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Anyu at 77…

February 24, 2008

Anyu at 77

 This is a drawing I made of Anyu one late spring day when she was 77 years old. I had just turned the corner from the main road into our driveway when I spotted her sitting on the front porch steps, basking in the sun with closed eyes, her large canvas sack beside her. Seemingly lost in reverie, she hadn’t seemed to notice my truck pull up.

I parked the truck at the back porch, skirted around the hedges surrounding the house, and walked up to her, unannounced. Her hearing couldn’t have been very acute, or maybe the nap of the lawn had quieted down my footsteps, for she had her eyes closed as I approached and then stood to look at her in silence. No wonder she was unaware of my presence; she was after all 77 years old and her senses had begun to falter. The look of unvarnished pleasure in sitting under the sun suffused her face. This love of the sun was and had been a constant in her life and had not altered in her advanced years.

 I sat down in the grass near her and waited for her to notice my presence. The sun warmed my back and heated up the backpack with my calculus stuff inside. I had just driven back twenty miles from doing the final exam in my university calculus course. It felt luxurious to sit soaking the heat up and not have to calculate how and where to fit in studying to a busy day of wifely doings.

Anyu opened her eyes and gazed about in a daze. Her glance passed over me and returned in surprise.

“Where have you been?” she asked. “When did you come back? I rang and rang the doorbell and you didn’t answer.” The querulous tone in her voice projected her displeasure.

“I was at SFU writing my final exam. I wasn’t expecting you today.”

Anyu stretched her arms and popped upright on the step. “Well, I was bored. It was such a nice day, a little bus-ride was in order. I figured I might as well come out here to see you.” Then she added, “What’s for lunch?”

“I have some left-over lentil soup from yesterday.” I said, getting up off the grass and hauling my back-pack toward the stairs. “You can have that, and I’ll also make you a sandwich. Egg salad, I think.”

“I have to watch my cholestrol. Does the lentil soup have much fat in it?” Anyu asked grabbing her sack. “And, I can’t eat eggs – too high in cholestrol. Make it a tuna sandwich.”

“Come in then. I’ll see what I can rustle up for you.”

We entered the house and dropped our bags on the coffee-table. While Anyu hunted around inside her sack I went to the kitchen to prepare her food. She followed me and sat at the kitchen table watching me hop about, making the preparations.

I worked quetly, without talking. Reheated the soup, opened and drained a can of tuna, chopped onions and pickles, buttered bread and assembled the sandwich. I mused about Anyu’s penchant for flitting about the countryside by bus in all kinds of weather and without letting anyone know about her eventual destinations. Often, she groused about arriving at some far-flung friend’s place, unexpected, and finding herself not welcome. This day she had travelled, by bus, through 4 adjacent municipalities to reach our place. This had to have taken her at least two and a half hours. Of course, because she had not let me in on her plans to visit, she was ill-informed about my doings and whereabouts. So, if she was irritated with me, I figured that a product of her bad planning.

“Let me see that tuna can.” she demanded. “I need to read the label and see the counts for cholestrol. If it is too high, I will not eat that sandwich.”

I handed her the can. She fished out her reading glasses and perused the label at length. I placed a bowl of soup in front of her and went off to plug in the kettle for tea.

“Where did you learn to make soup like this?” She said between spoonsful of the lentil soup.

“Well, not from you, Anyu,” I chortled. “you never let me touch anything in your kitchen. But I love reading recipes and anything about cooking.” Then I added,” it is the meal one does not cook for oneself that is delicious. Enjoy”

Anyu ate with gusto and polished off two bowls of soup and a whole sandwich. For a woman who prided herself on eating like a sparrow, this day’s demonstration of feasting indicated an uncharacteristic  vulture-like appetite.

I made up a pot of tea for us and took the fixings into the living-room. “Come sit in the big green chair and put up your feet. While you rest and digest, I’ll do a drawing of you.” I placed her tea-cup on the table by the chair for her. “If you want you can close your eyes while I am drawing.”

“I don’t want to look dead. Pictures of people with their eyes closed makes them look dead.” She settled herself, took a sip of tea, then patted her hair. She marshalled her energies, drew herself up stiffly and presented a dignified self for my study.

I went into instant drawing mode and drew like mad for half an hour. Anyu was silent throughout, and her facial expression registered an array of emotions, but not ones which showed any pleasure at all. The primary affect was pride overlaying dissatisfaction. Or so it seems to me that my drawing emphasized.

Whe the drawing was at a point I felt comfortable leaving off, I nudged her out of a funk by turning the drawing to face her. She studied it at length, took sips of her tea and finally commented wistfully. “What ever happened to my pretty face? I used to be so beautiful.”

“You still are beautiful, Anyu.” I reassured her. “Just different in beauty, more complex and tempered by experience.”

“Well, you can take me home now.” she said. ” I paid for my lunch by sitting for you. Let’s get going.” She finished off the last of her tea, grabbed her satchel and stood up, ready to leave.

