Tuesday, October 16, 2018

RIP Doro and Sylv

At the launch of my first book in 2006: the Leadbeater sisters, Dorothy Marion and Sylvia Mary. Do was there when Mum was born, a huge baby - "She looked like a big beautiful doll!" - when she met my father, when my father died. Mum was furious at this event because Do knew Mum was wearing her red jacket and chose to wear her own. My mother was the confident style setter and Do followed. Sisters.

Dorothy Marion Arevian, 1920-2018

A great blessing: my aunt drew her last breath last night at 9 p.m. with both my brother Michael and her dear friend May by her side. The last hours were peaceful; her face was serene.

It's a gift to a child to have a childless aunt. She knitted and sewed doll's clothes and sent a birthday card every single birthday from my earliest childhood until two years ago, when she couldn't manage any more. She sent cards and cheques to my kids too. She had a phenomenal memory.

Her caregiver Pat and I just had a great laugh on the phone; we were talking about the hundred striped t-shirts lined up in her closet when she only wore two, the green one and the blue one. "Sometimes," Pat said, "she wore the red one to Scrabble."

Here she is, in the blue one, holding Edward Bruin Green with his hand-knitted clothes and his jaunty red bow. My mother Sylvia's bear was named Donald Leonard Brown. He lives in my bedroom now.

Pat said, "She's happy to be sitting up there with Sylvia."
"They're having a nice cup of tea," I said.

Makes me cry.

Monday, October 15, 2018

the eternal sunshine of Paul McCartney

There's a bit of sun, outside and in my heart: my piano teacher just sent me this, a beautiful article in the Atlantic about the joy Macca's music has brought us all for decades. Thank you. Just what I needed today.

Let us not be afraid of the way we love him. For more than 50 years he’s been making us happy, giving us comfort, a genius who scoops tunes out of the air with his hands.

dire straights

Your faithful correspondent is not perky today. It's cold and raining, and things are confusing and dire. One of my aunt's good friends came back from visiting her nursing home last night and sent the most desperate email about her condition. It felt as I read as if we have betrayed her, let her down in the most appalling way, condemning her to a ghastly death. And yet I don't know what to do for her or how to change her circumstances.

Besides the staff at the home, who by my own reports and those of others, are skilled and caring, we have provided two other PSW's who are there for hours a day and care for her with loving kindness, as well as her own longterm caregiver Pat, who has just recovered from an operation and is there too, not to mention my brother. She is in a specially ordered hospital bed and is on a heavy dose of a powerful opiate. No one understands how she can still feel such pain and anxiety.

I have written to a friend who's a doctor, seeking advice - are there better meds? Should she be in actual palliative care, which would mean moving her? -  to an organization that advocates for the elderly, and to the woman who runs the home, who assures me my aunt is getting the best of care. Nothing has helped my brother and me through this terrifying, excruciating quagmire of death. My father was only 65, with terminal stomach cancer, when one day, after watching Wimbledon with us all, he walked upstairs, took the morphine he had secretly stockpiled, and died in my mother's arms the next morning. He was in no pain, never lost dignity, just saw what was coming and had had enough. My mother had been disintegrating for some time and was headed for palliative care when at 89 she died on Christmas morning in hospital. But again, she had not been in pain.

We have always been afraid of the current scenario for my aunt, who at 98 had absolutely nothing wrong with her - a tough sinewy body, a good heart and perfect blood pressure. So now, the strong body that allowed her to live independently for so long is delaying the death she so desperately desires.

I teach tonight but am cancelling things right now and am on hold with Porter; though I'm scheduled to go up in a few weeks, I'll go up tomorrow first. Was asked to speak about a student and her book at her book launch on Wednesday - I'm now writing the talk I would have given and someone else will deliver it.

I took a sleeping pill to be able to sleep last night, so much was roiling inside. All this, plus an election in Toronto that, after the disgusting Ford smashed our ward system, has me filled with concern, plus of course the apocalyptic UN report on climate change, and the state of the world, more dire reports coming from all over about the rise of the hard right - a story today on how Breivick, the far right mass murderer in Norway, was the beginning of a trend. Nightmares.

On the other hand - even in the gloom, the bright side. Eli and I had a sleepover this weekend, and what a gift to spend time with this bright, voluble, inventive six-year old. We played Snakes and Ladders many times and he only cheated a bit. We did the big dinosaur puzzle five times - he's really good at puzzles - and went twice to the wonderful playground in Regent Park for a lot of time on the monkey bars. First thing Sunday morning, as I reluctantly moved my ancient bones, he said, "Glamma, let's play tag!" Just, JUST what I felt like doing. Tag.

Best of all, snuggled in bed reading "Charlotte's Web." So I will leave you with a last word from E. B. White, the last two paragraphs of this glorious book, which Eli and I have not reached yet.

