Following A Hunch …

Several days before I left for Connecticut, I paid a visit to a Toronto-based writer (and retired university professor), in hopes she might help me with a possible clue in what happened to my great-aunt Ellen.

Confused? Allow me to explain.

The writer is the granddaughter of my mother’s landlady in the early-to-mid 1970s. (She passed away 35 years ago.) It was that landlady who once told my mother a story related to her life when she first came to Canada.

The anecdote goes something like this:

This woman – who I’ll call Mrs. S. – arrived in 1936 (from what is now western Ukraine, but at the time, was part of Poland) with her two daughters, to join her husband, who came here a handful of years previously.

Shortly after arriving, she found a job working in a shirt factory, cutting and sewing shirts.*

According to what my mother told me, Mrs. S. didn’t know a single word of English, yet learned how to cut and sew the shirts, thanks to a black woman who worked in the factory. Using hand gestures, the woman showed Mrs. S. what to do. And my mother seems to remember Mrs. S. telling her this woman’s name: Ellen. (My mother, of course, thought her aunt’s name was Helen, so she wondered about it, but wrote it off.)

This story may very well be the biggest of coincidences. But I thought it was worth trying to follow this thread to its end.

An initial Internet search led me to a book Mrs. S’s granddaughter wrote over 15 years ago, about her own search to understand her family’s history, and to understand the hardships they endured. I checked a copy of the book out of the library — initially to see if there was possibly any reference to this story told to my mother so long ago.

I found nothing specifically related to this mystery woman who helped Mrs. S. But I read the book from cover to cover, and it gave me a greater understanding of, and admiration for, Mrs. S and that side of the family.

I then tracked down the writer – who, as it turns out, lives here in Toronto – and paid her a visit. She was incredibly lovely, and we spoke about my mom’s time living in her grandmother’s house, but also about her late mother and aunt. Eventually, I told her about this decades-old story her grandmother told my mother, and asked if she’d ever heard this story, or whether her mother or aunt had mentioned it.

She wasn’t familiar with the story, but she thought if there was anyone who might know — or remember the name of the factory where Mrs S. worked, at the very least — it would be her aunt. Long retired from the medical profession, she’s now 89, and while suffering from dementia, apparently is still quite sharp when it comes to remembering the past.

So, there is where things rest at the moment. I’ll be getting in touch with the writer to see if she’s been in touch with her aunt, and if are any more shreds of possibility to pursue. Fingers crossed.



*I am going to double-check this fact, to make sure I’ve recalled this correctly.


Fool Me Twice?

Saturday morning at work, as I was getting settled in for the long day ahead, I checked my personal e-mail.

(It’s a day later, and I’m still wondering whether that was a mistake.)

In my inbox was the name of someone I was hoping not to hear from for a long time.

Over four-and-a-half-years ago, I had the (mis)fortune of meeting someone I’ve referred to on this blog as Shakespeare (because he’s a poet in real-life). Today from here on in, I’ll refer to him as “A”.

The meeting was completely random. I was leaving work; “A” was trying to find an optical for his glasses. He stopped me, and I tried to help him find his way.

And in the process, I suppose, he was trying to find something beyond my genuine attempts to be helpful.

Probably against my better judgment, I gave him my phone number when he asked. I was trying to be more open-minded towards people … ignoring the invisible red flag, furiously waving in the process.

What an awkward “relationship”, for lack of a better word. Requests for photos, multiple e-mails, instant messages, and always wanting to meet up when he was in town from Ottawa.

To me, it was never romantic. I was trying to keep it an arms-length friendship until I felt comfortable. To “A”, I suppose, he was trying to make it more than that.

He told me in his academic, flowery way that he wanted to pursue something. I didn’t get it at first. When he told me again, I said no, not really.

Our encounters were, thankfully, sparse. But I think I still had this nagging feeling whenever he wanted to meet. I even once invited a friend along to a hang-out, so I could get her read on things. Of all the times we did meet, I think only one didn’t feel so uncomfortable.

In my recollections, things came to a head when, one evening in June 2007, “A” wanted to meet for dinner after going to some literary event. Me, like the nice person (and likely sucker) I am, I agreed.

When the appointed meeting time rolled around, I called, and asked if he was running late. He was still at the event. Could we meet in about 45 minutes?

