Leonard and I

Leonard and I were both born in Canada’s province of Quebec. He arrived, in this incarnation, on the autumn equinox of 1934, in the well-to-do Montreal suburb of Westmount. He was almost 2 when I was born in poverty in the wooded hills of the Eastern Townships.

He said he was “the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. Jesus was the only Jew I met until I was 12. He wrote me love songs, although we never met. He never did bring “my groceries in”. If I didn’t drag them in myself, an athletic mathematician did, a man quite unlike Leonard. Since loving me mandated at least tolerating poetry, Mr. Math learned to. He even wrote me a poem once, and was willing enough to go to Greece because Leonard had made me love it from afar.

Leonard, with a poet’s intuition, passed in his sleep after a fall on the night of Nov. 7th, the day before Donald Trump was elected president of Leonard’s adopted country. He had proclaimed earlier that “Democracy was coming to the USA”. I’m not saying he was wrong, just that his prediction may have been more complicated than it seemed.

Besides being born Quebec-ers (although not Quebecois), we shared an enduring depression. Leonard indicated later he had defeated it by becoming a Zen monk for five years. Kudos to him. My own excursion into Taoism did not prove as efficacious. I hope that Buddhism enabled him not to rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: the loss of his wealth to a larcenous business manager, the necessity to start touring again in his 70’s, the ‘unbearable’ pain of leukemia, and the inevitable losses of old age.

Personally, I am bitching mad at old age. I don’t have unbearable pain or a deadly disease (so far as I know). Of course, I don’t have Leonard’s companions either. He said the ladies had been very kind to him in his old age. Recently, two of the major problems in my immediate family have been resolved, I have published my mystery Hour of the Hawk, (joycehowe.com) I have a secure if modest income and a warm, safe place to live.The problem is that being pissed off actually makes my health problems worse.

I had a grandmother who lived to be 96, but apparently I learned nothing from her role model.

So I put in my earbuds and listen to Back on Boogie Street – not his own song but Sharon Robinson’s; he sings backup. I’m still on Booogie St. Got to market this book. Got to keep my head straight. Got to drag the groceries up to my tower of .. whatever. Coming up to 82, could l have my Nanny’s long-lived genes? Then I listen to ‘Hallelujah’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEWqDE20O3U

Youth and beauty and ecstasy are not lost. They are there, ingrained, embedded, as alive in me as any mournful loss.


Life after the Reality Hotel (just when I thought it was over)

view from Kodiak #4One summer when Blake and I were still married, we visited my Nanny on her hilly farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Hay season is late there and the fields get only one crop. Now it was ripe, but rain was forecast. My grandmother’s hay was already in a neighbour’s barn. She rented the land out now that my grandfather had passed -at the advanced age of 78. Would Blake, she asked, go up the hill and help her sister Eva with her crop. He set off immediately and didn’t return for many hours. When he did, he was very excited.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “There was an 88-year-old woman driving the stripped- down model T that served as a tractor. An 84-year-old woman was on the wagon packing down the hay and a 78-year-old man was pitching it up.”

We stared at him. He waited for our response. Well, yes, Blake. What else did you expect? That’s who lives there, Aunt Eva, Aunt Betsy and her younger husband, Ralph. They were no doubt happy to have help, but they would have managed on their own.

These were my people. My grandmother lived alone on the farm, out of sight of all her neighbours until she was 93, hauling in sticks of wood for the stove as necessary.

So I should not have been all that surprised when duty called just after my 78th birthday and given the stock I come from, I shouldn’t have doubted that I was up to the task.

I contemplated this as I flew home on the golf cart in the semi-dark, high desert cold, last night, barely able to see the other unlit golf carts who had also outstayed the light. I thought about it as I wrestled one plug out of the battery charger and forced the right one in. And I’m the old girl with such weak wrists that I have to waylay strange men in the street to open my wine bottle.

I also find myself driving mountain roads like a budding James Hunt. They call the part of the road just outside the village the S curves. This is misleading. The entire road is comprised of S curves, all the way down to the Mount Pinos turn. Until you get to know it, you don’t actually know whether the loop with go right or left. The road is narrow, but well marked and there are lots of turnouts, but after 3 months, I seldom need to let the cars behind me pass. Then the road opens out into a straight stretch down through Cuddy Valley. Do you remember the Waltons? This is where they lived, here in Kern County, California, not in the Carolina after all. Lately, my country driving skills have kicked in there and I have a problem sticking at 60 mph.

