Archive for August, 2007

The Old Forester…

August 30, 2007

Last Saturday, Rumpole and I were babysitting Mousey.  She had just gone down for a nap, he and I were sitting on the pation writing up the grocery list so Rumpole could go off shopping. We were expecting Andras, an old friend of Anyu’s to come and bunk with us for the weekend, and were concerned about feeding him the right Hungarian foods during his stay. Rumpole insisted on Paprikas Csirke (Chicken Paprikash) with Voros Kaposzta and Nokkedli. This is an old standby recipe that we have fed to many friends and visitors. Poor Andras, he not only had Hungarian food to look forward to at his Sopron Foresters Picnic on Sunday, but also for the main meals at our house. Rumpole went off, humming, to buy the necessary groceries.

Later that evening, with dinner assembled and slow cooking in the oven, we waited for Andras to arrive. He was two hours later than anticipated, so we were beginning to worry that he had troubles with traffic or had got lost on his way to our house. When he finally showed up, we were relieved and made him familiar with the facilities of the house, got him settled in his room and poured him the glass of wine he requested.

I had not seen him for twenty years, and during that time both of us had changed considerably.  He was shorter than I remembered, his hair all white yet he was straight and spry and full of energy at 78 years of age. The last time we had met at Anyu’s I was bald and skinny, having just got out from the Leukemia ward. He now expressed amazement at my shock of curly grey hair.

After dinner, Rumpole and I asked him questions about his early years in Canada, and of how he and an organized group of students and faculty from the Sopron School of Forestry managed to arrive en masse after leaving Hungary. He talked about the differences in forestry practices in these two regions, and of the impact a European model of forest management had on Canadian methods. My head was reeling with so much information later that night after we had all gone to bed.  I lay in bed, tossing and turning, thinking, trying to process all he had told us.

The following day, he went off to his day-long picnic.  When he returned later in the evening he was full of stories of friends he had seen there, of how they were coping in retirement.  He was full of energy and wanting to share his impressions of his day. He shared with us a video of the 50th Anniversary of the Sopron arrivals; showed us photographs of his latest horse-back riding adventures in the Coastal Range.  There he was, in these pictures: looking dashing on horseback as befitted a man trained in the Hungarian Cavalry more than 60 years ago; energetically pitching a tent in the wilderness; and poking about among the vegetation on talus slopes, studying the flora. I brought out all the Hungarian books I had retrieved from Anyu’s book collection after her death and showed them to Andras.  He picked out two that were classics of Hungarian literature and which he did not have a copy. “Take them to read” I suggested, “returning them will give you an excuse to come and stay with us again”. Andras was frustrated that he couldn’t read them in bed that evening because he had misplaced his reading glasses in his travels.

On the way to bed Rumpole whispered to me “That Andras is indefatigable. I just hope I have that kind of energy when at his age!”

The following morning, as Andras was loading up his car and warming it up, Rumpole and I were sipping our morning coffee. Andras came in all aflutter and announced there was something wrong with his car.  Rumpole went out in his pajamas and discovered that the car’s radiator was leaking like a sieve. We conferred in the kitchen, made phone calls to our local garage and determined that Andras would have to stay one more night with us.  The old fellow dithered about not getting home, after all he had been away visiting for the past 9 days and was missing his footing. “You go with Rumpole to the garage, and I’ll figure out a way to entertain you the rest of the day while we wait for the car to be repaired” I told him.

Andras and Rumpole went off in convoy to the garage.  Meanwhile Martha called and we discussed what might be a good distraction and entertainment for Andras. We hit upon the solution to take him on a hike at a local nature trail, and then afterwards walk the shores of a nearby lake. Martha was going to drive and accompany us on this excursion after lunch.

Andras was thrilled to be taken on an outing outdoors.  Later, as Martha was driving us to the forest, Andras identified first and second growth forests for us. At the nature trail, he hopped and cavorted like a delightful wizened child, loped along from one fallen undergrowth to another, identifying mosses, fungi and other understory vegetation. He was in his element, enjoying himself tremendously and being a patient and informative teacher.  Martha and I poked along behind him inspecting and touching tha various natural growths. It was magical. The filtered light dappled the rich green of the mossy forest floor; the coolness of the forest was a welcome relief from the hot day.

Afterward, at the lakeshore, we wandered around enjoying the many small brooks that meandered off the mountain and learned from Andras the identity of the mixed vegetation. We basked on the shore and took turns tossing bits of wood for Martha’s Jack Russel to fetch from the water. On the walk uphill to the parking lot, Andras got out of breath and we stopped frequently to look around at all the life around us.

On the way home, Andras was quiet, his energy run down. Once we arrived home I made him a good pot of chai, which he had never tasted before and found much to his taste. Then he lay down on the couch to rest, and fell into a snooze. The garage phoned to let us know his car had been fixed. I arranged for someone to come and fetch him and take him to pick up his car, and woke him from his nap.

By the time Andras came back with his car, Rumpole had arrived back from work.  They were both peckish, so we sat down to a simple bableves, salad and fruit.  Andras was quite tired after supper, took a walk around the neighbourhood and went to bed upon his return. I went for an evening walk with Kay and her sister and Rumpole retired to read.

The following morning, Andras left us early in the morning.  He had a 250 mile drive ahead of him. He gave us both vigorous hugs, popped into his car, waved and drove away.

Rumpole and I sat over our morning coffee, ruminating.

“There is something amazing about persons who live their lives following a passion. It fills them with so much energy and love of life.  Andras is one of these fortunate people” I said, and described to Rumpole the walk in the woods with Andras.

