Friday, January 18, 2013



My mother died in 1941. But her name will live again in this Boston Marathon as my son John Henry runs on April 15 with the Leukemia Society team to raise money for research into the disease that killed her.
She was called Stoffelina Janna Maria in her native Holland but when the Hoogstads immigrated, Chesley classmates renamed her Lena because she should have a "Canadian" name.
I dig out such details from faded scraps because now there is no one who knew my parents. I  struggle to know a past that isn't even a nostalgic blur.
 When your father dies when you're two and your mother when you're five, there's nothing inside me on the days that  honour fathers and mothers. I read the warm columns from fellow journalists but it's all just bitter sweet abstractions.
I write this sitting in an oak swivel chair that Dad bought in 1912 when he became a family doctor in what was called Toronto East, the city east of Yonge. He had taught to put himself through medicine at Western, then continued as a school inspector.
 But London Life offered him enough insurance work to keep him afloat because doctors then didn't get paid most of the time.  For 50 years, Dr. John Downing, and then his brother Lou,  sat in this chair and dispensed their medicine and talked gently about death and life and babies and everything-is-fine-stop-worrying.
The chair is my largest memento. The smallest is a Bible, with a zipper that jammed  soon after my mother cried and gave it to me on her death bed. "To Johnnie my big Son Use it and learn to love it is my wish Mother,"  she wrote inside, and underlined in shaky pen. Mom loved the Bible, as every Toronto Bible College graduate did in the days before even Jesus' divinity was a theological debate.  I know the Bible thanks to chapters after each meal in the dour Baptist home of her parents. Apart from the King James word music in Psalms, I have never learned  "to love it."
I  wonder about May-September romances, mothers having babies much later. and adoptions by older parents, especially celebrities, whether they've thought about what those children will face when their family is shredded early by death.  After all, my sisters and I starred in a May-November affair which reads like a Harlequin hospital romances. So Joyce, Joanne and I know the struggles to survive without a  family safety net..
They married in 1930, proof that love can blind you to opposites.  Dad was 61, a big rich confident widower. And my mother was 25, small--town quiet, planning to be a missionary like her sister. Then, he says, she "saved"  his life as his nurse by keeping him alive after he nicked himself with a scalpel and developed blood poisoning, then gangrene. This was before drugs like penicillin. Dad refused to have the arm amputated, saying he wouldn't then be much good in operations..
Dad never got full use back but his brother came from Saskatchewan to help. After  all, Dad had paid for him to go to medical school. Dad still made house calls. taking neighbourhood kids along in the big Caddy, his black bag stuffed with candy too, with stops for ice cream. Now he also had time to return to his love of education. He was acclaimed as trustee and became Toronto school board chairman. He was to be the next MP., a familiar face in Toronto and federal politics. My memories here came courtesy of PMs like John Diefenbaker, finance ministers like Donald Fleming,  mayors like Bill Dennison, and judges like S. Tupper Bigelow.
They told about their male joshing of Dad when he had three children with such a young Baptist wife.
Eventually the differences between worldly and humble would scar us kids.  Dad was vaguely United but loved instead to fish with his father-in-law, who was nine years younger. Dad took beer, my grandfather milk. He was jockey-sized, a quiet furniture finisher and deacon who hated smoking and drinking after he was "born again" while working in the Bols distillery in Rotterdam.
Dad loved kids. Once there had been a baby boy who died nameless and is buried in St. John's Norway.  Dad yearned for a son to carry his name. They must have had long talks.  After all, everyone just hoped to to live for the Biblical promise of three score years and ten.  So Dad would be gone before we were teenagers. But not having a family was unthinkable, especially when big families were the norm.. It's hard to tell from the blurred overlapping listings in the Downing Bible but Dad's family in Cornwall in the 1860s had 10 survivors by two wives. Deaths were so common, names were recycled. Mom was one of nine daughters, only five of whom survived. Her sisters had eight, nine and 11 children. So they had kids because Mom would be here to raise them.
(Decades after this decision, medical researchers said it wasn't just women who should worry about  problems for the baby if birth came later in life. There was a "paternal age effect" where the quantity and quality of sperm diminishes with age and the chances of genetic abnormalities increases. Even if Dad was aware of this research which was just beginning, he would point out the advantages for his children in a loving and prosperous home.)
