Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Paris to Liverpool via Frontstalag 142 (part 2)

Once the Balbis and Gabrielle got word that Lillian, Margaret and their grandmother had safely passed, they started out. Playing for time, Gabrielle, claiming she was ill and in need of rest, arranged with a French policeman in Sèvres to allow her to sign her act of presence for two days running.
‘I never found out what happened to that policeman,’ she said. ‘I hope he wasn’t killed for his kindness.’
Gabrielle and Balbis left for La Gare Lyons, but too late to avoid the curfew, they spent the night in a in a hotel where they were asked to officially record their travels. Balbis invented an itinerary which he spoke out loud as if in thought, while his daughter recorded it, on her form, thus keeping their stories identical.
The next morning, they boarded the train to Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier. Luckily, the Germans checking papers in the train did not demand theirs. They disembarked at their destination and went into a village café where the locals observed these two suspicious strangers ask their way to the local bank.
The bank manager told them to follow the road in front of the bank until they met a young boy with a bicycle. ‘Tell him you come from the bank and do what he says.’
They walked an interminable distance before they saw a young boy with a bicycle.
Gabrielle nudged her father. ‘I hope it’s this one.’
The boy approached.
‘Bonjour,’ Balbis said. ‘We’ve come from the bank.’
‘Okay, follow me,’ the boy replied.
They followed him to the gatehouse door of a large property where a man lead them to a room with five other people. All seven waited several hours in silence until dark. Then without light, they were lead through a park, a field and some woods, until they came to a river where they stood wordlessly. Two men arrived and quietly floated a submerged boat. Everyone got in and crossed the river to the free zone; however not without incident. One of the passengers, a drunken American, knocked Gabrielle’s suitcase into the river. He also tried to light a cigarette (no one knew why) but was knocked out cold by one of the Resistance.
In Nice, Gabrielle stayed with her brother-in-law Georges Moch (a jeweller), who had been demobilized in the unoccupied zone and had found a tiny apartment there; he eventually shared with his wife and two sons, his parents-in-law, his sister-in-law and her two daughters.
Georges’ wife joined him from Paris with much of his stock concealed about her body and in her baby’s milk bottle. Being a Jew, Georges was not entitled to practise his profession. He was detained overnight and interrogated on one occasion before he hid with his family (including his in-laws) in the mountains for the rest of the war.
Food was rationed and scarce, but it was in Nice the family saw their first potatoes in ages. The charwoman’s husband stole seed potatoes from the fields where he worked. Jean Pierre, the baby, ate them mashed while everybody stood watching him.
With white over-refined flour from America, they made a tasteless baguette. Because of the baby, Ghislaine was allowed to line up several times a week for a half pint of milk. Everyone watched her and her mother skim the cream (when there was any) off the milk, and churn it into butter with a fork—the result—a dessert spoon of butter.
When not lining up or scrambling for food, Gabrielle’s family schemed to leave France. Refugees were passing through Spain by train to Portugal and from there to England. Via a family friend, who worked in the Prefecture, Gabrielle got new identity papers. Never having been to England, she did not relish the long trip; nevertheless, she decided to leave immediately. Georges lent her money for a ticket to the border; thereafter, the British Consulate lent her money for the rest of the journey to Portugal. Often, they’d be a representative from Thomas Cook on the platforms along the way, who’d provide refugees with enough money for the next lap.
They left on a hot June day, so hot everyone in the train left the windows open, but since the train was stoked with wood, the soot and ashes flew in and left everyone looking like chimney sweeps. Because they had travelled squashed in place with men sleeping as they stood or in lying in the aisles, upon arrival, their only exit was via the train’s windows. In Barcelona, the British Consulate found them a hotel room and lent them money for fourth class train tickets to Madrid. Prior to crossing the Spanish-Portuguese border everyone was strip searched for smuggled goods. Gabrielle had her sunglasses confiscated.
In Lisbon, the consulate placed the Coakleys in a foul-smelling cockroach-infested hotel that the kids, who had never seen cockroaches before, crunched underfoot on the way to the toilet at night. At the consulate, Gabrielle met the wife of one of her husband’s former colleagues who arranged for the Coakleys to take her soon-to-be vacated room while they waited for a passage to England by ship. Gabrielle had tried to arrange passage by aeroplane but couldn’t get three tickets together.
They boarded a merchant ship, the S.S. Aguila, on July first or second. It was carrying cork.
Except for a bout of seasickness during their twenty-seven days at sea, being on board was the best part of the whole escapade and the least worrisome. They stayed in one place and knew where they were going. After all they had been through, it was like a holiday. They played shuffle board, had three-legged races, children to play with and best of all, good food.
However, Gabrielle realized every morning on the deck, when they counted the ships in the convoy, something could happen—they could loose it all. One passenger tied her six children to her waist, to ensure that if they went down she wouldn’t lose anyone. A Czech woman, who never spoke to anyone but remained on deck while the rest ate, was thought to read the Morse code the ships exchanged. In England, she was arrested.
The convoy formed in Gibraltar where they stayed several days, going ashore once where they saw the Ark Royal which the Germans had claimed they’d sunk. (Later, they did.) To avoid German submarines the merchant ship zigzagged its way to England, thus they endured several climate changes. For most of the voyage, a Dutch submarine  would surface each day to send a message to the children on board. The last day before leaving the convoy, the submarine came close to the S.S. Aguila with all the crew on deck to wave goodbye then submerged and disappeared.

From Paris to Liverpool via Frontstalag 142 (part 1 synopsis)

Bang! Bang! Bang!

