Christmas’21 Pic#1 – the memento tree.
My tree is purple, the colour of the pancreatic cancer ribbon. Wandering nostalgically through the Hudson’s Bay Christmas decorations department in November 2009 just three months after Bill’s death from pancreatic cancer (two weeks after his diagnosis), this tree seemed to leap into my path. I had never seen a purple tree before. Each year now, it is loaded with mementos, some of which will be profiled in coming posts during December. The photo on the wall beside the tree is the last pic that I have of Bill and me together, taken in Puerto Vallarta in about 2005. We are smiling.
This is the ornament that Bill and I bought in 1976, our first year together. Bill liked the image on the reverse side – he would say, “that’s us, two waifs in the storm.”
People flow into our lives and then sometimes flow out. This beautiful glass ornament was a gift from a couple who used to be good friends. We would visit back and forth in each other’s homes. Then, for reasons lost in the fog of years gone by, we drifted apart. But I still have their gift and think warmly of them each year when I hang it on the tree.
When I was putting up my decorations this year and doing some things differently than last year, I found myself with an extra garland strung with lights. I walked around my condo wondering where I might use it. My eyes fell on the book shelves in my living room. Most of my books are in large bookcases in the library (a slightly pretentious name for my second bedroom that I use as a study and office.) But several years ago I was running out of room there and so built a set of shelves in the living room. I culled from the library bookcases, books that had the most significance for me because of how moved I was by them, the sheer beauty of the writing, the poignancy of the story, the usefulness of what I learned from them, the particular circumstances I was in at the time of reading them, the role they played as research material for my own writing, etc. The books on these shelves are special friends whose company I enjoy and it’s nice having them close at hand. I keep adding to their number. So this Christmas, I’m celebrating their friendship with a garland of affection.
The Catedral de Mallorca gleamed onshore as I approached the port of Palma de Mallorca several years ago while on a Mediterranean cruise. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1306 and was completed in 1601. Between 1904 and 1914, the renowned Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí completely reworked the Royal Chapel at the front of the central nave. Gaudí is best known as the architect of la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I spent a long time in contemplation sitting in a pew in the Cathedral, staring at Gaudí’s creations, and reflecting on the joys and tragedies in my life, the adventures, the challenges, the richness of relationships, the nourishment from arts and culture, the enjoyment of travel, and the deep satisfaction of home. Two things struck me: gratitude for it all and profound appreciation for the spiritual depth. I bought this Christmas tree ornament in the gift shop as I was leaving the Cathedral. Each year when I hang it on the tree, I am reminded of that conversation with Gaudí and God.
Tucked into a corner of my living room is my antique tree. The tree branches are made of dyed goose-feathers. We bought it in the mid-1980s from two friends who ran a gift shop, Yorke Town Designs, in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto where Bill and I lived at the time. Goose feather trees originated in the late 19th century in Germany and are considered the earliest style of artificial Christmas tree. Ours is decorated with genuine antique ornaments, some of them over 100 years old, that Bill and I either inherited from our own families or found in antique stores. I like imagining the many Christmases in various homes where they have been lovingly and carefully unwrapped and placed gently on a tree. The bees-wax candles (that are never lit) are mounted in original antique metal bases clipped onto the branches. On the table at the base are two photos from the 1920s of my maternal grandmother’s home with decorated rooms and a big Christmas tree. On the wall above my tree in an old oval frame is a portrait of Bill and me that we had taken in 1977, a year after we’d met. Given the antique nature of the frame, Bill got the idea to have us dress like a couple of frontier homesteaders and to have the photo coloured in sepia-tone to give it an antique flavour. The past lives on and is treasured in this little corner of my home.
Our angel atop the antique Christmas tree that I profiled in yesterday’s post.
Bill taught piano and voice to children and adults in our home. He liked working in particular with children who had special learning needs or who came from difficult home situations. Around 1980, a ten-year-old boy brought this construction worker toy to Bill as a Christmas present. It was one of his favourite toys and he wanted to give it to Bill. There was a lot of stress in the boy’s home and Bill had become a very special and supportive adult in his life. He told Bill that the construction worker was for the top of Bill’s Christmas tree. Bill thanked him and replied, “But we put an angel on top of the tree.” The student’s eyes dropped and he said quietly, “So, boys can’t be angels?” Chastened, Bill made a quick recovery, and said excitedly “Of course they can!” He found a couple pipe cleaners (remember them?), fashioned one as a halo and the other as a security belt to hold the construction worker/angel atop the tree. That young boy would be a 50 year old man now. I imagine he remembers Bill. I wish I could let him know that his angel still occupies its place of honour on top of Bill’s Christmas tree.
