“Now we must tend to our garden.”

The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect

So hard to earn, so easily burned

In the fullness of time

A garden to nurture and protect

I love gardens in the spring for the promise they evoke, the perennial peek into the future, the hope for a beautiful and healthy bloom. This year’s garden maintenance aroused memories of growing up on Kostis Avenue with its gardens, vegetable and flower, the work to make them flourish, and the satisfaction in the accomplishments.

Dad’s affinity to vegetable gardens is a direct by-product of his upbringing. He constantly spoke of the farmer’s fields in many a recall of his youth. The family home which was once on the edge of town is now situated in just another crowded section of Tilburg. You could not imagine Dad’s stories while standing in front of 16 Herstalsestraat today. I was able to find only one photograph of Dad’s childhood home. It shows three young children, Tante Jo, Dad, and Uncle Gert (the youngest) sitting on the ground, in a field, with the row houses in the background; the end unit was theirs. The front door opened onto the field – not a sidewalk or a road or a path.

Decock family posing in front of gardens, in the fields outside their Tilburg home. Stacks of the textile factories in the background.

A second picture shows the Decock family posing amongst the vegetables in what appears to be the fields outside their house. When you look carefully at both photos, you can see the smoke stacks from the textile factories in the background where my Opa worked. The appeal of Kostis Avenue, for my Dad at least, seems more obvious (https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/931); a natural inclination to vegetables and gardens was nurtured in this semi-rural experience.

My mother’s upbringing was decidedly small-town. An understanding of her experience is drawn from Uncle Nico’s book, Pa vertel eens. In it he describes the community and their family home amidst the shoe factories which dominated Kaatsheuvel. The one where his father worked, “bordered behind the neighbour’s house, almost to our garden. The machines of the factory, as in all shoe factories, were powered by a steam engine. The exhaust pipes of that device hung almost above our garden. In the morning at half past seven the puffing started and that lasted until six in the evening and on Saturday until one o’clock.”

In spite of the surrounding conditions, the cultivating of a garden was paramount for survival. “We had a very deep garden in Hoofdstraat, perhaps forty meters deep. At the front of the place some flowers were sown and, as in several Catholic gardens, at the beginning of the garden there was a Maria cave, a replica of the Lourdes cave…..In the early spring, starting in the nine beautiful days of February, when the sun was shining nicely, the garden was dug, the seedbeds prepared for carrots, [turnip greens], endive, kale, lettuce and whatever else could be sown.” Summer months involved canning and preserving the vegetables, and for harvesting the fruit from the pear tree. A successful garden meant you were self sufficient for longer periods of time. Food gaps were filled in by the farmers parading through the village streets with their crops. For Mom, therefore, the small production of food and the concomitant planting of flowers were part and parcel of a family homestead.

When Mom and Dad purchased that first home on Kostis Avenue on the outskirts of London, Ontario in 1963, they immediately installed a vegetable garden at the back of the lot, next to the farmer’s field. Like many an immigrant family, the garden was intended to provide a less expensive food option.

The beginnings of the vegetable garden, 1963.

The vegetable garden was a yearly outcome of routine but necessary, laborious tasks, starting with tilling the soil. Joe Klassens, who worked the field at the end of our yard, would dump a load of manure which my Dad would spade into the soil, one row at a time – dig out a line, shovel in the manure, then turn the dirt on top to create a new row, tediously repeating until he reached the other end. Eventually Dad received a roto-tiller as a retirement gift from his 3M colleagues to relieve him of the arduous shoveling each spring.

As a kid we would eat vegetables directly from the garden – pull a carrot out of the ground, wipe it on the grass to remove the dirt, eat to the stem which was tossed into the farmer’s field; pick beans from the plants and pop them raw into our mouths; find a small cucumber, rub off the small prickles and chomp on the vegetable without peeling. The garden included onions, tomatoes, corn on occasion, cauliflower, kale, beets, and lettuce.

My parents purchased a very large chest freezer specifically to store the labours of the summer in preparation for the meals of the winter. The freezer was so deep a person would teeter perilously over the edge, risking a fall just to grab the last bag of peas stationed at the bottom. Alternatively, you would tempt frost bite stirring around all the parts from the half-cow searching for those elusive carrots.

I don’t recall how the choice for vegetables was determined; it was probably a joint effort. The flower garden, or at least the selection, was largely my mother’s domain. Surprisingly – maybe not because she always preferred something new – Mom’s choices were predominantly annuals. In some years there would be bulbs, but seldom tulips, ironically. My parents claimed the shorter springs in Canada meant their quick departure, not sustaining the bloom as long as in the Netherlands. They did not see the value in a very brief appearance.

The garden changed and flourished throughout the years, growing in abundance, trees added to fill in the backyard. There was an expectation, even at a very young age, for everyone to be involved in the grounds keeping of the property. I recall, in particular, weeding the original driveway, scrapping my knuckles against the stones and blocks of concrete, respite for only a couple weeks until a return engagement with the irritants. When beans were needed for dinner, someone would fetch a batch; we provided extra hands for harvesting; we rotated turns cutting the grass or clipping the hedges; and we contributed to overturning the soil in the vegetable garden. The gardens were communal both in terms of the necessary labour to maintain and in the preparation for the freezer. On numerous evenings we would sit around the kitchen table, methodically cutting up the beans or pealing the blanched tomatoes, while laughing over the events of the day, a collective effort where everyone contributed. The work was a lesson in retaining pride of ownership. My parents’ example served us well throughout our careers and in the maintenance of our own homes.

In later years, with everyone gone and the living at least an hour-and-a-half away, all with their own families and properties, the challenge to care for the yard increased. The vegetable garden also became too big for the needs of just two people so my parents started bundling “care” packages for someone to take back home. With age and diminishing interest, many of the flower gardens were turned to grass, something they could hire the neighbour’s young boy to mow. The glory of those early gardens are now admired only in the realm of a handful of pictures.

Olga and I have continued in our families’ traditions, at least with regards to flower gardening. Her parents valued both the beauty and practicality of cultivating vegetables and flowers, borne from a peasant background in Ukraine, fueled by pride and a desire for normalcy (https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/687). Olga’s mother worked her gardens until the age of 98 before leaving her home a year later. Unlike our parents, however, we did not engage in the growing of vegetables at our various homes; rather, we focused on enhancing our life with the creation of beauty.

The building of a garden is a form of art, the ground a canvas for colour and texture, attaining the right mixture, selecting plants to ensure a constant display throughout the season. I prefer perennials because they illustrate the full circle of life – birth, growth, blossom, death – and all the aspects it entails – nurturing, trimming, dividing, fertilizing. Annuals have a place, filling in temporary gaps and completing the strategically placed pot. However, I consider them as fulfilling an instant gratification and being disposable – buy in the spring, plop them in the soil, allow to grow in the summer, die with first frost, dispose before winter, and purchase again next year. Art should be more long-lasting.

We are not getting any younger and yet our gardens at the cottage continue to expand. I worry sometimes we are transplanting the urban into the rural (our cottage neighbour refers to it as High Park after one of the same name in West Toronto) and creating additional work. I view our efforts as an expression of ourselves, an illustration of our pride of ownership, a reflection of our efforts, an exercise in longevity.

