Grief’s flat feet

My dad, 1927-2021, looking over his land soon after they bought the farm.

We walked slowly Thursday morning because overnight, recycling boxes and bags heaped with cans, bottles, cardboard, and newspaper had appeared at the curb. Blue splashes up and down the street that Marvin had to investigate, and so our walk slowed to a shuffle. He snuffled like a pig rooting for truffles, straining at the leash to lick the pizza box, to reach the Friskies can with a smidgen of catfood left on the rim. The night before, during his last walk of the day, he’d let out a volley of piercing barks at a pile of recycling across the street. Perhaps to his eyes, in the dark, the mound of stuff piled high above the blue box was a threatening mammal.

Early September’s morning chill, high scudding clouds above, and a Northern Flicker playing hide and seek in a hawthorn tree, his red head popping in and out of sight. The street is quiet—just the distant thunder of the McKenzie interchange as a blur of cars crosses into town. I am grateful to work at home, no need to commute. Instead, I love these 7 a.m. walks. Something in a recycling box caught my eye. Neatly folded on top of a pile of newspapers was a section of Saturday’s Globe and Mail, folded to the crossword puzzle. Every clue solved; every box filled with a neatly penciled block letter. Perfection. Did my puzzle-solving compatriot struggle over it as much as I had? 

I felt connected to that person—their careful block letters different from my scribbled slanty ones, but we both finished the thing. Did they do it quickly, or did they stretch out the experience into Sunday or even farther down the week, relishing it? Did they approach the task methodically or fill in random clues? Did they ask for help or go it alone? Dictionary or no dictionary? Google or purely old school?  

Marvin ate half of my pencil.

Think of all of us across the nation who turn to the crossword first thing on Saturday. Sharp number 2 pencil. Or maybe a mechanical one. Do some confident people use pens? Fresh white eraser by Mars. Or a pink Dixon, perhaps? We sit in armchairs, on couches, sprawled on deck chairs, scrunched on buses and subways, drinking lattes in coffee shops. All of us, together in the challenge.

My mother did crosswords daily for the last 22 years of her life. They helped fill blocks of morning time after her mandatory retirement from her job as a lecturer in art history at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto. I found a letter from her dated February 1997. She had just received a package I’d sent intended to cheer her up: 

“I didn’t realize my depression was so obvious. It isn’t a deep depression. It is simply that I no longer have an audience and no longer get paid for doing something I enjoy. The awful thing is that as soon as a person retires, he/she loses status. I notice it when I talk to people at Ryerson . . . They seem extra kind and sort of smile at me and ask me what I’m doing, etc. I smile back and try to talk glowingly of having time to read, etc. pretending that it’s absolutely great. And I know, as I’m doing it, that they know I’m putting on an act. . . So, I’m trying to develop a new lifestyle as a person with time to do those things I really enjoy. The difficulty is to distinguish what it is that I enjoy doing! Meanwhile, I do crossword puzzles, which is new for me and I’m getting pretty good at it (usually at breakfast), and it’s very nice to have the leisure not to have to rush.”

I started doing the Saturday crossword soon after my mother died in 2019. I thought they were too hard at first, and so I’d abandon them quickly. I have a healthy vocabulary, and I love language, but the crosswords seemed like something else. They’re filled with puns and tricks, and it seemed you had to be part of the in-crowd to get them: both hip to idiomatic English across the decades and savvy about current cultural trends. I’m just too literal, I thought, and what I know fills such a narrow groove. But then the challenge started to intrigue me. Now I look forward to the Saturday paper. After reading the headlines and the obituaries, I find the crossword, fold it into a nice rectangle, and begin.

All of this is a preface to say, I’ve had no will to write. Nothing seems worth writing about, these days. Life has a flat, fallow quality. Nothing’s important enough. Although there’s plenty of big bad news—pandemic, systemic racism, climate change—I don’t feel equipped to talk about any of it. 

So, I push myself to finish this rather silly piece, a blog post about something as quotidian as the crossword puzzle. I stop and pause often to ask, “Why bother?” Why bother indeed. But it’s just that writing something, anything, seems as if it might be the antidote to the flat way I feel. 

My thoughts return to my mother, sitting on the loveseat in her high-ceilinged living room, wrapped in a thick robe, blinds down, doing the crossword. Filling the hours. Her sleek black cat, Cicero, is curled up beside her. She is deep into it, puzzle dictionary next to her on the small rococo marble-topped table, Schubert’s Trout Quintet playing softly on the CD player. Missing the old nicotine rush, the sweet suck of smoke into her lungs, she holds the pencil like a cigarette for a moment. I miss her. In that old letter from ’97, she wrote, 

“I’m probably exaggerating, but I have been in their situation [those Ryerson people who acted extra kind toward her] when a colleague retired and made her appearance at the annual fashion show. She smiled too much and talked of having time to sew and do the things she enjoyed. I remember trying to avoid her because I think I was embarrassed and felt sorry for her because she was no longer part of those of us who were still doing important things—not just passing time.” 

Mama and me, back in the day.

Doing important things v. Just passing time. . . I flinch at my mother’s binary of “important” paid work and “just passing time.” But something in what she wrote resonates with me. I work part time as a self-employed editor, but lately, I often feel as if I’m just “passing time.”

Maybe this is just the flatness of grief. Flat-footed grief walks over me. After many losses, I am a fallow field—nothing growing here.  

I have been reading memoirs about aging parents. . . Elizabeth Berg writes in hers, “I think as long as a parent is alive, it’s easier to feel young.” After my father died at the end of June, I’ve felt old, flat, fat, tired, sad. Nothing feels important. Especially not the weekly crossword. And yet, musing over the word problems gets my brain churning slowly, raking over clues like a pitchfork turning organic matter in the compost heap. I feel connected to crossword puzzlers across Canada. I imagine, for example, an old guy in Mahone Bay—let’s say he’s 82, goes by Ernest Nickerson and sits in the kitchen nook with morning coffee, chewing the end of the pencil as he tries to remember what a 10-sided shape is (79 across, 7 letters). 

From our 2012 honeymoon in NYC

Remember geometry class in tenth grade? That’s where Ernest first noticed the girl who would be his wife, in geometry class at Mahone Bay School. As he digs deep for the name of a ten-sided shape, another thought is unearthed from that compost heap: Darlene’s thick red hair, held back with tortoiseshell barrettes. He couldn’t take his eyes off those red wings in front of him during class, couldn’t stop imagine pulling his fingers through that rough, dark crimson hair. He unclicks the delicate barrettes to let those wings loose to fly. If Darlene were alive now, Ernest thinks, she’d lean into my ear, her coarse grey hair tickling my nose, skinny shank up against mine, and whisper, “Decagon, Ernest. You knew that, honey.” 

I write to get momentum, to feel connected to people, to create worlds. To feel connected to you, and Ernest, and Darlene. So, if you are a maker, a creative person, (we all are, each in our own way) remember: The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you. Even if it doesn’t seem important. Believe me, it’s important. It connects you to life. The fallow field regenerates.

Memoirs about aging and dying parents that I recommend:

  • Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
  • Philip Roth, Patrimony: A True Story
  • Elizabeth Hay, All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir
  • Elizabeth Berg, I’ll Be Seeing You.
From a later trip to NYC, March 2019, after my mother died. Sugar skulls in a restaurant display.

