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Archive for July, 2010

Childhood 1

154 Hanna Rd. (1941-1953)

In 1941, my mother Madeline bought a house during the time that my father was away in the RCAF. She had a little money (possibly a bond or a small inheritance – I am not sure which) to put down on the house. The house was in the young but growing subdivision of Leaside, which was literally on the edge of town. (After moving in, Madeline was turned down by prospective cleaning ladies, who felt that we were living too far out of town’! This is amusing, because Leaside now is just about the geographic center of the metropolitan area of the city.) Mother paid $6000 for the house, and my grandfather thought she had been robbed!
The street, Hanna Rd., was paved, but the cross street, Parkhurst Blvd., was not paved at the time we moved in. I remember the excitement in the neighbourhood when that dirt road was finally paved, probably in 1942.

The same builder had built most of the houses on our side of the street, the west side. He built storey-and-a half houses all up the west side of the block, but he also built one two-storey house, which was for his own family. After living there one year, he and his wife were ready to move on, and his home was the one that mother bought. (She was the purchaser because our father was overseas.)
Here above is the house, photographed by Google, in 2009, looking much as it did when we lived in it, except the trees, which were babies in 1941, are now mature. 154 is the house on the left in this photo. That’s the same lamppost we used as “home” in various street games (Hide and Seek, Red Rover) which we kids played incessantly on fine summer evenings.
In the house next door lived John, who was a year ahead of me in school. His mother, Peggy, a gifted seamstress, made my wedding dress and all my bridesmaids’ dresses as well, when I was married after I graduated from university. By then, we had moved further north in Leaside to 19 Craig Crescent, a move which was made in 1953 to accommodate the advent of another child in the family, my sister Margaret.
Do you see the tiny ‘hill’ on our front lawn? You can see it next to the couple of steps in the front walk. Believe it or not, on that gentle little slope my brother Ken used to sled on wintry days when he was a little guy.  (He was only 1 year old when we moved in.) Sledding there was almost a joke, because the little ‘hill’ was so small.
Alas, a tumble on that little slope one winter day when he was about 4 caused him to be knocked about and his eye went askew. That was the very beginning of his eyesight problems. He was so young; this was some years before he contracted diabetes, and by then the eye was not working at all, just from this seemingly innocuous accident on the front lawn.

I have happy memories of 154 Hanna Rd. When we moved in, the household consisted of mother, Ken and me. (Our father did not even see the house until he was demobilized and came home) Shortly thereafter, my nana, Jean, moved in with us. She lived with us until her death in 1947. During that time, Ken and I shared a bedroom, and nana had the second one, and the front bedroom was the parents’ room. After nana Jean’s death, I got my own room and felt very grown up to have it.
From this house I began my elementary school education, entering Grade 1 at Bessborough Public School, one block up the street. That school is still in operation today. I attended Bessborough from Gr.1 to 6. The school was overcrowded by the time I finished Gr. 6, and that summer the school board decided to move about 30 of us to Northlea Public School for Gr 7 and 8 to free up space at Bessborough. To compensate us for having to change schools, they gave us a great teacher and let him stay with us for both grades. His name was Larry Malloy, and we adored him. He drilled English grammar into us so well that we never forgot his lessons.

Although this was a small house (I was shocked at how small the rooms were when I visited it later in my life during a real estate ‘open house’) it did not feel small to the kid that I was back then. What was small was the back yard. I think #154 had the smallest lot on the street! My memory of much of the interior is a little vague, but two rooms I do remember. The dining room was so small that there was literally no room for any kind of buffet or china cabinet. My grandpa was a master carpenter and cabinet maker, and he decided to make my mother a built-in buffet. In short order he arrived with wood, his tools, and the inevitable envelope on which he would scrawl his calculations, and soon mother had a tidy built-in on one side of the room. Problem solved.
The other room I remember well is the (only) bathroom. Its window (that’s it right over the front door) faced east, directly towards the factories about a half mile away on Laird Drive. During the war years, those factories were lit up like Christmas trees at night, because people worked 24/7 in most of them, producing goods for the war effort. On hot summer nights, if I got up in the wee small hours, the bathroom window would be open, and I could see the bright lights glittering at Canada Wire and Cable. The bathroom was tiled in black and white, and was relatively up-to-date for the times. If  that room is unrenovated today, it would be called ‘antique.’
One last thing: I do remember that my parents finally decided to upgrade the kitchen, only to discover that mom was pregnant and that they needed a bigger house. So they sold and moved,   and Madeline did not get to enjoy her new kitchen.

