Sunday, September 30, 2012


This is a story I wrote about nine months after Ivaan left the planet.  I reread it today and realized that, although the fourth anniversary of Ivaan's death is approaching, he still feels just as present to me. Here, then, is "The W Word":
our wedding reception April, 1995.

The W word took me completely by surprise.   I’d contemplated the possibility of its appearance, turned it over in my mind a couple of times, and then decided it was unlikely to crop up at all.  Even if it did, it would likely appear in a drop-down menu of possibilities, requiring only a check mark beside the appropriate selection:  single, married, common-law, divorced, widowed.   But it was 2009 and I was completing a Canadian passport application, not an application for a marriage licence, for which one’s marital status actually has some relevance.  Years ago, a friend told me that when she married in Wales at the age of 20, her occupation was noted on the marriage licence as “spinster seamstress”.  It seemed funny at the time.

I only wished I were completing an application for a marriage licence.  If I were, I’d be able to turn back the clock and relive all the years of our remarkably happy marriage.  The recipe for a happy marriage is for each partner to believe secretly that he (or she) is the luckier of the two.  In our case, it was no secret:  I was definitely the lucky one, because my husband was not only brilliant, talented, adored by everyone, gregarious and witty, he was also drop-dead gorgeous.  If he were reading over my shoulder now, he’d be pointing out that he was quite literally drop-dead gorgeous.   Never one to let picayune details get in the way of a really good story, Ivaan would have ignored the fact that he didn’t actually drop dead, but died slowly over a number of days, following a massive stroke he’d suffered during brain surgery. 

Four months later, while completing an application for a new passport, I found myself confronted by the W word. How is it that I attended the funeral, several dinners and receptions held in memory of Ivaan without understanding that the W word now applied to me?   Even worse, the passport application provided a blank line on which I was apparently required to write the word.  Offended, I completed the rest of the information, leaving my marital status blank, folded the application and put it away. 

Widowhood is an honourable state.  Widows are depicted in literature as tragic, noble, sometimes merry.  The widow’s peak, a v-shaped point in the centre of the hairline, reminiscent of the hood worn by bereaved women, was believed in English folklore to identify a woman who would outlive her husband.  Then there is the black widow spider, the female of which occasionally eats her partner after mating.  It’s interesting to note that even males of the species are referred to as black widow spiders.  Dracula had a widow’s peak.   I don’t.

Three weeks elapsed before I pulled out the passport application again.  I looked at the grim, unsmiling photos that I’d had taken and wondered if it was worth investing in a new set.  Something about these images brought to mind the passport I had the year we were married.   I looked solemn, serene, and – dare I say it?  Drop dead gorgeous.  I looked so good in that passport photo that Customs officers in every country we visited did a double-take.  No, I decided, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.  I’d keep the photos I already had, because the next ones would probably be even worse.

Reconciled though I was to my passport photo, I balked at writing the W word on my application.  I called friends and family for advice.  Their replies ranged from “just leave it blank” to “just write Married.  Who will even notice?”  Nobody suggested I capitulate and write the W word.

The problem with widowhood is that it’s a marital status few people would choose.  For the most part, we marry freely and expect that our marriage will enrich our lives.  If it doesn’t, separation or divorce are admittedly imperfect ways of wiping the slate clean and reclaiming our single status.  It’s likely fair to say that most newly-single people find social occasions – weddings, dinner parties, even funerals – awkward.  It’s probably like being a teenager all over again, unsure of the rules, anxious to fit in, feeling as though they are under a microscope. 

No such agonies exist for me, although I usually find that my hosts have taken particular pains to ensure my comfort.  They seat me close to interesting people who have clearly been forewarned about my new marital status, so that they never ask indelicate questions and carefully steer the conversation around any potential minefields.  At a recent wedding, I was astonished when a very charming and attractive stranger sat next to me and announced, “I’m told I’m your date this evening.”  He was very entertaining, and I  thoroughly enjoyed his company, but I felt like I was attending with two dates – the one who was refilling my glass and the one I’d come with.  Because eight months after Ivaan left the planet, I don’t feel his absence.  On the contrary, the air around me still feels suffused with his warm presence. While he’s here in spirit, the W word doesn’t apply.

Finally, though, there was the matter of the passport application.   I decided to tell the truth, and let the Passport Office do what they liked with my application.  On the blank line beside Marital Status, in large block letters, I wrote MARRIED.  Underneath, in very small letters enclosed by parentheses, I added (but widowed).

Friday, September 21, 2012


In the residential side of the Atelier Ivaan building, I have an office.  Like the store, it has a tongue and groove bamboo floor.  Unlike the store, the floor in the office is not level.  At one end of the room, there is a dip in the floor about the shape, depth and size of a large birdbath.  At first, it was just a visual irritant.  After a few months,  I began to wonder if furnace ductwork directly underneath was concealing a problem.  I'd been planning to replace the furnace anyway, so it made good sense to replace the furnace and overhead ductwork so I could properly assess the situation.

Once the ductwork was removed, I took several photos with my close-up camera, uploaded them onto the computer, and had a good look at them. Everything seemed solid but one joist sat lower than its neighbours.  I made the decision to have the entire floor taken up and levelled.  I figured, once the floor was taken up, I could have a look at the situation from above.

The flooring guys arrived early, removed the bamboo floor and put it in the basement.  Next they removed a layer of plywood, then a layer of linoleum, then another layer of plywood, then a layer of roofing tarpaper, then a layer of newspapers from 1952, and then a thick tongue-and-groove subfloor.  No wonder there was a depression on the floor.  I was depressed just looking at the pile of debris!

