A Lovingkindness Blessing

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Just over a year ago, my oldest son was infected with Lyme Disease.  There were no telltale symptoms, no fever, no bullseye rash. We never even found the tick that bit him.   Those nasty little Borrelia burgdorferi spirochetes just went straight to his heart.  He ended up in third degree heart block in the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit.  The bacterial infection caused swelling, which blocked the flow of blood.  By the next afternoon, his heartbeat was at times as slow as 25-30 bpm; normal resting heart rate for boys his age is more like 80 bpm. The Lyme Disease also wreaked havoc with his heart’s conduction system.  We found out later that the doctor had actually scheduled the operation to put a pacemaker in him.  He was only thirteen at the time.

Hospitals are strange places, where time seems to lose its meaning.  I was in hospital when each of my children was born, but the regular maternity ward is a very different place from the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit. I don’t ever recall a chaplain visiting me on the maternity floor.  On the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit, with its beeping machines and profoundly sick babies and children, the chaplain visited at least once a day.

The first time I met her, the chaplain offered me a series of bookmarks and cards with sayings from a variety of religions – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish.  The last thing she pulled out of her bag was a a small, photocopied square of paper.

METTA

LOVINGKINDNESS MEDITATION

May I be at peace.

May my heart remain open.

May I awaken to the light of my own true nature.

May I be healed.

May I be a source of healing for all beings.

Say these blessings for yourself anytime you feel alone,

afraid or out of touch with the Light within.

May you be at peace.

May your heart remain open.

May you awaken to the light of your own true nature.

May you be healed.

May you be a source of healing for all beings.

Say these blessings for as many people as you wish.

If worried thoughts about loved ones occur during the day,

take a minute to send them a lovingkindness blessing

rather than a fearful thought.

From Buddhist Tradition

I’m not a Buddhist, but I repeated these words to myself that night as I lay on the hard, cramped cot in my son’s room.  I closed my eyes and listened to his slow, sleepy breathing, the heart monitor’s low beep. I sent my son Lovingkindness blessings until I fell asleep.

By daybreak, my son had moved from third to first degree heartblock.  Since he had been in an area where we knew there were ticks carrying Lyme, they had started him on IV antibiotics as soon as he got to the hospital.  After 24 hours, the antibiotics had kicked in fully and the infection was retreating.  (Last month, my son went back to the pediatric cardiologist for his final follow-up exam.  She gave him an “A+” for his EKG and physical exam. There appears to be no permanent damage to his heart and no lasting symptoms of Lyme Disease.)

I can’t say that I believe my son’s improvement was related to the Lovingkindness meditation or to my other prayers, but I do know that, at a time when I was worried about him,  it gave me great comfort to send him the Lovingkindness blessing.  I put the photocopied scrap of paper with the Lovingkindness meditation in my laptop case. At some point, out of curiosity, I read a bit more about Metta.  At the risk of oversimplifying an ancient religious practice, the Lovingkindness mediation generally is done in this way.  You always begins with yourself.  Next, you think of someone you love, then someone who you think about in a neutral way.  Followed by the hardest one – someone with whom you are in conflict.  The words of the meditation can be varied, but the words on the paper I was given capture the essence.  The purpose of the meditation is because, as Buddha said,

“Hatred cannot coexist with loving-kindness,

and dissipates if supplanted with thoughts based on loving-kindness.”

I love the idea that, even in the face of great evil, you CAN do something. Don’t think you are small and helpless. You, as an individual, can control your thoughts. You can turn them, at least for a few moments, away from fear and towards something positive instead.

***

A few weeks ago, I was in New York and found myself downtown near the new National September 11 Memorial.  I had half an hour before my next meeting, so I decided to check it out.

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Like most who remember that day thirteen years ago, September 11 will always be for me a day marked by pain and shock and suffering.  I don’t know what it is like to lose a loved one in a tragedy like the World Trade Center attack, but my son’s close call with Lyme disease gave me the smallest of inklings of what it is like to lose a loved one.  And it definitely gave me a sense of what it is like to experience unexpected danger that falls from a seemingly clear blue sky.   For me, September 11 is an annual reminder of the strident need we have for less violence and hatred in our world. And of how much we need more peace, more connection, more healing. More loving and more kindness.

