Is This Who We Are?

I am asked from time to time, as perhaps you are, what my views are on various issues confronting us in this country.  The questions are usually friendly, coming from younger family members (there are none older, alas!), friends and neighbours, and readers of this blog.

Two recent topics of concern have centred around the grisly discovery of more than 200 Indigenous children’s bodies, buried in an unmarked grave on the site of a former Roman Catholic residential school in British Columbia, and the horrific murders of a Muslim family here in Ontario.

I have tried to imagine myself being approached on the street by a news-channel reporter interested in my opinion, and asked: What do your people think of these horrible events?  I would have trouble with the question because I’d not be sure what is meant by the phrase, your people.  I am a married, White, straight, Christian, male septuagenarian of comfortable means, so which of those categories does the question imply I represent?  All of them?  Only some?  Which ones?

In fact, of course, I represent no one other than myself.  The question is idiotic.  It would never be asked of me.

Nevertheless, I have watched on TV as persons of colour—Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, mixed race—have been asked that very question by (usually) White reporters: What do your people think of these horrible events? 

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the reporters in wanting the answers, but I question the ingrained attitude that presupposes a person of colour other than White might be qualified to speak for an entire cohort.  That presumption is equally idiotic.

I am also dismayed when I hear people in positions of power or authority—people who have it within their scope to enact laws and influence public perceptions, but don’t—passing along their deep thoughts and prayers to the families of victims of crimes like those cited earlier.  Such thoughts and prayers following on the heels of a tragedy are worth nowhere near as much as education, legislation, and enforcement beforehand, all measures to help prevent such tragedies in the first place.

Helping our young people learn about our history of racism, the reasons for it, the work of countless advocates to reverse it, and how they might become more tolerant of differences among us is surely one such objective.  Helping them devise skills to confront overt racism and discrimination of any sort when they face it is another.  Aiding them as they grow into adults who will understand that actions have consequences is yet another.  All of us must know we will be held accountable for what we say and do.

After such horrendous events occur, it bothers me to hear apologists proclaim: This is not who we are!  Who do they mean by the word, we?  The Canadian people?  Only some of the Canadian people?  Which ones?

The fact is, in both tragedies I have referenced, the perpetrators were White and (ostensibly) Christian.  In other tragedies I might have cited that have befallen this nation, those responsible have been persons of colour, or persons of different faith, and even persons with serious socio-emotional problems.  But they have all been Canadian.

So, I think this is who we are, in fact—a conglomeration of people of all races, ages, individual gender-identities, different religious and political affiliations, divergent economic situations, possessing and acting upon a value system that ranges from what is broadly considered within social norms to the lunatic fringes.

And for this reason, I think no one can truly speak for the Canadian people.  We are not one happy, united clan living in the true north, strong and free.  Rather, we are a collection of clans—clans whose members overlap, to be sure, in our workplaces, our schools, our places of worship, even our homes; clans who freely subscribe to many of the tenets that bind us as a nation; clans who, for the most part, want to live in harmony with each other; and clans who demand for their members the same fair and equitable treatment afforded all citizens.

But there are rogues among us, unfortunately.  And they, too, are members of our clans.  They are part of us, and so they play a part in defining who we are.  The reasons for their behaviours—the grievances they nurse, the anger they manifest, the helplessness they harbour—all contribute to the actions they take.

Until we understand the causes for those grievances, that anger, and until we take steps to alleviate the conditions that spawn them, we shall never be free of their rogue behaviours.  Looking back at our past can certainly help us understand where such hostility comes from, but perpetuating that past will doom us to more of the same.

I was discouraged when a major political party in Ottawa voted against a federal non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia in 2017, and again when the ruling party in Ontario this past week blocked a motion calling on the legislature to unanimously condemn Islamophobia.  Unbelievably (or perhaps not), in a startling display of hypocrisy after those votes, the leaders of those parties quickly trotted out their timeworn thoughts and prayers mantra following the most recent tragedy. They do not walk their talk.

As a nation, we need to take positive steps to redress the wrongs of history by charting new paths, new legislation, new opportunities, that will promote and ensure equality for all citizens, not just the privileged few.  We need a generation of leaders with the courage to walk boldly.  

I confess I am unsure if we have it in us as a people to make that happen.  And if we do not, I am left with one troubling question—

Is this who we are?   

Firecracker Day!

