Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Down the Hill and Over We Go

I’ve never been bold enough for gymnastics. Timidity works against you when it comes to tumbling routines. I did attempt an occasional headstand when I was a child but I never quite managed it. The only cartwheel I ever executed couldn’t really be termed a success as it was entirely unintentional and I was wearing cross country skis at the time.

Cross country skiing is a popular winter activity in the Sudbury area. There are plenty of groomed trails to choose from. I had a friend in High School whose parents had come to Canada from Finland and she introduced me to the sport. Of course, she’d been skiing since she first learned to walk and she made it look effortless. I struggled along in her wake and every time I thought I was finally getting into the rhythm of it my skis would cross and I’d end up tripping myself and falling. It was going to require some serious practice to be able to achieve the kind of grace she displayed.

I bought a pair of skis of my own when I was in College and I was anxious to try them out. Aino-Liisa had moved away by then but my friends, Karen and Don, were keen to join me on the trails. Of the three of us, Karen was the only one who was an experienced skier. Perhaps it had something to do with having Scandinavian roots. Her parents came to Canada from Denmark and she could ski as well as Aino-Liisa had. Don and I were the amateurs.

We were muddling along fairly well and gaining in confidence when we came to a trail marked ‘Intermediate’.

“Should we try it?” I asked.

“Let’s go for it,” Don insisted. “We can do it.”

We set off with Karen in the lead and for the most part we managed it just fine. We were about three fourths of the way through when we found ourselves at the top of quite a steep hill. Don and I waited there while Karen sped down the slope and stopped herself at the bottom.

“Lean forward a little,” she called back to us. “Keep your legs together and your knees bent.”

Never one to hesitate, Don launched himself and fairly flew down the trail. He nearly made it to the bottom but ended in a spectacular crash that left him almost completely buried in a snowdrift. He finally extricated himself and shook the snow out of his hair, digging around to find his missing hat.

“Watch out for the bump about halfway down,” he shouted.

I stood poised on the brink for several seconds trying to work up my nerve with the two of them watching me from below. It was pride that finally pushed me over the edge. Once I was committed I did my best to follow Karen’s advice. I kept my legs together with my knees bent. The wind in my face and the sense of speed was incredible and exhilarating. Then I hit the bump Don warned me about. What he failed to mention was that I would find myself airborne at that point. It startled me so much that I unwittingly stood straight up, all instructions forgotten. I completely lost my balance and I knew in an instant that I was going down. My bottom hit the ground first and I’m a little foggy on the details after that point. My modified cartwheel landed me at the bottom of the hill with all my limbs intact if somewhat tangled. With a little help I managed to ascertain that the only thing broken was one of my skis. The end had completely snapped off and it looked like I would be walking the rest of the way back to the road.

“Well…” I muttered, “That was fun.”

I think Don would have liked to climb back up and try it again but we knew it would take a while to reach the end of the trail with me trudging through the snow carrying the pieces of my skis under an arm. We decided to forego any repeat performances and keep forging ahead. I couldn’t bring myself to be upset about my broken ski when I was so thankful to be able to walk at all. I guess you could say I was never cut out for gymnastics or for racing down hill on a pair of skies, and especially not for a combination of the two.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Night Before Christmas

‘Tis the season…in two short days it will be Christmas Eve. It’s a time for celebrating with family and friends and a time for traditions that make it special. In my family most of those traditions revolve around food. Christmas just doesn’t seem like Christmas without a breakfast of plum dumplings and I couldn’t imagine Christmas Eve without Russian Meat Pies. You might wonder how we ended up with a tradition of eating those tasty little meat pies on the night before Christmas when no one in my family has any Russian roots.

When I was a child my mother discovered the recipe in a newspaper she was reading and decided to try making them. They were delicious hot or cold. We enjoyed them so much that it became a special treat reserved for Christmas Eve. My Dad was working as a Hoist man in the mines back then and even though no one was working underground on the holiday he often had to work as a watchman on Christmas Eve. If he was working the 3 to 11 shift we would all get to stay up until he got home. We would have a cold supper at midnight of potato salad and Russian meat pies and celebrate the arrival of Christmas by opening our gifts before heading off to bed.

