Friday May 19, 2006
My Grandmother Sophia and Maternal Aunts
Gem Fire Air
by marty kleva
In the earliest recollection I have of my grandmother Sophia, I am teetering on my wobbly two-year old legs, the world around me is vast, even as the sweep of the broom bristles move against the wooden floor beneath my feet. The shoes next to mine are so much larger. Mine are scuffed with their white leather wrapping up around my ankles — still wearing high-tops. She is wearing practical and worn, brown leather shoes. Around her large ankles there is a roll of flesh-colored stockings, and moving above them in sync with her sweeping, the bottom hem of her dress, the color of which has faded from my memory.
On the floor, in the wake of the broom, there is a shiny round object. Her large hand reaches it before mine and expertly picks it up, seemingly to hide it from my sight as I straighten and stand to look up at her towering figure above me. She bends down to put the shiny penny in my tiny palm.
This is my first and only recollection of my Grandmother Sophia. My impression that lasts to this day as I formulate images of her through the eyes of my mother and aunts who loved her dearly, is that she was a giant among women. In my mind, she harkens back to the stories and images of the Archetypal Amazonians, and with that one gesture, she bequeaths to me a mountain of gifts and knowledge that surpasses all other legacies.
What stands out is that in the beginning of the 20th century, she braved a voyage from a region of Ukraine that was suffering the ravages of Hitler’s Nazi regime, to moved to Canada carrying a child in her arms, which will turn out to be my Aunt Marie.
Grandmother Sophia was a very wise and intelligent woman, translating for her fellow Ukrainians at the immigration court in Toronto. She was also looked upon as the local healer. Along with her husband Michael, she raised twelve children during a time in the early 1900’s when it was difficult to be self-supporting.
My Aunt Marie, the oldest, was always cracking a joke. Her appearance was soft and fuzzy and she spoke with a warm voice. We visited her house in Thorold often, and I can distinctly remember the acrid odor of the paper mill from across the road pinching my nostrils and making my eyes water as I walked into her kitchen for breakfast-tea, and toast spread with homemade strawberry jam.
My memories are varied and disjointed except for the pervading sense that to visit 8 Marlboro Place, my grandparent’s house, was magic of the highest form.
Snippets provide a collage of pictures for me; of sleeping in the upstairs front bedroom and hearing the clip-clop of the horse drawing the early morning milk wagon, methodically making its way down the street, until finally it stops beneath my window. I watch as the milkman loads his metal basket with six glass bottles and disappears under the roof as he walks up to the front porch.
Hollyhocks beneath my Grandmother’s kitchen window; Grandfather’s vegetable garden behind the back yard, and having to go through a row of evergreens to reach it.
Being taken on a streetcar ride to go to town with my aunts, and ice-skating with my Aunt Nell and her boyfriend, before I was four.
When I was younger than young and summer came, I could hardly sleep for the two weeks before our planned trip to Canada. The actuality was like walking into a fairyland to me — so many flowers all over the place, cleanliness, and freshness that seemed different from what I knew.
Of course, I remember some aunts more than others, and don’t remember some at all — my memory being blurred by so many.
From my very young days those foremost are Marie, Anne, Rose and Nell. In the last twelve years, Helen has become a close friend as we regularly exchange lengthy old-fashioned handwritten letters about literature, art, philosophy, and anything of our interest at the time.
I have discovered in her a person who has a brilliant mind, a greater reading and literary background than my own, a larger access to proper grammar and sentence structure, and a capacity for the exploration of research to challenge mine. She has provided the feminine model in my life that is complimentary to my mother’s, supporting my efforts toward a more creative expression of living. She unwaveringly loves her entire family, has great compassion and intellect that is full of common sense, and which cuts through all non-sense.
My Aunt Nell has always provided me with strong impressions of generosity and when I was two, was the one to sit with me at the window sill of my parent’s bedroom, to watch a group of men carry the coffin of my paternal grandfather up the hill to the awaiting hearse on the street above.
I visited the dairy farm she and her husband owned in Chippewa — helping with the chores; milking the cows, getting tipsy from inhaling the fumes from the steaming fodder that I was loading to feed the cows from the adjoining silo, harvesting wheat and sinking into it up to my knees, having a picnic lunch under the trees in the heat of late summer, loving her great cooking — honey cake, made with Buckwheat honey, to die for! I remember sinking into a real down mattress with my two other sisters, visiting Crystal beach, the locks of the Welland Canal, Niagara Falls and the Table Rock House where she once worked. She has a great sense of adventure and always knew how to create a special occasion, as if it were an everyday happening.
One Sunday, on an extended visit with us, we were all walking to church wearing our Sunday best. She was dressed to the hilt and wore heels. About half way down the street, without warning she stopped and wiggled a little, then reached up under her skirt, as we had all stopped to look at her, and pulled down her panties! Very matter-of-factly, she stepped out of them, picked them up, and put them in her purse! No one said a thing! My eyes must have been like saucers. That morning, I couldn’t do anything else but think about the fact that Aunt Nellie was in church and she didn’t have her panties on!
