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Fiction Life Memory Lane

Tending the Garden

Sara watched him drive away and waited until his car was out of sight before she felt the warmth of her tears on her cheek. When she met him, he had been a stranger to her and after all this time he still was. But there was something about him.

They’d both been through bad marriages and were both still figuring out how to move on. When they’d met, they had found a common thread that connected them; this shared grief and confusion about how to go on.

Victor was a strong and stoic man, and she’d never really had the chance to see his emotions. He did what he did best – he worked. He saw that she needed help, that she was feeling lost and he’d started showing up at her door early in the morning on weekends. There was work to be done.

He motivated her to get things done, to get fresh air, to go outside and walk. He helped her fix things in her house and had even taken to calling her late at night during the week to ask how much she had done. She’d resented it at first; she knew she was lost but he was making her feel inadequate, as if she was lazy. She wasn’t lazy though – she was scared. Scared of the overwhelming task that was facing her.

But even though he pushed her, he was there to do the heavy work. There was furniture to move and walls to prepare and paint. In the spring, he’d helped her edge the lawn and trim the trees and bushes. And when summer came, he told her to plant a garden.

“A garden?” she thought, “I don’t have time to garden”. She planted it anyway though. As Sara and Victor worked in the garden together, they talked about their childhood and the different paths they had taken. She found out that he wasn’t actually that knowledgeable about gardening – this was something they were learning and discovering together. Even the choice of plants was new to him; they weren’t things that grew in his country. Squashes, zucchinis, kale and swiss chard were all new to him and together they were learning how to make them grow.

She found herself going outside daily to weed the garden and she watched with delight when her favourite vegetables grew. She shared what she couldn’t use with friends and made new friends along the way and all her friends dropped by to help tend the garden. She created create new dishes for him to try, and made soups and stews and sauces, and filled mason jars to share with friends.

Weekends became a routine; Victor came over and whenever the weather wasn’t nice, they worked together inside the house. When the weather was nice, they worked in the garden or went on long walks. He talked about his childhood, about escaping a communist country, about his love of history. Sara had never left her country, or even her county and was fascinated by his stories of growing up in a communist country, of fleeing through Austria, and arriving in Canada. Just as she had needed help, he did as well. Sara became his confidant and with her he’d learned to be appreciated and cared for.

They talked about their childhood, their marriages, their disappointments and their successes. They talked about their children and the kind of people they had become, about the importance of remembering your heritage and language. They held hands on their walks, awkwardly at first, and then comfortably. They were learning to be friends, and to trust again.

He promised her nothing, but gave her so much and she knew she’d never forget all that he’d shared and all that he’d given. He was leaving now, but he hoped to be back in six months. He was going to visit his children and then he was going home to Poland for a few months. He hadn’t been back there since he’d left and it was time.

Summer was over now, and the last of the garden’s produce had been gathered. The leaves had fallen from the trees and snow was in the forecast. It was time for the soil to rest, and to wait for spring.

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Life Memory Lane

The Best Present I Ever Got

I grew up in a foster home, and like many other foster children, we didn’t receive many presents. Every year, we were reminded of the many children who didn’t receive any presents at all. My foster parents were forever telling us that we should be grateful for what we had, because there were so many people who had less, and some who had nothing.

When Christmas time came, my foster sister and I were always excited. This was the only time we were allowed candies and sweets, a time when all of our foster relatives came by and we played music and danced and laughed. It was such a joyous occasion! It was also the only time we got any toys and books. I thought I was getting a doll one year, because I’d seen my dad making a very small cradle, and my mother had been sewing tiny little clothes – much too small for even a baby.

Christmas Eve came and like every other year, we went to the church hall to join in the mass and the party that followed. Santa would sit at the front of the room, and give out presents to each of the children. I found out many years later that the parents brought the presents to the hall, and Santa would just call out the names on the presents.

This particular year, we were all assembled in the hall after mass, even the Evans family, who were the poorest family in town. They had no heat in their house, and we’d seen them at our school many times without any food for their lunch.

One by one the children’s names were called and we walked up to the front and got our presents then returned to our seats. When all the presents were handed out, Santa yelled out “Merry Christmas to All” and then left to go to wherever they’d hid his reindeer. But wait! Santa made a mistake – he didn’t give any presents to the Evans children. Just as I was thinking that, my mother called out loudly, “There’s been some kind of mistake; these presents aren’t for my daughters, they’re supposed to be for the Evans girls”. Then she took the presents out of our hands and handed them to the Evans children. I couldn’t believe it! How could she take our presents away? We cried all the way home. This was the worst Christmas ever! When we got home, we were still crying as we walked into the house.