 Mr. Zuckerman took fine care of Wilbur all the rest of his days, and the pig was often visited by friends and admirers, for nobody ever forgot the year of his triumph and the miracle of the web. Life in the barn was very good - night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is both a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.


Ten minutes later: my brother called from Do's hospital room. They don't think she will last through the night. He assures me again that she has been getting the very best of care, surrounded with love and attention. Perhaps her friend was distraught at seeing such a strong woman brought so low. I will wait to hear if I am needed, but he says she won't know me if I go tomorrow, so I probably won't. I said my goodbyes to her last time I was there.

Both my brother and I were weeping as we talked. She is almost the last of that generation - no one left on my mother's side, one or two on Dad's, in their nineties in New York. Loss loss loss loss loss loss loss.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

I like them apples

Fall is here now - it's brisk bordering on chilly, and the market is overflowing with root vegetables and apples. I spent hours yesterday cleaning the plants on the deck and hauling them inside - last night was 4 degrees. So now my house is full of greenery, the 10 foot high oleander and the gardenia which is still blooming, the geraniums, the coleus, the thick, heavy jasmine, and a few others, stuffed into every available sunny corner.

Later today Thomas comes to finish sawing up the solid wood of the ivy remnants, bringing Eli with him for a sleepover. I've filled the little room next to the spare room with the boys' toys that were in the basement, so there'll be lots to do, though apparently Eli is bringing his Monopoly game, so I know what we'll be doing. I haven't played Monopoly for years. I want to buy Park Place, which as I recall is dark blue, like all the best properties.

Here's E. B. writing with such wry humour about his beloved Fred, again:
November 1942
Monday. Noticed this morning how gray Fred is becoming, our elderly dachshund. His trunk and legs are still red but his muzzle, after dozens of major operations for the removal of porcupine quills, is now a sort of strawberry roan, with many white hairs, the result of worry. Next to myself he is the greatest worrier and schemer on the premises and always has too many things on his mind. He not only handles all his own matters but he has a follow-up system by which he checks on all of mine to see that everything is taken care of. His interest in every phase of farming remains undiminished, as does mine, but his passion for details is a kind of obsession and seems to me unhealthy. He wants to be present in a managerial capacity at every event, no matter how trifling or routine; it makes no difference whether I am dipping a sheep or simply taking a bath myself … His activities and his character constitute an almost uninterrupted annoyance to me, yet he is such an engaging old fool that I am quite attached to him, in a half-regretful way. Life without him would be heaven, but I am afraid it is not what I want.
            This morning early, after I had milked and separated, I managed to lose my grip on the bowl of new cream as I was removing it from under the spout and lost the whole mess on the floor where it spread like lava to the corners of the room. For a moment my grief at this enormous mishap suffused my whole body, but the familiar assistance of Fred, who had supervised the separation and taken charge of the emergency, came to my relief. He cleaned up a pint and a half of cream so that you would not have known anything had happened. As charboy and scavenger he is the best dog I was ever associated with; nothing even faintly edible ever has to be cleaned up from the floor. He handles it.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

adventures in contentment

Treats today - another sunny mild day (yesterday Jean-Marc and Richard rode their bikes to the island and had a picnic and a swim!), a wonderful class at U of T, coffee with a colleague who wants to encourage a group at his church to tell their stories and wanted advice and my how-to book, then coming home to find a letter from Nick in my mailbox and a gift on the doorstep - friend and neighbour Duncan Fremlin's memoir "My good times with Stompin' Tom," about touring with the famed Canuck musician. Duncan still plays banjo with his band Whiskey Jack, though he is also a very good real estate salesman. If I ever sell my house, it's Duncan who'll do the deed. Am looking forward to his book.

And then I found out that a student from last term at Ryerson has a beautiful, very moving piece in today's Globe. Brava, Vivian.

There are at least three things I should go to tonight - an all-candidates meeting, something delicious at the Toronto Reference Library, the launch of "Best Canadian Essays 2018." But I don't want to leave this kitchen and this chair. So I won't.

E. B. is at his best when he writes about his famous dachshund Fred. Here he is, with more Fred tomorrow:

November 1940
There is a book out called Dog Training Made Easy and it was sent to me the other day by the publisher, who rightly guessed that it would catch my eye. I like to read books on dog training. Being the owner of dachshunds, to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot. Some day, if I ever get the chance, I shall write a book, or warning, on the character and temperament of the Dachshund and why he can’t be trained and shouldn’t be. I would rather train a striped zebra to balance an Indian club than induce a dachshund to heed my slightest command. For a number of years past I have been agreeably encumbered by a very large and dissolute dachshund named Fred. Of all the dogs whom I have served I’ve never known one who understood so much of what I say or held it in such deep contempt. When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something that he wants to do. And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up.

