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When I found out he went to school in Laval, I had my excuse to speak French. He said I sounded like an eighty-year old laveuse. And it’s no wonder. My parents’ French was ancient and smokey, with vowels so short and lazy they needed only a small crack of the lips to escape. This efficient way of speaking evolved over the centuries eventually leading us to perfect the Holy Trinity of French Canadian maneuvers: The simultaneous cigarette lip-dangle, stubby pull and cribbage count. It’s probably the language that the Fangorn Ents would have spoken if they came from Vanier.
Beer branding always intrigued me. We had a set of Old Vienna Pilsner glasses each with a gold overlay of a knight holding a shield. It was like drinking from the Holy Grail, only we had four of them. I was also drawn to the Molson Ale sailboat, that vestige of ancient times when Pleasure Packs were transported down the St. Lawrence in square-rigged clipper ships. And of course that new beer box smell as it rolled out from the back of the Brewer’s Retail and into my Dad’s loving arms. Better than cracking open a box of new crayons.
Can you still get Vernor’s back home? I remember driving past the bottling plant on Woodward Avenue enroute to see my Detroit cousins, carsick as usual and regretting that second bowl of Cap’n Crunch. It was a glassy mirage, seen through the haze of mom’s cigarette smoke. I craved those sneezy bubbles and soothing ginger. The stuff was everywhere. My mother kept an old bottle filled with water next to her iron. But this was before the Riots, before we Canadian crackers were afraid to shop at Hudson’s, before we white-knuckled our way onto the I-75 towards greener suburban pastures.
The couple seated outside (a double extravagance) of a Paris café were stunning. She was perfectly accessorized and spare in her black turtleneck. Silky blonde hair tucked behind one ear revealed an exquisitely proportioned silver earring. They drank white wine, damn them, while we stood (an extravagance for us) with our coffees and coveted. The sun was setting on the Champs des Elysees and it made everything about her glow. I had stepped in dog shit and just spent fifteen minutes trying to scoop it out of a crepe sole that had detached itself from its moorings.
Steven tells me that Auntie isn’t coming back home. She fell last week and now will probably spend the rest of her life in a series of institutions devoted to narcotics and benign neglect. My mom had a saying that roughly translates to “Age screws you over.” And it does. Each of us needs a survival plan that extends beyond spouses and children. Mine includes a hand-picked collection of fabulous girlfriends, They are all beautiful inside and out and given the fact that they eat way less salt than me will probably out live me. That’s what I’m banking on.
Immediately after she accepted the award and resumed her seat Janie felt Lily’s stink-eye burrow like a gamma ray into the side of her neck. It had always been a competition between the two: who got the best summer job, the most lucrative teaching assistantship, the best-looking boyfriend. And now the pair of them sat side by side like two blisters on the same tongue. “How could you get the award?” Lily hissed, “My average was 87.” Janie had three marks over her, but the chance to sewer her rival’s graduation day beckoned. “Odd,” she said, “mine was 82.”
I hated Track and Field Day at St. Gregory’s. I was good at shot put, but only if all the farmers’ daughters from Pike Creek were ill. Yet I stood a chance against Stacey in the 200-metre dash. She was an absolute manatee of a girl, with skin like a bag of milk. Out of the gate, I was metres ahead when I slowed, urging her to catch up. “Just Go, Laurie!” she puffed. As pacing was a foreign concept to me I could only pant and hold my side as she waddled around the goal post to claim victory.
It’s not quite like Fanny and Alexander’s uncle lifting his coat tails and blowing out the candles, but a brand of earthy humor has bolstered my clan for generations. It’s in our cultural make-up. For example, like the Inuit who purportedly have several words for “snow”, the Cayers draw from a varied and colourful scatological lexicon to describe the nuance and assonance of each particular variety of fart. It’s lowbrow and unseemly, but it still makes me laugh. This irritates Richard since no one in his family has passed wind since 1066. And even that they blame on the French.
Our neighbour had a vanity plate on his blue Safari that read “VINU”. Being in Ontario, the entire plate exclaimed, ‘VINU, Yours to Discover’. Despite the fact that neither Richard nor I accepted the offer, we all got along. Still, his was a great old van perfect for carting dozens of offspring and cousins and aunties and uncles. It schlepped saris and Punjabi pantsuits and hundreds of Swiss Chalet dinners. On weekends it drove to Burlington where it nestled next to another mini van that beckoned, ‘PRADESH, Yours to Discover.’ It brought me to Emergency when I went into labour.
When most middle-aged men are still in bed or glued to Setanta the two Richards get up early each Saturday and go to the dojo to teach tiny children karate. My Richard’s done it for seven years, the other Richard for many more. And like elementary school teachers or prison guards they can measure the length of their tenure by the naming trends of their charges. Mine can say he started with the Jacobs, Kaylas and Tylers, but the other Rich, who was there when our own son started, has experienced enough little Brandons, Ryans and Brittanys for a lifetime.
