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First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.


I’m an American, but I’m head over heels in love with Canada

By Lorraine Koury

First published Nov. 27, 2018

Dear Canada,

You need to know that my husband and I weren’t looking for love, but there you were. I was born in Virginia, and my husband is from western New York. We love our own precious country but, being what we consider true patriots, we are not blind to its faults – particularly at the present time.

Our love for you crept up on us slowly and, before we even knew what was happening, we were head over heels.

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I started coming to visit you in 1978 with my future husband for a change of pace. These days, we visit at least twice a year, some years more than that. We mostly head to Toronto, but also visit a number of your other cities as well, including Vancouver, Windsor, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, not to mention almost every town on the highway between Buffalo and Toronto.

The first thing that captivated us was, yes, the stereotype: Everyone is so very polite, so very nice. Such a small, subtle thing; such a critically important indicator of a country’s values and culture, such a civilized thing. And we absolutely delight in the fact that, being the humble, funny country that you are, you have a long-running national practice of making jokes about saying “sorry” too much.

When visiting during the celebrations for your 150th anniversary, we saw a sign on a store: “Celebrating 150 Years of Being Nice.” Was it a corporate public-relations slogan? Of course. But of all the infinite possibilities a country has to describe itself, what country celebrates that? You do, Canada.

We love that Toronto is considered one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. The fact that downtown Toronto has banners reading “We’ve Been Expecting You.” Every time we see those banners, my husband and I get a little emotional, because for us, Canada, this sums you up in four words.

Our emotions are shocking, because we are extremely pragmatic people. I am a long-time trial lawyer with a skin so thick that turtles are jealous, and neither of us are usually given to such displays. But you’ve done that to us, Canada.

We love Toronto’s Santa Claus parade. Well, what we really love is walking among everyone gathered to watch prior to the parade. Children, yes, but so, so many adults risking looking silly by wearing crazy Christmas headgear, all in the service of joy. A street vendor with Christmas lights on his turban. Runners in Santa gear. Although the parade itself is fun, we skip it most years, as we’ve already found the day’s treasure.

We love that you can find Hockey Night in Canada – Punjabi Version. We love the gentleman outside SkyDome (sorry, not Rogers Centre) at most Toronto Blue Jays games wearing full Scottish gear. Because nothing says baseball like a man in a kilt playing the bagpipes.

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We love that you tweaked a line in the national anthem from “thy sons” to “of us.” Having the courage and morality to change your mightily beloved national anthem to become more gender inclusive. Well done, so very, very well done, Canada. Because that’s what a civilized country does.

We love that in Canada, you write sympathetic TV comedies about mosques, on the prairie, no less. And – as if we needed another reason – we love your ice dancers, Tessa and Scott. You are just taunting us with these two!

We could mention the quaint, Old World charm of Quebec City, or the stunning beauty of Vancouver. But, like any true love, Canada, we love you for who you are, not what you look like.

And even though we adore you, we are not blind to your faults, either. We know that you have your own problems, most importantly your continuing treatment of the Indigenous. But if there is one country on this earth that we believe will eventually right its wrongs, it’s you.

But it was while attending a Jays game on one of our visits in July that made me start writing this letter. Between innings, a red and white sign on the scoreboard flashed “Welcome To Canada!” and then showed a family with an Arab last name.

The Guess Who’s Share the Land was playing: “Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand/Maybe I’ll be there to share the land/They’ll be giving away when we all live together.”

The crowd applauded wildly during all of this, 100 per cent of the crowd applauded wildly – not one person booed.

I watched this with total stunned delight, but also thought sadly about how different this would be in my own country, if it even happened at all. Only my mule-like stubbornness kept me from bawling right there among 50,000 people. Thank goodness my husband managed to keep himself together.

Canada, this says everything to us about you, everything.

In fairness to our own country, our borders and our immigration history are different. Comparing the two, truly, is like comparing apples and oranges. On the other hand, given our own past history of how we treat “other” people in the United States who are not immigrants, I am not so sure that a comparison is totally unfair, either.