With shaking hands, Madame Balbis unlocked the metal door to the walled garden of the house she shared with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren. A French policeman and two German soldiers strode past her into the kitchen where Monsieur Balbis and his daughter Gabrielle stood in their dressing gowns.
“We want Madame Coakley!” barked one soldier, “and her children. In two hours, we fetch you.”
‘My grandchildren can’t go with you,’ Balbis said. ‘They’re school girls. Take me.’
‘Nein! It must be Madame Coakley.’
‘Please, don’t try to escape,’ pleaded the policeman left to guard them. “If you do, they’ll take me.’
Not two hours but several hours later, a bus arrived to collect them. ‘Hold your heads high!’ Mme Balbis instructed them. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong! Don’t cry! Don’t show emotion!’
They spent the evening in an icy bus rounding up people and ending up on a side track of the Versailles train station. Packed into a sweltering, unlit wooden train compartment, the Coakleys trod on people in the aisles before finding a bench. Patrolling soldiers slammed shut the doors the passengers had opened to let out the heat. All night they travelled, hot, thirsty and hungry until six a.m. when they arrived in…Versailles!
Mid morning, the train departed a second time then stopped on a side track at Saint Georges, while military trains rolled by. People begged the railway workers for water and to mail notes to their families. Not knowing where they were going, with no access to food, water or toilets the train travelled four nights and days before they arrived at three a.m. on December 10, 1940 in Besançon.
“Raus! Raus!” the Germans pushed everyone onto a truck which made repeated trips to Frontstalag 142, (a former barracks) and dumped them in huge rooms with straw mats covering the damp concrete floors. Left to scrounge for food, they found discarded tin cans, in which they melted snow on the stove in their quarters—that was their first meal. At nine, with lights out, they lay on bug-infested pallets till breakfast, while rats scuttled over them.
Breakfast— roasted acorn coffee and bread.
Lunch–a tin plate with lard smeared on it, a watery soup with something floating in it and more ‘coffee’.
After lunch, coarse grey army blankets were doled out, which they held spread to catch straw-like mouldy black bread, thrown from a window. In their ‘room’, they scraped off the mould and made ‘toast’.
Dinner—some kind of ‘jam’ and a spoonful of lard that many threw away. For this ungrateful behaviour the water was cut for three days–thus back to melted snow. (Later, they peeled potatoes for the soldiers but received none themselves.)
People got dysentery; those too sick to get to the toilets, a hole in the ground four stories down, outside and across the courtyard, left excrement on the stairs and everywhere else.
After fifteen days (without a bath or change of clothes) Lillian caught chicken pox, forcing the Coakleys to spend Christmas alone in an infirmary room meant for ten people. It wasn’t such a hardship since they had real beds and a bath. The German camp doctor, (there was also a Polish POW doctor) tried to extend their respite. At Christmas, a POW soldier left two newsprint paper dolls on the girls’ beds. Also an open truck appeared with a news camera mounted and rolling to record the Germans offering the children oranges—but they refused them.
The prisoners organized a Christmas show about life in a POW camp. The camp commandant and officers attended, applauded and laughed at times but walked out when everyone sang La Marseillaise.
In March, when women with children were allowed to leave, they were taken to the train station where they saw trains full of wounded German soldiers, bandaged like the mummies.
In Dijon, they received a Red Cross a package and changed trains for La Gare de Lyons but arrived during the curfew which forced them to overnight on a table provided by the Salvation Army, who also gave Gabrielle money to take the train home. Arriving unannounced, the Balbis fell back in shock but that night the Coakleys slept in beds, with pillows and sheets!


Under house arrest, Gabrielle signed an act of presence daily in the Sèvres police station, an hour’s walk each way. Hearing from all sides that she’d be caught and re-interned, Gabrielle revisited Monsieur Cassé. This time he put her in touch with the police inspector in Chaville who provided her with a contact in Paris who organized another escape. He also confiscated all her ID and her camp release papers, so as not to compromise her should they be found on her. This meant travelling with her father using old ID papers under her maiden name. Now the whole family was on the run. No one could be left behind as hostage or punishment.
To avoid the family being caught together, Mme Balbis, Margaret and Lillian left first for Nevers. There, Mme Balbis applied for a permit to cross the Line of Demarcation, with a letter stating her daughter was desperately ill in the unoccupied zone. The German officer refused her permission because, he explained, she had to apply in Paris, from whence she came; thus grandmother and grandchildren went to a local hotel and waited till the Resistance contacted them.
Two teachers, a man and a woman, who crossed the Line of Demarcation daily, to teach, had a special permit. The girls pretended to be their children and were dropped off on the other side in Sançoin with two sisters (relatives of the man in Paris), where they waited for their grandmother to join them. Days later, after a secretive, perilous crossing Mme Balbis joined her grandchildren, rested a few days, then travelled to Nice where her daughter, Ghislaine was living with her husband and two sons.
Read the second part of Lillian, Gabrielle and Margaret’s account at “To the ship…”

From Paris to Liverpool via Frontstalag 142

From Paris to Liverpool via Frontstalag 142
“Running from the bombs! We were running from the bombs!” cried my stepmother when I asked her where she spent the Second World War.
My boomer generation will have had many a relative unwilling to recall life under Hitler, but decades later, still haunted by their experiences, some are managing to recall the horror, deprivation and loss they endured. To speak of the past is to relive it. In attics and trunks everywhere lie letters, diaries, photographs, and even home movies waiting to come to light. Nazi Germany’s propaganda films are being posted on YouTube. After sealing its records anywhere from thirty to seventy years, France is just beginning to crack open its war archives; although, some still won’t see the light for another quarter century.
Always curious for details of life during the Second World War, I was talking to Meg, my stepmother about her experiences when she mentioned that her flight from Hitler was recorded on cassettes that she had made with her mother and Lillian, her sister. On them, Gabrielle Coakley vividly recounts her internment with her two daughters in Germany-occupied France, their escape to Vichy France and their flight to Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar, where they sailed in convoy to Liverpool. Both Meg and Lillian contributed to this oral history, squeezing the tiniest details from their memories, but Madame Coakley’s recollections painted the larger picture.
Transforming their memories into a coherent text proved an intimidating task. After assembling and ordering the transcript, scanning photographs and printing the finished result for the Coakley family, the story continued to disturb me. Aside from being a detailed family history, it’s also a contemporary narrative of how women and children continue to bear the brunt of war the world over.
For more than fifteen years, I have wanted to present their story to a larger audience, but did I have the right? Should it be told as a child’s adventure tale or as one novelist suggested, a love story!  The slant needed to do justice to the Coakleys’ ordeal, still repeated to this day by refugees everywhere.
“Why not tell it as it is?” asked my ever-pragmatic stepmother.
Why not indeed? Because their testimony raised questions I could not answer, like, what was the Line of Demarcation and why couldn’t you cross it? Why did the French along with other German-occupied countries starve? Why did Dutch submarines escort the convoys to Liverpool? What was the role of the commodore ship in a convoy? And who were these brave merchant seamen like their captain Master Frith, who twice survived torpedo attacks and the sinking of his ship the S.S. Aguila? What were depth charges, ASDIC, and degaussing to name but three war technologies? I couldn’t tell the tale without elaboration and explanation.
To fill the blanks in my knowledge, I studied the published memoirs and unpublished papers of several women interned in Frontstalag 142.  I read three accounts of life on board the accompanying Dutch submarines. I visited French, British and German war museums.  I perused Internet naval sites for facts and personal accounts. I watched British, German and American documentaries and propaganda films including fatuous, fictional accounts of life as a POW. I searched newspaper archives, read historical tomes and novels of the time period, and sought French war memories from my contemporaries’ parents. I downloaded passenger lists and discovered my friend’s father sailed the same route on the same boat with the same captain two months prior to the Coakleys. I unearthed a passenger list showing that my own father, always reticent about the war, had taken the perilous convoy route from Alexandria to Liverpool. A former colleague of my husband’s once mentioned to me that his father, prior to becoming the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, had been the commander of a Dutch submarine. That submarine (O 24) escorted the Coakleys’ convoy, HG 67.
Barbara Tuchman once pointed out that seductive though research can be, there comes a time when one must get down to the hard slog of writing. I am in that process now. To Professor Hanna Diamond, je dois tirer mon chapeau. I take off my hat not only for her two books I found especially useful (Women and the Second World War in France 1939-1948 and Fleeing Hitler: France 1940), but also for constructing and posting this Internet site. Lest we forget.

