Blowin’ in the Wind

March 20, the 25th day since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the war rages on. Closing in on four weeks and the images of destruction accumulate, worsening, disturbing.  Each morning I wake to read the BBC news feed on the latest developments, peruse the stories in the Globe and on the CBC, scroll through Facebook. Today Bohdan shared yet another collage of the devastation, this set from  Mariupol. The scenes are unimaginable.

Olga too is consumed by the war, following events, reading the stories of bravery, of determination, of courage, of heartbreak. We just finished listening to Andre Rieu introduce a Ukrainian singer at a March 1st concert in the Netherlands. “Music puts people together”, he said. “If the world would make music together the world  will be a better place.” The problem is that Putin is tone deaf and sings from his own sheets.

Olga discovered a Spotify playlist of songs about the war in Ukraine, some new, some original songs of the partisan army, some remakes to capture a new generation. Occasionally she sings along with the words, taught by her father who fought in the insurgent army for an independent Ukraine, as tears roll down her cheek. I don’t understand the language, yet the anguish, the commitment, the sorrow is clear.

Daily images of the atrocities confound a belief in progress, of learning from our past, of faith in the process. The Peter, Paul and Mary version of Blowin’ in the Wind is the song on continual play in my mind.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?

And how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?

Dead bodies are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Georgia, Yugoslavia, Syria.

Ukraine.

And how many times must we sing this sad song,

Before the music is no longer played?

The answer, dear world, is take some action now,

The answer is take some action now.

Us and Them

In my second year as a full time faculty member at Seneca College in 1990, I was teaching a mathematics course for the General Arts and Science program. The content was remedial algebra and all the students were enrolled because they failed an aptitude test. The rest of their cohort were in higher levels while these students were relegated to the lowest rung and considered themselves to be less. No one wanted to be there and my role was as much about motivation and confidence building as it was in developing mastery of the subject matter. My casual banter with students was an attempt to establish comfort.

In one of those conversations I discovered that Anton oversaw the student radio station which broadcast inside the campus, piped into all of the cafeterias. We exchanged favourite music until I jokingly asked “so when can I get my own radio show?” He pondered the question for a moment and responded, “there is an opening for an hour on Friday afternoons. Can you start next week?” I accepted.

My DJ days continued in the fall into November on the Friday before Remembrance Day. I dedicated the entire hour to music about war as could be found in the studio’s collection along with a handful of my own records, hoping to raise some thoughtfulness and reflection. The play list included “Fortunate Son” (Credence Clearwater Revival), “Spanish Bombs” (The Clash), “Orange Crush” (REM), “Life During Wartime” (Talking Heads), “Imagine” (John Lennon) and “Us and Them” by Pink Floyd.

The war in Ukraine has resurrected that memory, making me realize the suffering of the people will be included in future commemorations. As I cringe with every new photograph of the bombings, as I watch the Ukrainian president plea for more help in closing the skies, as I listen to the rationale of Western leaders for not providing cover, I am reminded of the lyrics for “Us and Them”. Only in this scenario the Us and the Them are between countries on the same side and not between opposing combatants.

Listen to the tune in your head, sing the lyrics, follow the quotes and pictures.

Us

“We seek no conflict. But if conflict comes to us, we are ready for it, and we will defend every inch of NATO territory.”

U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin

and Them

“We are not part of this conflict.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in denying Ukraine’s request for a No Fly Zone

And after all, we’re only ordinary men

Me and you


God only knows, it’s not what we would choose to do

“If it’s the intention of Moscow to try somehow to topple the government and install its own puppet regime, 45 million Ukrainians are going to reject that one way or the other.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died

“This is the worst military aggression in Europe for decades … the days to come are likely to be worse, with more deaths, more suffering and more destruction.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

The General sat, and the lines on the map
Moved from side to side

Down and out
It can’t be helped, but there’s a lot of it about

With, without
And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about

Volodymyr Zelensky portrayed the role of the president of Ukraine in the television series Servant of the People before winning the 2019 election to become the real thing. The rhetoric surrounding the refusal of NATO to introduce a No Fly Zone, despite the constant pleas and the ongoing carnage, reminds me of another fictitious president who mused about involvement in an African genocide as part of West Wing, Episode 14, Season 4, Inauguration Part 1 in 2003. The discussion is about the content of President Bartlett’s second inauguration speech. Read and substitute Ukrainian for Kudanese:

President Bartlett: What’s hard is that foreign policy has become a statement of what we won’t do.

Will Bailey: Yes sir.

President Bartlett reading: “A new doctrine for a new century based not just on our interests but on our values across the world.” Wow, that’s pretty spicy stuff.

Will Bailey: You wrote it sir.

President Bartlett: Yeh, I know. … Why is a Kudanese life worth less to me than an American life?

Will Bailey: I don’t know sir, but it is.

