Category Archives: Memoir

Christmas is my Culture

top

 

After spending a few cozy days snowed in here on Windy Bay, I had time to enjoy this winter wonderland. With many hours in which to contemplate the joys of Christmas, I indulged in all the nostalgia and emotion of the season. As is true with just about everyone, my mind returned to childhood memories. I credit my parents and grandparents, and all of their many efforts to make Christmas magical and wonderful. We sat at long tables wearing paper crowns from Christmas crackers in the English tradition and reveled in feasts ending in plum pudding and butter sauce we thought might kill one of us someday, but that did not stop us from consuming it until we groaned for mercy.

Don’t look back, some say. It is not the way you are going. Yes, there is wisdom to this line of thinking, but Christmas is a time of permission. I, for one, eat it up. We seek a deeper connection at this time of year, a strengthening of bonds of love. When I take out my maternal grandmother’s Christmas village and unpack this little hand- made world, I feel as if I am seven and wishing I lived in a pretty village where the houses and churches sit atop a blanket of snow. In all my years in Coeur d’ Alene, I often think of how funny it is that I practically re-created that charming village in choosing such a charming town in which to live. Shopping in the local shops on Sherman Avenue is a tradition I cherish. Our tree now comes from our own woods; the ornaments are old and worn but carry happy memories for us. We have always tried to keep things somewhat simple, but by Christmas Eve, we often shake our heads. It is a time for celebration after all, and yes, we always give books.

In the years I worked at Coldwater Creek, Christmas was a blitz from start to finish. We employees shored each other up, shared goodies, hot tea, and boiler- plate coffee in order to keep going. We tracked packages and agonized over mix-ups. We wrote apology letters and often received replies. I signed company letters with Merry Christmas and thought I would keep doing so until someone asked me not to. They never did. I sent cards with the same message, and yes, to friends of different faiths and traditions. I knew from growing up in a multi-cultural city, chock full of new immigrants from around the globe, that culture is passed from mother to daughter, from father to son, and from grandparents to grandchildren. There is plenty of room at the table. I witnessed so many hold fast to their traditions while embracing a new land.

Christmas is my culture. It is a part of who I am. It is a time of wonder. That is how I aim to keep it.

Devoid of any anger, lacking in perceived threat or guile, I say, Merry Christmas to readers around the world.

“God bless us, everyone.” Charles Dickens.

top

Save

American Dreamer

hillbilly-elegy-cover

Decline. Is there anyone alive who does not fear it? Is there a way to ascertain the beginning, the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end? How is to be avoided? More importantly, what is it?
J.D. Vance tackles the topic in a moving and personal memoir entitled,  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. In the introduction, Vance describes himself as a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart. He lets us know that his tribe is a pessimistic bunch.
Caught up in the belief that to look through a glass darkly is to be avoided at all costs, I was drawn into the story right away. We know from the beginning that J.D. Vance climbed from his uncertain origins to graduating from Yale law school. The story outlines the journey. It is uplifting because there is not a person alive who does not wonder if they had been born in unfortunate circumstances, or were challenged by terrible poverty, would they be one of the few to make it out? Readers are placed squarely into the houses and schools and yards of Vance’s life with an almost breathless desire to see him succeed. While he does not pretend to have the answers, he neither blames nor preaches; the book reads as a statement of fact. Look about.
Going back to the Scots-Irish, or the Ulster Scots, and the roots of their beginning, I knew from learning about the English Civil War, that the term goes back to the plantations of Northern Ireland. Cromwell gave vast tracts of conquered land in Ireland for the Scots to settle. Many had been soldiers in his army and this new land represented the spoils of war. It was hoped that they would take root and serve to be a permanent anchor in Ireland. That set the stage for centuries of conflict and strife. They had to fight to maintain their foothold, and fight they did. The second migration to America yielded a group who settled in the hills of Appalachia to eke out a living. We know that George Washington used them handily, as did Stonewall Jackson. Wanting nothing more than a fair shot at the American dream, and never asking for help or handouts, became a hallmark of their values. As the jobs became scarce and the resources few and far between, what we learn from Vance’s experience is that we need to understand this despair.
To say this book struck a cord with readers is an understatement. Currently, it is topping the charts of the New York Times Bestseller list. A memoir, written with such clarity and ease, will always do well, but the success of this book speaks to something larger. We are in a time when everyone seems to be scratching their heads. Hope is infectious, and there is much in this book that provides it. We learn that when Vance applied to Law School he automatically eliminated the big Ivy League choices thinking that he would neither qualify nor be able to pay the tuition.
On Page 199 he writes:
“The New York Times recently reported that the most expensive schools are paradoxically cheaper for low-income students. At Harvard, the student would pay only about thirteen hundred while the tuition is forty thousand. Of course, kids like me don’t know this.”
When I became an American Citizen, in my welcome packet was a letter from the President encouraging me to take advantage of the many opportunities before me. I could not think of a nicer welcome. Not knowing what else to do with that information, I kept my eyes and ears open. What Vance is writing about is all too familiar. I know what it is like to grow up in a family whose ethic is based on hard work and never taking handouts of any kind. It is the most uncomfortable feeling in the world to choose to succeed knowing that you may not have the support of those closest to you. Do it anyway. That is the great message of this book.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson. What were her chances of achieving any success as a poet, let alone immortality? The crisis of any culture is solved when the challenge is met, and necessary changes are made. That is what enabled J. D. Vance to travel from the “holler,” to Ohio, to the Marines, to College, to law school and then to where he is today sitting at the top of the charts.