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The Help

Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Putnam’s/Penguin
Copyright: 2009
Personal ranking: 9/10

book cover for The Help by K. Stockett

Terrific book that I read in a digital edition. Bought from Kobo and read it partly on the computer and partly on the iPhone. That was a new experience and not unpleasant.
Wonderful story about the black maids who worked in Mississippi before the civil rights movement got under way. They lived and worked under the Jim Crow laws (which are never in this book mentioned by name.) “The help” worked as maids, babysitters (in loco parentis), cleaners and cooks, all at the same time. One black woman in any house fulfilled all these roles. Aibileen, one of the main characters, says that she has had 17 children….16 of those were white children she raised, and only one was her own biological child. Another of the main characters, Skeeter,is a young white woman. She gets the idea of getting all the local “help” to tell their stories to her, and creating a book of their stories. (and she has no idea if she could ever get it published.) This is a very dangerous project for all of them to participate in. I couldn’t put this book down. I felt as though I knew them all, and I was rooting for them to succeed. It was almost as though they were the grandchildren of the main character in The Book of Negroes. Great read!

…..and furthermore: I reserved this book in February at my local branch of the public library. The group to which I belong was to discuss this book in March, so I gave myself six weeks on the reserve list. Thought I would have no problem. Little did I know! Two weeks before the meeting I bought the digital edition I mentioned above, so that I could finish my reading in time. Also, at the time, the paperback had not yet been released, and the hard cover edition was really expensive (over $30) and I got the digital edition on a sale at Kobo for $7.00 that week. It was such a great deal. And of course the digital edition is still on my hard drive.

My reserved copy from the public library came to my library account in mid-July! Ooops, too late!That’s how popular this book is.

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Author: Linwood Barclay
Publisher: Doubleday/Seal
Copyright: 2009
Personal ranking: 8/10
Another page turner from Barclay! Here auto salesman Tim Blake goes on the hunt for his daughter, Syd, who has disappeared. But at the motor inn where she worked, no one has ever heard of Syd. What was Syd hiding? Someone is shadowing Tim’s ex-wife. Someone trashes his house and finds planted cocaine in it, but why? The puzzle grows and Tim gets deeper into difficulties. The reader cannot wait to find out the solution, and it is almost impossible for that to be figured out, because of the twists in the story. Violence and murder mark this story, and Tim (who is innocent) becomes the prime suspect. Who is out to get him and why? (This book is a perfect vacation read!)

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Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel
Publisher: Harper Collins
Copyright: 2009
Personal ranking: 10/10!

I thought that from my reading and history studies I knew lots about the reign of Henry VIII. I’d read Henry’s story, Anne Boleyn’s story and Mary Boleyn’s story. I’d seen A Man for All Seasons. I’d watched The Tudors. Wolf Hall brings a whole new perspective to the era, because the story is told with Thomas Cromwell as the protagonist.
The era comes alive as we follow Cromwell’s rise from a laborer who works for his abusive father, to one of the most prominent advisers at Henry’s court. Cromwell becomes a man of great influence, managing the both the king’s money and his affairs of state. Characters in the story (who have been featured in previous historical fiction and drama) who once were viewed sympathetically by this reader, are now revealed from a different viewpoint, changing the reader’s perspective and feelings–notably Thomas More, and Mary Boleyn. Anne Boleyn is rather unlikable too. Cromwell himself is full of egoism, is sharp and advances himself over the course of the novel from ‘nobody’ to ‘the top of the heap.’ But he is never respected by the nobles because of his lowly beginnings.
Populated by a huge cast of characters, this novel brings the Tudor era to life magically, and creates a world we feel we live in. Quite simply, one of the best books ever (and the writing is beautiful!)  Winner of the Man Booker Prize, 2009, and 650 pages long. It is a book to be read slowly and savored.

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When I was living in BC (1997-2001) I belonged to a writing group at a local activity center. One Monday the group leader gave us the topic “heart” for our weekly assignment. We had to take away the word, write something creative using it, and come back the next Monday and read our creations aloud to the group. My brother was in end-stage diabetes at the time, and the word “heart” set me thinking about the bypass he had endured some years earlier. So I wrote a very short story about a man going for a bypass. This was the first time I had written any fiction, and my character subsequently popped up in three more stories that I wrote that year. But I was very off-base in my “heart” story, which was about the lead-up to the bypass. I had my character walking into the hospital on the day of his operation. Hah! Does not happen that way. I was too inexperienced to realize it–or maybe I just wanted to entertain the writing group.

