Five hundred and forty kilometres, and a lifetime

TORONTO
There are 540 kilometres between my office and my aunt’s house.

Last week, my office was full of meetings, big ideas and little frustrations, posturing and punning. My aunt’s house was empty.

I didn’t leave the office in a hurry, because I thought I had more time. I thought I could drive to the city, have some dinner and get some rest before going to the hospital. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the time I had, especially for those last few hours spent mostly driving and reflecting.

ginny 1971I could tell you stories about my aunt, like that time she leaned over her crutches and said, “Look how you’re growing! If you get taller than me, I won’t be able to talk to you” and I prayed I’d stop growing right then. Or how our little shih tzu Chen would sit at her feet on her electric wheelchair with his underbite exposed and his hair blowing in the wind and she’d laugh that laugh. Or how I knew she was okay with my distaste of the phone and was always, always eager to open my letters and emails. I would find — later, going through her things with my cousin and not crying — that she kept every photo I had ever sent. Some of them were framed.

I had all those hours to tell those stories to myself, and laugh, and think about what I’d say when I got to the hospital. My cousin called when I was about an hour outside the city and I told her my plans.

“There isn’t going to be a tomorrow,” she told me. “Come now, but get here safely.”

Those two phrases kept running over and over in my head as I navigated the 401: There isn’t going to be a tomorrow. Get here safely.

There isn’t going to be a tomorrow.

Get here safely.

There were all these things I had wanted to say and all the things I’d practiced saying, but when I saw her there, a shadow of my most precious aunt, I smiled and said, “I’ve just come to say hello,” because there was no way in the world I was going to say goodbye.

And we sat with her, a few of us representing her larger family, who were there in spirit. We told more stories, and we got a little boisterous, and it felt exactly the same as it did those times we sat in her apartment and squeezed as much of our lives into two or three hours as we could.

I thought I had more time. But in the end — at the very end — we had just enough.

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I lived in The Beaches; I went to the beach

Rowhouses are my favourite thing about Toronto.

TORONTO – “Oh, this is my Toronto,|” I said as we turned onto a narrow street crammed with trees and rowhouses, each with a sliver of yard.

My companion snorted. “It’s fake Toronto.”

“But it’s the Toronto I know. It’s exactly like my street, only we were in The Beaches.”

“The Beach.”

“The what now?”

Funny, I’d no idea there was a great debate over whether to pluralize the area I lived in. I was a teenager, of course, and didn’t give a hoot about municipal politics. I lived in The Beaches; I went to the beach.

I lived in the little white house on the right.

I had to go to Wikipedia to find out what was up with the neighbourhood that is bordered by Fallingbrooke, Kingston, Woodbine and Lake Ontario: “The dispute over the area’s name reached a fever pitch in 1985, when the city of Toronto installed 14 street signs designating the neighbourhood as ‘The Beaches.’ The resulting controversy resulted in the eventual removal of the signs, although the municipal government continues to officially designate the area as ‘The Beaches.’ In early 2006 the local Beaches Business Improvement Area voted to place ‘The Beach’ on signs slated to appear on new lampposts over the summer, but local outcry caused them to rescind that decision. The Beaches Business Improvement Area board subsequently held a poll (online, in person and by ballot) in April 2006 to determine whether the new street signs would be designated The Beach or The Beaches, and 58% of participants selected The Beach as the name to appear on the signs.”

But me, I lived in The Beaches. And that is my Toronto.

‘To a Zwillinge, from a Zwillinge, Love Inga’

TORONTO – Her arrival is announced by a rattling at the key hole. Aunt G and Uncle C share a look across the room. Their relationship with their neighbour is more than a friendship – it is a safety net, because they see each other every day. A missed visit would be a red flag.

“You call me Inga,” she says as we are introduced.

Her shirt is light pink and has a large appliqued butterfly on its collar. Her sweater is a darker shade of pink, marked with black and gold swirls across the shoulders and chest. Her leggings are white, have huge black polka dots, and end before her white ankle socks. Her hair is cut short and fashionably. Her glasses are stylish, with dainty white arms that end in a diamond of negative space near the lenses. Her face is open and friendly; when she is not smiling, the memory of her smile lingers. Her voice is well-used to laughing.

Today she comes with a small gift – a toy from a kids’ meal – to pass on to my niece’s three little girls. While my aunt pulls open the plastic wrap, my uncle and I talk about coal mining.

An abandoned coal mine entrance in Glace Bay, Cape Breton.

His father spent 30 years in a colliery in Glace Bay, Cape Breton. He was one of the lucky ones – black lung didn’t get him. A few years ago, we toured a colliery in Glace Bay and heard the Men of the Deeps choir. I’ve been hooked ever since and could spend all day listening to mining stories. That the miners eventually received paycheques rather than cash was the women’s doing, my uncle told me. Otherwise, cash in hand, the workers were inclined to stop at the bar on the way home and their wives might not get their household allowance.

