Dr. Dawg

A late tribute to Rita West (née Cymbalista)

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Rita.jpgIt’s important to acknowledge the people who have changed our lives. Rita literally defined the course of mine.

I was seventeen, enrolled in a programme of studies at McGill University that I hated. She was the same age. I was hopelessly in love with her, or imagined I was. This was not returned. She loved someone else. That love was not returned. Oh, to be young again.

I wanted to write poetry. Like the cruel White Goddess of Robert Graves, Rita at once encouraged me and discouraged me. I won third prize in a campus-wide literary contest. She was not impressed. The word “crap” was uttered, over smoked meat sandwiches at Ben’s. Yet I had discovered something I needed to do. It wasn’t that I wanted to impress her—fat chance of that happening—but that I wanted to impress myself.

A classic identity crisis unfolded. I went to fewer and fewer lectures. I had discovered Marxism, too, in its less subtle guises. Not her circles. But somehow we kept up a friendship, having lunch together, talking, walking. Later in the school year I spent a week on the pavement in front of the US Consulate on McGregor Avenue, protesting the war in Vietnam and supporting the march to Selma. So that must have been 1965. By then I had moved out of residence into a cockroach-infested room on St-Famille Street so I could be closer to Rita and her sister Sylvia (now a Montreal actor), who had taken a somewhat better room a short distance away.

There was a final exam in invertebrate zoology that April, worth 40% of the final mark. I decided I’d prefer to sleep in. So much for a life of science.

What, then, did I want to do? my father asked me when I came back to Ottawa, pursued by my failures. “I want to write really well,” I answered. My parents never ceased to encourage me after that, even if I did go back to university instead of taking the mad leap I doubtless should have. University was a cop-out, to be honest. I did well at it the second time around. But the desire to write never left me. And for that, I need to thank Rita. Those early words of poetry were because of her. They were her fault. I was on a new path.

I saw her twice more. The first time was during an anti-war march in Montreal in 1967. I had travelled up to Expo with my new girlfriend, and we saw the march assembling and joined in. We didn’t meet up. The second time was (I think) 1971, in an airport; I was studying at the University of Glasgow, and was returning home for a visit. This time we did speak, in a desultory kind of way. Sylvia was with her.

So what brings this all on? Well, my stepson is now enrolled in some courses at Carleton. He’s champing at the bit, and asked me for a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. I found one, a Christmas present inscribed “To my friend John-Dylan, A very merry Christmas, and a very merry everything, all-the-time, forever and ever from, Rita.” (Dylan was a fake voice I affected, which she enjoyed.) And I began to wonder what became of her.

It didn’t take me long, Google being what it is. She had passed away two years ago, in—of all places—Clayton, Ontario, a half-hour drive from Ottawa. She had worked, as it turned out, in the National Library after spending some time in Nova Scotia. Right downtown!

I think if I had just learned of her death somewhere else, I would have felt less moved. But to have been in the same area for so many years, not meeting, not speaking….

The barriers between people enclose and protect spaces in which we grow, but they also imprison us. Had we met during those latter times, I have no idea what we would have talked about. But of one thing I am certain: I would have thanked her.

Goodbye, then, Rita. This is just a note, tossed over the wall. Thank you so very much for yours.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on September 2, 2015 11:36 AM.

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