From 1972 to 1981, the Egyptian Government sponsored the blockbuster travelling exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamen” to raise funds for badly-needed repairs of the Cairo Museum. The exhibition had record-breaking runs at the British Museum, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and others around the world. In the fall of 1979, it arrived at the Art Gallery of Ontario here in Toronto. Bill and I, as longtime AGO members, visited it on the first members’ preview day. When we came into the gift shop at the end of the exhibition, we discovered that there were a few “minor” antiquities that the Egyptian Government had sent to each of the sponsoring museums for sale to patrons. Bill asked the clerk if we could take a look at a sarcophagus head encased in a plexiglass box. We were told that it was likely salvaged from the deteriorated sarcophagus of a royal court official and had been dated as between 2,500 and 3,000 years old. We examined it and Bill said to the clerk, “Okay, thank you,” by which I thought he meant thank you for showing it to us. But no, he meant, thank you, we’ll buy it. We agreed that it would be our Christmas present to each other for that year … and our birthday present to each other … and our anniversary present to each other. You get the idea. We have cherished it in our various homes ever since that November 1979 day. The following year in June 1980, we joined an AGO-sponsored tour of Egypt. We had such a wonderful time.
What would you do with that extra avocado that you just didn’t need for the guacamole? Some creative soul decided to cover theirs with paper-mâché, mould it into a Santa face, and paint it. I found it in an out-of-the-way antique shop in the Berkshires (MA) several years ago where this Santa ornament wasn’t the only bit of kink. 😉
Christmas’21 Pic#10 – Christmas 1970 in Paris.
I took a year off between my third and fourth years studying for my BA psychology degree in Waterloo and went to Paris to have time and solitude to read in areas of interest that I had beyond psychology (philosophy, history of art, theology, literature, etc.) I enrolled at Université de Paris-Sorbonne partly in order to get a student visa that would allow me to stay in the country for a year but mainly so I could access the marvellous Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève with its vast collection of books. It was a monastically solitary year and the most intellectually stimulating of my life – all I did was attend class in the mornings, spend every afternoon reading in the library (except for Thursday and Sunday afternoons when as a student I could explore the Louvre for free), and write in my one room cold-water flat in the evenings. (I took the selfie below on one of those studious evenings in my room.) I sent a letter at one point to my psychology professor back home which I later learned he read to his class describing me approvingly as having sought out my own Walden Pond. I lived on 5 francs a day (about $1 Cdn at the time) which bought me a baguette, a bit of fruit and cheese, and a copy of the paper Le Monde. My one hot meal a week was on Sunday evenings at an Algerian or Tunisian restaurant on the Left Bank after attending the evening organ recital and Mass at Notre Dame.
On the cold, snowy Christmas Eve of that year, I went to the Midnight Mass at Notre Dame. A young man with a backpack sat beside me. We chatted after Mass. He was a Swedish student who had taken a year off his studies to hitchhike around Europe. He had no idea where he would sleep that night. I invited him home to my place. He gratefully accepted the invitation. I had splurged earlier that day and bought a Bûche de Noël that we shared as our Christmas Eve dinner. We slept (platonically) in my single bed and he headed off in the morning. It remains one of the most memorable Christmases of my life.
Christmas‘21 Pic#11 – Family Memento Crystals, 1st pic of four.
As my parents aged, I was their principal caregiver since both my brothers lived in the US, my younger brother Rick in New York and my older brother Jim in Phoenix. For a number of years, Rick and his wife Diane sent Bill and me one of these beautiful Swarovski crystals each Christmas as a token of appreciation for our caregiving of Mom and Dad. These six crystals have come to hold great significance for me, especially this year, as I now think of them as representing the six immediate family members who have all died – Mom in 2005, Dad in 2007, my brother Rick and my partner Bill in 2009, and my brother Jim and Bill’s (and my) dear Aunt Mame in 2021. I have placed them as my Christmas table centrepiece this year. I watch sunlight sparkle through them in daytime and candlelight reflect off them at night. I marvel at the beauty of these Christmas crystals and I celebrate the lives they represent. (Over the next three days, my posts will feature them in pairs – Bill and Aunt Mame tomorrow, Mom and Dad on Monday, and Rick and Jim on Tuesday.)