Gardens are inherently honest. There is no shorthand method for success; you get down on your knees, in the dirt, pull the weeds one by one, gather the leaves and pine needles, wipe away the old growth of last year, dig the hole for the next. Olga and I learned that lesson from our parents, from their lives and their work. We have faith it will endure with our own children.

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect

The way you live, the gifts that you give

In the fullness of time

It’s the only return that you expect

The future disappears into memory

With only a moment between

Forever dwells in that moment

Hope is what remains to be seen.

The Garden – Rush. Lyrics: Neil Peart. Music: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson

The title of this post is from the liner notes for the album, Clockwork Angels. June 2012. It can be found at rush.com

Building a Mystery

Yeah you’re working

Building a mystery

And choosing so carefully

Sarah McLachlan

My first introduction to mystery novels began by attending a book launch for John Worsley Simpson’s fourth instalment in the Harry Stark series, A Debt of Death. I knew John from an annual curling event, a close friend of a friend. The reading night was fun and naturally I purchased a personally signed copy. I had not been including mystery novels into my collection. A delightful read, however, had me seeking the earlier publications to complete the series to that point. I enjoyed the books particularly because they are set in Toronto, a familiarity which made me feel part of the story.

I have selectively acquired additional authors, Robert Rotenberg and Shari Lapena, lured by signed copies and the need to attain the entire body of work for every author in my collection. That desire is probably the reason Louise Penny is not yet on my shelves. After this month’s foray in mystery novels, I am considering foregoing first printings to obtain the mass paperback versions and include them in my summer reads at the cottage.

My introduction to this month’s book readings began with a newspaper article in 2015 announcing the release of Inger Ash Wolfe’s latest instalment, The Night Bell. The interest, however, was the explanation that this series was written by Michael Redhill who authored all the books under the pseudonym. He is one of my favourite authors, especially his City of Toronto Book Award winning novel, Consolation. I packed The Night Bell into my luggage for a one week sun vacation and voraciously devoured the story in a couple days. Several years later, Olga and I picked up The Taken from the local library in Apsley, ON and read it aloud to each other during our get away at the cottage.

The Calling: 2008 – 419 pages; The Taken: 2009 – 446 pages; A Door in the River: 2012 – 389 pages; The Night Bell: 2015 – 390 pages. McLelland Stewart.

My goal for April was to read a number of mystery novels and the first thought was to return to the Hazel Micallef series. The delivery from Indigo arrived just in time and I started with The Calling. Once begun, I could not stop.

Michael Redhill

A good mystery series is analogous to watching a Netflix show when you become so involved with the storyline and the characters, you cannot turn off the TV or in this case, put the book down. The need to continue results in binge watching, or binge reading. So, even though I had completed The Taken before, I proceeded to revisit it. Every scene was familiar, but I could not remember what happened next, as if enjoying it for the first time. The book was as fulfilling as before. After A Door in the River, therefore, I was compelled to finish with The Night Bell, reveling in each development anew. An individual book in this series can stand on its own and could be read without knowledge of the other. The author provides sufficient information to ensure the narrative flows. The richness and the trajectory of character development is more fulfilling with an understanding of the history.

The Calling is less of a whodunit than a frightening insight into the depravity of the murderer. The unravelling is about the motive and the method to keep the reader hooked. We are also introduced to the character backgrounds and life secrets of the various protagonists, setting up for future novels. In The Taken small details get filled in at the beginning both to advance the insight of the serial reader and to support the new one jumping into series midway. It unfolds more in keeping with a typical mystery and delves more deeply in the vulnerability of Hazel Micaleff. A Door in the River digs further into the character of James Wingate and builds on a growing bond between the two Ontario Provincial police detectives while portraying a widening schism with a longtime partner, Ray Greene. All of this material helped make greater sense of The Night Bell, a complicated intertwining of separate agendas with surprising twists in each chapter. The book also provides a new personal development at the end as fodder for the next instalment of a Hazel Micaleff Mystery.

I am consciously vague in my descriptions because the books need to be discovered. Suffice to say the writing is excellent with examples of insight into policing and into living in our contemporary world:

“What kind of relationship do you have with your mother? they asked the men. Because good sons made fine cops.” The Calling

“There is no role for the law in prevention, she thought, no role in giving solace. They said the law was an ass, but those who enforced it knew it was blind, deaf, and mute as well.” The Taken

“All of it spoke of a marriage where conversation was more important than sitcoms or sports: these were people who found each other interesting, for whom being distracted together was not nearly as desirable as simply being together.” A Door in the River

“By the time Emily was welcomed into the doctor’s office, all the fight had gone out of her. Sooner or later in your life, you have to put yourself in someone else’s hands. Just surrender.” The Night Bell

I highly recommend the series regardless of whether you dive into one book or digest the entire collection. A person who works with police or is a member of a force could relate to the life both inside and outside the job. I hope Inger Ash Wolfe will return with number five. And don’t forget to check out Michael Redhill (Martin Sloane, Fidelity, Consolation, and Bellevue Square); you will not be disappointed.

May is Asian Heritage Month. I have several books lined up, while as always, remaining open to any suggestions.

Happy Reading.

Hope they have a better understanding

Million young poets

Screamin’ out their words

To a world full of people

Just livin’ to be heard

My parents paid $9,500 in 1963 for their one and only house just outside the London city limits. They needed two mortgages in order to finance the home on Kostis Avenue and I seem to recall the first mortgage was for 25 years (not amortized but actual length) at 2% interest. The last figure may not appear very remarkable except to those of us who remember mortgages hitting a peak of 20% (Olga and I paid 12.5%, which we thought was a bargain, on our first property). Indeed the price was miniscule and the stories quaint in the shadow of today’s soaring prices and news headlines of a housing crisis but the hard work, the risk and the sacrifice were equivalent.

My parents started in rental units, moving yearly, adding a child at each new residence. First was a 1959 relocation from Belmont to a rented unit on Talbot Street in London where Gary was born. In the following year, they changed homes again, this time to Piccadilly street where I arrived as the second child, five days short of the first’s birthday. In 1961 they relocated to the farm, which is now the corner of Commissioners Road and Highbury, where Peter came into the world 13 months after my emergence. Then in 1963 they bought a house on Kostis Avenue; Michael was born two years later. I suspect Dad may have just started working at Kelco, a small machine shop in London, offering a better wage than employment with Toon Verboom, a Dutch landscaper who serviced large estate homes in and around the university. The new job helped facilitate their ability to purchase a house.

Kostis Avenue was a dead-end gravel road with 17 houses, situated outside the city limits, surrounded by fields, blasted through out the night with the warning horns of the freight trains riding the CNR tracks, so close to the airport you could see the planes at the end of the runway from the backyards. The house itself was second last from the end, a Strawberry Box structure (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strawberry_box_houses ) encased in grey asbestos-cement siding shingles. It was one and a half storeys with two bedrooms upstairs where us boys slept without air conditioning: Gary and I in one room, Peter and Michael in the other.