April 1941
Whenever I tell about spring, or any delights that I experience, or the pleasant country, I think of a conversation I had with a friend in the city shortly before I left. “I trust,” he said with an ugly leer, “that you will spare the reading public your little adventures in contentment.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

hot, "Hyperfocus", E.B. day five.

It's hot today - 29 degrees, people out in tank tops and shorts, the last gasp of glory before the ice begins to encroach. The trees are turning but have barely begun to lose their leaves. It's a good day for me to clean out the grubby shed at the end of the yard; the renovation will cause me to lose my storage room in the basement, so I will need the shed more than ever. DECLUTTER.

Just got a book out of the library: "Hyperfocus: How to be more productive in a world of distraction," by Chris Bailey. The question is, will I have enough focus to read it?

And at Shopper's, glanced at the magazine rack and saw this:
If you'd told Paul and John in 1960, as the band took off, that their faces would still be appearing on magazine covers nearly sixty years later, what do you suppose they'd have said? Gerroutofit, to fits of laughter. Yet there they are.

Here, for today's pleasure in the hot sun, is our friend E.B., his poetic side:

April 1939
Saturday. A full moon tonight, which made the dogs uneasy. First a neighbor’s dog, a quarter of a mile away, felt the moon – he began shortly after dark, a persistent complaint, half longing. Then our big dog, whose supper had not sat well, took up the moonsong. I shut him in the barn where his bed is, but he kept up the barking, with an odd howl now and again; and I could hear him roaming round in there, answering the neighbor’s dog and stirring up Fred, our dachshund and superintendent, who suddenly, from a deep sleep, roused up and pulled on his executive frown (as a man, waking, might hastily pull on a pair of trousers) and dashed out into the hall as though the moon were a jewel robber. The light lay in watery pools on lawn and drive. The house seemed unable to settle down for the night, and I felt like moaning myself, for there is something about a moon disturbing to man and dog alike.

June 1940
Today joined a society called Friends of the Land, as at my time of life a man should belong to a club so that he will have somewhere to sit in the afternoon. I am going to put an old chair out by my compost heap and shall go there whenever I feel sociable and friendly toward the land. Membership cost me five dollars, which is the first time my high regard for earth has ever cost me a nickel; but these are expensive times.

Am writing this on the fourth day of the Battle of France, as the announcer calls it, so there will probably be no continuous thought from one paragraph to the next. I am not able to write on a single harmonious theme while jumping up frequently to hear whether freedom is still alive. I don’t think I would lose my nerve if I were directly engaged in war, but this radio warfare makes me edgy. I suspect I joined my club only because I was rattled. When I am composed I feel no need of affiliating myself with anybody. There is a lot of the cat in me, and cats are not joiners.

Couldn't help sharing this with you - the wide, warm, lovely, genuine, relaxed smile of our former Prime Minister, who has just, yes it's true, written a book about the wonders of conservatism and his own great contributions thereto. Good work, Steve. You are so missed. 


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

E.B.White Day Four

The sun is out - a mild day. So much to do that I don't know where to begin, including my first piano lesson after months of barely practicing - it will not be pretty. Here's your Elwyn Brooks White for today, the second post exactly 80 years ago - and yet how fresh he sounds.

August 1938
The item of $168.40 is also part guesswork, as there is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s sustained creation – when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.

October 1938
(On the pressure, when living in the country, to go deer hunting) …By and large my hunting has been with a .22 rifle and a mechanical duck, with dusk falling in gold and purple splendour in the penny arcades along Sixth Avenue. I imagine I would feel mighty awkward discharging a gun that wasn’t fastened to a counter by a small chain.
            This business of going after some deer meat is a solemn matter hereabouts. My noncommittal attitude has marked me as a person of doubtful character, who will bear watching. There seems to be some question of masculinity involved: until I slay my dragon I am still in short pants, as far as my fellow-countrymen are concerned. As for my own feelings in the matter, it’s not that I fear buck fever, it’s more than I can’t seem to work up a decent feeling of enmity toward a deer. Toward my deer, I mean. I think I’d rather catch it alive and break it to harness.
            Besides, I don’t really trust myself alone in the woods with a gun. The woods are changing. I see by the papers that our Eastern forests this season are full of artists engaged in making pencil sketches of suitable backgrounds for Walt Disney’s proposed picture “Bambi” – which is about a deer. My eyesight isn’t anything exceptional; it is quite within the bounds of probability that I would march into the woods after my deer and come home with a free-hand artist draped across my running board, a tiny crimson drop trickling from one nostril.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Thanksgiving, E.B. Day Three

Happy Thanksgiving! A quiet solitary day, blessed. Last night, an unaccustomed 3 1/2 hours in front of the TV: The Durrells in Corfu, Poldark, Madame Secretary, and John Oliver. Enjoyed all of them. Madame Secretary is an American fantasy I won't watch again about a female Secretary of State, last night featuring a scene with former real S of S's Madeline Albright, Colin Powell and of course Hillary, speaking passionately about the importance of American rights and freedoms, leading to an impassioned speech about same by the actress playing the part, followed by a shot of the magnificent American flag flapping regally outside the White House window.

