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The night before you were born, I wandered through my life on a warm evening with no agenda, other than to spend some time with my relations. The route was geographically convenient, not chronological. First to 5253 Hutchison, where I was a grandchild. Then to 4605 Hutchison, where I became a mother. Then to 33 Côte-Ste-Catherine, where I was a good sister to my dying brother, and finally to 319 Stuart, where I was a daughter. I was peaceful, grateful and beside myself with the knowledge that in less than 24 hours, I would be a grandmother.
You were perfection, as is every healthy baby. But really, there was heartstopping beauty in your calm, pink roundness and (already) pouty mouth and tiny button nose and uniquely curved little ears and delicate, long digits on both hands and feet. Not to mention the way you gazed right into my eyes when I first held you. We took a four generation photo in that ugly old hospital room where your parents had spent a somewhat frightened, abandoned, unpleasant night, and when I saw my son struck dumb with love and awe, I knew a joy I had not anticipated.
I am thinking about you then, but today’s pictures are of now. So I look back, and am taken aback by how small, how delicate, how pink you were. Fast asleep in the crook of an arm, infant onesie hanging loosely off your tiny unfilled frame, cap pulled jauntily over one invisible eyebrow. Barely any bum to hang a diaper on. All that you would be contained in a not-quite-eight-pound package. The teeth, the smiling, the crawling, the standing, the screeching, the preferences in books and people: that and everything still to come slumbering inside you.
Fast-forward through the first months. Much sleeping and eating, pooping and crying, parents trying (not terribly successfully) not to let the Internet interfere with their gut feelings. I suppressed a smile when your daddy called, worried that you might be autistic because you held your arm back in a strange way. I was no different as an inexperienced mother. Dashed off to the pediatrician because my baby's ears were different sizes. The doctor didn't even bother suppressing his smile. Just grabbed a ruler and asked if I thought 2 mm would make a big difference in my son's life...
Everyone is on the move. Will you move to Toronto? Will we? People and places. If you don't have your favourite both, which is more tolerable without the other? It took me so long to feel at home here and now that I love it openly, I find it difficult to imagine staying here. Till the end, as it were. As I mull this, my dear neighborfriend who swore she'd never go back to Florida tells me of recent dreams in which she is living there. I believe she'll move next year. More lessons in never saying never. Very moving.
Rose is gone. Indomitable, seemingly immortal Rose. Sturdy in body and spirit; kind, generous and understanding; sharp, opinionated and bossy to the end. Practical, resilient, open-minded, curious. A woman you could talk to. Someone who listened and always meant business. Who knew pain and loss early on and stayed strong as the hits kept coming. Of a generation not bred for complaining. She loved her work, her family, her books, her life. And she managed to stay true to the mantra she spouted to all within earshot: Don't die until you die! She was definitely one of my heroes.
Upsides and downsides and upside down. Here today, where tomorrow? August pulled out from under me. I made plans, there was chuckling somewhere, and here I am, packing again. Going not out of duty, but from a deep sense of belonging, a need to be with the tribe in grief as in joy. I want to sit in Rose's apartment with the familiar furniture and paintings and smells, hear/tell the stories and eat deli food and rugelach, make tea, sip schnapps, sigh, cry, laugh, and be Auntie Judy with my chosen sister and her family. It's all about mishpoche.
It didn't creep up on me, it speared me through the heart in a sudden blast of pure love. We were playing on the dining room floor on another warm, humid evening when I knew I could lay down my life for you, simple as that. And I couldn't think of a single thing I needed to do that was more important than being a matriarch of the village whose goal is to raise you with love and joy and laughter (and good food) (and good music) (and good books) (and good conversation) (and not too much videotvinternet too soon).
After 23 years of living in two (not always the same) places, I long for the simplicity of one. Yes, I think I will be more content if all the important pieces of my life are in one general geographic location. Wherever you are, you're always missing someone/something, said a wise friend. True, but once you winnow the chaff from the grain, you can live with missing some of the chaff. Although what's grain in one era may well be chaff in another. I'm not crossing any bridges just yet, but I reserve the right to test the waters.
We partied with the jet set Saturday night on a well-kept-secret hotel rooftop. Men wore linen and silk jackets, white slacks and blue blazers, brocade vests and funky red shoes. Women wore little black dresses and floor-length prints, high-fashion footwear at the end of their shapely, tanned legs and extraordinary diamonds in all the usual places. The children were beautiful, strikingly self-possessed and authentically well mannered. We drank lots of champagne, ate glorious food, danced our tootsies off, talked to everyone and didn't meet a single snob. Just folks like us with loads more money.