As I do, Rumpole also hopes we again, soon, have the pleasure of Andras’s company. Twenty years is too long a time between visits,

Ancestors…

August 29, 2007

My childhood experiences in Hungary ended in 1956. I was then 10 years old. When I now think back on my early experiences, it seems to me as if I had a childhood which may be the stuff of fancy and phantasy.  Everyone views their own childhood from a purview of a tale told a long time ago, I’d venture, one not  seeming quite real and yet  one that has had left profound scratches on the soul and memory.  Feel the welt left from this scratch, and memory seeps back into consciousness.

I have been pondering the nature of personal history and of how experiences during every moment one lives leave traces which become over time a palimpsest of history written over and over again on the same page. New experiences are marked over older ones, in the end the page may seem an indecipherable mess in which one can grasp a word here, a phrase there, isolated letters, an obscured sentence. Memory is tricky, as well, so in recounting incidences from the time/space of 50 plus years ago, how much is true in a tale? You decide!

Let’s say you are reading this in 2022.  You are  fifteen years old. But here I am writing this at age sixty, in 2007, right now and my world is much different now from what you will be experiencing in your present.  Different place, details, characters, activities, beliefs – a much changed world. I can tell you a little bit about what my life was like as a pre-teen child. It will seem as foreign to you as my Grandmother-s life stories  did to me as she told me them.

So, where am I going with this rather confused introduction to the stories that follow? Simply that my tales introduce bits and pieces from my memory bank of persons, situations and circumstances, places that has been my experiential lot in life. You will find a jumble of photographs, to accompany this sheaf of stories. The ancestors in these all have a personal history that is largely obscured by the passage of time. I can only tell you about what I know, either from witnessing directly or having been told by an older family member, whose memories are also fallible. The freyed book, constructed over a period of time by ancestors, will be full of missing sections, gaps in continuity. I am only trying to preserve the chapter for which I am directly responsible.

As you yourself grow older, you may, like I have, discover a need to recount your personal history and what you have learned by persistent questioning of your parents and other family members. I hope you do because it does help you realize just how much richness is provided by memory that is worthy to be shared. Everyone has stories; hear them, listen to them and marvel.

This is a first attempt at articulating what may become an introduction of the compilation of my stories. The first version will probably undergo many revisions.  It has occurred to me that I have bitten off a project more complex and difficult than anticipated, and that I have jumped into the task in my typically gormless fashion. But perhaps, if looked at in another way, all these written sketches are like pages in a sketchbook, and maybe that is one way of approaching this telling of tales.

Rumpole meets Remittance man…

August 23, 2007

Rumpole never ceases to amaze me. He, of an opinionated, conservative and curmudgeonly nature, has some fairly rigid ideas for how men must behave, comport themselves and achieve in life. So, the occasion of his first face-to-face meeting with Remittance Man revealed an aspect of openness in Rumpole of which I never suspected he was capable.

 Back about eight years ago, when the life drawing group was limping along and barely surviving week to week with low attendances, a group of us met at the Lone Wolf Pub and came up with our “Naked Lunch” happening.(I wrote about this in the blog “Naked Lunch, the David and the Birth of Venus”) We decided that Remittance Man, our young poet friend and Leila our Science major model would be the ideal models for this famous painting re-enactment. Remittance Man is probably the oldest male model on the West Coast, drawn and painted by many during the past 35 years or so, and has been immortalized by Jeff Wall in one of his compositions which hangs in the Tate Modern. It became my job to phone him and ask for his support of our little endeavour. So I called him with an offer he just couldn’t refuse. A weekend stay with Rumpole and me, access to a mountain bike he could tool around on in the local countryside, room and all meals, the company of nubile and intelligent female models and familiar artists and an opportunity to put on one of his sound and movement performances in a new venue, a suburban lawn. He was enthused to take part and arranged to come out by commuter train on the Friday night before Naked Lunch.

It occurred to me that maybe I should prepare Rumpole for Remittance Man’s upcoming weekend sojourn with us. Thus a careful and thorough description of RM’s peccadilloes and background seemed to be in order. I carefully laid the groundwork by stressing that RM had served in the British Army as a young man (Rumpole is in awe of men who have served their country!) I did neglect to mention, however, RMs tendency to doff his clothes and cavort in the altogether whenever the slightest opportunity presented itself.

I carefully laid in food provisions for RMs visit.  He had very few teeth left in his head with which to chew substantial foodstuffs, so it was fish, vegetables, brown rice and soft fruits that were on the weekend menu. Rumpole expressly requested only halibut and most definitely not salmon, which he hates – and, oh yes, in a savoury white sauce, not au nature. The spare bedroom cleaned, fresh bedding laid on and I was ready to fetch Remittance Man from the train station.

At the train station, old Remittance Man emerged from the rail car wearing his home made summer jester outfit, hefting his ever-present back-pack which bulged with unknown necessities. We hugged and did the European Kiss-Kiss on alternate cheeks, to much curious ogling by commuters streaming by us at the station. On the drive to my house, RM wanted to know when Rumpole was expected to arrive at home. We chatted about this and that.

Once inside the house, RM made himself at home, laid out his gear in his allotted room and , bearing a nice bottle of wine, joined me in the kitchen. He asked if Rumpole would mind if he came home to find us already sipping some wine. I needed alcohol fortification for Rumpole’s initial reaction on meeting RM, so I suggested uncorking and pouring a couple of glasses.

Rumpole arrived home from the office, hot and weary, to be greeted by RM and me in the kitchen, sipping wine and munching on pate, soft bread guts and olives. RM hopped to his feet, the spry old dog, exchanged a manly hand shake with Rumpole and poured him a glass. Rumpole suggested that we repair to the living room and relax as it was still too hot to eat supper.

In the living room we reclined and Rumpole and RM had an extended conversation about RM’s military experiences and service in Kenya.  The sun filtered through the west window, we chatted comfortably and ferreted out some information about RM’s years as an immigrant in Canada, his children and his family back in England. RM mentioned that he had travelled in India, and Rumpole shared with him that his own Mother had been born in Indore and he wanted so much to travel in India himself.