Madeleine de Bruijn
November 11, 2012
Saint Sauveur de Bergerac

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Chapter Three

Late that afternoon, I had everything pretty much ship shape and was standing at the entrance to the living room looking through the viewfinder of Ben’s old 35 mm Pentax with the fish eye lens. My house proud mother, used to do the same with her stainless steel electric kettle. With satisfaction she’d survey each tidy room in the curve of the polished kettle. Unlike my mother, I was not a neat freak. I didn’t make a habit of keeping the house spotless but I suspected Fay, my antithesis did, just as she used to keep her room in the nurses’ residence.
Fay would be staying in Susan’s old room. Susan still considered it her room but since she did have an apartment downtown, an apartment she’d be sharing with her sister come September, I didn’t think it would be unreasonable to start using her room for guests. I knew she resented me asking her to clear the closet of all the stuff she hadn’t used since leaving for university but hey, give me a break! How long do parents have to keep their kids’ stuff? I mean high school notes or stuffed animals for pity’s sake? And who uses multiple CD players these days? Get rid of it, I say. Give it to someone who can use it. It was a pack rat mentality that burdened me with too much of my own stuff. I’m always trying to find a good home for my rubbish.
“Sometimes,” Fay used to say, when we shared an apartment, “there’s just no better home for an item than the garbage can.”
Maybe, I thought wistfully, I could persuade the girls to help me lug some items down to the local flea market this summer. Susan’s room, I noted with satisfaction, passed the fish-eye test.
I hadn’t told Robyn that if her sister came home on this weekend, she’d be sharing her room. Why invite a hissy fit? I was getting wiser with age. So wise in fact that I’d finally begun to pick my battles. Except for the laundry, I’d given up on trying to get Robyn to pick up after herself or give me a hand. I found it took less energy to do it myself than deal with the anger generated in me by her grudging responses or ‘forgotten’ tasks. I kept the door to her room closed so I wouldn’t be confronted with the chaos I thought of as a hell hole. A few more weeks and she’d be attending the Ontario College of Art and Design on Beverly Street in Toronto. I had to laugh when I thought of her going to art school. The choice suited her well but this past winter she’d run a different plan past me.
“I think I’d like to go to university somewhere warm,” she’d said as she dropped her snow-flaked winter coat, gloves, scarf and rucksack where she stood in the living room.
“And where might that be?” I asked, glowering at her discarded duds.
“Florida,” she replied brightly, ignoring my testiness.
“Florida’s warm,” I agreed.
“So can I go?!”
“I have no objection,” I said with a breezy air as I stepped over the pile of shed belongings. I was trying to maintain my calm as I headed for the kitchen to make a cup of tea and maybe eat a cookie or ten in the bargain.
“You don’t?” She sounded really excited and followed me into the kitchen.
“Not at all.” I opened the tap and filled the kettle still acting nonchalant and hoping she’d leave the kitchen so I could sneak a cookie from the emergency package I kept under the tea towels. Neither Ben nor Robyn cared for cookies and could easily take one and let the rest go stale.
“Great I’ll apply!” She bounced toward me and gave me a big kiss on my cheek.
“Just one thing, Robyn.”
“Huh?” she said, pulling back and looking less excited.
“How are you going to pay the tuition?”
“I have to pay?”
“Count on it.”
“But Daddy said he’d pay my tuition if I…”
“Got accepted to a Canadian university. Remember?”
Robyn turned on her heel, tears welling up in her eyes. I thought I heard her mumble “bitch” and felt angry myself. Why did kids nowadays think everything was a given? Why did they think we had to fulfill their every wish and desire? Why? Probably because we’d done our best to do just that and had only ourselves to blame. I opened the tea towel drawer, felt beneath the ironed tea towels for the package of cookies and removed four. I scoffed them with my anger.
Anyway that battle was behind us now. She’d got into OCAD and was pleased to have been admitted. Art was where her talents lay and I was pleased for her. I also wasn’t unhappy about her leaving. It was time to empty the nest, a thought I relished. It would provide solitude, and give Ben and me time to rediscover what we saw in each other in the first place.
The last chore I had to finish before setting out for the airport was to take down and hang up another load of laundry. I saw Fred strolling around his garden occasionally bending over to sniff the odd bloom before adding it to a bouquet. He was better dressed than he had been this morning and I remembered he said he had a cardiology appointment.
“Hey Fred!” I called over. “ How’d it go?”
He cupped his ear and I walked over to his side of the garden.
“How did it go at the cardiologist’s?”
He frowned and said, “Now here’s the funny thing. Remember this morning when we were talking about dying?”
“Yes,” I said, dragging out the word.
“Well, there were a whole bunch of women outside the medical plaza carrying placards with “stop killing babies’ written on them. You know, the anti-abortion brigade.”
“I think they call themselves, ‘prolifers’.”
“Whatever. Bunch a crazy women if you ask me, oh and one guy. Anyway, there they were stomping around the parking lot ‘cause there are a couple of gynaecologists working in the building too. So I got to thinking, I’ve got an appointment with a cardiologist, someone who might help me extend my life, but what if they blow up the joint? Do I have to die today for this cause? I don’t mind telling you, I was kind of nervous during that appointment. More nervous than on the operating table.
“Nut cases if you ask me," he continued. "I mean, can you murder someone if they don’t exist yet? You see, the thing is, I think a woman should be able to make the choice. It’s not a black and white situation. There are a lot of instances when it’s not a good idea to have the kid.”
I’d seen many a medical abortion in my student time. It needed the recommendation of two doctors and I don’t know what else. The cases were pitiful indeed, a teen raped by a relative, a destitute, crippled woman on welfare whose husband was in jail and she in a wheelchair. A forty-eight-year old mother of ten….
Fred interrupted my thoughts. I don’t see why someone who’s raped or for whatever reason thinks she can’t or doesn’t want to bring a kid into this world should be forced to carry that child. She’s not going to want it anyway. She’ll only dump it or treat it badly. Too many unwanted kids in this world if you ask me. I don’t think her choice is any of my business or anyone else’s. Hell! these prolifer nuts, to make their point, might end up killing me.”
“Murder of the unborn, they call it.”
“Yeah well, I’m already born. Where’s the logic in it? How can they be willing to take lives to save lives? Frankly, I don’t get it. Nowadays everyone has an axe to grind. Pro-choice, anti-abortion, gay marriage, whatever.” Then he chuckled, is belly moved perceptibly. “Ah well, guess I gotta die sometime.”
“But preferably not in your cardiologist’s office in a bomb blast?”
“Yeah well,” he said, not looking me in the eye but pushing his nose into the boquet he held. “They say, you start dying the moment you’re conceived.”
“Oh Fred! you think so? I don’t. I think there’s probably more of a halfway point when you start to die.”
“Maybe. All I know is we are programed for obsolescence and a heart only gets so many beats. Whatever the halfway point might be that you mention, I must surely have passed it long ago. My only wish is to have enough heart beats to enjoy the roses that surround me.”
Had he just told me how it went at the cardiology appointment? Not good? He still didn’t meet my gaze but added a deep yellow rosebud to his bouquet. Wanting to avoid eye contact, I bent over to pick up a wet shirt of Ben’s and felt my face flush as I cut off the circulation. Since when had bending over become a breath taking experience? I turned away from Fred to pin one corner of the shirt to the line.
“Oh and something else, Beryl. You may like this, I know Mary Frances will. My doctor told me to drop a few pounds before they’ll do another bypass.”
“How do you plan to do that?”
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I’m sure as hell not going to go on one of Mary Frances’s cockamamie diets.”
For as long as I’d known Mary Frances she was always on one or another diet, filling me in on her progress as the days and sometimes weeks passed. She always gained it back and then some.
“What will you do? Join her for a little power walking?”
“No, I think I’ll take it easy for a while and join the ‘Y’. I hear they’ve got a lot of new treadmill machines I can set at a slow pace and build up my stamina. Watch television at the same time if I want.”
“Sounds like a plan. Now, you’ll have to excuse me Fred,” I said, “but I’ve got to drive out to the airport…”
“Here, these are for you.” He thrust the bouquet he’d been holding toward me.
“Gee, thanks Fred. What brings this on?” He’d never given me roses before.
“Oh nothing. Just thought you might like ‘em.”
“Oh I do. Yellow is my favourite colour for roses. That’s really sweet of you, thanks.” I let another of Ben’s shirts drop into the laundry basket and took the bouquet.
“And there’s something else I don’t get.” He had a twinkle in his eye.
“What’s that?”
“People like you hanging out their laundry in this day and age. You could save yourself a lot of work if you put it in a dryer. But no, you hang it up, outside. You’ve always done that. What’s the matter? Ben can’t afford to buy you a dryer?”
“Yeah, well I don’t see the point of using electricity when the sun does a better job.” I didn’t smile to soften the remark but pushed my nose in the bouquet.
“Suit yourself,” he chuckled, turned, and, secateurs still in hand, extended his right arm to wave as he ambled toward his back door.
I looked at Fred’s receding back, the folds of fat flowing over the waist of his pants. Funny about his remarks on abortion, since I knew he’d talked Mary Frances out of one and married her with her belly full of another man's child.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chapter Two