Of course, we dressed like they did, and conversed glibly on safe subjects. What if godforbid we'd worn cheap clothes? Used poor grammar? Talked politics? We’ll never know. What we do know is that the tribe prevails. I had them pegged the moment they sat down across from us. Alan and Rochelle, a psychotherapist and teacherturnedsteelbusinesswoman. We regaled them with our story, told them about Zaidie and his school, played the “minearefromRomaniaminearefromRussia” game, heard how they met over a joint at a friend’s wedding, and ended the evening with an invitation to visit in their big, empty house.
The IBS symptoms have returned, so I guess I'm more stressed than I thought I was. Now is the time for some short-term winnowing. I will toss this pile of unsorted worry into the air, let the the lightweight issues (and those over which I have no control anyway) float away on the breeze, and perhaps take a short nap. But first I'll finish clearing my desk, empty my wallet of those pesky credit card receipts I always think I'll file immediately and gather my jewellery and electronics. Then I'll transplant the parsnips and dream of winter chicken soup.
Silently sitting She searches her soul For something To give all this meaning Listening and learning Her gentle true spirit Is yearning Wishing for a sign Only to sigh at the sound of goodbye (aye aye aye aye) We are one person We are more a family We are all together We are fo-o-o-r each other The sitting is over and now begins the real leave-taking, leaving the place the home the locus the heartland, taking the cherished things, packing up the essential material remnants of a century of living into a truck and driving away.
It is the perfect end to the week of formal mourning. Hard chair and prayer books returned to the funeral home, mirrors uncovered again, torn scarf removed from around the neck. Returning to the street that was home 20 years ago, family and old neighbors who became old friends years ago, gather around the table and celebrate connection and continuity. Elders presiding elegantly, parents easing into their roles as elders, children grown and becoming parents, new children taking up the torch. Over shish taouk and shawarma, salads, pita and key lime pie, we raise our voices and glasses to life.
So at the Shiva, I meet P's old highschool boyfriend. Turns out his family had a house in St Donat next to the Tarlos. The day before, there'd been an article in a Sherbrooke paper about Eda Tarlo. Which he forwards to me. I show Mom, who says "What I wouldn't give to talk to her again!" So I Google the residence mentioned in the article and call the place and ask for Madame Tarlo. And in less than a minute, the two old friends (93 and 97) are speaking to each other. Mom and I think that's pretty cool.
Hard to keep up when there are so many distractions, fun as they may be. But I'm determined to maintain discipline, for that is the foundation on which everything rests, no? So I have been scribbling 100 words at a time in little notebooks and entering them on my iPhone, even (gasp!) using up precious data when I can't get a good WiFi connection, which has been pretty much all the time until now. I realize I could have dictated, too, but that takes more practice. And now I find that I'm planning my days around writing. This is good.
From a hot, steamy, proletarian, third-floor walkup in a noisy, diverse, densely populated neighbourhood with every kind of store and restaurant and service within a few blocks, to a cool, spacious, silent, bourgeois house on a quiet street in a sanitary, homogeneous neighbourhood with no visible people (except for dog-walkers) and the nearest store not within walking distance. I transition seamlessly from one to the other and back again, functioning easily in both. It's just another variation on the big theme: people or place? The solution is clear: best to live with the people and visit the place.
She didn't want to marry because she couldn't see how she could be a professional musician AND a wife/mother. There weren't many role models in those days. But she didn't want to be famous. "I wanted to be a pianist and be on a cruise ship," she said. "You wanted to play the piano on a cruise ship?" I asked. "No," she laughed. "I wanted to play the piano, and then go on a cruise ship and have a romance with someone and not be married." "Like An Affair to Remember," I said. "I suppose so," she said, smiling.
Some fun things I did today: (1) Drove my brother's Mustang Cobra. Wished it had been cool enough to put the top down. And that I could have gone faster. 2) Drank g&ts with my bro while listening to excellent loud music. He told me he jammed with Jimi Hendrix in 1960-something. I asked how it was, he said, "the guy was a stoner." (3) Went out for dinner with bro, his wife and their friends: normal-looking, wealthy, conservative, shul-going Jews who believe fervently in the phenomenon of alien abductions. Most entertaining dinner conversation in ages.
FFFFAAAAMMMMIIIILLLLYYYY. My tree has a somewhat narcissistic, thoughtless, insensitive branch. They're funny, very generous and pretty smart, too. Also a bit judgmental and exclusive. You probably have a flawed, imperfect gang not unlike them. We compromise, compartmentalize and close our eyes, all in the name of harmony and respect because really they're the ones who come to the rescue with a can of gas on the highway and a room in the basement after a divorce and food and drink and money and comfort when needed, questions asked later. So if I agree to accommodate yours will you accommodate mine?
