Gems

The (relatively small) world (of midtown Toronto and a little further) was our oyster. A sleepy parent drove us, my great friend and I, south to the Royal Ontario Museum early each Saturday and there we spent some hours doing whatever the people who ran the museum's Saturday Morning Club conjured up for us to do. We handled snakes and learned to read a constellation into a spangle of stars and were turned loose to sketch. There was a greenish mummy we stared at forever.

Then, city kids that we were, we went out for lunch across the street. We sat at the counter and ordered the same orders, burgers with a few specifics, for years. Then we re-crossed Bloor St. to skate at the Varsity rink, earning badges and spending our pocket money on thin, scorching cocoa and sugary pink wafer cookies from a machine. There were serious skating kids mastering leaps and spins, in slim skating suits and one in skates made of silver leather, but we were content to pair up, in our thick Irish sweaters, our abbreviated kilts and black leggings, and clasp hands upon hearing the tinny rhythms of the Dutch Waltz, and to master crosscuts and shooting the duck.

And then we slipped our skate guards on and packed our bags, with the dimes we carried in case we needed to use a pay phone in an emergency, whatever that might be, and our morning's drawings and pencils and soft, technicolor pastels in a box with a rubber band and we took the subway home. Minutes to home, we were.

This was the era of moon launches and of proud and optimistic Canadian citizenship, and when I stop to think of the autonomy of those special years, the casual access to brilliant things, I always think of the gem room. Once in a while we Saturday morning explorers landed up there: It was a cave lit by every colour, by the mystery of opals, by light both raw and faceted.

I saw something like it again last winter, a dark time when I was, in fortunate contrast to that darkness, drenched for a week in sunshine and seawater, snorkelling on a Caribbean reef. I had been watching marvels scoot around below me: shark, permit, ray, turtle. It was almost time to climb back onto the boat and I tipped my head forward for a last look. Hanging in the aquamarine water around me were gleaming masses of yellow fish (striped jack fish, I think): magic.

The gem room, I thought -- and felt a wash of optimism: Remember that you were an explorer and do it again. 

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