Paulie

A friend of mine from our teenage years died recently, after a long, slow decline, taken from us before his time.  For more than fifty years, Paulie and I celebrated our friendship in the company of our wives, themselves close friends since high school, and our children.

We journeyed through many stages of life together—boyhood teammates and opponents in the sports we loved to play; young men starting out, full of hope and sure of success; new fathers, surprised at how quickly we got to that point; fellow-travellers far and wide, our growing families in tow; and eventually grandfathers, proud all over again of a new generation.  Through it all, we played our games and remained steadfast friends.

Our boyhoods were spent in the suburbs, where every community had its own park, and we spent hours there after school and on weekends.  We were from different neighbourhoods, but connected on those playing fields during the endless summers and wondrous winters, eager warriors on the ball-diamonds and hockey-rinks.  Especially the hockey-rinks.

In every park there was an outdoor ice pad or two, where neighbourhood fathers (and a few intrepid mothers) would stand every night, alone in the dark, flooding water on the rinks to provide fresh ice for the following day.  I’m not sure we thanked them enough back then, but we sure benefited from their dedication.

By the time we’d arrive at the rink, skates dangling from the hockey sticks propped on our shoulders, fresh snow had often fallen.  So the first kid to get there would take one of the shovels propped in the surrounding snowbanks, and start clearing the ice.  As more of us arrived, we’d take turns until the ice was cleaned off.  And then we’d lace up and the game would begin.

Paulie and I were habitués of those parks.

As adults, our careers took us in different directions, and to different cities.  But we talked frequently by phone—mostly about business, our families, and, of course, sports.  Especially hockey.  We never talked about dying and the hereafter, and what it might hold, not even near the end.  We weren’t afraid of it, I don’t think;  it was just too abstract to be contemplated.

But now it’s happened.  My friend has gone.

But where?  Where is he now, I wonder?  Or, more precisely, where is the essence of who he was?  His soul, some might call it.  In my sorrow, I’ve concocted a scenario that consoles me, regardless that it may sound far-fetched to others.  Paulie would understand.

There’s a celestial park somewhere, complete with a neighbourhood ice pad.  It’s covered with the whitest snow any of us has ever seen, and my friend is the first one there.  He’s grabbed a shovel, and he’s busy scraping the ice.

Sooner or later, I like to imagine, I’ll be joining him.  He knows that, so he’s not troubled.  And when that day arrives, when he sees me coming, he’ll stop for a minute, lean on his shovel, and shout in my direction.

“’Bout time ya got here!  Where ya been?”

I’ll shrug and wave a greeting, my wide smile letting him know how happy I am to see him again.

“Grab a shovel,” he’ll yell, as I stuff cold feet into my skates.  “This is hard work!”

But it won’t be, not really.  It will be joyous work—legs pumping, hearts pounding, breath forming around our heads, skate-blades cutting their cold, choppy sound in the ice.  Just like always…just like always.

In no time at all, the snow will be cleared, the ice will be ready.  And when it is, I choose to believe, we’ll toss a puck out on the ice, take up our sticks yet one more time, and play our game together, the game we always loved.  The way we loved each other.

Paulie and I2

Teammates again, friends forever.

Paul Joseph Boyer

26 July 1942 – 16 March 2017

 

 

The Unwelcome Guest

For many years, my wife and I lived in a beautiful home on a lake.  We enjoyed having friends visit us, and always bent every effort to make them feel welcome and appreciated.  It seemed only right, given our previous experiences.

welcome

You see, during the years before we owned our place, we had become perpetual guests, enjoying the vacation cottages owned by many of those very same friends.  We reveled in extended visits during the summer—always by invitation, of course.  But strangely, we were never invited to holiday at the same place twice.

And that was ever a mystery to me.  All our friends absolutely adore my wife, and appreciated that she brought food, drinks, bed-linen and towels, and an appropriate hospitality gift to thank our hosts for their graciousness.  As a person of some sensitivity and breeding, equally eager to be welcomed, I always tried to conduct myself as a valued guest, too.

That wasn’t as easy as it sounds, though, because it’s difficult to define what makes one welcome.  I tended to rely upon the timeworn standards; namely, go only when invited, make suitable noises of appreciation while there, and leave before being asked to.

On one visit, my host confided in me that, “Remember, guests are like fish.  After three days, they stink!”  On another occasion, a friend (out of earshot of his wife and mine) handed me a roll of toilet tissue, saying, “This is yours.  When it’s gone, so are you!”  I laughed heartily, sure he was being funny.  He wasn’t.