Little did I know that in fewer than ten years I would become a bypass patient myself. In real life, on the day I was admitted, I was too sick to walk, and arrived in the ER by wheelchair. Had I been at home, not in the clinic across the street from the hospital, I would have arrived at the ER by ambulance, because I was quite far gone by the time I got to the hospital; I was very close to dropping in the street and not recovering–at least that is what the medics told me.

I started to have some trouble during the summer of 2008. As the days and weeks of the summer passed by, I found that I was taking shorter and shorter walks with my dog. I went to my doctor in late summer, and we discussed possible causes for my shortness of breath. By September, I had a really bad episode of shortness of breath and what I called a “spell,” one night when my daughter and I were walking to the theater, downtown. She was more scared than I was. I went back to my doctor again and she sent me for an ECG. Two weeks later, I kept an appointment with a respirologist, who diagnosed asthma. Two days after that, I was seen by a cardiologist. As I sat down and greeted him, he said bluntly, “You have a blocked artery.” I was both shocked and not shocked, because this statement explained all the weird feelings and weakness I had been experiencing. The cardiologist, of course, had seen the results of the ECG. He told me to cancel my planned trip to New York (my plane flight was only two weeks away) and to ditch the Broadway theater seats I had already bought. Then he told me I could not drive my car home that day. That’s when I knew I was in Big Trouble.

He sent me home to stay very quiet while waiting for an angiogram appointment late in the next week. That was on a Wednesday. Thursday and Friday passed with me in a haze. By Saturday morning I could hardly walk around my condo, and I still didn’t “get it.” I was failing very quickly. I was in the ER by noon. As luck would have it, my cardiologist was the hospital’s duty cardiologist that day, and came to see me in the ER within the hour. He admitted me to the hospital immediately, but the cardiac ward was so busy I did not get a bed for 30 hours. I spent 2 nights on a gurney in the ER. The staff kept me very quiet, and my family came and went, trying to keep my spirits up.

Once I got up into the cardiac ward on Monday, the date for my angiogram was moved up to Tuesday. The next morning, the nurses taught me a few things. Having never thought about this before, I was surprised to learn that only three hospitals in our city do heart surgery. The heart specialists all work in one of these special centers and you can bet that everyone on a cardiac team is a specialist, from the nurses to the anesthetists. Every Wednesday morning there is a meeting of cardiologists from around the city, and at that meeting, the decisions are made about which hospitals will take which patients, and at this time the patients are allocated to the  surgeons. When my cardiologist came to talk to me after the weekly meeting, he emphasized that bypass surgery is the “bread and butter” operation for cardiac surgeons, by which he meant that they do bypasses every day, and while a bypass is a big deal for the patient, these regular procedures are routine for the surgeons. I learned to which hospital I would be transferring, and that I would not be moved until the night before the surgery. By this time, I knew the results of my angiogram: all my arteries were blocked–2 at 100%, 2 at 90% and 2 at 70%. Now I was really shocked.

My bypass took place on the following Tuesday morning. The hospital had reassigned me to a different surgeon from the one I was expecting to operate on me.  When the cardiac ward nurses told me this, they raved about my newly-designated surgeon-how wonderful, how talented, how much I would love him. They were not wrong. He came to meet me and have me sign the release form before the surgery. He exuded confidence and was also tall, dark, and handsome.(Righty-o, doc; I like you already. And if the nurses think you are fab, I believe them!) I was able to relax and put myself into his talented hands. And of course I did not have a choice.

I was in surgery 4.5 hours, and then went to intensive care for 24 hours. I had had two large blood transfusions, was totally drugged (on morphine), intubated, and IV’d. I don’t remember much of that time. I had a huge incision down my chest from the throat to the waist, and another incision on my left leg, running from the ankle to the mid-thigh. This was the source of the vein used for the bypasses. Because I had never at any time had a heart attack, the surgeon was happy to announce that my heart was undamaged, and that I should be fine. I’ll be taking statins until the end of my life, but that beats the alternative! My bypass was a quadruple, with one more vein patched, and the surgeon would have done more, except he “ran out of vein.”