Today is Victoria Day in Canada, otherwise known to one and all as Firecracker Day. The post below was first published a year ago, in May 2020.

The twenty-fourth of May is the King’s birthday,

If you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away…

Those were the opening lines of a schoolyard rhyme we kids would sing joyously as the long holiday-weekend drew near.

…We’ll break all the rules and tear down the schools,

And call all the teachers silly old fools!

The King, of course, was George VI—by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith.  His picture adorned the walls of every classroom, and every morning my classmates and I joined voices in mostly off-key renditions of God Save the King, the Canadian national anthem way back then.

For some years, we also recited a pledge of allegiance to the Union Flag, known to us as the Union Jack, then still the flag of Canada—I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the empire for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  Or something like that.

None of us really knew the significance of any of it, of course—the King, the anthem, or the flag.  But we dutifully manifested our loyalty and obeisance, proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Strangely enough, although we didn’t know it, the twenty-fourth of May wasn’t really the King’s birthday at all.  Rather, it was the day named to honour the birthday of his auspicious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, who reigned for more than sixty-three years (a record currently being extended by her great-great-granddaughter, King George’s daughter, Elizabeth II).  As such, it was known officially as Victoria Day.

Adding to the strangeness, the need to ensure a holiday-Monday in years when the twenty-fourth of the month fell on another day of the week meant that we often celebrated the occasion on a different date, usually the Monday preceding the actual twenty-fourth.

To us kids, however, none of that mattered.  For us, it was always just Firecracker Day!

Because we could hardly wait for darkness to descend on the big day, that Monday would seem like the longest day of the year.  In my neighbourhood, five or six families would pool what were often meagre resources to purchase a package of fireworks.  We’d gather in someone’s backyard, the kids and mothers safely removed from the launch area, the fathers bustling about as if they knew what they were doing.

The fireworks were nothing like the fantastical pyrotechnic displays we have become used to over the past few years, of course.  These were much more modest.  The usual format would see a few low-rising pinwheels set off at the beginning, some in vivid colours that drew oohs! and aahs! from everyone assembled, our faces craned skyward.  They made sounds like phoomph! and peeshhh! as their glowing embers drifted up and up, and then inevitably down as they died.

boy-watching-fireworks-kimberly-hosey

The second group included firecrackers shooting higher into the night sky, exploding with more force and noise—takatakatakataka! and bang-bang-bang!  Blossoms and plumes, the white ones so bright they would make us squint, would rain down, miraculously extinguished before they ever reached the ground.  I can still hear the squeals and shouts of delight and awe from everyone, and see their faces lit up by excitement—even the fathers, normally so macho and reserved.

The last batch would be the ones we all had been waiting for, the boomers and cannons that seemed to climb impossibly high before exploding in huge, fiery blooms and streamers.  Ka-whumph!  Ka-ba-blammm!  Boom-boom-boom!  Even when we knew what was coming, we’d be startled by each successive percussion, plugging our ears, almost feeling the sound pounding physically into us.

The very best one was always saved ‘til the end, and one of the fathers would make sure that everyone knew this was it.  It felt like no one was breathing as he bent over, ignition stick in hand, touched the fuse, then leapt back out of the way.

Whooooshshsh!  The powerful rocket would burst from the ground, trailing fire and smoke, the mightiest of any we had seen.  The plume from its tail would flame out, we’d wait, we’d wait…and then KABOOM-KABOOM-KABOOM!  The multi-coloured contrails would zoom higher and higher, arching and spreading wider than any before, like a tablecloth being floated high overhead, before settling down upon us.

Most of the time, as I recall, we were struck dumb by the spectacle.

sparklers2

At the end of the evening, every kid would get a sparkler, a long wand with which, once it was ignited, we could write our names in fiery letters in the dark (those of us who could write, anyway).  And then the night was over, a night that always seemed incredibly short after such a long day of waiting.

It’s been sixty years and more since last I was part of such a celebration, and I won’t be out in anyone’s backyard on Firecracker Day this year, either.  But I’ll almost surely enjoy a quaff or two, and will probably raise a toast to the Crown.

For old time’s sake, I may even sing a chorus of God Save the King.

But quietly, for those days of my youth are gone forever.

Pooh and I

Way, way back, at the earliest, foggy frontiers of my memories—at about the age of four—I received a storybook from my spinster aunt.  Entitled Winnie-the-Pooh, it was my introduction to literature, and to the wonderful world of reading.