I put aside my drawing board and charcoals, grabbed my purse and keys and led her out the back door to the truck.

On the hour-long drive to her apartment in Burnaby, she fell asleep. Once we arrived, I walked her to her door, used her keys to let her in. She yawned and reclined onto her couch. “I am so tired,” she said. “Please cover me with the afghan and let yourself out.”

I covered her, kissed her cheek and left. Driving back home in rush-hour traffic, I thought about how my day unexpectedly turned out. Anyu arriving out of the blue was surprising, but provided a break from my obsession with thoughts about calculus. This is the drawing of Anyu at 77. She may no longer drop in on me as she used to, but I have this drawing in memory of our time together.

New Year’s Eve…

January 2, 2008

It was to be a quiet, uneventful New Year’s Eve. Rumpole and Renaissance Man were to play at a New Year’s gig with their band. Glasgow Girl went along to help serve food and tend bar for the celebrants. I was most grateful to serve as companion for Mousey, as I have not now, or ever, been a party-girl, and am bored to tears by the noise and bustle of large, raucous gatherings of the festive kind that New Year’s parties tend to be.

Martha agreed to spend the evening with Mousey and me, as she was entertaining no other option for this evening. I feel unease at having sole responsibility for this little grand-daughter now, with my bad eyesight and the lack of confidence and clumsiness that has come along with it. Martha and I planned to bring along a take and bake prepared pizza,  a movie, Yahtzee and Dominoes. We spent some time on the 30th selecting a movie, buying the pizza and debating what games we could play after Mousey’s bedtime. We were ready and looking forward to the entertainmet of Mousey’s company.

We convened at RM and GG’s house at the appointed time, loaded down with our stuff. Mousey met us at the door with Glasgow Girl hovering nearby, putting on her shoes and coat. Mousey immediately forgot about her mother and glommed onto Martha, who seldom sees her and thus presented as great novelty for her. We got her to wave bye-bye to her mom and proceeded to be entertained by a steady stream of Mousey’s favourite toys,  and her attempts at conversation which takes the form of completely unintelligible sentences, complete with emphases of tone and an occasional word which referred to objects. Of course when Martha or I asked her a question, she would nod and say a long convoluted reply which neither of us really understood. miming and pointing. Our three-way conversations had the surreal aspect of spending time with a foreign speaker where only small portions of meaning could be gleaned by us two older visitors, whereas the native, small person fully understood what we meant when we spoke. Really weird and quite funny.

Martha put the pizza in the oven to cook while Mousey and I dragged her high-chair to the dining room table and readied some snack for her to eat more appropriate for her tender system. Mousey ran into the kitchen and observed as Martha pulled the pizza out of the oven, slowly waved her little hands and uttered “Hot!” and commanded me to pick her up so she could see Martha slice it. She licked her lips; her eyes brightened and lingered on the pocked pattern of the wedges. She was eager to be strapped into her high-chair and drummed her hands on the tray part, quite excited until I placed her biscuits on it. Martha brought the pizza and placed it in front of us; we helped ourselves to a couple of slices. Mousey picked up a biscuit, sampled it, and tossed it over the edge of her high chair. She beaded me with her dark eyes and held out her hand, beckoning me to share with her. I plucked an olive slice and handed it over to her. She sampled it, made a moue of disgust, took it out of her mouth and tossed it overboard, like garbage; she waved her hand at my pizza slice and made a long, garbled sentence with a loud demanding tone that brooked no misunderstanding. I picked a piece of crumbled sausage and dutifully handed it to her. She liked it, and made impatient gestures to keep more coming, and be quick about it.

“Not a good idea, G,” cautioned Martha. “She’ll get diarrhea. You’ll be sorry later.”

I handed Mousey another, unsullied biscuit. She was having none of it and threw it away. More waving of her hands at my pizza slice. This little one has inherited her father’s cast-iron digestive system as well as his adventurous appetite. I figured a few bites of sausage, cheese topping and crust might not harm her.

After eating, I wrapped her up in a blanket and took her outside into the yard to look at the neighbourhood in the dark. She oohed and aahed at the Christmas lights on neighbourhood houses. We stayed out for a few minutes and she identified lights, houses, cars driving by. “It’s dark,” I said to her. “Is it time for you to have your bath now?” She nodded. “Dark…bath,” she said. “Dark night…can you say good night to the lights, houses, cars and the dark,” I asked her. She made her farewells to the outdoors and we went in to ready her bath.

Mousey did not linger in her bath for long. She was eager to get dressed in her sleeper and rejoin Martha in the living room. She curled up beside Martha and had an extended conversation with her, threw herself on her lap, inspected her curly grey hair, and wriggled and giggled. She dragged her blanket over, pulled it over the two of them and leaned on Martha and gazed up at her face while sucking on her middle fingers. This she did only when she was sleepy, so I scooped her up and suggested she give Martha a good night hug. Then we put all her toys to bed, in their appointed places, went back to wave good night to Martha.  Mousey turned off her bedroom light and went to her bed cheerfully. She blew me a kiss as I covered her with her blanket. She grabbed her Pooh bear and fingered its ear. “Help Pooh go to sleep. He is tired and sleepy,” I suggested and waved her good night.

