Only A Little Dust

Today’s post is to tell everyone about a new blog here on WordPress.  It is written by one of my students and it is filled with poetry.  He writes on the subject of acceptance, how it feels to be discriminated against or to watch someone be discriminated against.  I would like to encourage all of you to drop by and visit Only A Little Dust and perhaps follow it. 

 

 

Festival of the Steel Phallus

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This is me at Kanamara Festival in Kawasaki, Japan, 1984

Back in 1984, I was less than one year graduated with a B.Ed. from the University of British Columbia.  Politically, things were tough for teachers and the best I had been able to do was to find work as a substitute teacher.  On a good week I would get two days of work, a bad week was nothing.  I began to apply for jobs anywhere in Canada – tiny towns, big cities, northern towns.  I even applied for a job in Fort McMurray.  400 miles north of Edmonton.  -54 in the winter.

 

 

I didn’t even get short-listed there were so many applicants.  Out of desperation I started applying all over the world.  On January 31st, I was hired to teach ESL in a language school in Tokyo and I had 2 weeks to get there.  The trip to Tokyo was long and extremely eventful and perhaps one day I will tell the story here in this blog, but for tonight suffice it to say that after much tribulation I arrived in Tokyo and was introduced to the staff at Berkeley House Language School in their Ichigaya campus.  I had fallen on my feet!  I began working with a great bunch of people from Canada, the US and England.  We were all far away from home, all in our twenties, all single, and all bent on having a good time.  Frequently, this meant drinking our brains out, climbing on the last train and regaling all of the tired Japanese businessmen with songs from home.  Now as I look back with the wonder of the 20/20 vision hindsight gives us, I realize just how freaking obnoxious we all were when we were drinking.  Not to say that drunken Japanese businessmen couldn’t be every bit as obnoxious, but we were, after all, guests in their country.  

Now, occasionally we would find some other way to occupy our spare time that was, perhaps, slightly less offensive.  In April, one of my coworkers asked me to join her for the Kanamara Matsuri in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo.  It sounded fun and I had no plans for the weekend so off we went.  I had only been to one other festival – a rather tame and quiet plum blossom festival.  I assumed this would be similarly quiet.  Oh, not so Hiroshi!  We stepped down from the train platform to hear raucous crowds making their way up and down the streets.  We were pulled along in the tsunami of humanity heading toward the shrine. 

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Once we entered the shrine grounds we were surrounded by giant penises, tiny penises, wooden penises, steel penises, every kind of penis you can imagine.  Including very large wooden penises that women were supposed to straddle and shuffle there way from one end of the penis to the other (no symbolism there!) in order to become more fertile.  The front of the shrine was festooned with carved penises (or should that be peni?  I don’t know) and women were carrying giant pink penises through the street.  Food stands around the edges of the shrine grounds were full of all kinds of foods shaped into both penises and vaginas.  In fact, if you look at my picture above, you will see that I am holding a candied penis and vagina.  

I was flabbergasted.  Never had my prudish mother prepared me for this experience!  After a full day of enjoying the festivities, I returned to my little apartment with a golden papier mache’ phallus that travelled with me for probably the next 15 years.  That was 29 years ago but I can remember it as if it were yesterday (how often is one pulled across a giant wooden phallus by crowds of normally demure Japanese women?).  If you want to see what this festival looks like, click here – but don’t if your sensibilities would be overloaded by crowds of male members.

An Unexpected Day

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What was your best day?  Of course, there never is just one best day.  There are a myriad of them because there are so many categories that these days can fit into.  When I look back, I think about the birth of my daughter, my wedding day with Nick, the convocations when I got both my B.Ed. and my M.Ed.  But this isn’t what I am talking about.  All of these days were wonderful and come galloping across my thoughts with regularity.  These days were planned for, anticipated, expected and enjoyed.  I, however, am thinking more about the unexpected day.  The one that just crept up on you, the one that just…happened.  My “just happened” day was on July 27, 2010.

Venice, Italy

On our travels through Italy, Nick, Miyuki and I stayed in a house full of students when we were in Padua.  Our main host was a brilliant young math student named Luca Lago.  Luca was a wonderful host.  He cooked for us, toured us around Padua and on our second day he took us to Venice.  Venice is an amazing, magical place.  I have described her before as the dowager Empress of the Adriatic and it is an apt description.  It is a city that should be on everyone’s bucket list and I feel blessed that I have been able to visit her twice.  