Once, he actually had to work from 11 till 7 the next morning and my mother decided to pack up a  cooler with our midnight supper. Dad asked his boss if he could bring his family to work that night and once he got permission we all went to the mine together. Dad issued each of us with our own hard hats and we camped out in the Hoist room with him for the whole night. When he went to do his rounds my brother, Tom, and I went along with him. We got to see the hoist that he normally operated and the change room where each miner’s gear hung from the ceiling on a chain. We watched Dad ‘punch the clock’ by inserting a card into a machine that would punch a hole in it showing the time he passed at each of the stops on his tour of inspection. We drank tea from a thermos and ate our meat pies and potato salad pretending we were miners ourselves. Eventually we fell asleep on a bench while Mom and Dad passed the long hours of the night talking softly so as not to disturb us. It was the most memorable Christmas of all.

In my own family we have hot German Potato Salad and Russian meat pies for supper on Christmas Eve every year. It’s an International meal that I look forward to with a lot of pleasure, mostly because of the memories it evokes. We don’t eat the meat pies cold at midnight or out of a cooler the way we did when I was young but it still brings me back to those happy times in my childhood when the night before Christmas meant picnics with my Mom and Dad. Occasionally I sneak down to the refrigerator after the rest of the family is gone to bed just so I can have a cold one and remember.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tagging Along

My daughter, Lauren, and her husband, Andrew, are lovers of all things outdoors. When they had a baby they were determined that it would not mean giving up the camping and canoeing that they so enjoyed. They bought an infant life jacket for their baby daughter, Rea, and plan to carry on with their adventures as a family. That prospect might sound intimidating to some parents but it isn’t impossible. It’s just the sort of thing my own parents might have decided.

We rarely got left behind when my Mom and Dad wanted to get out. In their early years of marriage they would sometimes go to a movie on a Friday night. They didn’t have a car so my Dad would pedal the family to the theatre on his bicycle with my Mom perched sidesaddle on the crossbar and Richard, who was a baby at the time, in the basket out front.

By the time my younger brother, Tom, and I came along they had discovered Drive-In Theatres. When Friday night rolled around Dad would pull the mattress off of one of the beds and cram it into the back of our station wagon. We would head out to the Atomic Drive-In with Tom and I already dressed in our pyjamas. We got to play on the swings and merry-go-round that were set up at the edge of the car park as long as we ran back to the car when it got dark enough for the movie to start. When we got too tired to stay awake any longer we just curled up on the mattress and went to sleep. As we got older Dad dispensed with the mattress and we graduated to the back seat. Mom would always make us scrunch down and try to look small as we drove through the gate so she could still get the maximum discount for children.

Back in those days each parking spot at the Drive-In had a post with a speaker on a long cord that you would clip to the inside of your window for sound. Of course you couldn’t roll the window up all the way and in Northern Ontario that meant you ran the risk of getting eaten by mosquitoes before the movie was half over. The management tried to combat the problem by ‘fogging’ the lot during intermission. Someone wearing a contraption that looked like a flamethrower would wander up and down through the rows of cars blowing a billowing white cloud of fog out of the nozzle attached to the tanks on his back. I shudder to think what sort of chemicals it might have contained. It certainly gave the whole place an air of mystery and perhaps it even helped control the bugs. If it was particularly bad Mom would light up a mosquito coil inside the car and set it on the dash. It’s a wonder we didn’t all choke but no one complained. It was all part of the fun. Dad would always buy us a hot dog or some other treat from the snack bar while we waited for the fog to clear and the movie to start again.

We saw a lot of movies that way. Movies like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Lenington and the Ants. That last one may have traumatized me because I remember it fairly clearly in spite of how young I was. It was seriously scary with a massive swarm of African Fire Ants completely engulfing and eating anyone who stumbled into their path. At least we had the option of ducking down behind the seat if the action got too intense. As far as I know, neither of us grew up with an irrational fear of ants so I suppose it couldn’t have been that bad.

