The Derecho’s Lesson

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I learned a new word: derecho. I was driving home with my dear wife after enjoying lunch at a nice, lake-side restaurant when it looked like someone was suddenly plunging a dimmer switch. The clear blue sky turned an ominous dark purple. Then came wind, hail, and a deafening howl. A transformer exploded a cascade of white sparks behind us then another above us. No longer able to see the hood of my car, let alone the road, I inched to a stop. We felt the vehicle lift then fall. Leaves, small branches, water, and ice pounded us and then we felt the car lift again. We held hands and waited to be flung.

            It was over as quickly as it had begun. The sky was again blue. But the devastation was stunning. A derecho is unlike a tornado or hurricane as they move in circles. A derecho, on the other hand, is a fast-moving, severe storm that screams ahead in a straight-line inflicting destructive hurricane-force winds and damaging rain to an area 5-10 km wide and hundreds of km long. Nature’s 138 km per hour pile driver left hundreds of towering trees broken and uprooted with dozens of hydro poles snapped like match sticks.

            The drive home had us weaving around downed trees, poles, and lines. Our Village had been hammered. Power was out. Streets were blocked. Huge trees lay atop smashed cars, boats, and homes. There were reports of injuries and deaths. The emergency room was filled with people having had bones broken by falling trees and others bleeding from tree shrapnel wounds.

            Upon our arrival home we saw that a large Maple in our yard had lost a branch that smashed part of our fence. A 20-meter tall spruce had been uprooted and taken down more. Blown shingles revealed a scar of sodden plywood on our roof. We felt lucky. We were safe. Our daughter and grandchildren were safe.

            Love and community sometimes hide themselves. They hide behind the waste-land of social media, disillusioned protesters, and those who exploit fears, lies, and hatred to divide us for personal and political gain. Love and community hide behind our frantic activity, the sad urge of material consumption, and the vagaries of ego and ambition. But on that day, looking at the trees and fence, we heard love and community emerge from their hiding places. They announced their arrival with the roar of chain saws and generators.

A neighbour arrived with an extension cord and we tapped into his generator for several hours a day to keep our refrigerator cold for the four days it took to restore power. A neighbour knocked the next morning; she was going door to door with a pot of hot coffee. A friend arrived and helped cut up the maple. A brother arrived and helped me cut up the spruce. Another friend arrived and helped me rebuild the fence. A neighbour and I donned work gloves and over and over again we loaded his trailer with brush that others had piled on their lawns and took it to all to the landfill’s growing mountain of brush.

            The storm was horrible. Many still grieve those who died. Many are still recovering from injuries. But the derecho reminded me of something that I need to recall more often. Through the noise of our every-day lives and the cacophony of all that is wrong we must more often pause to reflect upon the peace in quiet and all that’s right.

Remembering Memory

Last fall, after recalling some obscure lyric, I said to my friend Chris, “I’ll miss my memory when it’s gone.” Chris is a witty guy. He said, “No you won’t.” Sadly, he was right. This week has led to my considering memory over and over again and it’s left me humbled.

My little band was performing its once a month gig at the local pub, the Canoe and Paddle. As I began to count in a song I realized that I didn’t have a clue as to its first line. I have cheat sheets for some songs but not for this one and, suddenly, Billy Joel’s Still Rock n Roll to Me was gone.

I began playing the thumping guitar part, moved a bit and smiled as if my playing it so long was just part of the show, and then, in a flash, the first line appeared as if in skywriting. If I can get the first line then everything else – the lyrics, chords, guitar parts, arrangement – all click into place. And it happened. But how did it happen? And what happens, I thought, when one day it fails to happen?

It occurred again with a speech I delivered this week about my new book. Like always, I never want to bore an audience with reading so I had no notes. I was fighting a cold and was feeling awful. During the introduction I shivered with sudden chills and then felt drips of sweat. As I stood, I felt dizzy and had to concentrate on smiling and not falling. No part of me was thinking of what to say as I placed a hand firmly on the table that, thank goodness, was close by. Then, from out of nowhere, came the stories, jokes, names, dates, and everything I needed for the 30-minute talk. Where is this nowhere? Again, what happens the first time that it fails to produce?

Remembering Memory

(Photo: http://www.psychologytoday.com)

Like every week, I enjoyed time with my one-year-old granddaughter. She is a beautiful marvel, but what else would you expect me to say? Her walking and talking is akin to a hopelessly charming drunken sailor. Her smiles, peak-a-boo and ball-rolling games, and warm cuddles send my heart soaring. But while crunching my knees on the hardwood and melting with her giggles I considered how much of all this she’ll remember – nothing.

My great grandparents’ Port Dover farm had a bench that encircled a big tree. The corn stalks across the road were as tall as mountains and the chickens in the dark, old barn were scarier than the wicked witch’s flying monkeys. And then there was the big kitchen, and my great grandfather’s stubble, and the big red swing. The farm was sold when I was six but the shards of memories remain. But for things that happened when I was one – nothing. I know things that happened before I can recall them affected and helped shape me as things are now shaping my granddaughter but my actual memories are, and with her will be, an empty well.

