rode a green Raleigh Racer and captured my heart.

When I got back to the room, the others were gone and not-Blake lay with a gaping jaw. And it wasn’t Blake and I couldn’t stay to keep him safe.

Two days later, St James Mortuary phoned to ask if I wanted Blake to be cremated in his hospital gown or some other clothes. I wish I could say I asked myself what Blake would say, but I didn’t. I died of shame and tearfully replied the gown would be fine.

That evening still in his blue gown, he made a flying visit through my sister’s living room. After that I kept seeing him back in his jeans and sweater, rushing to a physics lecture with an iPad. It seems as if he is going on to economics next semester. Bernie Sanders is going to need help with that living wage idea.

I will pass over the day I took possession of the house. Sufficient to say the police were involved. Christy went back to her own apartment, which Blake had paid for all those years and $27,000 in hand.

It took me a year and a half of aggravation to settle his estate. I paid myself an honorarium and my increased taxes took half of it.

Blake still sleeping

Learning to Die #3: practicum

Brother et moi on a bench in Bois Fort

One morning 3 years after I became a renter, I was sitting on the edge of the bed coming awake when I discovered 7 lumps in my left breast. Those days, I made it a habit to check once a month and I had done so a few weeks before. Now a little garden had bloomed, large lumps and small and at least one too small to be felt if it had not been sore.

My sister/landlady was ill prepared for my appearance in our kitchen.

We got me to the local walk-in clinic somehow “Oh, these are just cysts,” the doctor said while writing a script for a mammogram. “Don’t worry. Be calm.” I had no family doctor. He was far away near the house I had sold. I went to the local hospital for the mammogram. “Oh, these are cysts,” said the technician, “but lets do an ultrasound.” All she said after that was,”Humm.”

I more or less coerced the MD attached to my Tai Chi Club to take me on. He palpated the lumps and studied the pictures, “Probably cysts,” he said and referred me to a surgeon. The surgeon said,”Probably cysts.”, plunged a needle into the largest one and drew out an astonishing amount of fluid. Not content, he seized another needle and attacked the next biggest one. Same result. Number 3 didn’t co-operate, a little fluid, then nothing. “Probably mixed,” he muttered. “Well, we’ll have to go in and take a look but I’m 99% sure these are not malignant.” So I got a surgery date three weeks away. Terrified beyond words, I went about my days as usual, walking around our little lake every morning, tutoring high school students from Hong Kong looking to get ‘highest mark’ and cooking dinner. The mantra, “Probably cysts” was continuous in my head. It was the last thing the surgeon said as I blanked out and the first thing he said when he saw me post surgery. But I’ve sent some tissue for a biopsy.” I was making dinner two weeks later when he phoned. “We have to do the surgery again,” he said. “There were two small cancerous tumours.” I went mad. “But they’re out,” he kept yelling. “I took them out.” “Then why surgery?” I demanded. “We have to clear the margins. We have to see if it spread into the lymph nodes.”

I hated him. I hated every single person who had said, “Probably cysts”. Every movement for two weeks had hurt. Walking was like torture. The poor little left breast, half the size of its sister now, began burning all along the incision. I couldn’t stand to look at a knife. How was it possible knowing what I did now to let it be done all over again?

It got done. All over again. This time I didn’t have projectile vomiting. They had figured out a better anesthetic. The home visit nurse came back again to bind the even longer wound. And yes, 10 nodes under my arm had been invaded. Eventually, I consulted an oncologist and said yes to radiation and no to chemo. At my advanced age – 62 – chemo was protocol. The doctor said, “I would have made the same decision for myself.”

My mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 59. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 1969 when her lungs filled with fluid. My only previous experience was Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, where early cancer treatment in Soviet Russia had been barbaric. I was assured that it was vastly improved now. Must have been true. She died in 1976. It took more than half that time to diagnose the primary site -the ovaries. Most of those 7 years, she was able to drive and enjoy being unable to work, although that was the interval when my own family began to travel for respite. It had been nerve-wracking from that first unreal October, 1969 when heavy snow hung on the still leafy trees and we were one and all pulled out of our classrooms because she was about to die. At the end, she went back to the hospital on Nov. 1,1976 and passed away on Nov. 11th very close to 11 a.m. “Am I going to die, Roy?” she asked our father on the first day. He dodged his head and toyed with his fedora, “Well, I guess we’re all going to die.” I wasn’t sure if he was a coward or a wise man. I sat beside her daily as did my sisters. She had a bright red mark below her lip, which looked like a ruby. After she fell into a coma, we talked to her, read to her, sang the best hymns and love songs, we listened to that awful pause after an exhalation. And waited. Then the ragged, snoring inhale.

I assumed I knew how cancer ended and I doubted I would have seven years to prepare for it.

In fact, the terror had begun to fade three years after that when I popped in to have a clinic doctor look at a bloodshot eye. Nothing of concern. But at me age -65- I need a colonoscopy. He had a thriving business behind scenes keeping people well tested. Okay, I thought and went to my own M.D. and signed up. Turned out my intestines were in an irritated state and cameras on long prods made them way more angry. “Yes,” said the doctor. “Something there. The nurse will give you the surgeon’s information.” Cue panic. Unfortunately, the bowel had now swollen and I could consume only clear fluids and liquid morphine. The surgeon couldn’t find a time slot with his A team. I could have the B team in the middle of the night, but I wouldn’t want the B team. He looked at me.” Oh, no, no,” I said on cue.