Movies weren’t the only outings we got to tag along on. When my parents went to a house party we went with them. I learned to polka by dancing in living rooms with my Dad. My mother was fond of playing Bingo and she often brought me along. She would give me one of her cards to play and watched like a hawk to make sure I didn’t miss any numbers. I was always more fascinated by the strange array of good luck charms that some of the other players surrounded themselves with than I was with watching my card. There were rabbit’s foot keychains, four leaf clovers, tiny figurines of all descriptions, even a turkey wishbone. As far as I could tell none of them made a bit of difference to whether people won or not. I never did care much for the game but I loved being with my Mom. She got so excited whenever she had a chance to shout Bingo or even when she came close to it that you couldn’t help but get excited along with her. Her pleasure was contagious.

It didn’t matter what the activity was. We got to participate and that made it special. We grew up knowing that our parents wanted us with them. That’s probably why spending time together means so much to me now. I’m not sure just how Lauren and Andrew will manage canoeing with a baby but I love the intent of their hearts in it. Rea will tag along with them just the way we did with our parents when we were children and I wouldn’t trade those times for anything.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I’m not much for wearing jewellery so I never felt a need to have my ears pierced as a girl. Why on earth would I want someone to poke a hole through my earlobe just so I could wear earrings? My friend, Karen, was always trying to talk me into having it done when we were in college but the whole idea made me cringe. I did not like needles.

She and I were nursing students back in the 70’s and it wasn’t long before she pointed out that I was going to have to get over my gut reaction to needles. Like it or not, I was eventually going to have to stick one into a patient and it wasn’t likely to inspire confidence if I looked terrified at the prospect. We learned all about the safe handling of needles and syringes in class and we studied all the theory regarding the giving of injections. Volunteers willing to let us practice on them were a bit scarce on the ground. In fact they were non-existent so we had to practice by injecting an orange until it was ready to burst. We also spent a lot of time stabbing mattresses to get a feel for the force we imagined you would need to exert when working with a human subject. Ultimately, we would just have to learn by doing it.

How well I remember the first time I actually had to give a shot to the patient I was caring for. As students we wore conspicuous yellow uniforms and our name tags clearly identified us as nurses in training. There was no possible chance that our amateur status might be missed or overlooked.

“You’ve done this before have you?” my prospective victim asked with a dubious look at the loaded syringe I was carrying on a little tray when I approached the bed.

“Of course,” I replied with a bright smile that I hoped would disguise my nervousness. I felt it would be unwise to confess that my only subjects to date had been inanimate objects. Luckily, the patient was facing the other way and couldn’t see my face at the crucial moment. I managed to avoid verbalizing the litany of ‘3…2…1…fire’ that was sounding in my head at the time. I gave that injection like a pro and was vastly pleased when he insisted that he hadn’t felt a thing.

It wasn’t long before both Karen and I were able to give injections with a confidence that no longer had to be feigned. I certainly grew more comfortable with needles than I’d ever been before. Perhaps that was why Karen thought it a good time to renew her campaign to get me to agree to have my ears pierced. She even offered to do it for me. She insisted it couldn’t be much different than giving an injection after all. She figured she could use a couple of pre-packaged sterile needles from the hospital just to be on the safe side. It wouldn’t cost a thing but the price of the earrings. She was a little startled when I finally agreed to let her do it. She didn’t back down though and we set about making our plans.

The following Saturday found me perched on a chair in the middle of Karen’s living room. She carefully marked a dot on each earlobe to make sure the holes would be evenly spaced. Then we pinched my ear between a couple of ice cubes and held it that way for as long as I could stand it. It was supposed to be anaesthetic of a sort. Once my ear was thoroughly numbed with cold she opened the needle packet and stood poised in front of me for several long seconds.

“What are you waiting for?” I asked.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she admitted.