“Float Like a Butterfly”

Ali

Today we look back on the life of a man who came into this world as Cassius Clay. He captured the attention of America, not only by his prowess in the ring but by the stand he took against the Vietnam War. While he is eulogized across all media outlets, I wish to share a personal story about the day Ali came to our town. We were all in an uproar.

MLG 1935

To set the stage, I must part the mists of time and go back to the month of March 1966, when a fight, booked at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, tore our family asunder. The stadium built on a wing and a prayer housed many boxing matches, but this was a fight like no other. My grandfather, Conn Smythe, still at the helm as Chairman of Board, hit the roof over the prospect of a known draft dodger darkening the door of his temple. A veteran and hero of two world wars, he was a consummate military man who felt that that duty to one’s country was sacrosanct. The only reason the fight was booked north of the border is that no American stadium would allow the match between Ali and Ernie Terrell to take place. Small town radio disc jockeys were having a field day saying that in no way shape or form would their town allow the Ali/Terrell fight. My grandfather agreed. The Forum in Montreal declined, and he believed we should do the same. My father, Stafford Smythe, President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a war veteran himself chose not to slam the door in Ali’s face and refused to knuckle under. We in the Smythe family had two fights on our hands.

four generations

As the youngest daughter and a preteen at the time, we were all involved in the donnybrook. My mother thought my grandfather would cool off in time. My brother, the go-between, told us otherwise. It was less than a year since we lost our grandmother, the peacemaker, and we were scared. A way out presented itself when Terrell, unable to meet the financial obligation, backed out. My father’s partner, Harold Ballard, in charge of all non-hockey related attractions and the man who had set the whole show on the road, refused to budge. He found a Canadian boxer by the name of George Chuvalo to accept the challenge. With a scant twenty-three days in which to train, we had a new fear that raced around the school yard, was discussed by Moms over coffee, had people calling our house incessantly, and seemed like a real possibility. Ali would kill Chuvalo. Everyone said if he didn’t kill him he would knock him out in the first round. It would be a joke, a waste of time for anyone who bought a ticket, and a disgrace to Toronto and our beloved Maple Leaf Gardens. My father would have blood on his hands.

As the day approached, my grandfather had neither softened nor cooled. He increased his efforts, calling boxing officials and trying to get the match stopped. Ali crossed the border and arrived in Toronto. He later said that he had never been treated as nicely anywhere.

head to head

The fight was one of the greatest of Ali’s life. It went fifteen rounds. George Chuvalo came out from his corner with fierce determination. He remained standing to the bitter end. He was incredible, and so was Ali. It was the greatest fight to ever take place at Maple Leaf Gardens. It changed our lives. It was a turning point.

One day over lunch when describing this incident to a friend she said, “Isn’t that the Rocky story?” George Chuvalo is still with us. He is as strong as ever, and he is still one of my heroes.

Chuvalo

At this point in time, as we say farewell to Ali, may he be remembered as the champion he became. There is more to his story than meets the eye. He was supposed to do what he was told; I heard this just about everywhere I went. He wasn’t obedient. He was uppity. He didn’t know his place. Perhaps this is true. He was a man who decided that his place was within the realm of his own choosing. One could not help but admire the courage with which he lived his life. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The stinging is over now. Float in peace, Ali. We will always be glad you came to town.