So, now you know, O Canada, why I had to write this letter. For a long time, our hearts have been glowing, too.

Lorraine Koury lives in Virginia.

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The lessons that really matter in school aren’t found in the curriculum

by Dan de Souza

First published Sept. 3, 2018

“Do you remember any of them, Dad?”

He is sitting in his basement, surrounded by memories and his mind is heading back toward them, maybe toward you. He has unearthed a homeroom picture of 10c. Maybe you’re in that picture.

He is whip thin, dressed in a suit, standing at attention like the captain he was. You, perhaps, are sitting in the front row, or maybe standing in the back. You are dressed for your class picture. If you’re one of the girls, you have your best dress on and if you’re one of the boys, you may be wearing a blazer, or you may have borrowed your Dad’s bow tie. You are all smiling and the girls have their hands clasped in their laps, their ankles crossed. The boys are tall in the back row, they have their shoulders pulled back, looking like they are trying to imitate him.

“Do you remember any of them, Dad?” I ask again.

He is 90, sitting in his chair, pressure socks pulled up to his knees. He takes his glasses off to get a good look at you and your classmates. Holds the picture close to his eyes but the closer he gets, the more pixelated you become. He puts your picture back down, blinks.

It was 1958 and you may have been in homeroom 10c. He taught you English. You and your classmates look very similar. He looks up from the picture. “No. No, I can’t say I remember any of them. Everyone started in September and ended in June. They did that for five years. There was a consistency, a stability that allowed me to teach. Does that exist any more?"

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I shrug. No, things have changed a great deal since then.

He is trying to remember your names; he runs his fingers across your faces. Maybe you will swim up from the years, through his fingers. He puts the picture down and looks at me. I know he is thinking back to you and thinking about the lessons that have been remembered, and those that have been lost; those lessons that were never really absorbed and maybe not really important.

It is not lessons of grammar or of literature that he thinks of now. I am willing to bet you are not thinking of those lessons either. He is thinking of other lessons. The ones that matter.

He starts with his memories of coaching football. He remembers a small kid lining up for tackling drills and who’d punish players with ferocious hits. Maybe it was you? Did he take you aside and ask you your name? Ask you why you hit with such fury in practice? You told him that these boys had bullied you for taking piano lessons and you wanted each one of them to feel some pain. Your mother called him after you made the team. Did you know that? Your mother called him, worried that you would jeopardize your career as a pianist. He told her that he was worried you might kill the other boys.

Or maybe you were the boy who asked to be excused from practice to attend his sister’s birthday party. You raised your hand, naively so, and asked in front of everyone. You were laughed at and derided by the other players. He sent you to pick up some equipment and when you were out of earshot, he turned on those boys. “How dare you.” he said. “You don’t know what that boy has endured. You don’t know what his family is enduring. Don’t let me ever hear you laugh at a young man who places his family first.” He knew, a sister (your sister?) was dying.

The picture is in his lap now and he wants to talk and remember other things. Remember the presentation on The Bridge on the River Kwai? I’ve heard the story for years. The group built a model of the bridge and to end their presentation blew the Popsicle stick model up with firecrackers hidden underneath. He couldn’t discipline you, The class filled with smoke and students in the front row (maybe you were in the front row?) were covered with shards of Popsicle stick in their hair. Every time he went to discipline you, (was it you?) he couldn’t stop laughing. He’s laughing hard now. Laughing so hard, your picture falls out of his lap.

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The bridge only blows up in the movie. Not the book.

He’s laughing and tears are coming. “Maybe this was the class that held the door against me?” Was it? You might know. “They had the largest boy in the class hold the door so I couldn’t get in. I could see through the window all of them laughing at it.” His shoulders are shaking now. “I got there early the next day and bribed the big kid with candy to hold the door against them.” Tears roll down his face. “That was such fun,” he says. “I actually had that group banging on the door to get educated.” Now I’m laughing.