My last phone call with my father

In the last few weeks of my father’s life, my stepsister Sandra held the phone near his ear when one of us called. He lay in a bed set up in the living room, slipping in and out of consciousness. We’d given up on FaceTime; he could no longer see us. But perhaps he could hear my voice. You never know.

That day, perhaps two weeks before he died—I don’t remember—I felt desperate. I was frenzied in my wish to connect, to penetrate the veil, to make him hear me. But I had nothing to say other than I love you, you were a good father. He’d heard it all before. 

So I sang. First, Summertime, from Porgy and Bess, my voice catching and scratching like an old record. Then, I pushed on with the next song that entered my head: Mac the Knife. I scrambled around the world wide web until I found the lyrics. Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear / And it shows them pearly white. Somehow, I thought he’d remember that song, but I don’t really know the melody beyond the first two lines. I faked it, trying too hard, straining, improvising, hoping. Hoping for what? For his sweet voice to say, “Madeline, that was wonderful”? Nothing.

So, then, a poem. I’ll read a poem. Robert Frost is a good safe bet. 

I wanted to find Nothing Gold can Stay, a poem about impermanence. But my memory failed me. I couldn’t recall the title, so I accepted instead the first poem that popped up when I searched for Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I pressed on, putting as much feeling into my voice as I could, wishing I’d chosen a more dramatic poem, a poem I could really emote. Instead, just the simplicity of an Alex Colville painting. A man and his horse on the darkest evening of the year, stopping.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

When I finished the last lines, my stepsister’s voice entered. She’d been there all along, holding the phone. She said kindly that she could listen to me all day, my voice was lovely. But Dad was asleep; he’d been asleep the whole time. She thought perhaps he could still hear me. Did he move an eyebrow? 

But really, I know she didn’t have the heart to interrupt me. We said good-bye. A week later, I used the voice memo app on my iPhone to record myself singing “Blackbird” by the Beatles, Dad’s favourite song, and I texted it to Sandra, with a note, can I talk to Dad on Wednesday? But Tuesday was his last day here. 

A frantic energy inhabited me during those final one-sided calls. Helpless, I worked overtime to get through, to make a mark. Hey you, this is your daughter. Papa! You there? Remember me? Your youngest daughter? Remember how you and I used to joke about you being King Lear, and I was your Cordelia? Sir, do you know me? Surely you do. Just give me a sign. 

Father

In this wine-dark place
a tiny voice
a whisper:
hush, little baby, don’t you cry

From long ago
from far away
a thread
of red travels along
my bloodline

when that shark bites with his teeth, 
babe
scarlet billows start to spread

and meets a tributary.
I know your voice. 
You are mine.

I want you close
daughter,
but this trip
is made alone.

The woods in here
are dark and deep

I want to sleep, 
dear, but
a worry burns:

Tell me, do I have 
promises still to keep?

No, I hear you say, 
no more promises to keep.

Spread your wings,
I hear you whisper

Take to the sky papa,
Take to the 
red-blood sky.


Kitchen memories

Guest post by Judith Walker, aka Jude, my sister and a wonderful cook

Retro, old fashioned, nostalgic, comforting. These words will have different meanings for all of us, depending on our age and our interests. For me, the feelings of nostalgia, craving and comfort come from memories of meals and gatherings from my childhood in the 60s and 70s and also from early adulthood in the 80s, when I experimented with food and first cooked professionally.

When I was a kid we lived in California. Our mom wasn’t a confident cook, she was a late starter and as a young wife and mother struggled to fill her role as the family chef. Some of her meals included simple seasonal items that sound exotic but were quite ordinary for the time and place. Whole artichokes steamed with lemon and served with a bowl of mayo that we shared for dipping. After a lot of peeling and sucking on the tough leaves we were rewarded with the succulent heart. No mayo required, an amazing flavour burst that would linger on my palate for hours. Possibly my first sensuous experience. And the tacos. So basic and so good. We would all help prepare this meal, bowls of fried ground beef, chopped iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, grated cheese, mashed avocado, and sour cream. And hot sauce for Dad. It must have been the tortillas that made this such a memorable meal. In Berkeley, we had many Hispanic neighbours. I think my mom was able to find fresh tortillas in the local grocery store. I know that my first bite of a fresh corn tortilla in Mexico many years later flooded me with nostalgia.

Another go-to dish for special occasions was ceviche. Mom made one with scallops, shrimp, and onion chopped up and marinated in fresh lime juice.  This was an easy dish she could prepare ahead of time and was elegant and delicious. I don’t recall what she served it with, I just ate it by the spoonful.

And then we moved to cold, Anglo-centric Toronto. No more avocados, scallops or tortillas. It was the 60s after all. So, overdone roast beef, watery spaghetti sauce and tuna casserole came into our lives. Our mother tried to teach us to cook when she went back to school. Cooking pasta (we called it noodles), chopping an onion, peeling veg, measuring, making rice and washing dishes were things we learned. I don’t think the results were great, but I am grateful for the lessons. My fave dish from those days was tuna casserole. I am serious. There is something about that combo of the salty tuna, the creamy blandness of the mushroom soup, slippery noodles and crispy edges that is the epitome of comfort food. I’m pretty sure I made this more than once on a hungover Sunday in my twenties. Better than Kraft dinner!

cook 2 cups of broad egg noodles according to instructions
-open and drain one can of chunk white tuna
 -open a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
-drain the noodles and mix all the ingredients together in the noodle pot along with a nob of butter.
-pour into a greased 9×9” pyrex dish. If you are feeling fancy sprinkle crushed saltine crackers on top.           
-bake at 350 till bubbling and crispy.

 ( I just checked the Joy of Cooking recipe, and they recommend seasoning the soup with dry sherry! Hilarious!)

Another recipe that was easy for us kids to make and that we actually ate was hotdogs in cornbread:

 -put 6 hot dogs in a 9×9” pyrex dish
-place in a hot oven and roast till a bit brown and blistered
-mix one recipe of cornbread from the Joy of Cooking
 -pour it over the hot dogs and cook according to instructions
-serve with butter and yellow mustard on the side

I sometimes crave this meal, but know if I made it I would eat the whole thing and quickly descend down the spiral of shame.

 My mom tried, she just didn’t have much to work with and not much inspiration in those busy days. We never had Kraft slices, Wonder bread, pop or ketchup in the house. I didn’t know what pizza or french fries were till I was in junior high. I remember visiting my grade 7 friend in her wealthy parents’ fancy penthouse apartment. Their live-in cook would make us toasted Wonder bread topped with bacon and  melted processed cheese. Served with ketchup. I loved it. However, I am grateful that our mother raised us on real food and set us on the path to healthy eating.

Things started looking up in the 80’s. Mediterranean, Asian and Indian food were starting to trend. My mother was travelling a lot then and brought back recipes and fresh ideas. We thumbed through Gourmet magazine and cookbooks looking for our next dinner adventure. The more complicated the better. We would make forays to Kensington market, Chinatown and little India seeking exotic ingredients. And then spend hours in the kitchen, often at Mom’s, gathered around the butcher block on our periodic Friday night family dinners, with mixed results. It was fun and challenging and I learned much that has stayed with me. Pasta from scratch, fresh herbs, toasting and grinding spices, rehydrating dried mushrooms and peppers, fresh cheeses…risotto! So much to discover.