I happened to have my laptop in my briefcase.  That little scrap of photocopied paper was still there, in the pocket of my laptop case, where it had been since we left the hospital more than a year ago.  I had never bothered to throw it away, but I had never taken it out either.  Now, at the September 11 Memorial, I sat down in the shade of a newly planted tree and took it out.

I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the waterfalls, the low murmur of the crowd. I began with myself, followed by my son. I held, both in my thoughts and in my heart, the families of those who lost loved ones on that day.  Next came those who would purposefully harm innocent people.  Yes, even them.  It was hard, but I tried.  One thing I have learned from my work with the victims of human rights abuses is the power of forgiveness. 

And then I sent a lovingkindness blessing to our world.

 

 

 

 

 

(This post was written and edited as part of the Weekly Writing Challenge.)

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How Do You Define Family?

Liberian brothers at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

A Few Reflections On How We Define “Family”

We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his unwieldy crew at the airport, when my daughter Eliza let out a dramatic sigh from the back of the minivan.

“It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins!”

Curious, I launched into a lengthy cross-examination to determine why she thought they were our blood relations. She went along with the questioning for a while, mumbling one syllable responses out of the corner of her mouth as she gazed morosely out the window at a long, undulating line of sunflowers. Some kind person, in the interest of beauty, had planted them along the highway.  Now they were more than six feet tall, so large that you could almost see the Fibonacci sequences in their bright spirals. Even from a minivan with a six-year-old pouting in her booster seat in the back.

After several miles of this, Eliza suddenly sucked in air until her cheeks were full.  She then blew it all out, frustration personified.  I watched her in the rearview mirror as she put everything in her small, defiant being into these words:

 “Because!  I just FEEL like they are.”

How do you define family?  Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences?  Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values?  The people you know you can count on for support? The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you?  People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them?  All of the above?  Or none of them at all?

The boys in the photo above are brothers I met at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.   Their mother Kebbeh considers them her sons, although only the oldest is her biological son.   The younger boy and his little brother (not pictured) are her neighbor’s sons.   The neighbor had gone back to Liberia with the first wave of resettled refugees, with the promise  to send for the boys after she got settled. They never heard from her again.   Post-conflict Liberia was dangerous, so they fear the worst.  But they really don’t know what happened to her.   So Kebbeh is raising the boys as her own, feeding and caring for them, sending them to school.  They are family.

When I was in Buduburam, I met a woman called Ma Fatu who ran a cook shop on the main thoroughfare of the camp where many of the refugee-owned businesses were.   The street had no name, of course, but the Liberian refugees called it “Wall Street” because so many financial transactions were made there.  Ma Fatu has a feisty personality.   I think she would have  been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or a grogshop in Regency England.  She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers.  She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would dish me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.

I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done.  It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children.  During the war in Liberia, her husband and her biological children – her entire family – had been killed.  Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone.   In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family.  In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.

Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister.  Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.

When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate.  But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood.  In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish.  Like the heliotropic sunflowers, you turn to the light, needing full sun to thrive.  If you don’t, you wither away.

 I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of my former asylum clients.  Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents.  Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.

One of my asylum clients once said to me,

“I feel so sorry for you Americans.  Your families are so very small!”

I had never really thought about it that way before.  But I could see her point.

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,

“The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Back when the UDHR was adopted in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less same-sex marriage and the multiple forms of family that exist today.

But the bigger point, I think, is that no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the changes in the legal definition has happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define their closest relationships as “family”.  The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society.  The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people – like Kebbeh and Ma Fatu – will create their own families.

Maybe my young  daughter is right. The true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us.  The definition of family maybe really IS the people who you feel like are your family.

So I think the real questions for each of us then become:

How do you define your family?

What does your family mean to you? and

Wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected and supported all of our families?

12 1/2 Clichés I Want My Kids to Live By

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You’ve heard ’em all before. Clichés are a popular form of expression used throughout the world.  There are many sayings that are so overused that we barely even notice them anymore.  I started to think about clichés recently because of The Loud Talking Salesman guy who works in the office next to mine.  He seems to speak entirely in clichés. The wall must be thin, because all day long I hear him on the phone with clients telling them that “at the end of the day” “it’s a win-win situation” etc etc.   (I’ve never met him, but if I ever do, I’ve already planned what I’m going to say:  “Working hard?”  To which he will most certainly reply, “Hardly working!”)