As soon as I “came to” and began to be able to understand, my children told me the news: I  had been diagnosed with a genetic disease that had been the cause of the enormous plaque buildup in my arteries. Its name is c-Reactive Protein causing vulnerable plaque.  (also known as CRP.) Needless to say, I had never heard of this genetic condition, and was shocked yet again to find out at this late stage of my life that I have an inherited disease. My blood had been tested while I was still on the operating table, and the test proved the diagnosis. Not only that, but my surgeon, who is an international expert in this disease, insisted that my immediate family and also my extended family members (all the cousins and their children) be tested for the genetic marker. At this point I learned that there are only 6 cardiologists in our city who will see “well” patients.  (That is, they are not sick yet.) My immediate family was referred that day by the surgeon to one of these doctors. So far no one has this disease except me. Two weeks after I learned about it, “my” disease made the front page of the paper. It was not as obscure as I thought it was.

A week after my bypass operation, I was moved (again by ambulance; I eventually felt picky about which company moved me) to the rehabilitation  hospital. I spent 2 weeks there in cardiac rehab. This was a good place and a very good program, which prepared me for going home.  I endured one strange event. Although I had asked (once again) for a private room, there was none available when I arrived. During my first night there, my roommate, an elderly lady in her mid-80’s, let out a bloodcurdling scream in the middle of the night, a scream which woke me in terror from a deep sleep. My heart went into arrythmia, and the staff were unable to get it back to a normal rate. At 5 a.m. I found myself once again in an ambulance, sent to the nearest hospital for treatment. I spent 6 hours on a gurney in front of the ER desk there. At noon, when my heart rate had returned to normal, my daughter came and drove me back to rehab. By the time she was finished arguing my case there, I had the private room, and thus began my rehab.

What no one had ever told me was what an angina attack feels like. The cardiologist told me that the “spells” I had been having during the summer were in fact classic angina attacks. Who knew? At no time did I ever have pain, but I sure had strange feelings, shortness of breath, and a ever-weakening body. And I still didn’t think of heart trouble. But in the aftermath of surgery, I learned about angina at last.

When I left rehab, it was a month since I had entered the health care system, and I had been in 4 hospitals during that time. Although rehab covered many things–breathing, drugs, exercise, diet– no one ever told me that the drugs that I had to take when back home alone were going to make me so sick with nausea and dizziness that I could not function. I spent most of my first 4 weeks at home lurching from the bed to the kitchen, where I was quite unable to face the thought of either cooking or eating. I had completely lost my appetite, both from the boredom of the bland institutional food, and also from the limitations of my new dietary rules (low sodium, low cholesterol, low fat) I was also suffering some after-effects of anesthesia. Over those whole two months, I lost 20 pounds.

Furthermore, no one at rehab told me about the strange pains that would plague me during recovery. Since I had never had heart pain before the surgery, now I was upset to have strange pains in the chest frequently and wondered if my bypass was a failure. I went back to the cardiologist for information and he sent me for further expensive tests, all of which came out negative. I even wore a heart monitor for 48 hours, so he could see when the pain and my exertion coincided.  He concluded that my pains (which came and went) were just from  the healing of the sternum and of the many nerves that had been severed during the operation. Friends who had been through this surgery gave me invaluable information about what they had experienced and how long their recovery lasted.

On December 8, I met with my cardiac surgeon’s resident. It was about 2 months since I had first met him. He took me off the beta blocker and another heart drug. That was on a Monday. By Friday that week I was so much improved (lost the nausea, lost the dizziness) that I was able to go out to grocery shop, but I still was not permitted to drive my car. The docs keep their post-bypass patients out of the front seats of any car for 8 weeks or more. (An inflated airbag hitting the sternum before it is fully healed could do a lot of damage.) The next night I went out to attend a family dinner in a swanky restaurant. I was really getting better! On the 15th, I saw my surgeon’s resident again for a final checkup. He pronounced me healed and gave me the green light to drive. This was my best Christmas present.

I already knew that the cardiac team had accomplished a perfect bypass. There are not enough words to thank my surgeon and his associates. He holds a research chair in atherosclerosis, a very high honor. Some of his valuable research is centered on making the connection between breast cancer and heart disease. He has an international reputation both in this research and in his research in the CRP disease that he identified in me. He regularly does surgery; is a university lecturer in cardiology; is a much-in-demand speaker and a writer of professionally published research papers; and is a mentor to the residents who work with him. The cardiac team at at the hospital are world class in every way, and they have the honors to prove this posted on their walls in the cardiac wards and offices. I am living my life now as I was taught in rehab: I have been given “a second chance at life.”

