My father’s garage was a special garage because he parked his French Fry truck in it. When I think of myself standing as a child of three or four next to his truck I am filled with the sentiments of awe and wonder which is pretty much, except for certain exceptions, as how I saw my father throughout his life. Now that he has been dead for over six years this wonderment and pride seems to increase with time although I do not quite know how to explain it for the simple reason that I don’t understand how this happens or why or what to make of it all. It seems such a private thing, in one way. And in another way so universal.
I guess this is what grief is about. The ups and downs. The anger. The sorrow. The bringing up of old wounds and the creation of new ones. Grief is about honour: Of the dead. The living. And oneself. And grief, I have learnt can turn into wonderment. My father is now stronger than ever alive in my heart.
Of course, the past is unattainable but if we’re lucky we can use the past as our guides as Gail Caldwell in her Pulitzer Prize Winning memoir A Strong West Wind proposes. “You can’t go back: to unboarded trains, to pristine battlefields before the dawn, to love that ended yesterday in Texas. Instead we have this stupid, lovely chaos, this burden and blessing called experience, the high beam of the past that is supposed to throw light on the future.” (p.216).
In 1950 Ray Brown, in search of a baseball team which would not discriminate against blacks, found one in the Sherbrooke Athlétiques, a provincial minor team which already had an impressive lineup of outstanding players. There was Silvio Garcia from Cuba , Claro Duany, who in 1997 was inducted in the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame and their manager, Roland Gladu, who had played in the US major leagues.
Because of restrictions about blacks playing in the major leagues they were picked up by the minor leagues. These great baseball players came to Quebec and in particular Sherbrooke where they found no discriminatory restrictions. And for this Sherbrooke was rewarded. It got a team worthy of major league talent. And thus baseball became the game that everyone talked about. The stadium on Park Avenue was always packed and you could hear the roar of cheer for miles away.
My father would tell stories about how the black baseball players would come to his restaurant and he would talk to them about the game and cars. But it was Ray Brown, once pitcher for the Pittsburg Homestead Greys, a professional team that played in the Negro leagues in the United States, that my father most often spoke of.
I was only an infant when Ray Brown came to Sherbrooke to pitch for the Athlétiques but the story of how he brought the team to a championship in 1951 were legendary in my father’s memory. Years later, after the Sherbrooke stadium had burnt down and Brown had gone to play for a senior team in Thetford Mines, Quebec, there was still the spirit of championship that lingered in the fields of little leaguers.
When in February, 1965 Ray Brown died my father grieved over him as if he were his brother. It comforted me to know that my father could have such feelings for a black man for I knew that his prejudices were but a façade that could easily crumble.
I regret that my father didn’t live to see Ray Brown being inducted in the Baseball National Hall of Fame in 2006. He would have been proud and I would have heard all over again how the black baseball players would come to his restaurant and he would joke with them. Then he’d come home and talk about them and I would hear the wonderful sound of admiration in his voice.
It was my friend, Denise Dufour who told me that there was no Santa. It was Christmas day and we were in front of my house building a snow fort when she said, “Did you notice that Santa was Mr. Simoneau. I knew it was him,” she said, “because of his crossed eyes.”
Mr. Simoneau worked for my father at his restaurant and he had hired him to play Santa at my house and also at Denise’s house. Denise’s father was Roger, my father’s best friend.
I had been more excited about the miracle of Santa appearing at my house and the presents he brought than to notice his crossed eyes. And even if I had, I don’t think I would have made the connection. I was much too enchanted by the fantasy to notice that behind the Santa beard and the Santa suit there was a real man. A Mr. Simoneau. And so when Denise reveled to me this truth I was crushed and I at once lost all interest in fort building or being with Denise. In my child like mind I wondered if I could still be her friend.
I stomped home and flung my red rubber boots unto the kitchen floor not caring if I dirtied it. My father was sitting having a cup of coffee. It was rare that I saw him at home, especially in the middle of the afternoon. But this was Christmas day and his restaurant was closed.
“You lied to me,” I shouted. “There’s no Santa.” I told him about Mr. Simoneau’a eyes and began to cry. Continue reading
For the last few weeks I’ve been having a desire for champagne. And yet, I’ve nothing to celebrate. My sister died just two months ago. Why should I want champagne?
And then it strikes me. Yesterday, I taught my last class. That’s something to celebrate. It’s odd how desire comes before logic. Strange how the unconscious mind can work.
I am retiring. How can that be? Retirement is for mature people. Not me. I have too many fears about my retirement. It’s normal friends and colleagues who’ve been through it tell me. The problem, I answer, is I have never been comfortable in the normal mold.