Once I started actually paying attention clichés, I noticed that we are not only constantly verbally but also visually blasted with them.  Clichés are plastered all over the place, on everything from bumper stickers to throw pillows to Pintrest. Some clichés are silly or sappy or just plan wrong.  But if you stop and think about it, some of them make a whole lot of sense.

Many clichés are, in fact, the moral equivalent of Tootsie Pops – they have a sweet, chewy truth at their center.  Some of them are actually pithy, shorthand statements of deep wisdom.   Some clichés embody true lessons about living an ethical, fulfilling, righteous and joyful life in community with other humans.  In some ways, these clichés are shorthand for the life lessons that I am trying to teach my children so that they will grow up to be citizens of the world, fully empowered to exercise both their rights and their responsibilities.

So on the theory that “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice,” I decided to write down some of the clichés that I want my kids to actually remember and use when I’m no longer around to nag them.

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” 

One of the most misquoted sayings of all time, I’ve seen this clichés attributed to everyone from Voltaire to Bill Gates’s mom.  While  John F. Kennedy did say,  “For of those to whom much is given, much is required,” the saying actually comes from the Parable of the Faithful Servant (Luke 12:48) in the Bible.  “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.”

The point for my children is this – you have been blessed with intelligence, a loving family, comfortable home, health and so much more.  You each have different talents and strengths.  It is your responsibility to use  your gifts not just for your own benefit, but also to help others.

“You are what you eat.”

If you eat garbage, you feel like garbage.  I’m serious – eat your fruits and veggies, kids!

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“Think before you speak.”

Or send an email or post something through social media.  Count to 10 in your mind before you open your mouth.   Write it out, but wait until the morning to send that email.  Hurtful words, once said, are hard to take back.  Of course, the corollaries to this cliché are:

“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

and  

“If you are thinking something nice about someone, go ahead and say it.”

OK, that last one is technically not a cliché since it is not overused.  I count it as half cliché since I made it up myself when I was 18.  I was a camp counselor and I lived in a cabin with another counselor that I didn’t get along with particularly well.  But one day, when I was brushing my teeth, I heard her singing in the shower.  She had a beautiful voice that I had never noticed.  As I brushed my teeth, I remember thinking that I should just tell her.  Why keep those nice thoughts to myself just because I we didn’t like each other?  It was hard for me, but I did tell her.  I was surprised how appreciative she was at the compliment.  And while we never became friends, we did get along fine for the rest of the summer.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”  

Don’t just sit around wishing or waiting for things to change things.  YOU can create change yourself through your own actions.  (This quote is usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although there is no reliable evidence that he actually  said it.  Gandhi did say “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”)

It’s worth pointing out that Dr. Seuss wrote the same thing more directly in The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

“Don’t Postpone Joy”  

No, I don’t mean the “go ahead and buy those really expensive shoes to make yourself happy” kind of joy (although it is important to treat yourself somtimes.  I mean the “Daddy quit his job and moved to Minneapolis to be with me”  kind of joy.   Because your Daddy did do that.  He didn’t have a dramatic boombox scene like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, but it was the same kind of going after love and joy thing. (This reminds me to add Say Anything to my list of Movies I Want My Kids to See.)

And while we are on the subject:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.  

I know that this one is often up for debate, but I think it is true.  Even if your heart ends up getting broken in the end, the experience of loving another is worth it.  It is worth taking a risk.

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“The best way out is always through.”

Robert Frost is credited with this one.  Rather than avoiding a problem,  it is always best to confront it directly.  You can spend more energy fretting about it than it would take to just deal with it.  In the long run, it is less painful to just do what you need to do to get through it.

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”

I don’t have much to say about this one other than I believe it in, deep down in my bones.  The same goes the the next one:

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”

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“Better late than never.”

It’s never to late to fix past wrongs.  Remember Darth Vader and what happens at the end of Star Wars Episode VI?  Redemption.  But it is also never to late to go down a different path.  Every day has the potential to be a fresh start.  As George Eliot wrote,  “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

“Always look on the bright side of life.”