Christmas’21 Pic#12 – Family Memento Crystals, 2nd pic of four. Bill as the man-in-the-moon and Aunt Mame as the smiling sun.
Bill always teased me about the difficulties I had making out the image of the man-in-the-moon. I chose to think of this crystal as representing Bill because sleep was important to him. Six months after we first met in 1976, Bill was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He lived with it all the rest of his life. Fatigue and pain were the main symptoms he experienced. He’d spend a lot of time in bed. And in August 2009 after being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and deteriorating rapidly, he was essentially confined to a hospital bed set up in our living room as part of the palliative care. From that bed he could see the moon through our large windows looking out over the city. Aunt Mame brought sunshine into Bill’s and my life. She used to babysit him as a child and was one of the only members of his family who accepted him when he came out (a gay uncle was the other). Aunt Mame and I grew even closer after Bill’s death. This photo of her and me is from May 2014 when I invited her as a special guest on the occasion of my being awarded an Honorary Doctorate at Victoria College (U of T). Aunt Mame had such a joyful personality as is apparent from our beaming smiles in this photo. Aunt Mame died of cancer in April 2021. She had a bronzed baby shoe of her beloved “Billy” buried with her. I marvel at the beauty of these Christmas crystals and I celebrate the lives they represent.
Christmas’21 Pic#13 – Family Memento Crystals, 3rd pic of four. Mom and Dad.
Though the snowflake crystals are fairly similar, the upper one has more pizzazz which captures Mom’s dynamic extroverted personality. The lower one appears more sedate which is a reflection of Dad’s quiet grounded demeanour. People often said of Dad, “such a gentleman.”I love the pairing of these two photos taken at polar ends of their life together as a couple. The affection and caring between the two of them is deeply engrained in the images, joyful and exuberant as a young couple and compassionate and mutually supportive in their twilight years. I marvel at the beauty of these Christmas crystals and I celebrate the lives they represent.
Christmas’21 Pic#14 – Family Memento Crystals, 4th pic of four. My younger brother Rick and my older brother Jim.
I’ve chosen the upper Christmas snowflake crystal to represent Rick and the lower one to represent Jim simply because Rick died before Jim and the upper crystal predates the lower one. Rick died by suicide on January 23, 2009. Jim died on January 23, 2021 from Multiple System Atrophy (a rare disease that mimics Parkinson Disease but is more aggressive). The “coincidence“ of them dying on the same date shocked and troubled me. Several months after Jim’s death, a friend whose partner had just died was telling me about weird coincidences that he was experiencing around his home that struck him as perhaps “signs” of comfort from his deceased partner even though he knew that sounded crazy. Something about that conversation stimulated my imagination and I began to conceive of a way in which I could give meaning to the January 23rd coincidence. Even though Jim died of natural causes, perhaps Jim “left” on the anniversary of Rick’s death in order to meet up with Rick on that horrendous date, be reconciled with him, and be together henceforth in whatever spirit realm may exist after death. I then was further jarred when I recognized another “coincidence” – the friend who had told me about the “signs” from his deceased partner was named Ken which was also Dad’s name. So, I took a further step, conjecturing that perhaps I could think of Dad’s spirit having facilitated this coming together of my brothers. All this makes no sense to my rational mind but it sure has granted a massive blessing of meaning and solace to the grief that I carry in my soul.I marvel at the beauty of these Christmas crystals and I celebrate the lives they represent.
This beautiful stained glass angel was a gift from dear friends a few years ago. I have an increasing sense of a spiritual dimension of life that transcends our physical lives. My experiences accompanying so many immediate family members as they have died and sensing their on-going presence in my life in undefinable ways provides much fodder for such reflection. Maybe images of angels are useful (and artistic) visual representations of that spirit world. As such, they evoke love and hope.