It is easy to be an armchair prime minister or president especially from the comforts of my computer on the other side of the ocean from the war. It won’t be me or my children flying the jets or wearing the boots on the ground.

For want of the price of tea and a slice
The old man died

I don’t know how the war will end, yet it must. For us. And them.

“All the people who will die starting from this day will also die because of you. Because of your weakness, because of your disunity,”

The sky is falling, falling down
I’ll be waiting for you, for you, for you
On the dark side of the moon

Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

If I had a rocket launcher

In 1981 I was enrolled as a second year student at King’s College of the University of Western Ontario in the Sociology program. Several of my professors were left-wing matching my own political leanings so I was invited to participate in a Marxist reading group. Students and faculty would gather at one professors home each week to discuss a pre-assigned reading about, for example, the plight of El Salvador, a Central American country ravaged economically by multi-national corporations, its people tortured by a brutal dictatorship propped up by the United States government. The words and the wine would flow, people largely agreeing on the circumstances, arguing about the theoretical underpinnings, bemoaning the general apathy amongst fellow students, faculty, and citizens.

Fast forward to 1987; married, a Masters degree, two children, a mortgage, I was a faculty member on contract at Seneca College, attempting to become full time, teaching whatever course was offered because I needed the work. I had befriended several colleagues, most full time, all on the left hand side of the political spectrum. A number of us could be found in the Liberal Studies lounge, debating the plight of workers, the ineptitude of our provincial and national governments, and the state of contract negotiations between our union brethren and the scurrilous college management.

Economic and military imperialism was also on the menu of topics, parceled with a debate on the merits of the Frankfurt School. Salvatore Torres* , a fellow contract faculty with a young family, was particularly engaged in the discussion, trained in political economy and having lived in Colombia. He could banter the theory and the ideology with the most learned of the group and he brought a dose of reality to the conversation. I will never forget the description of his lived experience, where the best protection for his family against the roving hit squads wasn’t the eloquent words he learned at university but the unmistakable persuasion of his AK47.

On February 24, 2022, diplomacy failed to stem the demonic aspirations of Vladimir Putin and the Russian army began their invasion of Ukraine.

I attended the March for Ukrainians in downtown Toronto with Olga, our daughter and her partner’s family, along with 30,000 people. The crowd listened to predictable speeches from politicians and Ukrainian organizations as people chanted and sang and cheered. Amongst the rhetoric was a plea for money, apart from a donation for humanitarian aid, specifically for the purchase of combat equipment. The Ukrainian government had issued rifles and automatic weapons to every citizen of Kyiv willing to take up arms in defense of their country against the invaders. The march attendees were urged to dig deep because the collection would be to purchase protective vests at a cost of $500 each for these brave men and women fighting along side soldiers but without the equipment.

At home, I caught up on the latest news and watched an interview with a Ukrainian member of parliament. Kira Rudik was articulate and resolute, armed and ready to exchange fire with Russian troops.

Ukrainian MP takes up arms to join the fight against Russian forces. Screen capture of a CBC interview with Kira Rudik pictured here brandishing her weapon.

She described long queues of people, men and women, lined up waiting to acquire their weapon; others were making their own molotov cocktails to thwart the Russian army. Ukrainians living abroad were urged to return home and join the fight. Countries around the world were united in imposing sanctions but would not join in the battle; Ukrainians would be on their own.

Salvatore Torres’ story became Ukraine’s.

“Those of us already living in free societies owe Ukrainians a great debt of gratitude. Their courage has reminded us of the nobility of sacrifice for just causes. … What Ukrainians have done is inspire [the West] to shake ourselves out of our torpor and create policies of assistance to them, in the hopes that we might one day prove worthy of becoming their ally.” ( Putin Accidently Revitalized the West’s Liberal Order. Kori Schake. The Atlantic. ) https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2022/02/vladimir-putin-ukraine-invasion-liberal-order/622950/

When Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the President of Ukraine, was offered evacuation by the Americans, he vowed to remain in Kyiv and responded, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

The West has begun to supply. Canada announced the provision of anti-tank missiles. Germany, reversing it’s own ban on the distribution of weapons, will be providing Ukrainian troops with 1,000 anti-tank weapons as well as 500 Stinger missiles from its own military reserves. Sweden broke with it’s policy of not selling arms to any side during a military conflict and will be sending missile systems. Not the specific armaments requested but ones more accessible to fighting civilians: “easy to operate, doesn’t require training and can be handled by a single soldier.” https://www.thelocal.se/20220227/sweden-to-send-bofors-anti-tank-weapons-to-ukraine-in-break-with-doctrine/

And still every hour brings more images of destruction, of human suffering, of desperation.

If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

* The story is true although Salvatore Torres is a pseudonym.