Mine is not an original name, and it is very much of its time. Like the Tracey’s and the Stacey’s, the Roberts and the Scotts. Except that it was intended to be pronounced Laurianne, in French, rather than Laurie-ANNE, as it tended to be. I shared this indignity with my cousins, especially the beloved Marie-Frances, dubbed Mary FRAN and Therèse, aka TER-EEASE-sa. So I became simply Laurie, Marie-Francis, chose the unimpeachable Mary. The Italian kids did the same thing. Together we assumed our places among the JOHN-Marks, Danny-YELLS, ANN-thon-EEs and MOAN-Neeks of an anglicized, yet still Roman Catholic school system.
It was only after he saw the mess in the kitchen, a spectacular Jackson Pollock of a shit and his dog in the middle of it when he remembered his ex-wife didn’t use paper towels. Or anything more serious than baking soda and Tom’s Tooth Paste. He still had the keys to the flat and only dropped in to get Chippers for his weekend custody visit. But now he had to spend the next half hour cleaning the place up with only a tea towel and a tiny squirt bottle filled with organic cider vinegar and tea tree oil. Sonofabitch.
Is this why she left him? Because of his ridiculous green proclivities? In the depths of her despair, somewhere between soaking chickpeas and attending bike rallies, she thought, give me a man who knows where the Vim is kept. Someone who can scrub out a sink with bleach, eat Cheez Whiz and slap on drug-store brand deodorant without a crisis of conscience. Sure the stainless steel water flasks and the Hessian shopping bags held a certain caché, but the washed-out milk bags? The reusable sanitary napkins? Just too much work. Sometimes she just wanted a banana that wasn’t Demeter certified.
Returning home from Montreal we were treated to the usual VIA 1 seat sale floorshow. A Terri Clark man-woman in a sleeveless denim bolero immediately picked a fight with a fellow passenger over storage space. She then settled in to eat her dinner with the fingers of her left hand, freeing her right for online poker. The Bonobos in front, apparently aroused beyond sensibility by the ceaseless cell phone murmurings of Ironic Plaid Trucker Hat, snogged from Dorval to Guildwood. What must it be like for the crew? Why be bilingual when simian grunts and opposable booze-pouring thumbs are enough?
In my awkward chubby youth, I was painfully aware of each occasion I was Odd Man Out: Sitting alongside my girlfriend at a screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, while she and her boyfriend chewed on each other’s retainers. Or at a food court, me inordinately focused on my onion rings as another friend fed her date from a plastic fork. The brutal bus rides and bike rides home. Every afternoon around 2:45, the kids from Parkdale Collegiate walk past my office window and my heart breaks for all those third wheels in this post-pubescent Tour de France.
“Morrissey is asexual” I reminded Rich “Oh, sure he is.” Such a cynic, he didn’t even look up from his paper. “And Stephen Frye…” “Not anymore.” Before Rich, I experienced a variation of the same gamut most people run in their search for true love: The Possessive and Crazy First. The Disinterested Rebound. The Starter Fiancé. The Clock-Stoppingly-Ugly-Brain Fling. Plus all those that fizzled out at the imagination stage. I’d have become a much better artist had I been asexual. What I could have accomplished in my youth if half of it hadn’t been wasted agonizing over some doofus.
On his first day of daycare Dan waved, “Bye Mum, don’t forget to write!” So in one respect, it’s been easy letting go. Rich, because he’s never given me a moment’s hesitation, could go away for a year and I wouldn’t worry. And Nimoosh didn’t miss me at all when I was in Montreal. So at least one side is covered. It’ll be nearly a month before I have to travel so the barking, the snoring, the whining, the yelping and the chewing can collectively work my nerves for the next few weeks before I start missing them all again.
In 2003, when SARS made headlines, it was all I could do to keep Rich from licking the handrails at Spadina station. The ramifications of this act, he wagered, might allow him to take part in self-imposed exile. He would go to that extent to avoid people. I am the opposite. As any good Myers-Briggs corporate consultant will tell you, I get my energy from being near the people I love. Even those people that I only like a little bit will do in a pinch. Unless there’s a cat or a dog around. Then I’d rather talk to them.
Everyone knows that introverts are cooler than extraverts. But a decent gathering needs its share of the latter. Just not too many at once. Like its own fire code, the number of extraverts present in one room at any given time should be limited. And the bigger the personalities, the fewer per room. For example, perhaps one jaded television actor for three social workers or two real estate agents for each Clean Air Coalition/La Leche advocate/Nia instructor. You can invite as many musicians and movie producers as you like. They don’t talk much. But keep an eye on your booze.
Forget calling the Got Junk people. The fastest way to clear a room of its contents is to have a death in the family and call in the relatives to come and choose an item as a keepsake. We went through this with dad, but it wasn’t relatives, it was his neighbours. It’s amazing how quickly seemingly incapacitated seniors can move when a pull-out couch and a synthetic-wool blend throw rug is involved. When my own meme died my aunties reenacted the battle of Sparta just to get their mitts on a pair of china birds and some crochet needles.