© 2009

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Memoir writing

I have long wanted  to post some of the family memoirs that I have written up, and can share here with my family and cousins. It’s easier to post these memories than it is to get them printed!
I’ve scanned quite a few old family photos, which now reside in my iPhoto, and can use them to illustrate some of the stuff I’ve written. I’m thinking of posting memories of my immediate family, and definitely the Lake Simcoe memories.

When I and my cousins are gone, the next generations will not have any access to the memories we have of the mid-20th century. I’d like to get some of those memories out there for our offspring to read. Cousin Phil in Halifax has printed a lot of his memories, and thank goodness for that. He’s not computer literate (OK, he’s over 90; let’s give him a break!) so I have no problem with his books not being online. But most of us ARE computer literate, and can share this way. Cousins and others can chime in with their memories by commenting on the blog.

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My Grade 9 home room at Leaside High School (LHS) was the first room on the top floor, northeast corner (top of the stairs) The classroom was also the school library back then, before resource centres were invented. My home room teacher, Miss Margaret Robinson, was also the “librarian.” My class was 9A, and we were streamed, so 9A was the top grade 9 group. Miss Robinson taught us English.I entered Gr. 9 at LHS in the fall of 1950, which was the start of the building’s 2nd year of existence. (The school itself was founded as a ‘continuation school’ in 1945, located at Rolph Road Public School until the new building went up.) I graduated from LHS in June 1955.

Those of us who grew up in Leaside (a newer suburb of Toronto back then) were always a very tight group. We were all in elementary school (Northlea P.S.) together; we were streamed in LHS (“the brainy class,” we were called by our contemporaries) and stayed in the same group from Gr 10 onwards….and so we were together from Gr 7 through to the end of Gr 13. Then a lot of us went on together to Victoria College at the University of Toronto too. And we are all still friends! My best friend Barb and I have known each other since Gr 4. She founded a scholarship at LHS in the name of her family. (“Pinkham Family Scholarship”) It is awarded to a successful graduating student at LHS who is going on to Victoria College.
Peggy Atwood was 2 years behind me, graduating in ’57. She’s in my yearbook in several places; strange to look back and see the famous Margaret Atwood in Gr 11 wearing her school uniform, the hated tunic. I got Atwood to sign my yearbook (Clan Call 1955) when I attended a reading on the Sunshine Coast in BC in 1998! As she signed on her literary contribution to the yearbook she asked, “Did I write that?” (She knew perfectly well that she had.) She was just joking with me. If you want to read some fiction by Atwood that involves Leaside High, read the short story “My Last Duchess” (We all had to study the Robert Browning long poem with that title) which is in the Atwood story collection Moral Disorder. The story features our English teacher, Miss Bessie, whom Atwood did not camouflage at all, other than leaving out her last name. Our teacher’s real name was Bessie B. Billings, and she was exactly as Atwood describes her, and her classroom is pictured with deadly accuracy too. No wonder we all did well in English! You must read it. The other book that features Leaside as a place (and the school does show up) is Cat’s Eye, which is my favourite Margaret Atwood book, simply because, using fiction, she has told the story of being a girl growing up in that area. She told a lot of MY story.

In the 1950s, Leaside High School had a stellar reputation in Toronto. It was well-known as one of the best public high schools in the city. The other top-ranking schools were Lawrence Park, North Toronto, and Jarvis. We had a great principal (who was very active in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.) Little did I know then that I would grow up to be a member of the same federation. The LHS staff in the 50s was outstanding; we students were not kids who hated high school, or our parents, and the famous 1955 movie Rebel without a Cause was a movie we could never relate to. We actually quite liked ‘school,’ possibly because we were good at it, and most definitely because we had great teachers.

Back when the school was built,  there was a rifle range in the school in the basement. I have often wondered if it were still there or if at some point the Board of Education had decided that it was inappropriate. In my 5 years there, there was a very active “rifle club” which had its own entry in Clan Call. I attended the 50th anniversary of Leaside several years ago. It was a wonderful celebration. There is a great video now available on DVD that summarizes the first 50 years of the school.  The history of LHS all on one DVD! There is also an LHS message board for grads. It’s still a great secondary school!

Feb.1/09

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