Thursday, June 30, 2011

Endings and Beginnings

This week marks an ending of sorts.  After 65 postings I will be taking a break to work on other projects for a time.  The stories I've shared with you here on 'A Slice of Life' will be coming out in print in the book titled 'Eyes Wide Open....when life happens you want to see it coming!' which will be available in the fall.  This year of remembering and recording has given me a fresh appreciation for the life I've enjoyed and the people who have enriched it.  It's not really an end, though.  There is a whole new generation springing up around us and many more stories to live....certainly enough to keep us hopping for years to come.

Thanks to all of my readers who have shared the journey with me.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It Feels Real

My Mom was just about the age that I am now the first time she had breast cancer. She had to have had the lump for some time before she finally decided to go to a doctor about it. I suppose she hoped that it would go away if she left it alone. Things might have turned out differently if she’d had some of the information available to women today along with the breast screening programs now in place to help with early detection. As it was, she went straight from the Doctor’s office to the hospital where she was hurriedly admitted. Less than 48 hours later she woke from anesthetic having had a radical mastectomy.

I won’t say she had an easy time of it. She did raise an eyebrow or two on the hospital ward when she declared that she was as good with one boob as she’d ever been with two. Cancer terrified her and she was so relieved to have it gone that her breast seemed a small price to pay. She did not grieve its loss though it would have been understandable if she had. The Doctors recommended a whole series of radiation treatments and there were very few side effects apart from a lingering shadow of fear that the cancer would return one day.  It tended to creep to the surface every time she had to go for a checkup.

Her wacky sense of humor tipped the scales in her favor over the years that followed. Laughter seemed to give her strength. In time she recovered enough from that initial surgery to be measured and fitted for a prosthesis that could be worn in a specially made bra. She was as delighted with her new “falsie” as a child on Christmas morning. The first time she tried it on she stood before the mirror in her room examining herself critically from every angle.

“You can’t even tell the difference,” she announced as she peered closely at her reflection. She gave herself a little jiggle to see how it moved and then tried a couple of quick hops. She grinned in satisfaction and came out to show off her newly restored figure to the rest of the family.

“I bet you wouldn’t be able to tell which one was which if you didn’t know,” she insisted.

In fact, much to our embarrassment, she was not averse to issuing that very challenge to anyone who asked about her surgery in the weeks that followed. More than one person would end up giving a red faced shrug before conceding that they really couldn’t tell which of her breasts was in reality a fake.

One poor fellow nearly choked on his coffee at dinner when she blithely asserted to the table at large that “It actually feels real.”

He wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly but her next words confirmed it. “Go ahead and give it a poke,” she offered with an earnest smile and a nod in his direction.

He hastily swiped a dribble of coffee from his chin and, darting a quick look in my Dad’s direction, shook his head vigorously.

“Why not?” she asked. “It’s not me you’ll be touching you know. I don’t mind.”

He glanced at his wife and then back at my Dad but got no help from either of them. They just sat there grinning at his discomfiture. Finally he reached out a tentative finger and gave the proffered breast a gentle prod.

“Not that one,” Mom snapped in tones of righteous indignation.

He jerked his hand away nearly toppling his chair in the process while my Mom broke into peals of laughter. The whole table was in an uproar.

“I’m just kidding,” she gasped. “I told you it feels real!”

“I guess you got me there,” he admitted with a grin of his own as he struggled to regain his composure.

Mom lived another twenty years. Eventually she lost her remaining breast…again to cancer. Her response was not unexpected.

“Well,” she shrugged. “Now I won’t need to bother with a bra at all. I never liked them anyway.”

There’s always a bright side if you’re willing to look for it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Runt of the Flock

Spring is the time of year for babies to be born…at least in the animal world. The woods and fields are bursting with new life. A trip to the barn yields its own reward in the sight of gangly new calves or lambs frisking in the yard whenever they’re not suckling, their tails twitching madly in their eagerness. There is something infinitely appealing about baby animals. Perhaps it is their very newness and vulnerability that pulls at our heartstrings. Whatever the reason, they can be irresistible.

That’s why I jumped at the chance for a visit to the farm where my husband, Bev, owned a quarter share in a flock of 100 angora goats back in the spring of 1980 when we were newly engaged. I met him at his apartment after work and we drove out to the farm together. The place would be just about exploding with new babies and I could hardly wait.