Here's how the room looked when all the flooring was taken off:


The flooring guys sistered the existing joists to provide extra support and raise the height of the floor in spots, to make it level. Two layers of plywood were installed, for stability.  It was harrowing, just looking at the mess. It was doubly harrowing, going down to the  basement that night and finding that the hammering had caused a water pipe to split open.  There was water everywhere. Luckily there was Zoltan.  The comfort of seeing Zoltan pull up in his van was indescribable.

It took 25 hours  of brutally hard work for the flooring guys to finish the job.  It was stressful. There is something about having no floor that makes one want to cry. Happily, I now have a floor again and it is much more level.
I like the contrast between the two colours of floor, as we mixed new caramel coloured bamboo with the original cinnamon coloured floor.

While Zoltan was here to repair the split pipe, I also asked him to take a look at my bathtub drain, which I suspected was leaking.  Zoltan agreed that the drain pipe would have to be replaced.  Unfortunately it was impossible to find a replacement drainpipe that fit.  This left me with an out-of-commission bathtub.   In addition to no stove, no dishwasher, no washer or dryer, and only a bar fridge, I now had no bathtub.  I felt like I was living through The Siege of Leningrad, which will be the subject of a future post.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


POLKA TIME, 1960  (c) Petro Schkurka

Whoever said "a picture is worth a thousand words" was probably referring to this photograph. You might possibly recognize a 16-year-old Ivaan in the centre of the photo, and perhaps you have surmised, correctly, that he was dancing the polka.  The photograph was taken by Petro Schkurka, who was Ivaan's earliest mentor in photographic arts.

Unless you know Ivaan really well,  chances are you won't know what makes this photograph particularly memorable. I think it was taken in the church hall of St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral.  I really love this photograph. Other than that, as the ancient Romans would have said, "Res ipsa loquitur":  the thing speaks for itself.


If I did well in my university courses in historical musicology -- and I generally got good results, with the notable exception of my final Beethoven exam, where aliens stole my brain as I entered the examination hall -- the truth is that only half the credit for my success is due to my own diligence.  The other half goes to Ivaan.

Whenever I had an exam coming up, I relied on Ivaan to quiz me.  I'd  give him recordings to play at random.  I'd have to tell him who the composer was, the name of the composition, the year it was composed, what movement (if any) was playing, what the key signature was, what the tempo was, and perhaps the instrumentation as well.  Ivaan was a tough quizmaster.  He wasn't satisfied until I could answer all his questions without a single error.

For one particular exam in medieval and renaissance music, quite early on in the program, some of the pieces of music were indistinguishable to my untutored ears, so Ivaan's coaching was critical to getting me prepared for the exam.  When Ivaan's quiz started, I sailed through Hildegard of Bingen's O Viridissima Virga (1150, in case you care), squeaked through with Leoninus' Viderunt Omnes (1180) and Machaut's 1360 Mass of Our Lady.  As we sailed into the Renaissance, I was unshakeable on the lovelorn Beatriz, Countess of Dia's I Must Sing, because it had become one of my favourites.

I even knew the next one, because I had previously written a paper on it: Guillaume Dufay's Lament of the Holy Mother Church of Constantinople. But when Ivaan asked for the date of composition, I was totally stumped. I made a couple of guesses, both of them wrong. Finally I said, "I give up." Ivaan replied, softly, "Come on.  You should know this.  It's the year the Turks were at the Gates of Kiev."

I would like to pretend that the fog lifted and I said, "1453".  The truth is, I did not know the Turks were ever at the Gates of Kiev.  But Ivaan did.  The events of that day (May 29th, 1453) were as clear in his mind as if he had been there.  Sometimes I wonder if Ivaan in an earlier incarnation were actually there.  However, he was evidently also present in Vienna in 1809, the year of Joseph Haydn's death, witnessing Napoleon's invading troops besieging the city, yet passing Haydn's house quietly so as not to disturb the dying composer, and I know he cannot have been everywhere.

Still, I have never forgotten the year of Dufay's Lament, and yes, that question was on the exam.

My convocation took place on November 12, 2008, three weeks before Ivaan's death.  It was to be the last occasion he went out in public. However, I still had a final examination to write, and that exam took place two days after Ivaan's death.  It was an exam on The Beatles. Ivaan and the Beatles go back a long way - all the way back to 1966 - so he had a vested interest in ensuring I did particularly well on the exam. We spent the last week of his life studying, quizzing, listening to The Beatles, then quizzing some more.  When Ivaan went into hospital for his brain surgery, it was impossible for me to study.  My job was to sit in the waiting room of Intensive Care and concentrate on sending strength, courage, positive energy and love through to Ivaan in the neurosurgical theatre.

The surgery was successful, but Ivaan suffered a massive stroke about half way through the twelve-hour operation. The next few days were spent waiting to see if he would regain consciousness,  undergoing another surgery to relieve fluid build-up on his brain, asking his priest to administer last rites, and eventually saying a final goodbye to my beloved.

Meanwhile, back at the University, my professor, one of my absolute favourites, heard the news of Ivaan's death and emailed me, telling me not to come to the exam, that he would handle things administratively.   But in the days of relative calm following Ivaan's death and preceding his funeral, I felt strongly that I owed it to Ivaan to show up at the exam and give it my best shot.

Ivaan may well have been at the Gates of Kiev in 1453. He was probably in Vienna in 1809. And he was definitely with me in the examination hall on December 8th, 2008, encouraging me, prodding me, whispering dates and key signatures in my ear. Thanks to Ivaan and to Professor Kippen, we got a 90.