The lower floor consisted of small, segmented rooms designated for their specific purpose: eat-in kitchen, front room with the TV, parent’s bedroom, tiny playroom and the bathroom. It only ever had one washroom: toilet, sink and bathtub; everyone simply had to wait their turn. The front entrance opened into the living room and was rarely used. From a door in the narrow hallway, you descended an open staircase into a solid concrete walled, unfinished basement to access the oil furnace, the sump pump and the wringer washer. Clothes were hung on the clothesline out back in the summer or on the indoor line in the winter. Cement blocks lined the dirt driveway so the car could park beside the back door where we would enter by way of the rickety wooden steps into the windowless kitchen.

The septic tank was buried immediately behind the house; the water was drawn from the neighbour’s well. In the far back of the 1/3 acre property, divided by a fledgling pear tree and accompanying flower garden, a large vegetable garden was cultivated. The yard was not contained with a fence but rather was wide open on both sides resembling a large recreation park.

I cannot imagine how the MLS would have listed the place as it lacked the basic amenities so many people expect in their homes today. My parents viewed it quite differently and anticipated the benefits of their real opportunity to enter the housing market. My father was reminded of his Tilburg home, the location similar to where he grew up on the edge of town looking out over agricultural fields; my mother envisioned potential, ways to improve, to make the most of the situation, to make the house a home. It was what they could afford at the time and it represented their continuing integration into Canadian life.

Kostis Avenue, 1963. Mr and Mrs. Willems in between Oma and Opa on Dad’s side, standing over the existing Decock family.

Part of the attraction, as well, was the proximity to other Dutch immigrants. This picture is one of the earliest dated with the house on Kostis Avenue. In the middle are Harry and Leina Willems, standing in between Dad’s parents who were visiting for their one and only time in Canada. It was Harry Willems who alerted my parents to the availability of the house, right beside their own, at the end of Kostis Avenue. A small enclave of Dutch families lived there already: the Willems, the Hoornicks, and the van Geels. Harry Willems was a bricklayer working various jobs; Fred Hoornick was a pipe fitter at the GM train engine plant ten minutes away by car; the van Geels were chicken farmers whose barns were on a concession road further east.

The Kostis Avenue residents were all working class. The Makis lived directly across the street, a very young couple, the husband a truck driver who died in a drunk driving car accident. Gord Appleby was an electrician at Firestone and a functioning alcoholic; Mr. Puckett was a driver at an Oxygen company who was booted from the small brick bungalow when his wife dumped him for someone she met online; Reid was a postal driver who parked his dilapidated vehicles all over the property. Next door lived the McIntyres who owned a local auto garage and treated their property like one. Beside them was Shirley Guite whose husband worked at the GM plant, died suddenly leaving her, a stay-at-home widow in serious financial debt. The street had many of the trappings of an East of Adelaide existence ( https://lfpress.com/2014/04/04/song-articulates-the-divide-known-as-eoa ).

As kids we were oblivious, relishing the seemingly boundless alfresco playground our home on Kostis had to offer. The neighbourhood had numerous families and a bountiful of children for fun and games. The minimal traffic allowed for few interruptions when playing hockey on the road. We had access to a large vacant field where a makeshift baseball diamond was built and became the site of summer Saturday evening pickup games involving the male contingent from the street running the bases in front of spouses and girlfriends and sisters. In later years, the field was transformed into a figure eight dirt track for the young Willems boys to race their home made go-cart. They had also built a tree-fort in a large oak on the edge of the farmer’s field where we spent numerous hours hiding away. Across the open field stood the “woods” where the four of us would be engrossed for entire days marauding about, building forts, reenacting war games. Across the train tracks, surrounded by a fence, was the Somerville dump where we would scrounge for scrap games, attempting to stay out of sight of the security guards. Each day our mother would send out her four rambunctious boys in the morning, allowing for endless exploration, never looking for us except to return home for lunch or dinner.

The limitations of Kostis Avenue did not manifest themselves until we became teenagers and adults. Living outside the city, absent of public transportation, meant you could not get anywhere without a car. This dead-end street adjacent to a highway offered no place to embark for a leisurely stroll. Not until I left London did I look back and see Kostis in its true colours, a street jammed with automobiles, ill-kept houses and derelict yards which detracted from those attempting to improve their lot. The condition of my parent’s immediate neighbouring properties grew increasingly worse, needing ever larger evergreens to hide the mess.

Mom understood how their improved economic situation could allow my parents to enhance their situation by moving to a different community. The children had all moved out and Dad was earning a peak union wage at 3M. The time was right to move up, to demonstrate their lifelong accomplishments and leverage the home for which they stretched and sacrificed into that dream location with the large kitchen counters, modern luxuries and appointed gardens. Dad, however, was not a risk taker.

He was comfortable in his large yard and could not understand why they would willingly undertake another mortgage. Over the years they made numerous changes by constructing a small addition with a fireplace, adding a car port to shelter the side entrance, building a large wooden deck in the back, installing new windows throughout, fashioning a finished basement and decorating an ever changing interior. It was a very clean and extremely well kept home so Dad could not fathom living anywhere else. In spite of these hard earned improvements, Olga and I encouraged a move as well, believing the right location would bring the benefits of a walkable community near shopping, parks and people and help transition to a life easier on aging people.

They did not sell and stayed. When Dad retired a sense of stagnation became evident.

The home began feeling more like a house with the vegetable garden reduced to a mere patch, and the flower beds mostly eliminated. Mom stopped all of her craft activities and Dad sat more often watching the grass grow. Dreams of increased travel were hampered by Mom’s health and Dad’s growing reluctance to spend lest the financial well run dry. When Mom suddenly died, Dad remained ensconced until he finally relented and determined that living near one of the boys would be better. The house was sold for $220,000 ten years after Mom’s passing, 52 years after it was purchased. Dad moved into a retirement home in Wallaceburg, five minutes away from Michael and Michelle. He eventually succumbed to his illness in 2019 after a final, forced relocation to a long-term disability facility.

My parent’s life of working hard to acquire that first house, to make the most of the situation, to build a home regardless of the circumstances was a guidance for the possible. Lessons are learned from observing inaction as well. Their default decision to remain at Kostis when there was an opportunity for moving forward causes me to reflect on my own situation, to consider ongoing possibilities as our circumstances evolve, to reflect on how we proceed, to carefully consider our actions and what we need to change, to stay vibrant, to continue living. It is a reminder for constant re-assessment on what would benefit both myself and Olga, and for an honest reflection on what example we are establishing for our own children.

Maybe someday those words will be heard.

Hope they’ll have a better understanding.

Check It Out – John Mellencamp

Alone. Away. Anon.

The photographs were hidden in clear sight. You never talked about them and I never asked.

Beverwijk, 1953

You pose in a floral printed dress of red and green, lipstick and earrings to match. The picture was taken from inside the room looking out, photographer bending slightly to capture an upward look through the patio door of a Juliette balcony. A memento of a special time away. You frolic with an abandonment of caution on the edge of the rail, a look of contentment on a sunny afternoon.

The memories were amongst those from your nursing training, so naturally I assumed they were related, a day out with fellow students, a break from the expectations of school. On the back you marked it with a date, 1953, and a place, Beverwijk, a town half an hour northwest of Amsterdam, ten minutes from the coast.

Wijk Aan Zee

Wijk Aan Zee is the coastal beach village you visited on your stay. Now a popular destination, in the early fifties it would have been a quiet escape, secluded, away from prying eyes, far from family in the south.