It’s easy for me to scoff at the corpse-still-warm greed that sometimes possesses family members at the death of a loved one- I’m an only child and so is my son. I think it’s just a human failing to be greedy. We all have it in us. It might not be things, either. We’re piggy about food, booze, attention, free time. And as Canadians we’ve hidden behind this “Ah shucks, have a donut” hosery that belies our collective greed for land. Walk over the beautiful rolling hills along the Grand River and you’ll see why Mohawks are so pissed off.
Sure I’ve entertained all seven deadly sins: Anger, greed, lust, gluttony, envy, eating animals and wearing braids over forty. And because of this, I now have a stupid hydro pole in my front lawn. Like stepping in dog shit after making a nasty remark about someone, my karma pole chides me. I’m incapable of consistently thinking pure thoughts ergo, I now have this ridiculous green, plastic phallus in the middle of my front lawn. Behold my gossiping, petulant, ego-driven albatross. It’s causing me a great deal of dukha, and the bullies at Ontario Power Generation don’t give a flying fig.
For her fortieth, May asked to visit her childhood home. The present owners demurred. How mean is this? A few years ago a lady who lived in our house in the 1970’s asked to look around. Touring the rooms brought her to tears, so many ghosts for such a short amount of time. She was seven years old again. I often think about going back to my old home on Hickory Road. Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep I retrace each step, down to the basement, then on to the kitchen, and finally up to my green polka-dotted bedroom.
Laurette sewed my bedspread, curtains, dust ruffle and vanity skirt all from the same fabric: mint green polka dots on a white cotton background. I loved it and I remember how happy she was to do that for me. It just occurred to me last night why: Mom’s first real room, the first one she had all to herself, away from the poverty of her life in Tecumseh, was a bedsit in a private family home. More than once she told me about the beautiful white wicker furniture and the green bedspread. Zen-like peace before people talked of such things.
At the age of six, I achieved something for which my mom had waited twenty-two years: a space of my own, rendered secure by people who loved me. We all want the ability to give our children something that eluded us, or to spare them the grief we encountered along the way. They don’t ask for this. That’s something we have to remember, catching ourselves mid-sentence in the parental harangue of back in the day we didn’t get things handed to us. I’m sure our grandparents heard the same speech as they prepared to walk the ten miles to school.
Today at the dog park Henry asked if I married above my station. Of course I did. It’s not as if I was born in the wagon of a travellin’ show, but really anyone who lived in a stationary house made out of bricks was a step up. If it takes three generations to make a fortune and three more to lose it, that would put Dan at the top of the heap. How will he accomplish this? And with whom will he procreate to produce the useless heir who will begin the slide back to working at Green Giant?
Our son’s already remarked on how Rich and I are working all the time. This is true for Rich. When he’s not at the Fort he’s volunteering at the dojo, sweeping the floor or, given the Pontius Pilate complex he’s developed from sleeping with a Catholic, washing something. It’s not the same for me. My associate Colin does most of the work while I walk Nim. Perhaps I am the lazy third generation bent on squandering the family fortune. Will my fiscal turpitude leave Dan with only some useless RRSPs, a wool cupboard and a silver-plated Knights of Columbus sword?
I’m very hard on my shoes. I remove them by stepping on their backs. Several seasons of this practice have wrecked a terrific pair of boots. They were once lovely: Black leather with pointy toes and white stitching, an impossible wedge heel and a groovy flower pattern on the outsole that left a trail of daisies in my wake. And now they’re held hostage in a nasty cobbler’s hovel at Bloor and Dundas. Picture a poacher’s shack stuck in the Appalachians, only leather carcasses hanging in the place of putrefying deer and rabbits. This is no place for my babies.
Davey Crockett has my favorite boots and exhibits little interest in their restoration. He has a sidekick, a gold-toothed island dude and the pair of them sit outside of their hut, drinking coffee and picking their teeth with leather awls until some unsuspecting Townie’s shoe breaks down and she stupidly ambles into their lair. But for the absence of Scully and Mulder and the ambient buzz of bluebottles, this could be my encounter with the Peacocks. Next week I’ll attempt a rescue. Distracting them with weed and a package of Hotrods I’ll grab my boots and run for dear life.
Billie brayed away in the background. What a difference a day makes. Given the last twenty-four little hours Roz experienced she was willing to give it a try. Forget waking up and padding downstairs for coffee. It would be excruciating. And lunch time? Still too raw. Maybe she’d feel better by dinner, or after her post-prandial run around the darkened streets. That’s it; the darkness would do it. She liked to run at night and imagine she was underwater. Those sections of sidewalk illuminated by the street lamps were the shoals. The dark spots required more trust, a sure foot.
We assured him that if the guests were bored they’d have clocked in a respectful hour and then left on pain of an incipient headache. Instead, the last one toddled off at midnight slaked and stuffed and into a waiting cab. There’s a passage in E. F. Benson’s Lucia where a consummate hostess throws a party while barefoot. Everyone is happy and all present rave about the lobster salad she dolled out in sloppy, delicious piles. He didn’t have to worry that the bathroom shower went unscrubbed, or that the plates and glasses were mismatched. It was a good afternoon.
The Tip Jar