Saturday, 30 July 2016

Flickers: Henry, AIDS, and Aiding

My Scottie lamp is flickering beside me, in need again of a switch upgrade. The lamp features a brass mother dog, her beard nicely combed, her body squished impossibly into a basket brimming with pups. I was smitten when I saw it, stunned that I could afford it; I have glanced at it happily thousands of times since, always on some level reminded of the day it came into my possession, the life I was living then, and the people I knew and loved. In a way that no other object does, this friendly-looking little lamp, with all its kitsch and charm, represents a period of my life and a dear companion, and all the adventure and sorrow those times bestowed.

I picked up this lamp with my friend Henry at a store in Toronto's Kensington Market sometime around 1979, for eleven dollars. The store was called Courage My Love, of a sort common now but then unique in my experience, with quirky and comely clothes and knicknacks filling all available space. I bought a couple of old tuxedo pants, as well, the ones with the narrow satin stripe up the side, black on black. I’m not sure what my look was exactly, in those days—there are few photos of me. But I do remember being thrilled with those pants, the most handsome clothes I had ever touched.

Henry introduced me to the store, as he did many things. I tried to persuade him to get a pair of tuxedo pants for himself, but his own look was very well established, and he shook his head mutely and walked away.

They were strange and wonderful times, those two short years in Toronto. I worked in a gay diner, washing dishes and bantering with the other employees. I was one of three women; the rest was all dark moustaches and well-defined baskets, or at least, that’s the way you would picture it if you only heard the talk. It was actually a teeming narrow world of high hopes and healthy hormones, creative aspirations and silent spiritual quests, terrible puns, wounded feelings, and camaraderie.

 I was back in Toronto this month for the first time in several years—the first time, I believe, since my best friend from those diner days lost his life to AIDS, and I went to Casey House to mourn.

When Henry and I met, he was the terse, surly, very efficient cook in whose kitchen I worked washing up. I was not a great dishwasher, but I tried hard to do the job well, I worked as fast as I could in that busy place, and I was friendly with the waiters who hurried back in anxiety for glasses, plates, cups, and cutlery. In the other half of the kitchen Henry was swiftly and masterfully assembling the Paris Burger, the Hawaiian Burger,  the New York Burger, the spinach salads and  other savoury delights our diner was famous for. He was a looker, our Henry, with his smokey eyes, his well-shaped brown locks dropping across his forehead, and his white apron folded neatly around his waist. (I went more for the long dangling shapeless look in aprons, myself.)


Saturday, 16 July 2016

Wavy Lines

In the room next door to me my mother lies sleeping. (Or wishing she was sleeping.) In the room beside hers, my sister and her husband lie, awake but drowsy. Scattered around the house dogs and cat settle in for the night, and here I sit, typing away when I ought to be snuggling in, myself.

It is my last night of fourteen in their home, my first visit to them in many years, and it will be a long while before I can come again. So I want to stay awake. I want to stretch out these wavy lines of sleep-deprived connection with my family, want to keep them close while I can.

Now, above you see the close-cropped head of my great-nephew. He lives in Australia, and visited Canada for the first time in May. He loved that squirrel. It was wonderful spinning around Vancouver with him and his brother and their parents and grandmas, but so short a time, so short a time, and they were gone.

Long ago in the days before The Internet my mother and I did a whack of genealogical research. I was surprised to notice that every forebear we had information on had raised his or her children thousands of miles from where he or she had grown up. I'm not sure why this surprised me. We ourselves had skipped from house to house for the first ten years of my life and then decamped from Winnipeg for the west coast, and since then both parents skedaddled back across the continent, to different destinations, and my siblings are flung across country and globe.

There are many sad and touching tales in there, most of which I am not privy to, some of which I hold close in my own heart. A whole nother brother came into being while I lived far away, and I wonder if we will ever see each other again, let alone live near to one another, as he, too, has travelled abroad to make his home.

I can still come to tears over these partings, so many years after they came into effect. I wouldn't will us all back into the shape we once held, when I was young and my parents and all their kids lived under the same roof. I wouldn't unlearn what I've learned, or undo what we've done, our growing and our explorations, not at all. But there is something lost when people spread so far apart. Some of it we are happy to say goodbye to. Some of it, in parting, we may never get beyond.

My sister told a story tonight of a man she met in Scotland in the 1980s. He was semi-scandalized that his adult son had left their town (not by far at all) for a job. Who would do that? he wanted to know.

Our people would. For a living, for adventure, to escape unhappy situations, for many reasons. And the lines of kinship are stretched farther and farther until they shimmer along the horizon and grow hazy, wavy, disappear.

I would have loved to be a real aunt to all of my nieces and nephews. The ones too far for me to drop in on more than once every few years. But I was not. I would have loved to be a real sister to my siblings, the ones that live so far away, who I now barely know, yet still so deeply love. But I was not.

The segment of the family who live close to me have gotten more of the annoyance and more of the pleasure of knowing me, not because they were better, more beloved, more important than the rest, but because they were there. I have gotten the ever-deepening pleasure of knowing them. Even when we were really really miffed at each other, things shifted over time. We sat through it. We knew each other more, and hence, grew easier in each other's company.

Before I was born, before my father was born, his family came from Scotland to Canada, forced to leave behind one son. That part of the family, the part that came down from him, is unknown to us. His heart was broken, ours broke away, drifting over the seas, gone from him.

Tomorrow I am packing up my suitcase again and moving on to a few last visits before my flight back home. And I am sad. My mum gets older as I while away my time in Vancouver. My sister's life is lived while mine is lived elsewhere, and we get older, too. Years flash by. Friends, family members keel over dead and I go to memorial service after memorial service, and I think, not yet Mum. Not yet, sister. Don't die yet. One more visit. One more letter. One more act of love.