I couldn’t read the stories myself, of course, not then, but I spent countless happy hours listening to my aunt read them to me, cozy on the couch in front of the warming fire.  That book was soon followed by its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, which I also loved, and later on by two others by the same author, A. A. Milne.

To this day, I can remember my aunt’s husky voice speaking for the various characters, can hear her uninhibited laughter at the situations they found themselves in, can feel her warm breath on my cheek as we avidly devoured the pages.  Given her happiness during those times we spent together, it would have been impossible for me to grow up not loving the joys of reading.

Among my favourite recollections of those books, beyond the stories themselves, were the illustrations—pen-and-ink drawings lovingly composed by E. H. Shepard.  In my mind’s eye,  I see many of them still, though I have not cracked the covers of those books in more than seventy years.

It occurred to me recently that many of the values and attitudes that I grew up with, and have clarified and refined during adulthood, were first suggested by Pooh and his friends.  For example, understanding others’ points of view, and being tolerant of differing opinions, have always been important attributes to which I have aspired.  And I have always believed patience is a virtue, even if I was not always able to adhere.  To that end, these statements still ring true

When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.

What’s wrong with knowing what you know now and not knowing what you don’t know until later?

Pooh and his friend Christopher Robin seemed always on the cusp of an adventure, something that appealed to me as a child, and something that continues to motivate me into old age.  A partial list of chapter headings from the first book clearly illustrates their spirit—

In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place,

In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,

In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump, and

In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole.

The adventurous spirit of these boon companions can also be seen in these statements—

You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.

They’re funny things, Accidents. You never have them till you’re having them.

If the string breaks, then we try another piece of string.

If it’s not Here, that means it’s out There.

Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

I particularly love that last one.

Perhaps the two greatest attributes I absorbed from these stories, the ones that underlie all the others, are the gift of friendship, and the joy of love for one another

It’s so much more friendly with two.

It isn’t much good having anything exciting, if you can’t share it with somebody.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long.  If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart; I’ll stay there forever.

Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.

Some people care too much.  I think it’s called love.

Love is taking a few steps backward, maybe even more, to give way to the happiness of the person you love.

How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I cherish that final thought, even while acknowledging I have never had to say goodbye to Winnie the Pooh.

There is one picture I love more than any other from the book, however, a picture of Christopher Robin and Pooh coming down the stairs together, and I can still hear my aunt’s hearty laughter upon reading the accompanying plea from Pooh-— 

If possible, try to find a way to come downstairs that doesn’t involve going bump, bump, bump on the back of your head. 

Winnie the Pooh was my first and abiding friend.

Whose Truth Will Survive?

It has been stated countless times, including here in this blog, that history is written by the victors.  Whatever any of us knows of the past has been determined by what we’ve been taught by our parents, teachers, and elders.  And they have simply passed down to us their own understandings, their own truths, based on what they, too, were taught.

In short, what we think we know to be true about our society has been filtered through many lenses—cultural, racial, gender, socio-economic, and political.

There have been attempts at presenting alternative-history scenarios, fictional representations of what might have been, ‘if only…’.  Harry Turtledove, for instance, has written books about what happened after the South won the U.S. Civil War, and after Germany won WW II.  H. G. Wells wrote about an alien invasion of the planet, The War of the Worlds, which, when adapted by Orson Welles for radio in 1938, caused near-panic among the populace.  In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth described events after Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the 1940 U. S. presidential election by Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.  And Margaret Atwood devastatingly described the misogynistic society of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, about subjugated women in a patriarchal society.

These alternative histories are fiction, of course, although all too real in their telling.  But across the millennia, there actually have been innumerable alternate realities experienced by people of the time—realities which, although true, were never recorded and passed down the generations because they were on the losing side. 

For example, I was taught, as perhaps you were, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492; in truth, what he did was discover it for the white, colonial, commercial powers of Europe.  The Americas had actually been discovered eons earlier, maybe 33,000 years ago, by Asian nomads who crossed what was then a land bridge where the Bering Straits exist today.  I was never taught about those people and their descendants, nor about that version of history, true though it is.

I grew up with an implicit understanding that the great figures of the past were men, not women—white-complexioned, European men who stood fast against the barbarian hordes, mostly people of different colour and religion, who were intent on assailing the established order.  It remained for the adult me to learn about such people as Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tommy Douglas, Gloria Steinem, Cesar Chavez, Germaine Greer, Nadia Murad, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and others too numerous to list who have fought for equity for all.

