Friday, October 29, 2010

Cults of the 60s...

Nice job on the Tie! - 1962  
 When I was a kid we really couldn’t afford any extracurricular activities outside school. In fact I’m not sure if they even existed then. If it was free though, and ‘good’ for me, my mother was all over it. So I ended up having to go to Brownies and then subsequently to Girl Guides. Both of these I detested. When I think of Brownies now, I consider it some sort of a cult experience. Dancing in circles around giant mushrooms with owls perched on them. It was considered an honour to be ‘chosen’; the one who got to come a little early to the next week’s meeting in order to set up the ‘grotto’. First, the large square green piece of felt, then in the centre of the square the large mushroom (or was that a toadstool), then the assortment of small mushrooms and the owls, brown owl, tawny owl, whoever else. Once everyone arrived we danced around the damn thing pretending we were in the woods I guess. At the end of the song we used our secret brownie salute .. it went something like ‘T-wit t-wit t-woo’. Twit is right! We then recited the Brownie promise ...”I promise to do my best. To do my duty to God and the Queen. To help other people everyday, especially those at home.” Translation...a guilt trip geared towards me helping my mother and being a ‘nice’ girl.
The meeting then progressed with an inspection performed by our cult leader, Brown Owl. My tie was always my fall down; I practised tying a proper brownie tie so many times that I still catch myself making Brownie ties out of restaurant napkins 50 years later. Then we paid our 10 cent dues,our dimes secured in small brown leather pouches attached to our belts.

The major activity for brownies was collecting merit badges which were then sown on our sleeves. If I were a Brownie now I could use that great line out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. 
Most of the badges had to do ‘girl’ type activities of the early 60s, sewing something, cooking something, darning socks, making tea for someone, shining shoes for God’s sake, learning different knots and then ...the dreaded semaphore. This particular badge was a mandatory one and required to be able to ‘fly-up’ to Guides. For those of you who aren’t familiar with semaphore, it’s an alphabet signalling system based on the waving of a pair of hand-held flags in a particular pattern. The flags are usually square, red and yellow, divided diagonally with the red portion in the upper hoist. The flags are held, arms extended, in various positions representing each of the letters of the alphabet. In old movies you’d sometimes see navy men standing on board ship signalling to another ship. Now where and when the hell was I going to use semaphore?? In any case, I just couldn’t get it right when it came to test time. I flunked...big time. I can’t remember crying about it but I’m sure I did, as I cried about almost anything. 

The following Spring we gathered for the yearly ceremony for Brownies who were ‘flying up’ to Girl Guides. The ceremony included attaching a pair of wire wings covered in gold foil wrap to the girl who was ‘flying up’. She would then walk through a tunnel created by Girl Guides with their arms raised and hands touching. When she got to the end, the new Guide was presented with their Girl Guide pin and congratulated by their new leader. When my turn came, I was not allowed to don the wings of gold because I was an abject failure at Semaphore. Instead, I had gold foil wrapped around my shoes and had to ‘walk up’ to guides. Now how embarrassing is that? Obviously it bugged me because I’m still talking about it. I am sure they don't do this least I hope not!         

 For Linda...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

We're losing him ....

 We’re losing him now... piece by piece, ounce by ounce, inch by inch. Every time we visit he seems a little older, a little smaller, a little more lost. His 80 years worth of life experience and his memories have slipped away, decade by decade it seems. Up until a few months ago he could still remember short vignettes from his first 10 years, but now those too are clouded in time. What does he think about now that he can’t remember? How can he can sit for hours and hours staring at that television. Sometimes we get there and the TV is broadcasting in Croatian or Mandarin because somehow he’s managed to switch channels on a satellite remote that has all the buttons shaved off except for a couple. He only ever knew English and a few words of Norwegian maybe, yet there he sits quite content. He refers to the TV as 'good company'. So is Sheba, his cat, who is now hugely overweight from spending 2 years living in a 14x12 ft space and eating constantly. Sheba watches too much TV as well, the rest of the time she has her face scrunched against a bit of window screen pleading for her freedom.

