It’s her turn now

by Noah Richler, BA’83

Just think, I could be living in Kingston!” said my daughter, as we walked the lively streets of Montreal under a shining full moon. Well, she’s my stepdaughter, actually, one of two, but I just think of my delightful girls as having come ready-made.

(Image by Tzigane)

(Image by Tzigane)

In the years that I have known these girls, young women now, their resistance to taking a walk just about anywhere in Toronto, where we live, has been one of the sticking points in my natural Jewish resistance to accepting just how good life can be. Their rooms as after-the-hurricane still life installations I had become used to, along with wet towels on the bathroom floor and so on.

But now daughter number one was beginning university and the point of these domestic skirmishes seemed silly and redundant. Still, it bothered me that I was never able to take a simple walk with either of my children, as I had so enjoyed doing with my father, even if conversation had been difficult.

The relationship of parent to child has been the subject of lively debate in our house. We have talked about love a lot, my wife Sarah and I, about its forms and about what I see as the extraordinarily irrational quality it takes between children and their natural parents—a bond that, despite their better instincts, step-parents sometimes find themselves competing against.

Wise Sarah will have none of this. She says that the baby arriving in the sling of a stork myth exists to explain how inherently strange a child is even to its mother. And she says that it was impossible to give birth and not come face-to-face with the fact of her own mortality, cradling beings that were not just separate but that had sapped life from her.

In my own plodding way I have experienced moments of the limits of my own life closing as those of the kids gloriously open up. The first came as I was out for a run, stunned to find myself not elaborating on the usual daydream about the Stanley Cup-winning assist I made, but fantasizing instead about my daughter wowing the crowd with her concerto flute-playing at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

More recently, I visited daughter number one at university— at McGill, my alma mater. The full moon shone and as we walked I stopped talking about the city as it had been in my day and listened to the jubilant sound of students in their apartments and myriad lives just beginning. For years, I’d thought that I might be able to take my university Greek Grammar and my Homer and abscond to a Pacific island for a year, but then I saw that I would not—that it was her turn now—her turn to feel that everything is an opportunity for a life that can be voraciously lived.

“I walk all the time,” she said, perhaps to have me understand that it wasn’t that she didn’t like to walk, but that she’d been waiting for the right city to walk in and Montreal—not Kingston, or Sackville, or Vancouver—was the place. She was beaming and as I asked her if she’d like to stop and have a beer, I recognized, in my tone, what I’d heard in my father’s voice the first time he properly made me feel an adult because it sounded as if really he did not know what my answer would be and that whatever I said actually mattered.

We had our beer and walked for another half hour back to her residence. She spoke effusively  —about her new friends and the possibility of an archaeological dig and most of all about how exciting and attractive the campus and the city were. And suddenly I realized that I was feeling a connection to the city of my own boyhood and university years that I had not known for decades. Montreal, I’d been telling those who’d asked, was a memory, was a city I no longer pretended to know.

So this was her further gift to me—allowing me to see that Montreal is still my town and that now I have a daughter living there who can explain the place as it is.

Noah Richler is the author of This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, which won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. A longer version of this essay originally appeared in the National Post.


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