Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Where there's smoke, there's fire

Picture sent by Suzette in Santa Monica - the view from her balcony of the smoke from the fires. She says there are people now homeless staying with friends in her building. Very frightening.
And here in Toronto - snow predicted.

More clearing out today. I am lucky to live where I do - things put on the sidewalk vanish instantly. Today, an Ikea shelving unit, a chest of drawers, a bag of workout clothing - gone in minutes. A great blessing to share my abundant excess, the result of decades as a Goodwill junkie, with my neighbours.

On Friday - to Ottawa, where it's minus 7 with snow on the ground - of course. Whatever the Toronto weather is, the weather in Ottawa is always way worse. I'm going to do more packing up and host my aunt Do's memorial event, at her apartment, with my kids who are also coming from Toronto.

This may be my very last trip to Ottawa ever in my life. I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

clearing up, clearing out

Should keep this an orange blowhole free zone, but ... people are making such funny, clever things!

We always celebrate the last class of term with a party, but this term, at both universities, we're celebrating during the second last class because a few students can't make the following week. Last night, I arrived at Ryerson to the most amazing sight - a table covered with food: samosas, sushi, dumplings, dips, cheeses and breads, six desserts and wine, plus every desk with a little candle burning. That was a rollicking class, I can tell you.

The reno is getting serious. Jean-Marc laid it on the line yesterday - so very, very much has to be packed up and stored somewhere. We're starting on Monday by ripping apart the basement, my storage room, which was jam-packed and had to be cleared out. This is what, by some miracle and a lot of hauling, my friend Nicole, my homeless helper Bill, and I achieved today.
But this is what my kitchen looked like. There's a ton of stuff out on the sidewalk, including a futon from upstairs. Please, take it away!
It's going to be crazy around here for some months. But this is my chance to get rid of junk. Or at least to store it more effectively. Here's the kind of problem I face, tho' - artwork and a poem about walking with my father - "Memorys Shining Bright" - that Anna made in Grade 3. Love is! What to do with treasures like this?

Here, a writer explores this very problem in the latest New Yorker: 

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Sally4ever": YUCK!

In case it seems to you that I'm always in raptures about shows I see, something completely different: saw a TV show yesterday that has had rave reviews and that I absolutely hated, "Sally4ever," from Britain, about passive, nearly brain dead young Sally with a horrible job, an appalling partner - one of the most abject, repellant specimens I’ve ever seen on television - and ghastly parents, who is sprung from her hideously lame life by a passionate lesbian relationship that is shown in graphic detail, including her lover pulling Sally's tampon out with her teeth and spitting it onto a frothy white dress Sally was supposed to wear to her wedding. And incidentally, the female lover is also a lunatic (played, incidentally, by the writer.) 

Every single person was loathsome in some way or other, obviously meant to be satirical ha ha, but to me it was just black-hearted. I thought of E.B. White who said once that with his writing, all he hoped to show was that he loved the world. This writer hopes to show that she hates the world because it’s full of disgusting human beings. What's the point?

Maybe I missed something? Maybe I'm just too old.

However - "the Durrells in Corfu" is getting better and better, sheer joy, the most wonderful characters, writing, acting, and of course the set, a bustling small town in sunny Greece. And then John Oliver, lighting the way through the morass, as usual. 

Early in the day, a wonderful gathering: the Word Sisters, a group of women who all work in publishing in one way or another - editors, publicists, agents, lawyers, and one lowly writer - have been meeting regularly for 8 or 9 years now, and met again yesterday at the home of our founder, Marilyn Biderman, who lives in a sophisticated, sleek loft on the west side. It was pot luck, everything was delicious, the company was fascinating ... so, that's my usual tone of happy satisfaction, no?

