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Recently, I was reacquainted with an old high school friend. It turns out that she contemplated becoming a nun, but under the advice of one of the more younger and cooler nuns of that vintage declined and instead became a successful psychiatrist. Sister Shirley told her she was too much of an alpha female and would want to be Mother Superior straightaway. I don’t blame her. I doubt I would have made a good nun. I can’t take direction very well. I’m far too vain. Oh yeah, and that whole belief in Jesus thing wouldn’t really work for me, either.
Thunder was a big, red nimoosh who lived with Dean and Cal on Bkejwanong. He was the toughest, and if you’ve ever been on a reserve you know that bar is set higher there than elsewhere. Once Cal and I did the unthinkable: We went running. But we did it Indian-style, with a golf club and a stick. “The dogs” she said. Sure enough, within three minutes we had a pack of mismatched, feral dogs following us, each in its own state of xenophobic curiosity. Thunder was our champion. A soft growl and infinitesimal snarl and we were home free.
Iris ran her music class like marine boot camp. She didn’t like my son and once kicked him out of an assembly for shifting in his seat. I was present and had the task of leading my weeping six year old out of the school, holding his little shaking hand. I’d forget about her except that we are somehow linked. For years now, we have the same schedules and often find ourselves on the same street or in the same store. Karma has given her a son that would make Beelzebub blanche. Iris’ Baby. Her name really should be Rosemary.
Since we started keeping pets, Rich and I give voices to them. It’s juvenile and probably embarrassing to them and others within earshot, but we do it anyways. We don’t even remember how these little personalities evolved, but they stick. For instance, our first cat Guinness spoke like Camille Paglia. Her contemporary, an affable tabby named Dizzy spoke only in song. Our current cats, Willow and Badger are biological siblings. Badger sounds like Beaver Cleaver. Willow, who has the sweetest face you could imagine speaks with a breathy little voice but is extremely profane. Imagine Blossom Dearie on a bender.
In my youth I played guitar. I practiced until my fingertips sent sparks up my arms. I loved Pete Townshend but with my Seals and Crofts talent I was limited to playing at folk masses and at weddings. Then I stopped. Twenty years went by before I picked up another guitar. It was supposed to be for our son, but I took it over. Last week we upped the ante and bought an electric guitar. I don’t know what is better, unleashing my inner Who, or threatening my teenager with a dose of Magic Bus in front of his friends.
Donna was brilliant, ambitious, and quite attractive in certain lighting. Law school was a cakewalk. Articling was like choosing where she would spend her summer vacation. The challenge came in bagging Alan, a senior partner in her law firm. He was oblivious to her empathetic ear. Never more than a passing high-five over her enthusiastic flag pulling on the company’s dragon boat. The kicky jeans she wore on United Way casual Fridays threw pearls to swine. She was distraught until finally, after months of odious scotch drinking and quash, she changed her war plan and became the thinking man’s bonobo.
Like Rigby Reardon’s “Cleaning Woman” two simple words can drive Richard from well-mannered Brit to raving maniac: Nuit Blanche. That’s it. During Nuit Blanche cultured Torontonians spend the wee hours between dusk and dawn roaming the city and experiencing art. Performance Art. Installation Art. For Rich it’s a time to rant. “Here!” he said, throwing down the dishtowel onto a small Oriental carpet we have in the kitchen. “This is symbolic of capitalist oppression.” “But look, ” he said, warming to his theme, “the corner of the rag is turned up, representing resistance”. And he just went on from there.
My dad is eighty four and suffers from congestive heart failure. Like my mom before him who also had the disease, he is slowing drowning to death. It is nearly impossible for him to sleep lying down, so he passes the long nights singing. On a recent visit while staying in the room next door, I was lulled in and out of sleep by his songs. About four in the morning I woke up again, but this time he wasn’t singing. He was yodeling. Nothing loud or robust but an intensely beautiful warble, like the song of a dying bird.
A German girlfriend on sabbatical in Ireland told me that she could finally culturally breathe now that she was back in Europe. Initially I was miffed and after wiping the Tim Horton’s crumbs from my Kenora dinner jacket I thought about her remark and the trickle-down effect of cultural elitism. For example, in our house we have Train Wreck Wednesdays. We watch TLC, as anthropologists might study the Yanomani tribe through the smoke of a cooking fire. Lately it’s been baby beauty pagents. We chortle over the southern accents and Walmart ads. We talk talk longtime talk talk biggie snobby.
It took Declan only a few strategic days to have me fired and take over my job. Weeks later we had to work together on a shared case. Upon return from a coffee break we discovered that our boardroom had been robbed. The thief took nothing from me. Declan lost $300 and his glider pilot’s license. I wondered what sort of man carries around his glider pilot’s license? Was he anticipating an emergency glider moment during his commute home to Whitby? If so, how would he get to his Scheweizer SGS 1-34 from his seat on the GO bus?