“You said this wasn’t going to hurt,” I accused.

She pasted on the bright smile I recognized as the same one we used when we were trying to convince a patient that we knew what we were doing. I can’t say I found it very reassuring. Before I could change my mind about the whole thing however, she deftly plunged the needle through my earlobe and stepped back leaving it in place.

“You were right,” I marvelled. “It didn’t hurt!”

We went through the whole process once more with the other ear and I was sitting there like some African tribesman with two 22 gauge, 1 ½ inch needles sticking through my earlobes when Karen’s husband, Don, walked in. He took one look, turned a little pale, and marched straight through to the bedroom with his gaze averted.

“I’m not even going to ask,” he muttered as he swept past. “Just let me know when it’s over.”

All in all, the piercing went well. It was when we tried to put the earrings in that we ran into trouble. It seems they were just slightly bigger than the holes they were expected to go through. That was where anaesthetic would have been useful. We were fresh out of bright ideas so we ended up using brute force to push them through…a most unpleasant experience. Karen hated doing it even more than I hated having it done.

The venture was eventually pronounced a qualified success in spite of the difficulties. The earrings were in at last and Don was given the okay to emerge from the bedroom. Karen discovered that piercing ears requires a bigger needle than the ones used to give intramuscular injections. Too bad she would never need that little tidbit of information. I was her first and last customer. We both decided that the job ought to be left to professionals with proper equipment. The do-it-yourself home version was just far too stressful.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Catch a Beaver by the Tail

My Dad was always full of stories and no matter how far-fetched they sounded we believed them absolutely. After all, we knew him. He talked about killing spruce hens with a slingshot to save ammunition when he was a boy, and teasing trout out of the river with his bare hands. He maintained that if you could catch a beaver by the tail and lift its hind legs off the ground you could walk it around like a wheelbarrow and it wouldn’t be able to turn and bite you. Heaven only knows how he discovered that one to be true! My brother, Tom, discovered first hand that it was no idle claim. He told the story himself at my Dad’s memorial service and I will repeat it now.

Tom was about 16 years old and he and Dad were on a five day canoe trip down the Spanish River in Northern Ontario. The trip itself was a wilderness adventure with plenty of rapids to run, some of them quite challenging. At one point they put in to shore in a small cove where there was a stream running down into the river. Dad spotted a beaver in the woods and his face lit up with mischief.

He gripped Tom’s shoulder and propelled him toward the stream. “Stand just there, with one leg on either side of the water,” he instructed.

“What for?” Tom queried suspiciously even as he moved to obey.

Dad’s instructions were brief and concise. “I’m going to circle around and get that beaver moving. He’ll come straight down the stream heading for the deeper water in the river and when he passes between your legs, reach down and grab him by the tail.”

Tom’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline and his mouth dropped open.

“Make sure you get his hind legs up off the ground,” Dad called over his shoulder. “That way he won’t be able to reach around and bite you.”

Tom stood where he’d been placed, his mind racing furiously. There’s no way I’m doing this, he thought.

In moments Dad was back. “Here he comes! Get ready now!” he urged.

Sure enough, the beaver was coming straight down the stream. Instinct took over and Tom, his nerve breaking, scrambled frantically out of the way at the last minute. Dad jumped in to take his place and when the beaver tried to get past him, he reached down and caught hold of the broad tail with both hands. With one heave he raised the back end of that beaver off the ground and it instantly became apparent that the awkward position rendered it completely helpless. Dad started to walk it down to the river bank with Tom running alongside. It really was like pushing a wheelbarrow after all.

Once they’d reached the shore Dad encouraged Tom to hold on to the beaver’s tail himself for a few moments. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. Beavers are heavy and this one never once stopped scrabbling with its front paws in a futile attempt to get to the river. Nevertheless, Tom actually got to experience holding a beaver by the tail. How many people can say that?

“Okay, you can let him go now,” Dad finally decided.