It's getting really cold, and I'm dreaming of anywhere warm that is not in the United States - Mexico, Cuba, Barbados ... Any ideas out there for a nice place a pleasant, occasionally crabby writer can go to cogitate a few weeks of winter away? 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Ain't Too Proud: the Temptations

Last weep of the day, I hope: watching moving footage of Macron and Merkel in France, commemorating the end of WW1. The presidents of France and Germany hug. Some things in our lunatic world are better.

It's cold! Suddenly there is serious cold out there, time to get out the long johns, the hats, gloves, and scarves, and focus on survival. We are Canadians, an enormous privilege that comes with a price. And for the next six months, rest assured, we will pay it.

Bill Maher had his usual brilliant flash of inspiration in the show Friday. He said, when we greet friends, instead of How are you I'm fine, we should all just smack our foreheads in disbelief - because none of us can believe what's going on on the world stage, thanks to a man with less self-control and self-awareness than my six-year old grandson.

Who was over on Friday with his mother and brother - he wasn't feeling well and a visit with Glamma beat a day at home. I am always overjoyed to see them arrive and secretly overjoyed when they leave, with my house in pieces behind me. High point: reading "The Magic Hockey Skates" to Eli. A most Canadian story that brought tears to my eyes.

As I've said before, I am barely keeping up with my life, but that's okay. First world problems. Today, much pleasure - first the Antiquarian Book Fair at the AGO, not to buy, but to find places which might be interested in what I have to sell. For example, three copies of Les Temps Modernes, a literary magazine edited by Jean-Paul Sartre in the early fifties and bought by my father during trips to Paris. A collection of Nazi postcards viciously mocking the British, given to aunt Do during the war. And much more. Who buys Nazi postcards? Possibly an antiquarian bookseller or two, I found out today.

And from there down to King St. for the matinee of "Ain't Too Proud," a musical about the Temptations, directed by Des McAnuff, who must do this stuff with his eyes closed after directing "The Jersey Boys" about the Four Seasons. Same basic story - poor boys struggle to make good and survive fame in the tinsel world of pop music, this one of course with a racial twist - poor young men of colour make good in segregated America. In both, life on the road, fame, drink, and drugs destroy much of the group, but one stalwart keeps it all together. The story was not that interesting, to tell you the truth. What was heaven, on a bleak Saturday afternoon, was fabulous singing and dancing, the incredible harmonies, the rich rhythm and blues that black America has so generously given us. I sat in an audience of mostly old white people, feeling myself different because as the music boomed out, no heads were bobbing, no feet seemed to be tapping except mine. Perhaps at night it's different. Anyway, it was a treat.

And yes, deny it though I may, I'm as old and white as anyone.

Had the unusual treat of checking my email at the intermission and finding a message from my best friend Lynn in France, a picture of her with her literary hero, the American uber short story writer Lydia Davis. Lynn, a linguist, has been parsing Lydia Davis's spare, enigmatic stories and at a conference got to meet her. Ironically, I had been thinking of my dear friend all day - at the book fair and especially at the show, because when we met in 1967, I was plugged into British bands and knew nothing about the American scene. Lynn introduced me to fabulous Motown, to Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye and the others. And for that, as well as much else, I will always be grateful. I was wishing she were there with me to see this finger-snapping show. And then there she was on my phone.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

the bee's knees

I couldn't watch, it was too nerve-wracking. Casablanca was on, so Wayson and I watched bits of that, turning back to PBS and ABC coverage of the midterms, then back to wonderful actors and story. The hoped-for massive blue wave didn't happen, which I find devastating, Beto and Stacy out by such a slim margin, WTF! But yes, lots of good news - the House, women etc. Still, it's incomprehensible, the percentage who vote for ...

Oh stop. It's gloomy and damp out, I contracted a cold at 9.45 last night as I watched Republicans win, and the world just looks dark. Let the idealistic faces of those newly elected women cheer me up. And this: my cousin and her husband, who worked to elect this candidate in Virginia - and she won, defeating a Republican by a small margin, thanks to Barbara and others like her. This is what democracy looks like:
Today Carole's runfit class was the last place on earth I wanted to be, and yet, as always, it cheered me up. Art, another of the more elderly runners in class, asked me, "Do you still have your original knees?" He made me laugh, telling me that in the men's change room, everyone is full of bits and pieces of plastic. When I told Gord, another ancient runner, what Art had asked, he said," Why, does he want to buy yours?"