The date, the place, the smile, the face are clear; the reason, the why remains untold.

The pictures are of you alone, nothing of your company. Had the trip been with fellow nursing students, you would have saved a group shot to mark the occasion. You were in a relationship, a serious boyfriend I recall. His name forgotten now, if it was ever told. I am thinking he was the photographer, the person with you on this trip. The footprint in the sand beside you is the only the evidence of his accompaniment. Here he wants to capture the sun, your silhouette, the moment. It remains a lasting memory of a previous love, long-gone, but not forgotten.

Zoutelande, 1956

And you went away again, in 1956, to another resort town, this time to the south in the town of Zouteland, part of the ‘Zeeland Riviera’, with long and vast beaches. It was likely with him again, sharing time once more in a place meant for togetherness. And why not? You were young, mid-twenties, you were becoming a nurse, the war was over, your world was opening up.

And then he died suddenly, tragically. You didn’t explain, I did not persist in knowing.

In our digital , social media world, images are easily circulated , impossible to expunge, forever out there, somewhere, because someone has a copy. In your printed world, two or three were made, easily discarded when you want to purge their existence, finalized when the negative is destroyed. And that is what you did. All that remains are these few photographs, nothing of him except the places you enjoyed. The thousand words are missing, leaving lots of blank space for questions.

How much do we share with our children of our earlier lives, who only know our current partner, who cannot imagine another? And as adult children how much do we want to know? Does it matter? Should it remain a mystery, a story deduced from piecing together tidbits of information?

What parts of our past do we discuss, what will remain hidden until we are gone? How many pictures of us will go unexplained?

Alone. Away. Anon.

Irish eyes are smiling

The list of Irish Canadian authors is surprisingly short, or at least what I was able to ascertain with a Google search. The number is even shorter when the works need to be part of my existing collection. As such, Brian Moore is not on this month’s reading list; my collecting could not keep up with the output of this prolific writer.  Nevertheless, the variety of this month’s authors provides an array of styles and settings, transporting the reader through time and place, from the 19th century Irish potato famine to the Tiannamen square massacre in China. 

Anansi. 2006. 394 pages.

The Law of Dreams is Peter Behrens first novel which begins in the Great Irish Famine and follows the voyage of Fergus from the hills of rural Ireland across Great Britain and the Atlantic to the port of Montreal in 1847. The book was the 2006 winner of the Governor General’s English Literature award and shortlisted for numerous other prizes. Fergus’s journey endures the indignity of the poor house, the desperation of a marauding gang, the temptation of Liverpool, the drudgery of railway work, the deception of men and women, and the deadliness of crossing the ocean in coffin ships. He persists against the odds because “that is what you do in dreams. The law of dreams is, keep moving.” It is a refrain repeated often, one which fuels Fergus’s survival.

The density of some early pages was a dramatic shift from my previous novel making the transition challenging. As the characters evolved and the story expanded, the desire to uncover Fergus’s next days drew me into long stretches of reading and discovery. I could not relate personally to the times or the conditions but I could certainly imagine the heroic tale resonating with economic migrants in all parts of the  world today. The trials and tribulations reminded me of my mother-in-laws escape from western Ukraine after the second World War which eventually led her to a life in Toronto (https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/687). I expect the book resembles, as well, the plight of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe seeking some new, promised land. The book keeps reminding us of the basic motivation: “What you wanted must keep you going”; “What you lost weakened you, could kill you. What you wanted kept you going. What you wanted gave you strength”; and finally, “Is courage just the awareness that gestures, journeys, lives have intrinsic shape, and must, one way or another be completed?”   I enjoyed the book and glad I finally picked it off my shelf.

Harper Collins. 2010. 321 pages

Room is another highly acclaimed, award winning book which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and shortlisted for the 2010 Booker, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction, and Governor General’s Awards. The film adaptation was released in 2015, nominated for four academy awards in that year. Emma Donoghue was already an accomplished writer earning recognition with two previous books. She was born in Ireland and is now living with her partner in London, Ontario. The story is told through the words of 5 year old Jack who was born in captivity, living only within the four walls of a shed with his Ma, where the only exposure to the outside world is the skylight and a TV. They eventually escape as the pair must carefully and scarily acclimatize themselves to their new reality. 

The language, the observations, the thoughts from start to finish are completely from the five year old boy, and one with very limited understanding and experience. Jack does not use prepositions and he names objects; for example, they live in Room, not the room, and he sleeps in Wardrobe. I eventually became accustomed to the structure and slowly realized the brilliance in Ms. Donohue’s writing craft.  Rather than long descriptions, the reader must piece together numerous observations and statements to understand the conditions; for example, Jack details the list of items Ma orders, including painkillers, and later we learn she moves candy “to her front teeth that are less rotted.” The reader also understands Ma is being raped several times a week while Jack is presumably asleep in Wardrobe: “When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight its 217 creeks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.” 

When Jack describes the actions and words of the growing number of people he encounters after the brazen escape, we are confronted with some of the absurdity of our everyday living: “There’s a dog crossing a road with a human on a rope, I think it’s actually tied, not like the daycare that were just holding on” ; “He talks on his little phone, he says it’s Deana on the other end. The other end is the invisible one.” And Jack understands only the literal interpretation of a word or phrase, offering moments of humour amidst the troubling story Donoghue imagined from real life news stories about instances of reintegration after years of imprisonment.

Room offered me one of the most compelling and profound truisms when Jack reacts to the psychiatrist’s assurances that he no longer needed to be frightened. “I don’t say because of manners, but actually he’s got it backwards. In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary.” This adage is applicable in so many situations where we do not venture into something new, or do not make ourselves vulnerable, hiding in the safety of our own small entity, physical or emotional. The accolades for Room and Emma Donohue are well deserved.

Harper Collins. 1996. 308 pages.

My third book of the month was Butterfly Lovers by Charles Foran, who graduated with degrees in literature including a Masters from the University College, Dublin. He taught at a university in Beijing for a period of time which included the democratic uprising of 1989. Previous work, fiction and non-fiction, had been nominated for awards in Canada where he is now teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto after a stint as president of PEN. He is also known for his biography on Mordecai Richler which was the recipient of the 2011 Taylor Prize and the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction.  I have a couple of Charles Foran’ fictional works but have never opened one until now.

After twenty pages I began to regret my selection, wondering if I could tolerate it until completion. There were numerous passages which felt as if the author was attempting to impress other writers: “Remy Fidani’s clientele is predominantly grant-happy student, dole-fed radical, Canada Council-crumbed artist. Smokers of Marlboros and Gauloises, consumers of cafe au laits and Bradors from the bottle, readers of Le Devoir and the weeklies, journals unavailable except in shops with names like “Dis-Ease” and books special-ordered from one of the university stores, never collected, and then stolen from the shelves once staff have given  up trying to place the title in the proper hands” (p.9). What the hockey puck! The first nine chapters are filled with image after image catering to literature professors who teach and treat books as an intellectual exercise rather than a source of enjoyment, whose classes are sure to kill any love of reading. Numerous sentences span half a page utilizing commas and semi-colons which make them grammatically correct but exceedingly annoying.