Growing up in the 1950s, I was taught that communism was the great evil of our time—the relentless enemy of capitalism, the system I was taught to believe would raise us all to a marvellous standard of living.  Today, for many of us, that has proven to be true; but what of those for whom it has not?  What will be written of their history, if anything is written at all? 

I would never proclaim myself a communist—the whole ideology has become irredeemably politicized and villainized.  But I confess an affinity for a socialist-democracy, where every citizen is considered worthy of support and respect, over what has become a capitalist-democracy, where the very few prosper, a larger number just get by, and the majority contend with poverty.  For those whose motto might be I’m alright, Jack, such a status quo might be fine.  But any society, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.

I wonder, too, about the history my great-grandchildren (and their children) will learn, beginning perhaps thirty years from now, about the times we are presently living in.  Will it be a history of the life I am living?  Will it be a history of the lives led by the homeless in our cities?  Will it be a history of ethnic minorities who are being subjected right now to genocidal actions by oppressors?  Will it be a history of the demise of democracy in favour of authoritarianism?  Whose truth will survive?

More existentially, I wonder about the future of the planet itself, and whether our depredations will allow it to sustain human life as we have known it over the past hundred years.  I saw two pictures recently, taken from the same location one hundred years apart, that drove home the point very viscerally. 

Just as our human species has evolved (for better or worse) over the span of our history—and continues to evolve—so too does the planet continue to change.  And not necessarily for the better.  Are such evolutionary changes inevitable, beyond our ability to control, dooming our descendants to a dismal future?  Or is it within our capabilities and purview to act now to preserve a habitable planet for them?

Most of us govern ourselves by the values and truths we have come to accept, based on our accumulated experiences, which for the most part is conducive to social order.  But danger arises when we close our minds to the values and truths espoused by others, without trying at least to understand them.  At such times, we need to de-centre from our own perceptions of things, and try to see the world as those others see it, based on their experiences.

We need not necessarily accept those alternative views, but by understanding their genesis, we can contribute to a more harmonious existence.

And then, with any luck, we can acknowledge our differences, while at the same time recognizing the perils we face collectively.  That is how we shall survive.

And that is how there will be a history to pass along to those who will come after us.  Whatever the truth will be.

Remembering My Mother

They were fifty-six years apart, the first poem I wrote for my mother and the final one.  I read them both aloud to her, the first as a second-grader when she was thirty-five, the last on her ninety-first birthday.

The first was entitled simply Mother’s Day, and it went like this—

Mother’s Day comes in May,

So here’s a card to make you gay.

I imagine, but cannot remember for sure, that I read it word-by-word—as. early. readers. do.   I like to think—but do not truly remember—that she praised me fulsomely when I presented it to her, and hugged me tightly.  Perhaps it was even taped to the refrigerator door for a time.  That thought pleases me.

For the second one, however, I know I delivered the reading with all the emotion and sentiment she deserved, and again with all the love I felt.  She was more subdued this time, listening carefully and nodding as I read, her glistening eyes fixed on a distant past only she could see.  Her smile when I finished was enough.

The second one was titled My Tree—

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her boughs across my yard,

Festooned with leaves providing shade, standing tall and proud, on guard.

When I was young, and climbed up high into my tree, carefree and fleet,

Her branches hugged me safe and close, held fast my hands, secured my feet.

As I grew braver, I would stray beyond the fence that kept me in.

But at day’s end, I’d rush back home to settle ‘neath my tree again.

Her boughs would gently bend and blow about my head, and whisper soft,

And tell me of the wide world they had seen from high aloft.

Sometimes she’d bend, tossed by storms that raged around us, blowing fierce,

Yet, ne’er a storm could match her strength, nor past her loving shelter  pierce.

Then, all too quickly, I was gone to seek a new yard, far away.

Yet always I’d return to hug my tree, and feel her gentle sway.

Too big by then to climb once more her branches, high o’erhead,

I still found comfort there, among the fallen leaves my tree had shed.

Past ninety years, yet still she stands, her canopy now drooping low,

Creaking, bending, in the winds that shake her branches, to and fro.

As spring and summer fast have fled, and fall has turned her leaves to gold,

My tree displays a majesty that can be neither bought, nor sold.

And I’ll remember all my days her love, like ripples in a pond,

Because I’m sheltered now by younger trees—the seeds she spawned.