So over time, I came to realize that the things one host might require of me were not the same as that expected by another.  Consequently, my relief was immense when I came across a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ for people planning to visit friends at their cottage.  Some twenty-odd items long, the list was chock-full of wonderful suggestions.  I spent a good deal of time studying these, and made plans for putting them into practice.  My wife merely shook her head; she is prescient, that woman.

Tragically, I came to learn I had wasted my endeavours.  On most of our visits, nothing worked as it was supposed to.  And because I put forth my utmost efforts, I can only conclude that the list of suggestions was faulty.

Take, for instance, the one that said, “Don’t ask if you can bring some friends.”  That made sense to me, so I didn’t ask.  I just invited a few people on my own, figuring they’d all get along once they got to know each other.  Not so much, as it turned out.

Another suggestion advised, “If there is one bathroom, limit your time in it.”  I did.  I made a point of rising each morning before anyone else, so I’d be in and out of the bathroom in under half an hour.

One recommendation puzzled me at first, until I realized the limitations of septic tanks.  It said, “Do not flush the toilet after every use.”  Since everyone seemed comfortable with that, despite the obvious (and odious) disadvantages, I went along with it.  I found it necessary, ‘though, to flush each time before I used it.

I was very good, too, about offering to “help with a few of the never-ending chores around the cottage.”  I was quick to clean up the wood-stain I spilled; I helped to re-install the screen door I accidentally walked through (the new netting had to be back-ordered); I accompanied my host in his boat to fetch a canoe that drifted away after I forgot to tie it to the dock.  The rocky shore it had washed up on scratched its painted finish, but it still floated (thankfully, since I was tasked with paddling it back).

canoe

My most heroic effort was when I dove down a number of times, unsuccessfully, trying to retrieve the small outboard motor I inadvertently dropped into the lake.  (Damn thing was heavy!)  I only stopped because I didn’t like swimming in the gasoline slick that appeared on the surface of the water—although I thought the colours were amazing!  The last I heard, the motor was finally located, recovered, and junked.

Ever determined to pointedly follow the advice from my list of ‘do’s and don’ts’, I was hurt when my hosts would decline my offer to “help with barbecuing and barbecuing duties.”  I was stunned when they would tell me not to bother to “fill the gas tanks after boating.”  And I was positively shocked when they would literally scream at me to “exercise caution when using power tools.”   They actually relieved me of the chainsaw I had fired up to cut kindling for the campfire I was planning.

The most hurtful moment came after lunch, on what turned out to be the final day of one such visit.  My hosts showed me a piece of cottage etiquette not covered by my list.  It said, “If we get to drinking on Sunday afternoon, and start insisting that you stay over until Tuesday, please remember that we don’t mean it!”

unwelcome2

Being a person of some sensitivity, as I have said, I eventually came to realize that my efforts to please my hosts were neither understood nor appreciated.  Which explains why my wife is still invited to these cottage-getaways—but for what are called girls’ weekends now—while I languish at home.

I really believe someone should revise that misbegotten list!

 

Now He’s Yours

When he was nine or ten months old, our grandson made a new friend.  Although quite small at the time, he was nevertheless much bigger than his friend—a little brown teddy-bear, stuffed with cotton-fill, hand-crocheted by his Nana.

Our little boy was troubled at night during his first several months, restlessly tossing in bed when he was supposed to sleep.  Colic, wetting, and unnamed fears conspired to keep him awake in spite of his obvious fatigue.

Yet, within a couple of weeks of meeting his new friend, he began sleeping much more soundly.  He would hold his teddy-bear tightly in his arms when he was tucked into bed.  Hours later, one might find the two of them, still closely snuggled, apparently a source of comfort and peace to each other.

As infancy gave way to boyhood, the pattern didn’t change.  The two friends, parted during daylight hours, would never fail to meet again at nightfall, falling asleep in each other’s company.

In due time, our grandson was old enough and eager to trundle off to school.  Over the course of his first two years, he formed strong relationships with new-found friends.  He learned to play with them, to share the same experiences, to discover the wonders of the wider world around them.

But always, at day’s end, when all his other friends were home, our grandson came back to his teddy-bear.  And the teddy-bear was his faithful friend.

old_teddy_bear_

One day, a schoolmate came for an overnight visit.  Our grandson—somewhat abashedly, I think, now that he was eight years old—put his teddy-bear aside, out of sight of his visitor.