It’s been my experience that a positive attitude really does help you in life.  Everyone gets down and has rough patches; that’s perfectly understandable.  You don’t have to be cheerful all the time.  But in the macro sense, try to be an optimist.  It’s a worldview that will get your farther in the long run.  As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity.  An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

 TO BE CONTINUED …

I’ve got more clichés I want my kids to live by, but I’d love to hear from others about clichés that hold important life lessons for them.   I will end with, not a cliché, but a quote from A. A. Milne.  Christopher Robin is talking to Winnie-the-Pooh and he says (in your mother’s voice):

“Promise me you’ll always remember:

You’re braver than you believe,

and stronger than you seem,

and smarter than you think.

P.S. Also remember:

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Rainbow Looming Our Way To Gender Equality

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There are little plastic rubber bands all over our house.  On my way upstairs this morning, I noticed them strewn on the stair treads like colorful flower petals after a spring storm.  That’s because my 11 year-old son spent more than an hour yesterday at the top of the stairs, “where the light is good”, perfecting his starburst bracelet on the Rainbow Loom.   Technically, it’s his 8 year-old sister’s, but his Rainbow Loom will be arriving tomorrow via Amazon Prime.  He used some of his Christmas money to buy one for himself.

Anyone with kids in elementary or middle school will understand what I’m talking about, but this is something worth talking about even if you don’t have kids.   The Rainbow Loom has been popular for months. What is striking for me as a parent, however, is that this is a toy that is equally popular with both boys and girls.  Of the more than $3 million in sales since August, almost half of the Rainbow Looms reportedly were purchased for boys.

I first noticed the Rainbow Loom’s gender-neutral popularity last month at a PeeWee hockey tournament.  Since the tournament was out-of-town, the team and their families were all staying at the same hotel.  I noticed that all of the younger siblings – especially the boys – were prodigious Rainbow Loomers.   A group of younger brothers, all 9 and 10, were Rainbow Looming by the pool.  Later that night, they were Rainbow Looming at the rink before the game.

“Do the guys on your team like to Rainbow Loom, too?”  I asked my son.  He’s one of the youngest on his PeeWee team; most of the boys are already 12.

“Sure,” he said.  “But we didn’t have much time for it this weekend. You know, because we had to focus on hockey.”

Before my oldest son was born 14 years ago, I thought I could raise my kids in a gender-neutral way.  I had a wide range of toys on hand for him to choose from, including a baby doll.  But he and his younger brother showed no interest at all in playing with dolls or stuffed animals or Barbies or anything like that. When I caught them drop-kicking the doll, I finally gave it away to a more loving home.   By the time our daughter was born, we had no toys left that could be characterized as stereotypically female.   That is, until the day that I found her cradling a Darth Vader action figure.  She was kneeling next to a bowling pin that she had put to bed with a Kleenex for a blanket.   The premise of my nurture v. nature theory having been blown out of the water, I took her to Target and let her pick out a baby doll.  At eight, she is still taking excellent care of her “family”.

The bigger lesson for me was that kids will choose to play with what is interesting to them.   My kids inherited a substantial Hotwheels collection from my brother, but the boys never played with them much.   My daughter has always enjoyed playing with the cars, although she often plays with them differently.   Sometimes I’ll find them all lined up by color, for example.  Instead of making car noises like “Vroom! Vroom!”, the conversations I’ve overheard coming out her room are about relationships.  “Oh, Baby car!  Are you lonely? Do you want to park by Mommy car?”

Toy choice is the single most sex-typed behavior that children display.   Sure, my daughter chooses the stereotypical feminine toy most of the time.But the point is that she should be able to play with any toy and in any way that she wants to, regardless of what our society traditionally dictates as the appropriate gender-based toys.  And that goes for her brothers, too.

This holiday season, my daughter and I talked a lot about the gender-based marketing of toys.  It’s especially noticeable in the toy section – some stores even have aisles blatantly identified with pink for girls and blue for boys.   On the same toy aisle where she picked out her first baby doll, we noticed a ultra-pink display for “Lego Friends”.  My daughter, unimpressed at this new line of Legos marketed to girls, observed that,  “I don’t get it. It seems like they should just sell all the Legos in the same aisle.”

Which brings me back to the Rainbow Loom, a toy that has grown tremendously popular without much marketing at all. Rainbow Loom is popular because of word of mouth and YouTube.  Kids decided it is cool and fun to Rainbow Loom, and they shared that information (along with the colorful, plastic bracelets) with each other.