This was typical behavior that my aunts were known for. The usual became different, and boring was not part of their guidelines for living.
The family joke about Aunt Anne was that she always had a bag packed and in the trunk of her Cadillac, along with a fishing rod and gear, because she never knew when her husband would arrive home and say, “We’re going up to the lake.”
All my aunts were very unique and strongly distinguished women; some who are alive today — Nell, Helen, Norma, Shirley, and Sandy, — and those who have passed on — Marie, Anne, Rose, Dot, and my mother Lena.
They all had to work at an early age, and developed strong personalities and interests. Some they shared, such as the younger ones from Dot to Helen, Shirley, and Sandy who played ball with the companies they worked for. They also excelled at figure skating, rifle marksmanship, canoeing, and were all-around outdoorswomen in the north country of Canada.
Dot went on to join the Canadian Air Force and later in 1946, became a new member of the Rockford Peaches, a founding team of the AAGPBL, a league of professional women ball players developed during WW II to replace the waning professional men’s leagues in the U.S. The league and the women were the subject of the 1992 highly successful Hollywood movie, produced and directed by Penny Marshall, “A League Of Their Own.” Next writing, I will highlight my aunt Dorothy Cooke as a member of the Rockford Peaches.
Sports were not the only advanced interest among my aunts. My Aunt Norma became an accomplished pianist and performed a solo in the Hollywood Bowl.
Aunt Rose was a delightfully feminine example of the thoroughly modern woman — had four children and worked long hard hours with her husband Pete. They founded the Portage Bakery in Niagara Falls, and at first operated it out of their garage. Eventually it grew to be a very large family owned affair that had a highly successful clientele that extended into the U.S. side of the border.
There was nothing like Uncle Pete’s bread, — an Italian style like I have yet to see or taste since. The thick Sicilian-style crust pizza that he especially made for family occasions, was like sinking your teeth into heaven.
For me, my aunts are such women — attractive, alive, vibrant, exuding confidence. They love beauty, and display great style. Their voices have that Canadian lilt and positive upbeat that is so refreshing. They have lent theirs to the expression of mine. I can’t help being so grateful for all that they are and were, and for having provided me with a model to look up to whilst keeping my feet on the ground.
As I reflect back upon my own interests and talents involving music, art, sports, the love of beauty, and my professional career as a health and physical education teacher and coach, it becomes clear that they live in me.
Today, I awoke to see that the cherries on the tree outside my bedroom window are ripe for picking. The lithe limbs are bending like pendulums, the cherries hanging from them like aggregates of tiny red plumb bobs, as the early morning sun glistens off of them.
I have been assessing them each morning as I open my eyes to see if today is the day — to pick them, having watched the progress from early spring blossoms turning into small green pea-like shaped fruit. It seems that in no time they grew larger and began to turn pink, then to burgeoning ripe red juicy cherries that shine and reflect a myriad array of dark and lighter crimson.
Yes, today is the day to pick. My plans have been to bake two cherry pies, one for my landlord and his family, and one for myself to share with friends.
When in the spring I realized for the first time that the tree was a sour cherry tree, it took me back to the place of my childhood. We had two cherry trees; one was a large Bing cherry right next to the side of our house. We could open the bedroom window, swing the screen out and pick cherries to our heart’s content, or at least until we picked all that was within reach. Then the challenge was to get the rest of the fruit before the birds devoured them, especially the large black crows and robins that found the tree a favorite hangout. And that meant climbing the tree.
There were many hours in late June that I spent in that tree. It was as tall as our two-story house and had great spreading branches that were easy to climb. I would find myself a perch, sit back against the trunk, pick and eat and spit out the pits to the ground below. Sometimes I was in competition with the birds. One day my sister was in the tree with me and a bird dropped its ‘doo doo’ on her head “Splat!” — right on her crown! We could actually hear it land. It must have been from a robin.
So there was a large bird turd right on my sister’s head. Within seconds she began crying and yelling. She was so upset, I had to talk her down out of the tree without her touching it to go into the house and have Mom wash her hair.
The sweet cherry tree was community property in our family. But the sour cherry tree was my mother’s claim. Every spring she would watch it and keep track of its progress through the blossoming stage to the point where the time was ripe to pick, just as I find myself doing with the tree outside my bedroom.
In June she would take daily trips over to see it. The tree was one lot removed from ours, and was obscured by a neighbor’s house. Usually she took her trip on the way back from the mailbox, which was at the street and a little walk from our house. There, she would survey it and assess the situation. One year she threw a white sheet over the top of it and tied the corners down with rope. All so that the birds would not eat the cherries before she picked them.
That tree would be considered a small tree, unlike our sweet cherry tree. This one was shaped like a young lady. Just so tall, and just so wide, with a strong trunk just so thick, yet she was graceful and her branches were as if she were spreading out the skirts of her gown before sitting or curtsying, her limbs were slender and pliable as they hung full with the ripened fruit.
