The Span of Life

There was a time when Coco was a young girl. Her father sang her songs and played guitar. She was happy.

Then there was a rift between mom and dad. He left, and the music ended. For succeeding generations, singing and playing was always forbidden.

If Coco missed the joyous songs, she never said. The family made shoes for a living, and that became her purpose, along with caring for her children.

So says the film Coco.

Now Coco is very old. She doesn’t make shoes anymore. She almost forgets what was the singing was like … until her great-grandson Miguel came along. He didn’t like making shoes. He wanted to be a musician. So he sang to great-grandma. And a smile appeared.

***

There is a book called Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch. A young woman gives birth to her son. She rocks him and sings these words:

I’ll love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be

She keeps singing to him throughout the years … to a kid, a teen, a young adult, and an older one. It is her joy to do so.

In the sweep of time, mom becomes very old and very sick. She needs her son, and he needs his mom. So he holds her, rocks her, and sings:

I’ll love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
My mommy you’ll be

Day Twenty-One: La Fête

The party was a lunch, a dance and a gift-giving for the kids who we Belgians and Canadian are sponsoring in Toubacouta. Balloons were hung, streamers were streamed, fancy tablecloths and napkins graced the tables, and joyous music was bipbopping out of the speaker.

Girls did their hair in magical ways. They wore the brightest dresses and shirts. One boy even wore a bow tie!

For awhile I made faces with some of the kids and played the game where we’d hide behind someone sitting between us and then poke our heads out. Such fun. Some children were nicely shy while others bubbled over in their eyes. Some danced in the middle of the circle for maybe a minute. Others were pushed in there by friends and quickly scooted back to the edge of things. Mr. Bow Tie really rocked and rolled as we all cheered him on.

There was lots of lunch prep and I loved joining in. I was the only guy to do so but who cares? I sat with some girls and women and peeled onions. And there were no tears! So different from home. Next were cloves of garlic and I got to experience the impact of arthritis on my fine motor skills. I was slow and clumsy but again all of that was irrelevant. I finished with beans. Many hands made for light work as the sounds of Warlof and Flemish filled the space.

Several women distributed the various yummy food on plates in the kitchen. I got to be one of the lucky ones who presented the meal to individual kids. The whole idea was that the day would be special for the children. We served them. Before the meal we gave them the best seats on the patio. Here’s a pic I love:

After we ate, the balloons clearly needed to become soccer and volleyballs. The young’uns leapt in the air and in their hearts.

At one point, I just sat back and took it all in. Two years from now, will I be bilingual? Will I be spending a few months each year in Toubacouta, teaching these very kids how to speak English? I don’t know … but the possibility is real.

Who knows what journeys lie ahead … in my life, and in yours. Let us embrace the mystery.

Day Thirteen: Touch

Nima, Bruce and Ali

Back home in Belmont, Canada, I volunteer in a class of 10- and 11-year-olds. They’re marvelous kids. In our culture, if an adult touches a child who’s not in his family, he’s suspected of being a bad person. Therefore I don’t initiate hugs with kids. Still, if they come at me with arms open, I don’t turn away. We hug.

Our society is so touch poor compared to Senegal. Yesterday an old friend came to visit. Ali and I became buddies when I travelled to Africa for the first time – last December. He spoke very little English and I spoke very little French but we connected. Deep communication includes the subtleties of language but goes far beyond that. There are the eyes … and there is the touch.

Ali snuggled close in the chair with me and fingered the bracelet on my left wrist. He gave me that bracelet long ago, gesturing that I should hold up my arm and then slipping it over my wrist. Back then, the beads were held together with yarn, and one day in Toronto, in my room at the bed and breakfast, the beads spilled onto the floor. Happily I found them all, and soon began the search for repair.

Kids at school tried their best with more yarn but soon that one broke as well. The owner of a jewelry shop experimented with a few things, without success. Finally she found a stainless silver chain narrow enough to enter the holes of the beads. Two days before I flew to Belgium and later Senegal, Ali’s bracelet reappeared on my wrist. And now he was touching the beads and the skin beside them.