I ended up calling him again, and waited almost another hour (roughly 90 minutes in total) for him to show up.

A more sensible person would have bid him adieu after an hour. But no, I (the doormat) was a woman of my word. He wanted to meet. And I didn’t want to reschedule.

My mood was sour, and “A’s” was, I guess, somewhat jovial. When he said something that I found completely strange, I – peeved at having to wait, generally uncomfortable at this whole situation, and not really knowing how to properly handle it because I’m socially inept – blew up at him, and told him I didn’t have feelings for him, and never would. He called me conceited, and played it off like he wasn’t interested.

To this day, I don’t fully believe him.

Since then, I’d get occasional e-mails from him, but I kept my answers short.

The last time he was in town – and, coincidentally, in my place of business, maybe a year or two ago – he called me and asked if I could grab a coffee. I said I was busy.

This epic background explanation is what brings me to Saturday’s e-mail.

“We have not been in touch for a while,” it began. “Did you travel, or move up on the career ladder as you always wanted?”

He went on to ask about a friend of mine he’d once met, asked for my number, gave me his, and concluded the e-mail by writing, “My phD (sic) is about done. I think in march. Then i can take a holiday in Toronto, and we can hang out if you re free.”

And here’s where I’m divided over what to do next.

On one hand, it’s been over four-and-a-half-years. I’m older. So’s he (although he was older than me to begin with). And while it’s still hard for me to just come out and say things, I’d like to think I’d be able to handle things slightly better than I did the last time.

And perhaps, although people can become set in their ways, in some aspects, they can change. Maybe I can put what happened aside once and for all, and I can meet up with him once to see if we can finally relate to each other, as people, as is.

On the other hand, just because one forgives, doesn’t necessarily means one forgets. And I haven’t forgotten. I allowed an unsure, unclear interpersonal relationship to transpire. And it was AWKWARD. And I blame myself for that. Plus, this guy no longer has a Ph.D. in Ottawa to hold him back – or to allow me the 400-kilometre buffer to live my life here in Toronto.

What if I hang out with him, and it’s the same thing, all over again? Just the thought of that “what if” kind of infuriates me.

So, for now, that e-mail’s going to sit unanswered until I figure this out.


The Subway That Hardens People

In recent weeks, I’ve had a few experiences on the subway that have kind of clouded my belief that people are, generally, nice and good.

It also has reminded me to (a) keep surrounding myself with the good moments in life and (b) remember to keep being nice to others.

Sunday, September 6. I was en route to my friend Angela’s place. She was holding a last-minute bridal shower for a mutual friend of ours. Going north on the subway line, I kind of noticed this middle-aged man get into my subway car. Scraggly beard, stringy hair. I didn’t really pay him any mind after he got on.

At St. Clair West station, I exited through one set of subway doors to make my way towards the streetcar platform upstairs. He also exited, but through the doors at the farther end of the car.

On the platform, we were walking in opposite directions. As we got closer, I noticed he seemed to be kind of walking towards me – but he wasn’t looking at me. It wasn’t until it was too late, that I noticed he was going to deliberately walk into me. I actually tried to avoid him, and said “Excuse me”.

But he obviously didn’t care, and smashed into my right shoulder, pushing me into the station wall. The oddest thing about it all was, there wasn’t really anyone on the platform.

I turned and momentarily stopped to look at him. The guy just kept on walking. Who knows? Maybe he was on drugs. Maybe he was angry at the world and thought trying to knock me over would make him feel better. But I didn’t have the time, nor the desire to run after him. I started to jogging over to the escalators,. gift bag in hand, so I could make the St. Clair streetcar.

But the exchange shook me a little, and I’m glad I was pushed against the wall and not off the platform.

Saturday Night. I had just finished work, and was hurrying along to meet my friend Lori for Nuit Blanche.

At St. Andrew Station, I whipped out my Metropass and prepare to enter one of the reversible turnstiles, just as this older woman and her companion were approaching. (While not overdressed, they looked like they were going to attend an evening at the symphony nearby.)

Apparently only one of us was aware of the “reverse” function.

The woman and I stopped in front of the same turnstile. I deferred, and stepped to one side to let her through.

I only expected her to pass through and mumble a perfunctory thank you.

Instead, she decided to say, “It says ‘exit'”, as she clicked through the turnstile.