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The best way to visit anywhere is to go with a local, but in Venice this is profoundly true.  Luca took us up and down side canals and alley ways.  When we crossed the Rialto Bridge, when we stood in Piazza di San Marco, we were surrounded by tourists and Venetians alike.  Luca guided us off the main traffic routes and into alleys and across bridges that were quiet and isolated.  In spite of the bright sun, some of the canals were shadowed and reminded me of watching Donald Sutherland chasing down the alleys in the 1973 film Don’t Look Now.

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Around corners we found things to surprise us.  Musicians, people in costumes, masks in storefronts, unexpected bridges, hidden cafes.  

 

But every time we crossed by a canal with a gondola, Miyuki and I sighed wistfully.  We both wanted more than anything to ride in a gondola but we both knew that, at €100 for half an hour, a gondola ride was not going to happen on this trip.  Luca knew that we wanted the experience and that we figured we couldn’t afford it.  As we wandered into the late afternoon, Luca brought us back out onto the Grand Canal with a huge grin.  In front of us was a gondola tied to the side of the canal.  Luca pointed at the gondola and said, “Get in!”  When I began to protest, he waved my objections away.  “This gondola takes you from one side of the Grand Canal to the other and it costs just €0.50.”  €0.50?  That was less than 75¢!  We climbed into the wobbly gondola.  The gondoliers laughed at me and said in Italian, “No, sit here.” When I moved they responded with, “No, sit here!” gesturing at another seat.  I moved twice before I realized they were having me on, but it didn’t matter, I was sitting in a gondola on the Grand Canal.

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Look at the smile on my face.  For me, the trip from one side of the canal to the other is up there in the top five experiences of my life.    The canal water was only inches away from where we sat.  Motor boats sputtered past us, other gondolas crossed our paths, the sun beat down on our heads.  It lasted only ten minutes but it felt like a glorious, joyful lifetime.  

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I will never forget that moment.  And I will never forget that I shared that moment with my husband and my daughter and that our new friend, Luca, had given it to us.

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At The Moulin Rouge

 

 

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Back in 2001, in the innocent days before 9-11, 20th Century Fox released the film Moulin Rouge!  My daughter and I, always captivated by musicals, went to sit in the dark theatre, waiting for the movie to start.  We weren’t prepared for the pastiche-jukebox musical come MTV video come sensory overload that was the Moulin Rouge!  When the final credits rolled to a close, my daughter and I sat in the theatre with our mouths open, not wanting to believe that the movie was over.  The next day found us back at the theatre to see it again.  And again.  And again.  On our fifth and final theatre viewing, the theatre manager came into speak to the audience and introduce one audience member who was there to see it for the 18th time.  We weren’t the only ones to be enamoured with Moulin Rouge!.  I bought the film on DVD and we continued to watch it.  I can’t say how many times I’ve seen Moulin Rouge! but every time I see it, it still captures me.  That was four years before I met my husband, and Ewan McGregor’s smile and twinkling eyes had me drooling (actually, it still does but let’s just not say anything about that 😉  ).

Nine years later, Nick and my daughter and I were in Paris.  Nick wanted to have an evening to himself, so Miyuki (my daughter) and I made our way to the Moulin Rouge.  Now, granted it was over 100 years after the movie’s story took place, we were still hoping to capture some of the amazing feeling with which the movie left us.

 

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When we came up from the Metro, we saw the line to buy tickets under the windmill was more than two blocks long.  Instead, we wandered up and down the streets in the madness that still surrounds the Moulin Rouge.  The energy was crazy.  People were dancing, and running up and down the streets.  Pockets of singing and shouting were breaking out all around us.  French, English, Italian, German and other languages that I couldn’t place.  We made our way down past the end of the line, around a corner and to our surprise, found an Irish pub.  With part of our family coming from Donegal, it seemed appropriate, if a bit strange, to enter that Irish pub in the middle of Paris.

Miyuki and I sat and chatted and I treated her to her first Guinness while I sipped at my Coke Light.  It was a wonderful evening – one of those common experiences that a mother and daughter sometimes share when all history and power barriers have dropped and only a mutual enjoyment of our time together was important.