I want to raise every voice, at least I’ve got to try. Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes. Situation desperate, echoes of the victims cry. If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die. Bruce Cockburn. 1984

Stand by me

My Catholic elementary school was populated by a number of ethnic groups, situated in a working class neighbourhood on the east side of London, Ontario. St. Roberts had a history of being rough and it was not uncommon for fights to break out in the school yard amongst fellow students or with the rival protestant school or with those from the Christian Reform who dared cross our playground.

Naturally, St. Roberts had its share of bullies who marauded unchallenged during the lunch hour, terrorizing others at will. I managed to avoid these confrontations largely because I was buttressed by two of my brothers, one of whom was particularly deft with the fisticuffs, not reluctant to use them for self defense or in the cause of others. One incident, however, in Grade 6, continues to conjure vivid pictures and a lasting impression.

Sean Murphy, a fiery red head with a temper to match, stood a head taller than me and possessed man-size fists. He was surrounded by a cadre of smaller sycophants who succumbed to Sean’s malicious will as a form of self-preservation and protection. On this spring day, Sean had made it his business to torment Kendal Bonner, a fellow classmate although not part of my close friends. Sean had pulled Kendal’s arm behind his back, extracting painful cries of agony, yanking ever harder, pressing for a complete surrender. I was shooting hoops nearby, suddenly aware, realizing no one was attempting to intervene, when I heaved the basketball directly at Sean, hitting him squarely in the back.

Sean released Kendal immediately then whirled his head towards me, eyes ablaze with anger. I stood my ground as Sean took several steps before pummeling me with three hard punches to the head. It was over; I was beaten and everyone scattered. By the end of recess, my left cheek had swelled, the eye was red with bloodshot, matching an egg shaped purple welt. I sat at my desk, crying from the pain, abiding by the school yard code of not snitching. Eventually Mrs. Turner noticed, extracted the story and likely administered some form of punishment to the perpetrator.

I don’t know why Sean was abusing Kendal. It didn’t matter. I don’t recall what was going through my head when I decided to intervene and tackle someone who completely outmatched me. All I know is that a fellow classmate needed help, and I utilized what limited resources were in my possession to stop a bully.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

The last words from the Snake Island 13 who refused to surrender in defense of their country.

Let it snow

“You don’t have to shovel rain.”

I was reminded again this past weekend of my father’s saying after three hours of clearing the accumulated snow fall at the cottage. Some work was self-imposed, shoveling my way to the ice beneath in an annual effort to make a skating rink on the lake. Fortunately, the 200 foot lane is plowed by the neighbour saving one prohibitive task. Carving a pathway to the lake and clearing the stairs to the basement, however, continually tests my aging body. I can see some of your eyes rolling while muttering, “talk to me about a real problem”, to which I produce exhibit A from three weeks earlier at our home.

The worst part is the end of the driveway where the snow plow dumps an almost impassable pile.

Toronto received what felt to be a full winter’s equivalent of snow in one day. Add the pile from the sidewalk plow and the road tractors and you have a morning and an afternoon of pushing, lifting and throwing hip’s deep snow piled ever higher. Our dog, Odin, accompanies me on these ventures. He gets his own shovel although he still has not grasped the concept, preferring to gnaw on the handle rather than endure the strain of dragging a load to the side.

Growing up in Southwestern Ontario, I was very familiar with the demands of living within the snowbelt. Shoveling the driveway was an expectation for everyone in the family, starting at a very young age, no slackers allowed.

Our Dad began the day shift at 7:00 am which meant leaving the house at 6:30. If it snowed heavy overnight, Mom would get everyone out of their bed and out onto the driveway at 6:00 am to ensure the car could leave. Then we had to follow the vehicle up the unplowed dead end street, providing the extra push where needed and ensuring the car was able to ram through the tsunami wave of snow onto the highway. The plow eventually cleared the street leaving enough to cover the gravel road, all ready for us road hockey warriors.

We spent hours on the street with a hard orange ball or a puck, using chunks of ice for goal posts.

I don’t recall being hindered by the snow. The cost of downhill skiing and organized hockey eliminated our participation. We found other avenues: tobogganing, forts for snowball fights, backyard ice rinks, or trudging to the frozen creek. The latter two activities meant work in preparation, warming us up for the fun itself.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” or simply relying on the advantages of youth to ward off the cold. We aren’t young anymore so attitude and a warm attire have become our saviours. Olga and I woke to -27 C yesterday morning and proceeded to don our snow pants and assorted seasonal accoutrements to embark on Odin’s daily constitutional. The air was clean and fresh, the sun was shining. It was glorious. Last night was peaceful and calm as Olga and I followed the cottage road without a flashlight, led only by the brightness of a full moon on the white snow, kept company by the crunching beneath our feet. At one point we stopped and drank in the silence, gazing at the constellations. Today I skated on my ice rink, stick handling around Odin, raising my arms in jubilation after an imagined goal. We ended the day relaxed on the bench, quietly breathing in the beauty of the lake.

