Gifts of the Season

Monday I received the greatest of gifts… six new friends.

We were one table among many, nearly 30 people from my West End YMCA aquafit class attending a seasonal luncheon. The faces were familiar. We had seen each other in our classes for months, if not years, wearing bathing suits in the pool, naked in the locker room. Always we were congenial, smiling, nodding, perhaps exchanging a few words. Ours was the superficial familiarity of strangers thrown together regularly, but who never really meet.

On Monday, we actually learned each others’ names, and our stories. What a gift! We learned that Florrie had come from Montreal in the ’70s but was originally from New Brunswick, that Anne was a former ballerina who, with her actor spouse, has lived across Canada, and that Agnes was from Hong Kong, spent ten years in Europe, and has been in Canada for over 40 years. Esmee came from Mexico City, applied to the U of T as a young mother to audit courses, and was offered a surprise scholarship instead. So began her long career in applied statistics. Judith was a career nurse who worked, among other places, at Baycrest, and is knowledgeable about residential care facilities for seniors. By the time lunch was over, we had moved to a level of conversation which ensures that, in the future, our interactions will be meaningful.

All this was due to the initiative and energy of three class members who invited the rest of us to “meet and mingle” in the Y Activity Room. What a splendid initiative! The original idea came from Mumtaz Jaffer, a Y member for six years who now teaches aquafit part-time, as a volunteer. Mumtaz came to Canada in 1984 from Tanzania, joining her aunt and sister already living in Calgary. Three years later she moved with her husband to Toronto, and had a career as an optician. When she became injured, she turned to the Y to help her own rehabilitation. She hasn’t looked back since. Mumtaz is an amazing woman with a long volunteer history. When she was working, she provided optical services to seniors in residential facilities. She considers it normal that she would volunteer to teach at the Y and then go the extra mile to start building a real community. Two other aquafit participants who shared her vision joined in to help make it happen. Both are retired nurses: Judith Thompson, a Y member for four years, and Caroline Shaw, at the Y since the ’90s. 

Previous efforts to get the class together were several smaller group meetings in local restaurants. This time, the aim was to expand participation and taste some ethnic cooking. Mumtaz’s husband runs a catering business, Elite Foods (416-516-5546), which provides a diverse menu responding to the particular health needs of his clients. Our luncheon was a tasty tandoori chicken dinner with rice, corn and salad that he brought prepackaged as lunches. The daughter of parents who once ran a bakery, Mumtaz baked some cookies from their traditional Christmas recipes. She then wrapped a couple of cookies individually in a little bag for each participant to take home. Hers was the crowning touch to a delightful meal where the focus was on the people and the chance to get to know each other.

This luncheon was a personal initiative which spread by word of mouth, primarily among people who speak English. Hopefully, next year, the Y will itself sponsor the event, so that it can be advertised and made more inclusive. There are many faithful aquafit participants who speak little or no English, and many more men than ever before. Bringing them all to this seasonal luncheon will be the challenge for the future. In the meantime, this event represented the best spirit of the season, and is a gift that will continue to give in the months and the years ahead. My heartiest thanks to the organizers.

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4 comments

  1. Jill

    What a miracle people can be! I love this story — even if the way we live in cities can be isolating — the brilliant insist on living like villagers.

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