Memoir

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QuQeen Mother

Queen Mother

Toronto in the 1940s where I spent my early years was a demographically homogeneous city, unlike its current appellation as “New York City run by the Swiss.” Back then, Toronto was populated by the descendants of Scotch-English immigrants, many of whom, like Grandma and Grandpa Johnston, had risen by the second generation to middle class gentility as small business owners, doctors, and teachers.  I always thought Grandma Johnston’s family must have been related to the House of Windsor, for she looked just like the Queen Mother. . . .

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The Cottage

 “I see the lake!”  I see the lake!” my cousins and I all shouted at once as the first glimpses of a cerulean blue window opened between the trees at the bottom of the long hill.  Those shouts were the signal that summer had arrived.  Nothing looms so large in the Johnston family's collective memory as that beloved building, that place, that interlude from the stresses of work and school, that place where we are always young, known simply as, "The Cottage.". . .

Portraits

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Portraits

I can still remember the first portrait my mother, Freda, painted in that cramped upstairs flat in order to have a sample she could show to prospective clients.  It was a life-size oil portrait of Rita Ouimet, our next-door neighbor.  I can still see Rita.  A glamorous Rita Hayworth redhead, she is pictured in three-quarter pose leaning against a table.  In her hands she holds a bunch of plump green grapes which droop languorously toward the table.  The background is washed in a greyish-purple, probably cobalt violet mixed with viridian green with a touch of burnt umber. . . .

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The Studio

The Studio

My Dad’s studio was the first to be built.  It stood on a small hill toward the front of our property nearest the road.  The studio had a large north-facing window as northern light was the most advantageous for artists because of its lack of shadows.  I see Dad sitting in a large untidy room at a drawing table next to the window working on mockups for the illustrations that would go into the childrens’ books he was illustrating. . . .

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Dolan Woods

One would never know Dolan Woods existed before those rows of cookie cutter condos and schools obliterated its memory. The only remaining legacy of Mr. Dolan, who must have been the owner of all that acreage, is the junior high school I attended that bears his name. Unlike the settlements of ancient cities dug up by archeologists, nothing remains of Dolan Woods, the site of my first mystical experience, my childhood cathedral, my playground, my refuge, so the excavation must be done by memory. 

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Ballerina

“I have muscles here,” my eight year old granddaughter, Naomi announced proudly, pointing to her deltoid muscles “and Will [her eleven-year old brother] has muscles here,” pointing to the midpoint on her upper arm where biceps are tethered.  We were on our way to her twice weekly lesson at the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center.  My granddaughter is not shy about showing off her physical prowess.  Whether on the soccer field, the track, at the ballet barre, skipping down the street, or doing flips on the raised grass sculpture at Lincoln Center, her every movement is a hymn to athleticism.    Later, as I sat waiting for her lesson to end on the fifth floor of the Rose building, I watched as a parade of senior students glided by me on feet that seem to float just above the floor, their rod-straight backs, long slim arms, perfectly proportioned legs, and swan-like necks setting them apart from older mortals like me with our pot bellies, fleshy arms and sagging shoulders. . . .

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First Apartment

It was 1962.  John and I had just returned from a honeymoon camping around the north shore of Lake Superior in his old VW bus from which he had removed the back seat and contrived a gerry-rigged bed.  The Civil Rights Movement was then in full swing.  Two years before, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins had occurred and just a year before this a group of courageous civil rights volunteers had ridden on Greyhound buses into the Deep South.  Idealism and noble purpose was in the zeitgeist of us northern whites who only watched this drama from afar and we were eager to make our own contribution to the struggle.  Spurred by the idea of serving the poor, a group of young white clergy and their wives had decided to move into East Harlem, known as El Barrio, to serve churches that would be both places of worship and centers of community development. . . .
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The greatest distance between people is not space but culture.
                                                                      --Jamake Highwater

 

JANUARY 2001
In Bolivia, substance dissolves. The veil between worlds is thin. Scenes change as quickly as sets on a rotating stage--dynamic interplay of subatomic particles in a cosmic dance.

 

My husband, John, and I have decided to visit Bolivia after Christmas. A professor of American Politics and Public Policy, my work has focused on the domestic underbelly of America's arrogance and prosperity: its working and welfare poor; the failed challenge of its rainbow possibilities. I have known Latin America over the years only obliquely--always as witness to someone else's historia: through the passion and poetry of friends caught up in the tragic dramaturgy of Mexico's and Central America's wars; through brief encounters with the silence of Salvadoran refugees, the pleading voices, the generous hospitality of Nicaraguan peasants; through tours led by the scruffy representatives of revolutionary governments around the dingy, bullet-pocked streets of national capitals . . . .

Todo Cambia: A Bolivian Journal