Suddenly, when the protagonist, David, moves to China to teach English, the sentences are shorter and succinct, as if mimicking the structure of a second language learner. The book redeems itself in the second half with a story which retained my interest in the outcome as the tension builds in the aftermath of Tiannamen  and the relentless attacks on protesting intellectuals persists. There are also instances of thoughtful statements emanating from the ashes of the tragedy: “Besides, politics is almost never about ideas. Always personalities. Always power. We said so ourselves: to change the world, we first had to change our skins” (p. 302).  I ended up with mixed feelings about the book.

Penguin Canada. 2011. 166 pages.

It was finished while I was the cottage where I had not brought the planned fourth read. However, I remembered the Extraordinary Canadian series was stored away in our basement. All 17 books in that collection are written by novelists about a well known Canadian; Charles Foran wrote Maurice Richard. True to his previous form Foran demonstrates a penchant for unnecessarily lengthy sentences made possible with the utilization of dashes, creating sentences within sentences, melding separate but related ideas such that you lose track of the original thought. Every other page seems to have an example. Yet there are moments of simplicity and clarity with vivid descriptions to situate you in the French working class mind of Montreal. It is a quick, entertaining read.

McClelland & Stewart. 2015. 396 pages.

Finally we get to one of my favourite authors, Jane Urquhart. Years ago I salvaged a very early book, Changing Heaven, from the delete bins at the local bookstore and immediately fell for her beautiful prose. I am in possession of all her books, even reaching back through online booksellers to acquire out of print copies of almost all her work except for some of her first poetry. She may be best known for Away, about Irish immigration to Canada which won the 1993 Trillium award, and The Underpainter, winner of the 1997 Governor General’s Literary award. My favourite continues to be the 2001 book, The Stone Carvers.

Curiously, I had yet to read her last book, The Night Stages, released in 2015. Set in 1950’s Ireland, the story is a weaving together of Kenneth Lochead’s earlier creation of a mural in the lounge of the international airport in Gander, Newfoundland where Tamara, pilot of planes during WWII, is stranded for three days after escaping the emotional clutches of Niall, a successful meteoroligist and athlete, and older brother to an estranged sibling, Kieran who is training for an epic bicycle race across Ireland.

The profundity of Jane Urquhart’s work is in the evocation of art and the written word. True to her education and passion, Jane Urquhart paints a vivid picture of the Irish countryside, capturing the sights, sounds and smells of Kerry county. At the same time, she delves deeply into her characters minds and emotions, reaching back into affective memories. Back and forth, between time and countries, we begin to piece together the connections among the protagonists and the parallels with the content and creation of the mural. There were moments in the early pages when I had to look back to help understand some of the linkages. The pieces all came together in the final chapters and the much anticipated cross-country race, The Ras. It is a story full of Irish lore, with its own brand of storytelling and myth making, although I am still working through the author’s intentions. The essence may have been captured in this quote: “Anything that moves forward, anything at all progressive, leaves something raw and wounded behind it.” The reference was to the building of a roadway but the belief applies to all manner of change.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. I am ever hopeful Jane Urquhart is continuing to write.

Next month I have decided to delve into mystery novels. You might think I would devote April to baseball books given the new season begins on the first. Alas, those will wait until the summer unless someone out there can recommend a baseball mystery.

Happy reading.

Ice meets metal

The forecast was predicting warmer temperatures so I knew my opportunities to skate were dwindling. On Wednesday morning, therefore, I decided to traverse the entire lake around the perimeter. The trip lasted 54 minutes, including several stops for a few snapshots, travelling 5.09 miles or 8.2 kilometres.

Naturally, I completed the journey with hockey stick in hand, pushing the puck ahead, catching up to shove it further along the shore. I was proud of the accomplishment and figured it would be my last chance to don the blades.

The warming air throughout the day created pools of water in the lower areas. The thermometer only dropped to marginally below freezing overnight before bouncing back to register plus seven on Thursday. The result was a very soft ice surface, still walkable but not suitable for skating. I figured the adventure around the lake was my last and I was ready to pack the skates away.

However, Environment Canada was calling for another reversal of warm to cold, dropping down to as low as minus 12; plus, the night sky foreshadowed the promise of a beautiful day. Maybe…..

View from our deck on March 18.

The ice appears solid this morning. Downing two cups of coffee, rustling up some breakfast, playing the bonus word for Jumble and the daily Wordsearch and I am ready. I woke up to minus 10; it is now minus 7 so no more time to waste. Onto the bench, on with the skates and back on the ice.

Entrails of ice dust marks my first path across the bay, eventually disappearing amongst the crisscross mix of trails back and forth and around. A slight breeze from the north whistles past my ears as I skate into it head on, only to be chased back from whence I came. Around and around, staying close to home, weaving with the puck, cutting in here, circling forward and backward, breathing heavier, heart pounding to build up those FitBit zone minutes. The ice resembles monochrome white stained glass, decorating every corner of the bay. A sudden crack spawns another new pattern, creating an even more elaborate design. Ice meets metal.

The sound of skating into the northerly wind. You can hear the ice meeting metal as I circle the bay.

Tired, I glide to a standstill and stand surveying the open space before me. Silence. No cars in the distance, no jets high overhead, no people around, just the voices of the lake. I imagine a male choral choir, dominated by the bass and baritone, rumbling beneath the surface, first to the left then from a distance, the next one closer, in a continuous symphony of sounds. The ice is singing farewell.

The temperature rose four degrees in my hour and a quarter of 11.3 circular kilometres, with the forecast predicting double digit plus days accompanied by wide blue clear skies for the next week. Maybe another morning skate is in the offing but even without, I will have finished the season fully contented, ready to welcome the spring.

Oh! Canada

Sometimes at night I can hear the ice crack
It sounds like thunder and it rips through my back*

For those following along, I reminisced about home made ice rinks and ended with this paragraph in my January post: “A good rink and a vigorous skate always makes for a promising start to another year. I have more opportunities this time round to make this one better than the previous year.” https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/720

This weekend, I finally got my good rink and a vigorous skate. The entire lake became my ice playground and I lived my dream skating experience.

Olga and I did not stay long enough at the cottage for my first attempt at a rink to have frozen completely solid. I skated in a small circle for five minutes before abandoning the trial. On our return in February, a deep snow blanketed the entire lake, warming the ice below. My futile shoveling resulted in a colossal mushy mess. The ice eventually froze into unrepairable craters. Running water from the cottage with a hose proved fruitless and we left disappointed. I needed a better way to flood and prepare the surface.

We returned last week to yet more evidence of precipitation. Days of fluctuating temperatures meant the snow was hard enough to walk on but not a clear patch was in sight. I spent several hours spread over two days scraping off the snow glued to the frozen surface of my original rink. Then the big melt. Two days of sunny plus 12 degrees shrunk the snow, revealing portions of rock and land unseen for several months. A brief thunderstorm added more water as the lake became a huge puddle. Knee deep snow reduced to ankle deep water. Just as quickly, the winds ushered in colder weather, dropping the temperature to below freezing overnight; then a brief bounce back before plummeting to minus 12 by Friday evening. Nature was doing the work for me, expanding my postage stamp rink into a massive outdoor arena.

We woke up Saturday morning to the frozen, golden pond crying out – get your skates! get your hockey stick! come and enjoy!