The Hungry Thirties were not that for us. Dad's professional and political lives flourished. He owned big houses, big cars, the farm he bought for his parents, and a Wasaga cottage. If they wanted to visit Holland, there was a maid and nurse to babysit.
Then came the flu epidemics that bookend wars. Dad survived the Spanish flu that wasted the world in 1919 and almost killed his brother Lou, leaving him so broken he had to live in a Vancouver hotel for months to recover. But Dad was not so lucky in 1939 when an epidemic exhausted him but he still made  house calls. When he died, it was Page 1 news and the schools closed for the funeral. And my mother was left with three children, suspicious of any help. She was ill already with what was called blood cancer. When she died in 1941, my Dutch grandparents "rescued" us from the prosperous but godless relatives in a city where they still felt foreign and took us to live near Owen Sound.. There was a trust fund but the official Guardian of Ontario, which was supposed to guard us,  was costly and later found several times to be corrupt. So most of "our" money went to support my aunt, a missionary in Nigeria.   We grew almost all our food and clothes were so patched, they didn't even make good dusters later.. We paid board to our relatives until we moved out.
That was our beginnings with more grit than glory. Now the future is my oldest son is 50, and the grandmother he never knew died when she was only 35. He will honour her in a way never  dreamed of in her time. No charity marathons or United Appeals, in fact,  there were many who didn't approve of welfare.  Charity was personal. With the Downing doctors,  a family got help even if they couldn't pay. Some times they gave a chicken or vegetables from the backyard,. The bootlegger from our corner of Gerard and Greenwood paid Dad with a bottle from the basement or candy from the store.
 John Henry learned about charity walks and swims and marathons on Toronto streets with me as a slow inspiration. Now I'm no runner. Finished third in high school in the one-mile run, but there may only have been three runners because it was a small school.  But I can (could) hike. The granddaddy of charity walks  is Miles for Millions, which started at 32.8 miles in 1967 and then was shortened, thank heavens, and I say that as someone who walked every blistered foot.. After one walk of 27 miles, John Henry and his brother Brett were unable to move enough to deliver the Sunday Suns. So they laid in the back of the station wagon and gave me directions. I hobbled up the drives instead. "Good heavens," a neighbour said, "not only do you write it, you deliver it."
Then there were six Variety Villager Bike-A-Thons on a plain bike made, like most Canadian bikes then, in CCM's Lawrence Ave. factory. Toronto was bike-maker for the world, not just Canada. The first bike was stolen the first night.  It wasn't as light and trim as the $1,124 bike he now rides for 100 mile Tours near his California home.
He swims well enough to have been a lifeguard supervising municipal pools and an examiner of would-be guards. He was a water polo goalie at University of Toronto as he became a chemical engineer with a MBA before going on to Harvard and becoming another bitter loss for me in the brain drain to the U.S.
He ran his first marathon in Orange County in 2007,  and hasn't stopped cycling, spinning, swimming and running since in everything from century rides, triathlons, Ironman and half and full marathons.  In the last four years, it has been 315.6 miles swimming, 1,307 miles running, 900 miles walking, 5,555 miles spinning, and 5,565 miles on his road bike.  That is the equivalent of just over 97 Ironmans, that torturous 140.6 mile event that is composed of a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike ride and the 26.2 marathon run.
They are ordeals, as he proved in a Full Vineman. He broke a big toe, wrenched his back and scraped  hands and knee when he caught a spike after preparing his bike the day before at the course. Still, he swam the 2.4 miles in 87 minutes, did the 112-mile bike ride in seven hours and 44 minutes even though he could barely wear his $259 shoes, and then fast hobbled the 26 miles of the marathon, finishing in just under 16 hours, 40 minutes under the time limit. About 15% of the runners were behind him.
These arduous events can be expensive as well as tortuous with even modest special gear costing more than $2,400. Running is the cheapest part, at $100 for shoes that he changes every 300 miles.  But to run in the Boston Marathon, he has hotel and flight expenses and will pay $5,000 if he can't get enough donations for the team, a "bib" fee double what some events charged in Canada to discourage fraud by ringers as runners. His donation info can be found here.
 I cried after John Henry Downing III phoned about the race. After all, there was such bitter confusion after Mom died that her name wasn't even carved for 15 years on the stone besides Dad's name and that of his first wife in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
But now her name will live again 72 years later in an iconic race..

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