Thursday, November 29, 2012

i shoulda stayed home and played with my toys

I first met Gwen in 1982. I was having a tryst with R in Kingston at a pretty limestone hotel that's since been renovated and turned into something else. R lived in Montreal; I lived in Toronto. Kingston is approximately halfway between. Rendezvous in Kingston.
My good friend RM was in Kingston visiting her parents. She and R skipped stones on the lake. We went to Chez Piggy's for lunch. RM brought us back to her parents' place where I met her mother, Gwen. What I recall about this visit was how RM sat before her mother and began to massage her feet. The natural intimacy and tenderness between mother and daughter floored me.
Gwen moved to California with her husband, but I met her now and again when she came to Toronto to visit RM, and again when she returned to Canada after her husband's death. She was light-hearted, funny, liberal with puns. She had no sense of political correctness and told jokes about Jews and gays. She would equally poke fun at herself.
She played the ukele. Her hands can't manage the strings anymore, thought she can still, as she puts it, plonk on the piano.
Music runs a deep vein through her life, and it's wonderful to see how the first lines of a popular lyric from the 30s or 40s prompts her to sing the whole song with only an occasional falter. She likes people to sing with her. Have scientists studied how people with dementia, who can't remember what they've just eaten, only need the prompt of a hum to sing a song that has several stanzas? Do songs get imprinted on a different part of the brain?
Gwen has survived the death of her spouse, one son, all her siblings. She's the last of her generation, which she doesn't always remember. When she refers to her brother or sister as still living, someone has to break it to her that the person is no longer alive. She becomes angry that, as she feels, the death has been kept a secret from her.
It's interesting that at her frail, yet stubborn age of 89 the people she speaks of most are her siblings. I wonder if this has to do with the nature of memory--whether the long-ago decades are stronger than more recent times--or the nature of the bond with the family of one's childhood.
(Is that going to be me one day, comparing my lifespan with that of my brothers?)
I'm reminded of what R tells me about clients who come to the cemetery, where he works in the office. He says many people want to be buried with their siblings and parents instead of with their spouse. I find that hard to credit. You choose your spouse. Or so goes the myth. Family is an accident, and not always a happy one. And yet, so many people, who are planning for their death, request to be buried with their siblings and parents--which leaves their spouse to be buried with their siblings and parents. Isn't that odd? Maybe I'm odd. R explains that plots are expensive and people want to take advantage of existing family plots. That still doesn't make sense to me. What a strange time--one's last home--to decide to be frugal. I don't want to be buried, but if I were to want that, I'd want to be with R.
Back to Gwen. R and I spent last weekend with RM in the Laurentians near the nursing home where Gwen now lives. RM had offered to bring her mother to church on Sunday. I'm not a churchgoer but R and I wanted to accompany them so we could see Gwen who, we already knew, wouldn't remember us.
There was a small Anglican church nearby. What I know about church harks back to Catholic school. R and I tried to stand and sit when expected, fumbled through the hymn and prayer books. Crowns and magnificence and eternity--not my usual pool of vocabulary. Gwen was especially happy with the singing. The minister had told us when we entered that he would bring communion to her, but when Gwen saw RM go forward to the railing, she tried to follow. R helped her to the front.
After church we went to a bistro/café in Ste-Agathe for soup and a muffin. Gwen was happy to be taken out, but the clamour of people laughing and talking confused her. RM and R kept singing snatches of music which got her singing. We were the musical table of American pop songs while everyone around us was eating brunch. When a couple maneuvered past our table to get to one in the corner, Gwen said, Squeeze on in there! RM left the table for a minute, and Gwen asked me if I knew her daughter RM who had a lovely voice.
It felt like a big life lesson to watch what the brain recalls and what it doesn't. Which habits stay and which disappear with only the vaguest trace.
When RM had buttoned her mother into her long wool coat again and knotted the scarf around her neck, she left to bring the car close to the door. R and I tried to lead Gwen with her walker but she kept stopping to pass comments on other diners and say hello to them. When I held open the door and a freezing gust of wind made her shudder, she made a cranky face and did a W.C. Fields voice. "I shoulda stayed home and played with my toys."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

art needs to breathe / frida and diego in toronto

I saw the Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera show at the AGO in Toronto.
I believe the show was well-curated, temperature controlled, not crowded on the wall. I suppose, too, there's a curatorial reason for hosting the show in the dim rooms on the lower floor. I hope it's not just because people can't be trusted to walk all the way up the fourth floor which is brighter and nicer.
The show is a good representation of their work, though I'm not sure it will turn people who aren't already fans into fans. Maybe it's the dim rooms. Maybe the hordes of people. I question the wisdom of putting the captions for several paintings and photos off to the side. For those who want to know the provenance of a painting or the material used, it wasn't possible to move between the works and the captions. There were so many people. It's great to see people so eager to be culturfied, though it lends a pre-Christmas-shopping-mall aura to culture.
I saw the show but didn't get that visceral jolt in the aesthetic gut that I expect from a great painting or paintings. I did get it when I saw the same paintings in Mexico last year. In Mexico, with the bright sunshine outside, purple and pink adobe buildings, pyramids, mole sauce and fresh burritos, Frida Kahlo's nightmare paintings and Diego Rivera's squat, stylized bodies make sense. What I particularly loved about seeing the paintings in Mexico was walking through Frida and Diego's houses and seeing where they worked, the terracotta pottery, embroidery, glassware and Judas figures they surrounded themselves with.
So... yeah... the show at the AGO, which I saw on a cold, grey day, didn't measure up to that. I missed the open French doors onto the sunshine, the terrifying squawk of peacocks, the velvet embroidered pillows, the little painted wooden truck filled with crucifixes, the floor to ceiling cabinets filled with receipt books, recipes, journal notes labelled in a bold, spidery scrawl.
Which makes me question whether any collected, curated and pristine show ever really works.
We can, however, pay more attention to art at home. The sculpture portraits by Evan Penny in the lovely high-ceilinged space on the fourth floor were mesmerizing. Each one. If you go to the AGO, don't miss them.
When we were in Toronto, we visited and stayed with friends who are visual artists. When I came home again and was trying to think through how I felt about the Frida and Diego show, I realized I'd felt closer to art (whatever that is, I can't say) when I saw their walls and studios hung with paintings, sketches, collages, paper cuts, etchings.
Art needs to breathe. Or at least I do when I'm looking at it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