Angora goats are raised for their wool like sheep. The adult animals produce mohair but it is the first fleece of the young animals that produces the soft angora wool that we prize so much. The kids were even smaller than new lambs and covered in the finest silky white curls…adorable! I stood at the gate and watched, completely captivated.

“What’s wrong with that one?” I took hold of Bev’s coat sleeve and pointed to a tiny kid I’d spotted off to one side. “I think it’s limping,” I observed, my brow furrowing with concern.

“Yeah,” Bev replied. “She was born a couple of weeks before the rest and I think she was a bit premature. Then she got stepped on so one of her front legs got damaged. It’s not broken but you can see how she doesn’t put much weight on it. She doesn’t feed well and so she hasn’t been growing. The others are all bigger than her even though they were born later.”

“What’s going to happen to her?” I wondered.

He gave a shrug and shook his head. “We don’t expect her to survive,” he admitted.

I could feel myself going all maternal all of a sudden. It must have something to do with how God wired the female of the species. I just couldn’t let it go at that.

“Couldn’t we take her out of there?” I asked. “We could take her down to your parents’ farm in Markdale and give her to your little sisters as a pet.” It seemed reasonable enough.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Bev admitted. “She might do a lot better with all the attention they’d give her.”

It was a long drive to Bev’s family home and we decided to go the very next day. In the end we hashed out a plan that involved me taking the baby goat home to my apartment for the night so we could get an early start. I somehow convinced my part time farmer fiancĂ© that we ought to give her a bath. Warm water in a laundry tub, one bottle of baby shampoo and we were both up to our elbows in lather as we worked her over. I don’t know what she thought of the proceedings but the end result was worth it. Her curls felt unbelievably soft and she smelled like a Johnson and Johnson baby.

I bundled her into my car in a cardboard box and headed back into town with Bev’s promise to be there first thing in the morning. Till then I would be on my own. I made sure the coast was clear before I smuggled her up the stairs to my apartment. Once there I built a barricade to block off one corner of the kitchen, laid a sheet of plastic on the floor and tossed in the straw from her box. She didn’t seem too impressed. I discovered that a baby goat can make an incredible amount of noise when they’re upset. It sounded almost like a human baby crying and I began to worry about what my landlord would think was going on upstairs.
I thought she might be lonely for the other goats so I unscrewed the full length mirror from my bedroom door and leaned it against the wall in her corner. Perhaps if she saw her image in the mirror she could be fooled into thinking she wasn’t alone. It seemed to work for the first little while but it didn’t take long for her to set up her lament all over again.

Finally, in desperation, I put her back in the box and set it right next to my bed. If I slept with one arm dangling over the side so that my hand rested in the box with her she seemed to settle down. I guess she needed contact with something warm and alive and in the absence of her mother, my hand would do.

By morning I was convinced of the wisdom of not keeping farm animals in apartments and it was with considerable relief that I saw Bev’s truck pull up to the curb. The 5 hour trip went without incident and the girls were absolutely delighted with the surprise we brought them. The runt of the flock didn’t die after all. With all the TLC she got it wasn’t long before she began to thrive and grow. Eventually, Bev’s sisters were able to start a flock of their own with our little runt as the matriarch. Instead of survival of the fittest it was survival of the most loved.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Too Close For Comfort

Hunting larger game with my Dad was not for the faint of heart. Those were the days before modern technology simplified life. No GPS, ATV or hand held radio for him. He had only his own two feet and an uncanny sense of direction to depend on. He did occasionally take someone along with him but more often than not it was a solitary venture. He preferred to hunt alone.

He would head off on foot into the bush in Northern Ontario to look for signs of the deer or moose that he was after. Once he found tracks and knew which direction they were heading, he would take some time to study the terrain. He was quite skilled at predicting the path they were likely to take and he would set off on a route that would take him around in a wide circle to get in front of them. Then he could pick a spot that would put him downwind and in a perfect position to take a shot when the time came. Of course, all that tracking and circling meant that he often covered a lot of distance on a hunt. Anyone tagging along was taking the risk that they might find themselves trudging through 20 miles of forest and swamps before the day was done.