In the mid-80s, knowing nothing about running a business or professional cooking, I started a catering company with a couple of friends called “The Feed Bag.” It was hard work, fun, funny and pretty much a failure financially, but there were some great parties! We made hundreds of spring rolls, massive sushi platters, a ridiculous number of meat, cheese, veggie and fruit trays, with little money to show for it. One of our go-to cookbooks then was The Silver Palate. The quintessential 80s cooking guide. Every recipe has more fat then I would eat in a week now. Decadent. I recently pulled out my battered copy because of a challah recipe request from my sister. I looked back at the most raggedy pages and found one of our old tried and true recipes, chicken dijonaisse. So simple, so good. And easy. I made it recently with a few additions, some shallots, grated parmesan and fresh parsley, and ate it with egg noodles. Delish. Anything served over egg noodles is comfort food for me.

I also made a pineapple upside down cake a while ago, another childhood favourite. Honestly it wasn’t as great as I remember, I think I skimped on the butter in the caramel sauce. I did create an elevated version of this when I worked in fine dining. Individual servings baked in a ramekin with half of a ripe red plum on the bottom. It was beautiful when inverted on a plate surrounded with a creme anglaise or boozy sabayon.

I am not sure why food has been such a focus in my life. I am not academically inclined and hated school, so I managed to make a decent living and support my travels by working in kitchens. But it is more than that. Food was a conduit to my mother, a shared past, our phone conversations in her later years pretty much revolved around what we were cooking that day. And our cats, but that is a whole other story.  It was one of my favourite parts of travelling and a wonderful way to connect to local communities and their customs and everyday life. You can learn so much about any part of our world by learning about the food the locals grow and eat and the history and traditions around them.

 Researching, designing, cooking, sharing and eating food has sustained me on many levels for much of my life.

 This was the menu request for my birthday dinner when I was a kid fifty-five years ago.

 Baked chicken
 Potato salad
 Corn on the cob
 Watermelon
 Chocolate cake

I would grill the chicken now, but other than that I stand by this as my favourite summer meal.

Good food is good food.

The End

Note: I would like to give credit to Judy Gorton for the logo she created for “The Feedbag,” my first business and only adventure in catering. She has been a friend for almost 40 years and is a wonderful artist. I still remember part of the menu from the dinner party we catered for her as payment for the design:

  • Cornish game hen stuffed with basil couscous
  • Carrot sformato (an Italian savoury soufflé, my mom’s recipe)

How very 80s!!

Pockets

In the basement of my mother and stepfather’s house, I look through the closet where Mama’s coats hang. These are her extra coats, at least twenty of them. A black suede jacket by Anne Klein, a gold rain cape by Pierre Carden, an army-style blazer by Eileen Fisher. Size 12, size 14, large, large, large. I wish they fit me, but I swim in them. Except the cape. 

It’s raining, and I didn’t bring a raincoat. I came to Toronto to see my father in hospital, where he lies with a fractured pelvis. I left Victoria in a hurry and packed lightly—just a small overnight bag with a few clothes and a box of KN95 masks. I try on Mama’s rain cape and my hands go to the pockets. Change, Kleenex, a shopping list, a Stim-U-Dent, “the most recommended piece of wood in dental history.” 

I inherited my mother’s gum disease and her love of pockets. The best jackets and coats, dresses, and pants have pockets. Places to stash the things we might need. Mad money, my mother told me, was the money you took on a date in case the guy was a jerk and you needed the bus fare home. Pockets are secret places to slip your hands into when your fingers are cold or restless. Places to finger a hidden thing. 

Wearing the long gold cape, light as tissue paper, I start to rifle through pockets of the other coats. The treasures I find, I pile on the floor. I take just a few sample items and make an arrangement: a toonie, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Clean Kleenex, wads of it. Stim-U-Dents. A paper clip. The business card of a jeweller up on Bloor Street. Some scraps of paper with her handwriting. 

Handwriting that opens a valve spreading warmth through me. Hey, Mama, it’s you! I’ve opened hundreds of envelopes and packages addressed in that warm energetic cursive. For years, there were frequent letters filling me in, encouraging me, describing events and ideas, asking me how are you? how are the boys? Handwritten cheques, recipe cards, Christmas and birthday packages and “just because” packages. 

And lists—lists that summon an image of Mama getting ready to go out to do her daily errands.

She would tell me during our weekly calls, “I’m just like a European housewife, now. I shop every day.” I can see her in her sunglasses, her dark smooth hair in a classic bob. Pink lipstick. She is dressed all in black, and she tucks the list into her jacket pocket, slings a shopping bag over her arm. She calls for the cat Cicero, making sure he’s inside before she locks up and gets into her black Echo, buzzing up to Fiesta for the good Ace brand ciabatta. For the green net bag of bright oranges to halve and squeeze for juice every morning, using the old-fashioned cut-glass juicer. Mayo—a large jar of Hellman’s to be slathered on the sliced ciabatta and then layered with Asiago cheese and slices of the best-quality salami. A stop at the drug store for heart pills, for “dry shampoo.” I can see the funny little purple and white cannister of “Nuvola Dry Shampoo” on her vanity—that powder she sprinkled on her oily scalp to assuage some anguish she had about her hair.  

Pocket collage

I take off the rain cape—too dramatic. I worry it would draw attention to me as I walk along the street; I want to go by unnoticed. But I ask Petros if I can have her summer robe from the upstairs closet. It’s been 19 months now, but her clothes are all still here. I reach to the back of the closet and pull out the robe, still smelling of her.

Hey, Mama
What is 11 by 15?
Is it the size of a photograph 
you wanted to frame?

Did you ask 
Ma, Nung Uk 
at Golden Jewellery
to make
your ring smaller
so as to 
fit 
your
dwindled
finger?

I hope you don’t mind
that I took your  robe.
The Calvin Klein 
black jersey one
you wore in 
your final 
days. 

I was careless:
forgot to check
the pockets and
when I pulled it 
from the washer,
a fine white
confetti decorated
the dark folds.

The day before I left
I asked him, 
Could you ever
love another
woman?

No, he said. 
I would always 
compare her to 
Virginia. 

A mother lode of feelings

 

IMG_0268

My mother loved this card I made for her birthday in 2016. “How did you get me so perfectly?” she asked.

Motherlode

Corns crunch as I turn the wooden grinder
over a tiny heap of grey-black grains for
pfeffernüsse, the recipe you passed to me from your
German mother.

In a clan of ginger, your dark crown pulled the eye.
Beautiful ungainly schwartz
learned to pick peaches at 6,
to drive a car at 12.
You were a barefoot child,
smoldering into life.

Your seed sprang from
hard dry loins of dustbowl farms,
you blossomed dark to light,
turned burlap sacks to rickracked frocks,
pushed hard against poverty,
ate books, ached for knowledge,
opened your scarred scared heart to love.

Passionate proud creature, you live
inside me, your pepper cutting
through my honey, brave unexpected heat
sears the surprised and happy tongue.

“Motherlode” was one of the poems in my first and perhaps last book of published poetry,  birth of the uncool  (2014, Demeter Press). Unfortunately, the first four lines of this poem are missing in the book. When the manuscript was sent to me for a final examination and approval, I didn’t notice the flaw. Without those lines, the poem doesn’t make much sense, which bothers me. I wanted to be mad at the copy editor, but truly it was my fault.

So I offer it here today in its wholeness because I have been thinking of my mother.

When a person we love dies, we measure the next year’s turning as a series of firsts.  First my mother’s birthday rolled around in April, and she wasn’t here to call, to wish happy birthday, to send a card to. Then it was the first time I visited the house where she lived, but she was no longer there, calling from the top of the stairs, “Madeline? Is that you?” Then I celebrated my first birthday without my mother in the world, and coming up is my first Christmas without her.