They attempt at reassuring me by telling me that I’ll have lots of time to travel. Envy spreads across their faces. I thank them for their kindness. Try to sound up-beat but all I can think about is how foreign cities can make you feel so lonely.
Retirement is for people who know who they are and who have specific goals for their golden future. Not me again. I am still consumed with questions I asked myself when I was twenty. What will I do when I grow up? Continue reading
My parents tried to integrate us into a Polish community. I was eight or nine then and my brother, Donny three years younger. Every Saturday morning we would trudge to Mrs. Olyshinski’s house where the children from the Polish community gathered to play. Mrs Olyshinski wore a Polish flag colored apron.
Her blonde hair was curled tightly around her pretty, soft face. If I close my eyes now and think of her an image of Robert Doisneau’s famous kiss by the hotel de ville comes into mind.
I don’t know why this is so. I never saw Mrs. Olyshinski’s husband and less her in a passionate kiss but that’s how I remember her. A Polish war bride. Mrs. Olyshinski was both beautiful and kind. She offered me cookies and gently encouraged me to mingle with the other children.
Except for a vague memory of my jumping I remember nothing of the games played. All the children spoke Polish and I didn’t understand a word. That I didn’t speak nor understand Polish made me even shy-er than I already was. I must have complained enough that my parents finally decided that I didn’t have to go there anymore although that brief experience of travelling through foreign territory changed me. It was the beginning of my lifelong search to belong.
It has been a year now since Diana died. Tomorrow I will be having my family over for a commemorative lunch. I look forward to this, in some ways like I might look forward to a party that I am hosting and I must remind myself that this is not a party. Or is it? I think of the stages of grief and how the last stage is to celebrate what having the person in your life has given you.
I think about what Gail Caldwell wrote after she delivered a poem at her friend,
Caroline’s funeral: “For two days after the service, I carried the meter of the poem in my head, a sweet interior background to the walks I took, the laps I swam, the last thoughts before sleep. It was as though some ancient choir had taken up residence inside me, giving me this exquisite chant, a measure of my own movement and accompaniment to an otherwise unspeakable sorrow”.
As I write this I play Cat Steven’s Morning Has Broken on YouTube. Tears flow and I am not certain what exactly it is that I am crying about. The tears are a cocktail of hope mixed with sorrow; the light of beginnings with the darkness of endings; words that went unspoken with feelings that reach beyond and make me believe that we can still communicate. With more power than we ever did.
I play practically every video on YouTube with this song and read some of the comments people have written. One in particular strikes me: brought me back to why we worship God.
My mind connects to another song. This one by Alanis Morissette’s Thank U. Thank you frailty, thank you consequence, thank you disillusionment…How about not equating death with stopping.
Again Caldwell. “…What if death…weren’t a bad thing?”
This week I have felt my sister’s presence in my home. Some of her little grandchildren will come over tomorrow. I talk to Diana out loud. You can use my body as a vessel tomorrow to communicate with them, I tell her. Use my body to communicate with whomever you want to. At yoga practice the teacher always begins by asking us to have an intention. Yesterday, my intention was to be filled with Diana’s qualities of kindness and generosity and gentleness and my own of joy and calmness. This is how I want to be.
What if death weren’t so bad? How do we know? How does anybody know? We can only hope and in itself is enough to carry us through the sorrow of grief.
And finally there is pumpkin soup. This is a recent addition to my comfort food.
Ursula brought over a pumpkin at my sister’s commemorative and I left it out on the front balcony until the frost warning.
The week before Catherine, my daughter, invited me to her friend’s parents in the Eastern Townships for dinner. Their house has the kind of distance from Mountain Road that you associate with estates. I immediately loved its outside. Grey and white. Inside it was full of art from their travels: a wooden giraffe from Africa; Some outstandingly colorful silk hangings over their bedroom that took my breath away; Shelves and shelves of jars and jugs collected from different continents. Louisette, made a fabulously delicious lamb dish which she served with fresh Brussels sprouts and barley. And when we left she gave me a recipe for pumpkin soup.
Preparation time: 15 minutes.
It took me almost two hours of preparation. I cut up the pumpkin on my balcony. (The recipe did not indicate to factor in time for clean up of your balcony after emptying the pumpkin). Nevertheless, after frying a large onion in butter and adding chicken stock along with the diced pumpkin and then putting the whole thing through the blender before stirring in some milk and freshly grated nutmeg and then topping it with sharp cheddar cheese, the soup was well worth the time and effort. Pumpkin has a mild taste and the contrast of the sharp cheddar melded well with it. I froze half of it and the rest I shared with some friends, who all loved it.