Dad was good at what he did so he seldom failed to bring home his prey. Once the animal was shot the real work began. If it was a deer he would shoulder the whole carcass after it was gutted and begin the long trek back to the road. If it was a moose things got a little more complicated. A moose is far too large to drag through the woods so it would have to be butchered on site. One man couldn’t hope to carry it all. Help would be needed in order to retrieve it and that meant hiking back to civilization to round up reinforcements. With a little luck there would be some relative or friend who was willing to lend a hand in exchange for a share of the meat. If no one was available he would head back on his own with a huge pack he kept for the purpose and used often. It would hold about 200 pounds and he would load it up with the choicest cuts and leave the rest for scavengers. Bushwhacking with a 200 pound pack on your back for any distance can take the stuffing out of even the strongest of men but Dad did it when he had to. It was all part of the experience.

One year he was out after deer with his 300 Savage lever action rifle. He’d been walking for some time and was caught completely by surprise when a moose rose to its feet almost directly in front of him. It was a cow and his reaction was instinctive. He lifted the rifle to his shoulder and fired before he had time to think about it. The 300 is shorter and lighter than the gun he normally would have carried to hunt moose but it was a good clean shot and she went down like a stone. He’d only taken a few steps toward her when a crashing in the brush some distance behind him brought him up short. He swung around in alarm to see a huge bull moose snorting and shaking his massive antlered head at the puny man that stood between him and the cow he’d been approaching.

When the animal charged Dad stood his ground and fired. He fired again and again until he’d used all 5 of the shots that remained in his gun after the one that brought the cow down. The big bull not only kept coming, it didn’t even slow down. I don’t know if Dad’s life flashed before his eyes in that moment but it well might have. He took a quick step back and stumbled, the now empty and useless gun dangling from one hand. He fell onto his back and lay there helpless as the moose, confused by the sudden move, skidded to a stop and stood panting over him. He was close…so close that Dad could have reached up and touched his lowered head. There was blood streaming from the broad chest where his shots had found a mark but it was obvious that with the lighter rifle he had failed to pierce anything vital. He held his breath and waited through ten long agonizing seconds before the moose turned aside and trotted off through the trees. He was lucky to be alive. As it was, he didn’t even get stepped on.

“I thought I was a goner,” he later confided. “It was a little too close for comfort.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pest Control

The place that my husband, Bev, and I call home is a farmhouse out in the country that we’ve lived in for the past 19 years. The house actually qualifies as a heritage home since it was built over 150 years ago. It’s a house that has character as a number of visitors over the years have pointed out. I have to agree that the tall ceilings, deep windowsills and spacious hallway give it a certain flair. The house doesn’t belong to us but we’ve always considered ourselves blessed to have the opportunity to live here. I do have to admit that there are a few quirks that go along with living in a home of such a venerable age. To say that it is well ventilated would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions.

A number of years ago a study was done to determine the efficiency of the heating systems in the various houses managed by the university. On the appointed day a massive fan was installed and sealed into our open front door. It was designed to suck air out of the house to lower the air pressure inside and determine how airtight it might be. It was an impossible task because as fast as the air was sucked out it was replaced by a constant and substantial inflow from nearly every direction. Curtains billowed in front of tightly shut windows while doors trembled on their hinges in the breeze. To open any one of the kitchen cupboards that sat against an outside wall was to be blasted by a veritable windstorm blowing out from among the canned goods. Even the plaster walls seemed to be oozing air. In the end they gave it up and concluded that at the very least we didn’t need to worry about being asphyxiated in our sleep by carbon monoxide poisoning. We resigned ourselves to wrapping up in comforters to watch television and occasionally wearing knee high felt boot liners around the house in winter.

The other problem with living in a house with more than its fair share of cracks and holes is that we have to deal with the pests that manage to find their way inside. Every spring and fall we have an influx of cluster flies that gives me a deep appreciation for what the Egyptians must have endured during the plagues of the Exodus. The first snowfall generally heralds the entrance of a few field mice looking to get in out of the cold and occasionally we get a visitor of a more alarming sort.

Our daughter, Lauren, found herself stirring out of a restless sleep in the middle hours of a warm summer night the year she was 12 years old. She lay in bed wondering what could have wakened her, absently noting that the rhythmic whirring of the ceiling fan sounded a lot louder than it ought to. Her eyes snapped open completely when she belatedly remembered that there was no ceiling fan in her room. Something was flying in circles in the darkness above her head! What else could it be but a bat? She snatched the covers up over her head and called out softly in an attempt to attract our attention without alerting the winged intruder to her presence.