These are old well-used Christmas Carol books. “Yuletide Melodies” doesn’t have a date of publication listed but does have the price printed as “50cents in Canada.” More tellingly, it has my Grandmother’s signature “Mrs. Perschbacher” on the inside cover. Grandma taught piano lessons all her life and, as a single mother, raised her five girls, including my mother, on the proceeds of her teaching supplemented by taking in boarders. Mom used to tell us that she charged 35 cents and refused to change that as the years passed. Grandma started my brothers and me on piano lessons and then Mom took over when Grandma got too old. “The Christmas Carolers’ Book” was printed in 1935 and has my mother’s signature “Lillian Hallman” written on the front cover. Mom sang in the church choir and used this book to play and lead carol singalongs at Christmas parties in our home. “Christmas in Song” is a 1947 publication, stamped “Price: $1.35 In Canada,” and is inscribed in the inside cover with “W. Conklin. Please return.” Bill taught voice and piano to children and adults for the 33 years that we were together as a couple. Finally, “Christmas Carols” is also one of the books that Bill used with his students. It was printed in 1957. Bill’s patience with the students to whom he loaned it must have been wearing a bit thin because he wrote in the front of this book, “Property of W. Conklin. Please return!!” Lots of music played and sung from these books over the years.Group Christmas Carol singing does not hold the place that it once did but it still does occur. This Sunday, some of us members of Saint Luke’s United Church are heading to sing Christmas Carols across the street in Allan Gardens where through our Out-of-the-Cold meal program we distribute hot meals twice a week to homeless folk and others in need. The carols will hopefully provide them with a bit of nourishment too.
Christmas’21 Pic#17- The cottage Christmas that wasn’t.
A few years after Bill and I met, we bought a rustic cottage in the Kawartha Highlands. It sat on a beautiful heavily-treed lot jutting out into Lake Fortescue with water frontage on three sides. Over the next several years, we did a lot of upgrades, some pragmatic such as insulating (we planned to use it during the winters) and some more extravagant like the large deck on the west side for romantic dinners at sunset. Springtimes were joyful with the purple snowdrops and white trilliums poking up in the woods. In the summers, we often hosted family and friends for fun times on the dock and quiet campfires at night. Falls were spectacular with the changing leaves. And the winters, well, they could be a challenge. We didn’t go up that frequently during winter months except for about five days over Christmas.We had wonderful Christmases there, cross-country skiing on the frozen lake, lights on trees around the cottage, a decorated tree inside with presents underneath, lots to eat along with the eggnog and rum (or Bill’s preference, Southern Comfort). To keep us toasty and warm we had a fireplace and wood burning stove … and each other. It was a magical romantic fairyland for us. Until one Christmas when we could have died.
We drove up on that Christmas Eve, the car packed with our presents, food for five days including a turkey and all the trimmings to be prepared, extra warm clothes, and Rufus the cat in his carrying cage. There had been heavy snowfalls that December and the driving was a bit tricky. The private lane from the county road to our cottage was about a mile in length and was never plowed. We always left our snowmobile with trailer parked at the end of the lane and would use that to get to the cottage. But on this occasion, the snowmobile would not start. Neither Bill nor I were mechanically-inclined and we couldn’t figure out what the problem was. It was either a moonless night or overcast. I remember that it was very dark. The snow was so deep that we sank up to our knees with each step. Our snowshoes were, of course, in the cottage. We had no option but to walk in the lane carrying supplies. We couldn’t carry everything so we started the first trip with the most important, including Rufus. It took a long time and we were exhausted. But once in the cottage, I got a fire going in the wood stove, and we warmed up. My legs were so tired from the slog that the muscles were twitching. I lay down for a moment to let them calm down … and promptly fell sound asleep. Bill was anxious about the supplies that were still in the car and, being the determined man that he was, put on his snowshoes and trudged out for another load. I woke up at some point and discovered to my alarm that he was missing. I raced up the lane (as much as one can race while wearing clunky snowshoes) and found him about half way back dragging a load of more supplies that he had retrieved from the car. He wouldn’t let me help him. He was convinced that he could make it to the cottage and insisted that I head to the car to get the final load. With great difficult but even greater perseverence he did make it to the cottage. And this is the guy who several years earlier had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis of which fatigue was a major symptom. I eventually got back to the cottage as well with the final load.As each of us had made our trips back and forth, we would stop for short rest breaks but had to discipline ourselves not to lay down on the snow and especially not to rest our heads down or we seriously risked falling asleep and freezing to death. During what was left of the night, Bill would occasionally wake up and then rouse me to confirm that he was in fact in our bed in the warm cottage and not asleep on the snow hallucinating that he was in the cottage. The experience so traumatized us that the next day, Christmas Day, we packed up Rufus and the food, headed back out the lane to the car, and drove home to Toronto. We left our presents at the cottage. We’d open them in the spring.