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her loving boughs each day

Above my head, to nurture me, and gently send me on my way.

My mother has been gone for several years, and as I creep inexorably closer to her venerable age, I scarcely believe the passage of time.  It has been said that a boy’s best friend is his mother, and even now, that adage rings true.  She will be with me ‘til the day I die.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mum!

Karao-kay!

So, here’s the thing—you don’t have to be a good singer!  You don’t even have to be a mediocre singer!  All you need is that you like to sing.

For some time now, as some of you know, I’ve blended my bass voice with mates on the risers of a large men’s chorus, the mighty Harbourtown Sound.  And it’s been a comfort to me to know that no one listening would actually be able to pick my voice out of the throng.  I mean, I do contribute to the wondrous wall of sound we produce collectively, but my solo voice is anonymous, much to my liking.

However, on my last birthday, which took me past my mid-mid-seventies, my wife and two daughters gifted me with a karaoke machine.  Never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought to ask for such a thing—although, in my younger years, I did take part in more than one karaoke session, usually after a few beers in the company of good friends whose critical faculties were undoubtedly somewhat impaired.  In fact, I think I remember stepping up in one or two open-mic sessions, as well.

As I recall, I was never asked back to the same venue twice.

Still, I’ve discovered I love my new machine.  The internet is chock-full of karaoke versions of popular songs, arranged exactly as the original artists sang them, with the correct lyrics scrolling on the screen.  Copyright restrictions apply only if one intends to use them for commercial purposes, which I most assuredly do not.  After all, if it were my intent to sell any of the songs I record, I’d need a buyer, right? 

‘Nuff said.

Ballads are my preferred genre, some of them even older than I.  A partial list of artists whose songs I have attempted includes Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Mathis, Willie Nelson, Jim Reeves, and Frank Sinatra.

Still to come, I hope:  Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Gary, perhaps even Pavarotti!  After all, I’m singing for an audience of one!

I’ve also essayed solo versions of songs by several different groups, including Abba, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, The Irish Rovers, and The Platters.  Still on the horizon: The Everly Brothers, The Lettermen, The Seekers, and probably others I haven’t yet contemplated.

If you have assumed by now that my wife and daughters have inadvertently created a monster, I could hardly gainsay you.  But I’m benign, I assure you.

My process is to sit with the machine, which is connected by Bluetooth to a song dialled up on my laptop.  I sing it through a couple of times, adjusting the volume of the instrumentals as needed, boosting the mic volume up or down accordingly.  There is a reverb feature, too, which enhances my voice on most of the songs.

If I manage at some point to sound okay to my own ears, I record the song and add it to my little library.  Some of the songs, as you might imagine, are never recorded!

I quickly discover which of the songs will take me beyond my somewhat limited vocal range, and discard them.  Even with my bass singing voice, I can manage a falsetto if not too high, so that helps a little.  Breath control is the biggest single problem I encounter—running out of air before a phrase ends is never good, resulting in a cracked whimper that brings no joy to anyone ever.

Pitch problems are a concern, too, and I sometimes hear myself landing just short of the intended note—what a layperson might call singing flat.  That’s also associated with running short of breath, and can be corrected with proper breathing intervals.  I have yet to record even one song, however, without at least one pitchy problem.

But who cares!

I mentioned earlier that I sing for an audience of one.  That’s not entirely true, though, because I do send along those songs I’ve recorded to my wife and daughters—it’s they, after all, who unleashed the monster.  I also forward the recordings to my three long-suffering sisters, together with a plea that they resist the urge to tell me to stop.  I suggest to them they have three choices—

  1. enjoy the song,
  2. endure the song, or
  3. DELETE.

I implore them not to laugh as they listen (though I’ll never know if they do), nor compare me to the original artist.  Rather, I ask that they think of this as one, perhaps forlorn, attempt to make music with only a modicum of talent, for no other reason than the sheer joy of making music. 

And you, dear reader, might even try it yourself—in the shower, in your car—or, if you’re lucky, on your very own karaoke machine.

Karao-kay!

The Best In These Worst of Times

Almost no one during the past several months of pandemic restrictions would consider these the best of times.  Indeed, for many people these are the worst times they have ever experienced.  Lockdown, loss of employment, illness, even death are the unfortunate lot of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.