Forecast for Thursday: plus 6 and rain.

Just don’t call me late for dinner

My name is Henricus Gerardus Decock, at least according to my birth certificate. Those who know me are raising an eyebrow; those reading the “About” page are confused, understandably. I seldom refer to myself in that manner. According to the website, behindthename.com , “Henricus is the Latinized form of Heinrich. As a Dutch name, it is used on birth certificates though a vernacular form such as [Henry] is typically used in daily life.” Try explaining the distinction to an officious organization like the World Bank or an American border guard at the airport. Neither were amused with my usual quip, “only my wife calls me Henricus, and only when she is angry”. The joke did not engender even the slightest smile.

I am named after my two grandfathers: Henricus on my mother’s side, Gerardus on my father’s. Not a surprising choice but also very unimaginative. My birth occurred 360 days after my older brother, Gerardus Henricus. We are Catholic twins with reversible names. Peter Cornelis (spelt incorrectly) came into the world thirteen months later burdening my mother with three kids under the age of three.

Photo of the three amigos, probably in the fall of 1961. I am the cute one on the left.

Peter was named after our father although I don’t recall anyone referring to him as junior; certainly the moniker did not stick. He might have qualified as the third of a triplet except there are two issues with his birth certificate. First, his given name needed to be Petrus to be consistent with the Latin versions of myself and Gerardus; and most importantly, his surname is different: De Cock instead of Decock.

We have developed our own theory on this curiosity. Our mother was the parent who completed the birth registration for Gary and myself. In her attempt to assimilate, she anglicized the spelling. Our father, for some unknown reason, was responsible for Peter’s documentation and simply kept everything status quo. Mom would always sign her surname Decock while Dad consistently wrote De Cock. I employ what is written on my birth certificate as does Peter.

Michael came along four years later and was named after… no one. Breaking with tradition, my parents decided to select a name they both liked. The rest of us might have questioned his relationship to the family except his middle name is after the oldest living brother of my mother, Herman; and there are pictures of him as a baby.

Not definitive proof the baby is Michael, but as good as it gets.

When Gary was young, he had difficulty pronouncing Henry. His effort resulted in Hi-yo (phonetic spelling) which he said with such frequency all the other children in the neighbourhood did the same. Their parents would talk to my mother, asking about Gary, Hi-yo and Peter. Eventually Henry became the norm.

I have had people preferring the French version, Henri, and I can count on one hand the people who call me Hank. The first was our mechanic in London, the man with no front teeth and an infectious laugh. Then there was Ann and Carol both in the registration office at work, each of the rough and tumble kind. And finally there is my best friend, Ron, from whom I hear Hammerin’ Hank from time to time, reflecting our love of baseball.

Regardless, all my credit cards, employment records, school records, email accounts, and virtually everything else identifies me as Henry Decock, which brings us back to the beginning of this post.

Shortly after 9-11, I was travelling to the United States for a conference. The airline ticket was purchased bearing the name Henry Decock. Passing through customs the ever serious American border guard looked at the ticket, then at my passport, up at me, then back to the passport before saying, “The names don’t match.” I proceeded to explain while he pecked away on the computer, sideways glancing every fifteen seconds. I had never had an issue before. The ongoing delay was making me nervous until he finally stamped my passport and waved me along. Welcome to America. Forthwith all my airline tickets are bought for Henricus Gerardus Decock.

Most recently, I have been in a vigorous tug-of-war with the IT people at the World Bank. I began working for the organization as a higher education consultant which required my passport as identification. So, I am Henricus Gerardus in their system. In order to get paid, I submitted a voided cheque and instructions on how to transfer the funds to my bank account to the IT department. All good except, “The names don’t match.” I wrote a lengthy email explaining how the bank uses my passport and drivers licence as proof of my identity for an account in the name of Henry Decock. The issue was passed up to HR with whom I went further showing how every card, ownership, email, work record and pension are all issued to a Henry Decock. HR referred the matter back to IT who responded, “The names don’t match.” I escalated the problem to my immediate supervisor who was sympathetic, apologized for the bureaucracy, admitted my particular case was unusual, and suggested I petition the bank to verify my identity. Back to the bank who would not guarantee any external funds bearing Henricus Gerardus would be accepted into the account for Henry Decock for fear of money laundering. I cried Uncle, relented and allowed to have my account name changed, over the phone. I notified IT. Hopefully I will get paid now.

Henricus, Henry, Henri, Hank, or Hi-yo are all fine with me, as long as the cheque doesn’t bounce.

Pics or it didn’t happen

The ubiquity of digital and cell phone photography has translated into the accumulation of thousands of photographs by individual people, many shared through some form of social media, the bulk stored on the devices themselves or on terabyte size hard drives. There is no risk in continually pressing the button. Mistakes, blurriness and bad angles are easily deleted. The special moments, the everyday, the mundane; nothing goes unrecorded, such that proof of the event or activity or the person attending and participating is demanded for verification: pics or it didn’t happen.

