Hockey, Boy and Man

For the one-hundred-and-thirteenth time, the Stanley Cup has been awarded, marking the North American professional ice-hockey championship.  Although I played hockey for almost fifty years, I was never good enough to play professionally or compete for that trophy. 

I did, however, once play with a teammate named Stanley Cupp (whom we nicknamed Hick).

I began playing at the age of ten in the old Toronto Hockey League, haunting the bowels of such cold, echoing barns as Leaside Arena, Ravina Gardens, and Varsity Arena, none of which remains now in its original incarnation.  For the final twenty-four years of my playing days, beginning when I turned thirty-five, I played Oldtimers Hockey, suiting up for four different teams in three different towns—two at a time for some of those years.

Our teams played against many retired NHL players during that time, and managed to beat them more than once.  The most memorable victory came in the gold medal game of a prestigious tournament in North Toronto, a victory especially important to our captain, himself a retired NHLer, captain of the Atlanta Flames in the early 1970s.

Among the luminaries I played against were Andy Bathgate, Hugh Bolton, Ron Ellis, Bob Goldham, Jim Harrison, Keith McCreary, Bob Nevin, Mike Pelyk, Norm Ullman, and others I have forgotten.  Three of those men are hall-of-famers.

Oldtimers hockey is, officially at least, bodycheck-free, but I do remember the worst time I ever ‘got my bell rung’, when Goldham refused to fall for my clever head-fake at his blueline, allowing me to run into him at full speed.  My ears were still ringing when I went to bed that night. 

Those guys may have been retired, but they were still superior hockey players.  Off the ice, they were good-natured men who loved having a beer with us after a game; on the ice, they were strong competitors who hated to lose. I still remember one of them telling us through a partially-toothless grin, after a game in which he’d received a major penalty, “Three times that stupid guy hit my elbow with his face!”

The best of the oldtimers teams I played with competed at the highest tournament level for six or seven years until, by then in our mid-forties, we couldn’t keep up with the younger teams coming along behind us.  We gradually dropped from AAA to A and eventually B divisions, but the competition was always intense.  Our most memorable experience was a barnstorming tour of Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia, where we went 5-0-1 against local club teams.  In the flyers and programmes for those games, we were not listed by our actual team name, but as CANADA, which thrilled us no end.  I still have one of the red-and-white Canada caps we wore.

That same team also endured an embarrassing experience while enroute to a tournament in Lake Placid (home of the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ a few years earlier). At the border crossing, as a Customs guard got on our bus, one of our dimmer-bulbs (probably a defenceman) yelled, “Quick! Hide the drugs!” There were no drugs, of course, but the guard was not amused. For the next two hours, all our suitcases and equipment bags were strewn across the parking lot, open wide in the noon-day sun, while the guard made a show of inspecting them.

We almost had to forfeit our first game that evening, arriving a bare twenty minutes before the start.  Some of our slower dressers were still arriving to the bench halfway through the first period.  It was perhaps poetic justice that we lost the gold medal game on Sunday to a team of policemen from Ottawa, the RCMP Rusty Spurs.

A more pleasant memory is the time when two of the teams I played for entered the same weekend tournament—but in different divisions, so we didn’t have to play against each other.  I have a picture of myself standing rink-side between games, wearing the blue-and-white sweater of one team, the yellow-black-and-white-striped stockings of the other, and a huge grin.  It’s a favourite picture because my wife and two young daughters are standing close beside me.

I also remember being exhausted by tournament’s end on Sunday night.

By the age of sixty, my wife and I had begun spending almost six months a year in our Florida home, and so my playing days came to an inauspicious end.  On one never-to-be-forgotten, rainy fall day, I hauled three tattered duffel bags—emblazoned with team logos and stuffed full with years-old, smelly, but treasured gear—to our local dump.  After steeling myself to pitch the bags into a huge dumpster, I removed that Canada cap from my head, placed it over my heart, and bowed my head for a moment’s reflection.

When I glanced at my wife in the front seat of the car, she was miming sticking her finger down her throat!  Sheesh!