I spent only one Christmas with her in the thirty years since I moved with my family from Ontario to the West coast. But still, we would talk on the phone every December 25th. I sent gifts, and for a long time, so did she. I’d ask if she had bought a Christmas tree and often she had bought two tiny ones: one for the front room and another for the back room, where they would sit in front of the fire burning in the fireplace, watching the snow fall outside. Sometimes we’d talk about Handel’s Messiah, a piece we both adored and listened to over and over again that time of year. After a while, I stopped asking if she’d made pfeffernüsse because I knew she hadn’t.

She was eating very little in the years and months before she died, cooking only occasionally, and baking hardly at all. But for so many years—all my childhood years—there was the joy of making pfeffernüsse with Mama.

I remember best the warm doughy mounds sliding out of the oven on blackened cookie sheets. A happy human conveyer belt, we dipped them still warm into the bowl of milk flavoured with vanilla extract, then popped them head first onto the plate of powdered sugar, then onto a rack to cool. The powdery tops hit my tongue with a blast of melting sweetness, then my teeth sank into the chewy milk-moistened dough, meeting honey, liquorice, and pepper. We’d line tin canisters with waxed paper, packing them with layers of pfeffernüsse.

I would eat those pepper nuts until I felt sick.  And then when I had my own family, Mama sent me the recipe for “Xmas Cookies,” written in her energetic cursive.  I made them for my boys, even when they weren’t particularly interested in eating them. Eating dozens of them myself, I plumped up like a pfeffernüsse every December.

It’s early November now. Christmas is still many weeks away. But I am thinking of my mother, thinking of our complicated relationship. Acknowledging that while I followed her path in so many ways, I fiercely resisted and resented her too.  After she died in February, I spent the next seven months in therapy, trying to deconstruct the pain and grief I felt, pain and grief spiced by anger, softened by affection. Honey and pepper, pepper and honey. Mama and Madeline, Madeline and her mama.

IMG_0269

 

 

My mother’s closet

We plan wonderful projects. The ideas are good and vibrant. Details burn high with leaping flames then slow down, muted but steady. Eventually the flames gutter and sputter. Other tasks intervene, only embers remain.

Last May, my son Sam and I drove to visit my sister. We zipped up Highway 1 over the Malahat, through Duncan, past Nanaimo and veered off onto Highway 19, then 4 toward Port Alberni.  Passing the tangled green forests of the Island and listening to Pink Floyd, the breeze whistled through the sunroof and we talked about a plan I had been brewing since 2016. The seed of the plan was to interview my mother about her closet. Open those wooden louvered doors in her spacious bedroom to examine the sweaters, trousers, and dresses. Ask her about them. What’s your favourite piece of clothing? Where did you get it? Why do you love it? Is there a story? My mother’s stylishness would be expressed in that interview, her signature love of black, her ability to pull together a look, her insistence on quality. Having taught history of art and design to fashion students for decades, her knowledge of fashion trends across time would be revealed through her closet. We would look down at her dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals lining the closet floor and discuss her struggle to find attractive, comfortable shoes to fit her size 10 feet, feet that had been misshapen by the squeeze of hand-me-downs during her impoverished childhood. Finally, we would walk down the narrow stairs to the room at the back of the house where dozens of hats were piled on a chest of drawers—grey and black knitted cloches, brown and beige floppy brims, watch caps in jewel tones, all made by Parkhurst, one of her favourite companies. My mother would pour a glass of red wine before telling me about her hat obsession that grew from acute embarrassment over her thinning hair.

We’d sit in the bamboo chairs in the back room, our bare feet cooling on the tile, maybe laugh about her practice of wearing denim cut-offs (cuffs rolled) over black tights when she was a young mother.  Ten years on there were the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, such a good look on her—showing deep cleavage, the curve of her hips, a peek of thigh when she crossed her legs, legs even more shapely than Anne Bancroft’s in The Graduate. She bought the legendary von Furstenberg wrap in both the green and the brown python print.

“If you love something, buy two,” my mother liked to say.

I thought about making a short film documentary about my mother’s closet with my IPhone, capturing her expressive face and laugh, the camera skimming over the clothes on wooden hangers, mostly dark things in rich, heavy fabrics. I would have to buy a tripod and figure out angles and such, then how to splice and edit.  That seemed too hard. Finally, the film idea metamorphosed into a scheme to write a series of blog posts about people’s closets and their favourite clothes. Sam and I discussed my plan, and he encouraged me to start blogging. That weekend, I interviewed my sister about her classic denim vest, her sundresses, and her huarache sandals. I took photographs and some video footage. But I never followed through. The project lay dormant.

When I had coffee with Sam last week he told me “somebody used your idea.”

“What do you mean?” Marie Kondo’s series, he told me, is a lot like your plan. She looks into people’s closets and talks about why they have the clothes they do—the history and meaning of each item. Lots of people are watching the show. “That means,” he said, “you had a good idea.” I laughed wistfully.

It’s too late to interview my mother about her closet. She died in February, wearing a black silky nightgown and black cotton watch cap when she drew her last breath.  Her clothes hang in that big closet now, collecting dust.  No longer can she answer my questions, laugh, pour that glass of wine.

So I have become attuned to death. Every morning Michael and I read a few pages from Wake up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod, a Buddhist scholar. He counsels us to contemplate death. Did you know that death is lurking everywhere? Envision dying tomorrow—a sudden accident could happen. Meditate on all of the ways you can die: terminal illness, a car accident, falling in the bathtub. Contemplate the moment of death—what regrets will you have as your life passes before your eyes? Imagine how—if you die of old age—your energy will seep gradually from your body, how everything will be difficult, how you will become dependent on others to do the simplest tasks. Any dormant plans will lie forever dormant. Each day I am reminded to act now. Don’t put off artistic projects, interviews with interesting people, travels, experiences, connections, opening your heart to the world.

Here’s the first of the “Open Your Closet” series. Maybe it will be the first and the last, who knows? The following is dedicated to my mother and my son Sam: thank you both for inspiration.

Rainbows and Basic Black

I wore a polyester rainbow mini dress to celebrate my 10th birthday 1968. That dress seems hideous to me now, but at the time I was thrilled to own it. It was like wearing a spongy, itchy hot box over my lithe young body. But remember, girls: fashion not comfort! (Even at age 10.)  How pretty you look!

My girlfriend and I listened to the Stones and danced like wild fairies around the living room, waving our arms in front of us, giggling. “She comes in colours everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s like a rainbow.”  Imagine Mick Jagger telling me I look like a rainbow in my rainbow dress!

Fifty years later my favourite piece of clothing is a size-L black bamboo undershirt. Large so it’s comfortable and covers me, reaching the tops of my thighs. Bamboo because it’s silky smooth and breathes during hot flashes, yet keeps me warm.  Throughout the winter I wear it all day and night. I wear it hard. I wear it until it is rent with holes. It doesn’t matter—I just cover the holes with a sweater.

In 1965 my mother wore cut off denim shorts over black tights, a grey sweater over a white turtleneck. I am surprised she let me photograph her, she was so embarrassed by her looks.  Ten years later on a trip to Greece she wore a peach cotton top and matching skirt on her slim bronzed body. Flat, comfortable Indian sandals on her big sturdy feet. A belt accentuating her curves. Sunglasses, always the sunglasses.