The Trough Between the Waves

young finnegan

When we watch surf competitions on television, we see the waves from a distance. Despite great advances in technology to bring us ever closer, we cannot see what the surfer sees when looking up. A great writer can take the reader by the hand. Therefore, if you pick up Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan, be prepared to see the sport in a new and piercing light.

Having married a surfer, and having just crossed the thirty-seven- year mark, I can report that most people have the wrong idea about this breed. Based on silly movies, whose makers insisted on dopey characters, the mettle of the man who accepts the challenge of surfing had not been fully articulated. Not until now. If you love a surfer, you simply must give that person this book.

William Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and esteemed journalist, has created a memoir that I venture to state will never be surpassed. The time he covers, from his youth in Southern California, to Hawaii and then to the spots around the world that where the best breaks can be found, will not come again. With the Beach Boys and the Gidget movies, even girls growing up in Toronto, Ontario, were pea green with envy about the surf culture of California.

It was a different story when I tried to take up the sport myself. A wave of four feet in height appeared enormous from the trough and been thrashed by one feels like an entirely bad idea once you are under the overhead washing machine. I decided to stick with my love of swimming and remain close to shore. I learned a lot about the culture in my salad days while I hung out on the beaches of San Diego and listened to tales of daring. Having grown up surrounded by the world of hockey, I knew about toughness, I knew about courage, and I knew all too much about hero worship. The flaky, airhead hapless teen, so often featured as part of the culture, bore no bearing on the guys I knew. To me, they were every bit as gutsy, fearless and brilliant as any men I had ever met. Hockey players, off-ice, in my experience, at least, were full of fun, gallant, sweet, kind and nice. Surfers were mercurial, often silent, cold and distant. We could jolly them along, and our friends were full of wonderful humor, but I noticed the younger surfers, the ‘grommets’ who followed them around were too afraid to say a word.

We listened to endless descriptions of breaks, rights, lefts, gnarly, mushy waves, closed out waves, glassy days, and every nuanced condition at Scripps, Wind and Sea or Blacks in La Jolla. I enjoyed every minute of these tales because the ocean is a dangerous mistress. Nothing, and I mean nothing, would come between these guys and their first love. This is the world Finnegan describes with such expertise and beauty that I felt transported. A big wave rider, he impressed me to my toes. I could picture every wave perfectly, and the line he constantly pushed between the wave that could kill you and the wave that could make you weep makes this the best adventure story I have ever read.

Finnegan surfing

I could gush on and on, and readers will have to forgive my fangirling here. Ever since I first saw those big wave surfers on Wide World of Sports, all those years ago in Toronto, I have known that surfers are men of exceptional courage. Mid-way through Barbarian Days, I knew we were going to hit surfer depression land at any moment. It is present in every surf movie, for the time will come when decisions have to be made, and comprises will be required. Dilemmas common to all risk-takers will be staring them in the face. The balance is as tricky as the ride itself, yet it can be done. As a reader, we pull for Finnegan through every phase of his life.

 Barbarian Days

From Page 360

“The takeoff was huge, clean open face, not breaking exceptionally hard, and the wall seemed to hold up reasonably, with no catastrophic sections, all the way down the point. Eventually, Peter caught a wave. With a shout, he jumped to his feet, rode over the ledge, and disappeared for what felt like a very long time. I thought I saw his track once down the line, but I wasn’t sure. Then he came flying over the shoulder far, far inside with arms raised. He came back raving. It was doable, he said. It was insane. I moved over, into the lineup, heart thudding, and caught a couple. The takeoffs were giddy, almost nauseating, but not overly steep. The rides were long and swooping, the blue walls like great stretched canvasses. Each of my rides ended with a safe, gliding pullout somewhere down on the boat ramp. I was very glad I was on my gun…”

People smiled when I said I was dating a surfer. Some of my friends said with disdain, “Oh Liz.” Lots of people thought our marriage would flame out. Everyone waited for me to return to my senses. Not so my grandfather, the consummate hockey man, a war hero who judged everyone by their toughness. He had utter contempt for a lot of the men my sisters and cousins dated. My husband came through unscathed. It was decided all at once. He passed.

Hero worship, plain and simple. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life tops every chart I have to top. Take this book to the beach.