We sold the cottage the following year. The magic was gone.
Christmas’21 Pic#18 – my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree
Several years ago, I dropped into my local garden centre in December hoping to find a small potted evergreen that I could decorate with lights and place on my balcony. I had left it too late. They had no trees left. As I was about to leave, I noticed some of the summer supplies piled in a back corner including wire pyramid frames used to stake tomato plants. An idea was born. I bought one.Back home, I took a couple lengths of artificial cedar roping and wound them around the frame. I then intertwined some lights and attached Christmas ornaments securing them well. I mounted my creation on a sturdy wrought iron urn and wired it tightly against the balcony railing. Voilá, my balcony Christmas tree.Because it is an open frame skeleton, wind can pass through it easily. It has withstood five or six Christmases on my balcony and is still, more or less, in good shape. However, the winds on a 31st floor balcony have left their imprint. From the side in the daylight photo, you can see how the frame has gradually bent over time. But it is an evocative distortion of the original shape. As soon as I had put it up this year and stood back to admire it, I noticed the significant tilt. The image of Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree came to mind. With that recognition, I was more pleased than ever with my humble creation.
Christmas’21 Pic#19 – Orient Express
A luggage tag is an unusual ornament to hang on one’s Christmas tree. But given that my tree is primarily decorated with meaningful mementos, this tag from my 2010 trip on the Orient Express fits in well.Bill and I had each been to Venice as students before we met and we went together in 1999. We were making plans to visit once more as the starting point for an excursion on the Orient Express. And then Bill died. I knew that he would still want me to go so I took the trip alone in October 2010. It was an emotional memorial trip. This baggage tag is a tangible reminder. I spent a week in Venice first before boarding the train that would take me to Prague, Paris, and London over the course of five days.Bill loved Murano glass but during our 1999 trip we never made it to Murano Island to see the glass factories where they make their beautiful creations. I went this time … accompanied, I sensed, by Bill’s spirit. I had no intention of buying anything. But after exploring the fascinating (and hot) glass-blowing factories, I wandered into a few stores. I was instantly enamoured by a graceful light fixture that I saw in one shop designed to look like acanthus leaves. I knew immediately where I’d like to have it – hanging in the library in our condo above the desk where I sit to write on one side and where Bill’s chair rests on the other side. I bought it, had it shipped, and mounted it in the library.Bill finally had his own Murano glass chandelier … and he’s been generous in sharing it with me ever since.
Christmas’21 Pic#20 – Stratford Christmases
Having sold our cottage in the late 1980s, Bill and I started looking for an out-of-Toronto place for weekends, summers, and Christmas times (where we wouldn’t need a snowmobile to get from the road to our house cf. Christmas’21 Pic#17). We settled on Stratford as the location for two main reasons – it was close to Waterloo where my parents lived and for whom I was assuming increasing caregiving and secondly, Bill and I loved the Stratford Festival. As kids, we had both gone on school trips to see plays and Bill had actually sung in the tent in the first season when he was a boy chorister in a Toronto Anglican choir that gave a concert at the Festival. As a couple, we had come to the Stratford Festival many times to see plays. In 1991, we bought an 1887 Victorian house in the downtown area. It had been duplexed years before which was what we were looking for on the expectation that one or other of our sets of parents might need our help with accommodation as they aged. As it turned out, Bill’s parents lived with us in the upstairs unit from 1993 until their deaths.
We did a lot of restoration and renovation in the first few years that we owned it. The house had not been in good shape when we bought it. Bill, with his fine design sense and drawing on photos of the house that he found in the Stratford City archives, restored the exquisite historical details, added a wonderful conservatory with large windows on the back, transformed the grass lawns in front and back into magnificent gardens, and rearranged the layout of some of the rooms to be both more useful for our living purposes but also more amenable to entertaining.