So I starved. I stayed in bed. I longed for morphine time and as soon as it came, I longed for the next morphine time. Then I walked into the kitchen one morning and saw on the tiny TV there, the first tower fall. It went on and on as I desperately tried to get hold of my Los Angeles children. I finally tracked down my grandson at his father’s. “Keep him home,” I yelled. “Don’t let him go out.” The next day I had a second colonoscopy, pre-surgery, doncha know. I lay on a stretcher watching ruined streets and replays of horror. I had the surgery on Sept. 20th and it was not a keyhole operation.”You’re lucky,” crowed the surgeon. “Carcinoid, very slow growing. It will come back in all likelihood. It will probably spread to your liver, but it won’t kill you. Very, very unusual. I’ve only ever had one other.” Very lucky. Very thin. Very weak. Very much in agony. Very convinced death would be a better outcome.

After a week of fasting out of sheer fear of further pain, my brother boarded a plane in Brussels and came to my side. He began with white rice and charmed me and made me laugh, stitches be damned. He moved me up to steamed fish. “You can have your lunch if you come down.” Next day, he took me out for lunch. I knew there was a reason I patiently fed him 2 oz. of milk while his other two little sisters adored him.


Learning to Die #2: practicum


We tremble, thinking we are about to dissolve
into nonexistence, but nonexistence
fears even more that it might be given human form.
Rumi trans. Coleman Barks

In the first post (see link above) called Learning to Die, I explained the choice of title, which I appropriated from Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and why I had used it. I mentioned the quotation from Simone Weil, who said a soldier’s future was to die. Then I considered how we civilians are having to live at present and how as a six-year-old I almost died.

In fact, 3 of the 4 children in my family unit wavered initially. The youngest, my brother arrived two months early after my mother fell down stairs. He weighed 4 lbs. 8 oz before preemie ICUs. Sent home to die, said Mom and handed me his bottle. My nearest sister, 6-years younger, nearly died of croup at 2 weeks. “The doctor said to feed her when she cried. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t live.” I tried to choke to death around the same age. My grandmother hauled me out into the cold mountain air, held me upside down and walloped me hard on the back. Whoa! And I was so enjoying that little flight. Away. Only my second sister seems to have had no early trauma, but made up for it later.

When I was six, my mother found me covered in blood on my bed and started screaming. This was different from the wailing she had been doing about my baby sister dying of croup. Which I had caused by bringing home my snotty-nosed friend to see my beloved new baby sister. Now I had been punished, but if something wasn’t done, she was going to lose both children at a blow. So my unconscious little body got shoved into the backseat of the Model A and my father set off in the pitch dark over the 35-mile gravel road back home to the Hill. He was crying and praying and cussing. He kept reaching behind to touch my body, but actually I was sitting beside him in the front seat. I was very cross and wanted badly to hurt him back. On the other hand, I had never seen him so upset. “Don’t die, Joycey, don’t die,” he begged. I hadn’t decided.

Aunt Mae’s house was back in under the mountain, on the old farm. Mae was waiting on the porch in a barn coat, her face grim. “What have you done now, boy?” she said as she took me into her arms. He started to explain. “You get your worthless hide outa here before I get the bullwhip,” she said. “Aunt Mae,” he pleaded, “can’t I even get a drink of water?” “You know where it is,” she said. “And I’ll need two more pailfuls for the boiler. Get them from the spring. Then make yourself scarce and don’t come back til I send you word.” “Will she live?” he said as he dumped the last pail in the stove. “She’ll live if God wills it and I believe He does. She is His child.” That was a hint, I thought hovering around the kerosene lamp in the wall bracket. She means I’m not his.

I began to come back into my pain-wracked body. I was in very hot, salty water in a round tin tub next the stove. The fire was roaring. I had a sort of tent of quilts over me, my head poking through a slit. Mae was busy topping up the hot water. “Tomorrow, we’ll do another sitz bath with herbs and flowers. That’s a German word, you know -sitz. Didn’t know I could speak German did you? It’ll come in handy when Hitler gets here.” And she burst into a cackle. “Don’t you worry your little head, the Lord Jesus is here and He loves us. He’s keeping out those Huns. That’s the old word from the old war. Huns. Now here, have some more of this milk and honey.” I swallowed it down. It was really sweet and it seemed to make me really sleepy. Next thing I knew I was wrapped in quilts and being carried into the bedroom. “Where’ll Grandpa sleep?” For My Aunt Mae Owen had married my widowed great grandfather Bolton. “That worthless piece is off to his camp again,” she said, as she turned down the lamp.

By morning, I could mostly stay in my body. It was tempting not to. Would serve them right. But I was lured back by strange and lovely scents Aunt Mae had rubbed into the sore places.

Two weeks later, my teacher was astonished to discover I could read all the first primer and add the 1s and 2s and 3s. I had also learned that it was possible to chose to live. Against the odds.