On the room’s large TV, an anchor is chatting with an astrologist about the possibility that we’ve all been living under the wrong sun signs. My aunt asks me what I think.

“I’m a Gemini,” I say. “It depends on my mood.” Inga’s head whips up. “A Gemini? When?”

“June,” I tell her. “The 11th.”

“It’s not! June 11! That’s my birthday!” She gets up and comes to stand beside my chair, and she asks me again.

“June 11, 1971.”

“I am June 11, 1933.” My father’s birth year. I think – I hope – that maybe I’ll grow into the same sort of smiling, friendly, energetic senior Gemini that Inga is.

“It’s a little Frisbee,” Aunt G reveals in her soft voice, holding up the two plastic pieces that are the kids’ meal toy. She carefully inserts it into the green launcher.

You could put an eye out with that.

“It shoots out?” Inga says in alarm. Too late, she snaps at my aunt: “Don’t you do it!” The little Frisbee flies up and out, ricocheting off a glass shelf of knick-knacks and disappearing behind a wrapping-paper bag. Inga moves fast, before I can begin to lift myself from my chair. She rummages in the corner, plucking the disc from a deep corner and holding it aloft. She doesn’t say it aloud, but “tsk tsk” is written all over her fine German features. She snatches the launcher on her way back to her chair.

“I’m serious,” she says, because the three of us are giggling. “If they point it this way –” she pokes the disc against her cheek beneath her eye. My aunt does not look chastened. She looks delighted. Inga is shaking her head and trying to look stern, but there’s a telltale glint in her eyes. The corners of her mouth are twitching upward as she fits the disc into the launcher. My aunt is smirking now. She tilts her chin toward the long hallway. “How far do you think it will go?”

“Do it.”

She aims carefully and pinches; the miniature Frisbee soars along the hallway, straight and smooth as a glider. It seems like it’s moving in slow motion down the hall at waist height, arcing upward slightly before beginning its descent into the bathroom. It makes it all the way to the far wall. We’d been holding our breath, but release it in giggles. Inga retrieves it and shoots it again. Then I have a go. None of us loses an eye.

All’s Good

Inga disappears back to her apartment for a little while. It is filled with dolls, Aunt G tells me. Many of them are porcelain; some of them have been painted by Inga herself. There are teddy bears, too. When she comes back, she has a bear for each of my little great-nieces. She has me say their names as I put them in a bag, so I won’t get mixed up: A classic, jointed bear for Lily, one with a book for Emma, a polar bear for Sophia. And she has something for me, too: a thumb-sized green bear delicately stitched together by her sister in Germany.

But best of all, she’s brought me a beautiful card with a cutout faerie that says “Alles Gute.” All’s good. Inside she’s written: “To a Zwillinge, from a Zwillinge. Inga.” From one Gemini to another – friends even after so short a visit.

Nothing to fear but the weather itself

Stunning cloud formations in Saskatchewan.
Stunning cloud formations in Saskatchewan.

My fear of tornadoes goes back to Grade 6.

It was the mid-’80s and we were living in The Beaches in Toronto. Our house was quite close to the water, on a street with the most wonderful name: Kippendavie Avenue. My school was less than a block away.

During class one spring afternoon, the secretary (could have been the principal, might have been the vice-principal, but someone in authority in any case) came on the loudspeaker to tell us there was a tornado warning for the area. She then went on – since she had the damn mike anyway – to explain to us exactly what a tornado was and the sort of damage it could do.

She then told us to go home.

I can still remember that horrible, shaking, cold-sweat fear. It was less than a block, sure, but there were tornadoes out there! I could die!

My sister worked in the school daycare, so I ran to her. She let me stay for a while, but she was working and wasn’t the type to get all panicked about, well, about anything. Cool Sue. She gave me a hug, but she sent me home, too. It was less than a block and our mom was always home. She was just always there; we could count on that.

Oh, stop getting ahead of me, you know where this is going. Of course she wasn’t home.

I don’t know how long I spent in the basement. I’m pretty sure I aged 10 years. My dad saw a water spout over Lake Ontario that day from his Toronto Star office and said he thought it was neat. I have been terrified – terrified – of tornadoes ever since.

And that is why I am fascinated with John Monteverdi’s Storm Chasing blog. I’ve been following his chase trips for years now. I guess the key to managing my fear is to try to understand the storm, and Monteverdi’s pretty damn good helping me do that. This year’s chase started May 16 and runs to June 1.

And if you’re so inclined, you can read my Montreal Gazette article, The Bluffer’s Guide: Everything You Need to Know for a Dinner Conversation About Storm Chasing.