“I’ve had enough of that”, Father sternly said. “Go up to your rooms right this minute and get into bed”.

We were washed and in bed, still crying when mother came into the room. She knelt down beside our bed, and said softly, “I know you’re upset, but you have so much to be thankful for, you have our house to live in, and you’ve never gone hungry. There’ll always be next Christmas for you, but that poor Evans family has nothing. Your gift to them will give those children hope and will mean so much more to them. This is the truest Christmas gift you can ever give, and you should feel proud of yourself.

After she left the room, we laid there in the dark, thinking about what she said. It took awhile for us to get over feeling sorry for ourselves, and then a peaceful feeling came over us.

I slept better that night than any time before, because I had truly felt the spirit of Christmas.

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Memory Lane

Two Lost Landmarks

A few articles over the past year about how the Spadina Hotel has been torn down to build million dollar condos, started me reminiscing about living in Toronto in the 70’s, so I thought I’d take a few minutes and share another story from my younger years.  The story starts at the Spadina Hotel on King Street West and it ends at the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street West.

CabanaThis particular memory is about meeting a couple of guys who played music at the Spadina Hotel which was at the corner of King and Spadina in Toronto. One played the piano and the other played the drums, and at 16, they seemed ancient to me. I mentioned that I played guitar, so they asked me to sing for them and we arranged for me to meet at the hotel, in the upstairs lounge. I was pretty excited, so I went to the Salvation Army and I bought a beautiful dark green satin, off the shoulder, formal gown, with light green inserts at the sides. It looked fantastic on me and I wore it into Spadina Hotel, armed with my guitar and a 20140121-Global-SpadinaBWlittle bit of confidence.

We basically played rather sedate country music, songs like “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, and I added a couple of folk-type songs, like “Changes” by Phil Ochs, and “Sit Down Young Stranger” by Gordon Lightfoot and “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens. The bartender used to serve me Singapore Slings and Cherry Brandy. I played there for almost two months, every Friday and Saturday night, and I was able to walk home with a few dollars in my pocket, a little less hungry.

 

Until the day the hotel manager asked me for some identification because someone dared to suggest I might be underage. Ah, the audacity!!! Of course, I had no ID to support me being old enough to be in a licensed establishment (because I wasn’t), and thus ended my brief career as a lounge singer.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spadina_Hotel

https://www.blogto.com/city/2014/01/a_brief_history_of_the_spadina_hotel/

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/property-report/memories-of-the-cabana-room/article30852881/

The age of majority (i.e. legal drinking age) at that time in Ontario was 18. It had recently been lowered from 21, but when you’re on your own trying to support yourself and stay alive, what difference does a few years make, right?

Up the street at the corner of Queen and Spadina was another bar called the Horseshoe Tavern which used to be a blacksmith’s shop. It was the birthplace of many country music stars in Canada and over time I got to watch performers like Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Willie Nelson and Stompin’ Tom Connors. It was an incredibly dark and smoky place and nobody asked me for identification.Horseshoe

I would stand outside on the street corner (get your mind out of the gutter) and beg for money. A few cents here and there and I could afford a sandwich at a restaurant on the other side of Spadina, and then come back and have a draft beer (I think it was 25 cents) and I would nurse that glass all night and listen to the music. One evening, a guy approached me outside and wanted me to “perform” for the money (again – get your mind out of the gutter) and I did a quick comedy routine pretending that the lamp post was a person and had a funny conversation (albeit one sided). At least I think it was funny because people walking by gave me money and I started to realize I was onto something.

I took the routine inside the Horseshoe Tavern a few times as well, naming the third stair down to the washrooms and loudly declaring “Don’t step on Harold” to people who walked downstairs. A lot of people laughed but only a couple gave me any change, so I decided it wasn’t worth my while. The fact that I forced myself out of my scared, introverted self was a testament to how desperate I was for money. Hunger is a great motivator.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoe_Tavern

I celebrated my 18th birthday at the Horseshoe Tavern with some people I had become friendly with. Imagine the bartender’s surprise when he found out I was now 18 and he had been serving me for just over a year. He even bought me a drink to celebrate!

The following year the age of majority was raised to 19.

 

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Life Memory Lane

Timeless Advice 

I recently turned 60, and it’s been a surreal experience. I tell myself that I’m not “really” 60, and then I look in the mirror and realize that yes, sadly I really am.