In March of 2020, a highly contagious and lethal pandemic began racing toward us from China. It wasn’t until it reached Italy that I began to see Covid-19 for what it was. When it got bad as it seemed to do in Italy’s old people, they were rendered unconscious and placed on ventilators. They died without regaining consciousness, isolated from loved ones, and prone. Sleeping on my stomach was a form of torture to me, but dying without love seemed the opposite of a good death. (I was wrong of course. Love doesn’t have to be personal or even corporeal.) The other choice was to be administered Sister Morphine to ease the pain of drowning in lung fluids, but still alone and isolated.

I dug out my will and added a handwritten codicil eschewing ventilation. I had it witnessed by the supers on duty in my building’s office. They were puzzled. Like Roy Scranton in Baghdad in 2003, I rehearsed this death every morning. I made masks of folded men’s hankies and hair elastics. I washed my hands as I sang Amazing Grace. I shopped for groceries at 7 a.m. or ordered them to be delivered. In short, my daily review of death scared me straight. Gradually, public health began to catch up with me and I bought masks. By now whole cathedrals in Italy were lined with coffins, not to mention ice rinks. Streams of hearses drove away from hospitals.

I owe a debt to Mrs. Cuomo who had two sons, Andrew, whose daily briefings as Governor of New York kept me calm, and Chris, who got Covid but continued to broadcast for CNN from his basement. Chris was very sick, but he didn’t have to go the ventilator route and he got mostly better.

I was offended in those early days by the reassurance that Covid was nothing to worry about except for the elderly. Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas announced that, being in his 70s, he was ready to die to keep the economy open for the younger population, as were a 100 other older people he had talked to. Like Lear, but without Lear’s irony, he implied that “Age is unnecessary”.

After an angst-ridden life, I had to sell in a down market and despite my education and profession, fell out of the home-owner, pool-owner, sailboat-owner class. But renter though I am, I am finally comfortable and more or less at peace. I’ll be damned if I’ll sacrifice these few remaining years, so the economy can flourish.

It’s a good idea to learn this lesson early. The desire to live does not diminish with age.

These days, I am asked -by friends on video call- when I will be vaccinated. I did a Toronto Star questionnaire, which said based on my age, almost 85, after Jan.1st and before May 21st. Good for a laugh. More seriously, I reply that it is irrelevant. I haven’t caught Covid in 11 months. If I were immunized, I couldn’t go anywhere anyway. Nothing is open. However, I will be there on the spot with my sleeve rolled up as soon as I get the word.

I chose almost 80 years ago to continue living a difficult life. I’d un-chose to save another life – I have refused a ventilator – but not so others can buy an Air Fryer or a Sleep Number bed.

Learning to Die: practicum continues next time with lessons in dying of cancer and old age.

Learning to Die

I have taken the title of this post from Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the end of a civilization. Anthropocene means the age of human kind. You can find the introduction and first chapter on-line.

Scranton begins by describing his entrance to Baghdad in 2003 as a private in the American army:
in the blue dawn Baghdad rose from the desert like a vision of hell: flames licked the bruised sky from the tops of refinery towers, cyclopean monuments bulged and leaned against the horizon, broken overpasses swooped and fell over ruined suburbs, bombed factories and narrow ancient streets.
Shock and awe had destroyed the infrastructure, reduced governmental order to brutal tribalism and eventually destroyed the secular middle class, leaving gangsters, profiteers, fundamentalists and soldiers. An ancient civilization destroyed.

In spite of the advantages afforded Scranton by the U.S. military might and technical superiority, he knows there are any number of ways he could die each day. He quotes Simone Weil, “For a soldier death is the future.” So every morning as Scranton readies his Humvee for the road, he practices dying, imaging himself being blown up, shot, burned, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs and beheaded. Once he is ready, he can set forth without concern.

Two and a half years later, he is safely back Stateside until Hurricane Katrina. His unit begins training for riot control. “The grim future I saw in Baghdad had come home.”

Theoretically, I am not a soldier. I am an 84-year-and-10-month old woman in the middle of a Covid pandemic, more or less housebound for 11 months. (Aren’t we all soldiers as we engage this implacable foe?)

At the age of 6, I was brutally raped and would have chosen to die if not for Aunt Mae, who knew how to heal with love, dreadful herb tea, raspberry pie and reading. Catching the rapist was not an option. He was the family breadwinner.

I have just been watching season 3 of The Sinner on Netflix, in which the villain has been bent all out of shape by fear of death. This fear has led him to become a murderer. – looking death in the face and all that. Interesting plot device. I didn’t have that luxury. I had a baby sister.

In the end, there were 4 children in my unit and we all survived. That is we are all alive now in our old age. In the next generation, we were not so lucky. Two of my nephews are gone. Several daughters have had close calls with despair. There is a thriving generation of great grandchildren. My own are girls, Texans -good grief- who, I imagine will live to be as old as my sister and me – 2097(?) They are going to have to be soldiers to deal with that life on earth. Please keep them out of Houston at least.