Back in our room, Bev raised himself up on one elbow and cocked his head to listen.

“What’s wrong,” I muttered.

He was already getting out of bed and pulling on some clothes. “I heard someone calling Daddy,” he whispered. “It had to be Lauren. I’ll just go check on her.”

In the meantime, Lauren was convinced that no one could have heard her feeble cry. She decided she couldn’t stay where she was so she gently rolled out from under the covers and off the edge of her bed to a prone position on the carpet. Bats were supposed to have excellent radar but she wasn’t about to stand up and risk a collision. She began a slow torturous crawl along the floor while the whirring continued unabated somewhere near the ceiling above her. She’d almost reached the door when Bev arrived and pushed it open. He looked down in astonishment as she scooted past his ankles and pulled the door shut behind her.

“There’s a bat flying around in there,” she gasped.

Bev grabbed a towel from the bathroom and stepped through the door into Lauren’s room closing it firmly behind him before flicking the light switch on. Sure enough, there was a bat flying circles around the room at just above head height. Bev stood watching long enough to see that its flight path never seemed to vary. He simply stepped in front of it on one of its crazy circuits and caught it in the folds of the towel. From there it was easy enough to carry it outside and set it free…a classic catch and release. Lauren was mightily relieved. Her Dad had proved to be a most effective air traffic controller when it came to bats and she returned to her bed surrounded by the blessed sounds of silence. Still, I think she spent the rest of the night with the lights on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

School Days

My Dad never had much formal schooling when he was a child. He did attend a small one room schoolhouse in his early years in Northern Ontario for long enough to master the basics. When he was just going into Grade 4, his family moved to a cabin back in the woods and my Grandma Landry carried on with teaching the children their lessons at home. Eventually they moved back to a farm that was close enough to the school for them to join the other children but the teacher refused to recognize the work that had been done at home and Dad was told he would have to repeat the grade. It was to be the last grade he completed before he left school for good to work in the lumber camps with his father and older brother. In the meantime, he was placed back with the younger students and that was a serious blow to his pride.

Perhaps that explains why he felt the need to put on a little extra swagger when he was out in the schoolyard during the lunch break one frosty day in January. It just so happened that he was carrying a brand new pocket knife. It was his most treasured possession and he brought it out to carve himself a whistle from a twig he stripped from a tree in the yard. The other boys cast envious glances at that shiny new knife as they gathered around him to watch. He even consented to let one of them hold it for a moment before the bell rang to call them back to their desks. That was the beginning. That very afternoon one of the boys tried to buy the pocket knife from him. He offered him a whole nickel but Dad was adamant that the knife was not for sale. He didn’t reckon on how determined that boy was. He simply refused to accept ‘no’ as a final answer. He was convinced that if he kept at it long enough and tried every incentive he could think of Dad would eventually give in.

Over the next few days his dogged persistence became a form of exquisite torture to Dad. It seemed that no matter where he went he couldn’t escape that wheedling voice. Telling the boy to quit did no good at all and attempts at ignoring him failed utterly. He almost regretted ever bringing the knife to school in the first place but what was the use of having a treasure if you couldn’t show it off from time to time. He couldn’t even walk home in peace with his young schoolmate trailing along behind him offering in his most coaxing tones to do whatever Dad asked if only he would give up his pocketknife.

Finally, in a fit of exasperation, Dad stopped in the middle of the snowy road and turned to his tormenter who skidded to an eager halt beside him.

“So you’ll do whatever I say will you?” he shouted. “Well then…eat that!” He pointed to a pile of horse droppings that lay frozen on the ground and then stood scowling his most formidable scowl with his arms folded across his chest as he waited.

Now horse droppings, sometimes known as ‘road apples’, could hardly be termed an appetizing prospect even in a frozen state. Dad was fairly confident that his demand would be the end of it once and for all. It wasn’t his fault that he seriously underestimated the strength of the boy’s resolve. He must have wanted that pocketknife in the worst way because he only hesitated for a moment. He snatched up one of the hard brown lumps, screwed his eyes tightly shut and sank his teeth into it before Dad could even think about saying he changed his mind.

It was inevitable that a fight would ensue. The boy loudly insisted that he had fulfilled my Dad’s terms and the knife was forfeit while Dad just as loudly proclaimed that one bite most certainly did not constitute eating, especially since he’d meant for him to eat the whole pile. There was no way that he was going to hand over his precious knife. What began as a shouting match quickly degenerated to the two of them rolling around on the ground pummeling one another for all they were worth.