We need to laugh today.

Monday, November 5, 2018

the Monday before the Tuesday

Thanks to friends, who are sending wonderful messages of support re my aunt, including this:
Stop beating yourself up, right now. No matter what M. said, I know you and Mike did all you knew to do to help Do. Nobody can know how to go about helping someone die until she is through it - like finding your way in a maze, you don't know the route until you're at the end.  

I know, I agree. But still, we all feel guilty about not doing enough, not being there at the end.

Tomorrow is the bloody American election we've been obsessing about for months, thank God, let it be over, let it not be disastrous, let it show us the American people are not gullible, racist morons. Though yesterday, I sat on the Porter plane next to an American who immediately began to pour out his conspiracy theories. 9/11 was a government job - had I ever heard of Building 7? Look it up! he said. It was deliberately brought down by explosives but no one wrote about it because the mainstream media have their own agenda. Kennedy was probably shot by someone hiding inside a manhole on the route. Who? Could be the military industrial complex, because Kennedy was about to pull out of the Vietnam War. Could be Israel; President Johnson later allowed them to get nuclear weapons.

He saw conspiracies everywhere. "Do you ever do research on what you read?" he said, in disbelief.
"No," I said. "I read the world's best newspapers, the Guardian, the NYTimes, the Washington Post. They make occasional mistakes, but mostly they're trustworthy. Where do you get your news, Fox TV?"
"Yes," he said, "only Fox sometimes doesn't tell the truth either."
"Sometimes!!" I barked, wishing to move my seat to somewhere else.

But at the end, he told me he was coming to Toronto to see a holistic doctor - because of course medical science and Big Pharma had nothing to offer - about his condition, which is like M.S. When he stood, I saw that he was quite severely disabled, his limbs ungainly, walking awkwardly leaning on a cane. And, lunatic as he was, I felt sorry for him.

Happy, however, to get away before I heard any more theories. Did look up Building 7. The theory about explosives has been debunked; it was brought down by the fires nearby. The poor guy, to be pathologically suspicious of everything and everyone. Let's hope tomorrow's vote shows us the Americans are smarter than that guy.

Home in the dark and wet. Here are some pictures from my trip. Click to enlarge:
Do's labels on everything.
Her sketches - me at four, though not a good resemblance, I think. Sandra was my best friend.
A watercolour - lovely.
The view from her balcony ...
... and the park on my Sunday walk.
Another family artist to cheer us all on a dull Monday before an apocalyptic Tuesday - this is Eli's latest self-portrait. It's now my screensaver.

Let us pray.

Sunday, November 4, 2018


A difficult time last night. My dear aunt's dear friends U. and M. came here for dinner, and M. let me have it. She was on the front lines at the end of Do's life, visiting her often at the care home, and afterward, sending long, frantic messages to my brother and me about Do's terrible pain. My brother felt we were doing all we could, M. was very clear we were not doing enough, and I was in Toronto, trying to sort out the situation. Was she in the right place and receiving the right medication? My brother said yes. M. said no.

At the end, urged on by M.'s distressed emails, I started frantically phoning about palliative care, making lists of places she could go; I called an advocacy group for the elderly to find out how to get Do transferred and even got in touch with a friend who knows the former Ontario Minister of Health, to ask him what we should do.

What I did not do was get on an airplane. What I really did not want to do was, once more, get on an airplane or a train to Ottawa and rent a car, or rent a car in Toronto, and drive to a care facility. I did that ten times just in the year my mother was dying, not to mention the years before when she was in and out of hospital; I had done it three times this past summer for my aunt, and I did not want to do it again. I had my next trip to Ottawa booked - the trip I'm taking now, in early November.