One quibble: should 78-year-olds sleep on the floor? Fine, I like a firm mattress, but getting up at 3 a.m.? First, you have to think about it. Turn on your knees. Plant the tops of your feet on the floor as you kneel on the mat. Push up with your hands and feet. Stand still until you get your balance. Find the flashlight. Follow its beam.

the podFor we have left the Reality Hotel, Clara and I. We have moved into her house. At last! The first 2 nights, we had a sofa, its matching chair and a mat on the floor. We borrowed sheets and blankets. Yesterday, 4 chairs fell out of the furniture pod when we unlocked it and behold there is a kind of  breakfast bar just like a table built into the kitchen island. Now I can stop eating breakfast while watching Clara sleep on the couch. If I am very lucky, or possibly, very good, I will find a bed in my room when I get back tonight. Various teenaged guys are willing to give up Saturday of Labour Day weekend to unload the pod, piano and all. Then perhaps on Monday or Tuesday, pans and dishes may materialize. At present, I make my porridge in the aforementioned hotpot https://115journals.com/2014/08/22/3024/and eat it from a styro-foam bowl with a plastic spoon.

view #2 from Kodiak

Separatism Fatigue


I was born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada, (on the border with Vermont and New Hampshire) and although I moved away when I was nine, my heart still lives under Hereford mountain. So imagine my surprise when I reacted to the latest uproar about Quebec separating from Canada by wearily wishing it would just go and be done with it.

I must have got old and crotchety, I thought. How could I think that? True I didn’t journey to Montreal in 1995 as thousands of others from right across Canada did in a massive demonstration of love, which worked. That referendum was defeated and we have had almost twenty years of something like peace, not all that peaceful but not excessively worrying either.

On the other hand, we have been stewing over this problem since the early sixties when A Royal Commission on Bilingual and Bicultural-ism was set up in answer to growing Québec nationalism. The effect was that people enrolled their children in French immersion schools across the country and seriously ambitious folk made themselves bilingual. We had a brief cultural détente during Montreal Expo in 1967, but the next year, we had FLQ terrorism and murder in the name of Separatism. We had the War Measures Act, martial law in Québec. Individually, we had serious inner conflict. That was the year the Parti Québeçois was formed by the merging of two existing parties. Under the leadership of René Lévesque, it won the provincial election in 1976.

I took that very hard. My mother, who had been given two weeks to live in 1970, was by the fall of 1976, unable to fight death off any longer and this Lévesque wanted to take away my motherland.

English speakers left Montreal in droves and flocked a few hours down the road to Toronto doing their bit to liven up their new city.

In 1980, Lévesque held the first referendum to that effect, weighting the question by what we Anglais considered to be an ambiguous question. Despite this the No’s prevailed, settling the question, we thought. Foolish hope. In 1995, after the Unity Rally, the No’s won again but barely.

Before I go on, a little personal history. I was an English-speaking Québecer. The mortgage on our farm was held by a Frenchman. He was depicted in family conversations like Simon Legree. I was dragged along by my father to “negotiations” with this man. The rest of the continent might have been pulling out of the Great Recession, but not Hereford Hill. The only reason we were still eating, and not well at that, was we grew potatoes, milked cows,  and hunted. I remember those tense ‘sort of’ conversations. Hard to talk when two people don’t share language, except for swear words. So my father gave up the farm. “Je me souviens” (“I remember”) is on the Quebec license plates. It’s not clear if it means the Battle of the Plains of Abraham where the British won over the French, or the humiliation of having to address the Federal government in English. When I read it, I remember being downtrodden by the French.

In the years since Lévesque’s win, Québec has passed laws limiting education in English schools. If you are a native French speaker or an immigrant, you are required to go to a French school. Together with the falling birth rate in the province, this policy has reduced the population, although people from Haiti or Morocco, French-speaking countries, flock in, it seems. Not sure how the “pur laine” (pure wool) the good old fashioned French Québecois, feel about that.

For a while in the 70’s, when I visited, store clerks, etc. actually pretended not to understand any English or my fractured French. I do have several years of study, but unfortunately under English speakers who had dreadful accents. My children fared better with French-speakers and summers in France. That is changed now. Hotel employees and other service providers are eager to communicate. They have lost their Parisian frostiness.

As I said in an earlier post, it is still not possible to figure out all the highway signs and I find myself praying – in English- that the one I just sailed past uncomprehendingly, didn’t say “Road closed ahead”. Let’s see “rue fermé…” And sort out “est” and “ouest” at 120 KPH!