“Don’t you want your teddy?” his mother whispered quietly before turning off the light.

“Not tonight,” came the muted reply.  So the teddy-bear was placed in the back of the closet.  And forgotten.

Some months later, in the company of other friends who were visiting, our grandson came across the teddy-bear while searching in the closet for another toy.

“Hey!” exclaimed one of the other boys, picking it up curiously.  “Is this your teddy-bear, or what?”

“Nah,” our grandson said.  “It used to be mine when I was just a kid.”  He took it from his friend and tossed it carelessly back in the closet.

A few days later, his mother asked him about the teddy-bear when he came home from school with his friends in tow.

“I’m packing up some stuff for the church bazaar this coming weekend,” she said.  “I thought I’d throw in your teddy-bear, unless you still want it.”

With a quick glance at his friends, our grandson said, “I don’t want it.  You can give it away.”

So, the friendship died.  And our grandson didn’t seem to miss his oldest friend; not, at least, until the day of the bazaar.

bazaar2

Wandering among the rows of tables with his Nana and me, idly fingering his only dollar, he heard a woman nearby, scolding her toddler son.

“No!” she told him firmly.  “I told you we can’t buy it.  Now stop your crying!”

Our grandson moved closer.  And there on the table, all but reaching out to the crying child, was his old teddy-bear.  Alone, without his friends around, our grandson looked almost ashamed that the teddy-bear should even be there.  He stared at his old friend for several moments, until, seized by impulse, he proffered his dollar to the saleswoman behind the table, grabbed up the teddy-bear, and took it to the little boy.

“Here,” he said, gruffly.  “He used to be mine, but now he’s yours.  Hold on to him.”

The youngster did.  And the teddy-bear, resurrected, wrapped his arms around his new little friend.

As we walked away, our grandson looked at me.  “What’s wrong, Gramps?  Have you got tears in your eyes?”

I lied and said no.

Tracks in the Sand

One long-ago February, when winter’s white enveloped the north, one of our daughters came with her family to visit us in Florida.  The favourite activity for our grandson and granddaughter (the third of the clan being still an infant, unable to express her opinion) was going to the ocean, to the beach.

Our usual routines were fairly standard.  We’d park and unpack the car, each of us carrying the beach necessities according to our age and abilities.  We’d trudge the access path, through the dunes adorned with sea oats, pass through the rickety snow fence, and pick a spot that suited us all.

In short order, the umbrellas would be unfurled, the chairs unfolded, the blankets spread, and the toys strewn across the sand.  Peace would reign for Nana and Grandpa, watching the sleeping baby while her parents and older siblings hit the water.

beach-sand-grass-sunshine_tn2

On one such occasion, a small incident occurred which didn’t have much significance at the time.  In retrospect, however, it has become quite meaningful for me.

My daughter, my wife, and I embarked on a walk along the beach after the kids had finished splashing in the ocean.  Their dad stayed with them, helping build grand castles in the sand.

We decided to hike through the dunes on the way out, and come back along the shoreline.  I led off, sinking ankle-deep into the soft sand, feet clad in sandals to protect from the heat and the sandspurs.  After a few minutes, we came upon tracks in the sand, apparently made by some small creature, perhaps a mole.

What made the discovery unusual was that they suddenly stopped in a small depression in the sand, as if the mole had simply vanished.  The tracks ended without a trace.

My daughter suggested what might have happened.  The mole, she reckoned, had been taken by a predator, likely one of the falcons that frequent the area.  Indeed, on closer inspection, we could detect brush-marks in the sand, caused by the beating of a bird’s powerful wings.

We wended our way slowly, backtracking along the poor victim’s trail.  It occurred to me that, a scant few yards before the depression in the sand, the mole would have had no inkling it was about to die.  It was alive until it wasn’t.

Apparently, though, it knew it was under attack, for we found another, earlier depression in the sand where the bird had struck unsuccessfully.  The mole had jumped sideways, scurried under the protection of some sea-oats, then emerged again to flee along the sand.

Our backtracking ended when the trail curled away from the beach, into dense, long grasses, whence the mole had come.  We soon forgot about it as we continued our stroll, eventually heading back along the water’s edge to our grandchildren.

A few days later, I chanced to hear someone on the radio airily proclaiming that, if we all discovered the world was to end tomorrow, telephone lines everywhere would be jammed by people calling home to say all those things they had forgotten to say while there was still time.  Social media sites on the internet would crash from the traffic.  It made me think again of the mole whose tracks we had seen in the sand.