Housework to me is pure drudgery. It offers no scope for creativity, self expression or satisfaction; thus, if I feel anyone has thoughtlessly increased the load or casually dismissed its import, I become furious.
After a morning of cleaning and tidying, I went outside with a full basket of wet laundry that I set down under the clothes line. I was on my way to the compost heap when out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of my next door neighbour, tending his roses between our two properties. I was in a foul mood because Robyn hadn’t taken out the garbage or compost as she had promised, and she left the laundry out all night, which I’d have to take down before putting up another load. I had a lot to do before I’d be ready to pick up Fay. Seeing Fred quietly dead head his roses should have put a damper on my rampage but his calm only aggravated my rage.
“Hi Beryl,” he said, not looking up. “Got a bee in your bonnet have you?”
He must have read my body language. Still fuming, I approached him, a plastic bag of potato peels in hand.
“Hey Fred. Yeah, I’m grouchy this morning.”
“Don’t be like that. Enjoy this fine morning. You don’t know how many more you’re going to get.”
“ I wish I could. Robyn is driving me crazy. She’s got the get-up-and-go to party all night, sleeps all morning, watches television all afternoon and then she can’t muster the energy to dump a little bag of vegetable peelings on the compost or take her laundry off the line at the end of the day.”
“Sounds normal to me. Mary Frances and I get into this all the time. Fred Jr. is as buff as a bronco, can bench press hundreds of pounds, run miles in the sand, but can he feed the cat? Can he put gas in my car? I tell him it doesn't matter how many muscles he's got on the outside, if he can't overcome his lazy-ass tendencies, he's a weakling. He laughs it off. I'm threatening to write him out of my will. So how have you been keeping?”
“Not too bad, thanks,” I said out of habit. Actually I was feeling generally rather crappy and had done so for weeks. “How are you?”
“Still living, still smelling the roses.”
“Sounds ominous.”
“I’ve got to go into hospital again.”
“God, how I hate hospitals.”
“Now that’s funny coming from you, a former nurse. I’ve come to regard the hospital as a body shop and repair station.”
“Need something repaired do you?”
“May need another bypass. Don’t know for sure, gotta see my cardiologist this morning.”
I turned to look him in the eye. “Scared?”
“Nope, I’m going without fear!” He said with what I thought was false joviality.
I studied his stiff practised smile. Fred once owned a Canadian Tire franchise. He was used to pasting on a smile.
“Well as my cardiologist points out,” he continued, “the positive results of the last one lasted unusually long, thirteen years.”
“Was it that long ago?”
“That long,” he said, grinning at me now, some of the falseness had fallen away, as if he were proud of surviving so long. “You know, I think being healthy is largely a mental attitude. It all comes down to positive thinking.”
“I agree with you there, but a healthy lifestyle and good genes help too.”
“I think the media have got us all scared silly, if you ask me.”
I waited for him to elaborate.
“They keep telling us to exercise, eat right, don’t put on any weight.”
“A constant battle for most of us,” I grumbled.
“I presently weigh between 195 and 199 pounds. It seems to be my specific weight. I eat less than I used to, but well, and I don’t seem to be missing it. I think of myself as perhaps a little short for my weight,” he said and dead headed two more roses.
“Maybe this is too close to the bone, but may I ask you something?”
“Fire away.”
“ When you had the first bypass did you prepare yourself to die? You know, get your affairs in order or whatever one does if they know there’s a chance things might go…”
“South?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“Badly,” I finished, a little uncomfortably.
Fred and I had seldom exchanged much more than pleasantries in all the years we’d been neighbours. As usual we stood several feet apart, separated by his rose bushes, but he answered my question without hesitating.
“Before I got the bypass, they tested me psychologically. Asked me about my fears, anxieties and so on. I think they were surprised, my family probably more so, that I went into the hospital totally without fear. Fact was, I’d been working so hard, I was looking forward to a month of not working. Running a successful Canadian Tire is no cakewalk. Sounds kind of funny I know, but that’s how it was. For me, putting my house in order was the purchase of a new, and I may say, needed car, one week before the operation. I expected to survive. I was thinking of ordering a new car this time round too. A really big mother. One of those SUVs.”
Funny I thought, how the least sporty are the most inclined to buy Sports Utility Vehicles. I held back from delivering one of my eco lectures. It was Fred’s money, but our planet.
“You know,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning a little toward me. “they saw through the sternum and peel back the rib cage to get at the heart? It’s quite something.”
“Amazing isn’t it? Lots of people are getting it done now, more so than ever.”
“Sure and it’s getting safer and safer. I was in hospital seven days, the minimum. Be sixty-eight next month. Don’t feel it. Fact is, if I want to know how old I really am, I look in the mirror at the old man looking back at me.” He chuckled. “And you know what else? I don’t even think about death, which is unavoidably approaching, faster for me than for you.”
“Funny, I think about it all the time.” I do, I really, really do.
“No need to think about dying. It will take care of itself. Enjoy life as much as you can. It’s wonderful. I bet I have it as good now as never before, notwithstanding some physical limitations.” He winked.
I ignored the wink and steered toward neutral ground. “When you’re young, you think of your life stretching indefinitely but more recently I’ve become acutely aware that time is running out, fast. I feel a sense of urgency to get things done.”
“Well, I see you rushing through this chore without even stopping to smell my roses,” he said, with a wave of his upturned palm to indicate his magnificent rose bushes. “Ever since I retired, I just see life is accelerating all around me while I’m slowing down.”
“I’ve got to go to the airport this aft and I’m not nearly finished cleaning and tidying. Mary Frances gone power walking has she?”
“Ah yes, another task to rush through.”
“It’s supposed to be good for you.” I sighed.
“Do you enjoy it?” he asked emphasizing the ‘you’.
“Not a whole lot.”
“You know, I became a bit of a couch potato this first winter of my retirement. I sit around, watch the women’s talk shows. Funny thing about those talk shows, they have all these ads for sanitary pads, hair dyes and weight loss schemes, then the host comes back long enough to say he’ll be right back after more messages. As if we hadn’t just had a whole slew of ‘em. I’d be sitting there watching day after day. I started to pack on the pounds. Thought I better get me to the gym.”
“Did you enjoy that?”
“I did and I didn’t. Notice I didn’t say, I do and I don’t. Stopped going.”
I waited for him to explain.
He chuckled. “There’s a lot of thin women out there, who believe they’re fat, running on the treadmills. So I get into hamster mode beside this really thin woman. I like to have a little something to hold onto, you know, like Mary Frances…”
A flushed Mary Frances appeared just at that moment.
“Hi,” she gasped, “I just choked out two in twenty.” She bent over, placed her hands on her knees and tried to catch her breath.
Fred looked at his wife with amusement, then bent to attend to his roses again.
“Two what?”
“Two miles in twenty minutes! That’s terrific.”
“I didn’t power walk the entire way, only sporadically and I am totally pooped.” She collapsed on the lawn, looked at the overcast sky for a second, then closed her eyes.
“That is fantastic. I can barely do a ten-minute kilometre.”
“Oh God, it takes too long to recover. I can’t do this. I’ll have a heart attack. The last few yards, I made one big spurt.” She held up her hand palm facing me. “ I know, I know, that’s not good.”
“Not worth getting a heart attack.” I glanced at Fred to see if he caught that but he was busy snipping off the blowsy blooms. I guessed Mary Frances was in another of her diet and exercise phases but didn’t ask. We talked about diets a lot but never around our men folk and Fred was still within hearing distance.
“I don’t know what got into me.” Mary Frances pushed herself up and lay on her side supporting her head with her palm and elbow. With her other hand she ran her fingers through her hair lifting it and I could see her white roots beginning to show at the hairline. For as long as I’d known her, Mary Frances had always been meticulous about keeping her hair blonde without a trace of dark root showing. In fact I’d never seen her original hair colour but now, like the rest of us, I could see no colour remained.
“I think, you’re supposed to build up stamina, not hurt yourself,” I said, wishing I were as motivated as she.
“You are soooo right,” she flopped on her back again, shielded her eyes and looked at the greying clouds. “You know, I’m going to be sixty this October? I feel the need to do something totally out of character like sky dive or train for and run a marathon. I just can't believe that I’m this old, but my mirror does a good job of reminding me on a daily basis!”
“I think you look just fine,” Fred said, looking up from his work.
“I’d hate to think how I’d look if I didn’t do all this exercise.”
“I was just telling Beryl ‘bout my adventures at the ‘y’.”
“Did you tell her about the skinny dame?”
“Started to.”
“You’ll love this,” Mary Frances said.
“So any ways,” Fred said, approaching us, “there I was on a treadmill watching another stupid reality show, when some really nice butts in the magazine of the woman beside me catches my eye. Next thing I know the woman’s screaming at me, saying I can watch the television or get my own magazine. Then she’s yelling she’s going to call the manager. So I ask what for? ‘Go fuck yourself!’ she says. Never went back to the gym after that.”