Nevertheless, a gentleman of my acquaintance is managing to cope with the current hardships fairly well.  He has been retired for almost one-third of his life and—thanks to prudent financial decisions made during his earning years—lives, not extravagantly, but comfortably on his investment income.  His children are grown and gone, raising families of their own, and he visits with them a couple of times a week on social media.  Never an overly-gregarious sort, though not a hermit by any means, he has always enjoyed time alone, so the isolation wrought by stay-at-home orders has not unduly affected him.

He has a relationship with a younger woman, some fifteen years his junior.  She, too, has grown children, all of whom live in far-distant cities, and it’s been more than two years since she’s seen them, or her grandchildren, in person.  Unlike the gentleman, however, she is not retired; she continues to ply her trade as a housecleaner, the very occupation that brought the two of them together.  She spends three hours in his home every Thursday afternoon, vacuuming floors, dusting furniture, polishing silver, cleaning bathtubs, and doing whatever other chores are required.

The gentleman cares about her, treats her respectfully, but never allows his fondness to cross bounds of propriety.  She, although mindful of the employer/employee relationship they have, is fond of him, too.  They generally spend five or ten minutes chatting when she first arrives, not just about the chores he has lined up, but a general catching-up on each other’s news.  While she’s working, he stays out of her way, then moves to one of the rooms she’s finished cleaning when asked.  Occasionally they call back-and-forth, each comfortable in the presence of the other.  Before she leaves, they chat again for a few minutes and wish each other good health until next time.

All in all, the gentleman and the woman enjoy a pleasant relationship.  But deep down, they both know it is an unequal relationship.  He engages her services for reasons both pragmatic and personal, not because he has to, but because he wants to.  On the practical side, he can afford to pay the cost, and he does not want to do the work himself.  As a personal matter, he understands the woman must earn a living, and is more than happy to contribute to that in return for her labour.

To that end, he is generous, paying the woman more than double the minimum wage, but not as an act of charity he fears she might construe as condescending.  He truly values the work she does and the care with which she does it.  More importantly, he is not prepared to lose her services to a higher bidder; consequently, he is happy to reward her work commensurately.

The woman, for her part, is happy to accept the wage he pays.  She is proud of her work, looking after his home as if it were her own—as she does for all clients—and believes she gives full value for the money she earns.  She gazes pridefully around each room as she finishes—looking for anything she might have missed, yes—but also basking for a moment in the glow of a job well-done. 

Still and all, she doesn’t do this work because she wants to; she does it because she has to.  Retirement for her will not be early or voluntary, as it was for the gentleman; rather, it will be begrudging and financially unwelcome, even if ultimately necessary when age and health will have rendered her no longer able.  She appreciates the gentleman’s obvious satisfaction with the work she does, of course, and loves that he tells her so every week.  He enables her to look upon herself as not just a paid employee, but a valued one.

Nevertheless, the facts remain: the gentleman is the employer, the woman is the employee, and the relationship, no matter how personally pleasant, is unequal.  For him, the service she provides is beneficial; for her, the job is crucial.  The exchange of capital for labour is, for him, convenient; for her, it is critical.  Where he regards her as a respected employee, she sees herself as an essential worker.

The gentleman tells me he has no plans to alter the situation.  The woman, I suspect, also has no desire for a change.  Having found an optimal arrangement that addresses their respective needs, they have settled in for the long haul.  In this pandemic-assailed world, despite the baked-in inequalities of their situations, their relationship is estimable.

It marks the best in these worst of times.

Tonight!

Each week, my writers’ group issues a prompt for a piece of writing. This short tale is prompted by the song ‘Tonight, Tonight’ from West Side StoryIf you wish, you can listen to an audio clip of my men’s choral group singing the song as you read the story—

The ring burned a hole in Tony’s pocket all day, from the time he picked it up just before noon until he found his way to the roof of Maria’s apartment building shortly after dark.

She knew he was coming, of course, just as he had for several nights over the past few months.  It wasn’t easy because her brother and his friends—all members of the gang that fought Tony’s crew almost daily on the mean streets of the city—would make short work of him if they found out.

Tony’s Jets, unaware of his repeated visits to enemy territory, would avenge him if her brother’s Sharks harmed him, but they would never approve of, nor understand, his love for Maria.  The star-crossed lovers were on their own.

The ring itself wasn’t much, not on the salary Tony earned as a car-jockey at Smitty’s Garage, but it had sparkled and gleamed under the light in the pawn shop where he’d discovered it.  He hoped it would do the same under the full moon tonight.