Your clothes – do they hide you or show you? Are they stories in cloth or merely covers?  That shirt, when did you buy it, do you remember? Is there a tale, a memory? Is there a catch in your throat when you recall the moment? What about that belt. . . was it a gift from somebody you once loved?  The jacket: did you steal it, shove it in your backpack in the dressing room? The dress, was it in the free box on the street? Does it make you feel beautiful? The pajamas, did you sew them yourself and make mistakes? Are they cosy dream-makers? Tell me about your clothes.

C6D5E783-B601-4672-928B-12E41B82D62EOpen your closet and
let me see
who you are
who you’ll be
who you were
what makes you free

Open your closet to me

 

 

The wild joy of being nobody

IMG_1905My favourite Arbutus tree was doing her usual backbend into the Colquitz River, her waxy leaves dipping into the brown flow. On my visit yesterday, I leaned into her, as I always do, feeling the cool papery bark under my bare arms and thighs.  It’s dry, high summer, and the river is low and sludgy.  I walk a little way down the path toward the water and crouch in a sunny spot surrounded by white umbrellas of Queen Anne’s Lace swaying in the slight breeze. The drone of bees.  As I gaze at the river, a movement on the opposite bank catches my eye. A mother raccoon with four kits emerges from the undergrowth. The kits follow her lead and stand in the shallows, “washing” their paws in the brown liquid. A sound between a cat’s purr and bird-song chirrups from the large female as she guides the kits along the bank, batting one occasionally when it pauses too long in the water. The creatures disappear quickly back into the hedges and I am left watching the treacly river wend its lazy way.

I walk along the trail 20 metres or so and as I come into a clearing, watch a substantial bird—perhaps the size of a big robin—feeding on the ground. Noticing me, he flies rapidly into a tree and I approach softly, cautiously, to get a better look. He looks like a male Northern Flicker, a scarlet slash on his throat. I am so close I can see the handsome beige plumage on his breast, speckled with dark brown, like flax seeds in bread.

Today, during my walk around the horticulture gardens, I rounded a corner and came upon a California quail, several chicks scuttling behind her. I admire their developing “topknots,” still tiny compared to their mother’s larger plume of dark feathers atop her head.  A few minutes later, I happen upon a hare, still as a statue, on the meadow path. I freeze along with him and study his handsome tweed coat, his tall, swanky ears.

When I saw these animals, I was spacious awareness, a nobody. It felt like a gift I’d been given, to quietly witness their everyday existence on the river, in the tree, in the meadow. I started to think about how I’ve been seeing things, observing, letting my “self” recede so I am a container of consciousness, a watcher.  It hasn’t always been so. Reading my old journals as I attempt to write my memoir has made me see a pattern in my life: My yearning to be seen shows up over and over again.  Engulfed by that obsession to be validated, I was often oblivious to seeing what was happening around me.  Analogous to the logic of Maslow’s hierarchy, I had to be seen before I could see.

Why does being seen by another feel so primordial, so necessary, so life giving?  Ralph Ellison, in his masterpiece, Invisible Man, was able to convey that sense of not being seen—of the eyes of the interlocutor passing over you as if glazing off the skin’s surface without taking in the who-ness of the other.   He is invisible to everyone he meets because they see only the stereotype of black man; he is a carapace, a skin without substance. Nobody sees who he really is. That is an awkward identification—who am I to compare myself to the oppressed African American man? But the idea holds. It was about not been recognized, not being looked at deeply with understanding and recognition. About the hungry, emerging identity, looking for a reflection to hook into. Who am I? The other, the mother, does not mirror back who I am—and my own recognition that I might have missed something crucial in childhood: the mixed comfort and power derived from the mother’s mirroring eyes.

When I come across girls in novels and autobiographies who were not seen by their mothers, I realize that I am looking at a kind of fundamental misrecognition. Didn’t John Bowlby—king of attachment theory—tell us that babies need their own reflections gazing back at them from their mothers’ loving eyes to build identity? And doesn’t this ring true in so many ways?

Judith Duerk tells us that the mother is the “first representative of the Self to the infant, [and] constellates in the infant what will become the sense of Self within as the child grows.”  She goes on to paint that image of loving reflection that almost makes me salivate, it sounds so delicious and so unattainable: “As the baby sees itself mirrored in the face of the mother, sees its own image lovingly reflected in the mother’s eyes, a fledgling sense of a true and worthy self is born within the infant. With the birth of that sense of self is born a sense of being seen, recognized, and valued as who one really is” (10).

Kathryn Harrison’s shocking 1997 memoir The Kiss, in which she describes her “love affair” with her father—paints a portrait of the other kind of mother – the opposite to Duerk’s ideal mirroring mother. This mother demands a certain kind of image from the child; rather than reflecting back what is, she reflects back what ought to be. Harrison gets 100% on a French test at age seven: “My mother’s excitement over my perfect score is devastating. She hugs me, she kisses me, she buys me gifts; and even at the age of seven I understand how damning is my success—that my mother’s love for me (like her mother’s for her) depends on my capitulation. She will accept, acknowledge, seeme only in as much as I will make myself the child who pleases her” (20). But the test was won by cheating, and when the child admits this, her infuriated mother drives her to her grandparents’ house and abandons her there. Harrison next comes down with a sudden, mysterious illness. She loses weight and becomes very pale. When she returns to school, everyone says “She’s a different child!” (21). And she is never quite the same; she has learned the lesson so many children of self-absorbed mothers must learn—I am only seen when I conform to what you want to see; I am only loved when I do what you want me to do. Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979) explicated this truth in its brutality, from the point of view of the child.

The crux of Harrison’s true tale is that, as a young woman, she is seduced by her father  and engages in a relationship with him over several years. Not being properly seen by her mother embedded a ravenous hunger for recognition deep into the fibers of her being. He told her she was the most beautiful woman in the world, the smartest, the best.  She felt seen. Her hunger was temporarily fed.

I am not suggesting that that hunger to be seen will drive all “invisible” men and women into destructive embraces. But Duerk articulates not being seen as an identity crisis: “Loss of the personal mother may leave the child without sense of self or self-worth, without hope that one will ever be seen as oneself. There is fear of being unable to become one’s true self, of never being truly known – never knowing who one truly is” (10).

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear . . . does it make a sound?  I need you to confirm my existence, or else I am invisible. I am persuaded by Alain de Botton’s description of love as “I”-Confirmation: “Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone there who can understand what we are saying, in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved” (108).  While Botton was describing this coming alive in the context of romantic love, it goes back, again, to the birthing of consciousness, to the baby’s awareness of the other, to the mother’s mirroring, loving eyes conferring “you-ness,” unique identity, to her child.

My journals record most of a lifetime searching for recognition in the eyes of others. I have prioritized been seen over seeing. But in the last decade or so there has been a shift. I feel seen now.  I feel loved. And this frees me to see the world around me. Daily meditation has trained my mind so the flow of discursiveness is interrupted for longer periods, holding a space for seeing.  Finally, growing older means a gradual receding of the noisy self. The ego occasionally takes a nap. I gain the ability to listen more than talk. I start to treasure invisibility because it allows me to witness the wild animals and to feel the wild joy of being nobody.

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References

Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss.New York: Basic Books, 1969.

De Botton, Alain. Essays in Love.London: Picador, 1993.

