20 July 2008

Cousin Elroy

It's been a few weeks and I still haven't finished my account of the Mom-and-me Ontario pilgrimage. The last couple days were spent in Kitchener, which is a mid-sized town tucked away amid a welter of other mid-sized towns like Guelph, Waterloo and Cambridge, along with some rivers and woods and a generally pleasing countryside.

Despite the headline you see above, Elroy is not literally my cousin. He's actually married to my mom's cousin, which makes him not a blood relative at all, but he's cool enough that I'm pleased as can be to have him in my family on whatever basis that works.

The first time I met Elroy was in 1958, and even if I'd never seen him again, he would have lived forever in my memory as the guy who bought me my first malt. I'd had milkshakes before, although not often, considering that they were priced at the dizzying price of one whole quarter, which was two weeks' worth of allowance money. I'd never even considered spending the extra nickel to make it a malt, assuming that such luxuries were for the rich kids from the other side of the expressway.

That alone ensured Elroy a permanent place in my affections, but add to that the fact that he was just about the coolest kid I had ever met. Well, as it turned out, he wasn't a kid at all - he was 22 at the time, to my 10, and in Detroit to pick up a wedding ring for his fiancée - but for some reason, I assumed he was a teenager, no more than 15 or 16, and not just any teenager, either, but a super-cool, rockin'n'rollin' 1950s teenager with a slicked back pompadour and the latest rockabilly/drugstore cowboy clothes that completely belied his small North Ontario farm town origins.

When I was still living at home I generally saw Elroy and his wife whenever the family went up to Hamilton and Toronto, but once I was on my own there was about a 30 year hiatus during which I only heard about him occasionally from my mother. The news was not good: while still in his 30s or 40s, his kidneys failed, and only a transplant saved him. Then in his 60s the transplanted kidney failed, and that, combined with other complications, very nearly killed him. Somehow he pulled through, got another kidney which at least so far - and thanks to the Canadian medical system, which not only paid for the operation, but also provides him with the $1,000+ monthly in anti-rejection drugs he needs - is keeping him, at age 72, in reasonably good health.

How good? Well, on my second day staying with him, we started out with a visit to the gym at the local Y, where he went through a workout not unlike what I do at my own gym back home, followed by a 10 mile cross-country bike ride, involving some fairly serious hills, some dirt trails, and - kudos to the province of Ontario here - some awfully beautiful scenery. About half the ride followed a well-maintained trail along the Grand River, and eventually we wound up in the town of Galt, which reminded me uncannily of England, with its (albeit cleaner) Victorian factories and warehouses, where we sat at an outdoor cafe admiring the view and wondering if we were going to beat the fearsome-looking thunderclouds back home (we did, more or less; although it rained off and on, we managed to slip between most of the raindrops).

Elroy had borrowed a bike for me from one of the neighbors, by far the nicest (and obviously most expensive) bike I had ever laid hands on. It was like a Rolls-Royce compared to anything I'd ever ridden before. All these years I've wondered how those bikers I see peddling up the sides of mountains can possibly do it; now I know: at times it felt like I barely needed to pedal at all, so favorable were the gear ratios or whatever it is they do to make those bikes easy to ride. Of course I'd be completely insane to try and keep a bike like that in New York City, but if some day I ever live in a small town again...

And it wasn't just the bike making me envious, but the countryside and the general quality of life. When I was young, going to Canada used to feel as though we were traveling back in time to a quainter but decidedly poorer and shabbier era. No more; if anything, the situation has reversed, and now I felt as though we Americans were the poor country cousins, an impression powerfully reinforced the next day when we crossed back into the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Detroit.

Like a lot of Americans, I've occasionally made sneering gibes at Canada's touchy-feely quasi-socialism, but I think the time has come to admit that in many ways they got it right and we got it wrong. Hell, if it weren't for the weather, I think I might be lining up at the immigration office already.

Oh, one more thing about Elroy: like his wife, he's a more or less fundamentalist Christian. But not a judgmental one, not a humorless one - in fact, he rarely stops cracking jokes - and certainly not a right wing or illiberal one. In fact, when I mentioned some intemperate and unkind things I'd heard other Christians say, Elroy responded, "Well, I don't care what they call themselves; if they think like that, they're probably not Christians." So we had some good talks about God and faith and the purpose of life, not at all the sort of thing I would have anticipated discussing with that rockabilly kid I met and idolized 50 years ago. So Cousin Elroy, "real" cousin or not, I sure am glad you're part of my family.

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