Do you remember that? Were you the kid? Maybe you weren’t that kid but you were in, are in, classrooms just like that. You’ve been taught, have taught or will teach, lessons that will be remembered forever and lessons that will be forgotten by lunch. Sixty years on, he remembers lessons of loyalty and kindness and laughter and determination. Interesting that he has no time to remember expectations and grades and lesson objectives.

We would do well, on the eve of another school year, to think about the lessons that will be remembered.

Dan de Souza lives in Newmarket, Ont.


I tried to cash in on my Toronto home, and got burned

by Steven Gottlieb

First published Sept. 12, 2018

In April, 2017, my hubris soared along with the price of the Toronto housing market at the peak of its mania. But you know how these plotlines go. Like the ancient Greek Icarus whose ambitions got the better of him, I flew too high and my wings melted. Greed is an old story.

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We put our home in midtown Toronto up for sale. The backyard was falling into a ravine and the house itself was politely regarded by our neighbours as a tear-down. But the lot was pristine. It would surely be coveted by a developer. I could win at this game. Sell high, wait for the housing hysteria to end, and buy low. Maybe with the spoils I could help my kids get into their own homes one day.

My wife Lisa has been into real estate porn for years, a master of neighbourhood nuance and price trends. In December, 2016, she casually mentioned that she thought our home was worth X. The beast inside me stirred. X seemed an extravagant amount.

She warned me, “Don’t forget we have to buy on the other end.”

I counter, “Doesn’t matter, we’re downsizing, it’s about price differential.”

I was so smart.

When our real estate agent suggested he could get a sale for X plus 25 per cent, the Steppenwolf lyric, “Get your motor running” started playing in my bloated head.

Not four hours after we shook hands on the listing, our agent procured an offer. Four hours! It was for X plus 25 per cent, plus another 20 per cent. The agent proudly called it a “pre-emptive bid.” It worked. It also pre-empted my sanity for the rest of the year.

Lisa saw me licking my chops. Taking care to make her words sound deliberate and unequivocal, she cautioned me: “Our next house shall also be X plus 25 per cent, plus 20 per cent.” I ignored her.

Like Icarus, the peak of my hubris occurred literally in the stratosphere. Three days after the deal was inked, Lisa and I hopped onto a flight to celebrate. It was the first time we flew business class. I had 100 luxurious cubic feet all to myself crossing the Atlantic. Five feet down the aisle was an absurd and audacious tray of Kit Kats, and apparently a free for all. I regressed 52 years and made off with a dozen of them, both for current and future indulgences. It was not my finest hour. I suppose my self-loathing began in that moment. My mother warned me of grabby little fingers.

The buyer of our home was indeed a developer. When I told my cocky brother-in-law, a trader by trade, the details of the deal, he chided me from his perch that the deposit was too low. "I’m not saying it’s gonna happen kiddo, but...” I dismissed this as his usual way of busting my chops.

I soon learned the developer was laying down offers across Toronto like a banshee on steroids. He floated the idea of becoming partners with me on building a new home on my old lot. I was seduced by even more dollar signs, until I pondered, "Why is this guy looking for capital after he has signed the deal?” When the next deposit payment was due, he stopped answering calls and texts.

He would, of course, ultimately bail on the deal. The banks wouldn’t touch him. But I didn’t know this at the time.

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Lisa had already hit the ground running looking for the perfect new home. She must have visited 50 mini Georgians, Victorians or whatever, dragging me to open houses while I would quietly vomit inside when trying to digest the asking prices.

We made a few offers. We kept getting outbid.

Multiple bid situations are orgies of avarice. The seller is salivating, wanting to leverage every dollar from the buyer frenzy because the latter group is almost catatonic with the fear of missing out. The agents, coyly masking their casual collusions, are raking it in at both ends.

