Rivka’s Story

Rivka: I feel myself so differently. I am better now; it’s never too late.

I hear how physical and emotional pain are never forgotten, live on in body, mind and cells.

A new focus makes a life you never imagined

She sits bolt upright in a corner of the lounge at the Jewish seniors’ centre in North Toronto: short, plump, grey-haired, hands clenched on her lap, her face strained. Gradually, as she sees that I am not pushing her to talk about anything she doesn’t want to she tells me that she usually avoids thinking about the past because those memories are too painful.

She was raised in poverty in Winnipeg during the depression of the 30’s: “The economic situation was very bad when we were children, problems of unemployment, strikes everywhere, the workers struggling and no one seemed to care. That may have something to do with it, or whether it just seems that you inherit it somehow. If you get that feeling—I hate to see anybody put down. And I had a strict father, he was a scholar and worked when he felt like it; it was my mother who always worked.”

“Not very good memories,” I said.

“No. Just a few good ones, like the smells on the Sabbath. We were scrubbed clean you know, there was a little bit of baking—buns and poppy seed cookies. And that’s it. That was all. And I remember the harsh winters, living in small quarters ’cause it was really bad.”


“Yes. Will we ever get out of this?”

“The sounds?”

“Of course the chanting on Friday nights. My father had a good voice, but you couldn’t appreciate it he was such a difficult man.”

“No pleasure in those sounds.”

“Absolutely not.” She looked at me sideways, smiling a little, laughed ruefully, “I was not going to talk to you about that personally.”

“That’s right, we don’t need to—anything else about the past, not personal?”

She thought for a moment and then said that she hadn’t had the kind of education that would equip her to earn a decent living.

“Not enough?” I asked.

“No, no, not enough, and not enough at home either but that’s all over and done with.”

“Yes… Was there any plus side to it at all?”

“Well, I certainly learned how to concentrate, didn’t I!”

She married when she was very young, “to have some sort of life” and had “10 good years” with a loving, kind man who “introduced her to the possibility of happiness.” But he died young, leaving her with a four-year-old daughter to raise.

“When my husband passed away I wasn’t trained, I didn’t have the necessary skills. I had to take the lowest-paid, lowest kind of job, as a clerk, and then in a dress shop, selling clothes I would never wear, and helping with the buying. I detested it. It wasn’t my cup of tea. That’s why I’m on two high blood-pressure pills a day.

“I try not to think about it, I’m glad it’s behind me, but, you know, it was rough. I don’t know, but my arms still ache, and my legs, because I was running up and down the stairs in the dress shop, lifting those heavy coats, dumping them on the hangers, helping the women—ladies in waiting! Huh! Obnoxious creatures! So, all that.”

“Hurt your muscles.”

“I guess it did.”

“I guess they remember, don’t they?”


“I guess they remember.”

“My muscles … they remember … Yeah, they took it all in. Yeah. It’s funny to think of it that way, I never have, but it’s true isn’t it, your muscles … your body … they have a way. Almost like they store things in there isn’t it?”

“Yes. They certainly do.”

She is uneasy, pauses and then changes the subject, telling me that when she was working, there was no time to do anything else except her job, housework, and caring for her daughter—”two jobs every day all day.” But that now that she’s retired, she “feels better in every way” and not as different as she used to.

“Or as alone?” I ask.

“Not so much,” she replies.

When she first went to the seniors’ centre, her “nerves were shot,” and she knew she must work with her hands. She started with tiles and then went on to other arts and crafts—knitting, painting, clay.

“Sounds like you needed some time—use your hands and just relax.”

“That’s right, that’s right.”

In the art classes she remembered loving to draw leaves in the classes at school, and so she drew all the little lines and curves she remembered, differently for the elm and for the ash, even recalling the names of the species.

“And you’d remember …”

“I’d remember, yes, and even now, I look for it—I look for nature. I love walking and the fresh air, I really do. Take that away from me, and I’m gone. This morning, I walked—I go for a walk every day, which I never used to be able to do—I call them my therapy sessions. I must get out in the morning and look around and have some time for myself.”

After a while she enrolled in several courses, attended other lectures regularly and was persuaded to take attendance.