Suddenly, Remittance Man asked Rumpole if he would like to see for himself a brief performance of the type RM made regularly as a busker on Granville Island. I almost choked on a mouthful of wine at this proposal, knowing full well what was coming up if Rumpole might say “yes”. Huge surprise, yes was the answer. Rumpole sat on the green velvet love-seat, like a lounging Pasha awaiting entertainment. RM commandeered me as prop-girl. We moved the coffee table into the dining room and cleared a large space on the living room floor for the performance.  Then, with a flourish, RM produced a stop watch, set its timer for seven minutes, placed in on the arm of Rumpole’s perch, and withdrew into the dining room where he proceeded to take off all of his clothes, which he carefully draped on one of the dining room chairs.

He made his entrance into the living room, completely nude, and like a true performer provided a preamble for his sound and movement exposition. Rumpole didn’t twitch an eyebrow in surprise. One would think it was a common occurrence in our household for new male guests to shed their clothes and cavort around naked.  Seven minutes is a longish time to test the patience of one as conservative as Rumpole, and I held my breath in anticipation of a fit of impatient temper on his part. He calmly sipped his wine and watched the performance with care and attention. Remittance Man screeched, whooshed and hissed in accompaniment to stretches, twirls and impossible body positions.  The seven minutes ticked by, the alarm on the stop watch announced an end, at which point RM calmly walked back into the dining room and put on his clothes.

Rumpole asked for a top up of his wine glass and leaning back in his seat calmly asked “Have you extensively studied Yoga, and are you a student of Sufi culture?” Remittance man perked up; here was a thread of discussion, aside from things army, they could follow up on. From that point on these two men, who had completely different beliefs, backgrounds and ways of operating in the world, relaxed into a companionable evening.

You could have knocked me over with a feather! Rumpole’s entirely unexpected reaction took me completely by surprise, and I thought “God bless your soul, Rumpole, now I know why I have always loved your capacity to surprise me with your ability to make anyone feel at home with us!”

To this day, Remittance Man comes to our home twice a year for short week-end’s holidays. We spend pleasant visits with him, and Rumpole always welcomes him. RM does performances for me in my studio, and I make a sustained study of motion on every occasion.  Rumpole is always curious about these drawings, and now has a basis for appreciating them.

The Dream Home…

August 21, 2007

There is a song from the 60s musical “The Fantasticks” that I particularly loved and these days still sing in a cracked-alto version whenever I am doing mundane chores around the house.

” Hear how the wind begins to whisper -see all the leaves go swirling by – smell how the velvet rain is falling – out where the fields are warm and dry.

Now is the time to run inside and play – now is the time to find a hideaway – where we can stay.

Soon it’s gonna rain, I can feel it; soon it’s gonna rain, I can tell; soon it’s gonna rain, what are we going to do? (Girl)

Soon it’s gonna rain, I can feel it; soon it’s gonna rain, I can tell; soon it’s gonna rain, what’ll we do with you? (Boy)

We’ll find four limbs of a tree; We’ll build four walls and a floor; we’ll bind it over with leaves and run inside to stay.

We will let it rain; we’ll not feel it; we will let it rain, rain pell mell, and we’ll not complain if it never stops at all.

We’ll live and love in these four walls; happily we’ll live and love, no cares at all; happily we’ll live and love, within our castle walls. ”  (Boy and Girl, together)

This romantic song contains all the idealism and lack of practical experience of the young, the yearning for a love that helps one transcend all difficulty. I find its delicious naivete appealing. The Girl and Boy in the musical are supposed to be in their late teens, innocent, inexperienced and full of hope.

There is no hint of the Girl spreading tried-on and discarded brand name clothing on her bedroom floor and on every available surface. Her mother does not call her into the family room to catch the latest HGTV program on tacking together a fun and fashionable teen girl’s room with cool colours and kicky accessories. No “House Porn” for the Girl in The Fantasticks.

I often wonder what kind of longing is set up in sixteen-year old girls when they peruse the flyers that fall through their home mail-slot regularly, the flyers advertising the XXX Hospital Lifestyles Lottery, where the top prize is a million dollar Dream Home fully outfitted with the latest must-have luxuries and gadgets. And only $50 to $100 buys a chance at winning this Dream Home. Of course, the money goes to a good cause – Hospital Funding – so when one gambles one has expiated lingering feelings of guilt by being assured of gambled money going for “The Public Good”.

Some good friends bought a Dream Home from a lucky winner, who really couldn’t make a life in that house, for a variety of reasons. The house was designed by an architect, had soaring windows the three floors height, was situated in a semi-rural setting and had a gorgeous view of the ocean and islands. Outside, deer wandered by and had their way with garden plantings; racoons visited after dark to search for handouts; ravens flew by in the forest during the days, calling to each other and eagles soared in the sky.

There are unexpected downsides to Dream Homes, designed for a generic Mr and Mrs Average. The location of my friends’ house necessitated a two hour commute to and from work. They lived next door to another lottery home whose new owner left the house uninhabited.  Most of the neighbours were retirees.  Provisioning the home required trips into town a fair distance away. Power outages were frequent in the wintertime.  However, they lived there for five years, until the long commute to and from work became tedious, and the children needed to be closer to amenities, jobs and friends.

Lately, lottery homes are being built in suburbs, near amenities and schools, often on golf-course developments. My sister lives in such a community, and there are a few Dream Homes built on recently developed streets in her enclave. The new row of these lottery homes goes by the name of “Street of Dreams”. 