I witnessed something similar last summer when my son and the other boys at camp were obsessed with fingerweaving.  I have a mental picture of a group of them, all 11 and 12 years old, sitting around and fingerweaving during their free time.  In the middle of the circle was a huge mound – yards and yards and yards – of their collective fingerweaving.  Every once in a while, someone would call out, “I need more yarn!” and someone else would make a run for the craft room.  Fingerweaving was cool and fun in their social context and everyone, regardless of sex, was doing it.

I see the same phenomenon with the Rainbow Loom.  When tween boys are making jewelry at the hockey rink, you know it is not a popularity bogged down by gender-stereotypes.

“Why do you like to make things on your Rainbow Loom?”  I asked my daughter.   “Because it is creative and fun!” she replied.

When I asked my son the same question, he replied,  “Because it’s fun.  And creative.”

That pretty much says it all.   In a gender-biased world, they found a gender-neutral toy that they both love for the same reasons.   So I ordered them each a new package of 1800 colorful little rubber bands.  I won’t even mind picking them up off the floor.

The Rainbow Loom – and the kids that have made it wildly popular – give me hope.  Hope that this generation will keep our society moving, slowly but surely,  towards gender equality.

Haikus With My Daughter II

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“I wrote a poem about you today,” I said.  “Well, just a haiku.  But actually, I wrote two.”

This caught my 8 year-old daughter’s attention.  She put down her Monster High doll, the one she just bought with money hard-earned from chores like scooping the cat’s litterbox.

“What’s a haiku?” she asked.  Apparently, they hadn’t yet covered this in her third grade class.

“It’s a kind of short Japanese poem.  It has three lines, with a total of only seventeen syllables.  The first line is five syllables, the second is seven and the third is five.”

As she read my haikus, I said,  “I wrote about you, but  usually haikus are about nature.”

“Like about animals?”

“Sure.  ‘Animals’ is three syllables, so you need two more for the first line.  Then seven, then five.”

“Syllables, like beats in music?”

“Exactly.”

She didn’t even pause to think.  She launched right in.

“Animals live in …”

“You’re doing it!  You’re writing your very own haiku!  Now seven syllables. Where do animals live?”

“Jungle, forest and…”   She counted out the syllables on the five fingers of her right hand.   Then two more on the fingers of her left hand.  She had painted her fingernails in an alternating pattern with red and blue nail polish.  Red, blue, red, blue, red, blue, red, blue, red blue.

“City? Ocean?”

“That’s great!  Which one?  Ocean or city?”

“Nature everywhere.”

“You did it!  You wrote your own haiku!”

She smiled – a small, proud smile – and then she picked up her doll again.

“That was really good.  Let me write it down.   Can you say it again?”

She shrugged, engrossed in brushing the doll’s hair.

“I forgot it already,” she said.

“But I’m your mom and I will always remember,”  I thought.

Haiku by Eliza

Animals live in

Jungle, forest and city.    (or ocean)

Nature around us!

This post, Haikus With My Daughter , Thanksgiving and Haikus With My Daughter III: Girls Rights are in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge.

Haikus With My Daughter

IMG_0449I haven’t written a poem since I was in elementary school.

But today I wrote tw0- not one, but TWO! – haikus in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge.

My eight year old daughter was the inspiration for the first.

It doesn't have to be perfect to be sussesful.
It doesn’t have to be perfect to be sussesful.

Marginalia

Cleaning her backpack,

I found …my daughter’s wise words,

Scrawled  in the  margins.

She was also the inspiration for the second haiku of the day:

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To My Daughter, Who Is 8

Eight years old, full of

Joy and bold discovery.

Stay this kind and strong!

 

Next up – my daughter writes her very first haiku!  Haikus With My Daughter II

The Regular

Beauty's Special
Order up! Beauty’s Specials at Beauty’s Luncheonette in Montreal

“I’ve been coming here since the beginning,” he said conspiratorially, leaning towards me from the stool next to mine.

I had noticed the white haired gentleman earlier, as he was shouldering his way through the Sunday brunch crowd at Beauty’s Luncheonette.  He took a seat on the chrome-and-blue pleather stool next to me. As he carefully placed his folded Montreal Gazette on the formica countertop, he caught the server’s eye.  “Hi hon!” she sang out as she filled his coffee cup.

