When Kelsey was really small, my sister Cathy went to the UK for a few years.  She came back about halfway though for a visit; at that point, it was also about halfway through Kelsey’s whole life.  Understandably, the two year old didn’t know that aunt from adam.  So, when we all went to the airport to collect Cathy, Kels wasn’t sure how to deal with all the emotion surrounding this “aunt person” who showed up out of nowhere and made everybody cry. 

Later at Gram’s house there was a bit of a party.  The crying turned to talking and laughing.  Kelsey’s older sister seemed right at home with the aunt, but Kels wasn’t having any of it.  Then, the aunt brought out a big bag, out of which there stuck some curious and soft looking ears.  Aunt Cathy lifted out a beautiful tin lunchbox for Carly and Carly loved it.  Kelsey, recognised at that moment there was something special about those ears sticking out of the bag, and more so something about that aunt and all the stuff going on around her visit.  And so shyly she expressed it to the aunt:

“I ‘yike’ you.”

The aunt pretty much melted on receipt of that innocent expression of trust and all she could do was pull that bear out of the bag.  Kels and the bear (and the aunt) fell in love with each other instantly.

That bear, symbolic of the love that little girl came to understand that day, has stuck with her through all kinds of good and not so good adventures.  And Kelsey, in turn, reflects that love with steadfast genuineness and honesty.    

Happy birthday Kelsey. 

And many more and… well you know…

the red bag

7 January 2010

A couple of days ago I’m riding the short, three-stop subway ride to Victoria Park station and there is a lady in a red coat, with a red wool hat – the kind with the dangly braided “tails” that come down from the ears.  I like the look on her because it’s not the kind of hat that one might usually associate with a woman in her sixties.  And with all her red outer gear she’s also got a red shopping bag on the seat beside her.  And she’s asleep, hunching further and further forward as the movement of the train invites deeper slumber.  One of these hunches forward will eventually jar her awake.  I don’t pay much mind because lots of morning subway commuters doze the ride away.

We pull into Woodbine station and the doors open and just as they are about to close the woman jars awake and bolts out onto the platform. I see her standing there looking at the station name on the wall, probably coming to her senses about where in the world she is when I notice she left the red bag on the seat.  She realises it at precisely the same time because as the train pulls away she’s running after it, even hitting the side of it to get the driver’s attention.

I see by the pitying look on another rider’s face he witnessed the episode too.  And like me he’s probably wondering what to do.  I wonder if I should take the bag and get off at the next stop and wait for her to see if she got on the next train hoping some kind soul would do just that.  I wonder too if I should take the bag to a TTC employee at my stop for turning in to the lost and found.  Ultimately I leave it where it is – still in the spot where she last knew it to be.  I’ve seen bus drivers help passengers to track left belongings based on stop times, so I hope she’ll be able to get the thing back in a similar way. 

Thinking maybe I can help, I write down the number of the car and note the time on a piece of paper with a mind to notify the TTC lost and found with the information when I get to work.  But I find myself plunked into an early meeting when I get there and subsequently forget all about it. 

Next morning, getting on the train I recall the episode and feel guilty about my lack of action on the poor woman’s mishap.  I can’t get the frantic look on her face as she ran after that train out of my mind.  That bag might have contained her purse and wallet and who knows what else.  Maybe something precious to her.

A few years ago I left my purse on a streetcar.  It was a Saturday night and I didn’t notice I’d left it until an hour or two after I had reached my destination, as I was carrying a number of bags and parcels.  On the way home the driver tried to help, radioing in to see if anyone had turned it in, but unfortunately I’d have to wait until Monday to visit the lost and found.  As anyone who’s lost a wallet knows, it’s a horrible feeling. 

I decided to assume I would get the purse back.  Based on the idea that the vast majority of people are fundamentally good and honest, I chose to assume that the purse would be turned in and otherwise untouched and that helped me get through the next day and a half.  Turns out I was right.  The purse was turned in and everything in it was just as I had left it. 

I’ve been really hoping the lady in the red coat was able to hold onto some of that confidence in humanity and positivity, because it helped me so.  I was hoping that look of panic on her face had quickly turned to resolve and calm.

This morning I get on the train and there is the lady in the red coat and red hat, with her hand clutching the red shopping bag.  She’s hunched over sleeping. 

I wonder if I should poke her awake, and while I imagine having to explain that I watched the whole episode two mornings ago, she sleeps through Woodbine station and into Main St. station. Just as we’re pulling away, she wakes up.  And with all the calmness in the world, and her red bag, she walks over to the door and waits for the next stop.  She exits with me and the two of us walk down the stairs and into our respective Thursdays.

a goldmine of… spirit

23 December 2009

Today I’m back on the shuttle for one more time to the mall near my office for my Christmas “wine run.” I figure the LCBO will be MUCH more tolerable at lunchtime today than it will be tonight or on Christmas Eve when the line-ups at the cash registers trail to the back of the store.