Duerk, Judith. Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself.  San Diego CA: LuraMedia, 1989.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man.  New York: Random House, 1952.

Harris, Kathryn. The Kiss. New York: Random House, 1997.

Miller, Alice, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

 

 

 

Everything is waiting for you

On the plane home from Toronto, I read The New Yorker. First, I tackled the long story about Henry Worsley’s emulation of his hero, Shackleton. David Grann describes Worsley’s scorching ambition and his treks across frozen Antarctica in details that chilled me, shrunk me, made me feel as if I were breathing ice particles.  The battering cold, the “white darkness,” the push to physical and mental limits. It seemed such a lonely life.  What exactly was Worsley striving for? There was something in him that could never be satisfied. He ended up dying of bacterial peritonitis after he cut short his solo trek across Antarctica by foot. He was only 55 and left a loving wife and young adult children.

Next I moved on to Jill Lepore’s piece on Frankenstein at 200. Lepore’s chronology of Mary Shelley’s life and the history and interpretation of the novel were fascinating. But after finishing the article, all I could think of was the end of Frankenstein when the monster flees to the North Pole and drifts away on a raft of ice, never to be seen again. The loneliness of that frozen scene seared me inside, just as when I’d first read it, deep in the gut. South Pole/ North Pole. Real life/ fiction: both readings numbed my mood and my solar plexus.

Finally, as if I hadn’t read enough depressing material, Anthony Lane’s review of the recent Russian film, “Loveless,” conjured an emotional and cultural wasteland so bereft of kindness, love, and affection that my core temperature must have dropped several degrees. Why does everything look so bleak? I pulled my down jacket around me.

I was already sad from seeing my aging parents for four snowy days in Toronto. My 90 year old father would slowly put on his boots, coat, gloves, and toque and we would venture out into what felt like blowing ice chips to gaze across Lake Ontario, a sheet of white.  Leaning into his Nordic walking sticks, he slowly advanced across the tundra as the wind raged against our bodies, flattening our cheeks and rendering us silent.  Back in the apartment, we went through old papers, photos, and letters, some from when my father was a teenager. At my mother’s house across the city, we drank coffee and ate tiramisu. We spoke of death, art, and the indignities of old age. She felt imprisoned in the house by the icy sidewalks and fear of falling.  The blinds were drawn. The reason I practice meditation, I realized, is to prepare for aging, sickness, and death. It does not look easy.

I came home to a mild Valentine’s day in Victoria and the incipient blush of cherry and plum blossoms. But I felt exhausted and sad. I kept thinking of Worsley and his wish to conquer and succeed, a wish that seemed to have come from a deep sense of wanting. Wanting what? He wanted to impress his emotionally distant father in the military, but never managed to. But it was more than that. Some deeper ache. And Victor Frankenstein’s hybrid creature wanted love, wanted simply to belong but was rejected as an outcast and a freak.  In the movie Loveless, a 12-year-old boy feels abandoned by his divorcing parents.  We spend our lives wanting to belong, to be loved, to be seen.

I am turning 60 this year, the right time for reckoning. I am working on a graphic memoir, and it seems that the trajectory of my life has been one of wanting to be loved, to be seen, to belong. Those stories are recorded in dozens of stained and dog-eared journals dating back to the 1970s.  It’s finally time to get rid of them, to clear psychic space, to unblock energy. I couldn’t bring myself to look at them all, as re-reading them usually sets me awash in some kind of negative emotion—shame, fear, self-loathing, anger. I can feel disturbed for days after reading one. So I decided to read just 13 (an important number in my life—two of my sons were born on the 13th, and my stepson died on the 13th).  I chose those 13 with the help of the Tarot, and now my task is to create 13 chapters based on those chosen journals. I’m only on number two, and already I feel as if a large truck has flattened me several times. And yet these days I also feel joyful. I feel alive, I frequently feel happy, and I feel engaged with life and with art and with people and with myself in a way I have never felt before.  Bleak winter is followed by the blush of spring.

(Title is from David Whyte’s wonderful poem and book of the same name.)

References are to The New Yorker, Feb 12 & 19 2018 issue

 

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Sweet milk for the hummingbirds

I am not going to say anything about this latest comic except that I submitted it as the final assignment for our “Going in for the Snakes” course.  Anything I say will cloud your reception of the work, so I’ll just let it stand.

I start an intensive course in graphic memoir in mid-November.

IMG_2222IMG_2223IMG_2224IMG_2225IMG_2226IMG_2227IMG_2228IMG_2229IMG_2230IMG_2231IMG_2232IMG_2233IMG_2234Thanks for reading.

Purple velvet

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When I start to remember my father’s attic room, I feel a tug of desire quickly followed by revulsion.  Desire and revulsion are two sides of the same coin, I’ve heard.

I am a divorced middle-aged woman with a good job as a systems analyst. I own a three-bedroom townhouse in Mississauga built in 1990, no attic, no basement, no hidden corners.  I live with my 22-year-old son who says he will move out once he finishes his computer science degree and gets a good job. No hurry, I tell him. And I mean it.  It’s just him and me here and that’s fine. He can stay as long as he likes.

I grew up in a big house in Toronto, out in the Beaches area. When I was growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, the Beaches were not yet a modish place to live. They were backwater, and our house was a bit of an eyesore. The roof had moss, and the front yard was filled with weeds. My mother had a diploma in applied arts, but she ended up freelance copy-editing because she was a natural with language. My father was an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. He had gotten his MA in English in 1965 and, like so many other students, had embarked on a PhD only to abandon it after seven years. Seven years of stabbing at it, until it was finally dead. This is the fate of so many PhD students. Did you know most of those who start PhDs never complete their degrees?

Dad started teaching when I was about five years old, and from then on, that’s all I remember, that he taught composition courses with the odd literature course thrown in. Piles of exam booklets on our hall table, stacks of typed, stapled essays scarred with white-out.  His slanted handwriting in blue fountain pen along the margins of student papers. And the books. Books were everywhere in our house.

His abandoned PhD had been on attic spaces in 19th century literature.  He was prescient: Gilbert and Gubar published their feminist masterwork Madwoman in the Attic in 1979 in which they argued that the attic in women’s literature was a site of female oppression. But my father, before his time, was arguing for a more nuanced view.  Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, Alcott’s Jo March, Bronte’s Bertha Mason and Lucy Snowe, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: All had attic rooms with different possibilities, sometimes empowering and other times oppressive.  Perhaps he was a proto-second-wave-feminist. If he had actually finished the dissertation, I feel certain it would have been important and published as a monograph. My father is brilliant. He would have been celebrated, gotten a tenure track job somewhere, and I would have grown up in Berkeley, or London, or Chicago.  But he never did finish, just got more and more resentful at his supervisor (it was all his fault of course), while he toiled away as an adjunct, teaching six, seven, even eight classes a year crammed with mostly ignorant undergraduates, and the odd shining star student whom he praised at the dinner table.

My father had taken over the attic room in our house as his study.  We moved into that house when I was very young, so my earliest memories are that the attic was “Dad’s study.” My sister and brother and I were a little scared of it, yet drawn to it as well.  My father had told us he needed a private space and we weren’t allowed there unless he invited us in, nor should we disturb him when he was working. The times I was invited in I can count on one hand—and I lived in that house from two until I left for university at eighteen.  At a certain age, I did start to make the occasional secret visit. And then I started to visit more frequently.