Mousey settled in easily and talked in a light soft voice to Pooh. Martha got the Yahtzee game organized on the dining room table. She went over the rules of engagement and scoring in the game. I had not played Yahtzee for many years. Mouse quited down, so we waited for a little while to let her fall into a deep sleep before beginning the rattling of the dice. I went off to grab myself a drink, and to go to the bathroom. A few minutes later, as I was sitting on the toilet, came a loud thump followed by sudden screaming from Mousey’s room. “Oh, my God!” yelled Martha. “G, get in here!” I quickly pulled myself together and ran into Mousey’s room. She was up in Martha’s arms, tears streaming down her little face. “I think she is all right,”whispered Martha. I took Mousey in my arms and placed her on her changing table. Took off all her clothes and checked her thoroughly; moved and felt her limbs, chest and back. She looked a bit shocked, but was, fortunately, had survived the fall unscathed. I dressed her up again and bundled her in her blanket. Martha and I inspected her crib. It was intact, so we figured she had climbed out by using her Pooh bear as a ramp to give her height to scale the side of the crib. Out came the Pooh, relegated now to spend the rest of the night on the couch with the other stuffed toys. I brought Mousey into the living room and cuddled her. She had not cried for long, and she nodded when Martha asked her if she was scared. She lay in my arms and snuggled down. Twirled her hair around her finger and sucked on her fingers.  After some time had passed, as she could hardly keep her eyes open, I took her back into her room and laid her in the crib. She turned on her side and I rubbed her back until she fell asleep.

Back in the living room, I said to Martha, “Why did she have to climb out of her crib for the first time on my watch? I’d better report this to Glasgow Girl on the phone right now.”

So, I called GG’s cell. Told her what had happened. “How did Mousey fall out of her crib? Is she all right?” she asked.

“She scaled the wall, climbed up, and gave herself a good shock.” I told her and asked. “Has she ever done this before tonight?”

“Ooh, the little bugger,” replied GG with her Glaswegian brogue. “This is entirely new behaviour for her. I guess we’ll have to put her in a regular kid bed now.”

“This new change will give you and RM many nights of broken sleep. This next phase can be daunting. Until you change her crib she will now try to find ways to keep climbing out.”

“Of, dear God!”exclaimed GG. “I guess we’ll just have to suck it up.  Got to go now and tend bar. Don’t wait up for us.”

Surely she had to be kidding. There was no way I’d be able to nod off later, given that I’d worry about a repeat of Mousey’s earlier performance. I hung up the phone and Martha and I began to play Yahtzee. we had forgotten to bring pennies so couldn’t gamble on the games, but I beat her two games out of three. She was disgusted with the fact that she had helped me make my winning strategies. We decided to next watch the movie, “Dream Girls”.

This musical had some wonderful musical bits, a couple of  brief Diana Ross cameos, terrific acting by Eddie Murphy and was the right movie to watch on a New Year’s Eve. It finished just before midnight and Martha went off to her house to make sure her Jack Russel, Murtaugh, was not excessively traumatized by the setting off of fireworks in her neighbourhood. Of course, he was probably oblivious to any fire-cracker noises, as earlier Martha had dosed him with some dog equivalent of Ativan. But she frets about him and was eager to get home and make sure he was not having a nervous breakdown.

I settled out on the back patio to have a cigarette. A sudden wind arose, the sky was clear. People were banging pots and pans in the neighbourhood. Lights from the house next door winked through the gaps in the hedge. I sat there thinking that with my poor vision now this view appeared to be a scintillating, shifting dark scrim where pinpoints of light formed and reformed new and novel constellations.

Once back inside, I dug around for books to read. Before I got a chance to settle with a book about Scotland, Mousey woke and started yelling and complaining. I went and got her, changd her diaper. She was wide awake and resisted going back to bed. I wrapped her in her blanket and took her into the living room. We turned off the lights and sat by the low glow of lights from the Christmas tree. “Look…dark,”said Mousey pointing to the window. Then she wanted her bottle, but when given it licked it and then tossed it aside. She tore the glasses from my face, put it over her eyes and grinned at me. She peered through them and looked toward the window. “Dark” she said. Then she pointed to the Christmas tree lights and said, “light”. So I talked to her about how we sleep in the dark, and get up and play in the light, that now grandma was tired and sleepy, Pooh was also sleeping. She was not convinced and wriggled to get down and go about playing. I kept her wrapped in her blanket, on my lap. She whined at first, but soon acquiesced to sitting calmly with me. I closed my eyes and yawned at her. She mugged back at me, grinning. She fiddled with my hair, eyes, glasses; peered closely at me and tried to get me to giggle. I finally bored her back to a sleepy state and as soon as she was flagging I suggested she say good night to the dark and the lights, took her back to her dark room where we waved to all the stuffed animals, wished them a good sleep. She lay down in her crib, quite content and waved me good night.