Ahh … the warmth of the skin, two arms just resting together. There is an abiding with no desire to move on to something else. Ali is fascinated with my grey hair and sometimes runs his fingers through it. He’s also made valiant efforts to braid little bits of it … amazingly with a little success!

Ali and his brother Ansou accepted my offer of bracelets from Canada. Several kids in the Grade 5/6 class created them for the Toubacouta children. Right now I can’t remember which Canadian child provided the adornments that now rest on the brothers’ wrists. “That’s okay, Bruce. The donor will be revealed in the fullness of time.”

I’ve never been a dad or a grandpa. Oh … what I’ve missed! With the help of Ali, Ansou and a whole bunch of young ones in Belmont, I get to know all about family. Lucky me.

Joining the Past

I’m sitting in Coffee Culture in downtown London, amiably with the present moment. And then I glance upwards. There sits a brown metal ceiling, etched with curlicues and squares, shining amid the pot lights.

And I am gone … to the time of a little boy, and to the wonder of grandpa’s farm, worlds away from my bounded home in Toronto. For the farmhouse living room had such a ceiling.

I am returned to chairs spread around the huge dining room, occupied mostly by adults who loved to tell stories. I see the sweep of fields falling to the railway tracks miles away, and the steam locomotive that each day entered my world on the right and disappeared on the left.

I remember lying awake in my upstairs bedroom, listening for the kitchen clock loyally sharing the wee hours with me. I feel grandma’s narrow pantry, and the steaming oatmeal cookies set upon a plate. The secret rush for sweetness was a grand adventure. Only decades later did I realize that grandma had purposely created a scene perfectly suited for a hungry 10-year-old.

There was golf across the stubble of a shallow field. Maybe my drives were 100 yards long and I joyously retrieved each ball … again and again. And we built a hay rack one summer, dad and my uncles straining with the hammer blows. Can’t remember what the young man did to help.

Down the fields toward Emily Creek with Uncle Orville and Uncle Laverne. They taught me to avoid the thistles and made sure that our route passed by Uncle Bruce’s maple sugar shack. Bruce died in a car crash in 1937. Mom made sure that his name was not lost.

Walt Whitman said “We were together. I don’t remember the rest.” So true. I was embraced within family on that long ago farm. I belonged. I contributed.

Looking back, there’s a tiny smile as I sip my cappuccino under the metal sheen of time.

More Than One

We’re home in Belgium, having said goodbye to our home in Italy. And then there is the question “What makes these places home?” The roll of the land is very beautiful, as is the grandeur of the old buildings. Tourist attractions abound, as do fine hotels and B&Bs. Still, the answer isn’t there.

It is very simply people who beckon me home. Perhaps we meet in the cool of this baguetteria in Roma. Maybe in our car today on the way to Oudenaarde. We gather. In the evening, Lore, Lydia and I watched The Notebook. It was the first time for me, maybe the twentieth for Lydia. She cried. My eyes were also moist as we watched a true love unfold over time. The three of us shared such a human experience. We all want to touch and be touched.

In a few days, Jo and Lydia’s son Baziel, and Anja and Curd’s daughter Olivia will fly with me to Canada. We will see wondrous things. We will go to wondrous sporting events. The true wonder, however, will be in sharing moments together, caring for each other, hanging loose in a most delightful way.

San Gregorio Matese

The view from San Gregorio Matese

***

There is a place at the top of the world
where our Peugeot wants to run
back and forth on the roads.
Will you come with me?

And you did

***

The family had been to San Gregorio many days ago, when I’d been sick in bed. They wanted to include me in the majesty so we climbed again. We moved above the Autostrada, the roundabouts and the t-shirt shops. Into the clouds.

Jo smiled as he remembered the restaurant at the tipping point of the world, where the pasta was also close to heaven. We approached the ristorante sign in San Gregorio … and the smiles ended. Closed. I could feel how much my friends wanted me to experience the ecstasy of this particular Italiano cuisine.