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Perhaps Moulin Rouge! was only fast moving images on celluloid, songs by other songwriters and a story that was simply fabrication.  But this film created a mutual experience that my daughter and I took with us to the streets of Paris, to create a memory that we both will always hold dear.

 

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I Hate Mother’s Day

This is a hard post to write and I really struggled with whether I would actually post this or not.  But, I believe in no secrets and in honouring that belief, I will let you all read about something I have never shared online before.

I hate Mother’s Day.  I hate walking through the drugstores with the pastel signs of motherly love.  I hate the cards with the messages of thank you for a mother’s unconditional love, for the guidance and patience, for always being there.  Because that was not my experience.

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I have written about my mother before and her descent into dementia.  What I haven’t written about is her younger days.  Specifically, the years she spent raising me.  Or not raising me as the case may be.

My mother is a complex woman with complex issues.  She was raised by parents with an alcohol addiction so extreme that they completely lost the ability to support their family in any way so that my mom and my uncle had to drop out of school and work to simply keep a roof over their heads and some semblance of food on the table.  At age 12 my mother was working full time doing other people’s laundry by hand.

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My grandmother was a brutal and controlling woman who felt no compunction at physically abusing my mother.  Once she grabbed my mother by her hair and threw her across the room so hard that a big patch of my mother’s hair was ripped out of her head.  She forced my mother to sleep in the same room as her until my mother got married, just to make sure my mother wasn’t having sex.  And when she did get married, my grandmother refused to attend the wedding and kept my grandfather and aunt from attending too.

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So, my mother has good reasons to have complex issues.

When she was 21, my father came on to the scene.  My dad was a bit of a white knight.  He liked to rescue people and my mother was no different.  He saw a need and stepped in to rescue her.  Six months later they were married.  What my father discovered was, that while he could get my mother out of her parents’ home, there was really no rescuing someone with such huge issues.

My mom started drinking and abusing prescription drugs when I was about 6 or 7.  She would spend hours, and sometimes days, locked in her bedroom, claiming to have a migraine.  It took years for me to realize that there really wasn’t anything wrong with her head, something she told me when she was drop dead drunk and made her way out of the bedroom.  For years I believed she had a brain tumour and that no one but me was taking it seriously.  I remember begging her to go to the doctor to get it checked.

When I was 8 or 9, we were hosting a Christmas party at our house for the neighbours.  My mother, of course, started drinking and at some point in the evening, my dad suggested she had had enough to drink.  In her drunken state, she stumbled out onto our back porch.  I followed her.  And before I could do anything, she had climbed up on the porch railing and had jumped to fall the two stories into the rocky creek below.  Unbelievably, she wasn’t hurt other than a few scraps and bruises.  That event was a defining one in my life.

She would hit me with a big wooden spoon or slap me across the face.  Mostly it was the wooden spoon but once she did black my eye.  That was a hard one to explain when I had to go to school the next day.  This continued until I was 17 when, after she slapped me, I hit her back.  She never hit me again.

She did try to commit suicide one other time.  I came home from school one day to find her crawling along the floor.  She had taken a whole bottle of the tranquilizers that had been prescribed to her and had been drinking hard all afternoon along with it.  She had done this in hopes that she would die.  At 16, I was the one who called the doctor who called the ambulance (this was pre 911 days).  I went with her to the hospital.  I had to dig through her purse to find out what pills she had taken when the EMTs asked me.  I was the one to whom the doctors released her, and I was the one who had to go catch her when she ran out of the hospital barefoot and drunkenly tried to escape.  I was the one who took her home in a cab, praying all the way that she had money in her purse to pay for it, and I was the one who had to explain to my dad when he got home, what his wife had done that day.

Eventually she did stop drinking and abusing drugs.  What she really needed was a good counsellor but she would never go to one.  She would never admit the things that had happened to her when she was growing up, and I was expected to never mention the things that happened to me while I was growing up.  Secrets.  This was the watchword of generations of my family.

I moved out as soon as I possibly could and when I had the opportunity, I moved half way around the world to live in Tokyo.