I returned to my perch on the couch and opened the book on Scotland. Had trouble staying awake, so went off to tidy in the kitchen, polished the dining room table and finally turned on the TV, with low volume. Flipped through the channels. There was nothing even vaguely interesting, so I kept flipping channels. Soon, the sounds from the garage door announced the arrival of Renaissance Man and Glasgow Girl. “Mother, why are you still awake?” he asked. It was, after all 3 am.

“I want to go home to my bed now. I didn’t dare to fall asleep, in case Mousey might repeat her vaulting from her crib.” I explained how she had gotten up shortly after midnight and showed little inclination to go back to bed, but in the end was quite amenable to the idea of going back to sleep once she had been sufficiently entertained. “She should sleep through the rest of the night, quite well.”

Rumpole arrived, shortly thereafter to take me home. On the drive I told him of Mousey’s discovery of being able to get out of her crib, and how that could hurt her “You know, I’m surprised that parents get through this phase, sometimes relatively sane and unscarred. But I sure don’t have the stamina for the kind of vigilance required for keeping a toddler safe.”

Except for Mousey falling out from her crib, it was fun to spend the new year’s eve with her. She is an absolute delight to be with. But today I was exhausted. Well, that doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to have her in my life and look forward to all the changes in her we all will have the pleasure to witness during the next year.

My sculpture commission…

October 9, 2007

Last Fall, Rumpole and I attended a presentation on “Developing a Public Art Policy” organized by our municipal leaders. The presenter was a sculptor who has, for many years, developed and installed numerous Public Art projects. He treated the assembled audience to visuals covering a range of examples of Public Art, from Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” installed in front of the Seattle Art Museum to projects installed in Scottsdale, Arizona, his own projects in Vancouver, North Vancouver and Victoria, however he left out showing images of some local installations that have met with controversy. Rumpole and I paid rapt attention during this presentation. In its aftermath we engaged in a number of lively discussions on the subject of Public Art.

“Remember, dear, how you tried your hand at making Public Art?” he mentioned with an uncharacteristic smirk on his  usually stern visage.

“Must you bring that up, now?” I grumbled. “Why must you torture me with stuff I have done that I ‘d rather forget?”

Of course, this exchange, brought up a memory which in hindsight is full of odd twists. I am sure that my sculpture teacher back in art school 42 years ago, would wince that his careful grooming of my sculptural abilities had led to my creation of such an embarrasing work. This is the story of my “OTL Beaver”.

Twenty-seven years ago, we had just moved up north. Rumpole began practising Law, I continued to teach high school art, and Renaissance Man entered the fifth grade at school. We lived in splendid isolation on acreage in the bush, in a log house.

One day near the end of October, the vice-principal of my school, a really good egg, a man who was much involved in the community, nabbed me in the copier room after classes. “I belong to the ‘Over the Line Softball League’. We play softball in the snow all winter, and raise money for charity.” he mentioned casually. “We need a mascot for our float for the Christmas Parade. Can you help us?”

This request was a real head scratcher. Did he mean for me to devise a project for one of my unruly Grade 9 classes.  It was bit too short notice to drop what we were doing in class and go tooth and nail trying to pull this off with kids I didn’t know very well. I said this to him.

“Well, do you think you can do this at home?  We will pay you. But it has to be ready by the first week of December.” he persisted. “We want to have a bang-up float this year.”

Ever a sucker for a challenge and given my silly tendency to want to help people using whatever limited skills allotted to me, I agreed to design a 3-D mascot for the OTL League. It had to be a beaver (that Great Canadian Symbol also coincidentally co-opted by the OTL guys), funny, eight feet tall, made of cheap materials, be able to last for at least a week and be marginally weather-proof. So in consultation with the commissioner of this “chef d’oeuvre” we decided on a large papier mache beaver. It was to have a goofy expression on its face,  exaggerated front incisors, oversize feet in sneakers and a large catcher’s mitt in it’s paw toting a huge snowball. I made a number of preliminary studies on paper and the vice-principal happily picked a design he found hilarious.

Now, in our bourgeois household, over a number of years of living with Rumpole, I had chipped away at his conservative notion that a living – room was for calm pursuits of life such as reading, conversation, watching the boob-tube and listening to music. Still, I had to gently break it to him that for the next month our living and dining room was to be a construction zone. (Just as “Rumpole of the Bailey” had “She Who Must Be Obeyed”, so did my dear Rumpole have me, Stepford Wife, to determine just what all could transpire in our domestic spaces.) He was less than thrilled, groaned, ran his hand over his bald head and grumbled a “Whatever…, but you are on your own, completely, in this endeavour.”

So, off I went like an independent gal and bought the requisite lumber, chicken wire and gallon of Rhoplex. These supplies gathered, I had the smarts to construct the needed heavy base and armature of “the Beaver” in our basement. Always curious and seeking to correct my construction methods and awkward wood-working technique, Rumpole visited the construction site and made pointed comments about my ineptitude, while I  sawed, hammered and uttered colourful epiteths.