We stepped out of the car and padded our way downhill. An old man smiled with us … “Buongiorno.” As we curved, a few chairs came into view. Two tables were full of old men playing cards, and there was also a spot for us. It was a gelateria, and I chose choccolato and caffè. Soon spoons and tongues were united in delicioso sweetness. All was right with the world.

We waved at the locals and they waved back, across the permeable boundaries of language. And then we just sat, saying something or nothing, just being together.

Across the way, two sweating men were removing a temporary stage that no doubt had been the centre of an evening celebration. Their banging with hammers seemed right at home with it all.

Also over there was a bar. I saw several men around a table, tiny bottles of beer at the ready. I yearned for such a brew, but it is not to be in the short while. Antibiotics and alcohol are not tender bedfellows. On Friday I’ll have an Omer or a glass of wine.

I could feel the pull. “Go over there and sit with them.” So I crossed the street. I went inside the building and indicated to the young server that I’d like the piece of sweet cake that was on display. Without words, we knew. One Euro and the dessert was mine.

I sat outside, at some distance from the gaggle of men. Six older fellows were joined by two male police officers for a round of talk. I loved seeing the officers lingering with the customers, laughing and gesturing broadly. Relationship … what our countries so dearly need.

It was time. I got up from my lonesome stool and walked over to the table. O offered “Buongiorno” and it was offered right back to me. A few of the guys looked at me a bit funny but I warmed them up by singing “O Canada”. A search was soon on for someone who could speak English, but no one showed up. No matter.

Half an hour later we the family left and I shouted goodbye to my high altitude amici. Ciao!

***

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself … what a wonderful world

Together

Dinner in Riardo with the birthday folks behind

***

It was just a ten-minute walk from our B&B to downtown Riardo. I had asked my family to go ahead towards dinner since I had an appointment with an antibiotic needle. So now it was just me, on a dark residential street. I could hear the music of Italian voices on the higher floors of the homes I passed. Just like Flemish, I didn’t understand a word … and that was fine. Kids played in the muted light of a side street. All was well.

As I reached the main drag, I came upon a restaurant full of folks on its streetside patio. Two men were yelling at each other, gesturing wildly. I loved the energy, even though I’m not the yelly type. It reminded me of Roma and New York.

To my left, I heard “Bruce”, and there was Lydia in the street, waving me on to the pizzeria. Thank you, my friend.

The blackboard by our table told all, except I needed my friends to tell me. I knew I wanted pasta. After all, when in Riardo … Spaghetti porcini (with mushrooms) sounded fine and “Oh my God!” it was. What was that sublime flavour on the noodles? I told my gracious hostess that it was the best pasta I’d had in Italia. Her smile was all I needed in reply.

Behind us sat a large family. At least twelve folks, young and old and in between. Lots of gay chatter, again unknown to me. I loved it. My birth family was small and I wanted to borrow some energy from the humans at the next table. Mission accomplished.

The swimming family was tucked into a corner and three other groups soon sat down at the remaining tables. Wow … together indeed.

The big family started saluting the woman of the hour with the familiar tune of “Happy Birthday”, although naturally the words were Italiano. I zoomed to Google Translate and found “Buon Compleanno”, which I said to the woman when she came over to us, offering two plates of cake and other sweeties. She smiled and said something enthusiastic. Soon other desserty plates were being placed in front of all the other diners. I whirled around to the partygoers and yelled “Buon Compleanno!” Laughter erupted.

Ahh … there was such contact, across permeable boundaries of tables and languages. Just human beings, laughing in the night.

Home comes in many flavours.

Choosing a Castle

I’m sitting by the pool of Il Casale di Riardo, reflecting on my life. Nearby a couple and their teenaged daughter are frolicking in the water, laughing together in French. It’s lovely to behold – a family truly enjoying each other. The resident swallows aren’t perturbed by the swimmers. They swoop and dive for bugs on the water’s surface.