He didn’t even have to place his order.  In a matter of minutes, “the usual” was set in front of him.  Side of home fries, black coffee, and a Beauty’s Russian Black Special.  Most people who come to Beauty’s get the Beauty’s Special – smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato, and onion on the infamous Montreal sesame bagel.  But The Regular clearly prefers the Special on on a Russian rye bread so black that  it looks like it is made of dark chocolate.

“You’ve been coming here since 1942?” I asked.

“Sure, I went to high school just down the street. I used to buy my school supplies here back when it was a stationary shop.   There was always a poker game going on back in the back room.”

He pointed towards an open door behind the kitchen to a small room where they now store the mops and brooms and cleaning supplies.  (You can see it in the background of the photo above.)

“They won’t tell you THAT in the history.”

He gestured vaguely towards the blue and white menu, which contains a detailed history of Beauty’s.  How newlyweds Hymie and Freda Sckolnick bought the shop on the corner of Mont Royal and St. Urbain and started serving lunch to the garment workers from the  factories in the neighborhood.  The name “Beauty” came from Hymie’s bowling nickname.  It grew so popular that the workers started bringing their families on the weekend.  “And the Montreal brunch was born,”  to quote the menu.  Indeed, there was no mention of the poker game in the back room.

“I’m in my 80s,” he confided, “so Hymie must be into his 90s.  You met him when you came in, right?”

I had indeed met Hymie.  He was guarding the door when we arrived – literally standing in the inner doorway and quizzing the groups of Montreal hipsters queued up outside.  Since we only had two in our party, we scored an immediate seating at the lunch counter. “I like American money,”  Hymie told me as he resettled, ever vigilant, on his perch by the door.

“Hymie opened up this morning,” The Regular told me.  “That’s the son, Larry.”  He waved dismissively at a white-haired man with black frame glasses who was dashing about with a pot of coffee. “He just showed up now.”

We talked for a few minutes.  He told me how he grew up to be a lawyer and a politician.  He represented the neighborhood for a number of years before returning to private practice.  He lives downtown now, but he made it very clear that he is not retired.

“What’s your practice area?” I asked.  Corporate, I thought.

“Immigration,” he said.  “There’s always work and it’s interesting.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’m a human rights lawyer at a non-profit, but I started out practicing asylum law.  We always look to Canada as the better asylum system.  Even now in the debate about immigration reform, we are using Canada as the example of why we should provide counsel for indigent asylum seekers.”

“Well,” he replied, “It was a hell of a lot better before the Conservatives took over.  Now I’m not sure we’re a model for anyone anymore.”

As he paid his bill and gathered up his car keys and his black leather gloves, he asked, “What are you going to do today?”

“We’re thinking of going up to the top of Mont-Royal.”

“Mount Royal?  How are you going to get there? Do you have a car?”

“No, we’re planning to bike,” I said.

He looked at me for a few seconds, as if assessing whether I was truly insane.  Then he moved on.

“Well, you’re going to want to go to Schwartz’s Deli, so here’s a tip. Don’t bother with the line.  Go across the street to Main Deli.  It’s just as good, but without the wait.   We call it “smoked meat” here.   There’s no such thing as “pastrami” here in Canada,” he said emphatically.

“Thanks for the tip,” I said.  As a vegetarian, my interest in cured meat – whatever you call it – is minimal.

It struck me later that, based on the facts that he dropped,  I could easily pin a name and full bio on this guy.  It would just take a couple of quick internet searches.  But I have not chosen to do that.

As he said good-bye, I felt I had been privileged with a small glimpse into not just a life, but also into a unique time and place and people in this city’s history.  I saw in a flash the habits of a lifetime, traces of a distinctive community.  The institution of Beauty’s Luncheonette will certainly continue, but someday in the relatively near future it will be without Hymie and the others who were there from the beginning.  On this, my first visit to Montreal, The Regular had given me a rare, small gift.

He put on his long, black wool coat and headed for the door, threading his way through throngs of young people – young people  of all races and backgrounds, chatting energetically and switching effortlessly between French and English.  In the midst of this microcosm of contemporary Montreal, The Regular turned back, eyes twinkling, and winked at me.

“My wife is in Florida.  Don’t tell her I was here.”