Wednesday, August 31, 2011

LENIN'S TOMB: Ivaan's Quirky Streak

For as long as I've known him, Ivaan had a quirky streak.  From stories he has told me about his childhood, I suspect it originated when he was very young.  He loved to see how far he could pull the wool over the eyes of gullible people, by telling them outrageous stories and seeing if  they believed him.  He was greatly assisted in these endeavours by the fact that people genuinely wanted to believe him.  Sometimes this got him into trouble, because people who didn't know him well enough would accept everything he said at face value, and he'd be too embarrassed to tell them they'd been the victim of one of his pranks.   Sometimes he genuinely regretted a tale he'd spun, particularly when he realized he'd hurt someone in the process, but he found it hard to own up to his actions.  Wiping a tear that was half mirth and half regret from his eye, he'd tell me, "I can't tell them the truth now. I think I'm a moral coward!"

Sometimes, Ivaan's pranks were just so funny that it was a pleasure to be on the receiving end of them.  These were the occasions where the prank originated from a serious premise and then "grew legs", becoming funnier and funnier in the process.  And so it was with the story of Lenin's Tomb.

Ivaan was a history buff.  He knew a great deal of history, and not just a dry recitation of dates, names and places, either.  He spoke about historical events as if he had been there.   One day, he was telling me about events in Russian history, and he mentioned that in Red Square,  in Moscow, right next door to the Kremlin, the body of Vladimir Illich Lenin, the founder of the U.S.S.R. was entombed in a glass coffin, ever since his death in 1924, and that people would line up for hours to file past and see it for just a few seconds.

At this point in his story, I interjected:  "I wonder if it's the same Lenin as the original one they put in there."

No, Ivaan replied.  It wasn't.  Every five years in Russia, they had a Lenin Look-Alike Contest, where people from all over the country who thought they bore a resemblance to Lenin could enter themselves into the competition.   The winner - the person who looked the most like Lenin - got to spend the next five years lying in state in the glass coffin in Red Square, and have long lines of people coming by daily to pay their respects.

Ivaan told both halves of this story with a straight face, in the quiet, solemn voice he used to relate historical events that moved him, and so it wasn't until he concluded his tale that I looked up, saw him wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, and realized I'd been pranked.

I've always thought of The Lenin Look-Alike Contest as the most beautiful example of Ivaan's humour.  Starting from a perfectly "straight" premise,  the story suddenly veered into the improbable,  collided with the outrageous, and yet miraculously no one was hurt.

To this day, I can't even see a picture of Lenin without laughing.


Shortly after Ivaan's death, two of our nephews, Angus and Ivor Benderavage, collaborated on a tribute to Ivaan which was published in the Globe and Mail, in the Lives Lived section, a regular feature about an interesting person who has recently died.  People who know Ivaan instantly recognized Ivaan's huge personality in the article, and readers who had never met him before suddenly felt as though they'd known him all their lives.  Here is the text of Angus' and Ivor's tribute:

"With Ivaan, we were always laughing.   He called us the plemeniks, Yiddish for nephews.  We called him avunculus, Latin for uncle.  Witty, debonair, endlessly fascinating, he was the coolest of uncles.
Ivaan exuded a rare, unabashed joie de vivre, perhaps because his early life was marked by extreme hardship.  He was born in a Nazi internment camp, where his parents, Mykyta and Maria, were forced to work from morning to night.  The family endured illness and near-starvation until liberation.
They immigrated to Canada in 1949 and settled in Smoky Lake, Alberta.  There, Ivaan’s passion for metalwork was sparked by observing the village blacksmith.  In 1951, the family moved to Toronto.
Ivaan was a member of the camera club at Harbord Collegiate Institute and he won awards for his early photography.  After graduating from Ryerson  Polytechnical Institute, he joined Maclean Hunter Publishing in 1967, and became Chief Photographer in 1970.  His many notable subjects included The Beatles, Janis Joplin,  Jimi Hendrix, Yousuf Karsh, Pierre Trudeau and the Queen.
By 1969, Ivaan’s focus was shifting to metal arts.  Although he left Maclean Hunter in 1973 to devote himself full time to metalworking, he continued to pursue photography as a hobby.  He won gold and silver National Magazine Awards for his photographic essay, No Fixed Address, published in Toronto Life magazine in 1996.  His long-standing interest in photographing street people reflected his deep respect for life. 
We loved spending time in Ivaan’s studio, sorting treasures and operating the grinding and polishing machines.  Ivaan transformed wax, plastic, glass and even bread dough into objects of beauty.  He cast jewellery and small sculptures in gold and silver using the ancient  lost-wax casting process.  His vision and skill were so breathtaking that nothing about him seemed improbable.  For years we believed a tale that certain painted bricks on his house were solid gold.
Ivaan and his long-time beloved, Eya Donald Greenland, married in 1995.   He taught us that carrying a camera was a great way to meet girls.
A relentless series of strokes that began in 2000 led to Ivaan’s eventual paralysis.  He adapted patiently to wheelchair life, continuing to laugh and to create.  Faced with an imminently fatal brain aneurysm, he underwent a pioneering neurosurgical procedure last December.  Although it was successful, he suffered a massive stroke, never regaining consciousness.
Ivaan was an artist for whom the creative process was as essential as breathing; from it he derived great joy.  He shared that joy every day."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS, (or: Sh*t Ivaan Said...And Did)