And entertaining we did, a lot, particularly grand garden parties in the summers and big Christmas Open House parties in December. We found Stratford to be a very social town. We made friends quickly amongst our neighbours, cast and crew members in the Stratford Festival company, and the large gay population of the town. For one summer garden party, we decorated the yard with streamers and balloons, rented half a dozen long banquet tables, set them end-to-end in the garden with the fifty or so guests seated around them, and served a six-course Italian meal complete with lots of wine. A few fireworks capped off the evening. But it was our big Christmas Open House parties that became something of a tradition during the twenty years that we owned the house. We would schedule them on a Sunday in December. They were come-and-go sorts of affairs with people arriving anytime between 2pm and 10pm (though the party often went on much later). Over the course of the Open House, we would usually see 100-125 people come through. The pile of winter boots in the front vestibule was quite a sight. I love this photograph of Bill as host-extraordinaire taken at one of those Christmas parties. The joy and effervescence of his personality shine through. I sold the house in 2010, the year after Bill died.
(The first pic below is of the house when we bought it in 1991 and the second pic is after we completed the restoration/renovation. The third pic shows Christmas decorations outside with wreaths on the railings, cedar roping embedded with lights around the door, and one of our multiple inside Christmas trees through the front window. In the pic of my Bill, dear friend Bill Aitchison, (aka Didi Chenille, also aka Billy DeVine the piannaman) is at the piano leading robust Christmas carol singing.)
Christmas’21 Pic#21 – The Millennium Christmas Party
The biggest party that Bill and I ever had in Stratford was in December of 2000 to celebrate three events – the beginning of the new Millennium, the year of my 50th Birthday, and the upcoming year of our 25th Anniversary as a couple. We decided the occasion merited a dinner and dance for lots of friends and family and was too ambitious to be accommodated in our house. So we rented the ballroom of the Queen’s Hotel (of course) in downtown Stratford. Stratford was quite magical that night with sparkling freshly fallen snow and Christmas lights around town like at City Hall. Most of the people who came were friends from Stratford, but others came from Kitchener-Waterloo (including my parents), some from Toronto, and my brother Rick and his wife Diane flew in from New York. The evening started with drinks and hors d’oeuvres followed by a big buffet and then dancing late into the night. Bill and I circulated non-stop chatting with everyone. A precious photo from the party is this one of my parents on the dance floor. Dad was starting to manifest signs of dementia and Mom was having mobility problems but they weren’t going to pass up this opportunity to dance. It was the last time that they were able to do so.At the end of the party, Bill and I went around letting everyone select one of these small silver and blue Christmas decorations as a little take-away of the evening. We had been in Paris the previous month and bought a whole bunch of them for this purpose of distributing them at the party.In the photo of these remaining ornaments, they are sitting on a silver platter which was what Bill and I carried around the room that night laden with lots of these decorations. Our names are inscribed in the middle of the platter with the date of our first date. You can’t see it in the photo but around the outside of the platter are the names of our parents: Adelle and William, Lillian and Kenneth.
To the surprise of none of you, my Facebook friends, mine is a proudly gay home including (especially?) at Christmas.
– The twisted rainbow Christmas tree was a gift several years ago from two friends who knew well my passion for Christmas decorations and my robust gay Pride;
– The rainbow-coloured bells sitting at its base are a gift this Christmas from a friend who visited the other night. He’s one of about a dozen gay friends whose partners have died since Bill’s death in 2009. The glass cherub candle holders on either side are gifts from another of these gay widow friends and had been bought years ago by his deceased partner. These are precious Christmas gifts for me this year. I have endeavoured to provide support to all these guys in their grief journeys based on my experience in losing Bill. The support has been mutual. Many long conversations about love and loss with lots of tears and laughter have taken place in this home so imbued with Bill’s spirit;
– The decorations on the tree of a pink triangle, a rainbow-coloured triangle, and an AIDS ribbon represent my lifelong experience as an openly gay man engaged personally, professionally, and politically in the struggles for justice and equality and who has been HIV+ since 1993 remaining healthy thanks to good medical care, exercise, nutrition, and rest;
– I’ve hosted many gay parties in my home ranging from quiet intimate dinners, to raucous Christmas celebrations with 60-70 guys that went late into the night, and unique events like “A Queer Classical Music Soirée” organized in Pride month 2019 with my friend composer/pianist Adam Sherkin where 50+ classical-music-loving gay men attended raising money for Rainbow Railroad that helps queer folk escape persecution and violence in their home countries;
My two major volunteer engagements in retirement are with Saint Luke’s United Church and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In both, I’ve been open as a gay man and they’ve been open in their embrace of me:
– At Saint Luke’s, I chaired our process of becoming an Affirming Congregation in 2012 and during World Pride in Toronto in 2014 we hung a large welcoming banner;
– At the Toronto Symphony, I chair the TSO Maestro’s Club (the association of donors) where I act as host in the members’ lounge and where many of the women tell me how much they appreciate that I notice and comment on their beautiful outfits (an awareness I attribute to my gay sensibility, lol) compliments they don’t get from their fashion-challenged oblivious heterosexual husbands, and I am pleased at how each June the TSO recognizes Pride month in a variety of musical and other ways including adapting their logo to incorporate the progressive gay flag.