Exhilarated with the prospect, I gathered my skates warming over the floor heat register, donned the quintessential red plaid coat, grabbed the Paul Coffey hockey stick and rushed down the rocky stairs to the shore side bench. Yank and stretch then wrap and tie those laces tightly, a toss of the puck landing with a thud and sent skittering across massive ice cube, then that first step pushing off the back leg and I am gliding out into the expanse of our bay. What a beautiful feeling.

I chased the puck, each leg thrust propelling me further into the expanse, quicker than my row boat or canoe, heading for the opposite shore. The lake ice was outdoor smooth around the perimeter divided by an untenable scarred track through the middle from the snowmobile path not completely eradicated by the sun or the rain. With no one to stick handle around, I shot the puck further along until I arrived at the four ice fishers near the island. A hearty hello and a welcome chat, Steve informed me the ice was almost two feet thick. I reversed course and continued my tour past empty cottages, watched by the surrounding trees. Swish, swish, cold air against my face, push the puck along, circle back, accelerate and glide. What a wonderful feeling; sun shining, skating in the open air. No boundaries, no time limits, no worries. The only thing missing were others to play hockey.

Olga was excited for me and wanted to share in the joy by very gingerly meandering onto the ice, occasionally drifting with the wind, cautiously moving around the buried docks, laughing and smiling. She had not been on skates in 28 years and bravely took advantage of the irresistible moment.

Last night I went for an early evening skate in the remaining hour of daylight saving time. Alone, amidst the muffled quiet of a winter evening, I could hear the ice groan and crack. Tom Cochrane’s song popped into my head. I hummed the tune to myself, fortunate to be able to enjoy nature’s work.

I felt oh, so Canadian, oh so grateful.

You never can tell what might come down
You never can tell when you might check out
You just don’t know, no, you never can tell
So do right to others like you do to yourself

*Big League – Tom Cochrane

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Warning: the content of this post might trigger urges to return to old habits or make you attempt to indulge for the first time.

After scanning my parent’s photographs, I have been reviewing them regularly to evoke another memory and another story. On one of those time travels I could not help but notice the number of pictures showing Mom and Dad with a cigarette in their hand. The frequency prompted me to think about my experience with smoking growing up. Forty years ago this observation would have been met with perplexed looks; whereas today, knowing people who do smoke is rare in my world.

1992 photograph of a get together with nieces and nephews from Aunt Ann. Evidence of five people, three with a cigarette in hand.

Smoking was ubiquitous. It appeared as if everyone indulged. Growing up, I did not think twice when someone and everyone lit up, inside. Rooms would be full of smoke yet no one appeared bothered; talking, laughing, eating within a perpetual cloud engulfing those gathered. Decorative ash trays were sold as furniture, needing to meld with the look of the room. Lighters were stylish accoutrements to a formal wardrobe. Gentlemen were measured in part by their timeliness and ease in offering a light for a lady’s cigarette. Movie audiences understood the unseen bedroom encounter when someone fired up a post-coital cigarette.

My parents grew up with smoking, be it cigarettes, cigars or pipes. Scenes of them with a cigarette in hand abound.

Mom was a trained nurse which had no impact on her habit or other nurses for that matter.
Indoors or outdoors, there are many scenes where Mom or Dad have a cigarette in their hands.
A get together with others was sure to bring out a package.
Two lovely ladies bookended by two gentlemen both sporting suits and holding a cigarette to complete the ensemble.

One of Dad’s stories described how his father, my Opa, would roll a fresh cigarette and place it on the table at his bedside, along with a packet of matches, before he went to sleep so he could wake up and immediately light it up. And almost everyone in their families smoked. I don’t recall my Aunt Ann on Dad’s side or Tante Lina from Mom’s family participating; otherwise, all of them enjoyed a pipe or a cigar or a cigarette or all three. Uncle Herman seemed to be perpetually puffing on a stogie, famous for his chortle, upper body bouncing up and down with a cigar in his mouth joining the ride.

1983 photo of Uncle Nico and Uncle Herman at a family gathering.

Uncle Kees also enjoyed cigars and there are pictures of him with cigarettes. Other photographs of his time in Uganda show numerous people indulging. Smokers were so nonchalant about the practice no one attempted to hide the appendage when the camera was present.

Uncle Kees is on the left, standing with Father Korman who you see is smoking a cigarette.

When Uncle Kees passed away, the Mill Hill Mission had failed to transport some of his personal belongings. The family pursued the Order asking for his glasses and his pipe, items which formed a part of his identity. Dad passed the pipe onto me and it sits upon my book shelves along with his daily prayer bible as a fond reminder of his memory.

People were identified as well by the brand they smoked. Mom was a Rothman’s person, filtered cigarettes which she inhaled to the bitter end ensuring nothing was wasted. Dad preferred filter-less Pall Mall. He started with roll your own which I vaguely remember. Gary, my older brother, on the other hand recalls learning to select the right amount of tobacco, rolling the paper then licking the length to hold everything in place before passing it over to Dad. The boys would accompany Mom on her weekly grocery run which included the purchase of cigarette cartons to replenish the depleted supply. I have strong memories of dismantling the carton and stacking the individual packets inside the narrow end of the all closet; one side for Pall Mall, the other for the Rothmans.

The number of pictures with someone smoking diminished over the years in part because an increasing number of people quit; as well, the posing for pictures meant you discarded the “cancer stick” to avoid recrimination. Increasingly, Mom became isolated as one by one, relatives and friends abandoned their packs. Places to smoke were being quickly eliminated to the point where those who continued were viewed as pariah. While writing this post, I read this passage which captures the changed perspective:

“Across the street, on a parallel balcony, is a man bundled in a coat and hat, also dragging on a cancer stick. Visible beneath his coat are pyjama bottoms and slippers. Visible on his face is the usual dumb defiance and creeping humiliation. It is four in the morning and, according to midnight news, minus twenty-five out. Nevertheless, there he stands, hunched over like a soldier too exhausted to properly duck enemy fire.” Charles Foran, butterfly lovers, page 43.

In this 1996 picture from the Netherlands, the ashtrays are gone from the table and Mom is the only person with a pack of cigarettes.

I remember when Dad decided to quit. The washing machine had broken down for the umpteenth time and he could no longer repair it into further use. The time had come to purchase a new one even though they had not yet accumulated the savings. Giving up smoking would help to find the money, so Dad quit, cold turkey. He did struggle but because smoking was not permitted inside the 3M factory, the transition was easier. Mom, on the other hand, failed in recurring attempts to break the habit. She was a stay-at-home parent, typically on her own with no one around to remind or to support her efforts. Eventually, she stopped smoking in the house, forbidding others as well, and slowly reduced the number of cigarettes consumed; however, Mom continued puffing until the end no doubt contributing, if not causing, the stroke that abruptly shortened her life.

Europe lagged behind Canada in regulation and social acceptance. In a 1992 visit to the Netherlands as part of a recruiting fair, I extended my stay with an extra week of vacation residing with a cousin, Riet and her husband Dolf, and visiting relatives in and around Tilburg. They hosted me at a local restaurant where Dolf and I indulged in some cigars, a favourite hobby of his, at our table, after the meal. I kept looking over my shoulder wondering if we were going to get busted. Later that week, I visited Tante Toos at her apartment where numerous cousins had also gathered. At least half the people were smoking as a cloud grew and hovered inside for the duration. Concerns with second hand smoke had not seemed to have crossed the Atlantic.