Through all of this, my father found ways to pretend it wasn’t happening.  When the worst of it was going on, my dad spent years building a 26 ft sailboat in our basement.  When he retired and had more time at home he started to study Spanish.  He studied 2 hours every morning literally for 2 1/2 decades and never learned to speak it.  I think the purpose was not to learn Spanish but to have a respite from my mother’s constant conversation and complaining.  She couldn’t (and still can’t) have quiet for more than a few seconds.  I think the constant conversation is to distract herself from her internal anguish.

In spite of all of this, my parents had a great love.  They were married 67 years when my dad passed away.  That was three years ago and still, every day, she wants to die just so she can be with him. This sounds morbid, but for my mother, it is just a statement of fact.

They travelled together, they did Masters swimming together and competed together.  They both painted, both read and both loved British comedies.  They swam in lakes and the ocean together.  They sailed together until my mother’s bad back prevented her from going on the boat.  At 70 and 80, they still walked hand in hand.  They truly loved each other.

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So, the Mother’s Day cards that I see in the stores have little connection to the life that I knew as a child.  Instead I try to find funny cards so that I can avoid the sentimentality.  I wish there were cards that said, “Mom, even though you screwed up a lot, I know you did your best and I love you anyhow.” or “Mom, I forgive you for everything and I still love you.”  Those are the cards that I wish I could give my mother.  But, even before dementia took her memory, my mother denied everything that happened when I was a child.  She couldn’t handle the message in the cards that I would like to give.  So, I go for funny.

There is an upside to all of this.  I have my own daughter.  I made sure that I didn’t follow my mother’s path although I have made my own share of mistakes with her.  I have admitted my mistakes, apologized for them, and even offered to pay for therapy if she wants it.  Now, she and I have a great relationship.  She calls me regularly, asks me for relationship advice, and lets me know when I screw up.  I love her with all my heart and I believe she loves me back – she does tell me so.

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So, I think if I am to give anyone Mother’s Day wishes, it would be for me.  In spite of her spectacular failings, I still love my mother and I am working hard at forgiving her.  I have taken the mistakes she made, learned from them and have done the best possible job with my own daughter.  Maybe it is time to turn Mother’s Day around and make it for myself.

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Follow the River Taff

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After we found the Kings Head, we drove the few minutes to a town called Abertillery.  Most of my Welsh family grew up there, including my cousin Gill who was driving us around.  Abertillery is a tiny town and one of the few streets is called Princess street.

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This is where Gill and her brother, Arthur, and my late cousin Joyce lived as children and where Walter, Gill and Arthur’s stepdad still lived at the time.  Sadly, Walter has since passed away, but I remember him as a warm, generous, quiet man.  He was strong and stubborn and lived in his own house until he died, in spite of Gill’s urging him to move to somewhere that would do his housework and cook his meals for him.

 

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You may have noticed in the picture, that Arthur – second from the left – is a larger than life kind of guy.  He spent his career working for Adidas as their liaison with the Welsh National Rugby team.  He could have taken a promotion, moved to London, and made scads more money.  Adidas certainly offered this to him.  But Arthur loved (and still loves) rugby so much that he chose to stay in what was his dream job.  Rugby is an important sport in Wales.  Every town has at least one team and Abertillery is no different.  My mother, amongst all her junk precious articles, has a book on Rugby in Abertillery.  That is one thing that I know I will keep once she has passed.

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Arthur was an amazing host.  This is when he is truly in his element – showing off the country that he loves and making sure the people around him are having a great time.  He took us for a lovely lunch in Cardiff, drove us to Penarth (lovely town right on the water just north of Cardiff), and then we hung out with his friends who announced, that even though my daughter and I were born in Canada, we were still Taffies.  The word Taffy refers to the people of south Wales and derives from the River Taff.  I have since learned that it is a derogatory word.  I apologize for using it but my story would fall flat if I said that we had been called T*****s.  I am quite sure that there was no insult meant when they used the term.  In fact, I could see the Welsh pride on their faces when they all agreed what we were and we took it in the spirit that it was meant.

A story that Arthur told me had to do with a branch of our family with the last name Walbyoff.  Many of them shortened the name to Walby.  According to Arthur, the Walbyoff branch of the family is descended from a Polish prince by the name of Prince Ralph.  I have googled Prince Ralph of Poland and couldn’t find any reference to him at all.  I suspect this is one of Arthur’s wonderful tall tales.  It doesn’t really matter – it’s stories like these that that make Arthur the larger than life guy that he is.