The doctor told me yesterday that I have bronchitis. Bummer. Giovanna is a wonderfully enthusiastic employee of the B&B and one of her tasks is to stick me in the butt once a day with a one-inch needle containing antibiotics. I took one look at that length and the quantity of liquid that was about to enter my body, and flinched. But Giovanna does it expertly … and somehow painlessly. Her care of me, and Lydia’s, and everyone’s, has been a blessing.

I sure didn’t want to spend another day in bed so I headed off with the folks in the car to visit a 250-year-old castle that the King of Naples had built. A mere 1200 rooms! The Reggia di Caserta.

First on the menu, however, was a visit to the Mediterranean Sea. My first time. As we walked to the sandy beach, a broad expanse of sky and sea wrapped around me. The far shore was far beyond my eyes. And then the warm water was tickling my toes. As I walked the shoreline, happy tanned people were everywhere. So cool. A young woman was shepherding a bunch of three-year-old kids, all decked out in pink waterwings. Oh, how those kids loved splashing around! A few metres away, here came a girl cradling her younger brother in her arms. Smiling together.

The family sat in the shade by the snack bar, assorted drinks at the ready. Along came a marvelous variety of human beings, in various states of undress. Old, young, fit, not so much, outgoing, shy. It was lovely, even as we retreated from the 35 degree Celsius heat.

On to the castle. Inside, there were two huge courtyards separating wing after wing. We entered one labelled “appartamenti”. As it slowly sunk in what was surrounding me, I just about felt sick. Thirty-foot ceilings, some adorned with gold, others with paintings that would feel right at home in the Sistine Chapel; marble floors; stone walls and staircases that could have been on the Titanic; statues that looked so morose to me … but then again, maybe I was the morose one.

The rooms were so large and so empty of feeling. There were uncomfortable looking benches for sitting, but they were behind ornate ropes. Finally I found a simple chair where I could legally drop myself down. My main thought was the egos that created this building. “Look at me. I’m so rich.” And what of the thousands of ordinary folk who helped construct this monstrosity, some of them probably struggling to survive? Okay – end of lecture.

***

There’s the physical building
There’s the life building
What shall I construct with the time that’s left?

Painting Churches

This is the title of a play I saw this afternoon at Procunier Hall in London.  It’s about the impact of Alzheimers on a family.  It’s also about longstanding emotional dysfunction and how there are no winners here (or are there?)

A reviewer sets the stage for us:

A last remnant of the old-money, socially elite WASP families that used to be Beacon Hill’s principal inhabitants, the Churches are an artistic clan.  Gardner Church is an aging poet, now going dotty, whose eminence is suggested by a library that includes gifts from Robert Frost and Andre Malraux.  His wife, Fanny, long used to running the household and serving as her husband’s real-world anchor, is easily recognizable as the type of upper-class woman whose own suppressed artistic instincts find fruition in her consciousness of clothes and furnishings.  Sharp-eyed and even sharper-tongued, Fanny also functions, with supportive intent, as a kind of critical nemesis to both her husband and their daughter, Mags, an aspiring painter, now living in New York, about to have her breakout solo show.

Mags has come come home to help her parents move out of their too expensive Boston townhouse, and into the cottage they own on Cape Cod.  She wants to paint them sitting together.

There is such sadness in this play.  Such a sense of loss in each of the three.  It’s far more than dementia.  It’s about how imperfect we all are.  We achieve something and then life seems to conspire to take away the satisfaction, to drop us down a bottomless pit for awhile.  Perhaps ending it all would be a good plan.

Through the tossings and turnings of relationship, though, a light shines.  There’s a recognition of who the other really is, even if that’s usually buried under a blanket of low self-esteem and woundedness.  There is a dance to this.  There is a tiny smile, as each person at least momentarily sees beyond the condemnations, the status, the fame, the need to have the other do what you want them to do.