Tom released his hold and the beaver made a dash to safety, disappearing into the water almost immediately. He and Dad just stood there grinning at one another, savoring the moment. It was an experience to treasure and remember.

Tom has told the story often and he says that most people don’t really believe it. That doesn’t bother him though. He was there and no one can take that away from him.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Our dog, Brownie, came to live with us when our children were just about ready to start school. She was barely more than a pup herself at the time and it wasn’t long before she became an important member of our family. She was a border collie/miniature collie cross which meant she was both smart and protective. Her previous owners had moved into town and were looking for a place in the country for her. I happened to be visiting them and mentioned that we were looking for a dog something like her. In moments the deal was done.

I paid close attention as they outlined the important lessons that they had already taught her. Apparently we wouldn’t need to tie her unless we were going to be away for more than a day. If we told her to ‘guard the house’ as we were leaving she would wait there patiently until we returned. She was accustomed to living outside, snug in her insulated dog house even in winter. We were told that if we did bring her into the house she had been taught to stay out of the rooms with carpet on the floor.

On the day she arrived we walked her all around the perimeter of the property to show her the limits of her new territory and she seemed to understand. She accepted her new circumstances eagerly enough and adopted us as though she’d been born at our house. She took her job as protector of the property very seriously though I suspect it was me and the children she was looking after rather than our worldly goods. She became a constant companion on many adventures. Once the boys started school she would wait with them at the end of the driveway every morning till the school bus took them away. The end of the day would find her sitting back in that same spot staring up the road watching for their return.

We discovered she was terrified of thunderstorms and so there were times when she slept in the kitchen rather than the back yard. Eventually, she spent as much time inside as out. She never made a nuisance of herself by coming to the table when we were eating and, true to her early training, she kept strictly to the bare floors in the kitchen and the laundry room next to it. She wasn’t pampered but she was definitely loved.

Brownie was a hunter at heart. Grandpa Livingston would invite us to visit if we’d bring her along to help him hunt coons in the cornfield. She actually turned out to be a good coon dog. She was less successful when chasing squirrels or rabbits or even deer. She would tear off in enthusiastic pursuit, her frenzied barking pitched high with excitement even though she never managed to catch one. Groundhogs were much easier prey. If she caught one of them out in the open the outcome was inevitable. We would come across the gruesome remains of a partially eaten carcass on the front lawn and someone would have to fetch a shovel to give it a hasty burial somewhere far enough from the house to avoid having it dragged back the next day. She also caught more mice than our cat ever did.

She was in the house with me one winter day when I pulled open the drawer in the bottom of my stove to discover that a mouse had filled it with dryer lint and built a nest among my baking tins. Horrors! I could feel my skin crawl at the thought of what might be lurking under all that fluff. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just close the drawer again and pretend I hadn’t seen anything. I was going to have to deal with it so I steeled my nerves and leaned down to shout a challenge into the pie plates in the hopes that any resident mouse would die of a heart attack before I uncovered it. I kicked the drawer a few times for good measure and then Brownie sat watching with head cocked to one side as I used a pair of tongs to reach in and gingerly pull the pans out one at a time.

I’d almost reached the bottom when a terrified mouse shot out from under the stove and skittered across the kitchen floor. I dropped the tongs and jumped to one side nearly tripping over the stack of pans I’d piled there.

“Get it, Brownie!” I shrieked. She’d already seen it and the chase was on. Chaos ensued with the mouse finally racing straight into the living room to disappear under the couch. Brownie skidded to an undignified halt at the edge of the carpet and even with me jumping up and down crying, “The rules are off!” she refused to cross over into forbidden territory. She just turned her reproachful eyes on me and I could almost hear her thinking, ‘you’re trying to trick me aren’t you?’ I sighed in defeat and went to fetch the broom. I was going to have to get this mouse the hard way. Furniture got shoved here and there as I chased that pesky rodent around the living room with Brownie watching intently and barking encouragement from the sidelines. It was hopeless.