Celebrating gay life with gratitude at Christmas time and year round with all its joy, energy, sorrows, loves, losses, friendships, challenges, and hope.
Over the past weeks, I’ve shared photos and stories about many of my Christmas decorations. Here I post a view of the full Christmas fairyland in my condo. I took the photo on an evening prior to the arrival of guests for a Christmas dinner party that occurred early in December before Omicron exploded into our lives.
Christmas’21 Pic#24 – Handel’s “Messiah”
I went to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” just prior to the Omicron variant really exploding in our midst. Fatigued by the pandemic and nervous about what might yet be coming, I was badly in need of something to lift my spirits and I got it through the beautiful “Messiah” performance. It brought to mind a previous TSO/TMC “Messiah” performance ten years ago about which I wrote a blog post at the time.
On this Christmas Eve of 2021 when hope seems to be in short supply, it feels appropriate to re-share that blog. Originally posted on Dec. 15, 2011 on https://davidghallman.wordpress.com:
The Secret Message in Handel’s “Messiah”
George Frideric Handel hid a secret message in his “Messiah” when he composed his masterpiece oratorio in 1741. The incredible code has remained undetected until last night when I discovered it at the conclusion of a brilliant performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and soloists.
Let me explain.
My partner Bill was a music teacher of piano and voice. Over our thirty-three years together, hundreds of children and adults came to our home for lessons. They adored him. Bill was something of a larger-than-life character and highly respected as a music teacher. He always had a waiting list of students anxious to secure a place. With the children, he had infinite patience. With the adults, not so much.When Bill and I first met in 1976, fell in love, and started living together, we discovered that one of the things we shared in common was a passion for music, especially classical music. There was always music playing in our home. Over the decades, we went to countless musical events in Toronto and in major concert halls and opera houses around the world.One of our favourite Christmas traditions was attending the TSO performance of Handel’s “Messiah” every year. Bill was suddenly and unexpectedly diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer on August 7, 2009. He died two weeks later in our home. The story of those incredible two weeks and of our thirty-three-year love affair is told in my memoir “August Farewell.”
As with many people who lose a loved one, there is a powerfully-charged emotional dilemma about what to do with the special traditions that were shared together. My choice has been to embrace the traditions come what may.And so, in a fragile state, I was at Roy Thomson Hall last night for the annual performing of Handel’s “Messiah.”I held it together pretty well throughout the performance … until the finale.
The oratorio ends with a chorus concluding in a stunning choral “Amen” that soars on for three to four minutes.All of a sudden, as the 150 voices of the massed choir were reverberating through the concert hall, I wasn’t hearing “A—men, A—men, A—men,…”I was hearing “Hall—man, Hall—man, Hall—man,…”
Throughout our thirty-three years together, Bill always called me “Hallman” – “hey, Hallman, where’s my coffee?”, “nice work, Hallman”, “I realize I frustrate you sometimes, Hallman, but you know that I love you”…
The choir sang on and on. “Hall—man, Hall—man, Hall—man,…” surrounded me, poured over me, embraced me. Tears streamed down my cheeks, tears of sadness mixed with joy and overlaid with hope.
Bill was directing a chorus of angels calling out my name.
At least that’s how I experienced it.I know that Handel’s coded love note from Bill to me was discernible to my ears only. No matter. It was intended for me after all.
So on this Christmas Eve 2021, as we deal with the sadness of this on-going pandemic, let us not lose touch with the joy that still resides in our hearts through our relationships past and present, and let us not lose hope in a future where love, whether sung to us by a chorus of angels or not, will carry us on.
Merry Christmas, my dear friends. Pottery crèche that Bill and I bought in Colombia forty years ago resting on a crocheted tablecloth that Mom made sixty years ago.
Blessings to you all. ❤️