I thought, I wonder who they think is watching this? Do they think people in the red States, Trump's people, are watching lofty lefty Madame Secretary, with its feel-good sentiments? They're watching Fox News on TV and Breitbart online. So what's the point?

I'm getting cynical in my old age. But the others were as always delightful, especially Durrells - glorious.

Today, working - my bum going to sleep, I've been sitting here so long - and now rising to begin to put some order in my house, now that the reno is vastly reduced and I can figure out what goes where. Just Skyped with Lynn in Montpellier, and we started to talk about my visit next year. Woo hoo!

Here's E.B. today, a few thoughts for the current Secretary of State, whoever he is:

December 1941 (America has entered the war)
The passionate love of Americans for their America will have a lot to do with winning the war. It is an odd thing though: the very patriotism on which we now rely is the thing that must eventually be in part relinquished if the world is ever to find a lasting peace and an end to these butcheries.
            To hold America in one’s thoughts is like holding a love letter in one’s hand – it has so special a meaning. Since I started to write this column snow has begun falling again; I sit in my room watching the re-enactment of this age old phenomenon outside the window. For this picture, this privilege, this cameo of New England with snow falling, I would give everything. Yet all the time I know that this very loyalty, this feeling of being part of a special place, this respect for one’s native scene – I know that such emotions have had a big part in the world’s wars. Who is there big enough to love the whole planet? We must find such people for the next society.

October 1942
(about a concert raising money for war bonds) After the band had performed, a young Jewish soldier stepped forward and played a violin solo. For him there could be nothing obscure about war aims. It was a war for the right to continue living and the privilege of choosing his own composer when he played the fiddle. He played solidly and well, with a strength that the Army had given his hands and his spirit. The music seemed to advance boldly toward the enemy’s lines.
            Here, for a Nazi, was assembled in one hall all that was contemptible and stupid – a patriotic gathering without strict control from a central leader, a formless group negligently dressed …, a group shamelessly lured there by a pretty girl for bait, a Jew in an honoured position as artist, Negroes singing through their rich non-Aryan throats, and the whole affair lacking the official seal of the Ministry of Propaganda – a sprawling, goofy American occasion, shapeless as an old hat.
            It made me feel very glad to be there. And somewhere during the evening, I picked up a strong conviction that our side was going to win.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Star is Born, the ivy comes down, E.B. White Day Two

Went yesterday on a drizzly grey day to see "A Star is Born," which is making a big buzz. Wonderful cast, especially Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who directed as well as starring and did both really well. However - not my favourite recent movie. Cooper is a very good actor who's not a bad singer; Gaga is a fabulous singer who's not a bad actor. The story of the guy musician on his way down and the young one on her way up has been updated cleverly, and there's powerful music and great scenes. Still it didn't stir me much, and I resented the sad ending. However - music, Hollywood, stars - fun on a dark afternoon.

Fun on THIS dark afternoon - my son-in-law Thomas came to take down the dead ivy that created a beautiful weird sculpture on my south garden wall but which had grown so rotten it was dangerous. He brought his electric saw but mostly just pulled the whole vast heavy structure down with rope. Dramatic.

There was a lot of sawing and chopping and gathering, and it's not all done, more next weekend. But now I or my guests will not be crushed by a solid wall of dead ivy. Now that's an interesting way to go.

Here's your gift of E. B. White for today:

July 1938. (about the power of radio and newspapers - how much more true today!)
When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.

This life I lead, setting pictures straight, squaring rugs up with the room – it suggests an ultimate symmetry toward which I strive and strain. Yet I doubt that I am any nearer my goal than I was last year, or ten years ago, even granted that this untidy world is ready for any such orderliness. Going rapidly through the hall, on an errand of doubtful import to God and country, I pause suddenly, like an ant in its tracks, and with the toe of my sneaker shift the corner of the little rug two inches in a southerly direction, so that the edge runs parallel with the floor seams. Healed by this simple geometry, I continue my journey. The act, I can only conclude, satisfies something fundamental in me, and if, fifteen minutes later on my way back, I find that the rug is again out of line, I repeat the performance with no surprise and no temper. Long ago I accepted the fact of the rug’s delinquency; it has been a pitched battle and the end is not in sight. At least one of my ancestors died lunging out of bed at the enemy, and it is more than likely that I shall fall at last, truing up a mediocre mat.