I intend to write Learning to die #2 Practicum, #3 Theory, #4 in the Anthropocene

Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: female=crazy? #2

This is the 4th reflection on Elena Ferrante’s 4 books including My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who leave and Those Who stay and The story of the Lost Child. See 115journals.com. The previous post was https://115journals.com/2020/12/30/ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-femalecrazy-1/

Like the word ‘Covid’, the word ‘woke’ is a new word that came to my attention only in 2020. Initially, it seemed to apply to those enlightened people who knew that systemic racism existed. Being woke about racism involved interacting with someone who was experiencing it. Well-to-do, older, white, male columnists who asserted that their country -say Canada – had no systemic racism weren’t in any position to make that judgement. In the 60s and 70s this process was called ‘consciousness raising’ and involved racism but also feminism. Elenu and Lila in Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet discuss women’s rights at evening gatherings of college students and faculty. It was new to Elenu as it was to me at that time. I began to recognize that it wasn’t my neurosis that made me unhappy, but real difficulties I was encountering as a woman.

In the 1950s, domineering fathers, who told you what you would do and beat you if you didn’t were not unusual in working classes. I had made it clear to my father that it was unacceptable. We were not that sort. We had risen above it. By definition, middle-classed men were more rational and less volatile. Please don’t think that worked.

Elenu and Lila had, from childhood, intended to climb out of their Naples’ neighborhood by writing a book and becoming wealthy like Louisa May Alcott. Lila was deprived of that route when her father took her out of school after grade 5 to help in his shoe repair shop. Elenu seemed doomed to the same fate, but a teacher interfered and more or less forced her parents to let her go on.

My father also felt that a girl didn’t need an education, but he waited until I was in grade 12 to begin nagging me to quit and become a secretary. Unfortunately, he had neglected to abuse me sufficiently to make me stupid, not that he was averse to abuse. My teachers, like Elenu’s, had regarded me as special and it never occurred to me that just being male made one more special. I didn’t run onto any significant male rival for first place until I was in grade 11. Not that I was terrifically smart, I just had a great study method.

Elenu was much the same, a grind, good at memorizing. The brilliant one was Lila.

When my early experience of childcare, with the isolation, drudgery and lack of mental stimulation drove me ‘whirly’, (https://115journals.com/2020/12/30/ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-femalecrazy-1/) I had no problem finding a teaching job. In 1962, all you needed was a pulse. I was trained and qualified to teach English, history and Latin. I was hired to teach history, commercial geography, and English in a different classroom for every single class. I pushed a chrome cart on wheels with my teaching materials on it through the crowded halls racing to get to the next class before the kids. After my toddlers were bathed and put to bed, I hunkered down to learn about Russia and its industrial opportunities. Eventually, one of the football players, late for class, took me down and the v.p., who had assigned my teaching spaces, failed to call me a taxi and otherwise treat my separated shoulder as serious. He got a new job in North Bay.

Elenu’s husband is a university professor like his father. He vanishes into his study once the girls are down where he is writing book. This composition actually outlasts the marriage. He sleeps there rather than wake up Elenu. When she turns ‘whirly’ her mother-in-law or her mother turns up to help out and admonish her for not supporting her man. Elenu finds a different way out.

I could never have taken Elenu’s way out. I was terribly in love. I bored fellow teachers by reciting my husband’s merits until one of them kindly advised me to stop. In fact, I had always outshone him scholastically and otherwise. I played the lead in yearly productions. He played the executioner and moved scenery. He got promoted before I did, but I got an assistant headship. True at one point, I went to ask why a flashy male outsider had been made head of department and I had not. I was told that I had small children and aging, ill parents. That principal went to teach in the Lakehead, far, far north. It was true that I amused staff lunch rooms with tales of this chap, creating gales of laughter. So at that point, I seemed to be somewhat ‘woke’.

By now my husband and I were teaching at the same school. Not getting promoted gave me a license to question policy in staff meetings. I was also ‘shop steward’. I was fearless and loud. My husband didn’t speak out much. He just very quietly subverted policies he disagreed with. He was the guy who did the timetable, so he had ‘power’. And he was a him. He never got called on the carpet. Eventually, I became department head. I could have held that position for the rest of my career, another 20 years, but 4 years later, I discovered my husband’s secret life and resigned my headship to go half-time and heal my soul.

Lila’s first marriage at 16 works out badly, so she leaves with her son and, ironically, takes Elenu’s route. When she ends up having to support herself and her child, she works at a sausage factory in brutal and exploitative conditions. Now it is the boss, not father or husband that keeps her in line. She finds the burgeoning union movement both useful and troubling. For a while, it’s hard to know who is beating her up, the antii-unionists or the brotherhood itself. Her genius breaks through more than once in the series and she is able to make herself wealthy and to manipulate the cammora bosses, her old enemies in the neighborhood.

Elenu becomes a writer of fiction and essays and as such takes on the same criminals, who are either in love with Lila or trying to destroy her. When Elenu leaves her husband her in-laws step in to ruin her publishing career. Her mother-in-law is the leader in this campaign. She has not evidently, joined the sisterhood. They fail.

There are decent men in the novels. Elenu’s husband reforms himself and becomes a helpful father although at some distance, for Elenu is back from the north and living in Naples. At university in Pisa, Elenu meets Franco, a wealthy, more worldly student who teaches her to dress fashionably and takes her to Paris. Some of the boys the girls grow up are also capable of empathy. Alfonso Caracci is notable as a friend of Elena’s in high school. He later works with Lila but despite their mutual affection, she uses him for revenge. His brother Stefano is Lila’s first husband. Enzo Scanno betrays his own brilliance during a classroom mathematics face-off with Lila, but, he too has to quit school to support his family. Later during Lila’s sausage factory days, he becomes her protector. A number of others don’t quite make the grade. Pasquale Peluso becomes an activist for a more just society, but runs afoul of the law. Antonio Cappucci, once Elena’s boyfriend, has a breakdown while serving his military stint and, unable to work for a living, becomes an enforcer for the cammara. Still he is someone Elena and Lila can rely on in a pinch. Others like Lila’s brother Rino follow their father’s generation educating their wives by fist.