When it left its burrow for that final time, did it have its life in order?  Had it said all those things that matter to those who matter?  Or were there things it had left undone that should have been looked to sooner?

And I thought of myself.  Does my journey through life leave tracks in the sand for some other eye to see?  Am I subject to a mortal strike from some hidden foe?  And if, or when, it happens, am I prepared and at peace with those who care about me?

When I got right down to it, I didn’t see much difference between that mole and me.  Except one.  I’m still making tracks in the sand.  I still have time to ready myself for whatever is to come, and to be at peace with all who matter.

Such are the thoughts that arose as a result of a stroll along a sunny beach in Florida.

Condoms or Condos?

As a virtuous, young man—newly-married, not ready yet for children, and still naïve about worldly pleasures of the flesh—I had occasion to consult a pharmacist about the purchase of a certain safe-sex item for use at home.  Sheepishly, in a voice so low the white-coated gentleman had to lean over the counter to hear me, I asked him for a box of what I needed.

“Condos?” he repeated, much too loudly for my comfort.  “I think you mean condoms, sir!”

Embarrassed by the amused attention his declaration drew from nearby customers, I was forced to endure a short tutorial on the difference between condos (profitable investments) and condoms (prophylactic vestments).  I never forgot the distinction, a lesson that served me well when my wife and I eventually purchased a condominium apartment.

No longer young now, nor nearly so naïve, I am living high over our shoreline neighbourhood, looking out on Lake Ontario, one of 328 suites in two towers that comprise our community within the larger community.  To the east of us, the city’s glass-plated skyscrapers gleam like coppery fire at sundown each day, a testament to the vibrant metropolis we border.

Balcony View5

We, too, are a vibrant community, with so much to offer those who care to emerge from their cliff-dwellings to engage with their neighbours.  The towers share a club facility with amenities including:  an exercise wing, featuring separate gyms for women and men, separate saunas, a yoga studio, a squash court, an indoor golf range, a large swimming pool under massive skylights, a communal hot tub, and a tennis court; a sizable art room for painters of all persuasions; a woodworking facility, complete with enough power tools to make a carpenter envious; a large lounge, enclosed along one entire side with outsized windows affording a magnificent view of the lake, with a massive fieldstone fireplace at one end; a billiards room; and magnificent grounds, shaded by mature trees, with gardens and ponds galore.

Gatherings in the lounge are frequent for many club activities, including bridge and euchre clubs, book clubs, a choral group, coffee klatches, knitting groups, readers in the library—and lots more besides.  In many ways, the club is a social centre for the two towers.  At least, it is for those who choose to take part.

One of our favourite activities is the Friday late-afternoon gathering, where residents and guests congregate for an informal cocktail party before dinner.  It used to be called Happy Hour, but is known now as After Five, and everyone brings their own libations downstairs.  In the winter, a roaring fire crackles in the hearth; in summer, doors are thrown open to the lake breezes.  We find it a happy time, my wife and I, a lovely way to keep in touch with friends and neighbours.  And nobody has to drive home!

Apparently, however, not everyone agrees with us.  On our way to the lounge one day we encountered a couple in the corridor, obviously returning from grocery shopping.  We didn’t know them, but it’s our habit here to offer a polite hello to all and sundry.  The man merely nodded curtly in reply.  His wife, pulling a laden bundle-buggy several paces behind him, must have seen the wine bottle case hanging from my shoulder.

“Oh, right,” she sniffed, “it’s the drinking night again!”

We were too nonplussed to reply and carried on to our destination, struck by the tone of disapproval in her voice.  I’ve since thought of many a response I might have made, but I know the opportunity is gone.  And I’ve wondered what it is that makes some people so judgmental.

On another occasion, not too long ago, we were returning from After Five, and were joined in the elevator by neighbours from our floor, people we rarely run into.  They keep pretty much to themselves, but we see them out walking from time to time.

“Greetings, neighbour,” the man said, pointedly checking to make sure I’d pressed the right button for the elevator.

“Hello,” I replied.

“I see you’ve been downstairs drinking,” he continued.  “We’ve been out for a long walk, our second of the day, I might add.”  His wife stared at the floor.

“Wow!” I replied, feigning admiration.  “We were out earlier, too.  But I don’t try to walk when I’m drinking.  Afraid of falling down.”  It was the first retort that sprang to mind.

Silence accompanied us to the twentieth floor where we went our separate ways.

