Charlie’s girl

Helen and Gil Levine

By Tamara Levine

Lots of people knew my mother, Helen Zivian Levine, as a feisty socialist, feminist and women’s studies professor. But if you knew her well, you knew there was a whole other side of my mom.

She was a hopeless romantic – she adored songs, movies and musicals that were pure sentimentality. She told us about going with her mother to see When a Fella Needs a Friend starring Jackie Cooper when she was a young girl. To her mother’s consternation, Helen wept through the entire film. My grandmother admonished her, telling her, “I won’t take you to the movies again if that’s how you behave.” My mom swooned to the schmaltzy songs of her era: “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “Only the Lonely,” “I’ll be Seeing You.” When she broke up with Arno, her first serious boyfriend, she spent the rest of the year at Queen’s being wretched and singing “None but the Lonely Heart:” None but the lonely heart can know my sadness/ Alone and parted now from joy and gladness. She pointed out couples holding hands and looking longingly into each other’s eyes. “Oh, to be young and in love,” she would sigh.

My mom and I both adored Charlie Chaplin and had seen all his films. She was in her mid ’80s when we went to see Limelight at the Chaplin festival at the Mayfair where we had revelled in City Lights and Modern Times the previous weekend. We loved Limelight best of all, having seen it many times over the years, remembering the music and Calvero’s (Charlie’s) quote “in the elegant melancholy of twilight he will say he loves you.” My mom reminded me to bring Kleenex when I picked her up because she knew we would cry, which of course we both did, though we also laughed uproariously as we watched the aging clown and the beautiful young dancer with paralysed legs find each other and their will to live in their darkest moments. Charlie dies of a heart attack at the end, but only after he has one great last comedic hurrah on stage and watches his beloved Terry dance brilliantly from the wings.

My mom said afterwards that it would have been okay if she had died then and there while watching her beloved Limelight. I didn’t want her to die, but I knew what she meant. For some reason, my mom had a hard time crying after that. She wanted to be able to cry when she was sad or moved, but the tears wouldn’t come any more.

Ten years later in 2018, increasingly frail but ever feisty, my mom at 95 was ready to die. She chose to have MAiD, medical assistance in dying. It was a cause she had believed in and fought for over many decades, both for the good of society as well as for herself, but she never thought she’d live long enough to see the law passed in time for her.

Her last couple of months were filled with poignant but tearless goodbyes, visits, phone calls and letters from family, friends and ex-students. We had a heartfelt last supper with the grandchildren. On her last morning, my sister and I lay with her on the bed as the doctor, who told us to take all the time we needed, sat in the next room. We talked, hugged and played some of her favourite songs: “Never Turning Back,” “Bread and Roses.” When Edith Piaf came on singing “La Vie en Rose,” my mom wept. “Isn’t life crazy,” she said, “Just when I’m about to croak, the tears come.” And then she was ready. And so she left us, ever the maverick, ever the romantic. Charlie’s girl.

Tamara Levine lives in the Glebe and is turning to memoir to remember her parents, Helen and Gil Levine.

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