As I pointed out to M. last night, we hired extra PSW's for Do, got a special hospital bed, a special nurse for her bedsore, and my brother was convinced the care at the home was very good. The head there, whom I spoke with several times, felt Do was receiving the right treatment. Though of course she'd say that.

We even wondered if Do only showed her pain to U. and M., because when he was there, my brother saw a different picture. We knew that Do hated to be a bother to her loved ones. But perhaps denial played a part here. But also, M. has a tendency to dramatize.

M. told me last night that we let Do down, leaving her to languish in terrible pain until the last day of her life; at the end, her medication worked or something changed, and she died in peace with Mike on one side and M. on the other. M. felt I should have come once more, to see if I could make things better for Do. She's right; in an ideal world, I would have come. But the world is not ideal, and my life is very busy, and I felt, somewhere, that I had done and was doing what I could.

M. begs to differ. Though I did not appreciate hearing what she had to say, I understand firmly that she spoke because she cared deeply about Do.

What we finally decided is that part of the fault lies with Do's caseworker, who should have referred her earlier to palliative care. But then, I pointed out that not that long before Do died, she seemed to be getting better. And the caseworker probably has an enormous caseload.

M. speaks about a woman moaning in pain, being forcefully encouraged by staff to eat despite the fact that she was begging to die. My brother did not see the same woman. And I did not get on an airplane to see for myself.

There should be a guide for people in our situation: Toward The End: What To Do When Your Loved One is Dying. We had no idea how to get her into a specialized palliative care facility, and the home where she lived told us they provided perfectly good palliative care - is that true? How could we tell? Mike told me he thought the doctor there was terrific. M. told me he came once a week and probably didn't get to see Do on every visit because he was so busy.

People only have one death, and loved ones should make sure they do what they can. And yet hindsight does not help. We know timing and circumstances after the fact. We don't at the time.

We do what we can, and sometimes, that's not enough. That's something I'll have to live with. However, as I clear out this apartment, I am finding stacks of the letters and cards I wrote to Do through the years, envelopes full of photos I sent, framed photos and the kids' drawings that my daughter sent with her own cards and letters. Copies of all my books, including one inscribed, "To the best aunt in the world." I called her often, even when I was in Europe, visited her regularly and brought gifts and took her to dinner and to the movies and for drives. We laughed and reminisced together. I did what I could.

At the end, I could have done one last thing.

P.S. Ten minutes after posting, read this in the Globe. I guess in my confusion and regret, I'm not alone.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

dust to dust

I've been inhaling dust for 24 hours - was up at six this morning, wide awake, up and at 'em - opening boxes, throwing out, sorting, everything thick with dust. Luckily Do's caregiver Pat came over with a very energetic friend and a dolly; they took tons of stuff to the recycling bin in the basement (years of tax returns, every single notification from the condo board during her decades here, she kept everything) and piles to garbage and to the place where you can leave things for others to take.

Oh what a pack rat. And she labelled everything: on one plastic bag, "Green and white check curtains - kitchen etc. From Earls Court - top flat, 46 Hogarth Road, London, U.K. 1946-54." Inside, yes, the green and white check curtains she'd made for her post-war apartment, neatly folded, threadbare, utterly unusable. Taken down when she moved to Canada in 1954, stored for more than 60 years - and out.

The one I like best, so far, is the plastic bag with this: "White and silver stole. Fine Wool. Never used.  Sent from the U.K. to Dorothy (by Mama circa 1958) who had told her in a letter her evening stole (white) had been stolen."

My grandmother was efficient and skilled at many things but she was not a warm, affectionate woman, least of all to her middle daughter Dorothy. It warms me to know she made the effort to find another stole and send it. Why would Do never wear it? For the same reason, I guess, that she never used the nice cutlery or dishes or tablecloths - save it for best, a time that never came. Unfortunately, my own need for a white and silver evening stole, pretty as it is, is not great. Have to find a home for it.