I toured a couple of these with Martha and Jeanie, and a crowd of other people, a couple of years ago. For the life of me I could never picture Rumpole and me living in one of these houses – we’d be like the Beverly Hillbillies and never fit in. The houses are tricked out to look like a hotel of sorts. People are expected to transport themselves via their imaginations into these places. All I could imagine was endless washing and cleaning of the granite counters in the kitchen and maybe occassionally chiding Rumpole for leaving acid rings etched on the granite from his orage juice glasses.  And the bathrooms! What sane woman wants to spend her time loping around the numerous bathrooms shining chrome taps. Besides which what woman could ever keep her eyes open watching Oprah  whilst slumped on the leather theatre chairs in the Media Room, exhausted from her rounds of incessant household maintenance!

Some dream! More like a nightmare wished on the unthinking and unwary women of North America! I think The Fantasticks version of castle is much more attractive and although the song didn’t mention ensuite bathrooms with rain-head showers and water-saving toilets, one can safely assume the idea of outdoor biffies never even crossed the librettist’s mind as he plinked away on a piano trying to fit words to the melody of “Soon it’s gonna rain”.

“Mens sana in corpore sano…”

August 16, 2007

“A healthy mind in a healthy body…”   The saying is derived from Latin poet Juvenal’s ‘Satire X’.

“It is to be prayed that the mind be sound in a sound body.

Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death, which places the length of life last among nature’s blessings

which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings, does not know anger, lusts for nothing and believes the hardships and savage labours of Hercules better

than

the satisfactions, feasts and feather bed of an Eastern king.

I will reveal what you are able to give yourself;

For certain, the one footpath of a tranquil life lies through virtue.”

The concept of “a healthy mind in a healthy body” was a leitmotiv that ran like a strong thread through much of my parents’ philosophy of child rearing. It influenced  very strongly my own beliefs regarding parenting.

This morning’s newspaper had a big headline – $22M PLAN AIMS TO MAKE ONE MILLION HEALTHIER IN B.C. and the subheading states – Victoria, health groups want to ‘create a new social norm’.  “Right now in British Columbia, only about half the population is considered at a healthy body weight, 20 per cent are smokers, 40 per cent are physically inactive and most – 60 per cent – don’t eat the recommended daily serving of fruit and vegetables.” Darah Hansen, Vancouver Sun.

My parents are both deceased, but I wondered today, how they each may have reacted to this news. They were strong believers in the fact that healthy ways of living were to be learned in the bosom of the family, and that these were best established by modelling desirable behaviors.  Sport was something they each enjoyed; our family’s sport was tennis and we spent many years on the courts. It was not government initiative that had us all spend many pleasurable hours hitting and chasing the fuzzy white balls.

At the nearby high school, there are two brand new ashphalt courts.  I drive by these often and very rarely see people playing there. So there these courts sit, largely unused. No groups of teenagers hang about there, socializing as they wait to take turns for their chance to play.

Tennis is the sport that never failed to make me feel good. It didn’t require expensive equipment and clothing, nor the payment for the privilege of playing, nor the need to travel long distances in order to take part in. It is an easily accessible sport which is as much fun to watch as it is to play. And it is an activity which can be done to a fairly advanced age.

This is my tennis story:

I don’t remember far enough into the past as to what age I was when Anyu and Apu first took Ildiko and me to the tennis courts in Gyor, our home town. As far as my memory ranges, it seems that we spent most Sundays afternoons, until daylight faded, en famille at the courts from May until October.

Our tennis outings began with a brisk half hour walk through town, Anyu and Apu setting the pace up ahead, and Ildiko and I trying to keep up with them while at the same time bouncing tennis balls. She and I didn’t have tennis raquets of our own, and the balls we were allowed to play with were a couple of worn hairless brick-coloured ones.

When we arrived, slightly out of breath, at the cinder fields which were surrounded by metal mesh fencing enclosed by a perimeter of tall shivering poplars,  I always thought of the place as an huge outdoor room, open to the blue sky with a red floor and flickering dark and light green walls.

Once we entered the cinder ground, Apu would place his racquet by an available court and begin to freshen up the white chalk lines which divided the playing area. Anyu always busied herself with setting the net to the correct height, while Ildiko and I fooled around well behind the base-line, dribbling our ratty balls, competeing with each other to see who could make the highest number of consequent dribbles. Once the court was ready for occupation Anyu took up her spot facing away from the sun, and opposite her Apu faced into the sun.  Ildiko squatted outside the side-line near the net.  It was her job to retrieve balls caught up there.  My place as ball-girl was behind the base-line, near the fencing, and here I scrambled around to pick up balls missed by Anyu and to return them to her when she needed them.

We never got a chance to take the racquets and play until well after Anyu and Apu were ready for a breather – and they were tough and played for extended periods. Then, as they sat on side benches, Ildiko and I took up their racquets and attempted to play against each other. We held the racquets incorrectly, grasping them near the head because they were too heavy for us if we held them properly. We chased around on the loose cinder surface and tried not to slip and fall down.  To slip and fall down meant skinned legs with bits of red cinders embedded in the scrapes, entirely unpleasant.

When Anyu and Apu decided to resume playing, we returned to our appointed spots, and carried on our roles. As we began to understand the rules of the game and proper scoring, Ildiko helped call accuracy of serves, and I delighted in yelling when balls overshot the baseline. Sometimes Anyu couldn’t see the accuracy of a shot, as she was engrossed and concentrated on returning the balls to Apu, so when I called the shot inside the line and she had missed it she would shoot me an irritated glance. If Ildiko called fault on a serve, she risked annoying Apu. Sometimes, they got fed up with our presence on the court and dismissed us to go and play with our balls anywhere but near them.  Of course this meant that we had to stay well clear of other adults playing on nearby courts.

At times like this we practiced bouncing the balls under our lifted legs and held competitions as to who could dribble their ball the longest time. When we got bored of this we went back and sat on the sidelines watching various pairs or foursomes playing. We didn’t know where the word “Lov” came from, and only knew that it was a word we recognized as a scoring word.  We learned that “Falt” meant the ball fell outside correct bounds. This was a secret tennis language to me; these words were only used on the tennis courts.  Very odd!