On the day my mother decided it was time, we would plan to pick the fruit the next day. Waking early as we usually did, and after breakfast, we would don our picking clothes and hats, and carry buckets and pans over to the tree and begin to pick hoping to finish by noon and before the heat of the day became too much.
As I recall, my mother insisted that it was important not to squeeze the cherries and to take the stem along with the cherry. Mostly she picked from the ground and she allowed me the ladder to pick the upper branches. I always had the impression that this chore was a delight and a priviledge. The anticipation of watching for the ripening process to come due was exciting and pointed to the importance of the act of the picking once the day was upon us.
And something about my mother’s appreciation for this little tree that gave forth abundance every summer toned my own attitude towards it, especially as when I was a toddler. Sometimes she would allow me to walk with her to survey it and she would talk about it as we looked at it informing me of what she saw.
Today, as I pick, I am rewarded with all these rich memories of the sour cherry tree. I am sure that if I were to mention it to my siblings they would all remember it fondly and associate it with our mother. It has been many years since I picked that sour cherry tree with my mother. And I can still picture us walking back to the house with pails and large pots full over the brim with the beautiful red ripe cherries and their green stems sticking up into the air. My mother has a large straw hat on and she wears a light colored cotton dress. I am in shorts and top and likely already as dark as a ‘piccaninny' as my Italian Aunt Irene used to say.
When we got home, we would have lunch first and something cool to drink — Kool-Aid was our favorite then. Afterward, we would begin the next phase with the cherries and begin the process of pitting them by hand. That was the juiciest of all jobs. Juice ran down our fingers past the wrist to drip off our elbows!
We would do this outdoors in the shade of the apple tree so we would not get the juice all over the kitchen floor. The pit bowl was in the middle between us. Each of us would have our own bowl in our lap to drop the pitted cherries into.
Today, as I took my stainless colander full of ripe cherries to the sink and began to pit them, the process soon returned to me of the way to avoid all the squirting cherry juice. It brought back a flood of memories as my body remembered that yes, this is how we did it. My mother was very instructive, and for my reward as I stood pitting the cherries today, I saw them pile up into my large Pyrex quart measurer, the juices collecting at the bottom. Yum!
The pies are done now. I’ve used a combo recipe of my mother’s and one from The Joy Of Cooking, using kudzu for the first time as a thickening agent instead of cornstarch. Everyone has raved over the taste and the pies have disappeared. My landlord’s granddaughter wants me to make another one.
Friday May 12, 2006
Gem Fire Air
The Buddha’s Birthday
by marty kleva
Today, Buddhists all over the world are celebrating the Buddha’s Birthday, which in this case, is more than we usually hold a birthday to be. The celebration is called Vesak (Wesak) or Visakah Puja ("Buddha Day") and celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha all in one day.
Now that definitely calls for a celebration!
This is the main Buddhist festival of the year and falls on the Taurus full moon in May, which for 2006, places it on today, May 12th.
Luang Prabang, the jewel of Indochina, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, boasts of over 60 Buddhist temples, some of them more than 700 years old. Here, there is a beautiful candlelit procession through the streets of this incredible city for Wesak.
Laotians build huge bamboo rockets, which they fire at the rain god to bring down the first rains of the season. Beside the Mekong, most notably in Vientiane, hundreds of rockets explode into the sky in a riot of noise and color.
In addition to the processions there are puppet shows and dancing with everyone dressed up in their very best clothes for the occasion. This certainly speaks of people putting themselves forth to exhibit their best.
It is reported that on the night of Buddha’s Enlightenment that he experienced three important events.
At the beginning when his mind was clear and calm, pure knowledge and insight arose, and he began to see his previous lives. During the second event, he saw the phenomena of death/rebirth and karma. Then at the final stage, he saw the dependent arising and cessation of all phenomena, both mental and physical.
This revealed to him the phenomena of suffering, the arising of it and the end of it, and opened the opportunity to cease all craving. At this point, his mind was completely liberated and he attained Full Enlightenment.
His teaching is to train the mind to observe the functioning of mental and physical processes. In so doing, we will realize the true nature of our lives. We will see how it is subject to change and “unsatisfactoriness”. And as such, here we can discover that there is no real substance or entity or Self which we can cling to as 'I', ‘me’, 'my' or 'mine'.
From the Buddhist point of view, therefore, the purpose of life is to put an end to suffering and all other forms of unsatisfactoriness - to realize peace and real happiness. Such is the significance of the understanding and the realization of the First Noble Truth.
The Buddha’s message is universal peace to mankind.
His teachings similar, yet different from Christ, are delivered in stories that challenge us to apply a lesson to our personal life. At the Providence, Rhode Island Zen Center, there is a short teaching delivered in the style of the Buddha by teacher Soen Sa Nim. Copyrights restrains me from printing it here but if you would like to get a chuckle and a sense of a Buddhist teaching, check the site out.
On this the Buddha’s Birthday,
May you know peace,
May you have great peace,
May you spread deep peace across this land.