“You’ll never get that sucker to stand correctly,” he goaded.

Eager to prove him wrong, I beavered away assembling the understructure. It managed to stay upright.  The next phase of cutting out the chicken-wire and buiding the final forms was quite a challenge, and this had to be done on-site in the dining room near the French  doors.  The French doors were the only opening large enough to take out this 8 foot monstosity!

As Rumpole lounged on the sofa in the adjoining living-room and Renaissance Man reluctantly applied himself to his grade 5 homework at the dining-room table, I sweated and cursed through cutting the roll of chicken-wire on the dining room floor. The beaver began to take shape.

“Why are its feet so large?” asked Renaissance Man.

“The better to stand up with, my dear,” I replied.

Rumpole delivered critical one-liners from the safety of the sofa. His sarcastic comments about Michelangelo not having to worry about comparisons of “the Beaver” to his “David” I duly tucked into my memory bank of Rumpole insults and criticisms.

A happy family is one that shares activities and labours. So, we spent some fun times ripping newspapers into long strips with which to weave a surface of papier mache onto the Beaver. Rumpole and RM announced that they were not willing to get their hands sticky and wet, they wanted no part of the messier aspects of the next construction phase.

So enjoying the process of organizing groups, I inveigled visiting friends and neighbours into helping with the mache application. They had little choice, as there was to be no tea, coffee and goodies presented to them as a neighbourly refreshment until they had applied a sufficient amount of Rhoplexed newspaper strips to the sculpture. I invited unsuspecting teacher cohorts to a dinner party, luring them with a potential Hungarian dining experience. Unknown to them, the chief entertainment for the evening was to be direct opportunity to partake of the sticky pleasures of papier mache construction.

One clever guy, as he immersed several stips into his bucket of Rhoplex, quipped “This is way more fun than a ‘key party’ “.

“Oh, shut up!” I retorted. “You need to build up the arm with a few more layers.”

In hardly any time at all, the Beaver took satisfactory, if ghostly grey, shape. I organized a “Paint the Beaver” Saturday night soiree. Rumpole’s law partner was thrilled for a chance to paint the final pattern on the Beaver’s  tail. His wife tackled the chore of painting the Beaver’s oversize running shoes. A teacher friend, Jack, put the finishing touches of a loopy expression on the Beaver’s mug. His wife, Jane, sat nearby with Rumpole.  They suggested needed further touch-ups. They were the “quality control” team. Naturally, this group effort needed alcoholic lubrication, and we polished off several bottles of good red wine before high-fiving and congratulating each other for a job well done. I rather doubt if Michelangelo’s sculpture assistants had more fun at their final party after completion of “the David”.

Heady with pride, I told my vice-principal at school the following Monday that the Beaver was finished and he and some friends could come by the coming weekend to take it to the warehouse where the float was being readied. That week, a major snowstorm hit our region. The snow kept piling up. Getting to and from from to our place in the bush took some tricky winter driving skills.

The Beaver movers arranged to come on Friday evening.  Our road was becoming impassable due to the heavy snowfall. I waited and waited for the pick-up truck to slip-slide up our road. And waited, as the snowfall evolved to white-out condition. Rumpole went out to snow-blow our long driveway, so the truck could drive close to the house without getting stuck. I shovelled off the back deck and stairs leading up to it to give the movers clear access to the French doors  for Beaver removal. And waited some more.

Just as I was about to give up waiting, ready to get my pajamas and housecoat on, RM who was on watch for the truck called out, “Here they come!” Out we all went to greet the movers.  Three strangers piled out of the truck, drunker than lords.

“We got lost on these back roads, got stuck several times. Where’s the beaver?” the inebriated driver yelled.

Rumpole led them around to the back of the house, to the French doors. I fretted as I went back inside to supervise the Beaver removal.  There was much discussion amongst us all on how best to lift my magnum opus without damaging it.  The drunken removal-team managed to get it out through the doors, unscathed, but one guy slipped on the stairs going off the deck and tore the Beaver’s tail. Choking back an unladylike string of oscenities, I anxiously followed these lurching, inept fellows to the truck. There, they hoisted the Beaver into the truck’s box and festooned it with windings of plypropylene rope to secure it for the long drive to the warehouse. They draped it with a tarp to keep the snow off, hopped into the cab and slid back down the driveway, yelling cheery, drunken thanks and goodbyes out the window as they went.

I feared for the Beaver.  Would it arrive in one piece, to be installed on its float? Oh, well, the matter was out of my hands, Thank God!

The following Saturday, Rumpole, RM and I were lined up with a crowd on the main drag of our town to watch the Christmas Parade. We satched Santa go by, waving for all he was worth, surrounded by miserable looking freezing elves. Miss Winter, perched resplendent and blue-lipped in her white fur-coat, tiara and woolen mitts, sailed by.