He’s losing his ability to communicate with words; sometimes the conversation is just a few words about the clouds, the trees or maybe the road conditions. For the most part we ride around in silence listening to music. I try to initiate small talk but it feels like I’m talking to myself, something I’m not very good at.  It's funny though, on the odd occasion we get a glimpse of ‘dad’ shining through. For a few minutes, an hour perhaps, he’s back, his humour in its rightful place. Suddenly he remembers someone’s name, the words to an old song, or the name of an airplane he worked on in 1948, and then he’s gone again.

He was always an avid reader; always had several dog leafed books lying open on his bedside table along with his police scanner radio and a large brown glass ashtray. Now he can’t read, yet his room is jammed with books and magazines from home, and others he keeps picking off the shelves he passes by in the nursing home. Most of these are written in French or Spanish. I know he can’t read anymore because he needs glasses, and they disappeared along with other things that were in his room. Often we find underwear or socks in his little fridge, peanuts or cashews in Sheba’s food dish, maybe half a sandwich in a drawer. Recently I found Iams cat food on his bedside table...I don’t want to even think about that.  He likes to move stuff around in the room. He used to like to move furniture around when we were growing up. We couldn’t afford new furniture, but if he moved the existing stuff around, it brought a feeling of newness to the room.
Dad in his early years

He’s starting to give the staff trouble lately, being ornery (his word) or downright mean sometimes. He doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to take his meds, doesn’t want to come out of his room or be social. We call that person ‘stubborn Kenny’. We saw that personality when we were growing up, but not very often. He was always a soft spoken, shy man, except when he had a quantity of beers in him. Then he would become jovial and talkative; tell bawdy jokes, dance, and play marching music, old WWII war songs, or Al Hirt jazz on the stereo. Sometimes the evening would end with him locking himself in the bathroom and falling asleep sitting on the toilet, which we thought was hilarious, but also tough because we always only had one bathroom. Mom would beat on the door threatening him loudly in French. 

 One of the things we find most interesting is that he’s forgotten so very much, yet his manners are intact. He takes his hat off if we are going into a restaurant, or even a store. He holds doors open, he always says hello when passing someone, and he still has good table manners although I’ll catch him staring at a fork or spoon briefly wondering what it’s for. He never spills anything on himself, even ice cream, unlike myself, who still can’t eat anything without wearing some of it. He tries to have conversations at family gatherings, which is heart wrenching to watch. He was always the one at the head of the table, the turkey carver, the wine dispenser, the conversationalist. He was always meticulous about his appearance, but that is fading away now. He forgets to shave and brush his teeth and comb his hair. He likes to dress in layers, which apparently is something Alzheimer’s patients have in common. Sometimes he’ll be wearing 3 layers of clothing.

With all this though, it’s still better than a few years ago before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The early stages are all about denial and anger. He would often be angry, something he rarely was. It must have been very scary for him getting lost in a city he lived in for so long, forgetting what he had just done a couple hours before, forgetting how to do tasks or fix things. When we were moving our parents out of their home a few years ago I came across an old 3-ring binder in his office. In it were pages and pages of neatly typed diary entries he’d done on his computer. The file name on the top of each page was ‘Andrew tries to Remember’.  Each page listed dates and hours and entries or activities that had occurred. If he went to the bank, or the store, got gas, updated his financial files or drove mom to an appointment or bingo, he wrote it down. It starts in 1994 and ends in 2002.