That neither of my brothers or I succumbed to the mindless routine is a small miracle by itself. My parents forbade their children from smoking, a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to this aspect of our upbringing. Fear kept me in line. Not to say the four of us did not light up on occasion, but none adopted the cigarette habit. I would borrow a few from drinking buddies in the bar, but god forbid I would ever purchase a pack for myself. Ironically, I experimented with cigars after Dad quit smoking. Uncle Gert and family visited Canada for the first time in 1980 and brought a box of cigars as a gift. Of course, Dad appreciated the thought but politely passed on the gesture. I accepted the box and thus began an on again, off again relationship with cigars.

My cigar smoking days have greatly diminished, typically resigned to a round of golf or the occasional outdoor lounging with a dram of scotch with close friends. I consider the indulgence relaxing and a measure of my good fortune. I still appreciate a cigar as a gift understanding it’s unstated message and significance.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

If music be the food of love…

“Apollo, the god of music, had not very lavishly sprinkled musical talents within our family. Mother’s piano lessons were generally not a great success.”

So said my Uncle Nico in his family history book, “Pa vertel eens” ( Dad tell me – in English) which I just recently translated. It chronicles life for the van Rooij family from his birth in the early thirties (Nico was the youngest in the family) up until his marriage in 1958. The book is a personal and social account of the times detailing some family information previously unbeknownst to me. I was not aware, for example, that my grandmother had learned to play the piano and made every effort to get all of her children to play, without any success.

My Mom was not musical, apparently much like the rest of her siblings; but what she lacked in ability, Mom more than made up with enthusiasm for music. She loved to listen to music and her taste was eclectic. Classical. Country. Pop. Mom purchased records and then CDs which spanned her favourite singers, songs and symphonies. The radio was on from when she first got up in the morning, throughout the day and into the night, only to be interrupted when the television came on for some evening entertainment.

And when she really liked a particular piece Mom would sway to the beat with a joyous grin, humming and singing, usually out of tune and out of time. Her signature move was with her shoulders pulled up to ears, elbows in tight, arms bent up with the index finger pointing straight, her whole upper body stiffly bouncing, with that grin and half open eyes absorbing the sound. The image still makes me smile.

Every once in a while a number of her favourite songs play in my head . Singing them out loud you begin to understand how the lyrics were an expression of her beliefs on the experiences of life and marriage. First there was Petula Clark’s, The Other Man’s Grass (Is Always Greener):

Life is never what it seems, we’re always searching in our dreams
To find that little castle in the air
When worry starts to cloud the mind, it’s hard to leave it all behind
And just pretend you haven’t got a care


The other man’s grass is always greener
The sun shines brighter on the other side
The other man’s grass is always greener
Some are lucky, some are not
Just be thankful for what you’ve got

And if Mom was not singing the words she would emphasize the sentiment to her children. Appearances can be deceptive and all you can affect are your own circumstances, so focus on your own well-being.

Petula Clark – The Other Man’s Grass (Is Always Greener). 1967-68

In a very similar vein, Mom sang Lynn Anderson’s, (I never promised You A) Rose Garden as a statement on marriage for any couple, perhaps, but especially for one that broke away from the rest of the family and ventured afar to a new world, on their own. You can imagine how that decision could be questioned when times were difficult:

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime
When you take you got to give so live and let live or let go
I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden

So smile for a while and let’s be jolly
Love shouldn’t be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times while we can

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime

Lynn Anderson – (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden. 1970

The flight to Canada meant leaving behind an extended family and the concomitant reality of missing the major life events of your parents and your siblings. There were two marriages, one from each of Mom and Dad’s sides, numerous births of nieces and nephews, and most tragically, the deaths of Mom’s parents in 1961 and 1962 long before my parents returned to the Netherlands for the first time in 1967. Peter, Paul & Mary’s Leaving on a Jet Plane seemed to reflect that narrative:

All my bags are packed
I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’
It’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’
He’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome
I could die

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Peter, Paul & Mary. 1969.

Mom did not appear to sing the tune with any guilt or regret; her pride would never allow it. Yet you felt there was an element of longing for a family missed.

And if the music was not expressing a specific message then it needed a beat, one that would make you move your body, get you dancing to the rhythm. I will never forget Rasputin by Boney M.


Mom loved that the Euro sound. Mix it in with a few drinks, family and friends, and you have a party, an opportunity to let loose, to enjoy the good times while you can. My parents hosted parties with the neigbours in our living room and later in a newly built recreation room in our basement when we were young. As we got older and the family grew with spouses and grandchildren the partying focused on those occasions when we could get together and celebrate important milestones.

One of 24 blurry pictures from an impromptu dance party for their 30th anniversary.

Listening to music was not a significant component of Dad’s entertainment. He had a handful of favourite songs and performers: Don McLean’s American Pie and Harry Belafonte. He generally deferred to Mom’s selection. Dad loved to sing, however, never too shy to accompany a song with his loud, baritone voice. A good song was a singable song. Period. I remember him proclaiming The Night Chicago Died was going to be a hit because you could sing along. (He was wrong about Elton John, predicting no one would be playing him in 50 years. Oh well.)

As much as my Dad loved a party, especially one involving singing those very catchy Dutch ditties, he did not dance. In the later years, he could be compelled to shuffle back and forth to a slow song when needed. When the tempo picked up, he headed for the chairs. You would be hard pressed to recall more than a handful of occasions when he could be coaxed to remain on the floor. Olga will always remember one specific time – at our wedding – when Dad exuberantly ran his way through the chicken dance. The proof is captured in this joyous photograph.

Dad dancing the Chicken Dance with Olga at our wedding in 1983.

For those who need to be reminded or for those unaware, the Lawrence Welk Show, a staple program for Mom and Dad, will demonstrate the Chicken Dance for you.

Dad will most be remembered for his love of Johnny Cash. Nicholas is fond of telling the story of watching the movie, Walk the Line, one evening while visiting Dad on a break from his studies at Western. Picture the scene when Johnny Cash is about to play at the infamous Folsom Prison. Prior to going on stage, he is waiting in the back room as the inmates were hollering and banging so loud the yellow water in the glass was shaking. Dad/Opa seemed to want to replicate that scene by cranking the volume on the TV to the max, making the floors and the windows rattle. In honour of that memory, turn the sound up to 11 when you play the clip.

Walk the Line. 2005.

When Mom passed away, the house went quiet. Dad did not turn on the radio. No more CDs were bought. The collection remained largely untouched until the house was sold and it was divided among the four boys.

As a kid growing up in the 70’s, I cringed at the music my parents played. Now, in looking back and remembering I have come to love to listen to many of those songs: Tony Orlando and Dawn, Knock Three Times, Candida; Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass; James Last and his Beach Party records; Neil Diamond; and Mario Lanza to name a few more. All bring back memories.

Both Olga and I have continued that love of music, each of us bringing our own tastes and experiences and culture into a large and varied collection, old and contemporary. We listen to music constantly in our own home, buying records and CDs, installing a hardwired Sonos system in the house, subscribing to Spotify, breaking into a dance in the kitchen when the spirit moves us. Nicholas and Olena have grown up with the same passion, sometimes divergent tastes but always with the joy and love which comes with the sound of music and its expression through dance.