“I had to overcome my shyness, I didn’t think I could do it, but it was a good way to meet people—and to practice my memory.” Eventually she felt confident enough to introduce the speakers and now coordinates the Life Long Learning program.

“I find my powers of concentration has increased considerably since I’ve been taking the lectures.”

“Has it?”

“Oh, definitely, definitely!”

“Do you take notes during the lecture?”

“No, no, I don’t, I listen.”

“That’s how you remember?”

“If something has meaning I’ll concentrate, and then it will “get stored away … if it isn’t important enough to stay in my mind, then it’s not important.” (Just as Callum said, “A moment’s full attention is all that is needed.”)

“How do you store it away? Some people repeat it, some people …”

“With my eyes and my head. My eyes store a lot.” I love her practicality and asked her to explain.

“I’m looking at the lecturer, almost he is talking with his eyes to me.”

“Un-huh, and then …”

“With my head—the information goes up there. That’s where the brain is supposed to be,” she says tartly. (Oh good! Other than a few smiles, this is the first time she has shown strong feelings.)

“Right! You’re not aware of any sort of repeating or …?”

“If it’s a topic that I don’t like, on TV or elsewhere, if there’s cruelty in it or meanness, I feel it here,” touching her stomach.

“You’ve said that then sometimes you’ll block it out.”

“No, you can’t. I’ll walk away from it.”

“And if it’s something that you like …?”

“I’m exhilarated.”

“Where …?”

“All over. All over.” She sounds a little impatient now, as if I’m too slow in getting it. “It’s just like seeing the opera Madame Butterfly. I’ve watched many, many productions, but about a year ago, at the O’Keefe [now Sony], it was the most beautiful production I’ve ever seen, especially the scene when the sun was setting and Cio-Cio San was waiting for Pinkerton.” As she talks, she touches her heart:”Oh, the feeling, right here. How she watched and watched, and the sun was setting. And he didn’t come … That was … I feel it now, just thinking about it. No part of me can forget it.”

I asked what operas appealed to her, and she said ones where the plot and voices are good, like La Traviata and Rigoletto. She loves Luciano Pavarotti and remembers the melodic arias.

“How do you do that? One musician I talked to said he remembered the personality of sounds, another, who is a painter, said sounds have colour.”

“Oh, yes—well, you hear them over and over. Just through memory, I guess.”

“If you wanted to remember the aria from the first act of Traviata would you hear the sound, or visualize it, or …” She sings a few bars of Traviata. “The others, they don’t come out spontaneous, but the minute I hear them I associate, like you know, we have a little contest, my sister and I, to see which one we can remember.”

“You remembered that one right away.”

“Mmm. Spontaneously. She sings a few bars of La Bohème … ” Was I humming that before?vNot my favourite though.”

It may not be your favourite, but La Bohème came to you. What …?”

“Gives me goose bumps. It touches me.”

“What happens? Are you feeling the sounds, and then …?”

“Feeling sounds, I don’t quite follow that.”

I ask her to try an experiment, to close her eyes and, as a piece of music comes to her, to observe what’s happening. She sits with eyes closed for a minute, a little smile playing around the corners of her mouth, and then says, “Just by thinking.”

“Just by thinking. And do you see anything, or is it a feeling kind of thinking?”

“More of a feeling.”

“It seems to me as if your feelings and memories are singing in you. When you first talked about writing a speech, you used the word “draw” and you’ve told me that you enjoy working with your hands. Now you’re remembering music when it touches you. Sounds as if you’re a kinaesthetic learner, learning through your body, as well as your mind.”

“Well, yes, I suppose I … Well, hmm. Well, I don’t know … I’ll have to think about that … I’m learning something here.… I gave you a hard time didn’t I?”

“A little. It didn’t seem to hold us back though, did it?”

“I’ve enjoyed it … you’ve been discrete. I thought I’d be very apprehensive, but it’s all right.”

“Oh, Rivka, thank you … and I think you’ve been very brave.”

She reaches over and pats my hand, covers it with hers for a few moments. I give her hand a little squeeze, and then we stand up, put on our coats, and walk together to the parking lot.