Lisa called one afternoon in early June while I was working out of town, absolutely gaga about a tiny Victorian. They were taking offers that evening. The house is over 100 years old. Moving from a tear-down to a big renovation. Perfect.

I get to the gist, "How much, Lisa?”

“What we sold our house for minus 30 per cent”.

Quick mental math tells me that with a looming renovation, plus a bidding war, plus the City’s extortionate tax grab, we are going to end up in a deep six-figure hole.

I agree to submit a bid, sight unseen. I figure I will reap marriage credits for decades to come. Fifteen months later, I am referring the matter to a collection agency.

The truth is that I just wanted the whole thing to end. The bid prevailed. We got the house.

When we learned the buyer of my original lot couldn’t close, I became the illustrious owner of two homes. My family’s cash flow started to bleed along with my pride.

Thank goodness for my friendly neighbourhood line-of-credit expert at the bank – appropriately named Penny. It wasn’t until our home was sold a second time that we were made whole. It could have been a lot worse.

But not for my agent. Get this. He made two commissions on our first house, plus one on the buying side. The original buyer sold his obligation to a second buyer for a tidy profit. Go figure. All is fair in the game of excess.

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Nothing summons the demons of our nature like greed. I was awash in it on all fronts, but especially my own. I am sullied. I know many would regard my Champagne problems as trite, so I should stop complaining. I am to this day embarrassed, forgetting how much I had while pursuing “more.”

Greed blinds us to our own blessings. The year of pain and uncertainly and loss was real. The world stepped on my throat, insisting I wise up to my own audacity.

Today we find ourselves in a smaller, more expensive and lovely home in a downtown neighbourhood that still has parks and majestic maples, and where neighbours look out for one another. I thank my lucky stars I actually have a home, and a loving, healthy family to occupy it. Its feels a relief to be back on Earth.

Steven Gottlieb lives in Toronto.


Why I stand alone at the cenotaph

by Melanie Murray

First published Nov. 11, 2018

I go to the cenotaph alone. My sons live far from home, and my extended family lives on the East Coast. In all the years I have been attending Remembrance Day services in Kelowna, B.C., I had not seen a familiar face until last year.

The pipe band had just entered City Park, the walkway thronged with people clapping as the grey-haired veterans marched by, their navy blazers gleaming with medals, the bagpipes wailing “There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier, who wandered far away and soldiered far away.” I was dabbing my eyes when an arm reached around my shoulder. “A hard day for you,” whispered a friend who had served in the air force decades ago and knew of my losses.

It is just as well I come to the cenotaph alone. I cannot talk. As soon as the bagpipes skirl faint in the distance, my tears erupt from a well of pent-up sadness.

I picture my father, Angus Clifford Murray, a 19-year-old farm lad from Tatamagouche, N.S., when he enlisted with the Cape Breton Highlanders during the Second World War. His framed service certificate always hung in the dining room of my grandparents’ farmhouse. In the centre was a black-and-white photo of my handsome young father, a carefree grin on his face and a roguish tilt to his beret.

I tried to imagine that morning in the spring of 1941 as he strolled down the lane with a rucksack on his back: He would turn around to take one last look at the red farmhouse where he was born, then head down the dirt road to hitchhike to Truro and catch the train, then board the ship in Halifax that would carry him overseas.

Clifford survived, and became my father nine years later. He never talked about his war. A man of few words, my father spoke more with his wide hazel eyes and his flashing smile. But once I overheard him telling my uncles about his platoon arriving in a Dutch village. “Bullets were zinging from every direction,” he said. “I have never been so scared in my life.”

In the mid-1950s, he re-enlisted, and only a few kilometres from our home in Oromocto, N.B., he met the enemy that would slowly and silently kill him. During the sixties, when my father worked every summer in Base Gagetown, Agent Orange and Agent Purple were being sprayed as defoliants. In 1968, he died suddenly of pulmonary fibrosis, a respiratory cancer associated with these herbicides. He was 45 years old.

