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!

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.

A Striking Beauty

“Beautiful!” I said.  “Incredible!”

Reclining in a commercial-grade lazy-boy, staring through a huge, panoramic window onto the icy waters of the Alaskan fiord slipping past the ship, I was halfway through a herbal-oil scalp massage my wife had talked me into—an experience I had stoutly resisted, but to no avail.

The sun was gleaming off the water, off the glacier, off the long, blonde hair of my Swedish masseuse hovering over me.  Her name was Inga—short for Ingeborg she told me when we’d been introduced.  My wife was in a similar chair in the cubicle next to mine, the two of us separated by a thin privacy wall.

A striking beauty, Inga was exactly the type I’d have assumed would be working in a shipboard spa.  Taller than I, shapely in her white salon dress, she gazed directly at me through green eyes lit from within.  Her smile would have dazzled the most jaded of men.

As I’d settled into my chair, my mind had raced off in all directions.  This lovely vision was undoubtedly in her late-twenties, embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, probably searching, even if leisurely, for a husband of means, a rich widower who might endow her with everything she could ask for.

The warm oil she’d poured on my scalp, and the sensuous fingers working it in, further inflamed my imagination.  I knew it could never be I she would settle on; after all, I was four inches shorter and several million dollars shy of the mark.  Plus, I was already married—happily, I firmly reminded myself.

Despite the magnificent view through the window, I felt my eyes closing as Inga worked her magic on my scalp, my neck, my shoulders.  I’d undoubtedly have drifted off into who-knows-what erotic imaginings if she hadn’t begun talking, her voice a dusky alto, her accent delightful.

“I love this job,” she said, “especially on this ship, and on this voyage.  The scenery is magnificent.”

“How long have you been doing it?” I asked, eager to keep hearing her voice.

“Not long,” she said.  “I found I couldn’t stay home alone after my husband died, and this was something I always fancied doing.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said automatically.  And I was—and surprised, too, to hear she was a widow at such a young age.  “How long were you married?”

“Thirty years,” she said.

Thirty years?  I gave my head a mental shake.

“He was a partner in a large firm,” she went on.  “His partners bought his shares from me, so I am financially independent.  My youngest son is in medical school in London, my oldest is a commercial pilot, and neither one needs their mother anymore.  So here I am, on my own, free as a bird.”

My mind was frantically doing the math.  A son in med school would have to be at least twenty-four, so even if she’d had two kids by the time she was twenty, she’d still be in her mid-forties—maybe even early-fifties!  And being wealthy in her own right, she was likely in no hurry to tie herself down to one man.  This woman, if so inclined, would have no shortage of companionship. 

I felt her warm breath in my ear, interrupting my thoughts.  “Oh, look!” she said.  “You are so lucky!  Many people never get to see this!” 

She moved closer to the window, and I saw a pod of orcas, seeming to race the ship up the fiord, leaping and twisting and falling back, their sparkling splashes transforming glassy sunlight into shattered shards. 

“Brad!” my wife called from the other cubicle.  “Are you watching this?”

Indeed I was.  The whales, a jumble of white-and-black juggernauts, were actually moving faster than we were.  Inga, her hands splayed on the glass, smiled over her shoulder at me, lighting my soul.

“Beautiful!”  I said.  “Incredible!” 

And they were—the whales certainly, and Inga most definitely—a tableau etched unforgettably on my memory.

I looked into Inga’s green eyes for the last time as we shook hands while my wife settled the cost at the desk.  “I hope you will enjoy the rest of your voyage,” she said.  “Thank you for sailing with us.”  And with that, she was gone.

Over drinks on the lido deck later, my wife asked if I’d enjoyed myself. 

“I did,” I said.  “You were right about the massage.  Did you like it?”

“For sure!” my wife said.  “Karin, my masseuse, was delightful.  And what a treat it was to see the orcas!”

“Yeah,” I said, reliving the window-scene in my mind.  “By the way, how old would you think my masseuse is?”

“She’s twenty-eight,” my wife said.

“That’s what I thought!” I exclaimed.  “But she’s in her late-forties, at least, maybe early-fifties.  She has a son in med school in London, and another son who’s a pilot.  I can’t believe she’s that old!”

“Yeah, we heard her telling you about herself,” my wife said.  “But Karin told me it’s just a story Inga tells to ward off all the older men.  She’s actually twenty-eight and single!”

“A story?” I whispered.  “Older men?”