In the end, Dad emerged victorious. His shirt was torn and his nose bloodied but the knife still rested where it belonged…in his pocket. He smiled to himself when he thought of how the boy finally cried mercy and promised to give it up for good. ‘I should have done that in the first place,’ he thought. The smile slipped a fraction as he pictured the tanning he would get from his mother when she saw the state of his shirt. Ah well, it was worth it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

When in Doubt...Run

One of the things my husband, Bev, loved about growing up on a farm was the freedom he had to roam over the expanse of their 150 acres when the work was done. Our own children loved to visit the farm where he grew up for the very same reason. The rolling hills and sun kissed fields offered endless possibilities for adventure. There was a stream at the back of one of the farthest fields and close on its banks was a stack of cedar rails left over from the dismantling of a rail fence. We called it the teepee because that’s what it resembled with the rails all standing on end and leaning together at their apex to form a rough circle. It was the perfect destination on the day when Jason and Lauren decided to hike to the back of the farm to pass the time while their older brother, Daniel, was away with the men getting a load of wood. I wasn’t worried about letting them go off on their own. Our dog, Brownie, would stay with them and there was nothing dangerous out there anyway…. or at least that’s what I thought.

I might have been a little less complacent if I’d known that the first thing they would attempt to do on reaching the teepee was to climb it. I must have forgotten my own childhood and the irresistible power of those three little words ‘I dare you’. It was no surprise that Jason managed to reach the top of the stack but Lauren, not to be outdone, also managed to pull herself up the steeply tilted rails. Brownie was intent on her own pursuits. Her keen sense of smell had picked up the scent of some creature hidden away inside the teepee and she was busily nosing around its base looking for some way to get in. She eventually found what she was looking for and immediately squeezed herself into the small opening in an excited attempt to reach whatever animal had its den in there.

The children looked at each other in considerable alarm when her barking changed to yelps of pain and there was a frantic scrabbling that set the whole stack of rails to trembling. The animal she’d cornered in the teepee turned out to be a porcupine and the encounter was an agonizing lesson for Brownie. She managed to get herself turned around in that small space but that just meant that she got hit both front and back. By the time she emerged she was fairly bristling with quills from one end to the other.

Jason had climbed down by then and he could see for himself what had happened. He didn’t know much about porcupine quills and he was convinced that if Brownie brushed up against him those spiny darts would stick into him as well. There was only one thing to do….run.

“You better get down,” he shouted over his shoulder to Lauren who was still up on the teepee. “Porcupines can climb trees!”

With that parting bit of sage advice he lit out for the house as fast as his legs could carry him. Much to his consternation, Brownie tore off after him and no matter how fast he ran she was never more than a few steps behind him. We could hear him screaming long before he appeared in the yard, feet flying and arms pumping wildly with the dog racing at his heels. I couldn’t believe he’d run all that way without stopping or slowing down and I wasn’t too happy that he’d left his sister back there by herself. Then again, under the circumstances I could see that he felt he’d had no choice. He was only too happy to go back for her once we had Brownie firmly in hand and there was no further danger of her touching him with the formidable array of quills sticking out of her. As it happens Lauren was already well on her way back to the house by the time he reached her. Jason’s warning about tree climbing porcupines was a good incentive not to dally anywhere near the teepee.

Meanwhile, poor Brownie was in terrible pain. Even her eyelids were covered in quills. Bev’s sister and I donned heavy gloves and worked together to hold her securely while we used pliers to try to pull out the ones nearest her eyes. It wasn’t working very well. We couldn’t do it without hurting her and she kept snapping at the pliers. In the end we made a quick phone call and bundled her off to the vet in town. He gave her an anesthetic and was able to extract the quills while she slept. He removed over a hundred of them. She wasn’t too lively for the next few days but it wasn’t long before she was back to her usual rambunctious self…a little older and a little wiser about what sort of animal to leave strictly alone.

Brownie has been gone for a number of years. She lived long enough to have been considered eligible to vote which is a great old age for dogs. She was a constant companion on many adventures and saw all our children grow to adulthood. She never forgot the lesson she learned that day on the farm and neither did we. We still have a plastic bottle filled with quills as a memento.