I don’t miss the game, not in the sense that I wish I was still playing.  Nor have I ever wished I could go back and do it all over again.  But I do sometimes miss the camaraderie and company of teammates, and all the fun and excitement and thrill of competing we shared—we middle-aged men clinging to our boyhood game.

And I miss one teammate more than any other, a lifelong friend I played with off-and-on for three teams over thirty years, plus summer-hockey—a pal gone too soon.  On the ice, we were the yin to each other’s yang, the zig to each other’s zag.  But the times I most fondly recall came in our sixties, long after we’d finished playing together, sitting in Muskoka chairs, a cold beer in hand, reminding each other how marvellous we once had been.

There is one item of gear I never did dispose of, however—my skates.  Polished kangaroo leather atop rockered blades, with wide white laces, they sit in their original box in my locker, scarred and nicked from the hockey-wars.  And once in a while, I swear I hear them calling me.

But it’s been twenty years since I last answered that siren call, and I doubt I ever will again.  Nevertheless, getting rid of those skates would be akin to closing the door irrevocably on a significant portion of my life, and I’m reconciled never to do that.   That task, alas, will fall eventually to someone else.

I’m content now to let younger men play the game, giving their all in quest of that elusive Stanley Cup, probably the most beautiful and most difficult of any major sports trophy to win.  It’s enough now to watch, to cheer—and yes, to imagine realizing the dream of winning the Cup that every hockey player, boy and man, harbours forever.

That, at least, never grows old.

Imagine It…..If You Can

Indian Residential Schools: Acts of genocide, deceit, and control

Children’s graves a crime against humanity

Many Canadians don’t seem to care about lasting effects of Residential Schools

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Imagine, if you can, the idea of having someone show up at your front door one fine day, armed with a court order from the government that authorizes them to take away your children, ages six and seven, and send them 500 miles away to be raised and educated in a state- or church-run residential school.

Inconceivable!  Couldn’t happen!  I mean, we all have our rights as citizens of this fair land, and so do our children, right?

Nevertheless, try to imagine your horror if it did happen.  Imagine seeing your children whisked away in a government vehicle, in the company of two stern, efficient-looking caseworkers, and you rendered powerless to stop it by the police in attendance.

Imagine your grief when you enter your children’s empty bedroom that first evening, only to see their favourite cuddly-toys lying on their beds, overlooked by the uncaring abductors in their rush to pack and go.

Unthinkable!  This is Canada, after all.

Still, imagine the anger engulfing you as you try over and over again—always in vain—to find out why this happened. 

Imagine your frustration as every phone call, every letter, every face-to-face meeting, every court appearance results in the same outcome.  You are told time after time, endlessly, that your children have been removed to a ‘wonderful facility’ to ensure they receive the best education, the best care, the best upbringing—all designed to guarantee they will eventually fit into the culture and norms of the broader society in which we all live, unencumbered by the standards and values that you, as their parents, might otherwise have instilled in them.

Impossible!  No one has the authority to take children away from their parents unless those parents are deemed unfit.

So then, imagine your shock when you learn that the authorities do consider you unfit to raise your own children.  And why would that be?  Well, maybe because you look different than they do, or you speak a different language, or you worship differently, or you are uneducated, perhaps impoverished, or you don’t live in a respectable neighbourhood—or any of a number of other specious reasons they offer up in support of their decision.

Imagine going to jail if, overcome by exasperation, you take matters into your own hands to recover your children—illegally, according to those same authorities.

Imagine the weariness that finally overtakes you as you try—always in vain—to fight the inevitable.

This is a silly exercise!  I can’t imagine such a thing happening!  This is Canada!

It’s true, this is Canada.  But indulge me by persevering with the exercise a while longer.  Try to imagine the soul-withering despair you would feel as day after day goes by, week after week, month after month, year after year, and you do not see your children.  Perhaps, if you are lucky, you receive letters from them now and then—more frequently at first, printed in pencil in block capital letters—less often as time passes, in cursive writing, using pen and ink.  And always in English.

Imagine writing letters in return.  What would you say?  How sorry you are that you let this happen to them?  How hard you’ve been trying to get them back home?  How much you miss them?  How much you love them?