Who Else Is There?

In the fertile imagination of a bookish, young boy, their names echoed down the years, a pantheon of heroes—some real, some fictional—whose gallantry and derring-do inspired dreams of glory.

There were Galahad, Arthur’s most loyal knight; Brian Boru, high king of Ireland; Ivanhoe, Scott’s noble warrior; Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest; and Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn—all of whom led me to think that perseverance and a righteous cause can triumph over all odds.

I read of boys I fancied to be just like me, and wished I could be just like them:  Peter Pan, Jim Hawkins, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, and my favourite, Tom Sawyer.  It was delicious to imagine myself walking in their shoes, yet sobering to realize I could never fill them, except in my playtime fantasies.

As I grew older and my interests broadened, the list expanded to include heroes from the world of sport, some of whom had feet of clay I either was ignorant of, or chose to ignore.  Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach; Busher Jackson of the famed ‘Kid Line’ with Primeau and Conacher; Arnie Palmer, the King; and the incomparable Ali, the greatest.  They inspired me to believe I could accomplish anything, even though reality kept bringing me back to earth.

By the time I came to realize that all my boyhood heroes were male, almost all of them white like me, the list of people I admired had already swelled to include both women and people of colour whose stories I avidly read.  The women included Joan of Arc, faithful martyr to a cause; Marie Curie, two-time Nobel prizewinner; Florence Nightingale and Laura Secord, who sought the battlefields heretofore trod only by men; Amelia Earhart, intrepid aviator; Anne Frank, diarist of atrocities; and Rosa Parks, igniter of a movement.

The men included Mahatma Gandhi, champion of non-violence; Jackie Robinson, who broke the colour-barrier in major-league sport, beginning in Canada; Willie Mays, the ‘Say Hey Kid’; MLK, another martyr to a cause; Bob Marley, the reggae Rastafarian; and Harry Jerome, world record-holding sprinter.  Sports heroes were prominent, of course, befitting my own predilections.

A common theme running through these lists, although I may not have been aware of it at the time, is the willingness on the part of these iconic figures to persevere through all manner of tribulation before finally achieving success.  However, I also admired others whom some considered failures, despite their ablest efforts against all odds to attain their objectives: Horatius at the bridge; William Wallace of Braveheart fame; the doomed troopers of the Light Brigade; Jimmy Carter, a one-term US president; Terry Fox, forced to surrender short of his goal to a relentless cancer; and Roméo Dallaire, who strove unsuccessfully to prevent the Rwanda genocide.  The passage of time, however, has heightened the regard in which most of us now hold their accomplishments.

A number of the people I looked up to, although famous in their own right, have been linked inextricably in the historical record, rightly or not, to someone else.  Lee and Grant at Appomattox; Stanley and Livingstone in the Congo; Holmes and Watson in Conan Doyle’s famous works; Churchill and Roosevelt in WWII; MacArthur and Truman in Korea; Mantle and Maris of the Yankees in 1961; and Mandela and Tutu combating apartheid in South Africa.

All of these figures are from the past, however, so what of the present?  Are there people I regard as heroes out there right now?  Are there people to whom today’s youngsters might justifiably look for inspiration?

A partial contemporary list for me would include:  David Attenborough and David Suzuki, devoted to the preservation of our planet; Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, pioneers in the feminist movement; Stephen Hawking, physicist and exemplar of courage; Malala Yousafzai, girls’ and women’s rights advocate; Alexandra Octavio-Cortes, US activist and congresswoman; Greta Thunberg, climate change protester; and Alexei Navalny, Russian political dissident.

Almost everyone on that list is younger than I, unlike those who populated my boyhood lists.  They are all, if not politicians, quite skilled in the political arts.  And every one of them, devoted to the betterment of society, has put their commitment to their causes into constructive action.

None of the groups described in this piece is complete, of course.  Any of you reading them could come up with names of others who might accompany, or replace, my choices on lists of your own.  The most important of those, however, is the final one, the people you would consider heroes for today, people who will inspire and lead us to a transformed, more equitable society.

So, I leave you with this question as you consider the people I’ve mentioned—

Who else is there?

Who Abides?

The Dude abides

That’s a line from the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, which has achieved almost cult status.  The dude in question is the main character in the film, Jeff Lebowski—played by Jeff Bridges, and based on Jeff Dowd, a real-life friend of the moviemakers, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The significance of the line has evolved over time, from a simple declaration that the character exists, to a more profound interpretation that he endures the many perturbations in his life and survives them.  In other words, he not only is who he is, he is cool with it.

