You reach a certain age and it’s natural to look back on your life and reflect on whether any of it’s been worthwhile at all, or if it’s all been “gossip and trickery,” as Norm Macdonald would say. Macdonald is a stand-up comedian whose Netflix special, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip and Trickery is profane but funny.
“What if you woke up one morning and realized you had been wrong about everything you’ve ever believed?” he asks.
I’ve had mornings like that: more than usual lately. I turned 65 in February, and I’m just coming to grips with the fact that I’m collecting Old Age Security and the Canada Pension — and I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.
“The past is a foreign country,” wrote the British novelist L.P. Hartley; “they do things differently there.”
That may sound profound, but it contradicts my personal experience. My own past seems intimate and familiar, and it is a continuing source of surprise. It can be a dangerous place, too, though, with old wounds waiting to be opened, disappointments and broken hearts, promises yet to be kept and memories best left hidden.
The Swedish writer Henning Mankell was closer to the mark when he wrote, “History isn’t just something that’s behind us, it’s also something that follows us.”
Indeed, it followed me all the way from 1967 a few weeks ago. A friend happened to remark that he remembered Canada’s centennial as if it were yesterday — all the preparations and the celebrations and the relentless political posturing. As for me, I have a particular reason to recall July 1, 1967.
It was a sunny afternoon, with a light breeze off the South Saskatchewan River. Saskatoon was celebrating in distant parks and grandstands, but a friend and I had chosen to take a quiet walk on the riverbank. A couple of men in a boat landed by the freeway bridge a few metres ahead of us. One of them, an older fellow missing several teeth, started to curse volubly. His attack was completely unprovoked. His language was crude and his imagery was savage, and he made it clear that he disapproved of me, my friend, and everything we stood for.
“What have you ever done for your country?” he demanded.
I had no answer for him; I was 15 years old. Eventually I invited him politely to descend to the eternal fires, and we walked on.
Within weeks my friend’s father had spirited his family away to the West Coast in an attempt at what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “the geographic cure” — the idea that you can fix things by moving away. Of course it doesn’t work. You take your troubles with you, and her father was soon drinking again. He died, tragically and unnecessarily, when someone who could have saved him from drowning chose not to.
My friend wrote a couple of weeks before Canada Day and caught me up with her dysfunctional family. They have not turned out well. Her younger brother and sister had been planning to kill her for some reason; her older sister was drinking heavily and often not making sense; her mother, now 90, was descending into dementia, which at least meant that she was no longer abusive; and her uncle was continually having to bail her brother out of jail. The younger sister is hospitalized with bone cancer, but before that she had been promising to come for a visit and bring Viagra so she could continue to commit adultery with her sister’s husband.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Through it all, my friend has managed to make a life for herself. She owns a horse ranch with her estranged husband — she daren’t divorce him for fear of losing half her property — and she has a lovely daughter (after having been assured by specialists that she would never be able to bear children). She has surrounded herself with animals — horses, dogs, cats, lamas and donkeys — and has grown comfortably conservative in her views.
The last line of her letter read: “I am always grateful for you and your family for taking me in and teaching me that there are good people in this world.”
My parents welcomed her because that’s the sort of thing they did. “Be not neglectful of entertaining strangers,” wrote St. Paul, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
That’s the way I was raised, and it’s the way I have tried to live. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it’s better than “gossip and trickery.”