When I get on the bus, the same “Christmas spirit” people who I eavesdropped on yesterday are talking again, and the woman is saying that she’s back to the mall to buy her own Christmas present because it makes her husband “too stressed out” to buy her one himself.

Maybe, as she said yesterday, she should just wait and buy herself a sweater she doesn’t want after Christmas at the end of the Boxing Day sales because it would be simpler for her and she’d get a better deal on it.

Okay, I’m being a little snarky.  But read on.

Then one of her shopping pals says she wants to buy the DVD version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and that it was on sale somewhere.

“Is that a Christmas movie?” asks the fella.

“Oh you must mean “Wonderful World” says our gal.

(Huh?)

“No, I think it’s called ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’” says her friend.

“There is no such movie called ‘It’s a Wonderful Life!’” says our champion of Christmas spirit. “Is there?” to me when I turn around in my seat, unable to contain my annoyance at her saying one of my very favourite movies doesn’t exist. (Snarkiness justified – right? Right?)

“It’s a Disney movie, isn’t it?” (Oh man, don’t get me started.  See?  SEE?)

“No. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is its name. It’s not a Disney movie. It is a great old holiday favourite from the 1940s starring Jimmy Stewart, and…” (to the friend) “…I hope you buy it. You’ll love it. It’s a story that reminds us about the meaning of Christmas spirit.”

Overheard on the complimentary shuttle from my office building to a mall at lunch today – two people discussing their desire to sustain the joy of the Christmas spirit and keep things simple:

Him:  “Yeah, like that Boxing Day shopping craziness – I don’t do that.”

Her:  “Really.  What people don’t realise is you get the sales all week – it’s Boxing Week!  You can avoid the crowds and shop a few days later.  You might not get the sweater you want, but you’ll get a good deal.”

Er… is that called good Capitalist Christmas spirit?

in which christmas begins

12 December 2009

I’ve always been something of a late comer to Christmas.  Part of that is hanging on to history and family tradition.  Growing up, Christmas really started around my sister Jane’s birthday on December 19th.  I’m kind of stubborn about not wanting to milk the hell out of something good, and I’m sure that’s to do with my parents and growing up too. Those of you who put up your trees in November probably have a more relaxed time of it and enjoy a good long holiday season.  But it’s my feeling and experience, that if I keep the time frame small, and the gift giving modest, then I really experience the spirit of the whole thing.  I’m probably sounding pious and judgemental, but it’s how I feel, and it’s how I enjoy the season. 

I’ve mentioned here more than once that in my family we’ve vastly reduced our gift buying in lieu of charity giving over the past few years.  And that takes much of the scramble out of the whole thing .  Still, there is some shopping to be done and that began for me this week.  There is a free shuttle to a mall close to my office, which I take advantage of during the week.  Shopping at lunchtime is substantially easier than shopping in evenings or on weekends, and it’s usually running over for one item or another.  However, I’ve already been elbowed by more than one intent shopper and snapped at by no less than three middle-aged Sears sales clerks seemingly five minutes late for their lunches.  “Christmas spirit, Christmas spirit…” I think to myself as one nasty clerk gives me the most amazing “you are a fucking idiot” attitude when I ask her if one particular item is on sale.  I’ll kill ‘em with kindness even if it kills me first.    

Today, Saturday, I Christmas shop in my Toronto “Beaches” neighbourhood and it is a really good day.  The shopping section is busy during all seasons, but today it isn’t any more of a bother, in fact it is rather wonderful.  Everything I could possibly need to buy is here.  Back in the 70s they built shopping malls to bring all this inside, but one thing they didn’t bring in is the neighbourliness. 

Sales clerks are chatty and pleasant everywhere.  In the linens shop everyone drops everything to gush over a new baby in a sling worn by his mommy, who had visited the store over the months of her pregnancy.  The hardware store has better buys in lights, batteries, paper, tape and random “man” gifts than anywhere else.  And an owner who will forgive the nickel you’re digging for at the bottom of your purse. 

The newsagent, with the best selection of magazines anywhere amongst my travels, who I had seen being so patient and kind to a mentally ill local only last week gives me a free Saturday paper.  And he knows exactly the magazine I’ve been looking for and tells me to come back Monday after work because it should arrive then.  The clerks in the beautiful little gift store completely understand that I need to poke around and look at every single thing only to buy one small stocking stuffer an hour later because everything in the store is something *I* think is beautiful even if it doesn’t fit the profile of any gift I am looking for. 