We were always so eager to play for just a few minutes allowed us with the racquets on the court.  This was a privilege granted us for good behavior while there.  I constantly badgered Anyu about when I might be old enough to have my own tennis racquet. She indicated that when Ildiko was ten, she would have her own one, and since I was nearly two years younger I would have a little longer to wait for my own. This wait seemed awfully far away in the future, but it was definitely something to look forward to.  I could hardly wait! Ildiko was eagerly anticipating turning ten.

It was not until I was fourteen and Ildiko was sixteen that Anyu and Apu were able to afford to buy used tennis racquets, in Canada. For a few years they shared theirs with us and took turns playing against each of us in turn. We did drills in forehands, backhands, lobs, volleys and serves; they were patient and devoted teachers. The buying of a new can of tennis ballls was a big deal; we played with balls until they became freyed messes and bounced in a soggy manner. Whenever Apu could afford it, he bought a new can of Spaldings.  I loved opening it by inserting the little pull-off key into the tab around the crimped rim and peel back a strip of the metal to open the lid; the first hiss of the breaking vacuum seal never failed to thrill; the  pickle smell of brand new tennis balls was a welcome familiar and the untouched fresh nap of white fuzz bounded by the smooth rubber seams promised some good sets to come.

When Ildiko was in grade 11, Apu bought her a wooden Dunlop racquet with gut strings and a tensioning clamp. She was a very good player and was the girls singles player on our high school tennnis team.  Anyu handed me down her own good wood racquet when she bought her new one.  I liked Anyu’s racquet as the grip was comfortable, I was used to it and the balance and weight of it seemed perfect for me.  I played girls doubles and mixed doubles on the school team. Ildiko and I played against each other several times a week for practice, and walked a fair distance to the courts nearest our house, each time.  We both loved the sport. I never  really liked playing on asphalt, but there were only asphalt courts in Canada, however one didn’t as easily slip on them as on the Hungarian cinder courts.

Since those early years, I have played on grass and clay courts as well.  Each type of court surface has its peculiarities, advantages, drawbacks and difficulties.  But it is the crumbly, red cinder court of my Hungarian home town which was the first playing field where my love and pleasure of tennis was planted. I may never again play tennis on a cinder court  but every sight of that particular red – stone, gravel or clay of a matte surface quality – prods memories of family tennis outings more than fifty years ago.

Dog Days of Summer…

August 14, 2007

This morning is cool. The Dog Days of Summer have passed. The early sun does not promise a scorching heat today. It is August 13, 2007. I have been leaning over the kitchen sink, coffee cup in hand, studying the apples that hang, slowly ripening, in the tree outside our kitchen window. My thoughts coasted around many such mornings in the past, mornings that promised adventures would follow.

During my childhood summers in Hungary, the summer months held a certain rhythm of activity.  Within a week of school shutting down for the holidays, our parents immediately shipped Ildiko and me off to Lutheran summer camp in the forests near Sopron. The forest was hot and dry during the day, but as evenings descended so did a comfortable sylvan coolness. 

I didn’t much like the regimentation of daily life in camp, but Ildiko thrived on it. She mostly hung out with agreeable and well-behaved kids; I gravitated toward more unruly and adventurous ones. There was a lot of religious activity during our days here: regular prayer times, hymn singing, meditation periods and thrice weekly hikes over the border to an Austrian village’s Lutheran Church for early evening services.

The meditation periods occurred right after lunch.  We were banished to our bunk-rooms for a period of an hour’s silence.  This was strictly enforced. We lay on our bunks and listened to the breezes stirring through the tree branches, to the soft ticking and hum of insects outside. Ildiko, in a bed across from me, folded her hands in meditative prayer, as, from my bunk, I watched carefully for signs of the mice that would come to raid the basket of dios tekercs and makos bajgli that Anyu had packed for us as treats. Ildiko kept this basket within her reach under her bread and doled out stingy portions to me at bedtimes, but only if she thought I had been well behaved during the day. So, I was always perversely thrilled when she uncovered these goodies at night and found chewed bits of the wrapping paper and crumbs left by the mice after their frequent raids. There she was meditating and praying, unaware of the small beige creature that ran across the floor and took refuge under her bed. There it disappeared, as if by magic, into that woven storehouse full of food.

All I had to do is to hiss dramatically “Mouse… oh look, a mouse!” (This was guaranteed to drive Ildiko into hysterics.) She stopped meditating and praying, looked panicked, and huddled on her hands and knees on her bed. She made a panicked grab for the basket and hauled it up on her bed to save the treats from the mouse’s depredations.  (Little did she suspect that the mouse was inside the basket, chomping away, while she felt sure she was guarding the goodies.) When she came to her senses and calmed down, she opened the basket and rifled through its contents to make sure everything was snug and undisturbed.  Out jumped the frightened mouse, scooted across her bed, dropped to the floor and made its escape. Ildiko began shrieking “Matron! Matron!” and pandemonium ensued in our bunkhouse. (There went the quiet meditation hour!) Little girls in various states of nervous collapse drew their blankets tight around themselves and chattered about the encroachment of wildlife into our serene, if spartan, bedchamber. Matron entered our room and sternly demanded that we return to silent contemplation. We settled down.  I had my head buried in my pillow to muffle and quiet down my fit of giggles. Ildiko, her hands grasped in relieved, thankful prayer, shot me murderous glances from her bed. Her baleful visage set me off on a fresh round of smothered giggling.  (For sure this meant she might hold out giving me slice of cake, or she would be sure to lecture me about my lack of seriousness before allowing me a mangy, mouse-sampled portion.)

Usually, after meditation hour, we met the bunkhouse Matrons in a big clearing.  Here we were taught ‘woods lore’, such as identifying trees in the forest, different vegetation that existed in the under-growth and sources of water such as streams and ponds and of the animal life that depended on them. Each afternoon, a different theme was presented.