There was a door at the bottom of a set of steep steps that ascended to the room.  The walls on the staircase were covered with brown burlap that was peeling at some places, especially at the seams.  As you entered the large room with its dramatically angled ceiling, the first thing you felt was the heaviness of the stuff in the room—bookshelves of dark wood lined almost all of the walls and they were crammed with books of all sizes and shapes.  And the books weren’t lined up all nice and tidy, either: They stuck out and bristled with extruding notes and bookmarks. There was the smell of Nag Champa incense—sweet flowers, sandalwood, and charcoal.

A large purple velvet sofa was to the right as you walked into the room; the springs almost gone, the two concave cushions molded by the bottoms of hundreds of previous sitters. The nap was worn away on the two arms, and patches of shiny brown material showed underneath.

To the left as you entered was my father’s desk—really just an old door set up on concrete blocks with a wooden captain’s chair in front of it. An ancient gooseneck lamp threw light over his typewriter and disorderly sheaves of paper.  Very little light entered this refuge—just two small dormer windows whose sills were crammed with more books and pottery incense holders from Mom’s early days as an art student.  The rust Berber carpet was old and stained of course. We had no money for anything new.

The room was unremarkable, but the feelings I had about it were complex. When I was 11, my brother Carl had told me that he had snuck in once when Dad was away at a conference and had discovered that one whole upper shelf of books—out of our reach—was filled with “erotica.”

“What’s erotica?” I asked Carl.

“Books about sex or with sex scenes in them,” he explained kindly. He could have made fun of me for not knowing—even though it would be a rare 11 year old that knew that word.

“Oh. Why, do you think he likes to read that?” I ventured.

“I dunno. Because he’s tired of having sex with Mom?”

I felt sad when I heard that, but competing with the sadness was a tug of excitement. I wanted to see those books too.

After that, I started to plan and execute my own stealth visits to the study.  Dad’s current teaching schedule was always taped to the fridge so we would know his office hours and teaching times. That helped me gauge how much time I had to get in and out.  And my mother was out working too, at a new press. Sometimes she had late hours there. So I was pretty free to go explore.  One time I went in and just walked around, looking at all of the objects. I sat briefly on the purple velvet couch, sinking into the soft crater and feeling the creak of the springs beneath me.  I touched the blue incense box, with the long wooden sticks protruding from the crinkly paper. I picked it up and smelled the heady, fruity odour that would stay on my hands all day. I ran my hand over the book titles, sometimes taking a book out to look at it, careful to return it to its place just so. I stood in the middle of the room, the rough rug under my bare toes, and listened to the dull thunder of traffic on Lakeshore Blvd.

Another time, I brought the small kitchen stool with me so I could get to the “erotica,” as Carl called it.  I positioned the stool right under the shelf and reached. I was just able to touch the spine of Fanny Hill, between Tropic of Cancer and Story of the Eye, but couldn’t get my fingers around it. The books on this shelf were packed in tight.   A larger book stuck out from the shelf, making it more accessible, so I pulled out The Joy of Sex. The book looked brand new, and I wondered if Dad had bought it recently.  I sat on the couch and had a good look at the cover, a bearded, long-haired man kissing a woman. They were naked except she seemed to be wearing his unbuttoned shirt.  I flipped through some of the pages, and the book opened to an illustration of a man’s face in a woman’s private parts. All you could see was the back of his long curly hair and his broad back and her face with eyes closed and beatific smile. As I examined the picture, I started to feel warm and tingly down there.

I thought I heard the front door opening and closing, so I quickly shut the book and tried to return it to its place, but it was hard because the other books around it had sort of collapsed into the void. I had to pull my Dad’s captain’s chair over to the bookshelf so I could gain some purchase on the shelf with my hands and clear a space to ease the book back in.  Wow, that was close, I said to myself once I put the captain’s chair back, grabbed the stool, and got safely down to my room.

After that, my confidence grew, and I started to borrow the odd book from his shelves—novels or books of poems that looked interesting. I knew, of course, he’d be furious if he knew I had been in there, so I was extremely careful to leave everything as I found it and to return the books promptly. I was a fast reader.  I borrowed from Dad’s secret library for several years without a mishap. I had decided to leave the shelf of erotica alone, however. I felt a little scared about what I didn’t know. I wanted to not know.

Then I turned sixteen, a tough year for me.  I mean, I was smart and good in school, but not athletic or particularly pretty.  God this sounds so cliché! And another cliché, we were reading A Catcher in the Rye in English 11! I suppose I identified with the alienated teen, Holden Caulfield. I loved the book. I even started using “crumbum” to mean something shitty.

In April of that year, it was still snowing, wet snow on and off most days. But there was also spring in the air, so a combination of spring snow and the smell of the earth. I remember the snow because when Dad’s student Denise arrived at the front door, she was wearing big black snow boots and an off-white parka. She stamped hard on the porch before she entered, and when she came into the foyer and threw back the parka hood, trimmed with fake fur, a few chunks of wet snow slid onto the floor.  Her cheeks were moist and red and her eyelashes had water droplets in them.

“Hi, I’m Denise Rothgar. I don’t know if your father said, but I’m here to see him about a paper I’m writing for his class.”

She had black hair in a short feathery cut, and she wore big peacock feather earrings that mixed in with her hair, making it look like she had big green-gold eyes framing her face.  She had a book bag in one hand and her purse in the other. I was a bit mesmerized by her beauty. To me, she looked like a Cherokee princess (whatever that was). That is the thought that arose, though—Cherokee princess.  Along with Salinger’s novel, I had been reading a history book about the Trail of Tears, so I had Cherokees on the brain.

“No, Dad didn’t say. Here, let me take your coat—you can put your boots on the tray.”  I hung up the parka in our hall closet and it immediately fell off the flimsy wire hanger, which flustered me. Why is this girl here? Dad never had students to the house. This was a first.

I heard Dad coming down the steps from his study and then down the next flight of steps to the first floor of the house. He came up behind me and in his deep casual voice greeted his student as if I weren’t there.

“Denise, how are you? Any trouble finding the place?”

“No, Professor Blummer.”

“Come on up to my study.”

Then, as an afterthought, he looked over at me while I struggled to get the parka onto another hanger, a wooden one this time, “Cynthia, I’ll be at least an hour. Let your Mother know not to disturb me.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I got so entranced in the book that I forgot to say anything to Mom. I was reading in the living room, just off of the front hall, when Denise came softly padding down the stairs about an hour and fifteen minutes later.  I looked up at her and smiled.

“Are you loving Salinger?” she asked, beaming a big smile back at me. She had caught the title on the spine of the book.

“Oh, I adore this novel!” I cried, leaping to my feet in enthusiasm and to get Denise’s coat.

“What high school?”

I opened the hall closet.  “Malvern.”

“Teacher?”

“Mr. O’Neill.” I took her damp coat off the hanger and stood there watching her sit on the hall stool to pull on her boots.

“Oh my goodness, I had him too!” she laughed.  “You know, you’ll really impress him if you also read The Great Gatsby, and start talking about this other unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway.  I mean O’Neill is all about Holden Caulfield as unreliable narrator. And I know you’re going to love Fitzgerald.”

She stood up and I held her coat up as she slid her arms through the holes. That’s something I had seen men do for women, but I had never done it before. It made me feel grown up and gracious.

“That’s a neat idea,” I offered. “I know my Dad’s told me about Fitzgerald. He even lent me Tender is the Night last year. He said it was one of the greatest American novels ever written. But I haven’t read it yet.”