And then imagine what you would think when their letters stop.  For how much longer would you continue to write to people you hardly know, perhaps grown into their late-teens by now?  Would you write forever?  With no response?

Couldn’t happen!  The authorities would be obliged to keep me informed.

Really?  So in that case, imagine the overwhelming grief and sense of loss that would sweep over you when you are informed—in an official, impersonal letter, typed in crisp black letters, on school letterhead paper—that your children have died.  They have died!

Shallow graves…..deep scars

Even worse, imagine that they die and you are never informed!  They die, and you never know about it.  Your children!  All you know is they were taken and you’ve never seen them since.  Never is a long, long time.

And finally, perhaps worst of all, imagine that you do learn of their deaths—likely not until long afterwards—but you are never told where their remains have been deposited. Try to imagine the unspeakable horror of knowing that, not only have your children been taken from you, not only have they died, but their very existence has been expunged, as if they never even mattered.

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I spent a happy day this past weekend in the company of my daughters and their families, including my five grandchildren.  And, although I am not usually prone to dark thoughts on such occasions, I tried to imagine what it would have been like if my sweet girls had been taken from me in infancy, what life might have been like if I had never seen them again.

I confess—it was nigh to impossible to imagine my family enduring such a horrendous, calamitous event.  I mean, we have our rights as citizens, and so do our children, right?  No one has the authority to take children away from their parents, right?  I can’t imagine such a thing happening!  This is Canada!

Except…except, such things did happen.  As recently as thirty years ago, and going back almost 200 years.  Right here in Canada. 

It seems to me that what happens next—what our nation does about this—will go a long way to informing us all of what it means to be Canada.

Imagine it…..if you can.

The Railwayman

Again this year, I know I’ll receive warm hugs and kisses from my daughters in recognition of yet another Father’s Day, my forty-ninth such occasion.  It never grows old.

We fathers grow old, however, despite our best efforts.  And in so doing, we lose our own fathers as they board the last train to glory, to borrow from Arlo Guthrie.  My dad departed the station almost twenty years ago, but he remains with me almost daily in my reveries.  And never more so than on Father’s Day.

When I was a young boy, he would take me to local railroad crossings to watch the big steam locomotives and their endless caravans go storming by.  I treasured those occasions because I would have his undivided attention, a not-so-frequent circumstance in a family that eventually numbered five children. 

He enjoyed the time with me, too, I’m sure; but he loved those trains even more than I did, a boyhood fascination he never lost.  If he could have been anything else in life but an insurance executive, I believe he’d have been an engineer on one of those behemoths. He was truly a railwayman, if only in his dreams.

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As a lad, it never occurred to me to ask him if his dad, my grandpa, had taken him to see the trains, and I’ve often wondered if, during those times with me, he might have been fondly remembering standing by the rails with his own father.

At the time of his passing, I wrote these lines to commemorate what he meant to me, to express my love for him, and they comfort me still—

The Railwayman

You’d take me down beside the rails to watch the trains go storming by,

And tell me all those wond’rous tales of engineers who sat on high,

In cabs of steel, and steam, and smoke; of firemen in their floppy hats,

The coal they’d move, the fires they’d stoke, as o’er the hills and ‘cross the flats

The locomotives huffed and steamed, their whistles blowing long and loud.

And one small boy, he stood and dreamed beside his daddy, tall and proud.

Terrifying monsters were they, bearing down upon us two, who

Felt their force on that steel highway, hearts a-racing---loving, true.

I’d almost flinch as on they came toward us, with their dragon-face

A-belching, spewing, throwing flame and steam and smoke o’er ev’ry place.

But you’d stand fast beside the track, and, oh! the spectacle was grand.

So, unafraid, I’d not step back, ‘cause you were there holding my hand.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, I’m glad you knew when you grew old,

How much I loved you---Dad, my friend---who shared with me your dreams untold.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, if I, beside you once again,

Could only stand safe in your hand, awaiting with you our next train.

All aboard, Dad…all aboard!

And Happy Father’s Day to all who, like me, are both fathers and sons.  We are blessed.

[A slightly different version of this tale was first published here in 2017.]

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.

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!

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.

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?”