There is a subset of male characters in Ferrante’s books who have secret lives. One of them is the cause of Olga’s breakdown in Days of Abandonment, published prior to the Neopolitan Quartet. He has been keeping a close secret for many years. Nino Sarratori, the son of train conductor/poet, and the love of both Lila and Elenu at different times, is one of these. Elenu suspects that he has never really broken off with his wife, but she does not end their love affair until Lila sends Antonio to enumerate his encylopedic transgressions.

Nino has had women running after him his whole life and uses his charm and their affection to raise himself in society. My math teacher husband was considered a very boring person by my family. He frequently actually fell asleep when he was with them. He pioneered the use of computers in schools, teaching the first programing courses when punch cards were used in a room-sized computer. Then personal computers began to show up, just not small enough yet to be easily transported. So evenings he went back to the school to work on the Wang computer. My family said he was working with Miss Wang and laughed merrily. Well, her name was not Wang. She was Ms Daughter-of-the-people-next door, young, blonde, living in her own place at the beach. Her brother was my son’s friend and went to our school. My husband was driving the Dodge RT home from her place one night when he got t-boned.

He hit me once early in our marriage. The kids were still small, so I figured okay, one free throw. After that he hit walls but he always repaired them. For two years before his secret life was revealed, I had become more and more anxious. Something was deeply wrong. I convinced him to go to a marriage counsellor. No nothing was wrong from his point of view, except perhaps I needed something stronger than Librium.

As news of his affair spread through the high school, older, ‘wiser’ male staff took me aside, talked about European men and wives with discretion. I shook my head. ‘He’s English,’ I said, ‘and I’m not one of those. I’m more the knife-sharpening kind.’ The children were 16 and 17. After he left, I didn’t commit suicide as they expected.

I got involved In his final illness, in March 2019, because I was his executor. Everything was a mess and he was past making rational decisions. He couldn’t understand that this was the end. To him the elephant in the room was whether he would be able to drive when he got out of hospital. I was sincerely glad that I was not and had never been as crazy as he said. I needed all my sanity to get through that ordeal.

In the end, Elanu has written a very long book -published in 4 parts- describing her brilliant friend and has a firm grip on reality. Lila has vanished, disappeared as she had longed to all her life, but, wherever she is, I am convinced that she is quietly leading a sane and contented life.

Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: female=crazy? #1

Earlier in December, I had an episode lasting 36 hours, the name of which I have just learned: marginature. I found it near the end of Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante’s collection of letters and interviews. Or as Lila in My Brilliant Friend explains it – dissolving boundaries. I would not have described it her way. Nicola Lagioia uses marginature in one of her emailed interview questions to Ferrante.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, which the Italian woman, who chose it, uses to separate herself from her books. Only her family and her publishers know her to be the author. Thus all interviews are by email. https://115journals.com/2020/12/15/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal,

To quote Lagioia, At ‘crucial moments…the world comes unglued before Lila’s eyes, ..goes off its axis, appearing in its unbearable nakedness, a chaotic, shapeless mass …without meaning’.

In my own case, I was suddenly struck by the idea that the universe was without meaning and whatever had brought it into being had done so without purpose. Indeed, was very likely sadistic. Not such a surprising conclusion on a short, dark day in the midst of an 8-week Covid lock-down as the leader of the free world tried to destroy democracy. I had suffered depression before and took medication to prevent it, but this was of another order altogether. It was way past suicidality.

Lila first reports that condition to Elenu, the narrator of My Brilliant Friend, on New Year’s Eve in Naples just as rival fireworks begin to break into gunfire.

Frantumaglia, the name of Ferrante’s book of letters, etc., is not an Italian word. It is a dialect word meaning a jumble of fragments. Ferrante’s mother used the word to describe emotional and mental suffering that had no obvious cause, a debris field of muddy filth, a ‘sense of loss’ as everything that seemed stable and anchoring slips into the debris. This feeling led Ferrante’s mother to leave the pot on the fire and wander out of the house, to sing tunelessly, to weep, to talk to herself. And it is just such frantumaglia out of which Ferrante draws her best writing, her most authentic narratives.

Readers of A Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, two novels that preceded the Quartet, will see that Delia and Olga also suffer from this state of mind, a kind dissociation or a fugue state brought on in both cases by shock. I believe the same is true of The Lost Daughter, which has been loaded onto my iPad, but which I have yet to read. These titles, in fact, seem to be recurring themes in Ferrante’s work. The central story is of female friendship and the struggle to achieve that between mother and daughter.

I remember that I talked to my sister -on the phone – see Covid lock-down- first about my marginature, aka my depression deeper than death. It horrified her. She wouldn’t allow herself to go there and she didn’t want me to either. “I was always luckier than you,” she said, “I believed what Aunt Mae taught us.” Aunt Mae, who ‘saw’ the atomic bomb before August 1945′ taught that whatever happened was for the best. Death, even of large numbers, was no big deal. That line of reasoning was a bridge too far for me in that muddle. So I consulted my daughter on the other side of the continent. She knew depression better than most.