Renaissance Man spotted the float with the Beaver, the OTL float. “Look, Mom! There comes your Beaver!” he yelled with enthusiasm. People gathered around us tittered, snorted and looked around for the source of this unexpected levity.

With red face (not entirely due to the extreme cold) I watched as the Beaver and its crew materialized and advanced toward us in the thickly falling snow. As it slowly floated by our viewpoint, I spotted the tear in its tail.  A bunch of happy, winterized and baseball-glove-toting guys surrounded the Beaver and manically waved at the crowd. As we watched, the Beaver slowly disappeared into the distance.

Boy, was I ever glad to see the last of it!

As a good bourgeois family, we resumed our boring quotidian lives.  The dining room reverted back to its proper use. Life went on, and the Beaver tale has taken on iconic status as a “family story”.

“Only in Canada? A pity! Eh?”

…and tenderly kissed the picture…

September 19, 2007

On a sunny August mid-morning Dedike and I sat alone on the threadbare fauteuil  in the salon. On her way out to go shopping with Ildiko, Anyu reminded me to be polite and careful while keeping Dedike company. She really didn’t need to remind me to behave as I hung on every word uttered by Dedike and always felt privileged to spend time with her. It made me feel special to keep company with her, to witness her strange manner and customs.

This time the novel way Dedike ate grapes was to be the treat for me. Anyu had brought a bowlful of reddish grapes from the kitchen, and placed them to warm up on the opened window’s sill outside the softly billowing ecru lace curtains. Two plates with two small sharp knives and forks sat on the table in front of us.  This table was covered in a fine cut-work and lace cloth that Dedike had made by hand during the time she was pregnant with Nagyanyu (grandmother) before the last decade of the 19th century.  We basked in companionate silence, dappled light shifted across this table and made patterns on her face and hands and alternately caused her marcelled silver hair to gleam or tarnish as we waited for the grapes to warm to the temperature she considered perfect before she deigned to begin the eating ritual.

“Gabi, bring me the grapes, please”, she requested. I jumped up, carefully eased the curtain aside,retrieved the bowl and held it near her.  With fingers trembling she felt the grapes to test their warmth, then imperiously gestured for me to place them in front of her. I sat down and waited. She picked up  her knife, plucked a grape and began to peel it slowly, carefully piling the peelings to one side of her plate. I picked up my knife, plucked a grape, popped it into my mouth and started chewing. I swallowed my grape before she even had hers peeled. She glanced at me, lowered her eyes as she  speared with a fork and placed the naked grape into her mouth.  She chewed with barely a motion of her jaws. To me it seemed like she was taking a communion wafer, what with the ceremony and care with which she went about eating. No-one else I had ever met ate in such a decorous fashion. I tried to copy how she prepared a grape, and didn’t much care for the process.  The knife slipped and took messy gouges out of my grape. The grape was slippery and slimy in texture as it’s skin came off. When I popped it into my mouth it seemed that I had the sensation of eating an eyeball. Peeling grapes also seemed like a huge waste of time, but because I did not dare to continue to consume one undressed grape after another in front of Dedike, I just stopped and watched her, utterly fascinated.

I asked her if she had insisted Nagyanyu and Anyu always eat grapes this way in her presence, She admitted that she tried to instill this habit in both of them, however they reverted to modern manners when not in her company. “Such a pity, the old ways of doing things was much more graceful” she stated.

As we talked, while fingering the table-cloth I asked her if she had taught Anyu to make all kinds of clothwork. (Anyu had no patience to show me how to do crocheting or lace-making and always sent me on my way whenever I asked her to show how she did certain things with needles and thread). I admired the pattern of the cutwork on the table-cloth and asked if she might show me more of her handywork.

When she had her fill of the grapes, she led me to the bathroom where we washed and dried our hands. On the way back to the salon, she stopped in front of the large cupboard and that housed all the linens. ” Come see”, she said as she took down a stack of folded fancywork, carried it into the salon and placed on the old leather sofa under the front window. She had me take each folded piece in turn from the top of the pile, and hand them to her.  She carefully unfolded, smoothed them out and talked about how she, Nagyanyu or Anyu had worked each piece and how long ago. These were beautiful treasures, elaborate, delicate and varied.

There was a framed picture in the stack, and I turned it over to look at before handing it to Dedike. It was an old photograph portrait of an unprepossessing man with a black mustache much like the short bristles of a nail-brush and slicked-down  short dark hair.  His jacket was a uniform of some sort, but rather than looking like some kind of general he looked like a boring old school-master. As I passed this over to Dedike, I remarked “So this is what great-grandfather looked like.”

“Oh, no”,she said gazing at the portrait with a soft smile on her lips. “This is the man I thought to be the ideal husband for Erzsike. (Erzsike was Nagyanyu’s name) He would have made a wonderful grandfather for you.”

To me, he looked decidedly unapproachable and uninteresting, not anyone I would care to have as a grandfather. I asked who he was.