Lately, Pauline Marois the P.Q. premier of Quebec and the merry band in her minority government, have sought to woo voters by plumping for a more secular state, à la France, which went that way after the French Revolution. She seeks to pass a bill forbidding the wearing of visible symbols of religious allegiance by public representatives and workers – the hijab, the turban, the yarmulka, even to be fair, ostentatious crosses, although small ones are to be allowed. So goodbye job, Muslim, scarf-wearing daycare worker/ teacher assistant. Marois called a provincial election for April 7, 2014 and proposes to win a majority in the legislature by this strategy. She vowed to fight the election on that bill and on the province’s economy.

Last week, she showed up at a press conference with PKP (Pierre-Karl Péladeau) in tow. He, she announced, would run in the election. He is the owner of a country-wide media conglomerate, including newspapers and television stations, which he vows to retain, but place in a blind trust if he is elected. (Blind, my eye; this guy is a hands-on publisher.) Trouble is he didn’t act like a humble, first time candidate. Immediately, he made it clear that he chose to run only with sovereignty in view. (Yes, that means Separation.) By the end of the week, Ms Marois was (gently) holding him back from the microphone. Then she went on to explain that a separated Quebec would still have open borders, use Canadian currency and have a seat on the Bank of Canada.  Really! but will there be a tariff on cheese?

Pundits including Conrad Black in Saturday’s (March 15, 2014) National Post (Let’s hold our own referendum) think that “the French are about evenly divided on the issue, and the 20% of Quebecers not native French Canadians are solidly Federalist” leaving opinion at about where it was in 1980 – 60 No to 40 Yes.

But … do I care? Finally, in Rex Murphy’s column in the same paper, I found out that I am not so special after all. In fact, he says that as a country we are worn out by this marital spat and we have all begun to think, “If you want to go, go.”

Did I actually say that? Oh my dear starvation mountains please still be there.

How the Light Gets In: Louise Penny’s latest

At the beginning of her new novel, Louise Penny thanks Leonard Cohen for generously allowing her to use a line from his song “Anthem”. Cohen tells us in that song that “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” I have read all nine of Penny’s novels, so, presumably, I must have enjoyed them. And those lines by Cohen struck me from the first time I heard them as a neat summation of how good comes out of bad. Why, then, do I dislike their use as the title of her ninth and latest Armand Gomache mystery, How the Light Gets In?

Reviews, including one in the New York Times ranged from very positive to rhapsodic. Fans told of staying up half the night, of being totally emotionally engaged, of how they had waited breathlessly since the dire conclusion of book 8, The Beautiful Mystery for the resolution of this book. My goodness, I thought, and here I’ve been sleeping soundly oblivious to Gomache’s terrible suffering. I was so cold-hearted that I plodded through the book in my usual three days, closing it up at my regular bedtime.

How the Light Gets In, unlike The Beautiful Mystery, is set once again in the village of Three Pines, a place that cannot be found on any map, hidden and sheltered by wooded mountains where cell phone towers and internet connections cannot penetrate. And, despite its high body count over the years, an idyllic place with its village green, its outdoor rink, its used bookstore, its gourmet bistro with two fireplaces and its eccentric but helpful villagers. When he isn’t solving the latest murder there, Gomache retreats to it for solace, something he greatly needs now that his department in Quebec’s Sureté has been dismantled, his reputation is in decline and his good friend Jean-Guy Beauvoir is a drug addict.

Three Pines is south-east of Montreal in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.  I am familiar with this area. More or less. I recently made a sentimental journey back there to my birthplace. (See https://115journals.com/2013/09/11/septuagenarians-on-the-road-3/) While I was there, I stayed at Auberge Ayres Cliff (https://115journals.com/2013/09/14/septuagenarians-on-the-road-5/ ),an excellent hotel, every bit as cozy as the one in Three Pines, although much more on the beaten path.

When it comes to the willing suspension of disbelief, I’m a hard case. I spent my first five years freezing and starving in the hills of the Eastern Townships, albeit in a place that couldn’t be found except by those who had been there. True we were on a hill farm which produced a bumper crop of stones every year. Over the hill and down the valley, there was rich land with fat herds of dairy cows. Presumably, the hilltop soil had been scraped off our high land and deposited there. One of those farmers held the mortgage on our place. In the end, it seemed better to move to town.

But okay, I’ll go along with this Brigadoon-like village. I’d even like to sit by one of those two fire places drinking hot chocolate and eating hot buttered croissants. (No wait I’m gluten intolerant.)

Something I won’t dispute is fear of the Champlain Bridge. Too long, too high, too confusing with those changeable lane markings and too prone to traffic jams. In the opening chapter, a woman driving across that bridge comes undone. Some time later, her body is discovered dashed against the rocks beneath. It used to be the bridge that took you from Montreal across the wide St. Lawrence to Auto Route 20 and so into Les Cantons Est. Imagine my delight when I discovered this past summer that a new bridge allowed me to cross the river without going near Montreal.