The mouse got away and I tried to console myself with the thought that perhaps the whole experience was so traumatic for it that it would leave the house altogether and never return. Even so, I found a new home for my baking tins and for the rest of the winter the drawer in the bottom of the stove stayed empty except for the mouse trap we set there. Brownie had to content herself with hunting outside. At least there were no carpets out there to spoil her fun.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Have Bus Will Travel

On one of our trips this past summer we came across two elderly gentlemen in a campsite near ours. They had converted an old horse trailer into a camper by building a couple of cots inside and adding some shelving to store their supplies. They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Certainly, in my family there has always been a ‘do it yourself’ mentality seasoned with both imagination and ingenuity. We often made do with homemade versions of those things that were beyond the reach of our limited pocketbooks.

That was how we came to be the proud owners of our own version of a Winnebago, the latest in RV’s back in the early 70’s. When my brother, Richard, heard about an old school bus that was for sale he immediately saw the potential. It was a short bus, only half the size of the regular buses that we rode to school every weekday. It had been sitting unused for some time so he got it for a very good price. He reckoned that with my Dad’s help they could really make something of it and so in due time it ended up in our yard.

They spent the whole summer on the project. The first order of business was to strip all the seats out of it. The floor was then covered with linoleum and bunk beds long enough to accommodate the tall men in our family were built along both sides at the back with a curtain that could be drawn across in front of them for privacy. The top bunks were set on hinges so that they could be lowered to transform the beds into two couches facing each other across the centre aisle.

Two of the original seats were reinstalled with a table between them. It looked like a restaurant booth set just behind the driver’s seat. They built cupboards along the opposite side to hold the camp stove, ice box and other supplies. It may not have had running water or a bathroom but by the time they were done it could pass for a cottage on wheels. They painted the outside grey and added some detailing in black to spruce it up and give it a whole new look. We thought it was gorgeous.

It did have a few drawbacks though. The first time we took it out on the road we discovered that with most of the seats removed there wasn’t enough weight to smooth out the ride. Every bump was magnified to such a degree that anything not tied down got bounced all over the bus. That included us. Any encounter with a pothole would see us lifted right out of our seats to land on the floor if we weren’t holding on for dear life. We also took to joking about our gas mileage being measured in gallons per mile instead of the other way around.

Nevertheless, Richard and some friends drove that bus all the way to Mexico and back and pronounced the trip a great success even though they ended up having to replace all the old tires before they got halfway. When they finally reached their destination the geriatric bus coughed out its last gasp and they began to think they would have to abandon it in Mexico. Richard managed to find a mechanic who promised to completely rebuild the engine for a ridiculously low price and they decided to take a chance on him. Never was a hundred dollars better spent. By the time he was done with it the engine had a whole new lease on life. The journey back to Canada went without a hitch.

Ultimately, the bus got retired in our backyard and became a sort of guest house. My younger brother, Tom, and I would have friends over to hang out and sleep in the bus and the novelty of it never wore off. It may not have been much fun to ride in but we thought it first rate as accommodations. It was one of a kind, better than a real Winnebago in my mind. It had Landry stamped all over it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Lemon of a Lemon Pie

I don’t really enjoy cooking but I do love to eat. That’s always been a great incentive to me when it comes to getting supper on the table. Occasionally, I’ll get a craving for a certain kind of food and that will be enough to set me searching through cook books to see just how complicated it would be to make. If the instructions alone are not enough to cure my desire to taste something new, I might actually give it a try. Not all of my attempts are successful. The food, even though it may taste fine, rarely turns out looking anything like it does in the mouth watering pictures that tempted me in the first place. I also find it hard to reconcile that there are actually times when, in spite of the fact that I have followed the recipe religiously, the results are a total disaster. We’ll say nothing about my ill-fated attempt at something called Buckaroo Beans…not even the dog would eat them.