“He was a great man – Hitler – and I adored him” whispered Dedike, pursed her lips, brought the frame up to her face and tenderly kissed the picture. “This is my big secret. And, now I have told you, it is our big secret.” She placed the frame face down on the pile of handwork we had already looked over, patted it and picket up another piece of worked linen.

I suddenly lost interest in looking at the rest of the hand-made treasures and wanted to know more about this Hitler character.  Why did she not put his picture up on the wall beside her bed if she liked him so much? What was it about him that might have made him the perfect husband for Nagyanyu? Where was he now, what happened to him?  Was he a Catholic?  Because if he was would he ever have married Nagyanyu – she had been divorced and was now excommunicated? I badgered her with this series of questions and she answered them with skilled evasions and reiterations of his greatness. She told me he was a great leader of men, a gentleman, a German who loved flowers, children, dogs and art and, that he had died near the end of the Second World War. She was obviously soft about this man, and her answers to me lacked the detail I might have found believable or convincing.

Dedike didn’t realize that Apu had told us some things  about this Hitler.  What he had detailed countered her admiring description.  Apu had described Hitler as an embodiment of the devil. How could Dedike believe someone so obviously evil deserved her love and adoration, or her regret that he never married Nagyanyu?

To have her love of Hitler become a shared secret with me I resolved not to accept. I needed to know  and understand why this ought to be hidden, locked not only in her linen cupboard but in a recess of my mind. This was something that wanted discussion and airing with Apu and Anyu. a mystery that must be studied.

When Dedike returned her treasured handywork collection to the linen cupboard, the picture of Hitler was hidden among layers of cloth. She shut the cupboard door  upon all this, little realizing she had nudged the door of my mind open and left it ajar.

I want to let go of…

September 13, 2007

illusion and a habitual desire to not admit change is an inevitable condition of life. The signs of mutability are everywhere, constant reminders of the cycle of life. A morning look in the mirror while washing my face reveals minute morphing of my physical self. A look outside my kitchen window at the apple tree surprises with a view of newly dropped ripe apples, of leaves shriveling, yellowing. A glimpse of the night sky’s inky dome shocks a realization that I can no longer connect the dots of stars into familiar reassuring patterns because of my failing vision.

I have been avoiding activities that provide daily tests of a faculty which has served me well for sixty years – my eyesight. Thus it has proved shocking that I nearly bowled over a young mother toting her infant who attempted to pass me from behind my left side as I was walking an aisle at the grocery store seeking some needed product. Frustration and fear of losing a capacity taken for granted suddenly overwhelmed me. I was eager to instantly return home, to the safe and familiar environment where such forced reminders of diminishing capacity are minimized by movement patterns habituated by custom and frequent repetition.

The hardest adjustment for me is having to accept solicitous attention by family and friends in order to be able to cross the street without mis-steps, or to negotiate stairs and escalators in public spaces. A reminder by a companion to look at an object of interest I have to meet with a new kind of response, “where”. I want to let go of my illusion of independence and my fear of becoming a burden on others. After all, the reality is that dependence is an unavoidable life condition and ideas of independence are fictions.  I cling stubbornly to such illusions and in clinging to them become miserable when all indications point to realities I must accept. It seems that at all stages of life acceptance of what is may lead to more contentment than blindly insisting on maintaining the polite fiction of what was, might be, could be, should be. This seems to me my lifelong lesson to master.

From topic posted on – writing practice.  Thanks for the prompt, Redravine!

The First Lesson…

September 10, 2007

It may be because the it is near the beginning of public school term, or on accout of my preoccupation with preparing a two-hour lesson on Rhythm for the weekly private painting class about to resume tonight. I woke up from a teaching dream.  Every year, starting in the middle of August, I dream often about being in the classroom – this despite being away from teaching in the public school system for the past twenty-one years.

What may account for why this particular memory cropped up today is the recent discussion Martha and I have been having concerning the beginning of her year as teacher of Photography, Media Studies and Art and all the peculiar joys and trials that attend her employment.  This year, it has been disallowed to levy a student lab fee in all courses in this province. Adding to this financial stumbling-block, Martha’s school district has clawed back all unspent department budgets, so those teachers who were relying on a reserve they held back from last year in order to survive the following year’s demands for materials have suddenly found themselves without a means to afford to do with their current classes activities which need added funding. I have suddenly found myself reliving my experience of my very first year as a public school art specialist, back thirty-six years ago.

Renaissance Man, two years old, and I, a callow twenty-five, had transplanted ourselves with our meager belongings and our ancient Austin 1100 heap to this small northern community of 7000+ souls in August of my first year as teacher. We took stock of our new surroundings, familiarized ourselves with where to obtain provisions and services, explored the countryside with its wilds of lakes, logging roads, rivers and mixed boreal forest. He came with me to the school where I was to take up my first teaching post and there he made big drawings with crayons on rolled out long sheets of white bond paper while I busied myself with arranging and re-arranging tables and stools and, in disbelief, counted and recounted the meager supplies with which to occupy over 240 students each day during the upcoming school term. RM’s happy background commentary on what he was creating on his large sheets of paper was a welcome distraction to my mounting panic as I realized just how little material I had to work with. In the storage room was a shelf unit bearing several reams of white cartridge paper, some 30 boxed sets of oil pastels, a number of gallon jugs of black, white, red, yellow and blue poster paint, some ratty paintbrushes bound with elastic bands, a terrific supply of clay working tools but no clay and about several years’ supply of various sacks of glaze chemicals.