shame on me (not really)

I have one of R's nudes on the wall in my room. This morning I was surprised by the memory of another nude.
It happened ten years ago. We'd just moved into the house where we're now living. The upstairs was still a separate apartment, though we'd already decided to ask the upstairs tenant to leave. She was a woman in her 20s who lived in Sherbrooke, about an hour's drive from Montreal. She lived with her boyfriend, but kept this apartment because every few weeks she would come to Montreal for a night out, pick up a guy and bring him here to have a romp. Her orgasms were multi-dimensional Wagnerian.
For most the time, since she wasn't living here, she let a friend stay in the apartment. He was a raggedy fellow who ostensibly sold jewellery on the street--and more frequently drugs from his doorway. His name was Charlie. Actually, it was Sharlie, which is Arabic, but people called him Charlie. Charlie blasted loud, garage-style music and wore boots when he was home. He sometimes disappeared for a few days at a time and left his cats hungry and locked in a room. We could hear them mewling.
I didn't like having Charlie upstairs. I could hear his least footstep. I couldn't write when he played music. Since the tenant, who had the lease, wasn't living there full-time, she expected Charlie to pay the rent, which he didn't want to. Rents are--or used to be--cheaper in Montreal than elsewhere. At that time, a two-bedroom apartment in this down-at-heel neighbourhood could be rented for $500-$600/month. The tenant had a lease with the previous owner for $250/month, with the understanding that she would strip the window frames, doors, door frames, skirting boards. She had begun by stripping the floors and that was it.
A couple of years along, she was still paying $250/month. Or rather, she expected Charlie to pay. We had to fight for the rent each month. Try to waylay him coming and going. Charlie pouted. He said he'd thought we were cool and weren't going to harass him about that. I was totally pissed that we were new home owners living with more inconvenience and noise than we'd ever experienced in an apartment. I wanted him gone. We negotiated with the original tenant--ie paid her $500--to leave. That's a long story which I won't tell here. How long it took to get Charlie out of the house, how he finally moved, but left furniture, how he still had the key so he could get his furniture, which he didn't, how he abandoned his cats, left drug-cache holes the size of basketball hoops in the wall...
What I want to write about--to confess--is the day when I heard rain falling inside in the house. I thought it was the tap in the kitchen dripping. It wasn't. I went to check in the bathroom. Ditto. But as I left the bathroom I got wet. Drops were dribbling from the top of the door frame. Water was seeping through the ceiling. WTF.
I grabbed the phone and called R at work. He reminded me that he was at work. I should go bang on the door, which Charlie never answered, and ask what was up. He pointed out that, as owners of the house, we had a key.
Water kept dripping. I imagined the ceiling crumbling. I got the key and thumped on the outside door. No answer. Of course, no answer. I unlocked the door and climbed the stairs. There was another door at the top of the stairs. I banged on that too. I called CHARLIE! Still no answer.
At this point, I was no longer my normal even-tempered self. I had images of plastering bills and plumbing bills and who knew what else enraging my blood. WTF. WTF. WTF. WTF. I bellowed, CHARLIE a few more times and threw open the door. The bathroom door was open and I could hear the shower drumming like water was a resource Charlie was determined to exhaust in his lifetime. I called again. Still no answer. From his side of the story, he probably didn't expect anyone to be standing just outside the bathroom doorway screaming his name.
Not getting an answer, the water still pumping and no doubt still leaking through the ceiling downstairs, I strode in. There was no shower curtain!!! He was having an all-out shower spree with the water spraying in every direction. He was also--of course--naked. (Nice body too.) At that instant he was shampooing his hair, shampoo all over his face, and didn't realize he had an audience. Until I yelled. You're taking a shower without a curtain, you fucking moron! Except I screeched it in French. Es-tu crisse de tabarnak fou, prendre un douche sans rideau! (Forget grammar, gender and verb tense when I'm angry.) He dropped into a contorted huddle in the tub, trying to hide, swipe shampoo off his face, see who was screaming, turn off the water and obey.
I stomped back downstairs. Called R at work to tell him that I'd found Charlie taking a shower without a curtain! R said, What? You went into his apartment, into the bathroom while he was showering? Are you crazy?
Oh, yeah, right. I shouldn't have done that. Wherever you are, Charlie, sorry.