Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Montreal, Mon Amour

My elderly mother rightly maintains that she is still in possession of all her marbles. Her pins however have betrayed her, those matchstick legs are no longer sturdy, and easily fatigued. She wonders if she should maybe upgrade her tricycle walker to one with a built-in seat to ease the exhaustion of a lap around the Westmount High School football field. Mom is angry with herself because she’s all too aware that she’s no longer capable of doing the things she used to love to do. Once in a while she flings her cane down an empty corridor in her seniors’ residence and cackles madly as she strides forth to retrieve it.

When Ann and I visited with her in Montreal last Thursday, Mom literally ticked off the dead, only four of her friends are still alive. Her substitutes are the dogs in the neighbourhood, all of whom she knows by name. Each week the administrators of her residence issue a double-sided 14”x11” paper bulletin detailing upcoming events and the choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of Monday’s options was pepper steak. Beside it in a still steady, elegant, convent school cursive was a single notation: “Crap.” Mom says she prays every day to die that night in her sleep. On the other hand, she allows that her dreams of life in the wee small hours are incredibly vivid and wonderful.

Because Mom has always lived in Westmount and my sister and her family resides nearby, and I used to live proximate to the old Montreal Forum, Ann and I stay in the west end when we visit, always stomping that same old ground. Last week was refreshingly different. Montreal is a busy place this summer. The city is celebrating its founding as Ville-Marie, a Jesuit mission, 375 years ago. Fifty years ago the future glided into town on a monorail in the guise of Expo ’67. July 1st will mark the 150th anniversary of our country’s confederation. The city was also gearing up for Quebec’s Fete Nationale, which used to be St. Jean Baptiste Day until the separatists co-opted it for pride purposes. Preparations were underway for the renowned jazz festival, a street party if there ever was one. While attempting to book our stay, Ann and I found that hotel rooms were at a premium and their prices reflected that.

Having lived in Alberta for 27 years, my knowledge of Montreal hotels was both limited and dated. In our den in Edmonton, Ann suggested altering our search parameters and tasked me with filtering Expedia, Trivago and Fuckknowswhatelse-dot-com. I saw an opportunity for us to maybe change out our traditional backdrop and embrace other parts of the city during our family downtime. I rolled the dice on a loft on de la Gauchetiere between Beaver Hall and St-Alexandre for $168 per night. Rue Ste-Catherine, the Main, Chinatown and Old Montreal were easy pedestrian destinations. My mother and my sister were 40 minutes’ distant on foot or less than half that for a cheap cab fare.

Our base space was minimalist industrial, sparse and bare with exposed concrete walls. Our view from ten stories was the tops of aspen trees and the belfry of St. Patrick’s basilica. A black water tower on the roof of a building to the right looked like a lunar landing module. Across the street was a park, a manicured urban ruin, the rectangular stone foundation of a long gone 18th century building left intact as a communal bench. Our building’s face was jagged, like one side of a lightning bolt. Consequently I could peer into our neighbour’s place. I realized that whoever it was must be a permanent resident because I could see a guitar on a stand, books and a very scientific-looking telescope – ideal for gazing into thousands of downtown windows. The centre of the loft building was a vertigo void, not quite a courtyard nor an atrium but a deep shaft of real weather. Ann and I got a kick from the science fiction funkiness; the only drag was that we had to collect our keys three blocks away from our Loft4U and humping our luggage through Montreal’s narrow humid backstreets after a day of air travel was a mildly infuriating hassle.

Our location however allowed for a delicate brush of nearly forgotten touchstones. The outdoor stalls in Chinatown sold bootleg knock-offs. We wandered through the bazaar and then turned north once we reached boulevard St-Laurent. Ann and I ate hot dogs in the Montreal Pool Room. I could see the CafĂ© Cleopatra sign across the street, the sleaziest peeler joint I’ve ever set foot in. I was there once with my late brother; we were between Ottawa and Dallas, in town together for the last two hockey games at the Montreal Forum.

Ann and I also lunched at Marche de la Villette on St-Paul in Old Montreal, a busy bakery and delicatessen sans proper personal space. Out on the street I scanned for a half familiar design studio; one of my first freelance writing jobs was interviewing a gentleman who was largely responsible for the graphic identity of the ’76 Olympic Games in Montreal and was later commissioned by Canada Post to design a stamp commemorating Treffle Berthiaume, the founder of La Presse, a newspaper that still publishes but no longer prints ink on paper.

Papa Moore, my grandfather, an engineer, walked the provinces of Quebec and Ontario evaluating the futures of villages and towns, and whether or not they’d require a telephone exchange. His office was in the Bell building on Beaver Hall. “Do you have a place for a hard working young man who has served his country?” And so my father began his career inside it until he accepted a transfer to Ottawa in the early 70s. This succinct tower of stone, this whole damn city, shaped my life.

Westward ho! We ate dinner in the old Dominion tavern, once a respite on my lengthy record shop, book store and newsstand route, and now an upscale eatery. The delight was that nothing inside had been changed, from the wood and the ceramic tile and the hunting lodge decorations, so much so that for a brief moment in the men’s room I mistook the trough pissoir for a sink. Time had passed and I’d forgotten the way things used to be.

The Canadiens play their home games at the Bell Centre on de la Gauchetiere. The last game I saw there was against Nashville. I took my mother. Mom dolled up, lipstick and fur, the way she did when my stepfather escorted her to Saturday night games in the Forum in the 70s. Mom wanted a hot dog and a beer, I was delighted to oblige. “Mary Riley, Mary Riley,” Mom loves people watching but she points at them as she criticizes. Dear God, I’m equally snide and snippy but I like to think I’m less obvious. Ann frequently shushes me in public because I guess I should probably think “Jesus Christ!” instead of muttering it a little too loudly. I can’t hold my peace if I see someone with a green tattoo that looks infected. And stupid bad haircuts, ninja Hitler Youth, I can’t cope.

On departure day my sister offered to drive Ann and me to the airport. My mother, desperate to escape her residence for any reason, insisted on coming along for the drive. I got into the backseat beside her. Mom elbowed me in the ribs. I leaned over and down and asked, “What?” She said, “Nothing, I’m just moving my arm. You’ll shave when you get home, won’t you? I hate beards.” We took the scenic route through NDG and Montreal West so Mom could have a look around. She kept pointing at things, shops and businesses she used to frequent when she was independent; trouble was my left eye was often in the way.

We were early for our evening flight so naturally boarding was delayed for almost an hour. And of course flying east to west against the prevailing winds takes longer. Ann took the window seat. I squeezed into the middle one. The passenger on my right was Bogart in The Caine Mutiny; he played and fiddled with a yellow plastic ball for four hours. I couldn’t make out its embossed logo. I couldn’t concentrate on the novel I was trying to finish, Medicine River by Thomas King. Someone inserted a hot curling iron into my sinus cavities. My right nostril leaked like a faucet. My eyes teared up; my ears plugged up. My back began to ache. My four ounces of complimentary club soda ballooned down in my belly. I stared down at that fucking yellow ball.

Ultimately there was a touch of grace in the Air Canada cabin even as the trio of children across the aisle added their shrieks to the canned air. I am my mother’s surviving son and though Ann and I had just spent three days in her company, I did not mutter, “Jesus Christ!” I did not shout it. I did not scream it. I just thought it. Repeatedly.

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