Those of us from a particular vintage recall the days of film with a very limited set of pictures, 24 or 36 image rolls, curled up inside a camera where a little motor purrs automatically to advance to the next frame, or you would manually drag the lever across the back with your thumb to prepare for another shot. Without a preview, and no opportunity to redo, you spent time framing and focusing, holding your hands steady, ready to depress the button at the precise moment, hoping the resulting photograph was usable. After picking up the developed role from specialized shops, you flipped through the prints, disappointed in half, surprised at the rest.

Many fuzzy pictures were saved, occupying a space in the photo binders stacked on the shelves, kept in spite of the quality. Photographs were treasured, retained regardless of condition, folded or damaged, because it was the last one of a relative, or a scene, or a memory. They were carried in breast pockets, close to the heart; wallet sized copies were produced to be ported and shared in company – “let me show you a picture of my wife, my kids, my boyfriend, my family”. Albums were to be gifted in preservation of the family history.

I was reminded of the change in photography practice recently while reviewing our expansive digital collection in an attempt to corral its proliferation of disparate files scattered across iphones and androids, old and new laptops, usb sticks and portable hard drives, copies and originals and retouched versions. Amongst the morass was our 2007 visit to the Netherlands accompanied by Dad for his first return back since my mother died two years earlier. We made a short trip into Belgium to visit Bruges and Ghent and various World War I memorials including Vimy Ridge. Dad’s primary reason, however, was to visit family, his own and Mom’s, those who still remained. One important stop was an afternoon with Dad’s endearing, older sister, my aunt, Tante Toos.

Tante Toos opening the tabernacle to offer a drink, including her favourite: sherry.

A lively conversation ensued, conducted in Dutch because Tante Toos and Oom Gert (who chauffeured us to her home in the community care facility) possessed very little grasp of English. I understand colloquial Dutch but dared not speak it; Olga knew only a word or two (definitely more than my Ukrainian). I simultaneously translated the banter, whispering my understanding to her; Dad conveyed our contribution to his siblings. Hand gestures, pantomime, smiles and laughter completed the rest. Eventually their thoughts shifted to the family tree.

“Even eens wacht jonges. Ik wil wat foto’s laten zien.”

Tante Toos sifting through her archive of family photographs.

From inside the book cabinet, top shelf, Tante Toos pulled out a cardboard box. She slowly lowered herself back onto the chair, settled the container on her lap. Hunched over the makeshift vault, my aunt carefully removed the lid and began digging into the archives. With deliberate motion, she lifted one photo at a time, selecting special ones with the other hand before splaying them on the coffee table.

“Ah Piet, onthoud deze. Het was op de bruiloft van Jo en Kees. Je moet het bewaren.”

It was a picture of Tante Toos and Dad, as young adults, smiling proudly, brother and sister standing side by side, having just witnessed the marriage of another sibling, Tante Jo.

“Kijk naar deze. Mijn grootouders, jullie overgrootouders.”

Tante Toos handed over several photos, worn at the edges, slightly yellowed. Small squares of thick paper, portraits of my great grandparents, photos I had never seen before. She dug deeper, contemplating each new revelation, removing one more for her audience.

“Hier is er een met je vader op de schoot van zijn grootvader.”

Another black and white, evidence of a corner fold, spotted lightly, taken in the back of the rowhouse in Tilburg. Dad was a child, approximately two, dirty, perched on the lap of his grandfather, his own father standing behind, smiling at the scene. It was the only copy still in existence.

Tante Toos then recalled stumbling upon old photos of people and families in flea markets, sold as antiques and decoration. She feared ending up on some dusty table, sold to passing customers. Better to be rid of all the pictures than to be scattered to the walls of strangers as some form of curiosity. She wanted to be spared that indignity.

Tante Toos gathered up the photographs and the box was closed. We posed for a few pictures and hugged our goodbyes for the last time. It was a precious moment, captured digitally, resurfaced for this post, stored in my memory bank until age erodes the story.

The last photo with Tante Toos, August 2007.

Tante Toos passed away in 2009. She instructed the executor of her will to destroy all her pictures. They disappeared, as if their subject matter never happened. I cannot imagine what she would think of her pictures displayed here, on the internet, potentially to live on forever in some file, her pixels possibly sold and monetized, floating in a cloud until it bursts.

I understand Oom Gert hung on to a handful of photos but abided by her wishes and discarded the bulk of them. I hope one day to search through what he deemed necessary to retain, maybe copying them for myself. I think about what will become of them when Oom Gert passes on and if this chain of family history will be buried forever.