I usually do all right with pies thanks to my mother’s recipe for Never Fail Pie Crust. It lives up to its name for the most part and is relatively simple to make. In the second year of our marriage, Bev and I were living in Jamaica and he mentioned that lemon meringue had to be his all time favorite when it came to pies. One day I stumbled across a mix for lemon pie filling that was half hidden on an upper shelf at the local grocery store and I decided to buy it and surprise him by making one for dessert that night.

Bev was out for the afternoon so I set to work in high spirits. The Never Fail Pie Crust rolled out beautifully and I gently placed it in the pie plate, fluting the edges artistically and pricking it with a fork before popping it into the oven to bake. In the meantime I followed the directions on the box to make the filling on the stove top. I had to pause in my stirring to take the crust out of the oven and that was the first intimation that my project was not destined to go smoothly. My once beautiful crust had shrunk so that it only reached halfway up the sides of the pan, the fluted edges shriveled to indistinct lumps. There was no time to mourn though. I was supposed to stir the filling until it thickened and I didn’t want to scorch it.

Twenty minutes later I was still stirring. The lemony concoction in the pot was bubbling softly but it still showed little or no sign of the promised thickening. I began to speculate on the actual age of the mix I’d purchased or the possible effects of Jamaica’s hot and humid climate on the making of lemon pie. Finally, I decided to just go for it in the hopes that it would thicken as it cooled. I poured it into my diminished pie crust, careful not to overflow the edges. It was going to be a thin pie. I took out some of my frustration in beating the egg whites to stiff peaks for the meringue. Once it was spooned on and the whole thing baked, I set it to cool. I watched it closely but as the afternoon wore on hope faded.

Bev arrived to find me in tears. The pie sat on the counter, the meringue floating on the lemony soup beneath it. I wanted nothing more than to throw the whole mess over the fence out back. The disappointment was acute. Bev, however, was not about to give up his lemon pie without a fight. I watched in amazement as he carefully slid the meringue from the top of the pie onto a plate. Then he poured the filling back into a pot to reheat. A few tablespoons of cornstarch had it thickened up in no time. Now why didn’t I think of that! Once he had it back in the pie he simply slid the meringue back to its original place on top and pronounced it ready to eat.

It wasn’t pretty. In fact it was a lemon of a pie altogether. Even so, we ate the whole thing. Since then Bev has had to settle for apple pie when I want to surprise him with a treat. He assures me that apple is his all time second favorite when it comes to pies. He can always have the lemon when we go out.

Never Fail Pie Crust

4 ½ c. flour

1 lb. shortening or lard

1 tsp. salt

¼ tsp. baking soda

1 egg

1 tsp. vinegar

Sift salt and soda into flour. Mix shortening through flour. To 1 egg in measuring cup add vinegar and make up to ¾ c. with cold water. Mix and chill. Roll out.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Skunk Tales

Living in the country means dealing with an assortment of pesky creatures that are intent on foraging in vegetable gardens and garbage cans or building nests in the most inconvenient places. One morning we came out to find an entire section of our lawn chopped up as though someone had taken a hoe and hacked it to bits. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing. In the end it turned out that we had a resident skunk digging up the grass in search of grubs during the night. Neither of us was keen on having a skunk as a close neighbor so Bev set out a live trap to see if we could capture it.

It was only a matter of time before the furry little fumigator followed his nose to the bait in the trap and ended up caught. Bev’s theory was that if you covered the cage so the skunk couldn’t see you, it wouldn’t feel any need to spray in self-defense. Deciding to put it to the test, he crept cautiously forward with an old blanket held out in front of him like a shield. He managed to get close enough to toss it so that its folds settled in a haphazard cloud completely covering both cage and occupant in shadowy darkness. He then picked the whole thing up and, careful to make no sudden moves, carried it to the back of the truck with the intent of driving it off to some distant field where the luckless captive could be released with no chance of finding its way back to our house. The theory proved sound as the skunk showed no signs of agitation and endured the entire trip without resorting to its only effective weapon. Bev positioned the covered trap so that the skunk would emerge downwind of him, lifted the edge of the blanket just enough to open the door from behind, and then beat a hasty retreat. He watched from a safe distance until the little creature finally decided it was safe to emerge and waddled off into the distance.