Falling behind but catching up after another fun-filled day of delightful, attentive, curious, crinkly-nosed, giggling, waterpark-loving YOU. You now laugh excitedly when you hear my voice in the morning, and we hit the floor together with a happy "what's next" thrill of anticipation. Books? A length of ribbon? That funny plastic giraffe with the balls that spin around when you push down on its neck? My shirt buttons? The red plastic measuring cups? Twinkle Twinkle at the piano? Giant stuffed puppy falling from the sky? Climb on Bubbie and grab her glasses? Yes yes yes. And again.
Gliding through each day with mindful presence, the hours comprising a seamless sequence of moments. Being here and doing this now is all that matters. Planning seems foreign - and intrusive - to this process and even arranging time with beloved cousins is an unwelcome chore. I know there are things I want to do and people I want to see, but those desires are incompatible with the flow. It's easier to just stay where I am and let it all unfold around me. And now that I know how to be this way, I can barely remember being the other way.
In the middle of the noisy city in the middle of the day I can hear the cicadas (or are they crickets?) above the oscillating hum of the oscillating fan. The unexpected afternoon quiet is broken only by some occasional hammering/drilling and a little traffic that seems distant. It's the first day of school and the sounds of children on the street are still a few hours away. Baby is sleeping, Mama is grocery shopping, Daddy is working, Kitty is snoozing under the dining room table, Zaidie is on his iPad and Bubbie is writing a few hundred words.
I was excited but without expectations and have learned enough by now to know that he would do it his way and be himself. He took to it like a duck to water. In fact, exactly like a duck to water, with a wet baby in a wet bathing suit thrust into his arms and a fine spray falling on his shoulders from the water park palm tree. We shed our shoes and iPhones and in no time, Bubbie, Zaidie and Baby were walking hand in hand round and round, left right left right, giggle giggle, babble babble, grin grin.
A young father in his prime cut down by a cruel and wasting cancer, and somehow we find a way to compartmentalize so that we don't fall in a heap, wailing and tearing our hair. Or is it just that we have been here before, with the senseless too-soon deaths, and we know how powerless we are to change the course of events. We sigh and send food and cards and make donations and do what we can to support the survivors (and secretly give thanks that it was not one of ours). At least his grandmother died first.
I love when people put their money where their mouths are. Especially people who don't do much bragging. A close friend of my nephew's was dying of brain cancer - a man not yet 40, a compassionate physician, with a wife and three young children - and this nephew, who never seeks the spotlight but goes about his business quietly and uncomplainingly as a kind, hard-working, devoted professional, husband and father, makes it his business to find people who will guarantee free dental care and summer camp for the three kids for as long as they need it. I'm so proud.
Long tan teenage legs, short shorts, crop tops, big glasses, shiny hair turns heads drops jaws of all ages and sexes on both sides of the street, including the elderly man on the sidewalk park bench, skinny legs outlined inside his dapper summer whites, white hair, white shoes, white beard, white cap, those girls just breezed on by never giving him no nevermind but he minded, oh yes he did, most carefully swivelling his old head, with its stubbly cheeks and chin, a full 180 degrees as they passed, thinking no doubt feeling so very much younger than his years.
Five different mattresses in three weeks is a lot at this age. Not that I really notice it physically; it's the moving around that's annoying. The inconvenience of packing and unpacking and repacking and schlepping stuff up and down stairs (well, I do only the light schlepping) and loading and unloading cars and driving (oh god the driving!) and parking (oh god the parking!) and needing to be attentive to other people's styles and needs, even walking on eggshells sometimes, never quite the right morning coffee, feeling like what the hell, I'm too old for this shit. Except I'm not.
We descend upon her once, maybe twice a year, sometimes two of us, sometimes three, including 93-year-old Mom the trooper, and she ALWAYS makes some kind of dinner and invites my step-daughter and granddaughter, whom I see only that once or twice a year, and gives me her car if I need it, and makes us breakfast and snacks and sandwiches for the road, and takes us for long, interesting walks (even in high allergy season) and makes everyone feel perfectly at home and welcome. "You have to really love it...and not be uptight," she says.
Long tables covered in deep pink cotton eyelet, everything pink and white, from the paper plates to the candies to the birthday cake, and of course, the Little Princess bib to cover your embroidered pink and white tulle first birthday dress with the frilly underpants and frilly socks, which you remove immediately, the better to feel the grass of the lawn and the warm wood on the stairs, which you now MUST climb (holding on with both hands to an unseen overhead grownup) one after the other like a BIG GIRL, your happy face smeared with pink and white icing.
The end of August is heavy with birth and death. Nate gone 55 years now, Mia turning 1, Paul would have been 95... Emotion and sensation float thickly on the periphery of the present, just out of reach, like starlight or smoke. I want to stop talking about whatever we're talking about and say WAIT! This warrants noticing, some ritual perhaps, at the very least a glass clinked in acknowledgement. But the day marches on, hundreds of kilometres clocked, endless inanities uttered, I have no energy to force the engagement. However, there's still time and we are alone at last.
The Tip Jar