We have pictures of Tante Toos in our possession, mostly when she visited Canada, stored in binders of my parents. There is an album of photos when she visited Uncle Kees in Uganda, the two perpetually connected. Many have found a new home in another box, tucked in the corner of the basement. We cherish our own pictures of her, captured digitally, uncovered on occasion. None, however, bear witness to the essence of Tante Toos’s life, her service to others. No pictures of living at home with aging parents after the rest of the family moved on. No pictures of nursing my grandmother paralyzed by a stroke. No pictures of working in a home for mentally challenged youth so they have some semblance of independence. The loving sibling, the doting aunt, the devoted daughter, giving and sharing with the extended de Cock family happened even if many of the pics no longer exist.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

December 2021 has come to an end, finishing with my monthly review of books read. The year began in a flurry, ending with a mere trickle in the remaining three months.

The last book for the year was a memoir, recommended by the instructor for the writing course. For the same reasons my reading petered out, I wasn’t able to keep pace with the weekly exercises. Fortunately, the material remains accessible for life allowing me to return to them whenever I have the opportunity.

Hidden Lives by Margaret Forster was suggested as an example on how to write about “a parent or grandparent and trying to conjure people or a period of time they did not live themselves”. The title and the subject matter attracted me, thinking about documenting the life of my Uncle Kees as a missionary in Uganda, a history I am attempting to piece together; so, I ordered a used paperback copy.

Penguin Books, 1996. 309 pages.

“Margaret Forster (25 May 1938 – 8 February 2016) was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian and critic, best known for the 1965 novel Georgy Girl, made into a successful film of the same name, which inspired a hit song by The Seekers. Other successes were a 2003 novel, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizasbeth Barret Browning, and her memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives.” (Wikipedia) Hidden Lives begins with a funeral after which a woman approaches the three sisters (the author’s mother included) about the will, and whether she was included. The sisters were completely unaware of this person’s identity, discovered later to be the illegitimate child of their mother, Margaret’s grandmother, who managed to keep secret the first 23 years of her life. Margaret researches official records from city offices and churches, unable to uncover much detail or information, remaining a mystery forever. The essence of the memoir, however, is about the circumstances of ordinary, working class women in late 19th and early 20th century England. The strength of this memoir is the evocation of that experience and the impact on their lives, hidden from the standard texts of our times.

Wikipedia

Hidden Lives is written in the third person up until page 132 when the author, Margaret, turns five and her “own real memory begins, real in the sense that I can not only recall actual events but can propel myself back to them, be there again”. With a grandmother of the same name, I found the depiction confusing, unclear as to who was conveying the story. The switch to first person was abrupt and suddenly everything made more sense.

Aside from this quirk in style, Margaret Foster’s description of her mother’s life, and her life with her mother strikes me as reflective of every working class family with the daily struggles of maintaining a home and growing up. Their world is bereft of sensational events or family crisis or sexual improprieties or awakened identities. The father is part of the picture, but the focus is on Lilian, the mother, and on Margaret, the eldest child. There are numerous moments when I could envision substituting the characters with my mother or our family situation as a child. I think particularly of the description of how Lilian had given up her respected job and potential career in order to marry and become a mother, fulfilling the role for woman of her time and class. My mother had forsaken a career in nursing.

Margaret Forster best describes the purpose of the book for the reader and for herself:

It gives me such satisfaction to prove, to myself at least, that what I hoped was true is true – my chances, my lot, my expectations, born as I was into working-class family in which women had always served rather than led, were always hundreds of times better than my grandmother’s or mother’s. All of us, all three representatives of different generations, always have put family first but in my case, in the case of my generation, it has not been at ruinous cost. (p.306)…..Everything, for a woman, is better now, even if it is still not as good as it could be. To forget or deny that is an insult to the women who have gone before, women like my grandmother and mother. (p.307)

Looking back at the very first post about my parents, entitled All I’ve Got is a Photograph, the appeal of this memoir was evident: “My parents lives and that of their immediate families are those of the ordinary people seldom discussed in the history books or eulogized in documentaries or glamorized in the movies” ; and in the obituary for my Uncle Kees, as recorded in the post, Server to Everyone, which read in part: “A legendary figure? No one with such recognition would laugh harder than Kees himself. He was true, and truly an ordinary man”. Their life is a story rarely told.

Looking forward, Hidden Lives provides encouragement to continue with my posts as markers of these lives; that the descriptions are of interest to those with similar backgrounds; that the stories are a memory to other members of the family; that they serve as a history for the next generation; and as importantly, that in writing, I learn more about myself and the impact of these lives on who I have become.

For 2022, I will continue to blog about the books I am reading as an occasional post, when they are completed, just not necessarily at the end of each month. I wish everyone much happiness in the upcoming year, and, of course, happy reading.

