Pete's Blog & Grille: 9/11 Edition
Today, across North America, people are recalling where they were or what they did on 9/11. For me, the day before — 9/10 to be precise — is just as memorable. And I learned lessons on 9/10 I hope to pass on to my grandchildren. The lessons from 9/11 I’ll let other people teach.
And it’s not because that’s the day I had my first-ever periodontal work done, though that is an unforgettable experience.
It was the walk home afterwards that made me realize that the most important issues are handled on the home front, at heart-level.
Like I said, I was in a periodontist’s office that morning, and the necessary gum work was done by noon.It was a beautiful sunny fall day and I did something I’d always wanted to do but never found the time for: I walked all the way home from downtown Toronto, a distance of about six kilometres.
My mouth was bandaged so I couldn’t stop in for anything to drink or eat, so I ambled slowly westward, checking out the little shops that I’d never otherwise visit.
One, on the north side of Dundas Street in a part of town called Little Portugal, was a luggage store. It’s not there any more but I wish it was. Because when I saw it, I thought my prayers had been answered.
About a week earlier, I and my family had gone on a picnic. After we were done, I packed the plates and leftovers into a lovely flowered leather-and-cloth satchel that my wife Helena had used for years. I picked it up and, telling the family that I’d fetch our grey Minivan and return to pick them up so they didn’t have to walk far, headed for the parking lot.
I arrived at the van and for some inexplicable reason, placed the satchel on the side of the road for a minute. And then drove away.
I only realized my mistake after we were all seatbelted in and of course by the time we got back to the parking area, the bag was gone.
It was not a happy moment.
So when I saw the little crowded dingy and absolutely jammed-to-the-rafters luggage store, I figured there was a chance that I’d find a replacement. And make my wife happy again.
The senior citizen behind the counter turned out to be a lovely, old Jewish man who wanted to talk as much about his children and his grandchildren as he did luggage.
He told me about surviving a concentration camp in Poland and about how his kids all graduated from university and now his grandchildren still live in Toronto. (I wasn’t in a hurry. Neither was he.)
All the time we were talking, I was scoping the store for a replacement bag. (It was a small shop, I didn’t have to walk around to do this. But I sure felt hopeful.)
At one point, my new old friend said, “And one more thing. If you can guess my age, I will give you anything you want in this store absolutely free.”
I laughed and calculated… the war ended about 60 some years ago, he was in a concentration camp, that’ll make him at least 70 something, but he really looks 90, so I’ll go with…
He laughed and hit the counter with the palm of his hand. “I'm NINETY YEARS OLD! NINETY”, he said. “And you thought I was 72!”
Then I told the man about my quest.
I told him the sad story of how I lost my wife’s beloved satchel. I included the fact that her late father Josef Szybalski had been with us on the picnic and he too had a number on his arm from Auschwitz. I told the luggage man about how my wife was born on a tiny farm in the backwoods of Poland to a very poor family, but now she has a masters degree in science from University of Toronto and three lovely children.
I told him about how much she loved the lost satchel. And in fact how I was sort of surprised that she didn’t get angry when we lost it, only sad. I started describing the bag to him.
He stopped me. He said “You’re wasting your time. Even if you could find the exact same bag, it wouldn’t the same thing. Forget it.”
He was right. The man knew a thing or two about priorities. He knew it wasn’t the item that mattered; it was something more than that. Maybe some day I would understand.
I left the store, empty handed; heavy-hearted.
The fact is, I learned more about life that day in that little luggage store than I would even the next day, after the jets hit the towers.
You never know when you’re going to learn the really important lessons, do you?