But the most bizarre was this, in a drawer, a small brown envelope: "Tooth w/gold filling."

Not opening that. As I said, she kept everything. And it's all covered with dust. Oh yes, in all the piles of empty art paper, I did find a box of art equipment and one small sketch book with a bit of her own work - and it's lovely, including a tiny sketch from 1954 marked "Beth." She did have talent - watercolour, pen and ink - but kept for years buying paper, how-to books about painting, drawing and calligraphy, pens and brushes, and yet seems to have done almost none of it, ever.

It stopped raining briefly so I went to Britannia Park for a walk to clear my lungs - but even with a bit of sun it's cold and very windy so the walk was brief. Do's friends Una and May are coming here for dinner, so I need to clear up a bit. In all her decades here, I don't think my aunt invited her friends in once. She went to Scrabble in their apartments every Sunday, never here. It's a shame.

I can't wait to show them the world's biggest collection of paper napkins.

Friday, November 2, 2018

clearing the lot

I'm in Ottawa, at Auntie Do's for the weekend. The first time I've come to Ottawa with no elderly relative to visit - my mother and aunt, both gone. Now I'm on the front lines, the next in line to go.

This is the fourth time I’ve cleared out the dwelling of a deceased relative, and I hope it will be the last. The first was the hardest – 1988, great-aunt Helen's squirrel’s nest in Queens NYC, her home for many decades. I had a weekend, alone, to sort out a lifetime’s accumulation, and arranged for far too much to be brought back to Toronto, including her little grand piano and her wheelchair. And then spent many years getting rid of them - including, right now, trying to find a home for stacks of old sheet music. But I do enjoy her gorgeous Fiestaware, big old desk, and baroque music cabinet featuring a carved naked nymphet.

Uncle Edgar, in 1997, his brownstone in New York, though I have to say that lots had been – shall we say, removed, by his household staff - by the time I got there. And I myself had stolen from him, which makes me cringe to this day: each time I visited through the years, I took home another of his hardcover E.B. White anthologies. He won't miss these, I thought as I put the books in my suitcase, wanting to be sure they ended up with me. One day when he was ill with the colon cancer that would kill him, he told me he'd wanted to read some E.B. White and couldn’t find any. I will never forgive myself.

In 2013 my mother the hoarder's three-bedroom apartment stuffed with stuff – especially difficult because as a writer, I want one day to tell her story, so took all that memorabilia - mountains of letters and photographs. Which now clutter my house in many, many boxes and drawers.

And now Auntie Do. Hard to understand a woman who had beautiful things tucked away in cupboards: dishes that belonged to her grandparents, silver cutlery, lovely tablecloths – when her table was covered with a ghastly plastic oilcloth, and she used ugly cheesy plates and cutlery. I just opened her dishwasher, which she never used, and found it's where she stored her mother’s silver tea set. Everything - everything - is carefully labeled and wrapped in many layers of paper. This woman took fantastic care of all her treasures and used none of them. Including - I just found - a box of different colours of shoe polish, meticulously wrapped.

What makes me sad are the many books on how to paint watercolours and an entire drawer full of blank watercolour paper - but no paints and never, never an attempt to actually put brush to paper. She just bought the books and the paper, and dreamed.

It’s a lonely job here, but at least I have a bottle of red and light and power – last time I was here, after the hurricane, I sat in the dark with a candle. Am listening to Paul Simon and Macca  on my computer while I open drawers and pile up the junk - more than 15 garbage bags of old and new clothes to go out, and more to come. Admiring my aunt's extensive collections as I prepare to toss: handbags, platters, ancient canned goods,  stamps, umbrellas, hats and scarves, greeting cards, twist ties, recipes, calendars dating back to the early 1990s, 25 packages of paper napkins.  

One day, who will have to do this for me?