What will we do with the maple syrup?
It was this winter’s gift to Toller Cranston. Each winter we come to San Miguel with a gift; always something sweet. He loved sweets. Real Canadian maple syrup for Toller’s famous breakfasts seemed like a good idea.
And then the news, leaping out from the message box on my computer. Toller gone. Unthinkable.
No more conversations over breakfast that inevitably spiral into brilliant and uncharted territory. No more hearing about how he’d need a ‘Valium drip’ to get through whatever crisis loomed on his horizon. No more of those treasured moments when we might find him alone in the kitchen, lounging in bare feet, reading a book, then getting to spend two uninterrupted hours talking with him: about our lives, our foibles, our fears. No more dinners with cakes and roses and candies strewn across the tabletop, towers of ice cream topped with a single pink rose. No more breakfasts.
Breakfast at Toller’s was a mostly informal affair but with unspoken parameters: you must have been invited or brought by someone who was invited. If you felt comfortable enough in your friendship with him, dropping in was acceptable; he would always make room. Breakfasts began promptly at 9 am. Toller arrives, often wild-haired from leaving his bed just moments before. He may be wearing lime green cords and an inside out shirt – the label sticking out from under his chin – or a cashmere jacket he had just bought at the Tuesday market.
The table would be set but the seating arrangement was decided by Toller when the guests arrived. There may be twelve people at breakfast; there may be two. Musicians, poets, painters, composers, social workers, writers, or anyone who walked through his gate could be there. Most of us came to know him because we have his paintings hanging on our walls at home. Over Toller breakfasts friendships were forged, e-mail addresses exchanged. But regardless of who was there, it was always a gathering of people who felt a deep loyalty and love for the brilliant, witty and wildly extravagant Toller Cranston.
Breakfasts were varied: coffee, waffles or hotcakes, toast, eggs and always fresh fruit: mango, pineapple, banana, strawberries, papaya. Often there were rich cakes and tortes, oddly served up alongside the waffles and bacon. Antonia and Graciela worked for Toller for many years. Sweet and always gracious, they moved through the glass sculptures and the masses of roses and served each person individually, silently appearing at your shoulder to pass platters of food or refill coffee cups.
The conversation flashed through the room like the sunlight that sparkled off the coloured crystals that filled the centre of the table. Toller’s stories were thoughtful, amusing, outrageous; his exaggerations legendary. He once told the story of chasing Nina Simone down a Montreal street when she left his place wearing his coveted fur coat. Conversations pole-vaulted between Toller’s story about Napoleon eating cheese and potatoes on the battlefield (he insisted this story was true) and his angst over a soon-to-be house guest.
He wasn’t sure that this particular guest would fit into his ‘environment’ he said. Toller’s environment, his delightful garden, his magical works of art, his beloved flowers and the wonderland of art and sculpture that was his home, his heart and his life was both his inspiration and his source of peace. He guarded it with everything he had. It was his private Eden.
At that particular breakfast Toller was not well. He looked even smaller that day than he was, huddled in his rust-coloured jacket that he’d bought in Egypt; it was not one of his much-loved and much-flouted Tuesday market acquisitions as I had assumed. He looked exhausted.
We all shared stories but there really was only one voice. There was never another voice as cutting, as brilliant and as clever as Toller’s. He likened his breakfasts to gatherings in Paris in the ‘20s, the ‘illuminated years’ when the artistic minds of the day met, where discussion fueled the day and where no topic under the sun was off-limits. His breakfasts, he said, were what fueled his day before he headed for his studio to paint.
There was always an appointed end time – and one felt its approach the way one becomes aware of the family cat, slinking into the room and under the table, wrapping itself around your leg, waiting for food or a rub, or love – when we knew that breakfast was over. We would all begin to make leaving sounds. We shifted in our seats. Toller would stand. “I have to go,” he would say. Other times he would abruptly vanish, leaving the rest of us to fumble over goodbyes, find whatever or whomever we came with. Toller’s silent disappearing from his own gatherings was well-known and it took years for me to realize that he simply did not like goodbyes.
Loyalty was everything to Toller; his radar was finely tuned for even the slightest whisper of disloyalty or disingenuousness. He was both as colourful and as outrageous as his paintings and as closed and private as anyone I’ve ever known.
This year there would be no welcome back to San Miguel. We will not continue the conversation we’d been having for the past couple of years: the one about the unwelcome surprises of the aging journey; our talks about the youth of today that he spoke of with both joy and longing, knowing that these young people have their whole creative lives ahead of them. His advice to my daughter was something she has never forgotten: Be creative now. It is the tenet he believed every young person should live by.
Though Toller was often self-congratulatory, he could also be self-effacing, but always with a grin. When he received his honourary doctorate from Carleton University, he said: “If I had done the 500-page thesis, it might really mean something.”
Though Toller lived in the Wonderland he created, he was painfully human. Despite his successes, his flamboyant reputation, his look-at-me posturing – the face that he presented to the world – he was so very vulnerable. At close range, that shadow was always there and visible to anyone who was paying attention. He would not want to be remembered in that way but he also would not have denied its truth. “I’ve accumulated quite a few barnacles on the hull of my ship,” he told me once.
There are hundreds of Toller stories. We each had our unique relationship with him. We all somehow found our way into Toller’s world and we all have our stories. I think for those of us who knew him and loved him, (because in knowing him close up you had to love him), it seems impossible that we now must find a way to say goodbye. His death is exactly the kind of event that Toller would insist on being discussed at length around the breakfast table.
There is also something crazily appropriate about his sudden and unexpected death. Leaving his own party before anyone knew he was gone was what Toller did.
He hated goodbyes.
Figure skating legend Toller Cranston died on January 25, 2015 at his home in Mexico.
Edythe Anstey Hanen is a writer and editor based in Bowen Island British Columbia. She spent many winters in San Miguel Mexico where she became a friend of Toller Cranston.
By Edythe Anstey Hanen