Like every week, I also spent time with my father, seventy-nine-years older than my granddaughter. We discussed the impending doctor’s appointment and what might have to happen. Then it did. He has all the coping mechanisms in place with a day timer always in his pocket, a wall calendar, and numbers written by the phone. The scaffolding is there with people cleaning the house and shovelling the snow. But this was one more blow, a devastating blow. Taking cabs from now on is not the end of the world but it is certainly another step in a journey that is proceeding far too quickly. He’s always been a good man and still is. But one important person in my life is growing toward her memory while another is growing out of his.

Scientists define memory as electrical brain impulses that encode, file, and retrieve information. Poets write and sing of misty places beyond the bounds of time and where people and places and smells and smiles are clearest when our minds are calmest. Who is right rests upon who we are, the machines or the ghosts within them. The scientists and poets are both right and both wrong.

This week I was forced to consider how much of what I love is dependent upon memory. I was forced to consider how much of who I love is dependent upon memory. I will never forget this week, but then again.

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A Woman’s Power

Movie lines sometimes contain more truth than a philosophy tome. Consider my favourite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A mother is patiently explaining to her adult daughter that Dad is indeed the head of the family. However, she adds, “I am the neck.” I love that. I might add that women are also often the glue.

I learned this truth by unconsciously absorbing my paternal grandmother’s lessons. She was the eldest of three strong sisters, the second generation of Ukrainian immigrants escaping turn of the century pre-revolutionary violence. Her mother provided Ukrainian language lessons to other immigrant kids in Hamilton’s hardscrabble east end. One day, the skinny 15 year-old was bored and waiting for her Mom to finish when a shy pupil not much older than her approached. He whispered that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that someday he would like to marry her. That was my grandfather. They were married for 63 years.

Her father was one of the first men hired at Hamilton, Ontario’s brand new Dominion Foundry and Steel (Dofasco). He arranged a job for his son-in-law where he worked for 42 years. Later, the Second World War saw North American women doing what many women and most men said could not be done; they fought the war on factory floors. My grandmother worked 8-hour shifts in heavy overalls and beneath a thick kerchief. She lifted, turned, and processed steel sheets. She was, in the vernacular of the day, Rosie the Riveter.

An old Dofasco newsletter shows her and other women smiling broadly and doing their bit with a patriotic passion and rugged determination to make a deeper point. There was celebration when the guns fell silent and the afternoon shift was let out early. Amid the cheers, all the women were given small paper packets containing a tiny bonus and a pink slip. She told me how that she would have liked to have kept working and, like many others, felt used and cheated.

Women Are Glue

(The three sisters and their parents, my grandmother is standing on right)

When her mother was failing, my grandmother made a promise. She would keep the family together and carry on the tradition of the large gatherings like those at the old Port Dover farm. The basement of her modest Burlington home was refashioned into a party room. Every big occasion, and certainly every Christmas, the room sang with my large and loud extended Ukrainian family. My grandmother met everyone at the door with a smile, kiss, and hug. She was a big woman and when you got hugged, you stayed hugged.

Long tables sagged under more food than even our army of a family could consume and then everything was packed away for my cousin’s band and the dancing. The adults got to drink a little too much and the kids got to stay up past bedtime as the old stories and jokes were told through Export A smoke, smiles, and laughter.

The last time I saw her was in a hospital bed. As I was saying goodbye she put her hands on my cheeks and squeezed them together and pulled me close as if I was a six-year-old again. Perhaps, in her eyes, I was. She said, “I hope you know how much I love you.” I said, “I do. And I hope you know how much I love you.” They were our last words.

She told the doctor that she wanted to go home and he said only when she could walk the hallway and was completely off morphine. He didn’t know her very well. She did both the next day. She arrived home and within 45 minutes she was gone. This last act said everything you need to know about her strength.

That Christmas, there was no party. Everyone was too sad. She wasn’t there to push us through our grief. There was never another party. First the extended family and then some even closer drifted further. The glue was gone.

No family is perfect. Scratch the surface of any family and amongst the litter of love and happy days glowing like Facebook postings, you’ll find scars and unhealed wounds. Despite this fact, family, no matter how defined, constructed, or shifting, is sanctuary. Family is what reminds us of who we are when we sink too low or fly too high. Family is what affords us the courage to carry on when we’d rather quit and the reason and confidence to venture forth in the first place.

Every family has one person that acts as glue and holds it all together when so much seems determined to tear it asunder. Because most men, like me, are dullards about such things and too often too self-absorbed, the job usually falls to women. They are the miraculous caregivers who become the bond between people and generations. They love without judgement. Their lives and the values that guide them become their silent advice. They kiss your cheek or kick your ass or just sit and listen, and then listen some more.

They are the women who only those with enough love can see for who they truly are. Bless these women. They, like my grandmother, are the angels among us now and forever.

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