One unforgettable afternoon, the head Matron announced that we would learn to identify the edible mushrooms in the forest. We were shown sample mushrooms of different types and had to carefully observe the characteristics that identified them as edible type.  We handled these and closely inspected their details, and we were allowed to carry one sample each to help us compare mushrooms we might find in the woods. Each matron then grabbed up an empty flour sack and led a number of us into the woods surrounding the camp.  We spread out and searched the ground for likely prospects to pick.  This was very interesting, as there were several varieties of mushrooms in that forest.

I tenderly held a Deer Mushroom cradled in my palms. It was beautiful, with a broad, deer- coloured cap, delicate pinkish gills on the underside and a slender chalk-white stalk. I crept through the forest, studying the fallen and decaying trees littering the ground. Matron had said that this particular mushroom grew on rotting, downed stumps.  Ildiko was around somewhere, I did not notice nor pay attention to what she was seeking, as I was thoroughly occupied with hunting for the beautiful Deer mushrooms. No other kind of mushroom held my notice for long, I left them alone.  Whenever I was lucky enough to find one of my own kind I’d carefully lift it from the forest floor and ran to Matron for her to check it and make sure it was the correct type, and not a poisonous one.  We were in the woods for several hours and at the end of that time I had maybe found only twelve or so of them.  But I was very thrilled to be able to find that many and was looking forward to tomorrow’s feast of the mushrooms we had all picked!

We returned to camp for a late supper. The Matrons disappeared to look over our mushroom harvest and discard any which might be of  doubtful edibility.

The following day, after free  morning play, we settled at the long outdoor tables, tucked into a meal of mushrooms fried in lard accompanied by thick slices of dark rye bread with which we could make messy mushroom sandwiches. We ate in appreciative silence, intent on savouring this meal which was a fruit of our own labours.

At late afternoon, the whole group of us hiked through the forest to a neighbouring village, on the Austrian side of the border. Here, in a colourful painted wooden church, we listened to evening service, delivered in German. The local people wore folk-costume of dazzling ornateness, quite distinct from costumes worn by peasant people living in villages nearby our home town, Gyor. At twilight, quiet and subdued, we passed  back through the woods toward our camp.  On the walk, I complained to Ildiko about having a stomach ache. “Keep walking and stop whining.  You’re such a baby!” she retorted.

Back in camp, while we were washing up for the night and getting our pajamas on, Ildiko made a mad dash for the out-house. Then, one by one, the girls from our bunkhouse also went out and lined up outside the facilities. As I was waiting my turn in line, I suddenly threw up into a nearby bush. At light out, girls were still lined up to toilet themselves, and dragged themselves, sweating and nauseous, back to their bunks.  Our Matron came to make sure lights were out and found nearly half of us ill and asking for some relief. We spent a rough night, either running for the outhouse, throwing up, or lying restless and sweaty in our beds.

The following morning, our morning routine was no longer in place. Matron came in and announced that many kids in the camp had fallen ill, that we had probably eaten some toxic mushrooms mixed in with the edible ones, and that doctors and nurses from nearby Sopron city had been called to look after us. We didn’t have to get up for morning prayers, and would have to stay in bed until we were cleared by the medical people. We lay about the rest of the day, sipping water, napping, and gossiping about who in camp may have died from poisoning. Luckily, no one died, or had to be taken to hospital, but messages had been sent to parents to come and retrieve their adventuring children.

Anyu and Apu arrived the next morning, a full five days before the expected end of camp. Apu was very calm about the whole situation. He said we may have been lucky to not have had the dreaded Death’s head mushroom in our mixed feast.

I was happy to return home, where I could more easily escape Ildiko’s activities as my over-seer. She, on the other hand probably felt liberated from looking after me!  And we both lived through the mushroom poisoning, none the worse, after all.

Jazz and Blues Festival…

August 13, 2007

My friend Kay ( of www.lookingforbeauty.wordpress.com) is our new neighbour.  She has halfway moved into her house and is in the process of acquainting herself with neighbourhood services. On Friday we drove to civic center where she can access the Government Agent’s office to renew her driver’s licence, to Municipal Hall where she can pay her house taxes and apply for a business licence, and to the Public Library where she can freely feed her extensive reading habit. Yesterday, we drove around to garage sales to help her look for storage shelves to house her vast number of drawings and paintings and she scored a good set of shelves. Afterward we went to the farmer’s market, a local weekly outlet for people engaged in small scale vegetable gardening. We met a lot of my acquintances, to whom she was introduced and to whom she extended invitations to visit her in her new home.  One advantage to living in a small community like ours is that very shortly one can establish a group of like-minded friends and acquaintances with whom to share in interests and activities. Kay is rapidly becoming comfortable here.

Rumpole, Martha and I had planned to take in the Jazz and Blues festival last night, and invited Kay along. To simplify our going as a group to this concert, I invited Kay and Martha to a casual supper at our house. Martha declined, as her son (who lives in Victoria) expected her to make supper for him before returning home via the ferry.  Kay had spent yesterday afternoon painting her basement floor, so she was happy to not have to cook for herself.

I had dinner ready by the time Rumpole had arrived home from his office. He was not ready to eat, and, excited by the prospect of meeting fellow musicians at the festival, left without eating.  Kay and I were to meet him somewhere on the grounds of the Festival; Martha had prearranged to meet us at one of the coffee purveyors on the site. Kay and I ate, set aside some supper for Rumpole to eat when he returned home that evening and drove downtown to the Festival venue.

I am somewhat embarrased to admit that I requested senior admission and was granted the same without question. The ticketseller taped a silver-coloured wrist-band on my arm and gestured in the direction of the gate. Since I could not see well, I had missed the sign at the ticket booth that listed admissions.  Seniors were 65 and over.  (Oops, I am only sixty, but now that I think back on it, if anyone wants to see me as older than I am, that is fine by me – as long as I get the senior’s discount. Is it my fault that I look older than my years?)