Christmas Present

I remember my first Ukrainian Christmas. Olga and I were not married yet. Although I had met her parents earlier in the summer, visiting Toronto for a weekend, the occasion would be my initial introduction to Olga’s brother, Bohdan. For those unaware, Ukrainian Catholicism follows the Julian calendar meaning Christmas Eve is January 6 and Easter occurs on the same day as the “English” version only every few years. The difference has a distinct advantage for mixed couples – you don’t need to split the holiday between parents.

That first Christmas was an important early lesson in the Ukrainian language. Bohdan took me aside to teach me a critical word: veen (my phonetic spelling). It translates as “him”. He explained that when you hear it spoken among the guests who have arrived, you know they are talking about you. I have kept my ear open ever since.

Christmas Eve was also my introduction to the Ukrainian Church. The Kordan family was enjoying the evening, listening to a special broadcast, entirely in Ukrainian, words and songs, all Greek to my ears, as Olga’s Mom was preparing to attend midnight mass. It was apparent no one would be joining her and I was told she would get there by public transit. I found it odd she would go alone, and given my car habits considered the subway/bus alternative as particularly onerous; so I volunteered to accompany her, driving my vehicle. (Or maybe I was subconsciously attempting to endear myself to Olga’s parents?) Everyone else looked at me with puzzlement, shrugged their shoulders and away we went.

I was clueless, with no idea what would happen next. There were no seats available at the church, so we stood in the balcony for the two hour service, entirely in Ukrainian, with vaguely familiar elements, parishioners constantly making the sign of the cross, always in threes, from beginning to end, until the final “Ameen” which concluded the service. I have not participated in the Ukrainian Christmas Eve mass since.

That Christmas would be the first gift exchange between Olga and myself. My present was a wooden candle holder, capped with hurricane glass, which, somewhat coincidentally, resembled the CN Tower. The piece was retained for several years before it found its way to Value Village. Olga, on the other hand, decided to learn the art of knitting and spent numerous weeks creating a beautiful scarf for me. It is a three feet long, six inch wide, variegated pattern of brown, white and grey thick yarn, making it the warmest wrapping in the closet for my neck. It remains one of my most memorable gifts and the first choice for those cold winter days.

I remember our first “English” Christmas as a married couple, housed in our tiny apartment on Victoria Street in London, Ontario. The elfish tree was bought for five dollars from the A&P parking lot immediately behind our three story walk up, in direct view of our balcony. The only purchased decoration was the lighted circle of poinsettias serving as our topping; the small string of lights were a gift from my parents, and the decorations were hand made, teddy bears with cute red ribbon ties. Olga and I began our tradition of baking cookies by inviting my parents and brothers, Gary and Michael (Peter was not yet in London for the holidays) for a hilarious evening of dough and icing and beer.

Money was tight so we decided to limit our gift budget for each other to $10, not including tax. Even in 1983, the amount was a challenge if your desire was to purchase something of quality with lasting value. Olga appreciated antiques, be it furniture or pottery or jewelry. We had spent Sundays in Toronto at the antique market at Harbourfront and perused stores in London for bargains. I thought to find a treasure within the price range when I stumbled upon a delicate, eggshell, hand-painted tea cup and saucer. It was perfect, ringing in at $10.70 (seven percent sales tax).

I was proud of myself as Olga unwrapped the box, thrilled by the gift. It quickly found a place on the shelf of our antique wooden bookcase with the glass door and remains in our collection of fine pottery and dishware. Olga’s gift for me was a pair of vice grips; exactly what every practical guy needs. The memory will forever remain, unlike the tool which disappeared many years ago.

I remember the first Chirstmas without family gathered around the tree, last December, the year the Grinch made his attempt to spoil the season. The province had imposed strict limits for any kind of gathering making celebrating together, in person, both unadvisable and technically illegal. COVID was surging so the prudent decision was to celebrate virtually with family. Olga and I, however, wanted to add a little twist, try to include some fun, make the most of the situation. We purchased matching festive suits and visited our children’s homes as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus on December 24.

We met the two couples, Nicholas & Chiu, then Olena & Daniel, outdoors, at their respective homes and sang Christmas carols, identifying four in advance, requiring them to make a request for two more. We drank hot chocolate on the front porch of the first stop, vehicles driving past, honking their horns, and neighbours walking their dogs wishing us a Merry Christmas. At the next, we were treated to homemade snacks and baked goods on the back porch but not before singing a carol to the neighbours and handing out candy canes to the children.

The trip was also to deliver their present: a COVID survival box containing books, booze, puzzles, fake snowballs, a cowbell, his and her underwear (ooh la la!), a warm blanket and a waffle maker. We opened the respective boxes together while video conferencing Christmas morning, in our housecoats and pyjamas, with laughter and love. The items were ephemeral; the memories are forever.