Another thing I won’t dispute is the corrupt reputation of Quebec’s construction industry and its bureaucrats or some of them at least. Whether it is believable that they could be quite so dastardly or that the dastardliness could reach quite so high is a stretch. (Whoops – I seem to have lifted “dastardly” from Marilyn Stasio’s New York Times review.)

Nevertheless, the mystery of why a 77 year-old visitor to Three Pines is murdered on her return home to Montreal is intriguing. What does her murder have to do with her siblings? And, of course, there is the ongoing question of whether Gomache is going down to defeat as some terrible act of terrorism befalls La Belle Province.

Why do I resent Penny’s appropriation of Leonard Cohen’s line? I think it’s because Cohen’s idea belongs to the real world, which, let’s face it, is fraught with suffering and hard-earned insight. Penny’s world, on the other hand, is a fantasy, an imagined place of cozy friendship and monstrous villainy. It is the dissonance that bothers me.

Septuagenarians on the Road #5

Auberge Ripplecove, Ayres CliffThis account is taking as long as the trip itself.

We had just crossed back into Canada after an hour’s stay in the United States and close questioning by the Canadian border officer. (https://115journals.com/2013/09/12/septuagenarians-on-the-road-4/).

By 4:30 pm, we are checking in to the Auberge Ripplecove, our 5 star accommodation for the night and considerably more formal than Auberge Ayres Cliff. The lounge is well appointed. The man behind reception desk, resplendent in a dark suit. But he slips out from behind the counter to carry in our bags. Our room is just through a small  lounge with fireplace, lake view and a buffet large as one wall, a carved mythic piece of furniture, which will take some study when I have time. We are on the first floor with a garden view. Lake view costs more.

ripplecove interiorChintz and checks and stripes and even plaid and all in soft green and earthy tones. And very softly lit. There is a television set hidden in an armoir but there can be no viewing from either of the two double beds and, in any case, we seem to have given up television.

While Georgia unpacks her two Gladstone bags, I wander off to the bar downstairs to fill the ice bucket and get hot water for tea. There is a coffee maker in the room, one which suits my sister, a Kreug that takes those little packets of coffee and turns out one cup. No more simply pouring water in one end and collecting hot water at the other. Plus le change plus …le aggravation. Now the gentleman at the bar is preoccupied with his computer screen and evidently has not noted my arrival. I observe -him, the deck outside, the lake, the couple drinking martinis. I clear my throat. I ask for hot water and ice. He bustles off. I wait some more. Eventually he comes back. Period. He addresses the urgent need of a newly arrived woman for a rare brand of scotch which proves hard to find. Something about “chopped liver” swims to the surface of my mind, but just then a wait person of the female persuasion arrives with a tray, laden with an ice bucket, a white china teapot and a mug. “Shall I take it up for you?” she asks. Of course I decline, only to discover it is rather heavy for these skinny 70+ arms. We, my sister and I, are not slipping easily into old age. Too independent? I wanted to explore the hotel. That’s why I didn’t call room service and it seems impossible that this small tray could be beyond me. Short on graceful acceptance of decline?

I have been here at least three times before, but only for meals. I came here first in 1979, all that long ago. I had brought my new man to meet my Nanny and we were staying at the cheapest motel on earth but eating expensive food. We came to dinner here with a teacher friend from my previous  (married) life and her husband. We had left Belle my Newfie dog tied up outside the motel. The next year, same motel, same dog, but the friendship with Nancy had cooled, so we booked our own table. Then 30 years later, I brought Georgia here. I remember the pictures of Archie and Elizabeth Stafford who built the inn in 1945 and had to bring in electricity to ‘this remote corner of the Eastern Townships’. Could be. Didn’t seem all that remote to me as a child, but I knew Hereford, now that was remote. They didn’t get electricity up that hill until 1948. Apparently, the place has suffered a fire and been renovated twice during the 30 years I stayed away.

We take our mandatory rest, a little fraught with memory after our excursion and my realization that I had forgotten I stayed in Hotel Ayres Cliff as it was then, in 1997. Let’s be frank. There were a few idyllic memories here in Les Cantons Est, but there was a darker side, not just of poverty, some of which I have described in my e-book, Never Tell: recovered memories of a daughter of the Knights Templar. 115journals.com

It’s time to get out of the jeans for tonight’s dinner. I actually wear a dress with large red poppies. Something tells me  not only to wear the black cover-up but also to take a shawl. I’ve even stretched to stockings and tasteful heels. Georgia has accented her filmy navy outfit with fuchsia wedge heels (which she can barely walk in) and bag. She ends up with a compliment from a French woman. I end up freezing.