He remembers only a few of us now, myself, my sister and our husbands. He doesn’t remember our brother but that’s because he doesn’t live nearby. Sometimes he recognises his grandchildren, but mostly he doesn’t. Most painful of all, he doesn’t remember our mother. They were together for 58 years when we lost her in 2008. It’s probably a good thing he doesn’t remember her because he’d be so broken hearted. He told a couple of the staff that he wants to die. He never says this to me. He’s probably in better health now than he was a few years ago, when his heart was always going into arrhythmia and we’d end up at the hospital several times a year where they’d administer a couple jewels with the paddles to get his heartbeat regulated. He’d have a smoke on the way home afterwards. He was always checking his own blood pressure with some cheap drug store monitor and sending himself into arrhythmia, checking his pulse, complaining about his eyes or his bad back spasms. Now he doesn’t remember any of his ailments. He does keep chipping his teeth though. Maybe it’s the Iams, but I’m hoping it’s the peppermints he’s addicted to.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kenny the Communist

Kenny became a communist during the harsh winter of 1934. It was to be his secret for the next 60 years, and a decision based solely on the desire for hot cocoa and warm cookies.     

Oscar and Olga
In 1934, Kenny was a 7 year old growing up in the midst of the Great Depression. He lived in Prince George, a rough and tumble lumber town in northern British Columbia. Kenny was Oscar and Olga’s youngest child, 9 years younger than his closest sibling. His oldest sibling, Orville, was his hero. Kenny was known as ‘Whitey’ because of his platinum blond hair. He was a skinny freckled kid always ready for an adventure. Back then the summer seemed to last forever. Kenny and his friends would think nothing of jumping off the train trestle into the mighty Fraser River. They fished, swam, collected bottles and told stories.
“I boney-eyes the core”, they’d shout, the second someone dug out an apple to munch on. Whoever said those magic words first had the privilege of sucking on the apple core after the owner was done with it. They spent a lot of time watching trains leave the train yard. Once a train had cleared the yard, desperate men would often leap from the ditches carrying the remains of their lives tied in small bundles. They’d run along the track till they could get enough of a grip to attach themselves to the sides of the moving cars.  They were ‘riding the rods’, going from town to town looking for work.
Orville and Kenny

“Your father’s a scab!” they yelled at him in the schoolyard.
“Your fathers are all Bolsheviks!” he’d yell back, one toe dug into the dirt to give him better traction when he started running.

Oscar and Olga were Norwegian immigrants. Oscar had worked for the CN Railway before times got tough and he’d been laid off. He refused to live on food stamps and government relief though, and was lucky enough to get a job on a highway extension relief project begun in 1931. Work camps had been established along the route and Olga worked as a cook in one of the camps. Kenny was too young to stay home so she brought him along and he helped where he could. Oscar was away from home for weeks at a time. He brought home stories from the road crew, how grown men went mad in the spring after the mosquitoes and black flies had hatched in the bogs and swarmed them. Oscar didn’t mind the work; it was better than being called a communist like the men at home who collected assistance from the government of the day. Among the jobless, a social and political movement, led by communists, had been growing in Prince George. In the 1930s Canadian communists were very active on behalf of working-class people and had been co-ordinating agitation activities across the country.

The winter of 1934 had been particularly hard and there was no money for extras. In the town’s center, known as the ‘red light district’, lived a Russian woman, Mrs Korshanenko, a well known communist. Like his friends, Kenny had been warned to steer clear of that part of town. One winter day Kenny was told that Mrs Korshanenko was giving away free cookies and hot cocoa. A plan was hatched with a couple friends to find her house. The next evening they knocked tentatively at the door. It was answered by Mrs Korshanenko who warmly invited them in. She handed them pamphlets of information and spoke about the opportunities they could anticipate as members of the communist party youth wing. She offered them the cookies and cocoa, but only after they signed their names on the small cards she handed them. Kenny, his mouth watering just thinking about the cocoa and cookies, signed without another thought. They attended as many meetings as they could that winter. They weren’t interested in what was being said, they were only interested in their reward of cocoa and cookies.

When my father told me this story in the early 90s’ he had actually kept it a secret for some 60 years. Because he’d spent his entire adult life in the Canadian military, he had been hesitant to admit this ‘indiscretion’. He wondered what would have happened to him if his superiors had ever found out he’d been a communist.