What to do? This question occupied my increasingly sleepless nights leading up to the first week of classes. No doubt about it, to my mind, colour had to be our first concern for at least several months.  The numerous aspen trees surrounding our small town were turning to a wonderful beaten gold colour, their splendour set off by cerulean skies and dramatically punctuated by the sonorous darkness of stands of spruce. The students were looking forward to a season of increasing darkness, of somber muted earth tones and blanketing white snows. Surely the first week of art class was meant to celebrate the bountiful gorgeousness of our commonly experienced fall landscapes. I obsessed about this in the week leading up to the first formal classroom experiences with my new charges. But how to do this while sequestered inside the bleak walls of a basement art room?

I have always been one to poke about wherever I find myself, picking up bits and pieces – stones, bark, roadside weeds, dried grasses, leaves, pine needles, twigs and branches. So, a couple of days before classes were to begin, Renaissance Man and I foraged outdoors, making a game of finding all kinds of different fallen leaves.  These we took back to our basement apartment and spread around on the green indoor/outdoor carpet of our unfurnished living room.  Here we sorted according to leaf type, laid out sequences of colour changes in leaves, discussed why this might be so and packaged our finds into separate large brown paper grocery sacks.  RM helped me carry these sacks out to the Austin and there they were, ready to be taken to my classroom.

On the first day of formal teaching, I dropped Renaissance Man at his sitter’s, kissed his chubby cheeks and promised to return for him soon. I drove to school with my paper sacks of leaves, hauled them into the classroom and lined them carefully on the floor by my desk.  Then I ran upstairs to fortify myself with several cups of horrid staff-room coffee and nervously paced about chain-smoking and mentally rehearsing how the lesson was to proceed. Mercifully, the seasoned teachers, recognizing a terrified neophyte, lounged about, quite relaxed it seemed, and left me to my desperate internal rehearsal.

Once I had enough caffeine in my system to brave facing the first grade eight class, I scurried down to the class-room and prepared for home-room.  Taking attendance calmed me down somewhat.  However, much too soon, home room was over, the kids left and in straggled a great gaggle of eager faced, scrubbed bunch of shortish youngsters. There were thirty eight of them, perched in clumps on the stools around eight large tables, waiting expectantly.

Introductions disposed of, we did the seating plan and there still was 40 minutes of class left.  I led the class outside and across the street where there was a row of aspens glowing gold and trembling in the slight breeze. We sat down under the trees, the kids very quiet, me squatted down leaning back on an aspen trunk, the students gathered in a seated semicircle.  I stayed silent and gazed upward at the canopy above us and soon the kids started to look upward also.  We sat like this, looking upward and quiet for many minutes.  Finally I started speaking about how I was going to miss sitting under trees for the rest of the school year just looking at the sky winking between the leaves, the changing colour of leaves ruffled by the breeze or wind and  “see, now, those leaves starting to fall down toward us coasting and sailing on the air – following their trajectory, predicting where their movement would take them.” I traced the motion of leaf’s fall, then another, had each student watch for a leaf to detach and draw its passage through the air. “Remember what line this movement makes and think about it quietly while we go back inside”, I said.  We trooped back into the classroom in silence.

There I distributed  boxes of oil pastels,  piles of cartridge paper and a brown paper bag containing leaves to each table and then climbed onto my teachers desk and grsping a handful of leaves from my own bag of leaves.  There I made like a tree, arms upraised and let go a leaf at a time, suggesting in the meanwhile that kids look at the implied rhythm lines made by the leaves and begin to draw their version of tree with falling leaves showing a tracery of motion in a composition. Some of the leaves fell down into my wide dress sleeve, which I admitted tickled and giggled at and that kind of broke the ice and the students laughed. And they busied themselves drawing with their oil pastels like mad.

As the warning bell that signalled 5 minutes to end of class rang, I jumped off the desk and had the kids come up to tape their coloured drawings on the side wall. Some kids at each table collected the pastels and boxed them, while others gathered the reference leaves and piled them back into the paper sacks.  We looked at the drawings and discussed them in a shy fashion and agreed that they were pretty good ways of showing the motion of falling leaves. As the final bell rang out, I was in the middle of reminding them to look at the falling leaves on their way home from school that afternoon.

The kids smiled as they walked out saying their good-byes.  I felt kind of sheepish, even silly, but then I thought, “What the heck, there has to be an ice-breaker with every group of individuals.” And I decided that day to make fun and pleasure a part of the daily art learning experience with students, and that this would not mean any less seriousness in our endeavours together.

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”.

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.


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?