Depending upon where I am, I will be asked one of three questions to establish who I am. The process of determining identity—whether one is friend or foe—and who can be trusted is not so obvious.
One way of knowing who someone is, is by finding out where they are from.
In Mexico, where I once worked in a small village on a documentary, I noticed that the first question asked of anyone who came into town was “Where are you from?”
Once the location was deduced, the identity could be formed. Mexicans knew that geography affects character, determines ancestry, and creates identity. The thinking goes like this: Ahh, you are from M____, do you know C____? Now that we have determined what is important, we can proceed.
Another way of establishing who someone is, is by name. In Newfoundland, I was again in a remote community working on a film. Here identity was determined by the last name. Once a name was known, the family was known. “Oh you must be related to K___ over in B____.” Learning a name—and its lineage—established a comfort level.
Of course, I, coming from away, was outside this process. No one cared where I came from. Montreal was a separate universe.
A third way of learning an identity is, as it is commonly done here. We are, of course, told a name but—unless we are playing tribal geography—that is irrelevant. Equally, where we are from is less of a concern because large urban cities are heterogeneous.
What really counts is work. “What do you do?” is our way of creating hierarchies and deciding whether we are comfortable with someone new. “Oh, you are a brain surgeon.” How the heck can I relate to that? I’ll just Google your name and see if we have something in common.
My father, having hit the 100-year mark, and looking good, has achieved another level of identity. I notice that the question asked by those who do not know him well is, “How old is he?” This is addressed to me as I am not sure that he believes that he is 100.
He may know this tangibly but he doesn’t believe it.
He also doesn’t believe that I am 64 or that my daughter is 24. None of this makes sense. It happened too quickly.
Of course, for him, living a century is an impossibility—no one did it when he was growing up.
An older friend once told me that as a youth, a neighbour had turned 75 and all the kids on the street ran to meet him because “who lived that long?”
For my father, whatever ways we may have of establishing identity have become peripheral—where he might be from, his lineage, what he did for a living.
He can tell us stories about those days, but none of this really matters. His identity is caught up in simply enjoying life.
He has become entangled in the present with powerful under-currents from the past. The only question he gets asked by those who know him is, frankly the only one that counts: “How are you?”
To which he replies with the only answer that makes sense: “I’m still alive.”
My mother was the cook in our family and my father was her most appreciative audience. He still has a healthy appetite and it is a treat to go out with him for lunch or bring over a meal for dinner.
When we were kids, he was known for his sandwiches.
These were made from hard all-beef salami, thinly sliced from a yard long casing, which he always had drying, hanging off a hook in the cupboard.
To this he might add cold cuts or left over roast beef, lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo.
There would be a pickle on the side.
The key is to have fresh vegetables and enough sliced meat with a pervasive garlicky, salty deli taste. It was a huge, long sandwich, layered onto a crusty baguette and sliced into palm-sized portions.
To us kids, it looked big enough to last forever.