As Gardner becomes more and more disoriented, as he grapples with his inability to write anymore, as he loses his awareness of the moment, he can still tell his daughter how beautiful she is.  He can dance with his wife.  He can quote the most memorable poems of Yeats, with a faraway look in his eyes.

Mags seems to have had a young life of “not good enough”.  Mom lets her know right between the eyes that her dyed hair is an abomination and that she’ll never get a man wearing clothes that look like discards.  What ills of the past still live in her mind?  They appear to be embedded in the walls of the home place.  She needs to paint her parents, and when they finally see the finished work, they smile, they comment on the stylistic beauty, they’re proud of her.  Mags’ eyes widen in wonder, hearing words that never flowed before from her mother’s lips.

Fanny is all knotted up.  She remembers the joys of courtship with Gard, how their lives flowed effortlessly as his fame and income surged.  The parties, the fancy clothes she could afford, the sense that their peers thought well of this well-appointed Beacon Hill couple. Why, or why, couldn’t their daughter see the wisdom of staying within the fold of tony society?  Perhaps a reprimand or thousand would have her see the error of her ways.  In the end, though, there is the painting Mags created, showing the sweet togetherness of decades.  There is the dance with her dear one, as wobbly as he is.  Gard and Fanny’s eyes meet in love.

***

I sit here now, thinking of a song written by Stan Rogers, telling of a ranch wife looking forward to Friday night, when she’ll be dancing with her man at the Legion.  It’s called Lies:

Then she shakes off the bitter web she wove
And turns to set the mirror, gently face down by the stove
She gathers up her apron in her hand
Pours a cup of coffee, drips Carnation from the can
And thinks ahead to Friday, ’cause Friday will be fine
She’ll look up in that weathered face that loves hers, line for line
To see that maiden shining in his eyes
And laugh at how her mirror tells her lies

Here’s to Gard and Fanny, to Mags, and to Friday evening dancers everywhere.

Day Twenty-Two: Belgium Briefly

As we collected our luggage in Brussels Airport, I knew a moment was coming. The family called Anja, Curd, Camille and Olivia would be taking a different van than us to get home. The same would be true of Lieselot.

I asked myself how I felt about these five folks whom I’d spent the last twelve days with. I had laughed with each of them. The truth was clear: I loved them.

Someone once said that the greatest “withhold” in life, what we avoid saying to another, is “I love you.” I’ve been in that place and it hurts not to be true to who I am. So … I said it to each of my friends. They all smiled as we hugged. Only one said “I love you” back to me. And that’s okay.

What’s supremely important to me is expressing – “energy out”. “Energy in” – what comes back to me – is marvelous to receive, but I don’t need it to be happy. I welcome love incoming when it happens. It’s a bonus. It’s not the essence of life.

***

After sleeping in to 11:00 am or so, I had a slow day at Lydia and Jo’s place. The big news is that after we four go to Italy for ten days in July, one kid from each family will fly with me to Canada for two weeks. It’s Baziel, Olivia and me! I get to be grandpa.

I’m thrilled that both teens are eager to explore some of Canada with me. I’ve threatened to focus on “old people stuff” but they’re too smart to believe me.

I’m looking forward to sitting in the Belmont Diner with Olivia and Baziel, at the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter. The regulars would love to chat with two kids from Belgium.

Then there are the grand events. Niagara Falls beckons. Plus Toronto. How about a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees? Baziel says he’s never watched baseball.

I was scouring the internet yesterday, searching for Toronto rock concerts in August. I found Iron Maiden, who the kids don’t know, but Olivia’s father Curd is a major fan. He’s wringing his hands because on August 9 Olivia will be rocking to their music while Curd consoles himself with an Omer beer in Belgium. Oh … the three of us will have fun doing this, that and the other thing in Canada!

I sat with Jo and Lydia in their living room last night. We took turns finding favourite YouTube songs for each other. Jo played some blues guitar. Lydia cuddled the family cat. We were together … in peace.

***

Now it’s today, and I’m about to get on an eight-hour flight from Amsterdam to Toronto. Stay tuned …