I don’t know what I will remember from this Christmas, the circumstances are changing constantly. What was anticipated as a day approaching “normal” has evaporated with the exploding case count and concomitant announcements of restrictive measures to tackle the onslaught of omicron. As I write, the beautiful, dulcet voice of Harry Belafonte sings in the background, part of a lengthy play list of our favourite festive songs, secular and sacred. They are a reminder of the best of the season, a feeling that never grows old, a joyous spirit celebrated with the people you love, regardless of the Christmas present.

Here is wishing you a Merry Christmas, filled with friends and family in whatever manner possible; and may the day bring renewed happiness and memories to share and cherish this time again next year.

You’ve Got Mail

Another Christmas card arrived in the mail today, a welcome alternative to the flyers and bills and requests for money which clutter the box in December. The number of cards sent and received is shrinking but it is a tradition which marks the holiday season in the same manner as purchasing a real tree.

Christmas cards were more common growing up, with the bulk arriving at our home from the Netherlands. My mother was challenged to find new and inventive ways to display them. There were not enough shelves or window sills in the house so an alternative became necessary. I remember one year when a string stretched across the diagonal of the front room, hung from one corner to the other, filled with cards accumulated in the weeks preceding December 25.

The cards represented family, a neighbour, a friend, or a connection, not to be forgotten; and if you received one from an unexpected person, then you would rush out for another stamp to send a return card hoping it would arrive by Christmas. Similarly, if repeated mailings were not reciprocated, the address was scrapped from the list for next time. I don’t recall my mother retaining any after the New Year so I suspect they were discarded to clear room for another batch to commemorate the next occasion.

Olga and I save a number of cards we have received through the years, stored with our tree decorations. Each Christmas we uncover the bundle and reminisce, sifting through them, thinking back to the people or the time and the reason this particular one is treasured. Some of them are placed among the new because of their beauty. A couple cards from Tante (Aunt) Toos get displayed every Christmas.

The cards themselves are small, 4 X 6 inches, plain, blank inside where she would sign her name and include the Dutch version of cheer for the season. They are a keepsake because the decorative centre piece is cross stitched by her, special for Christmas. The scanned photos do not fully display the intricate needlework of these wonderful handmade crafts. I am unaware who else would have been sent these delicate cards and hope the people cherished them in a similar manner. It is difficult to imagine simply tossing them into the garbage at the end of the holidays.

Sometimes a card is kept for the message and for the sender. We received a greeting every year from my parents, always on time, completed in my mother’s handwriting, signing for the both of them.

On this particular message, the year was not necessary as the question mark clearly situates this card in the days leading up to Christmas in 1987. It would be the first year we had not travelled to London to celebrate with them. The baby was due around the 25th and Olga was much too pregnant to travel. We spent Christmas Eve listening to the radio in our near empty living room in anticipation of labour pains. Those began two days later as our world was blessed again with Olena on December 27 to complete the blank spot in all subsequent cards.

Dad continued to send them even when he became incapable of writing. He would turn to others to purchase, sign and mail to our home address. We have hung on to a couple of these as well, as a marker of the change.

One of the joys of parenthood is to open a card from your grown children after they have moved away, at first on their own and later with a partner. It is heartwarming how they have taken care in the selection and hand written inscription.

We are looking forward to spending Christmas Eve and the holiday season with you! We’re the cute little kittens at the door with the red bows on our necks saying “Let me in! We want to be with you this Christmas!” Love you guys a lot, Nicholas & Chiu

To Mom & Dad – famous world travelers. May your home be filled with the sights, smells, wonder and magic of Christmas! With lots of love, Two silly monkeys, Olena & Daniel.

We have retained several cards from Nicholas/Chiu and Olena/Daniel, all with messages of love and a touch of humour.

The unspoken can be as endearing, meriting the card as a keeper, like the one where Christian signs his own name beside his parents for the very first time. Another from Olga’s Mom whose written English was never developed and so began relying on one of the grand children to select and include the correct salutations while she wrote a message in Ukrainian in her rudimentary penmanship. Then there are those from relatives in the Netherlands whose English is poor or none existent yet manage to transcribe “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” special for us.

We look forward to the families of friends and relatives who produce cards with photographs. Olga and I have retained each one, placing them in order of years and marveling how the children have grown as everyone matures. Finally there are the ones too beautiful to discard, pictures or works of art or magical scenes, finding their way back onto the mantle in subsequent years.

The tactile experience of cards, gazing at the images, feeling the embossed figures, smiling at the messages, cannot be replaced. They represent the joy of giving and receiving in the simplest exchange of love and friendship.

The number of cards have dwindled with the passing of many older relatives and the prevalence of other forms of communication. New addresses have not kept up with the ones no longer applicable. We await the mail every day anticipating the next one or two to add to our collection as it grows incrementally.

Remembering our family and friends close to home and far away….

Remembering people with whom we have lost touch…

Remembering people who we have lost….

Remembering people.

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