UK expats and others chat in the specialty handmade candy/British food goods store.  As people do in the independent book store while the clerk is taking down someone’s phone number to call after she gets a hold of a nicer looking copy of a particular book.  Dogs snub their noses at me as they wait patiently outside stores for their humans.  People and their computers loll about coffee shops.  Friends have beers and watch the curling match in the pubs. 

At the temporary Christmas tree lot at the park by the library, folks hold up trees for inspection and put wreaths and cedar garland in wagons alongside their kids. 

As I walk home, with the whirr and “ding ding” of the streetcar alongside, I’m thinking it’s been a really good day in my neighbourhood.  Today Christmas started.

When my sisters and I came into this world, my mother had no parents, one sister and one first cousin.  Her cousin Allan Park was a half generation older than her.  Like most of our family, he was known to us more in story than life.  That scar on his head was legendary.  It was from a war. 

World War II  was mythology to us kids born in the sixties.  I have fuzzy recollections of my dad watching the news on tv and seeing footage from Viet Nam but that wasn’t real, it was on tv.  

Allan’s war, to us, was a story wrapped up in that scarred head we saw a few times over our lifetimes.  All we knew was that we were lucky he was with us, that his injury very nearly killed him and if it had everything would be different.  

In 1979, the story of that scar revealed itself via the words of national favourite storyteller, Farley Mowat, in his novel And No Birds Sang.  It was a different story than the one any of us had known.

The blanket that screened the shattered cellar door was thrust aside and a party of stretcher bearers pushed in amongst us.  Al Park lay on one of the stretchers.  He was alive, though barely so… unconscious, with a bullet in his head.

As I looked down at his faded, empty face under its crimson bandages, I began to weep.

I wonder now… were my tears for Alex and Al and all the others who had gone and who were yet to go?

Or was I weeping for myself… and those who would remain?

 – Excerpt: And No Birds Sang, Farley Mowat

You want to talk about how a story can bring new light to a family? 

To a nation on Remembrance Day?

My nephew is getting married today, and I’ve been thinking a lot about just when we become grownups and when we become those capable adults that make lives for ourselves in this crazy old world. 

As the time for Joe’s wedding comes around, and the weather starts to bite us with her change from late summer to ripe autumn, I’m thinking about a man I first encountered on a cold fall day in downtown Detroit around the turn of the millennium.

The man had no feet. I usually found him parked in his wheelchair with a cup held out at various spots along my route from the Windsor/Detroit tunnel to my office just on the other side of Detroit’s Greektown. What struck me about the man was his matter-of-factness, which I found strangely comforting. In fact, if you chose not to look at him, as most of us tend to do on walking by the homeless, he would withdraw the cup without bothering you.

If you did look at him, you were probably surprised at the look with which he held you – as if you were old elementary school pals. His face was dried into a map of crevices from his mostly outdoors existence, but when I really looked at him for the first time, I found a man about the same age as me. Mostly it was his eyes that still held me; they had the boldness of an old boyfriend.

His hair had formed into long dreadlocks and I couldn’t help but think of the filth and neglect that sustained those graceful, long ropes. That hair was sexy, I thought, in the odd man I’d see in the street walking to an office or playing in a band.

One day, not unlike most days during that time, I almost walk by the man with no feet as I emerge from the corner store with a carton of milk for our daily tea. I give the man the change left over from my purchase and before I can take any more steps, he holds me up with a commanding “Wait!” He drops a handful of coins into my hands, saying that he’s got enough money for a meal. Before I can even think about the layers of dirt that are coating his hands, he’s listing out the items he needs me to purchase for him inside the store.  (A store not equipped for homeless, or wheelchairs or men with no feet.)  

The man with no feet commissions me to go back into the store and purchase him some fried chicken, as many pieces as I can get with that pile of coin. Taken aback, less by his boldness than his matter-of-fact demeanour, I follow his bid and return to the store, orders trailing behind: “Don’t forget bread! And a Mountain Dew!” Inside, giving my strongest looks to the clerk behind the bullet-proof barrier (it’s downtown Detroit, remember) who is looking at me with equally stern suspicion, I pay for the order with my nickles and dimes, and I add on as much food as I can with my allotted budget. Back outside I return the meal and the bits of leftover change to the footless owner, and I linger for the slightest instant; me in my offic-y splendour.

I can tell you I didn’t pity the man with no feet that day.  I saw in him a fellow human who showed dignity and capability as he made his way through his world the best he could.  Qualities I needed to see in myself just then.  And now, in my nephew Joe as he gets married and starts a new life on this Thanksgiving weekend in 2009.