Of fleas and figs and otherworldly mysteries.



When I was a teenager I was given the gift of a relationship with a very kind, wise, and witty social worker named Freda, who became like a mother to both my friend Budgie (my “co-conspiritor in crime”), and myself. Budgie and I were both in the care of the “Family and Children’s Service”, in separate foster homes at the time. We met when we were both 14- I had seen Budgie in a fashion show (I think that I was the musical interlude at intermission) and we became fast friends in the blink of an eye. Freda had introduced us, I’m sure thinking that because we were the same age we would get along like a house on fire. As always, Freda was right. Budgie and I quickly became close confidantes- comparing notes about our foster homes, discussing events of earthshattering significance, and exercising our respective poetic and musical aptitudes. Not infrequently were such activities carried out in the presense of Freda- indeed, we needed to smoke all of her cigarettes and eat many “Dennys” hot fudge sundaes before the ills of the planet were at last made right.

Freda came to Canada as a war bride- a young English woman madly in love with a Canadian soldier. She would often tell Budgie and I that “you only have one great love in your lifetime”- and her great love was David. Budgie and I never met David- as he died suddenly of a heart attack when Freda’s children were only teenagers. I think that she must have become a social worker because of the vibrant zest for life that many of her “rotten kids” brought her in those days. I don’t think that I ever saw her sad- perhaps angry in that humphed up British-stiff-upper-lip type of way- but by and large my memories of her are those of laughter and amazement at the alacrity of her wickedly intelligent humor. Freda always knew how to say the right thing at the right moment- while I would have had to go away for a week to obtain a weak imitation of her fiery retorts. A staunch defendent of both Budgie and myself, she would also be forthright in hauling us in and upbraiding us should it be needful. From Freda we learned how to set a decent table, how to cook a memorable supper, how to be truly hospitable. I still have her books on ‘elegant entertaining’- fit for a debutante.

I will never forget or cease to love the memory of one who taught me to keep on living and believing that love could be unconditional- even in my most intolerant days. When my husband and I were members of a ‘charismatic’ community of fundamentalists, Freda was the voice of the liberal rationalist, gently allowing and respecting faith without being crushed by it. After we left that community, Freda remained constant- encouraging us to believe that God was good- perhaps people were silly and unreliable, but God was there none-the-less. I remember her telling me of her own early days of religious training- and how easily doctrines could be misconstrued. For example, she told me of an old favorite hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”, that had a line in it that went something like “at the sound of battle Satan’s hosts must flee”. However, as a small child, Freda was convinced that the line read “Satan’s toast and fleas”…or perhaps that was what she heard. The image of the devil sprinkling fleas on his cold buttered toast- rather like cinnamon and sugar- was a difficult one to dispell. And yet, even in that illustration Freda was teaching me to be very careful not to jump to quick conclusions.

Freda loved music, and was a sharp critic of the arts- although she could not carry a tune from the table to the sink. She would ask if I knew such-and-such a song, and would proceed to hum (what she thought were) a few bars. I would never be able to pick it up from her demonstrations- and she always forgave me with a laugh and a “nevermind love”. She came to every recital I gave, and always was generous in her praise. What Freda could not communicate through her own song, she symphonized in her paintings, of which I am privileged to have one or two. Whenever she made something for me, or gave me anything at all, it was always signed ‘to dearest Josie with fondest love’. I can hear her saying that in my minds eye right now. She made me promise that when she died I would sing “And did those feet in ancient times (Jerusalem)”..I think she even had it written into her will, along with the Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes. What joy it will be to sing them for you again in heaven.

My beloved Freda- how I wish you could be here to tell us once again that things will be allright; that good people will prevail upon the earth; that God is indeed good after all. I wish that you could see the fig trees in the summer; could help me find where the flowers of the fig tree dwell; could help me eat the ripe jam of autumn. I wish you were here, and yet I would not want you to see what is happening on the earth- that terrorists slaughter missionaries of mercy, caring not for children, murdering in the name of some god that cannot possibly be the good One that you learned of in your youth. Can you see us? Can you hear the Babylon of destruction that strikes paralyzing fear into the hearts of kinder souls? Could you put in a strong word for us- advocate for us with the Judge of all the earth? Yitgadal v’yitgdash sh’may rabah!

One thought on “Of fleas and figs and otherworldly mysteries.

  1. Josie! It is good to see you in blogland.This is such a touching story, thank you for posting on it.I look forward to your future posts. My blog is bananasandmustard.blogspot.com . Love in Him who is the source of Love,Mira

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