Chapter One

Naked, Ben stands in front of our bedroom mirror and strikes a body builder's pose. "Looking good," he tells his reflection before setting off for his morning shower.
 I've seen Ben do this every day since our first morning after. I thought it was cute the first time I saw him do it—twenty-five years ago. 
 Ben is fifty-six and no Adonis. He has lost most of his hair. What little remains is almost all grey. He keeps it short and clean. He doesn't part it above one ear, to plaster a few strands across his head. He doesn't have what they call a "six pack". Nor does he have massive shoulders or pecs. He has neither love handles nor a bulging gut. His buttocks have begun to sag a tad, and under each one are three sweet little wrinkles. I never intend to tell him about them, just in case he decides to tell me about some of the changes in my body, I can't see. 
 Normally, I don’t pay attention to Ben’s ritual, but with an HB 2 pencil, I’d just finished filling in one of those magazine questionnaires--no one will ever admit to doing. I'm a sucker for them. I never answer truthfully and always manipulate the score to get the outcome I want.
I had just thrust the magazine under the duvet for later erasure when my daughter Robyn burst into the bedroom. “Ever heard of knocking?” I asked.
“Sor-ry,” she sang and flung herself on Ben’s side of the bed and lay her head on his pillow causing her bright fuzzy orange hair to billow either side of her face. I regarded her intently, her perfect smooth skin, no wrinkles; her soft pale eyebrows, no stiff white hairs or open patches; her straight even teeth, no fillings. Did I have a hand in creating this beautiful being?
“Hey, I don’t mind, so long as I can do the same to you,” I said.
Ignoring my reproach, she selected a woman’s magazine from the assortment on the bed, given to me by my neighbour Mary Frances. I didn’t buy such magazines myself but devoured them when I got them. I especially liked the gossip mags. I wanted to see who was packing on the pounds, who was ageing well or badly and who succombed to cosmetic surgery. After flipping the pages a few moments, Robyn stopped at a questionnaire and asked, “Hey? Do you ever do these quizzes?”
Miffed, I didn’t reply but kept on reading.
“Well?.... Maw-um? Do you?”
"Never!" I lied.
"Why not?”
"Because they're utter nonsense."
Robyn sat up, withdrew a fat material covered elastic from her jeans’ pocket, then held it between her teeth while she struggled to gather her hair. Deftly she caught up her hair in a fly-away-contained mess which looked great. She sifted through some more magazines. “Here's one in Cosmo, 'How Compatible are You and Your Lover?'"
“Your dad and I have been married a while now," I replied, coolly regarding her freckled grinning face.
"Okay. How about, 'Will This Marriage Last?'" Her grin spread wider.
"So far, so good. Look, if I did them, you don't think I'd fill in the blanks do you?”
“Why not? Mary Frances does. Look she’s already done this one.” She held an ink-smudged page before my eyes.