Turns out the preoccupied bartender is the Maitre d’ and he translates my last name into French and then explains he has made a joke. Our table is next over from the tables near the windows looking out on the lake. I seem to always get this same table.

So this is a real treat for me and I’m paying as part of the birthday tithe. Ordering from the French only wine list sets me thinking. I mean that the wine is French, the only kind of wine my Belgian brother will drink. I’ve lost any knowledge I had 30 years ago with that man I brought to Nanny’s. Literally, it was his knowledge. So I more or less take a stab and order a certain chablis. I can see why Rob has that snobbish attitude. The taste is finer and more subtle than the in-your-face Ontario chardonney I was drinking in the room.

The first course is a tiny portion of pressed duck breast and black pudding with figs and pistachios involved. Then I have scallops, while Georgia has strawberry gaspacho. She reports it is like starting with dessert. I have tiny lamb chops with beans and carrots for my main course, while she has lobster, shrimp and scallop. The portions are small but even so, I leave one chop. I don’t want to end up awake as I did in Kingston. Of course we have dessert, mine white chocolate enfolding caramel, hers pistachio cake. And then -surprise- a macaroon.

I haven’t paid attention to the ritual of service, the arrival of cutlery in little white pouches,  to be placed just so. Maybe it was that worldly long ago man that got me used to ignoring such ostentation. He always had a conversation steaming ahead, which he more or less dared a hapless wait person to interrupt. Georgia, it turns out is not so sanguine. The stuffiness bothers her. So far as the food goes, she likes it well enough, but says she doesn’t have a refined taste. I want to say, me neither, for I never caught up to that long ago man or to my own brother, but I let it go. I do absolutely love such food.

The sheets are lightly starched and crinkle like tissue when we turn, but in the end, we co-ordinate our turns, being awake for the nonce anyway, and get a good sleep. And so farewell to our $326 room. A groundsman carries our bags to the car and he and Georgia have a good gab.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERANow, I confess, I left out the bad part. When Georgia leaned over to deal with the cooler, she put her lower back -tightened by too much driving and weakened by the Everest stairs – into a total and utter spasm. It is fused, solid and agonizing.

She protests she is at her best in the morning but I drive.

You don’t want to go with us all the way back up 15, ouest to 30, over the river, back on 20, into Ontario and onto the 401. You don’t want to redo the squalor of those roadside fueling stations for cars and people. See even I am losing my positivity. You would prefer just to arrive back in Kingston at the Lasalle Travelodge -$126 plus US exchange on Hotwire. (Don’t ask. A Canadian hotel paid for in U.S. dollars?)

This is the winner according to my sister, my crippled sister. Having requested a ground floor room, we discover that I can park just outside the sliding door and easily get the bags in. The room has just had carpet replaced and been redecorated, Georgia notes and the linens are up to her standard. There is a fridge and a good, old-fashioned coffee maker. I am not so enthusiastic. The whole place, especially the restaurant, still looks like the 70s, cave-like and dark to me. (It takes a while for me to workout that Cavelier Room is not a mis-spelling, but the actual middle name of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle who once had command of the Louisiana Territory but started his explorations here in La Salle, a suburb of Kingston.)

By now we are so knackered- and injured, we order room service for dinner. I don’t hold out much hope for the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and I am not disappointed. The beef is not bad, if too well done, and there is no Yorkshire pudding.

In the morning, looking for a vending machine for water, I stumble on the hot tub and indoor pool. This proves just the thing to loosen up Georgia’s lower back and a pleasant break for both of us.

We arrive back at my home in the west end of Toronto in the rain around 4:30 pm, load Georgia’s bags into her Corolla and she is off home to Mississauaga.

We have concluded that we will fly to Montreal next time, rent a car and drive the hour and a half. And, while I would love somehow to be able to spend four days at Ripplecove, its formaiity has put Georgia off. She didn’t feel comfortable there, so we will seek another place, and one less challenging than the Auberge Ayres Cliff.

There is another question, however. Do I want to go back? I balance the beauty of the mountains and wooded slopes against the drag of the church yard. All those people gone beyond recall with so much left to say, so much laughter still ringing in our ears and so much grieve left unresolved. Only us left, two young people in disguise as septuagenarians. It was ever thus. My 87 year-old grandmother was still a kid, wading in the river.

What I think is I could enjoy a pool like the Travelodge’s, access to excellent food like the Ripplecove’s, an evening on the patio at Auberge Ayres Cliff, in other words, a 4 or 5 day stay in a room with a view of hills and unstarched sheets. Just enough comfort to solace my soul.