“That was childish,” my wife chided gently as we entered our suite.  “But I loved it!”

It mystifies me as to why people are like that.  And I can never understand why they don’t take part in the myriad activities and events offered here.

“It was childish,” I conceded.  “But people like that bug me.  Instead of being con-do’s, like we are, they’re con-don’ts.  Where’s the fun in that?  And why do they condemn us for taking advantage of what’s here?”

For some reason, these incidents reminded me of my long-ago confusion about condoms and condos, and the linguistic lesson I suffered through.

“You know what?” I said to my wife.  “People like that aren’t living in a condo, or a condominium.  They’re living in a condo-minimum!

And on that note, we had another glass of wine with dinner.

Mothers’ Day Again

Another Mothers’ Day has passed, the sixth since my own mother passed away.  The living mothers in my family number nineteen in all: my wife, two daughters, three sisters, two sisters-in-law, ten nieces, and one grand-niece.  All were recognized and honoured by their children, many on social media, and it was lovely to witness.

But I still miss being able to pay homage to my own mother each year—to hear her voice, see her smile, smell her perfume; and mostly, to feel her arms around me.  We knew each other for sixty-seven years, with nary a breach in the trust and love we shared, and my world is emptier without her.

On her ninetieth birthday, four years before she died, I wrote this poem to convey what she had meant to me for so long.  I likened her to a tree that sheltered me until I dared to strike out on my own, and even thereafter.

At the time, I thought I had written it for her; but now, I suspect, I wrote it for me.

 

Mum April 04

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 through 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.

Manic Manifestations

This era of gender fluidity in which we live presents some complicated situations for elderly gentlemen—among whom I am more and more often numbered.

By gender fluidity I mean two things.  First, the long-time conversation around the issue of feminism, and what it means to be a woman in today’s world.  The topic is not new, having been a part of our public discourse through most of my adult life.

Gloria Steinem, a journalist and activist, defined feminism as a recognition of “the equality and full humanity of women and men.”  Bell Hooks, an author and activist, explained it as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”

The second aspect arises from the increasing awareness and sometimes reluctant acceptance of people’s choices respecting their sexual orientation.  The initials LGBTQ (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer/Questioning) were unheard of, at least in my circles, not so long ago.

Mind you, the issues confronting people who question their gender identities are not new.  But the open, public conversation about them is a fairly recent development.

My viewpoint has always been live and let live, and I have never questioned the sincerity of those whose inclination leads them to follow a different path than I.  Believing us all equal under the sun, I support those who agitate for equality among the genders; for recognition of gender identity; for a rethinking of what it is that makes us human; and especially for acknowledging what differentiates us as men and women.

But such issues do lead to complicated adjustments for me, an older man who cleaves to the old ways, who has never doubted or lamented the fact that I am male.  Not privileged, not ascendant; just male.

old-man-4849420

I refer here to alterations to our language that seem to assail me for doing what I have always done.  The changes involve substituting the word man for parts of otherwise perfectly understandable words, creating a verbal-portmanteau previously unknown to our language.

For example, when I sit down now, on a shared sofa or bus seat, I may be accused of manspreading, the act of sitting with my knees apart.  This, I assure you, is less a hostile statement on my part, and more a search for comfort.  I intend no offense by it, but now increasingly find myself trying to shrink into as small a space as I can possibly occupy.

If I am asked to account for this conditioned behaviour, I might be accused of mansplaining, which is apparently a less than satisfactory justification.  Implied is the notion that I am merely defensively defending an unsustainable position.

Occasionally I find myself in a cluster of other men at a social gathering, enjoying our respective insights into politics, sports, or someone’s latest fishing trip.  It’s never too long before one of our fair companions happens by to ask how long we plan to carry on our manversation.  It feels like a putdown…or mandown!

But when we dare to get involved in a mixed-company discussion, and if one of us turns the talk in a different direction, we could be accused of manjacking the conversation.

I feel sometimes as if I’m being managed unfairly, or manipulated, even manhandled by those who resent what they assume is my inherent sense of masculine superiority.  They come across as manic in their correctness.

If I, perchance, did consider myself superior, it wouldn’t be because I’m a man; rather, it would be due intellectual brilliance, sparkling wit, or matinee-idol appearance.  Alas, given that none of these is true, I have long accepted the reality of my pedestrian, mundane maleness.

Perhaps it’s time I just man up and live with the new realities.  But that feels so…so…mandescending!