“’Cause I know, you'd be right there after me, checking my score!"
"Okay," she sneered, "Try this, 'Do You Have the Makings of a Good Mother?'"
"Let's do this one," I said, pulling out a magazine at random.
"Okay, what is it?" she eagerly replied still grinning and still intent on getting the best of me.
I cleared my throat and invented a title, "'How to Tell If Your Teenage Daughter Is Using Drugs, Having Premarital...'"
"Forget it." She pushed herself upright and swung her legs over the bed.
"Forget what?"
"The quiz," Robyn said, heading for the door.
"Why?" I called after her.
"Mom, you said yourself. It’s all bullshit."
“Bullshit?” Ben said, entering the room as Robyn left. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing really, just your typical mother daughter exchange.”
“Okay, I’ll stay out of it,” he said and slid open his cupboard door to an array of light woollen suits all of which fit him.
He withdrew my favourite, a light gray Glen check suit with a thin dark blue line running through the pattern. I watched him put on his form fitting undies and then move to the sock drawer. I don’t pair them since I’m oblivious to subtle differences in shades of gray, black and blue, the lighter and darker hues depending on the age of the sock or the detergent.
Ben was particular about wearing equally faded black socks. I watched him bend over the drawer and noted how easily he did it without the impediment of a beer belly. He fished out two grey socks whose shade of gray seemed identical. He then leaned his butt on the bedroom wall to steady himself and while pulling on a sock said, “You haven’t found any stray running socks have you?”
“I guess the sock monster has been here again.”
“It’s not a joke Ben.”
“I’m not joking.”
“I swear I do my best to see that they all go in the wash. It’s just that they don’t all come out again.”
“Maybe it’s a plot,” he said reaching for a white shirt with French cuffs. “A conspiracy cooked up by sock and washing machine manufacturers. Athletic sock makers kick in a few million dollars to washing machine companies' R&D departments.”
“I don’t get it,” I said and watched his hairy chest disappear inch by inch behind the bright white oxford cloth.
“The idea is to make certain the appliance makers can guarantee a steady stream of stray socks, for decades to come.” He turned around to the open closet to survey his ties, found the one he wanted pulled it off the rack and in so doing caused a few coat hangers to jangle. Facing me he tied a Windsor knot, then pulled on his trousers, neatly closed them without first sucking in his gut, pulled up the zipper and threaded a belt through the belt loops.
Wouldn’t I love to put pants on with the ease he did? And a belt? Forget it.
“I think your theory is all stuff and nonsense,” I replied.
“To quote your lovely daughter, you mean ‘bullshit’?”
“Yeah, bullshit. Socks transmogrify,” I said and pointed to the inside of his cupboard. “They become wire coat hangers.”
He laughed, swung his jacket over his shoulder and left. Moments later his head reappeared. “Forgot my phone. Hey! Isn’t Fay coming today?”
“Today? No tomorrow.”
“I thought you said Thursday, today’s Thursday.”
“Is it? Curses!” I had things to do, a house to straighten out, a questionnaire to erase, but first I’d look at my results. It was about body image. I’d checked off the most negative replies possible, not all that far from my truth, but no one need know.
The questions were along the lines of: "I never look at myself in the mirror because I'm frustrated that I don't weigh what I did when I was twenty-five," or "when I'm complimented on my looks, I'm sure the person complimenting me is just being polite". Lying would be more like it. I tallied my score and turned to the results, expecting to be advised to consult a psychiatrist immediately, when Ben came in again.
“Forgot something else.” he said and leaned over to plant a fat kiss on my lips.
Over my reading glasses I watched him straighten, grin at his reflection in the full-length mirror, and say, “Looking good!” He closed the bedroom door quietly behind him and I heard him tread with a bounce down the wooden staircase.
I'm a couple of years younger than Ben and no Venus, certainly not the de Milo rendition. My body favours the Venus of Willendorf, or at least that's how I see myself. Where Ben is flat, I'm round; where he has hollows, I have bulges; where he's firm, I'm flabby. Here’s the kicker. Having just completed the quiz, a.k.a. an exercise in self loathing, it occurred to me that Ben's Arnie act was much more than cute—it was sensible.
According to my quiz results, I felt negative about my body. Duh!
Apparently, I'm waiting for my body to change before I can enjoy life. Wait a minute! My body has certainly changed over the years, without me waiting for it. Whose hasn't? The editor must have meant that I was waiting for me to change my body (like I ever could) before I could enjoy life. But I do enjoy life--just not my body.
Typically the message was consistent with what the media have been hammering in since forever. Where once we improved, or should that be altered, our body shape with corsets and bustles, then girdles and uplift bras, and now elasticized body suits, we can go a few layers deeper, with dieting, cosmetic surgery, liposuction and Botox injections. We can sweat on treadmills or rowing machines, lift weights, do Pilates or hook ourselves to mini-generators that send electrical impulses to our muscles. I've never indulged in any of those remedies but have always felt a little guilty about not doing anything to meet current commercial standards of beauty.
And there was Ben, my sweetie, telling himself he looked good and believing it.
That's what gets me. I'd never say that, let alone believe it.

Monday, March 31, 2008


I like boutiques. They offer a certain warmth, coziness, a friendliness and personal touch not to be found in department stores. Then too, they sell luxury goods, trinkets and those little non-necessities one needs. Thus it was I entered one such local shoppe in search of scented candles my daughter had told me were now half price.

The candles were advertised as being 100% beeswax and made by the homeless or former homeless. Even at a 50% reduction they were a hefty price, but who counts dollars when it comes to assisting the homeless? My arms full, I placed several pounds of wax on the countertop. Products such as these often carry a label stating what percentage of the profits go to the charity in question, but these candles didn’t. I remarked to the shopkeeper, “I wonder how much profit the homeless make?”

Whirling around, she said, “I don’t know! I’ve wondered that myself, but they get a wage you know.”

“Yes, I suppose they do, but do you think it’s a living wage?”

“I don’t get living wage, considering all I have to do here,” she replied picking up a candle with one bejeweled hand. “You know these smell so nice even if you don’t light them,” she added.

Was it not wrong, I thought, for me to scent my home using a candle made by a person without a home? “Still,” I persisted, “do you think they make even minimum wage?”

“Oh it’s a very good company. My daughter has been there and seen the factory.”

“Mmm, but do they pay a minimum wage? I mean we both know waitresses don’t get one and there are so many people who have to work at two jobs. I wonder why there are so many homeless in America?”

“I’ll tell you why there are so many homeless in this country, and I’ll look you straight in the eye when I tell you.”

I was in for it. Unwittingly, I’d pushed her buttons.

“There don’t need to be any homeless. It’s because they won’t work. They don’t have the motivation or gumption to get off their behinds and get a job.”

“You think that’s why?”

“I certainly do! And I’ll tell you another thing. The poor in this country can send their kids to college without it costing them a cent.” She glared at me.

“Perhaps, but I wonder if this company pays minimum wage.” I persisted, feeling more and more like a bulldog in a boutique. “Anyway,” I added, moving to safer ground, “do they burn well?”

“Oh, they sure do,” she replied still glaring.

“I guess they would, being beeswax.”

“Oh, these aren’t beeswax,” she corrected.