On Remembrance Day, two years later, my sister was giving birth in the Oromocto hospital as the drone of bagpipes drifted up from the cenotaph down the hill. Her son, my nephew, carried on my father’s name as well as his spirit, the same gentle demeanour and reticent personality. He inherited his grandfather’s Second World War service certificate and his military medals.

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Although Jeff grew up on army bases across Canada, he seemed immune to the family calling to the military. But at 30, he abandoned his PhD dissertation and enlisted – four days before Sept. 11, 2001. Six years later, and three months after the birth of his first child, Captain Jeff Francis was deployed to Afghanistan. On July 4, 2007, the armoured vehicle he was riding in with six other Canadian soldiers hit a roadside bomb. None of them survived.

Alone at the cenotaph, mourning my father and my nephew as well as the countless men and women who have served our country to their deaths, I am not alone. And that is why I come: to be part of this massive crowd, huddled together against the bitter wind blowing off Okanagan Lake. The day is gloomy, but as the bugler plays The Last Post the sun breaks through the thick clouds – St. Martin’s Summer. I gaze up at the light glinting in the grey sky and remember the legend of St. Martin, the patron saint of soldiers.

In the fourth century, 18-year-old Martin was on garrison duty in Amiens, France, on a freezing November day. He noticed a scantily clad beggar trembling in the cold. Martin slashed his lambs-wool cloak in two with his sword and gave half of it to the man. Later he came upon another beggar shivering by the roadside and offered him the remainder of his cloak.

As Martin resumed his journey, the sun burst through the clouds and the frost began to melt. That night, Martin dreamed he saw Jesus wearing half of his woolen cloak, a dream that set Martin on a life of piety. Legendary for his miracles, humility and benevolence, Martin was buried, at his request, in a cemetery for the poor on November 11.

It is that crack of light that lifts me, reminds me of the humanitarian ideals that inspire many soldiers: love of country, love of humanity, love of freedom. Though my eyes are blurry, and my feet seem too heavy to move, I follow the kilted pipers and drummers as they march from the park and wind through the streets. I follow until the bagpipes sound their final notes and the air echoes with their silence.

Melanie Murray lives in Kelowna, B.C.


I’m a woman who travels alone – why couldn’t the U.S. border guard understand that?

by Laura Cameron

First published Nov. 20, 2018

“I still don’t understand. You couldn’t find anyone to go with you?”

The American border official scrutinized me from the window of his booth. The air between us was humid and smelled of car exhaust. Was his eyebrow slightly cocked, the corner of his mouth turned up, his expression twitching?

“No,” I repeated, trying to keep my voice steady and friendly, “I just wanted to go alone.”

“You’re driving your dad’s car; couldn’t he have gone with you?”

“Well, no, he has to work.”

“You have no friends?”

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“I have friends” – keep steady, keep friendly – “but they’re busy, or, I don’t know, I just wanted to go alone.”

“You just wanted to drive to – where was it? Oxford, Alabama? – all alone.” Amused disdain oozed from his sneer. “By yourself.”

“Oxford, Mississippi,” I corrected him, again. “And yes, I did.”

His eyebrow was definitely raised. And far below its mocking arc, I was growing increasingly flustered. He was being deliberately obtuse, and yet he had made our positions very clear: He was the one in the uniform holding my passport and car registration, and I was just – maybe it was true – a silly little girl trying to take a pointless trip to the middle of nowhere in her father’s car. For reasons that I suspect were unrelated to international security, he had me right where he wanted me.

“So,” he said, as though drawing back the battering ram of his conclusion: “You have no one?”

His words hung in the air like dissipating tear gas. I think they were more pregnant with meaning than even he had intended; I had turned 30 a few weeks earlier, and the whole world seemed to be thinking this question loudly in my direction.

I didn’t answer.

