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“Thank God I’ve kicked the bucket and I’m not stuck in that damned retirement home!” Almost two years after her death, I can still call up my mother’s distinctive voice and what she might have said to me as I sat on “her” bench on the shores of Dow’s Lake in Ottawa. Her voice came to mind loud and clear. The conversation went on, a little more quietly: “You know, we lived through worse times before. This too shall pass. I sort of like what Justin is doing. I like his shaggy hair better, too.” She’d have been keenly aware of the irony that – because of the pandemic lockdown – her bench would be deemed out of bounds for several weeks.
My mom loved park benches. She would seek them out wherever she was, and when she found one in the right spot, she would plunk herself down and be content for hours. She loved park benches for many reasons, for rest, fresh air and the vistas. But most importantly, it was a perch from which to people watch.
People watching can happen almost anywhere: in an airport, a train station, a park, a doctor’s waiting room, a theatre, a farmer’s market, a line-up at a grocery store. But a park bench is the perfect location, weather permitting.
My mom made sure to teach her daughters and grandchildren this essential skill from an early age. She saw it as far more important than sewing or cooking or typing, which she couldn’t have taught us anyway. Ah, but my mother was a master of people watching. It was one way she imparted to us her deep understanding of the human condition. We learned that wherever you are, you’ll never get bored as long as you can people watch. And it’s fun and free.
It went like this: 1. Choose a particular passerby, pair or group. 2. Notice their expressions, their posture, their gestures. Take note of gender, age and so on. If they are talking, you listen for snippets of conversations. Listen for tone. Notice who talks more, who interrupts. 3. Invent a story of what is going on. If you’re with a co-conspirator, invent as you go along, each of you adding tidbits as the story unfolds. Facts are not required, just some keen observational skills and imagination.
Couples are especially interesting. The first question is always: What is their relationship? If they’re a couple, how long have they been together? Where did they meet? Do they have kids? And then: Do you think they like each other? Or are they seething? Could it be a betrayal? The pair could be long gone but we’d still be dishing on their story, the juicier the better.
When my mom was turning 80, we racked our brains trying to figure out a special way to mark her birthday. I’d noticed a few benches along the Rideau Canal with small dedication plaques. When I called to inquire, I was told to choose the location, come up with the wording and lay down $1,800 (for the bench, the plaque and 15 years of maintenance by the National Capital Commission).
Dow’s Lake in the heart of the city was the perfect spot. It was near where my mom had grown up, where she’d biked and paddled as a kid and where she still loved to spend time. The wording was a challenge, with a maximum of 165 characters in English and French. We came up with “Helen Zivian Levine, born October 15 1923, feminist, lover of park benches.” My dad was worried about including “feminist.” He thought it might incite a yahoo to spray paint or defile the bench in some way. We used a women’s symbol as code instead.
October 15th is usually a sunny day, with the leaves starting to turn their glorious fall colours. In 2003, my mom’s 80th birthday, it was cold and blustery, but we insisted that she come to Dow’s Lake with us anyway. Huddled against the wind in her red jacket, white hair blowing sideways, she let out a whoop when she laid eyes on her bench and read the plaque. It was the perfect gift.
Mom and I would go to the bench often to hang out, watch the ducks and, of course, to people watch. Sometimes, others would be on her bench and we’d have to sit nearby. I loved it when friends would tell me, “Guess what, I sat on your mom’s bench today.” With time, life got harder. After my dad died, Mom moved to a retirement residence and started using a walker. Her spirit was still strong, but her every move was slow and laboured. The bench remained a treasured destination, but we went there less often.
When Mom died at 95 a couple of years ago, there was no cemetery and no gravestone. But her bench stands stalwart through every season. I walk and cycle by it often. Now that COVID-19 restrictions are loosening, I can sit on Mom’s bench again. I can think about her, commune with her or ask for advice: “What would you do, Mom?” She left me many gifts. People watching and the park bench are among them.
Tamara Levine lives in Ottawa.