I, however, have always taken a slightly different meaning from the line, one more in harmony with the archaic meaning of the word abides—to remain, to continue, to stay—as in the old hymn, Abide With Me.  Under my interpretation, the Dude is defined by those traits and attributes that constitute his individuality, the personas he inhabits, and which remain a part of him to the end.

In the film, we see the Dude as he was at the age of forty or thereabouts, over a period of a week or so in 1990, a small sliver of time in what we might assume was a lengthy life.  We do not see him as he was in his formative years, nor do we see what he might have become in his dotage.  Thus, the character abides in our memories only as a sliver of his entire self.

By contrast, if I look at myself, I see a more complete range of the personas I have occupied from childhood to present-day, many of which have overlapped.  These include son, brother, student, friend, employee, husband, homeowner, father, investor, player-of-games, writer-of-books-and-blogs, singer-of-songs, traveller, retiree, and grandfather, to name a few.  Over time in these various guises, I have journeyed from self-centredness to a broader awareness of the world around me; from a laissez-faire perspective to a questioning of the status quo; from near-certainty in my thinking to more patience for countervailing arguments; from confidence in my physical prowess to a reluctant acknowledgment of my increasing frailty; from a blithe belief that life would last forever to a comfortable concurrence that it won’t.

As Gibran wrote, Life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.

Several months back, I wrote some haiku verse about the link between boyhood and manhood, influenced by Wordsworth’s statement, the Child is father of the Man

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

now well beyond my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

While the sentiment is true in many ways, it is ultimately false, for I have had to abandon more of the incarnations I have lived than I’ve been able to maintain.  And many of those that abide are more passive now.  I am a father still, but not one who is actively needed on a daily basis by his children; I draw from my investments now, rather than adding to them; I am a player of far fewer games than during my halcyon days, and those that remain are much gentler; my travels are more curtailed, even in non-pandemic times; I roll creakily out of bed every morning—gratefully to be sure—but no longer bounding into each new day.

If, as the haiku verses claim, the man is still the boy, and if that boy is looking out unchanged, he must surely be exclaiming, What the hell happened?

Despite that, however, this tract should not be construed as a complaint, as a railing against the coming of the end-times.  It is intended, rather, as a wry observation of the inevitable decline that accompanies the march of time, to the accompaniment of  gentle, knowing laughter at the conceit that it could ever be otherwise.

The question does arise, though, as to who exactly I will be when I eventually cross the bar.  Which of these many personas will still be present to accompany me out, and how many more will have already taken their leave?  The answer, which matters to no one but me, lies partially in the list above; and I know it will not be I who will decide.

Still, I wonder.  I have been so many people over my almost four-score years—some of whom I liked, some I regret being, some lost to the fog of time, and some still a part of me.  In spite of my years, I remain convinced that I will continue to grow, to adopt new personas even as I shed longstanding ones.

Is that what we might have seen happen with the Dude if that long-ago movie had allowed a broader viewing of his life?  I like to think so.  And had that been the case, the opportunity might have helped me to find an answer to my own ultimate question.

Who abides?

Beginnings and Endings

A haiku reflection—stanzas of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables—as the year we have labelled 2020 draws to a close—

why we measure time

is a mystery to me—

for time knows no bounds

beginning a year

or ending one at some point—

what changes for us?

the calendar is

nothing but a vain attempt

to measure our lives

but life is more than

mere beginnings and endings

to which we pay heed

life is a journey

from there to here, whence to hence,

uninterrupted

imposed beginnings

and endings do not change our

eventual route

they turn us perhaps

hither and yon on our way

to our destiny

for we are born, then

we die; from start to finish,

naught begins or ends

rather, life just flows

from this to that, to the next,

bearing us forward

when new year begins,

and old year ends, we don’t stop—

we simply move on

and so, it must be

that beginnings and endings

mean nothing at all

Two Christmas Stories

Episode 6 in my series, Reading Out Loud, is ready for viewing, this time featuring two Christmas stories—one a short essay, the other a meaningful poem.

The essay was written some years back, the poem just a month or so ago, but the similarity in theme is quite stark. The episode is slightly more than 10 minutes in length, and I hope you will enjoy it.

Please feel free to share this post with anyone you think might be interested. And if you feel so inclined, leave a comment in the space below.