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Illustration by Adam De Souza

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

One unusually warm day in Toronto, I met up for a walk with 88-year-old Malcolm, who was a key father figure of my childhood. He didn’t know he was a mentor to me. I was just one of a throng of his admirers. I had come to honour him while time was on our side.

At his home back in the 1970s, three doors from mine, I was known as that “little snot-nosed Gottlieb.” I practically lived there because I was best pals with his three boys. There was no boundary between me, his fridge, his basketball hoop and his garden full of dirt clods we kids would hurl at cars.

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When Malcolm was first in the hood to buy a moped, my intrigue intensified for this new age professor of special education at the University of Toronto. He played the part perfectly with his sweet-smelling pipe, steely woolly hair and affection for foul-smelling mammoth sweaters. You could hear his belly laugh down the street. I was forever hooked. My own special education had begun.

The Bernie Sanders meme that reminds me of Dad, and how to age passionately

Like any demanding teacher, Malcolm could be scary. His standards for decency were daunting. He represented the northern point of my moral compass. “You gotta contribute Gottlieb.”

I was nervous to see him. How would he judge the man I have become? Under the guise of thanking him, I was still the needy little snot-nose.

I had seen him only once in the last 10 years shortly after his wife Grace died. Like a Jack Kerouac with jowls, he took off on a road trip across North America, healing his heart in a VW van. I hadn’t seen him since.

He greeted me at his front door and we exchanged our COVID-19 credentials.

“What shot did you get?”

I told him Pfizer.

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“Ah, the good stuff.”

He’s equipped with a walker that is three inches too short for his erect 74-inch frame, making him hunch. I pointed this out. He waived my attention away with a quick bugger-off flick of his sun spotted hand.

“Let’s walk,” he insisted, and off he went at a clip that was bravado or pure vitality. Maybe they’re the same.

At Parliament Street, he did some quick mental math and launched into busy traffic. Leaning on his trusty walker, trudging at sub-light speed, he expected time and space to bend for him. It did. Every car yielded to his will. Malcolm had just solved Einstein’s grand unification problem.

I asked him why he lives in a low-income neighbourhood despite being a one-percenter. He flashed a smile revealing teeth brilliantly intact, and then got downright naughty, “I have to keep a barrier between me and those midtown miscreants.”

Malcolm never cared about the artifice of money and status. He railed against superficiality and spin. This left an indelible impression on me to be alert to the same.

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This too applied to food. Long before it became cliché, sugar and processed foods were villains. About macrobiotic food, he once told me, “all you need to know is that it’s food infused with love.” On the purity of water, he once took me beneath an overpass of the Don Valley Parkway to suck spring water from an aquifer like we were milking manna from heaven.

Our next stop was at a Vietnamese bakery, where the sweet smells of white flour – that fluff used to be devil’s stuff to Malcolm – prompted him to reach for his wallet.

I pointed to my tummy and begged him, “Please, no.”

He assured me, “They have the best Chalah in the city.”

Chalah is braided egg bread that is built into his Jewish genetic code. The Vietnamese twist was pure Malcolm. He bought me a loaf. “Give it to your lovely wife.” Malcolm was addicted to the word lovely.

We mosey on, past the cows in the urban zoo and encounter a young woman enjoying the early spring sunshine.

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He brightens, “How are you sweetheart?”

I cringe, thinking Malcolm is about to get his first lesson in woke. But she could not resist his innocence and offered a smile that made his walker defy gravity.

Seizing his levity, I risk it, “Malcolm, how’s Grace?”

This question may seem odd given that the love of his life has been gone for a decade. But Malcolm was unfazed.

He turned solemn and whispered, “I talk to her all the time. She was the most unselfish and giving woman I have ever known.”

I added, “She rescued my adolescence. And you were no slouch.”

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“You know, Gottlieb, you were good energy in our home. Grace and the boys really loved you.”

And then, nonchalantly, he added, “I liked you, too.”

I burst out laughing. But really, I was reduced to a puddle inside. Acknowledgment. Finally. The little boy pacified.

Then my gratitude came in waves.

I mentioned how much I adored his sons. His eyes lit up. The sun rises and sets on his boys. I told him how his home was a refuge for my sanity. About how he taught me to rebel against my teachers, and in doing so, become a good one myself.

The intensity of the praise was a bit too much. He stepped out into the street again. This time I was ready and grabbed him by the forearm, COVID-19 be damned, and said, “Let’s have none of that.”

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Our roles reversed in an instant. I returned to being an adult and he was okay being taken care of. Our natures found an equilibrium. This was no irony, for it was Malcolm who schooled me on the eastern concept of the Tao.

Perhaps the next time we get together, I’ll be able to chill out on my neediness. We’ll share notes on humanity. Talk about his boys. About Grace. About shifting tides.

That would be lovely, Malcolm’s favourite word.

Steven Gottlieb lives in Palmer Rapids, Ont.

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