I had stopped keeping a journal by then, so I have no record of what we talked about, although I do know that she- Julia – told me that my 92-year-old friend, Clara, her mother-in-law was declining rapidly. I had modeled one of the characters in my book Hour of the Hawk on her. I loved Clara. Perhaps, having a concrete grief focused my mind. Julia, although she was my daughter, like the teenagers who were my students, had taught me to clarify my thinking. Over more than 30 years, we had worked on our relationship deliberately until we had forgiven each other.

In the first post I wrote about the Neopolitan Quartet, I speculated that Ferrante had children. Frantumaglia affirms that idea; she has daughters. Although she doesn’t say so, she has been divorced. One of her central issues is abandonment and she shows a keen understanding of a man who, out of the blue, betrays a woman by the revelation of a secret other life. She returned to Italy from years of living in Greece and says she no longer had responsibilities there. She has always taught and refers to teaching as her real job. I speculated in that first post that she had not been psychotic, but frantumaglia sounds as good as. She says it wipes out linear time, leading women into a vortex of dizzy suffering. Delia and Olga tell their stories in the midst of that whirling.

Why do women whirl?

My whirling in December 2020 doesn’t seem as if it was particularly female in its origin. From what I read on Twitter men have been whirling too. George Conway, for example. But I am familiar with that other kind. My attempt to be a housewife and mother of toddlers didn’t go well. It was the early 60s. I had got an education and spent 2-years in a career. The mythology of the time suggested forcefully that I should let hubby earn the dough and enjoy Mom and Tot classes, learn bridge and nurture babies. Hubby worked 3 jobs and we barely made ends meet. When we finally sat down to try to pull my fragments together, Hubby asked what would you do now if you could do anything.” “Put on my blue suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. I named the nearest high school. By bedtime, we had a plan, 1 job each and a carefully chosen nanny. My mother-in-law had always worked, so my husband thought it was the natural order of things. Unfortunately, it turned out that he also thought a job would cool down my craziness.

Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: a personal reflection #2

See also: https://115journals.com/2020/12/15/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal-reflection-1/

Elena Ferrante didn’t write the Neopolitan Quartet. We don’t actually know who did. It is the subject of great speculation. One super sleuth, Claudio Gatti in 2016 followed the money and h concluded she is actually Anita Raja, a translator of German novels and until her retirement, head of a library. Her husband is a novelist, and according to Gatti could not afford the real estate they own. Like many of Ferrante’s readers, I am on her side. I know who she is in her heart and soul. I don’t need a name and picture or speculation that her husband actually does the writing.

The writer who calls herself Elena Ferrante believes that, having written a book, she has done her part. She doesn’t have to follow it out into the world and sell it. A good book will sell itself. She does depict Elenu Greco the narrator of the series going on book tours to whip up interest and using what reputation she can gain to establish herself in the literary world. Ferrante prefers like Lila Cerulli to stay hidden.

Ferrante begins the cycle when Elenu and Lila are in their sixties, which she calls ‘old’. Rino, LIla’s forty-year-old, ne’er-do-well son phones Elenu to tell her that Lila has vanished. Two weeks ago. Well, he thought she was just walking around Naples as she often did. Even at night? Well, yes. Elenu knows that Lila’s fondest wish throughout the ups and downs, whether poor or rich, Lila has always wanted to erase herself, to vanish without a trace. Eventually, Elenu gets Rino to look in Lila’s closet and dresser and desk to see what she has taken. Everything. Every last possession. Elenu advises Rino to pull himself together and look after himself. Then she sets out to write this four volume history of Lila’s life, which necessarily includes Elenu’s own.

In her earlier two books A Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, she spoke of the old as young people often do, with scant respect and a reluctant growing understanding that they are actually just people. It is her more grownup self writing the Quartet.

In the game of Find the Lady, people assert that surely Ferrante has been married, had children, been divorced, lived in Naples, etc. because she writes about this things with insight. To that I could add she has also had psychotic episodes, which helped her write her earlier book Days of Abandonment, in which the deserted wife has unwittingly locked herself in her apartment with a dying dog and a very sick child. Some of that wavering of the edges of reality shows up as Delia in A Troubling Love tries to understand why her mother drowned. And Lila in My Brilliant Friend experiences times when reality loses its edges and she begins to lose herself.

I don’t necessarily believe she has been psychotic. Observing that condition is good enough. Having observed it, I could write about it. I certainly think that one way or another she has experienced abandonment.

Remember in my first reflection on the Neopolitan Quartet, the little family in the red Fiat that roamed around Europe for weeks. Four summers later, I found myself alone in the house under the hill, dipping frogs out of the pool filter basket. After all, my husband preferred a younger, blonder companion. It was a hide-the-knives situation. The teenagers transferred to an alternative school, dropped out and went to live with arty friends, worked in donut shops and back stage or enrolled in art school. I lost my mind, as well as a lot of weight, dyed my hair auburn and went on teaching next door to the cad who had left me. Tell me about abandonment.

I do grant children to Ferrante and abandonment.