If I have learned anything growing up, it is that music is the food of love….so, play on.

Black Spring

I returned to my collection of Canadian literature and baseball books for February reads to commemorate Black History month. Lists from previous years published online recommended such well known Canadian authors as Lawrence Hill (Book of Negroes), and Esi Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues) both of which I have read and enjoyed. In perusing my shelves, I identified three fiction writers and a non-fiction baseball book to tackle.

McLelland and Stewart. 2018.

When you look for lists of books to read for Black History month, David Chariandy’s name appears regularly, typically with his earlier novel, Brother, which won the 2017 Writers Trust Fiction Prize. I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You was published very shortly afterwards and is oft mentioned as a necessary read. It became my first book for the month and its stated purpose established the message for the rest of my February indulgences.

Image result for david chariandy

The book is a letter to Chariandy’s daughter to talk about the history of his family, their mixed Black and South Asian background, and their slavery experience in Trinidad before arriving in Canada as migrants. Chariandy describes his childhood growing up in Scarborough to help his daughter understand her current world and as a plea for a more inclusive existence where “we will finally learn to read and respectfully discuss our differences”.

The small book is a quick 120 page read with thoughtful imagery and compassionate, parental insight. I was also intrigued with the jacket art by Sandra Brewster whose work forms part of Seneca College’s permanent art collection. “Untitled Smiths 2011” is part of a series in which artist Sandra Brewster mocks the notion of a monolithic Black community: “The surname Smith takes up the bigger section of a Western telephone directory. Its volume conjures up ideas of sameness and commonality and invisibility as there are so many.”

Arsenal Pulp Press. 2017

Catherine Hernandez’s debut novel, Scarborough, was shortlisted for the 2017 Toronto Book Awards. Self-described as a book about community, Hernandez takes us through the lives of children and adults living in precarious situations, revolving around a community education project. The chapters alternate between the diverse characters, taking us into their homes and thoughts, spanning one school year in the at-risk neighbourhood. The people of the book represent the gamut of visible minorities within the city.

Image result for catharine hernandez

I found parts of the 255 pages to be heavy handed at times in its description and characterization of some of the people in the stories. Cory, for example, is the white, racist father of Laura who was dumped by her maternal parent. In the first chapter, Cory talks about “chinks”, “pakis”, “towelheads” and “crazy bitches” in his interactions with the people he meets trying to attend to the needs of his daughter. Near the end of the chapter, his actions are described as “awakened by his purebred, white trash instincts”. I did not need that label to understand the point; his actions and words alone would have clearly painted the picture. Nevertheless, the book did help me to understand a world which I have only witnessed from the periphery. The hopeful outcomes for some of the characters raises the importance of community togetherness and sends a message for survival and success.

Routledge. 2002.

February is also the start of spring training, signaling the beginning of another baseball season for watching and for reading. Henry Aaron passed away in January which prompted me to look for his biography. Howard Bryant published a work about the previous home run king, so I ordered it online. In the meantime, I remembered another baseball book by the same author on my shelves and thought to read it until the new one arrived.

Image result for howard bryant

Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston lays to bare the long-standing, organizational culture of racism against the inclusion of black ball players on the major league roster of the Boston Red Sox. The book details the rejection of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays as possible recruits resulting in the team being the last one in major league baseball to field a black player in 1959. Starting at the top with the owner Tom Yawkney, the team overtly and subtly kept out black ball players, described in great detail by Bryant, against the backdrop of a city reeking with racial issues.

My challenge with the book is the structure. I found myself rereading the same points in subsequent chapters as if for the first time. It seems to me a better editor would have asked for the text to be tightened up. The most egregious example occurred on page 128 in a discussion of the pitcher, Luis Tiant: “There are a million stories about what Luis Tiant meant to the Boston Red Sox…..of how he kept the Red Sox loose and was the backbone of those exciting, perilously flawed teams. Tiant also knew how to keep a clubhouse loose.”

I also kept asking myself for comparisons and statistics about other baseball teams. Bryant hammered home the point about the number of years Jim Rice and then Ellis Burks would be the only black position players on the squad (a careful distinction because there were black pitchers) yet we are not made aware of the make-up of other teams. Only when Ellis Burks signs with the White Sox does the reader finally learn about another clubhouse with a “black presence” which included leaders like “Frank Thomas, Tim Raines, Lance Johnson and Bo Jackson, as well as Latino players…”. Similarly Bryant repeated in each chapter the inability of the Boston Red Sox to sign black free agents, when suddenly, on page 231 (of 252) he mentions that two had signed in 1993. Given Bryant spent several pages describing how the BoSox could not sign Kirby Puckett, you would have thought he could provide more than a sentence on the acquisition of Andre Dawson and Billy Hatcher.

Despite some of my issues with the structure and style, Shut Out is a significant contribution to the public acknowledgement of the racist history of the Boston Red Sox and baseball, a necessary precursor, as Howard Bryant describes, to rectify the wrongs of the past and change the direction of the organization and the league. For this reason alone, the book merits a read for baseball fans and social historians.

Astoria. 2019.

Frying Plantain is a collection of linked short stories, the debut work of Zalika Reid-Benta. It had been nominated for the 2020 Toronto Book Awards, the Trillium Awards and it was long listed for the 2019 Scotia Bank Giller Prize while winning a handful of less commonly known literary awards. No wonder the work made numerous lists for Black History Month. In an efficient 257 pages of unadorned, highly effective prose, the stories are told from the perspective of Karla growing up in Toronto’s little Jamaica, trying to navigate relationships with her mother, her grandparents, her friends and her neighbourhood.

Image result for zalika reid-benta frying plantain

The stories are relatable and a reader can easily imagine the situation or the conversations. The scenarios made me smile or nod my head and envision how they played out in some manner growing up. For example, there is a scene from middle school where a number of jaded students are brought to the gym to sit in a sharing circle for some group therapy led by two earnest counselors. A talking stick is introduced and is handed to the first student to talk about his biggest fears:

She gave him the stick and he immediately passed it to the person beside him, who handed it off to the girl next to her. Jason watched the Talking stick get transferred from student to student without pause. “Guys, remember, this is a safe space….” It was stupid of them to think that mattered, to think that something like that existed simply because they said it did.

Many of the incidents are specific to being a teenage girl and to living in the Jamaican community:

[Kara] hates the way [the dress] falls on her like it’s a sheet. Hates the way it accentuates her lack of breasts, lack of curves, lack of the voluptuous beauty that makes her aunts and cousins laugh behind their hands and say, Yuh sure you a Jamaican gyal?

Reid-Benata sprinkles the stories with pieces of information, single sentences to build the background, fill-in the story of Kara’s mother, Eloise. Each mention guides the reader to build the narrative in their own imagination. Flying Plantain allows the reader to feel the experience for themselves rather than be told by the author.

[Kara] opened the car door to leave but Eloise had grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her back into the passenger’s seat. “I just want you to imagine something,” she said. “I was your age when you were born.”

I very much enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it for others.

St. Patrick’s Day is March 17, so the books for next month will be by Irish-Canadian writers. As always, suggestions are welcome. Happy reading everyone.

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