Kay spotted  Rumpole right away.  “Where do you see him? I asked.

“He’s right over there! Can’t you see him?” responded Kay. I looked and looked over the crowd seated on the lawn, a vague, flickering, foggy multi-coloured sea. A poorly-defined black oblong, up-thrust above the surface of this mass wavered back and forth. Rumpole’s arm in his black jacket? I aimed myself toward that uncertain sign-post and crept toward it cautiously.  Up close, the dark seated shape resolved into a grinning Rumpole.

He took my collapsible chair and set it up, and asked “Where is Martha?”

“She should be over by the Starbuck’s kiosk. Where is it anyway?” I said, peering about uncertainly.

He aimed me in that direction and I approached, wending my way slowly along the path separating two groups of seated attendees. I hung about the kiosk trying to glimpse Martha’s characteristic silhouette topped by a mass of gray curly hair.  No Martha approached, nor was she standing anywhere nearby.  I gave up and made my way back to Rumpole and Kay.

The music was blasting away in a rather kicky toe-tapping blues rhythm. Rumpole was seated, grooving to the music. Kay was standing and craning her neck around to see if she could recognize anyone she knew. I goofed and bounced around to the sounds, and hoped that Martha would spy where we were.

“What do you think of this crowd of seniors?”asked Rumpole at the end of a particularly lively song by a growling duo.

“Just because they are all sitting down doesn’t mean every one here is a long-tooth” I retorted.

“Well, there is no one dancing! And look at all the canes and walkers going by on the sidewalk.”

Beside us, on a rug on the grass, two teen-aged girls sprawled, not really affected by the music.  They were intent on playing about with some lit-up fibre-optic gizmos and chattering on about who knows what.  Their parents, sprawled on portable chairs, looked to be in their late thirties. (Surely, they were not the only youngish people at this concert?)

Martha materialized, shortly. She looked quite glamorous, wrapped in a pashmina which matched her grey hair. (She also wore slacks and a shirt) ” I gave up waiting for you guys and grabbed a good spot close to the main stage” she announced. Kay explained the reason for our tardiness.  I held out my silver wristband and commented on how good it was of the organizers to allow people of 60 and up to enter the venue on senior tickets. Wordless, Kay, Martha and Rumpole held out their wrists. Their bands were a royal blue; this meant they had paid twice what I had. They looked at me as at a lowly worm.

“I suppose, this means you guys expect me to pay for your coffees this evening,” I grumbled.

“Nah! You’re too cheap! You didn’t even pay the correct ticket price to get in here.” admonished Rumpole.

I was spared continuing criticism, by the announcement from stage introducing one of the headliners, Sonny Rhodes. The band performed a musical stroll, quite rhythmic and sprightly, as a warmup. Sonny Rhodes growled, groaned, and complained in a marvellous blues set. Rumpole waved me to stand up, grasped me under the arm and led me through the crowd closer to the stage.  Martha and Kay remained back at our chairs. Close to the stage, a huge crowd had congregated in the area reserved for dancers. (Strangely, no-one seemed to be dancing.)

“Can you see the band better from here?” asked Rumpole.

Nope. They were vague shapes well lit by stage lights; but the sound was sure good up this close. The musicians took turns soloing their instruments during the numbers. The steel slide-guitarist made the most deliciously clear melodies; the lead guitarist coaxed some unearthly, impossible voicings of his instrument; the mouth organist chuffed, chugged, arpeggio-ed, and ranged his music from subtle whines to shattering screeches; the bass guitarist held together the songs with his skilled percussive beat variations.

Rumpole commented on the absence of a drummer. “Surely, there is a drummer”, I offered, only the band was so tight that no insistent drumbeats could be heard. He looked and considered the stage. “You’re right”, he admitted, “there he is, at the right rear. It’s so neat when the instruments interweave so well that they seem to play with one voice!” We stood there, holding hands, eyes closed and feet shifting to the music.

A light rain started to spit, intermittent at first. We walked back to where Kay was holding down the fort. She was chatting up the seated neighbours. By the time the Sonny Rhodes set ended, darkness had fallen.  The techies broke down the instruments and started setting up for the Powder Blues Band. Rumpole’s band-mate came up to us in the dark. He wanted Rumpole to go down to side-stage to observe the workings of the sound system for the coming set; the band he and Rumpole belong to – Pyro Bob and the Maniacs – used the same company to operate their sound system for the recent Pyro Bash in July. The Powder Blues band needed a more complex sound system, so Rumpole eagerly went off to see what he could learn.

The rain was starting to fall faster.  Kay and I were huddled on our chairs, commiserating about the coolness of the night and debating how long we could last sitting in the rain before running for cover. The Powder Blues Band began its set.  I closed my eyes, felt the rain sprinkling my face and hands and listened to the wondrous interweaving of instrumental sounds. It occurred to me that these musicians had listened carefully to the big- band instrumentals of the 40s and 50s, because they married a big-band horn and saxophone sounds to the blues. As the rain continued, Kay and I bopped along, while seated. Soon, people seated near us began packing up and leaving. Rumpole emerged from the darkness and suggested we pack up the chairs and duck under cover nearby. We moved to a nearby building’s overhang and stood, listening.

The trees, planted around the perimiter of the big grassy square, were back-lit green silhouettes against a filmy pinkish grey night sky. The main stage glowed at the bottom of the field like a multi-coloured jewel. The gentle rain kept falling and the ambient temperature dropped.

Kay was moving around to keep warm.  Rumpole showed no signs of wanting to leave.  My sweater was moist and cool against my arms and I was becoming fidgety and cold. I suggested to Kay and we return home to the house for a good cup of tea. “You gals go ahead!” agreed Rumpole, “but I am staying to the end”.