When I was pregnant I was afraid of being abducted by aliens. They would take me one night when I got up for a pee. I just knew it. I knew it because my friend Elaine once saw one back in the early ‘eighties. It was one of those diminutive grey ones, and he was crouched beside her bed looking through her LP collection. Years later, Elaine remains indifferent about this experience and my phobia disappeared after I gave birth. I don’t know what would have been gleaned from probing me, but Elaine’s little guy was after her Japan album.
Terry was thirteen and lived in a chronic state of embarrassment. She hated the fact that her mother ran a little snack bar called the Chatter Box. She hated her mom’s boyfriend who would sit outside and play guitar each evening. And she especially hated moving into the trailer park. The rest of us urchins who grew up in the park were unfazed. The way I would imagine children raised by wolves or polygamists would be. It was the only life we knew. But Terry came from somewhere else, more sophisticated, more urban and probably before the divorce, much more salubrious.
The Edwardian satirist Saki wrote a very frightening story about an orphaned boy forced to live with a sadistic aunt. Confined to a virtual prison, he turns to religion for solace. But instead of the conventional ones, he decides to make up his own, worshiping a ferret called Srendi Vashtar. Through faith and the daily dedication to prayer and ritual the boy succeeds in having the ferret-god grant his wish: The death of the loathsome aunt. The boy’s sense of entitlement over the death, and his belief that faith can destroy his enemies makes the story perfectly terrifying. And timely.
Jack, among his other inadequacies, was a cad who hid under a disingenuous layer of polar fleece. After a two-month stint digging wells in Swaziland, he returned with a Swazi accent so his usual phrase of “Can you please loan me five bucks?” was now peppered with tongue clicks and head nods. But the worst thing he brought back was a hideous wall hanging of a hunter disemboweling a lion. “This,” he said, presenting the thing with such ceremony it could have been John the Baptist’s head, “is for us.” Two days later I started dating the man I married.
Our child is the product of two historians so we had great hopes that he would carry on the tradition. We pictured him reading E. P. Thompson with a flashlight under his bed sheets and arguing with his father over the true causes of the First World War. We contemplated dinners spent discussing the staples theory and the fur trade. Just imagine our horror when on his first school history project he headed straight for Wikipedia. Suddenly we were Jackie Mason’s parents and he was telling us he’d just resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly to open for Joey Bishop. Pisher.
Anyone with family who lived through the Depression has inherited a litany of “poor” stories. Between them, my parents had enough woeful tales to keep country and western music alive for another century. But by far my favorite one came from my dad’s side. They were so poor they only had one Hallowe’en costume: a fake beard. Gérard, Marie, Horace, Thèrese, Edouard, André and Annemarie would each take his or her spin around the neighbourhood sporting the disguise. So would my grandmother. They all would return with candy, or in my grandmother’s case, a rosy nose from the Tecumseh Tavern.
My mother was a seamstress, yet in life’s little ironies, she never made me a Hallowe’en costume. She had a wig and false eyelashes, so in the early days I always went as a lady. This was accomplished by me wearing my mom’s wig and a repurposed flower girl dress. When I outgrew that I still wore the wig but added a noisy collection of necklaces and bangles. So for several years I went out as a gypsy, joining the rabble of hobos, pig-tailed Chinamen and Indian Chiefs that made up the majority of politically-incorrect costumes of the 1970’s.
The parents of all my close friends are either in hospital, declining or dead, and for this we are called the ‘sandwich’ generation. This is too much of a euphemism for me. Call it what it is: The herniated disk generation, the crushingly exhausted and financially strapped generation. Guiltenagers. These are the last precious years when we should be listening and savoring but instead spend it barking at our children and complaining about long drives home. Yet it’s only for a little while. A heartbeat. At least my son is old enough now that he’s letting me hug him again.
For most of my adult life I’ve refused to eat meat. On my fortieth birthday I decided to eat fish again. As with many of my decisions, this was ill-timed, being made shortly before the horrible plight of the world’s oceans became common knowledge. How can I be a part of that? So, beginning today, I will go back to being a vegetarian. Now Red Curry Shrimps and barbequed salmon will join the ranks of other verboten things I’ve coveted including fur, woodland trilliums, Italian soccer players, Proctor and Gamble products, Hunter Wellington Boots and taxis to the liquor store.
I have such an insignificant trace of Catholicism left in me it could be measured by the half-life. Still, I wrestle with guilt and worry about becoming too happy, or anticipating too much. For example, last Friday around 6:45 pm I was scanning our 411th document and contemplating the end of a challenging project. Soon, I thought, I’d be downstairs, drink in hand, toasting our success. And then the power went out and work stopped. No luxuriating over Saturday morning coffee and knitting for me. A tiny reminder of so many Christmas afternoons spent among the open and underwhelming presents.
Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz is on the radio. As part of the grade eight end of school party, Christine, Carolyn, Cathy and myself performed an interpretive dance to that tune. We wore cut offs, white T-shirts and tinfoil lightening bolts and were backed up by four boys dressed in full KISS drag. Mike could inhale butane from a lighter so he got to be Gene Simmons, and bless him, stayed in character by shouting sexually charged remarks about our behinds. This was 1975 and I was thirteen, so any complement, however boorish, worked. I was truly a Fox on the Run.
Doug found a soft porn novella that I had written. Only it wasn’t me. It was someone else with my name. The tiny tome, entitled Cherokee Caress promised much bodice ripping and interracial shagging. It also came with a souvenir bookmark of Fabio wearing a nauguahyde loincloth and carrying a long-stemmed rose. This treasure was too good to pass up so he bought it for me. I was working at Justice Canada on aboriginal cases so to read aloud from its purple pages was funny at first. But eventually the disapprobation was enough to turn one’s velvet petals to stone.
At its insensitive best, the Canadian government included body bags in the H1N1 kits it sent to First Nations. Like this new virus, the Spanish Influenza attacked Indian reserves across Canada. Since many of these deaths went unreported we don’t know exactly how many individuals died, but it is no exaggeration to say that some communities lost a quarter of their population. Where smallpox killed children and elders before it, the 1918 influenza robbed native people of their young leaders. Perhaps the pencil-necks who authorized the grisly package weren’t just thoughtless but had a cynical eye trained on the past?
Some things in life you know are complete bullshit. Like organic ketchup or religion. I wish I had back all the time and money I wasted on quackery like chiropodists, the personal yoganada guru or the lymphatic drainage massage that cost $150 dollars. I am old enough now I should have a better sense of the bogus. I should spend my time more wisely. Still, I have found some real things along the way: Karma is real. Oil of oregano works. Petting an animal calms you down. You always feel richer if you clean your house and wash your windows.
Our neighbours Phil and Julie showed us a video clip of their son’s first Hallowe’en. They wanted us to see it because there’s a short section where our son, then in kindergarten, showed up at their door dressed in a fox costume. He was all brown eyes with a breathy little voice, just like a baby fox would sound like if it could talk. As any parent knows there’s something visceral about seeing your grown child as a little baby. Or seeing a picture of yourself posing with parents, still in the prime of their lives and still in charge.
I’m contemplating a dog adoption. But I’ll leave the trendy little pugs to those thoughtful men in black glasses and the chocolate labs to the odious strollertariat. The dog for me is big, skinny, and feral-looking. One that likes to run. I’m almost ready to make the move. I can work around the warm bags of fresh turds and pet fur on the rug. It’s just the Dog People. Are they like the crew I met in my new mother’s group? Would one of them tell me that my dog was badly socialized and needs to go to doggie daycare?
Chris and I had a glass of wine together last night on his front porch. We’ve both lived on this street for nearly twenty years. When we bought in, most of the other residents were old Polish people with immaculate lawns. We took over with our eco friendly native plantings and tasteful muted browns and muddy olives. Gone were the white houses with green trim. Now we sit back and see a new generation of people moving in with their stainless mailboxes and wonder how long it will be before we yell at their kids for walking on our grass.
Soon it will be Hallowe’en, so I’ll tell you about our little ghost. Toronto isn’t an old city by European standards, but it’s old enough to have a few supernatural stories of its own. For instance, my husband works at an historic fort and hears about creepy happenings at least once a year. Several years ago, Rich came home to tell about yet another set of heavy footsteps heard on the upper floor of a block house when our caregiver, a lovely but impressionable Portuguese girl said, “That’s nothing. I finally saw that child at the top of your stairs!”
We had relatives visiting from overseas and upon hearing Sandy’s ghost revelation, Niki, our English cousin shrieked, “Tell him to walk towards the light!” Which was very funny because Niki believes in everything from crystal skulls to the Virgin Birth. So I chimed in “That’s okay. If this baby wants a mama, he can stay here as long as he likes.” Sandy went home and we carried on with the evening's activities. We’d forgotten all about the little ghost until we went upstairs. There on my side of the bed, in the middle of my pillow lay a blue flower.
Initially, our ghost was friendly. Sandy the caregiver confirmed that it was a young child in a long white nightgown who preferred to hover at the top of our staircase. He was playful, often taking shoes or keys and placing them on my side of the bed. Richard would never admit it but he saw the ghost three times. The last time occurred in the middle of the night when I got up from bed. Rich said, “Danny get back into bed, mum’s just going to the bathroom.” This was odd as Dan was fast asleep in his own room.
My feelings towards the little ghost changed from a sort of proprietary pride, especially when I would relate the latest happenings, to a creeping unease. We didn’t mind the occasional knocks on the wall or tiny steps on the stairs but when Sandy reported feeling cold around our three year old, I started to think that having a supernatural presence around the house wasn’t a good thing. When my son told me that he was frightened by the lights that spun around him at night, I shouted “Enough!” and as quickly as the little ghost entered our lives, he left.
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