This made me stop and say nothing for at least a couple seconds. I was thinking, This woman actually thinks I’m an idiot!

Instead I said, “It’s also ‘enter’,” swiped my Metropass and passed through the turnstile. I didn’t even look at her when she left my sightline, and chances are she wasn’t really paying attention after her oh-so-(not-so)-smart comment, either.

Later that evening, while travelling home, I was sitting in a two-seater, iPod cranked and head buried in a NOW Magazine, when someone sat down close beside me. Because it was after midnight and there was already one drunk guy in the subway car, I didn’t want to take any chances encouraging whomever was sitting beside me by looking at them.

Several stops later, the guy – who STILL hasn’t given me so much as a microscopic buffer zone – starts nudging me. I’m thinking, who on earth IS this? I pull my head out of the news paper and turn … only to stare into the face of my work-friend Errol … who, by now, is giggling because he’s found the whole scene hilarious. My subway game face gives way and I just start laughing – at my own ridiculous behaviour, and his response to it. We must’ve been laughing for about 4 or 5 subway stops, until he eventually got off at Main.

It’s just made me realize how cold the subway – and city – must sometimes be to people who come here from other places.

If a homegrown resident can see it, I can’t even imagine what a transplanted citizen must see.

The Generation Gap, In An Elevator

I just went downstairs to get some breakfast before I start my day (yes, it’s almost 11:30 a.m., but that’s neither here nor there) and I think I just witnessed sociology at its finest.

I got on the elevator, which stopped on the third floor of my building. A bunch of older ladies – whom I’ve worked with in the past – got on. The elevator descended, stopping again, but on the second floor.

The doors opened, and a bunch of young cats – three tall, gangly guys and a petite girl, barely mid-20s – stood there. Looking. One of them kinda looked glassy-eyed and had this goofy half-smile on his face.

It was probably only about eight to 10 seconds, but it felt like an eternity. It was the longest I’d ever seen a group of people decide whether or not they wanted to board an elevator. Either the little green arrow above the elevator (signalling the direction) didn’t work, or it didn’t occur to them to look.

One of the women (who I know) said, “This elevator is going down,” which sprung the foursome into action.

I watched them while the elevator took its short voyage down to the ground level. I guessed whatever they were talking about before they boarded the elevator was the subject of conversation, because during the ride down, none of them said actual words – they just made sounds, a couple of them snickered, and one of them making a gesture, scratching the scruffy stubble under his chin.

The elevator made it to the ground floor. The doors opened. And the trio of youngsters just stood there. I remember saying in a normal tone of voice, “You can get out now – thanks,” but I think it was overshadowed by a couple other people saying, “Get out.” I shook my head at the delayed reaction as I went to the food court.

On returning, I saw the same four people. Whatever they had to do was done pretty quickly, ’cause there they were, going back towards the elevator.

Man, I thought. What would be the chances of being in the same elevator?

I was about to find out.

I was sort of behind them, so as I waited – and the elevator arrived – I heard one of them pipe up, “Oh, I hope we get some angry people on the elevator like last time,” one of them said sarcastically.

Maybe they knew I was there when we boarded. Or maybe, like the “down” arrow for the elevator the first time they boarded, they were possibly oblivious.

While the elevator doors closed and the car began its assent, one of the guy’s friends answered, “If they do, just make a Mr. Bean face,” and the first guy said to the effect of, “Yeah, just remind them they work for the Ministry of Truth for Canada,” or something like that.

Then the doors opened, and they left.

I was about to say that it must be a condition of my older age, ’cause after I encountered them the first time, I guess I couldn’t get over their delayed reaction and I was immediately making mental judgements. I wondered, how many years in age, hours spent listening to high-decibel, ear-splitting music on MP3 players, and joints smoked separates me from them? Good grief!

And then on the way back up, listening to them call the people in the elevator “angry”, that kind of annoyed me a bit. They weren’t angry in tone at all when they spoke. They wanted to leave the elevator, and that quartet of mini-hipsters just stood there like they had all the time in the world.

I guess it also speaking to our conditioning as office workers – always moving quickly, rushing around because our daily lives depend on, and are determined by, a schedule. The same schedule. Every day. All year.

So – if I were to assume the kids weren’t just being snotty after the fact – I can sort of see both sides of the coin.

Too bad either group – who have since had their snarky remarks about the other – won’t see it as such.