Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Bury Me On Toronto

My grandfather teaches writing at a Jewish old folks home in Toronto. The place is called Baycrest, but I don't expect anyone to have heard of it. It's like the Nevele (Catskills reference) for Jews who're too frail to complain.

My grandfather's not a writer. Christ, imagine that: a grandfather who's a writer, a father who's a writer, and a son who's a PhD student. Net contribution to the Canadian GDP: a few pounds of sawdust and three subscriptions to Mirvish's theatre season. No, my grandfather's a retired layout artist. He designed, among other things, the packaging for Tide detergent and the Shoppers Drug Mart logo. Now he's retired and, since my grandmother's still alive, constantly looking for new ways to get out of the house.

What do old Jews write? You'd be surprised: not a helluva lot. But they like to talk about writing. "You should see what I wrote today. Oh, what I wrote." "What did you write?" "What did I write?" "Yeah, that's what I said, 'What did you write?'" "No, no, I heard you. I'm just trying to remember."

His classes run Tuesdays and every other Wednesday, and there's never an empty chair in the house. His primary function is to bring paper, pens, and a dictionary, which he's responsible for holding and looking up words. "Irwin?" (that's my grandfather's name). "How do you spell propulsion?" "P-R-O-P-U-L-S-I-O-N." "Great. Now use it in a sentence."

Sometimes he transcribes for men and women whose fingers are bent at arthritic joints. He writes seventy-five words/minute; they speak three.

"Irwin?" one student asked him.

"Yes?" my grandfather said.

"I'm not gonna be here next week."


"But I'll bring a doctor's note."

"Sure. Don't worry about it, Sid. Don't go to all that trouble."

"Trouble? It's the least he could do. You know I practically raised that sonuvabitch."

"Sure you did, Sid: he's your son."

That's the kind of thing that happens a lot down there: old Jewish man comedy. It's like vaudeville's second coming.

"Irwin?" another student asked.


"I don't have much longer to live."

"Jack, you don't know that."

"Sure I do. I'm a hundred and nine."

"Jack, you're eighty-three."

"Sure, he's eighty-three. But who cares about him? I'm a hundred and nine."

"I'm talking to you."


"I said, 'Jack.'"

"Huh. Whaddayawant?" A pause. "So here's what I want to do: I want to write my life story."

"That's great. Sure, I can help--if that's what you want."

"Great." Jack clapped his hands. "Help me what?"

"Write your life story."

"You're going to write my life story? What do you know about me?"

"We've been friends for forty years."

"When'd I meet you?"

"Forty years ago."

"Forty years ago! Well, a lot's happened since then. You met me forty years ago? I hadn't done nothin'! Nothin' then! You should've known me thirty years ago."

"Let's focus on the story, Jack. Your life story."

"Oh, sure. I've had a very interesting life, I'll tell you that. Very interesting."

"Sure you have. You were a fighter pilot in WWII; you got shot down and spent four years in a German stalag [a P.O.W. camp]; you went on the road with Bob Hope; you married four gorgeous, young centrefolds; you met Kennedy," my grandfather said, grabbing a pen and a legal pad. "Christ! You did all that!"

Jack scratched his chin. "I did?"

Jack died about four months ago, and this story has to do with the BS surrounding his interment.

Jack, as a former pilot, wanted to be dropped from a plane. He didn't want his ashes spread from a plane--he wanted his corporeal body to be dropped. "I don't want that cremation shit," he told my grandfather. "Not in my good suit."

So he instructed his family that, after death, he should be wrapped in canvas, flown over Toronto, and dropped. My grandfather overheard the following conversation between Jack and a middle-aged man.

"We can't drop you on the city," the middle-aged man said.

"Why not?" asked Jack.

"It's sick. It's illegal."

"C'mon," Jack said, waving his hand. "No one'll notice."

"What if you land in the middle of the street?"

"What are they going to do? Give me a ticket?"

"They'll send me to jail. That's what they'll do."

"With your wife, I'd be doing you a favour."

"Dad, Sheila and I are divorced."

"Good. I never liked her."

"She's your daughter!"

"Who are you?"

"Your son-in-law."

"Well...stop calling me Dad." He paused. "We'll ask Case Ootes."

For some reason Jack had convinced himself that Case Ootes held the solution to his problem; only Case Ootes could help him.

"Dad," his son Marty said. "We're burying you. That's it."

"Just try," Jack said.

And, on another occasion: "This is crazy, dad. We're not burying you on Toronto."

"Drop me on a forest. Who'll notice?"

"A forest? You want to be dropped on the Don Valley?"

"The Don Valley? Are you kidding? It's filthy."

But Jack was buried. He died, suddenly, and was planted the next day as per Jewish tradition. My grandfather saw his son at the funeral, and, after the service, led him aside.

"So, you finally won," my grandfather said, glancing at the hole in the ground.

"I'm gonna tell you something," the son said, edging closer to my grandfather. "The coffin's empty."

"Empty?" And as he spoke, a small plane buzzed overhead. "You don't mean..."

"No!" Marty said. "Christ, no." And he looked at his watch.

"Oh...oh, I'm sorry. I'm not keeping you, am I? Go. Please..."

"No. It's all right. We don't have to be at the airport 'til twelve."

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