“But the sign says they are. Look,” I said, returning to the bookcase laden with candles. I pointed to a prominent sign above the product announcing the 100% authenticity of the beeswax and their homeless manufacturers.

“Well, I was just doing inventory, and I had beeswax candles right here on the shelf.”

“That may be, but now you don’t, and the sign is still here. In fact, it’s the same display and sign you had before Christmas that motivated me to buy these same candles at the full price. So you could simply remove the placard.”

She made no move to do so.

“You know, I don’t think you want to buy here. Coming in here and from the first moment upsetting me. This isn’t Macy’s you know. This is just a little store, and if you want to fight big corporations you can shop elsewhere. I’ve worked here for years, and nothing like this has ever happened to me before!” she shouted, her body visibly tense. “You must be a very unhappy woman!” she concluded.

“Funny, when you were yelling at me, I was just thinking the same about you,” I replied.

“Well you can just take your business somewhere else!” she spat.

Turning to open the door, I said, “Thank you, for refusing to do business with me.”

“I don’t need your business!”

“Obviously not,” I shrugged, thinking it would have been better if she had minded her beeswax, and I mine.


Like him or loath him, Jerry Springer provides a service to the American public, or so it seems to my nonresident alien eyes. It provides a mirror. The program shows what the U.S.A. has become, a nation without dignity.[1] Twice a day Jerry Springer, America’s number one television show, airs. We were wondering if we aliens could better integrate ourselves into American society by appearing on Springer’s program. The thought came to mind one Saturday morning when my husband was cooking pancakes for the children.

“Jeez pop, do you have to wear that shrunken dressing gown?” my eldest daughter asked.

“Yeah dad, it looks so queer,” her sister added.

“Well, didn’t you know? I am gay!”

“Oops!” I said, aghast. “Now they know. We’ll never get on the Jerry Springer show.”

“Oh, he is not, mom. You’ve been married sixteen years!” my fifteen-year-old piped up.

“Should we tell her?” I asked.

“How long we’ve been married? Why not?”

“Kid, we got married just after you were born,” I announced.

“Haw, haw, haw, haw,” her younger sister sing-sang.

“Guess she hasn’t seen the adoption papers yet,” her dad remarked.

“Now you’ve let another cat out of the bag!” I added, horrified.

“No fear, we still have an ace up our sleeve.”

“We do?”

“Yeah, we can go on Springer yet!”

“We can? Mind letting me in on the fun?”

“Sure but not here and now.”

“So you think only an appearance on Springer’s show can truly Americanize us?”

“Something like that.”

“You don’t want to be an alien anymore?”

“Well, it’s not exactly part of the American Dream, is it?”

“You guys are crazy!” my youngest daughter said.

“Yeah, we want a divorce.” announced her sister.

“Don’t be silly. Kids can’t divorce their parents,” I told them.

“They can in America!”

“And we’re gonna!”

“Yeah, and we can get a pretty good settlement too.”

“Is this true?” I asked my husband.

“No doubt.”

“So we’re leaving.” The little one said shoving a last hunk of pancake in her mouth, maple syrup dripping down her chin.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To call our lawyer.”

“You guys got a lawyer?”

“Sure mom, every kid does. This is America, ‘member?”

“Don’t sweat it,” my hubby reassured me. “They’ll have to prove paternity first.”

“Yeah and I don’t think grandpa will cooperate.” I added.

[1] This piece was written during Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Clinton’s behavior in the Whitehouse.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bone Appetite

All the experts say so; dogs should not be fed table scraps. Maybe, but try convincing my dog, Toby. He insists on table scraps. And why not? Those leftovers were once human food after all. I've tried feeding him nutritious, perfectly balanced-for-all-your-dog's-needs kibble.

While placing the bowl before his nose I enthuse. "Mmmm, yummy Toby. Look, new improved flavor!"

"And how would you know that?" he asks with his doubting Tobias look. Then he'll take a whiff, wrinkle his nose and look at me with disgust.

"What's this dog's dinner?" his expression asks. "You call this dog fare? Where are the veggies, the sweet potatoes, and the skin of baked salmon cut into little squares just the way I like it?" Some mutt's looks can speak volumes. He'll then sniff the air and exit, stiff-legged. He'd rather starve than stoop to eat plain dog food.

I fret, of course, but try to hide my concern from the family.

"Don't worry, mom. He'll eat when he's hungry," my thirteen-year-old counsels.

"Yeah, mom, you spoil him," adds her older sister.

From his basket beside the refrigerator, Toby, with sunken eyes, looks at me reproachfully.

He's starting to emaciate already. I panic and rush to the pantry in search of a can of tuna. Casually I drain the oil over his biscuits.

"Whatcha doin, mom?"

"Oh just making tomorrow's lunch pack," I lie.

"Tuna again? Can't we have peanut butter and jam, this time?"

I think, sure you could, but I wouldn't want to be caught smearing peanut butter on kibble.

I replace Toby's bowl under his nose. He inspects it with displeasure. He too is sick of tuna. He'd rather go hungry.

"To hell with you then!" I sneer leaving him to waste away.

He sighs as I turn out the kitchen light.

Later that evening, as I prepare to take Toby out for his evening walk, I notice his biscuits slightly swollen from the tuna drippings but otherwise untouched. Too weak to leave his basket he watches me.

"Oh, all right then!" I concede knowing everyone has gone to bed and I won't get caught rooting through the fridge. Pulling out leftovers from that evening's meal, I take a wooden spoon and lovingly mix the mutt's biscuits with potatoes, zucchini, broccoli and cauliflower au gratin. As I place his special china bowl on the floor, Toby, reconsidering his hunger strike and summing his last vestiges of strength, leaps from basket to bowl in one mighty bound.

Delicately, my canine gourmet munches while I look on relieved.I'll sleep well tonight. At that precise moment my husband arrives in the kitchen. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he glances at our cur, then me and pronounces, "Sucker!"

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Parental Guidance

While living in the U.S.A., we noticed much was made of teenage drug use. Practically every small town we drove through had signs posted near the school announcing that it was drug free. I was never sure if this were wish or reality. Neither as it turned out. Apparently, anyone caught selling drugs within the borders of the drug free zone would have to pay higher fines than outside it. Within this area drug pushers’ overheads are high.
But drug abuse is of course not restricted to American schools. From the International School in Basel, we got a handout telling us that the administration decided to hire an outside agency, Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD) to raise parents’, teachers’ and students’ awareness of drug abuse.