I thought I would commemorate this depressing occasion by sharing a story from my youth, that helped me to terms with growing older. You see, I had always been terrified to grow old and I actually never thought I would. I made a deal with myself to stop at 30. Life was very painful for me back then, and I was struggling to exist on a daily basis.

When I was 16, I read a newspaper article about a woman who was turning 100. I couldn’t imagine anyone living that long; why would anyone want to? Being the weird person I was, I looked her up in the phone book, found her address, and mailed her a letter, explaining my fears and asking to meet her. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter back, inviting me to tea. I donned my nicest clothes and went hoping to hear some wise advice about growing old without fear. The fact that she invited a complete stranger to her house, a street urchin no less, gives you an idea of the kind of person she was.

Louise Tandy Murch was an amazing lady; she lived alone in a huge house that looked dated, as did she. Her face was etched with deep lines that reminded me of the Sahara desert.  She carried in a large silver platter that held a tea service and some scones that she had made herself. I offered to help her carry it, but she insisted she was fine. As we sat drinking tea and eating scones, she shared with me some information about her life. She did yoga every day, despite having pins in both her hips, and she was a pianist. Her husband had been an orchestra conductor and together they had traveled the world. He had died several years before but she said she didn’t have time to give up on life or get depressed (yes, we discussed depression) because she was just too busy. She was currently trading music lessons with a young man in return for free gardening work.

I told her that I liked to play guitar and sing sometimes, so she played the piano for me and invited me to sing. When I started singing, she punched me in the stomach (in the diaphragm) and told me that’s where it had to come from. By the way, that was NOT a gentle punch – it got my attention. She reached into her piano bench and took out a music book with country songs and gave it to me. She told me she didn’t enjoy playing country music but she thought my voice was perfect to sing country. I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or not. 

It was a very different type of afternoon, one that I have never forgotten. All these years later, I still have that music book, and I often remember this incredible lady and her timeless advice for living at all ages. Her secret for living so long was because she was simply too busy to die. I’m fairly sure her advice has had a lot to do with how I’ve lived my life – keeping busy (often too busy), staying involved, trusting others. In a moment of remembrance after my birthday, I decided to “google” her name and found out that the National Film Board has a short film about her life that was directed by Deepa Mehta in 1976. It also looks as if something was in the works in 2014 as well

http://www.hollywood.com/movies/at-99-a-portrait-of-louise-tandy-murch-59211080/credits/.

I never knew I was in the presence of someone famous, I just knew I was getting some timeless advice about living and aging. Thank you Mrs. Murch, for the lesson and for the example.

By the way – if someone “googles” your name in the distant future, what do you think they’ll find? 

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When a friend dies…

A friend died today. We hadn’t been close over the past few years, ever since my mother passed away, actually. Stuff happened; words were exchanged. It was a difficult time for both of us. I was going through the grief of losing my parents and was thrown unexpectedly into menopause; Rita had a lot of health & family issues. Eventually we drifted apart.

In the past couple of years, we had talked again. Not about important stuff, she wanted help to buy a new computer, then she needed help to fix her computer. We kept the conversation light, and said we should get together for bingo sometime (she was my bingo buddy years ago and we would go to games a couple of times a week). We never actually did go to bingo though. I had been thinking of her recently, of calling her and getting together for bingo. Neither one of us had been to bingo in years.

I had no idea she wasn’t well. She had had a bypass operation years ago, but I thought she was doing well. The last time I saw her, she had lost weight and had quit smoking. I was amazed at how well she looked. She had two grandchildren, and she was so proud of them! She had also gotten in touch with some relatives in Nova Scotia and went down there every year to visit.

I waited too long to call. When I got home from work, there was a message on my phone from Jim, her husband. She’d gone into the hospital for angioplasty, but the surgeon said the blockage was too severe and booked her for another bypass, which she had yesterday. This morning at 9:30 a.m. she went into cardiac arrest and passed away.

Rita and I were very close in age; my birthday is on January 13, while hers was on December 24, so we were less than a month apart.

So, how did this affect me? I am grieving for my friend. Time and distance and differences separated us, but I will always remember her and I will always regret that I didn’t call her to get together for bingo sooner. I will also take better care of myself – I’m overweight, have dangerously high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Losing the weight is the first step.

51 is too young to leave. I hope you’re in a better place Rita. You will really be missed.

Goodbye my friend, rest in peace.

Rita Lepine
December 24, 1956 – June 6, 2008

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