That Profane Urbanist's HomeSunday, October 25, 2009
My grandmother who lived in Valencia, Sevilla, Madrid, Manila, the Bronx, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Veracruz spoke of all those places with delight but I never had a sense that she felt she belonged to any of them. She had moved too many times. “Her two “camphor babies” were her home,” my mother used to say. These were intricately carved chests that traveled with her since the early 30s. The two chests are in my living room and they are a constant reminder of the only grandmother I ever knew and loved. Inside those chests are a collection of Spanish fans, shawls, my Mappin & Web birth spoon and other mementos of the life of my grandmother, grandfather, my mother and me.
In 1957, that first year that I was at St. Edward’s High School I was not quite 16 and I had never left home. Suddenly I was in Austin, Texas in a large neo-Gothic dormitory and our dorm prefect, Brother Vincent De Paul CSC would throw a silver dollar on our bed. If the dollar did not bounce he would lift the mattress and throw it on the floor. We went to the bathroom in a large communal one and privacy was only present at night when we lay in our beds. Our thoughts were then our own.
A piece of home was my locked metal chest, a cheap one my mother had purchased at an army surplus store on South Congress Avenue just one side, north, of the Congress Avenue Bridge. Nobody could open my chest and what was inside I shared with nobody. It was home. It wasn’t a camphor baby, but it was home, nonetheless.
Like my grandmother I have been around. Even though I lived in Vancouver since 1975 it often feels like a city I am visiting and that I am a tourist.
I have come to understand the significance of the fact that both my granddaughters, Rebecca, 12, and Lauren, 7, were born in Vancouver. They have not moved from it. This is their home. This is their city. And best of all they belong here. I am not sure I can say that about myself and my relation to this city.
Today Rebecca and I attended a celebratory memorial to Abraham Rogatnick held at the Great Hall of the Vancouver Law Courts. I wanted her to accompany me not only because Abraham Rogatnick, Rebecca and I had attended many baroque concerts (particularly those Friday evenings at St. James Anglican complete with Oreos, tea and coffee) and spent time in my summer garden drinking iced tea and enjoying the June roses. I wanted Rebecca to be with me because she would meet many of the people who made Vancouver the city it is today.
Being part of a city is to feel urbanity for it. Abraham Rogatnick, the architect, brought together, under one roof today many urbanists, artists, politicians, composers, jewelers, actors, all that much more urbane for having met that ultimately urbane man that he was in spite of his often off-colour profanity when something got his goat.
And so Rebecca chatted with Cornelia Oberlander and Edith Eglauer, and Tom Cone. There was Gavin Walker, Dorothy Barkley, Geoff Massey, Sam Sullivan and many more. She heard Peter Busby talk about Rogatnick the teacher, perhaps feeling just a bit guilty about her rejecting his little lecture on art deco architecture in Mayor Sam Sullivan’s office one afternoon a year ago.
I explained to Rebecca how the man she had met and chatted with many times, Arthur Erickson had built Robson Square, the law courts and adapted the old court house to be our Vancouver Art Gallery. I explained how Cornelia Oberlander had done the landscape architecture. I didn't want to transfer my superstitious beliefs to her so I didn't tell her that I felt the presence of those two friends and ghosts, Erickson and Rogatnick who were hovering about as we sampled our éclairs. A confirmed atheist, Abraham Rogatnick, would have said to me, "Don't fill Rebecca with all that crap."
If Rebecca and Lauren’s luck persists they will never have to call a chest, be it of precious oriental wood or cheap tin, home. Home, for them, will be Vancouver, a city, all the better for having been a home for Abraham Rogatnick and his companion Alvin Balkind since 1954.