It was the meeting with a representative of FCD, at the International School on December 17/99, that reminded me of our American experience, our European attitude, and a conversation I had with our youngest daughter two years ago in the USA. There, we frequently received reports in the mail or handed out from the school on teenage drinking and drug use. We were encouraged to be ever vigilant with our children, that we police their parties, their lives and our liquor cabinets. In our family, we’ve never really fussed about alcohol intake. I suppose it’s our European background that led us to think it’s not a sin to take the occasional glass of wine, beer or other alcohol. Over the years we’ve built up quite a substantial cellar of good wines we must get round to enjoying, before we have an equally substantial collection of good wine vinegars. In any event, prompted by school handouts, newspaper reports, school meetings, television warnings, bill board and radio campaigns against the evil drink, the devil weed and demon drugs, I decided I had best speak to my daughter and started by casually asking her:

“Do you drink?”
“Oh Mom, you know I do.”
“You do? What do you drink?”
“I dunno. Whatever you offer me. Riesling at Thanksgiving.”
“Oh right… did you like it?”
“Wasn’t bad with some ginger ale.”
“Of course, with a little ginger ale, but—do you drink at other times?”
“Sure mom—don’t you remember last Christmas? We drank some Pinot gris?”
“Right, right, Pinot gris you say?”
“Or Pinot noir, something pee no.”
“So what about marijuana, if you wanted some, would you know where to get it?”
“Sure. What’s this all about, mom?”
“Well you know Petra, it says in the school newsletter that I’ve got to talk to you?”
“Yeah? What about?”
“About drugs, alcohol dangers and family values.”
“You know we do our best to set a good example?”
“Yeah, so?”
“Let’s start with drugs,” I said, looking for my cigarette lighter.
“Mom, I don’t do drugs.”
“You don’t?’
“But you would know where to get them if you wanted them?”
“SCHOOL! What do you mean at school? It’s supposed to be a drug-free zone, all the signs say so.” I pulled a cigarette from the pack.
“Geez, Mom. You can be so gullible. You can’t believe everything you read, you know.”
“No, I guess not,” I whimpered. “So what sort of drugs can you get at school?”
“Everything, meaning?”
“Marijuana, crack, ecstasy, coke…”
“Coke? Since when is a Coke a drug? They were supposed to have taken out…”
“Not a Coke, mom, coke. Co-caine.”
“Oh, right. Have you ever tried any of these?’
“Naw, why would I wanna spend all that money to wreck my body?”
“Good point,” I agreed, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Book Worm

Whenever I enter a room whose ambiance pleases me, my head automatically tilts to my right shoulder and I find myself, before even beginning to engage in meaningful chatter, involuntarily sidling along the bookshelf-lined walls. It’s not an uncommon tic. I’ve often seen others suffering from it in my own living room. Many a time, with a wine glass in each hand, I’m confronted by my guest’s back, his head also skewed at this uncomfortable angle. Of late, however, my bookshelves have offered slim pickings. I doubt that my collection awakens quite the awe, envy and covetousness other personal libraries do, ever since I’ve begun to ruthlessly weed out the fluff. It’s not that I fear being judged by the books I keep; it’s just that after carting books from one continent to another, I have begun to feel the burden of ownership. Potboilers are easily the first to go, if not to any of the local libraries boasting an English section, then to a needy neighbour keen to improve his use of the English idiom.

I find it difficult not to find a new home for my books. I’ve tried telling myself they’re only paper ever since some thirty years ago, I watched a bookstore clerk rip the covers off books he planned to return to the publisher.

“They’re just paper,” he explained, catching my horrified expression.

Some books I toss with alacrity, Lord of the Rings for example, more like bored of the rings as far as I’m concerned. The most Tolkien’s trilogy ever did for me was induce guilt for not being able to say I’d read it. So too, do I toss should-have-read-but-never-did-and-probably-never-will-novels, classics excluded.

Books that have turned to dust are made to bite it, like the thirty-year-old copy of Slaughterhouse Five that crumbled in my fingers. I chucked it, elastic band and all. Commonsense dictates that duplicate copies should pose the least problem, but they pose the greatest. Whose volume to dump, mine or my husband’s? One criterion for reshelving the peripatetic tomes was that hard covers usually prevail over soft, except once, when both kept their ground.

I had recently married and since I planned to live happily ever after, decided we could as easily share a book as a bed. (My husband would deny this, not the part about the bed, but the bit about the book. He just has to hint that a book he’s reading might interest me or guffaw once, and by the next evening it will have migrated to my bedside table, never to find its way back unless sought and forcibly returned.)

When it came to the Odyssey, it was an ode of a different genre. We owned both a hard and a soft cover edition. Logically mine, the paperback, should have been tossed in the trash but his Homer was older, worn and musty smelling, altogether less attractive than my pristine copy. Just before pitching it, I glanced inside hubby’s high school Homer. From beginning to end, it was annotated in his handwriting.

“Can you read this?” I challenged.

He opened the book.

“Μήνιν άειδε, Θεά, Πηληιάδεω Άχιλη̃ος ούλομένην η̃ μνρΐ Άχιοι̃ς άλγε’ ̉έϑĸε, πολλάς δ΄ίφϑίμους δέ ξλώρια τεύχε κύυεσσιυ οι̉ωυοι̃οί τε πάσι—Διός δ̉ ε̉τελείετο βουλή—ε̉ξ ού δή τά πρώτα διαστήτηυ ε̉̉̉ ρισαυτε Άχιλλεύς! he said, or words to that effect.

Adirondack Chair

Without the slightest preamble, a chair appeared in our back yard. It was large, white, wooden and hideously uncomfortable. As a child, I would sit in it and wonder why I bothered. My butt literally sank to the bottom of this chair not because it was cushioned, but because the seat tilted at a sixty-five degree angle. I’d slide down leaving my legs reaching up toward the branches of a pear tree, on the far side of the garden. As I hauled myself up to the top of the seat, I wondered how adults could be comfortable in such a thing? Once I reached adulthood, I imagined, this would become clear to me, as many such things would. I also thought that if my feet could only touch the ground it might even be comfortable to sit with my knees higher than my crotch. And maybe by that time, I'd also be able to cross my legs!

I never saw my father sit in this chair. I suspected he constructed it in our basement during one of those never ending Canadian winters. (I never went down to the basement. Monsters lived there, many of them gorilla-like.) Year after year “the chair” would appear in the back yard, always sparkling white and well maintained. Summer after summer I'd sit in it, always hoping this would be the year to sit on it, not in it—comfortably. That summer never arrived.

At some point the chair was replaced by something more expensive, more elegant and more comfortable—a chase lounge. At least that’s what I thought my mother called it. I supposed it got the name because you could 1) lounge on it and 2) hold it like a wheelbarrow while chasing the dog with it.

In the meantime, while the intruder chaise settled in, the huge wooden chair began to decline. The armrests rotted. That was indeed a pity. Those broad, plank-like arms could support an oversized glass of tangerine Kool-Aid or two, unless the seat was unoccupied and someone chose to sit on the other armrest. Then the chair would, in one fell, flying swoop, relinquish all its glasses of Kool-Aid (no matter what flavour).

I don't know what happened to that chair. It disappeared as abruptly as it appeared. The only concrete evidence of it ever having existed is a photo of my brother, my best friend, her sister and me, all being supported magnanimously by this chair.

I never knew another family in my town to have such a chair. They had light, tubular, aluminum, fold-up jobs—useless for child support.

In North America, I occasionally see a couple of these elegant white garden chairs parading like swans across a vast expanse of emerald green lawn.

No one is ever sitting in them.