Kay and I returned to the house. By the time we arrived here the rain was falling down in earnest.  We wondered how long the concert would continue in the increasing downpour. We sipped our Rooibos in contented silence.  Soon, Rumpole arrived home, wet, but very energized. He sipped some orange juice while he told us that the organizers shut down the show because the amps were not under cover, and could be shorted out by the rain. “They just pulled the plug” he said, ” and the audience scrambled to leave.”

We sat companionably in the warm kitchen discussing how much we each had enjoyed this concert.

Palimpsest…

August 11, 2007

The blackboard hangs on the wall, one half smeared with the white dust of last day’s markings: equations erased sweeps of chalk, conjugated verbs yesterday’s faint powder tracery or, perhaps, listed assignments an obscured scrawl.

I have been out of the class room for the past twenty-two years. Yet, every August about half-way through the month, my thoughts return, like migrating geese to their winter home, to the class-rooms of my fourteen year career as a teacher.

The other day I was in Staples looking for a mechanical pencil, of the type I like to keep in my purse and with which to make scratchy diagrams and drawings to illustrate points of discussion whenever I am having coffee with friends. Down one aisle of the store were cork bulletin boards and small blackboards that could be hung on a kitchen or office wall. It occurred to me that a medium sized blackboard would come in handy for my at-home-studio teaching of drawing and painting.

When I taught high-school art classes, I loved to go into school early in the morning and lay out with white and coloured chalks notes and drawings of ideas we were involved in exploring. The previous afternoon, before leaving the class room my last  act would be to sweep aside that day’s scrawled and drawn information. Often, I would pause and study the cryptic comments made by students in the margins of my own marks – these were signs of their engagement, or not, in our mutual mind activity of the day. Sometimes, I would be careful to preserve little islands of student scrawls and leave them on the board for days; this mystified the kids.

I always loved the immediacy and casual nature of the black-board – its impermanence, its vast empty space for mind-markings, its pentimentos of coloured chalk echoing through newly printed and drawn information.

I think I’ll go to the lumber yard and buy a 4ft by 4ft slab of masonite, buy some chalkboard paint and make my own blackboard for my studio.  On it I can then rehearse ideas, work out images, play and elaborate to my heart’s content, have a space for students to also work out their own concepts and carry forward in the present this fondness for that matte-surfaced, valuable palimpsest.

Ten minute Free Write – “The Refrigerator”

August 10, 2007

If there was a church that held confessions for lapsed housewives, I am sure the Mother Confessor must have heard my admissions of neglect of the refrigerator. I would be one of those women who slink into the church, covered head to toe so no one could identify me and squeeze into a polished confessional that smelled of Pledge and utter “Bless me Martha, for I have sinned…” and launch into a listing of the number of moldy containers in my fridge:  the rancid milk left in a carton at least three months old,  tomatoes in the crisper which could be used to develop penicillin for a  small town’s citizens and miscellaneous mystery packages of food no longer identifiable due to their advanced state of decay.  Martha would then ask if I had thrown out the quarter package of rancid hamburger I mentioned last time I was here confessing to sins against sanitary house-keeping, and, unfortunately for me the answer would have to be “no”. My penance this time might be to give the fridge a thorough scouring, without rubber gloves, using bleach and hot water, then again afterward with a solution of Mr Clean. I should end up with a clear conscience, a sparkling fridge and rough, pruny hands.

Cornucopia…

August 9, 2007

The Horn of Plenty – cornucopia.  

If I owned a shipping line these days, maybe Cornucopia Ltd. would be a good company name. So much of what we, here in North America (and elsewhere in the world), use and consume come to us transported by ships. These ply the oceans and seas, trafficking in exchanged resources and goods.

If I owned a grocery store chain, I’d be tempted to have Cornucopia as my corporate name. Somehow obtaining my food at a store called Cornucopia would be more attractive to me than shopping at, say, Thrifty Foods or Overwaitea or Safeway. The name sounds somewhat more promising of plenty.

If  necessity dictated a smaller commercial dream for me, as in a road-side fruit stand, or a small corner grocery store, a sign identifying my place of business might very well read “Cornucopia”, or for those less inclined to Latinisms, “The Horn of Plenty”.

In  a recent conversation, Lucky mentioned that her cousin, a blueberry farmer in the Fraser Valley expects to have this year’s blueberry crop to be 60% less than in previous years. Because of rains during June and much of July, the berries didn’t mature as expected, and those that did split during intermittent hot sunny days.  These split berries are useful mostly for making jam.

Our local back roads have many small kiosks selling blueberries.  The quality of the berries is dependent in which weather they were picked.  The berries are much more expensive this year.  More than likely, the better quality berries are earmarked for shipping elsewhere. No “Horn of Plenty” roadside fruit-stands this year for us locals.

Then, too, not all blueberry producers use organic farming practices. People who wish to only buy and consume organic blueberries have to pay a hefty premium. Generally, the large local grocery chain stores sell sprayed blueberries, and even these are more costly this year.

There are not many growers of organic blueberries in our community. One, who has been in business for over ten years, had his fields cut in half this past year, so that a highway approach on to the proposed new bridge over the Fraser River could be built through his bisected farm. The decision to sacrifice good growing land so that commuters in cars have reduced travelling time shows short-sighted policy-making on the part of our politicians and planners.

I live in a fertile valley of British Columbia, which during the past 40 years has seen major reduction of productive lands. Much of this land has gone to build golf-courses, subdivisions, industrial parks. Yearly there is increasing pressure to have lands released from the Agricultural Land Reserve for other uses than food production.  Our Valley, our own “Horn of Plenty”, is fast dwindling. Increasingly we can buy food-stuffs from far-away places more easily than we can buy food produced in our region.

At what point does sense kick in, or realization, that we must return to being primary producers of that which we consume?