As far as I’m concerned, she got me through November and early December in a Covid red zone. Whatever she wants in return! I will not try to hunt her down. Even if I could. I’m 84. She’s younger. I think. I think so because I already had children when oral contraceptives became available in the early 60’s. Elenu’s decision to use them at the beginning of her marriage strikes me as realistic and true for the writer. I would say Ferrante is a decade younger than I am. I say that not to track her down but as a way to understand her era.

So the main theme of the book is the friendship of these two women -Lila and Elenu, which starts in early childhood and ends with a wordless final act.

Who was the brilliant one, who was the leader, who moulded whom?

Initially, Elenu competed with Lila in elementary school. Not that she wanted to beat her scholastically or even tie. She was content to come #2. That was all she could aspire to. Then LIia’s shoemaker father took her out of school at the end of grade 5. Both girls had the same teacher, but despite Lila’s brilliance – she even wrote a story called The Blue Fairy, which later informed and inspired Elenu’s first novel – the teacher ignored her and campaigned instead for Elenu to go to middle school, even providing her text books. Eventually with such help, Elenu went to high school and then to university. As we saw in my previous response, Lila was able to tutor Elenu in Latin just by borrowing her text book briefly.

Lila masters shoemaker skills and designs a unique pair that play more than a symbolic role, pivoting the plot at a crucial moment. At 16, Lila is engaged to a wealthy shopkeeper and becomes the beautiful, well-dressed envy of the neighborhood. All the young men are in love with her.

Elenu, at university in Pisa, continues on her ambitious path to get out of Naples, attaching herself to an academic family, as well as to social activists, one of whom teaches her to dress stylishly and takes her to Paris.

Lila is the first to have a child – Rino, who calls Elenu years later to say Lila is missing. Pregnant Lila has a very hard time sharing her body with this alien creature. In her Lila way, she immediately sets out to improve her new baby’s intelligence by inventing games to play with him. At this point, she has no need to work. Elenu’s first baby arrives far too early in her marriage for her liking. Pregnancy for her is no big deal but her daughter is a ‘difficult’ infant. She can’t latch on and she’s either hungry or colicky.

The best thing about my first pregnancy was that I was teaching next door to a girl’s rest room. The not best thing was that I was nauseated the entire time. Then my daughter proved to have the same problem as Elenu’s Dede, but less obliging grandmothers. Just before my mother died, she asked me if I remembered she had spent 5 weeks with me and the baby. I agreed and thanked her. In reality, she had spent 5 days and had to rush home to take delivery of a new freezer.

Because my family moved so much, I was never able to have such a long term friendship. When I started at McMaster University, I shared a single dorm room with a room-mate. My upper bunk was so high that I had to climb a five-step ladder and over a sturdy railing. There was so little space, we had to take turns getting dressed. We were totally unalike. She quit after first year. She had succeeded in getting her MRS. She was engaged to the head boy who graduated that year. I had a boyfriend from high school, the Italian-looking chap, but both of us were there to get degrees and escape our own poverty. The room-mate had nothing to teach me.

In the unbelievably bleak common room of West Wallingford – alias an old military barrack -I met a totally different sort of girl. It was only later I realized she had actually dropped down from 1968 into 1955. She was an orphan, the ward of her uncle, a Baptist minister as her father had been. We were there at a Baptist university and we had to study all about Paul and his letters: It is better to marry than to burn. My new friend Felicity preferred to burn, preferably with a good brandy. I attracted a serious young man studying for the ministry. He took me for dinner at a local greasy spoon and saved me from Refectory food. I thought at least I should look around when boyfriend had gone home as he did each day. But Felicity.. all the grad students were in love with Felicity. Thus we got lifts out to the Annex in Dundas where the science grads lived in squalor and intellectual ferment. It was fun to have a beer and argue about McCarthy and Communism, but to listen to Felicity laugh was pure joy. I can hear her still, running up the scale, and starting hilariously all over again. Her life had been shaped by tragedy and yet she was delighted by life and avid for experience. Once we got snowed in at the Annex and had to stay the night much to the horror of the prefect on night duty at the residence. But it wasn’t that kind of sleep over. Worn out by conversation, we all fell asleep where we were sitting. Well, the boys could cook spaghetti and talk nuclear physics but they smelled of pipe tobacco and wet wool. Some of Felicity’s other swains were more acceptable, the honorable this or that by now. There were weekends where she vanished, ostensibly to my home, for what were boozy, pleasure-filled escapes at a conveniently empty house or cottage. Felicity herself lives here in my city. As it turned out we both had one divorce, one girl and one boy. She established herself in her own specialty and edited a magazine. When I hear her being interviewed, she sounds very serious and respectable. I hear her laugh only in my head.

My Italian-looking boyfriend was very earnest. Felicity taught me not to be.

As young mothers, Elenu and Lila could count on each other to take in their children and mother them for months on end if necessary

Felicity and I haven’t kept in touch. Elenu and Lila do and call upon each other when in difficulty. They shape each other through both their similarities and their differences. Lila never leaves the neighborhood and Elenu, who does, actually goes back there to live. They were intertwined until almost the end. By writing this long story, Elenu is trying to figure out how much of her is actually Lila.

Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: a personal reflection #1

If you hate knowing any details of a novel you have not yet read, you may hate this post. No real spoilers though.

In 1974, driving a red Fiat rented in Brussels, our family of four paid a lightning visit to Naples because – how else could you see Pompei. We stayed at the Mediteranno Hotel, so the tiny brown leather ‘Travel Record’ tells me. (Nothing like the Rennaisance Mediteranno the Google shows me now.) On arrival from Rome, we ate. The lunch rush was over. The waiter had time to mess with my husband by pouring the wine from a height of two feet over Rick’s pant leg. Rick looked Italian, but spoke Canadian. He did not flinch at the macho showdown. We had Neopolitan pizza, the first thin crust pizza we had ever had, complete with a history lesson on the city’s invention of the dish. Stuffed to the gills, we then faced roast veal. Another macho contest. Later we wondered around and had the ice cream of Naples. The French starve you deliciously. The Italians over-feed you deliciously.

It was a time of unrest in the country. The economy had had a meltdown. Bombs were going off and we were in Cammora country. But how else could you see Pompei?

I had had a ‘classical’ education or at least the best one still available in Canadian high schools and universities in the 50’s. Greek had been cancelled the year before, but I studied Latin and Ancient History. We had already spent several days ‘seeing’ Rome and the Etruscan tombs of Cervetari and our next port of call would be Brindisi where we would take the ferry to Patras and spend several weeks in Greece, which had its own political upheaval but also Delphi.

I knew nothing about Naples when I started to read My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neopolitan novels. (The others are The Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. The first two books are set in a poor neighborhood in Naples. Somewhere in Italy, there is a movie set of the stradalone, complete with the 5 four-storey apartment buildings, the stores, the church and the garden. The first book was made into a series, which was not shown in North America, so far as I can tell.

It was a violent place. Fathers were violent to their wives and children. On his wedding night a previously pacific groom gives his wife her first beating. My home was violent, full of shrieking and yelling and whacks and thuds. But never to the face. How would that look? The men in the Naples neighborhood not only didn’t care, they took pride in dishing it out. However no child ever flew out of a second storey window in our house as they did from the shoemaker’s house in Naples. Nor did corpses pile up in front of the church or get discovered in the garden. That was a Cammora war. We had them in Hamilton, Ontario but lower-keyed. Bodies, usually singular, turned up in out of the way places if at all. Our town was in the hands of Papalia, whom I met whenever my father had to do an errand for him and needed the company of one or more of his charming girls to distract nosy cops.

The narrator of the books is Elenu Greco, the daughter of a porter at the city hall. The story that she tells seems so authentic that the reader wants to believe it is autobiographical. Her best friend is Lino Cerullo, whom Elenu called Lila, daughter of the shoemaker – see second-floor window above.

As it turned out my grandson named his first daughter Lila, never knowing that had been my mother’s name.

Elenu and Lila decide that they will write a great novel like their beloved Little Women, become rich and so escape their poverty. Their are a few weaknesses to this plan as anyone who has published a book knows. One of the greatest is that girls don’t need to be educated, so Lila’s father takes her out of the school after grade 5 and puts her to work in the shoe repair shop.

I worked at part-time jobs from the age of 15. (Lila was not yet 12.) My father was too busy working two jobs and freelance to take an interest in my choice of courses. I refused to study typing so that I couldn’t quit high school early to work in an office. He tried to make me take special commercial after grade 12. Too late. Like Elenu, I had teachers on my side and a certain amount of small town newspaper fame. He would have lost face if he had kept objecting and besides, one way or another, he wouldn’t be paying.

Who is the brilliant friend? Elenu means Lila, although, later, Lila describes Elenu that way. On her breaks from the shoe shop, Lila borrows Elenu’s Latin text and learns so fast that she is able to tutor Elenu. She makes a similar head start with Greek. She borrows 5 books a week from the library. She is entitled to only 1, so she takes books out in the names of her family members. She designs a remarkable shoe, which makes a fortune, just not for her.

Do I believe in such brilliance? I do. My younger grandson – the one without the Harvard degree, failed high school. He went to an L.A. arts school where he mastered sound engineering, but he couldn’t learn in class. We spent a hundreds on tutoring. After he flunked out, he got his high school diploma on-line. He took my Christmas money and bought a calculus text. Having barely passed middle school math – see tutoring – he went on to study advanced mathematics and now tutors college students on-line at 4 p.m. daily. He has a chess rating of 2100, last I heard, and just won first prize at a San Diego tournament.

The brilliant genes either skipped my generation or came from the other side – his paternal grandfather who had several PhDs. Like Elenu I had an intelligence founded on memory, grit and perseverance. Psychology 101 was an 8:30 a.m. hike across an icy campus, in the library theatre, the only place large enough for 170 of us. I observed from my extremely complete lecture notes that the prof was reading the text to us. Fair play, he had written it. So 3 times a week, I sat down at my dorm desk at 8:30 and memorized a new chapter. My roommate filled me in on quiz and essay dates. It was somewhat embarrassing when I won the award for top marks in Psychology 101.

But it wasn’t brilliant.

Elenu becomes a writer, even a noted writer. I became a teacher, thus the 6 week European vacations. And of course I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I even published. joycehowe.com But I was not noted.

God willing and the creek dont rise, I will continue these reflections