“Oh, start with Gatsby. You’re going to be so far ahead by the time you start University. Cynthia. It’s Cynthia, right?”

“Yeah, Cynthia.”

She zipped up the parka and started to sling her purse and book bag over her shoulder. I wanted to detain her a bit longer. I liked talking to her about books, about O’Neill.

“What did you think of Mr. O’Neill’s impersonations of actors? He’s funny, isn’t he? He does that hilarious Dick Van Dyke, falling all over himself.”

“He’s a scream.  I can’t believe you’re at Malvern.”

“When did you grad?”

“Four years ago. Now I’m in third year at U of T.” There was a lull in the conversation.  “Well, nice meeting you Cynthia. Don’t forget – Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway the unreliable narrator. You’re going to ace his class.”

We had dinner about an hour after Denise left, and I didn’t mention her nor did Dad.  I don’t think Carl or Barbara, my brother and sister, even knew she had come. They’d been out all afternoon. And my mother had been sewing in a back room of the house. She hadn’t heard the doorbell or Denise leaving.

The next day was Sunday, and I finished Catcher while lying in bed curled up toward the big window next to my bed. A very weak sun was breaking through the cloud cover and there was the drip drip drip of thaw season.  God, what a fantastic book, I thought. I have to get Gatsby and start reading it. If I have a bunch read by tomorrow, I can mention it during English period.

I went into the kitchen in my bathrobe, looking for Dad. I am pretty sure I had seen Gatsby on his shelves during one of my secret visits, and I knew he’d be happy to lend a copy “for my edification.”  The exceptions were his rare books and first editions, and he had a few.  If he were at home, I would ask him innocently if he had a copy I could borrow.

My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, editing a manuscript. She always worked with an ashtray at her elbow, and a row of different pencils and pens in a wooden tray at the other elbow.  She looked up when I came in, her face wreathed in smoke.

“Good sleep?”

“Yes, but I’ve been awake for ages, reading. Is Dad around?”

“No, he’s gone to play tennis with Hank, Riva, and Daniel.” My mother wasn’t sporty, but my Dad loved tennis and had several friends from grad school who liked to play, sometimes doubles.  I always cringed a little when he came back from a game still wearing his tennis clothes because seeing his thin shanks and the sweaty terry cloth headband embarrassed me.

“When will he be home?”

“Oh probably not for hours.”

My Mom didn’t ask why I wanted to know. My sense was that she was essentially uninterested in me. Sure, she loved me, but she was usually preoccupied with one thing or another, so she didn’t ask questions about what I was thinking or doing.  For example, she might have looked me in the eye and said, “Why do you want your Dad? Is there something I can do?”  But so it goes. You can’t choose your parents.

I wandered out of the kitchen. I had gotten into my head that I must have The Great Gatsby NOW.  Usually I executed my visits to Dad’s study when there was nobody home but me. Today, I would have to venture it with Mom in the house. As long as I walked softly so she didn’t hear steps above, I should be okay.  After all, she was in the kitchen on the main floor immersed in editing, so it was highly unlikely.

I climbed the stairs stealthily and made a beeline over to the bookshelves, immediately spotting the Fitzgerald book I was after. After I picked it carefully off the shelf, and started to walk back to the stairs, a white object lying on the arm of the couch caught my eye.  I bent over to look at it more closely.  It was a plastic or rubber whitish-yellowish tube, but to call it a tube was wrong because it wasn’t stiff like a tube of toothpaste, but more like balloon material or sausage casing. It was transparent, made of super thin, almost transparent material, with a thicker rim at the opening that reminded me of the blow-end of a balloon. The rim was more yellow than white, whereas the bottom of the tube was more white than yellow.  This thing lay sort of collapsed on the purple velvet, twisted up, and there was some whitish liquid or cream contained mostly at the end of the tube, but some smeared inside the rest of it.  The tube was around six inches long, with a knot about one third of the way down, as if to seal the glue or viscous stuff down at one end.

What could this thing be? At first I wondered if it was a variety of book glue that perhaps came packaged in plastic tubes. Maybe my father had been repairing books. I know that he had done this at one time. It had been a hobby of his to repair old books, sometimes gluing bindings back on. He used to do this on Sunday mornings before he got so busy with teaching.  When the mind has nothing to go on, no previous experience with a new object, it tries to slot the new item into the inventory of what it already knows. With that item slotted, I forgot all about it and went back to my bed to immerse myself in the world of the Buchanans.

I was a great hit with Mr. O’Neill because I was able to discuss Nick Carraway with him. And I got an A plus in that class.

The following year in Grade 12 I had sex for the first time.  It wasn’t that spectacular, to be honest. I felt okay about the guy, Martin.  We were really just friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend. And we both sort of wanted to get it over with. He was nice and gentle, but it was definitely anti-climactic.  We did it in his parent’s basement rec room while they were out at a party.  Martin, after lying on top of me for a while, leaned over and whispered into my ear.

“I’m going to pull out now, okay?”

“Sure, I guess so.” I’m not sure why he told me that, but I guess he just didn’t want to make any sudden moves. We were both scared as two jack rabbits. In retrospect, I am surprised he was able to ejaculate.  In the half-light of the rec room, I watched him roll the condom off of his smallish, semi-erect penis. It looked so pink and babyish and vulnerable, lying against his white thigh.  He rolled the condom down his penis so carefully, so methodically, like ladies rolled their nylons off their legs in the old black and white movies.  Then he took the condom with some white stuff caught at one end, and tied a knot near the top.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked, pulling the fake fur blanket up over my breasts, shyly.

Martin looked embarrassed. “Well, I heard that you’re supposed to so that so the jism doesn’t spill out and make a mess.”

“Jism?” I laughed. Martin looked at me and smiled. He put the used condom on the arm of the hide-a-bed that we were lying on. I looked over at it lying there, and then I realized. Oh! So that’s what it was, in Dad’s study. That’s it.

I felt a bit sick then, and wanted to leave Martin’s place quickly. I dressed and insisted on walking home alone. “Cynthia, what did I do to upset you? Please tell me!” He pleaded with me.

“Really truly, it’s not you, Martin. It’s just something else and I’d tell you except it’s private.”

I’d like to say that something happened after that, but it didn’t. The next year, I graduated and soon after that I got a place at Queen’s in Kingston, where I started in English but switched pretty quickly to some business courses and then went straight through to get an MBA.  My Dad and Mum split up a year after I left home and sold the house.

I haven’t seen my Dad much since I moved out so many years ago. I see Mum regularly; she’s very close to my son. But it seems that when my Dad and I get together, I start remembering that thing and the events surrounding it, even though I am 55 now and it’s almost 40 years since the “whitish object” on the arm of the  couch caught my eye.  The remembering fills me with both revulsion and yearning. When I am with him, I am always on the verge of saying, no of screaming, “How could you? Why didn’t you love me? Why couldn’t you have organized your love properly? Pay attention to me, not your students! Make love to your wife, not Denise! She was only four years older than I was—how could you?”

Now that I haven’t said anything for this long, it’s pretty much impossible to introduce it into the conversation normally. “Oh by the way, Dad, why was there a used condom on the purple velvet couch in April of 1974?”  I wasn’t supposed to be in his study in the first place. How would I explain it? And part of me hopes there really could be tubes of glue that look like used condoms.

The whole thing is just so unsettling I tend to put it out of my mind, and then before you know it, another year has gone by.