It was an overcast Thursday morning in June, and I was at the Windsor-Detroit border, embarking on a week-long road trip to Mississippi. I read a lot of Southern literature, and wanted to see where William Faulkner had lived and written. Beyond that, there was no obvious reason for my journey. I had just finished an exhausting year of teaching. I had a bit of time, and Faulkner’s house in Oxford was the first place I thought to go. So I went.

I am accustomed to travelling alone. I have driven solo from Toronto to San Diego, stayed alone in rickety hotels in Paris, and weathered apocalyptic thunderstorms by myself everywhere from a flimsy tent in Tadoussac, Que., to a dark gas station parking lot somewhere in West Virginia. Of course I’ve travelled with friends and family, too, and enjoyed their company, but why wait for other people to have the same budget, availability and travel philosophy as you do when you can just… go?

To the border guard whom I encountered that June morning, such luxurious autonomy was apparently cause for great suspicion. He spoke in the tone of a hardened Hollywood hero lazily identifying a criminal on the run. “Your story doesn’t add up,” he kept saying. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and something just doesn’t add up here.” Eventually, he sent me inside for further questioning. I drove forward, and another guard motioned me into a parking space with a casual wave of his machine gun. Inside the office, I clutched my passport with a hand that seemed suddenly glaringly white. My privilege astonished me. This, I knew, was nothing.

What caught me most off guard, aside from the ridiculous imbalance of power that the border official so clearly relished, was being asked to justify my freedom. It was probably a good exercise for me; I take my mobility far too much for granted. I am a white, middle-class, Canadian woman; the only way I could move more easily around the world is if I were a man. But that was precisely the limitation I was pushing up against here. I am all for caution in regulating international travel, but this guard’s staunch unwillingness to accept my solitude laid bare an assumption that disturbed me deeply: that to travel alone –and especially, I think, to travel alone as a woman – could only possibly be a last resort, because I had absolutely no one to go with me.

Are men expected to travel with companions? Maybe. Maybe a male university professor of literature travelling alone on holiday to the hometown of a major author would also be asked to explain himself. But if it were my younger brother in our dad’s car, would the guard have asked him why his father couldn’t have gone with him? The notion that I would appear less suspicious if I were accompanied by a paternal chaperone seems to come from a time and place at least as distant as Faulkner’s turn-of-the-century South.

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Vacationing alone is an affirmation of freedom – of totally excessive, enviable, yawning freedom. In practical terms, on the road as in life, this freedom often manifests as efficiency. I like having plans, and when you’re by yourself, they’re easy to make. No compromises, no dithering, no need for politeness or tiptoeing.

The downside to such efficiency – and, indeed, such freedom – is that it causes time to balloon, opening up vast empty spaces where boredom and loneliness can metastasize. In abstract terms, on the road as in life, freedom too extravagantly affirmed threatens to overwhelm. Epiphanic awakenings to the hugeness of the world, which occur frequently on solo trips, can make one feel at once wildly powerful and comically insignificant. The demand for constant self-sufficiency is exhausting. No one is going to fix my car for me if it breaks down, or share the blame if I take a wrong turn. And there is no one to listen to my worries and fears, to help me process and move past them.

On the road as in life.

I will confess something.

When the guard was assaulting me with his incredulity, I wished, despite myself, that I was not alone. I was not afraid; in fact I was supremely, blithely secure in my conviction that I would be just fine, that I would soon be on my way. And yet that guard won the only battle that was ever really open to him. He made me self-conscious and defensive, made me feel – just a little bit – ashamed of my solitude and unworthy of my autonomy.

As is so often the case in uncomfortable exchanges, the most satisfying responses did not come to me until after the fact. That afternoon, as I wended my way south through Ohio, Kentucky and into Tennessee, what I should have said – and, I chided myself lightly for forgetting, what I must remember to believe – took shape in my mind.

When the guard asked, as though he were confirming that I had three duffel bags of cocaine in my backseat, “so you have no one?”– the real answer was that I do have someone who (though she is unable to fix a broken-down car) can, at her best, be everyone.

Laura Cameron lives in Toronto.

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