The fact that it was probably stolen property being fenced through the pawnbroker bothered Tony not at all.  He’d had to shell out a good chunk of his hard-earned dollars for it, and that was all that mattered.  He didn’t think Maria would care, either, although he had no intention of telling her.

All he wished for as he made his way stealthily up the fire-escape ladder to the roof was that the ring-stone would reflect brightly in Maria’s eyes when he slipped it on her finger.

At the top, he slithered over the concrete abutment to crouch on the gravel rooftop, almost invisible in the dark, glancing furtively this way and that, hoping to see nothing amiss.  And then, after a few seconds, he spied the miss he had come for, practically indistinguishable in the moon-shadows by the stairwell door beside the elevator shaft.

Maria saw him at the same moment, and even in the darkness he saw her face light up.  He thought she must surely hear his heart pounding, despite the distance between them.  A few heartbeats later, they were entwined in each other’s arms, Tony’s face buried in her hair, its smell like sweet caramel and spice.  Their eager bodies radiated heat as they pressed against one another, softly proclaiming their love in English and Spanish.

O mi amor! Maria whispered.  La luz de mi vida!

I have something for you! Tony said, reaching into his pocket.

As he had hoped, the small stone atop the ring caught the moon’s light, seeming to release a small, silvery fire.  He knew he would never forget the small gasp that escaped Maria’s lips when she saw it, a heartfelt response to last a lifetime.

Marry me, Maria.  I love you more than life itself.  

Maria’s eyes shone wetly as she looked deeply into his.  Si mi amor, me casaré contigo!  Te amo más que la vida misma!

They moved out of the shadows, closer to the parapet, and Maria leaned against the abutment as Tony plucked the ring from the box.  Carefully, lovingly, he took her hand in his, lifted her finger, and…

Oh shit!  Shit!

The ring, rather than slipping onto her finger, slipped from his hand, bounced once on the concrete ledge, and disappeared into the blackness twelve storeys below.  Tony made a wild stab for it, balancing precariously over the edge, realizing too late he was going to fall.  Maria grabbed his arm, his shirt, but he was too heavy and she was pulled backwards with him into the void.

No one was in the dark, garbage-strewn alley when they landed.  They were discovered the next morning—two lifeless rag-dolls embracing each other, arms still intertwined.

A small, cheap rhinestone ring was lying on the pavement between them. It was quickly purloined.

And Now We Are Old

We’d carve the ice

On rockered blades of steel,

Darting, dashing, in and out,

Around and through big bodies

Seeking somehow to impede us—

Hooking, holding, interfering

With the speed and elusiveness

We displayed so confidently

Before we scored the winner.

—And then we got old.

We’d sprint on grass

Of green, emerald beneath

The bright lights that marked the field,

From the crack of bat on ball,  

Tracking a white parabola

Arcing high against nighttime sky,

‘Til over shoulder it settled

In weathered, leather fielder’s glove.

The final out recorded.

—And then we got old.

We’d skim the waves

On cedar slalom board,

Jumping wake and swinging wide,

Ear almost touching water,

Leaning hard against the boat’s pull,

Great rooster-tails of froth tossed high,

Spraying, sparkling, sunlit curtain.

Near shore, we’d drop the rope and sink

Into water’s cool cocoon.

—And then we got old.

So now we dream

Throughout the endless nights

Of days of grace and glory.

Jagged, jumbled jigs of light

Run helter-skelter through our dreams,

Random reminiscences—joys

We took for granted in our youth,

When ageing and its frailties

Were ever far from our minds.

—And now, we are old.

Them and Us

It’s always them, it’s never us

We like to blame for all the fuss

We must contend with on our way—

It’s never We, it’s always They.

It’s always They, it’s never We

Who take us out on stormy sea,

Into weather, harsh and grim—

It’s never us, it’s always them.

It’s always them, it’s never us

Who make us swear, who make us cuss

The sea on which we sail each day—

It’s never We, it’s always They.

It’s always They, it’s never We

Who cause our pain and tragedy,

Shake our wee boat, gudgeon to stem—

It’s never us, it’s always them.

It’s always them and never us?

That’s what we claim.  Why is it thus?

Is there a chance the truth would say

It’s mostly We, not always They?

It’s not just They, it’s mostly We!

When will we learn, when will we see

Who rigs our sails, adjusts our trim?

The captain’s us, it’s never them.