Address to the Global Civic Public Salon 3 April 2013
My mother passed away seven years ago this past Sunday. And I was having lunch with Sam and Lynn a couple weeks back and told them a bit about her and my father, and the crazy, unlikely story of how they met. And Sam said: you know, you should tell that story at the salon. You’re passionate about it.
Which I had to think about, but then decided he was right. The story of how a half-Jewish refugee from Europe and a nomad Torontonian of seemingly no fixed address managed to meet in Guayaquil Ecuador is a critically important story to me because I can see now how it’s shaped my thoughts about home, my affection for Vancouver and for traveling… even my writing. Maybe especially my writing.
When I published Stanley Park – which is about a young locavore chef and his at-times complicated relationship with his anthropologist father, the Professor as he’s known, who’s living in Stanley Park and researching a community of homeless people living there – well only one person read that book and asked if the professor was inspired by my father. That one person was my brother, so he had an inside track. What my brother didn’t catch was that the professor – this man so consumed with both roots and rootlessness – was also very much inspired by my mother.
My dad was what you might call a classic nomad. He’s in Toronto in this picture, but he's not long for that town. What I see is a mixture of restlessness and ambition in this photo. He’s about to go to the Mediterranean and hunt German U-boats. But there’s tens of thousands of pre-airliner travel ahead of him after that. Back to Toronto, then to the Philippines and then, all the way around – Manila, and then stops in Vietnam, Sri Lanka then Ceylon, the Suez, the Med again, various cities in Europe and then back to Toronto. And still restless when he returns. Sitting at his desk, in what’s supposed to be his home town, I imagine him thinking one day and realizing he'd never been to South America and deciding he had to go. And in the movie version this is the moment we see him mounting a gangplank with a duffel bag, the knife of a ship’s bow cutting the waves, my father on the fo’c’sle, all anxieties sliding away in the salty air.
Prisoners becoming nomads. Refugees becoming settlers. That’s what this story is all about.
My mother wasn't restless, like my father. She arguably had more serious problems. Born in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could say, that is: born half Jewish three years before Hitler took the Reichstag. She spent the last years of the war in hiding and by the time it was over everything conceivable about the concept of “home” had been destroyed. Burnt down. Bombed. Taken away. Her old house flattened. Her family scattered or dead. She and her sister and her mother made their way to Paris via the International Refugee Organization. Spent three months living in an apartment above a brothel in the fifth where the madam fed them baguettes and fresh tomatoes. Sailed across to her new home in 1948 on ship called the Marco Polo. In the movie version she isn’t on the fo’c’sle, I imagine her sitting at the stern instead watching her life disappear with the wake. Caracas, where the air smelled like flowers. Baranquia, where it didn’t, where the shacks stretched up the hill. Through Panama and down past La Isla Puna into Guayaquil harbor, Ecuador where she was reunited after 8 years with her father, who wrote in his diary that day: They’re here. All is well. But to the 18 year old girl working in a bookstore, the sentiment might have been more complicated. I think I know what she was thinking because she spoke of that time. I think it was something like: what in the world will become of me?
I once traced my parents' twin journeys on the family globe when I was a kid and determined that at one point in 1948 they were on almost exact opposite sides of the globe. My mother in the bookstore where she was manager, and my father…. 12 and a half thousand miles distant in the China Sea running a surplus minesweeper down from Subic, crawling into Manila late at night through the submerged wreckage that threatened to sink them. He was on the fo’c’sle again this time, only on his stomach with a flashlight shining it across the water, calling directions back to the bridge. Port. Starboard. Full astern. OK forward. Making his slow way through.
How do these things work? How could these people meet? Something makes it possible for the nomad and the refugee, so far apart that they almost literally couldn’t be further away from one another without leaving the planet… something makes it possible for one of them to be sitting in a house party in Guayaquil Ecuador wondering where all the pretty girls are, and for this one to walk in.
The prisoner wants to be free, and so he roams.
The refugee wants to settle, and so she seeks her home.
There are twin freedoms to be had which they demonstrated to me: the freedom that puts roots under our feet, and the other one that puts wind in our hair.
We finally settled down. 1965. My father and mother have finally, finally took a shot at something like roots. West Vancouver. We’d lived in Venezuela up to that point where I’d been born in the town of San Tome, the last of five kids.
And what a move. Five kids aged 1 to 8. 13 pieces of luggage. We had stopovers in Washington and Toronto. My mother gave my two older brothers a sedative, 60’s era best wisdom on how to travel with feisty boys. The doctor didn’t mention these sometimes work to opposite effect. So it was 20 hours in planes with 5 and 7 year old boys wandering up and down the aisles acting like the town drunks. And even arriving in Vancouver, the move wasn’t over. We stayed first in a motel under the Lions Gate Bridge, then in rented digs in Burnaby where the whole lot of us came down with the mumps.
All told, it was 217 days after leaving Venezuela and the nomad/refugee life behind, that the family Volkswagen Beetle finally pulled into the driveway of our new house in West Van and disgorged the lot of us to the amusement of curious neighbors. Tucking us all into our beds and cribs that night, I can only imagine how fatigued my parents must have been, how existentially relieved to have that permanent roof over their heads.
However they felt, I apparently didn’t. That night, having kept my peace throughout the long move, I started wailing. And I kept wailing. All night. And the next night. And the next night. I took breaks during the day to eat, apparently. Otherwise, I kept it up for a week, sitting on the end of my parents’ bed. The eighth night I stopped wailing and fell asleep, my point seemingly made.
Well, as you can see from my final picture here, I was no worse for the wear. But when I look at this last picture, I know I’m stamped somehow: it took some tears, but here is the settler/nomad in the making. Vancouver is my town and I hold to it with a tight grip, only letting go …. every chance I get. Dubai, Igloolik, Trancoso, Xishaungbanna, Shangri-La. I’m leaving for Los Angeles tomorrow and how do I feel about that? Well I have to. I have stories to write. And I want to be there, just as much as I want to return.
I guess you could say: I’ve never met a place I didn’t like to come home from.
Of course I’m just waiting here. Waiting for all that to happen. All those experiences, all those words in potential, all queued up and ready to live. Thanks to my father. And thanks to my mother.
Thank you all for listening. Enjoy the rest of the evening.
Posted: Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013 8:43am