Just a note on my cousin Joyce.  She was the first of my family living in Wales that I met face to face.  Joyce came to British Columbia to meet family.  She stayed with me in Victoria for about a week, and my mother came over to visit with her too.  One of my favourite memories of Joyce was going shopping with her to find some culottes to wear.  I took her to the Bay.  She found a lovely pair of culottes, white with big tan polkadots.  She wore those everyday with such joy and panache.  Sadly, when she was packing her things to return to Wales, she left the culottes out.  When I asked her why, she said matter-of-factly, that she couldn’t be seen in them back in Wales.  Her neighbours would talk and her friends wouldn’t be seen with her.  This was back in 1988.

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I am very proud of my Welsh heritage.  My aunt, who was born in Wales, didn’t speak English until she was 13 and then she completely gave up Welsh as she was teased so badly by the other children.  I used to ask her to teach me some Welsh, but she never would.  She passed away when I was 17.  An opportunity and a beloved aunt lost.

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Following the Wales

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Have you ever watch the film “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain“?  It’s the true story of a town in Wales.  During WWI, the English government sent surveyors around Britain to create accurate maps.  When the surveyors come to this little town, they tell the townsfolk that what they had always thought of their mountain was actually a few feet short of mountain. So they request a remeasure, but, in collusion with the younger surveyor, they conspire to keep the surveyors in town.  In the meantime, the whole town carries stones and sod and wheelbarrows full of earth to the top of the hill until they have added enough height to make it a mountain.

There is so much that I love about this film, not the least of which being a young Hugh Grant.  But, I shall put my hormones away for the moment.  I love this film because it is such a great portrait of the Welsh character: hardy, proud, inventive, stubborn and strong.  How could so many people survive the coal mines (and they were terrible places) without this kind of character?  I’ve had family members lost in the mines.  My cousin Gillian lost her father in a mine cave in when she was just five.

My family story is interesting.  My great grandmother was the first woman in Wales to be given a licence by a brewery to run a pub/hotel.  I still have the medal that they awarded her.   This goes back to the late 1800s.  The pub was called the King’s Head and it sat in the tiny town of Blaina.  Back in 2005, my daughter and I went to Wales and one of the things that I wanted to find was the King’s Head.  As far as I knew, the King’s Head closed sometime in the 1970s.  I didn’t even know if the building was still standing.  Gill was driving us back to Blaina and then on to Abertillery where most of my family came from, and where a few still lived.  As we drove down the main street in Blaina (Blaina is pretty small – if you blink you’ll miss it), I looked up at an old, abandoned building.  “STOP!”  I yelled at Gill who slammed on her brakes.  “Look!” I said not quite so loudly.  On the top of the old abandoned brick building was a sign that said “King’s Head”.
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It was my great grandmother’s pub and we almost had driven by it.  Sadly, someone had stuccoed the front of the building, making it a dirty grey-brown, but the sides and back were still the original brick. The first floor windows were boarded up but the glass in the second and some of the third floor windows was gone. At the back, high at the top a sign proudly stated “Kings Head, Rhymney Beers.  In spite of being derelict, there was something proud in the way the building stood, especially knowing how long the Kings Head had been there.

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I did a little digging on the Kings Head.  The earliest reference to the pub was in Pigot’s 1844 directory of South Wales.  This tells me that my great grandmother was not the first to run the Kings Head.  She would have run it at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  To the best of my knowledge, the last person to run the pub was a Welsh Rugby player by the name of Jack Gore.  Jack was born and raised in Blaina in the 1920s and 30s and played on the Wales National Union Rugby Team.  When he retired, he returned to Blaina to run the Kings Head.  He passed away in 1971.  Sadly, the last thing that I found online about the Kings Head was a newspaper article from 2012 saying that the United Welsh Housing Society had applied to demolish the Kings Head to make way for the development of flats which would operate as a kind of transitional housing for people suffering with depression and anxiety.  While it makes me sad to think that the Kings Head may already be gone, I think this an appropriate use of the space.  I suppose I won’t know if it is actually gone until my next visit.