Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Italian Toothpaste

It is not only Italian toothpaste that teaches you that variety is the spice of life. A brief story will illustrate this point. I met my father only when I was in my mid-forties. I had managed to live out the majority of my life as the son of Elaine Jakes, a person so vivacious, so sui generis, so unique that there is a book written about her even though she was a mere schoolteacher. I say “mere” because most schoolteachers—or at least schoolteachers from Neshaminy District’s Cherry Street (later Oliver Heckman) School—don’t have books written about them. And it was this schoolteacher, whose piebald life tapestry, whose robust embrace of diverse cultures, whose predilection for atypical choices, first taught me that variety is the spice of life.

Then I met my father, and I soon learned that interestingly enough he had a boat named The Spice of Life. By the time he died—he and Elaine, who had not seen each other since they were 25 years old, died but two days apart in May of 2011—The Spice (for that is the foreshortened name by which the eldest of my younger brothers, Scott, calls the boat) was my father’s most precious earthly possession. Now I say possession quite pointedly, for I exclude his beautiful family, his charming wife, Nan, and the four brothers whom I never really knew (though I’ve now met a few times) along with his extended family.

But to return to variety being the spice of life. The boat by that name is a beautiful vessel, nearly all mahogany, if I am not mistaken, though of course I could be, as I saw it but once. That vision of it came at the Clayton boat show in Clayton, New York, on the St. Lawrence Seaway. thousand islandsIt was a privilege for me to tag along with my father and brother Scott, to see what my brother’s life must have been like in a boating family. A far cry from the spice of life that my mother had shown by her randomness, but a beautiful alternative—a fine family, and a wonderful weekend for me and, I think, for my brother, father and Nan, as well.

Sadly, I haven’t a picture of my father’s boat, but I have found a picture of another similar boat that at least captures the spirit of the kind of vessel about which I am speaking. Sadly, this one features a beautiful boat marred by bad Latin, as the boat’s name should read mahagony boatSenex Turpis, “Bitter Old Man” (but more on that and erroneous tattoos another time). This is not the type of plastic hulled boat that a real boatman might disdainfully call “Tupperware.” Rather, it is a carefully crafted vessel, a boat meant to last for years, to run about on the seaway belonging to Saint Lawrence, allowing its pilot to visit Canada on occasion or to go to the inlet where my father’s ashes and those of his brother, Hollis, are scattered.

But I return to Italian toothpaste, which is where we started. If one should have boring parents, which I clearly did not—The Curious Autobiography records 9781480814738_COVER.inddhow Elaine bought a monkey, which she bedizened with a dress and called my sister, even though it turned out to be a boy and thus actually my brother—one can learn from something as interesting as Italian toothpaste that variety really is the spice of life. The picture I think tells the story pretty well, though Marvis makes many more flavorsscotch toothpaste beyond these, including Jasmine. And I’ve learned, too, of Scotch Whiskey flavored toothpaste, but I’ve never seen nor tried it (nor been tempted to try it).

In the end, I suppose one’s mother, one’s father and indeed one’s toothpaste teach the same lesson: variety is the spice of life. And if one wants some of that spice, one should then seek actively after such variety in this life, seek to embrace those who are diverse. Seek not sameness but difference. Were we to do that, I think we would be living like the wise carpenter from Galilee, who taught that the “different” (a Samaritan) could do far better than the “religious” in a story about a man who was mugged, beaten and left for dead; or a woman at a well, who had never found a source quite like that wandering and solitary Rabbi. It would not be the issue of a certain color of skin particularly mattering, but a person’s soul and view of the world that mattered. But I’m talking about Italian toothpaste, I’m talking about the spice of life, whether a boat, or monkey or a way to clean your teeth. (By the way, I’m suspicious of that six proof toothpaste; I suggest you stay away from the whiskey, especially before your morning commute.)

H.R. Jakes (center) with his brother (Scott) and their dad.


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