Lately, I've found myself bursting out laughing at the memory of the funny things Ivaan said and did.  One of the very interesting things about being around Ivaan was that you could never predict what was going to happen next.  Here are a few of the bizarre episodes I've been laughing about lately:

On one memorable occasion, we were grocery shopping at Loblaws Queen's Quay.  Now, I absolutely loathe grocery shopping, but for Ivaan a trip to a grocery store was akin to a vacation:  he felt it was essential to allot several hours to the excursion and  to visit every aisle (except the meat department), pausing to scrutinize all  the merchandise in minute detail.  Certain aisles took much more time to peruse than others.  These included the coffee aisle and the jam aisle.  Sometimes it also included the bakery aisle, if the bread was very fresh, because Ivaan only fed fresh bread to the neighbourhood  birds and squirrels.  We rarely spent much time together in a grocery store.  Leaving Ivaan with the shopping cart, I'd do a quick sprint through the aisles, gathering the essentials in my arms.  By the time I was ready to hit the checkout, usually ten minutes or less, he'd be half way through aisle one.   On one memorable occasion, we met up in the bakery section.  On the mezzanine level, above the bakery department, a Latin band was playing.  As I placed my items in Ivaan's shopping cart, the band struck up the opening notes of a tango.  Ivaan turned to me and asked, "Would you care to dance?"  "Why, yes, I think I would", I replied.  He held out his arms, I stepped into them, wriggled my shoulders a bit until our tango posture was correct, and we executed one of the best tangos we have ever done.  It's important to maintain an imperious expression while dancing the tango.  I must have been doing this with some success, because I don't recall the reaction of other shoppers, but when the last notes of the music died away, the entire band rose to their feet and gave us a standing ovation.

Our nephew Philippe is 22.  It is miraculous that he has lived to adulthood.  When Philippe was seven, Ivaan invited him and his brother Sam to visit him at his Queen Street West store.  The back room of the store was chaotic in a way that is hard to put into words.  Stuff was lying everywhere, and though urban legend had it that Ivaan knew where everything was, I have actually seen hand-drawn maps of the room he had drawn to help him locate items.  Ivaan loved anything to do with fire, and so did Philippe.  After all, Philippe was a member of the Pyromaniacs, a club whose membership consisted of Ivaan and every one of our nephews who was old enough to walk.   Ivaan had a huge pair of heavily-padded leather blacksmith's gauntlets.  That day he put those gloves on Philippe's arms.  They came almost to his armpits.  He directed Philippe to stand with his arms outstretched, sprayed the gloves with lighter fluid, then held a lit match  to each arm in turn.  I have it on good authority that Philippe looked like someone had set fire to a scarecrow.  The lighter fluid burned off within seconds, but it was several weeks before any of the Pyromaniacs confessed to me what had taken place that afternoon in the back of Uncle's store.

It was on that same occasion that Philippe decided he wanted to buy himself a silver ring made by Ivaan.  He examined all the trays of sterling silver rings in detail, trying on a variety of rings until he found the one he wanted.  Having made his selection, he went up to Ivaan who was standing behind the counter, held up the ring he'd selected and with great solemnity fired his opening salvo:  "I'll give you two dollars for this", he said, "and not a penny more."   Just as solemnly, and perhaps feeling some retrospective anxiety about the incident with the lighter fluid, Ivaan conceded that two dollars was a fair price.  Philippe counted out the two dollars, plus tax, and the transaction was completed.

Terry Robinson was five the first time Ivaan went camping with the Robinsons.  Our friends Neil and Chris have three sons, and Terry is the youngest.  It goes without saying that Chris Robinson did not go camping with her husband and sons....ever.  If she had, she would no doubt have had something to say about this incident.  One evening, while sitting around the campfire, Ivaan and the Robinson guys decided to rub some charcoal onto Terry's face, put some leaves in his hair and generally make him look as grubby and unkempt as possible.  Then they sent him round to other campsites, claiming to be lost and hungry and begging for food.  The scheme went off without a hitch, until some outraged campers seized Terry by the scruff of the neck and brought him back to the Robinson family's campsite with some strongly-expressed invective directed at the more senior members of the camping expedition.

Terry and Ivaan shared a fascination for a children's outdoors magazine called Ranger Rick, to the extent they used to address each other as Ranger Rick.  On this same camping trip, Ivaan indulged his love of sunbathing to such an extent that his skin blistered badly.  Upon his return home, Ivaan was shedding sunburnt skin in boa constrictor-size pieces, which he promptly collected, put into an envelope and mailed to five-year-old Terry....all in the interests of science.  He felt it was an appropriately scientific gift, since Terry had recently given him a year's subscription to the equally scientific Ranger Rick.

When Terry was seven, we went out to dinner with the Robinsons at Golden Thai, a very nice restaurant at the corner of Church and Richmond Streets.  Part way through our meal, Ivaan and Terry noticed a police car pull up kitty-corner to the restaurant.  Two officers jumped out and arrested a young man standing on the sidewalk.  As they were handcuffing him, Ivaan and Terry decided they'd better go and investigate.  The rest of us continued our meal.  By the time we were ready to leave the restaurant, Terry and Ivaan had still not returned.  We went outside to search for them, and eventually noticed them sitting in the window of a very shabby donut shop across the street, enjoying some coffee and donuts for dessert.