That particular incident ended with the sweet smell of success. My Dad told a different story of one of his own boyhood encounters. He and a chum were walking to school when they noticed a skunk wandering about in the yard of a neighboring farm. School was forgotten with the prospect of much more interesting fun near at hand. The farm was quiet with no signs that anyone was stirring in the house or barn. They set their lunches on the porch in order to arm themselves with the only weapons at hand, a broom and the galvanized zinc washtub they found hanging from a nail on the outside wall. The big square tub was an essential piece of equipment that was a part of every household. It was used for any number of things ranging from laundry to bathing children to carrying vegetables from the garden to the root cellar during harvest time. I am quite certain that it was never used for the purpose it was soon to be employed in.

The boys set about stalking their prey with as much stealth as any big game hunter. They weren’t total fools. The skunk might not be deadly but it was dangerous all the same and what they were doing was risky. Hearts pounding, they managed to edge close enough to make their move. The time for caution was past. Dad darted forward and, quick as a flash, trapped the unsuspecting skunk beneath the overturned washtub. Not to be outdone, his friend rushed in to give the tub a few good whacks with the broom. Bev’s theory definitely did not apply when the skunk happened to be trapped under a galvanized zinc washtub that was being energetically thumped with a wooden broom handle. Predictably, it let loose with its full arsenal and the boys leaped away in alarm when the spray hit the inside of the tub so that the pungent smell came wafting out from under the edges.

There was an outraged shout from the house and they looked up to see the farmer’s wife scowling at them from the front porch where she had emerged to check on the commotion in the yard. She shook a fist at them and they did the only prudent thing in the circumstances. They made a run for it.

The boys never heard how the skunk eventually got released from its makeshift prison. They had no idea whether or not the washtub would ever again be useful for laundering clothes or babies. They judged it best to steer clear of that particular farm for the foreseeable future. Their lost lunches caused a pang or two of regret but neither of them felt inclined to try to retrieve them. All things considered, it seemed a small price to pay.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


I went to a Japanese restaurant once with my brother, Richard, and his wife, June. It was a night to remember for a small town girl. We found ourselves seated with about five other patrons, all of us ranged in a semicircle around a grill that was built right into the table. Each table had its own chef and the food was cooked right there in front of you. The chefs didn’t just cook, they made it an art. Everything was done with a flourish. Knives were flipped and tossed, vegetables juggled and chopped, seasonings flicked from a spoon held high in the air to arc gracefully down on the food below, and everything done at lightning speed to produce dishes that were both beautiful and delicious. It was one of the most memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had.

Richard loves to cook and produces some amazing meals of his own. Even when they are camping or out sailing, he and June eat very well. Years ago they went on a camping trip where they canoed to a remote site in one of our Provincial Parks. They took their time setting everything up. The spot they’d chosen was remote enough to be entirely private and the weather was all anyone could ask for. Richard caught some fish and decided to cook them right then and there. What could be better than fresh fish fried over an open fire? He got the fire going and went to work with his filleting knife while June continued to put their tent in order.

The sun was shining overhead and Richard was whistling while he worked. They’d left the cares and stresses of a hectic life behind and it was going to be a great weekend. In an excess of good feeling he tossed the knife with a flourish that would have rivalled anything we saw in that Japanese restaurant. Perhaps it was not the wisest thing to do when the ground underfoot is as treacherous as the rock he was squatting on at the time. A filleting knife has a long narrow blade that is of necessity extremely sharp. A slip, a fumble, and in the blink of an eye the prospects for the weekend took a drastic turn for the worse. He stabbed himself…in the butt.

June stuck her head out of the tent when the whistling was abruptly cut off to be replaced by a muffled curse. Richard was carefully extracting the knife from where it protruded from his outraged backside.

“What happened?” she demanded, hurrying over to assess the damage.

“I lost my balance,” he muttered. “I guess I fell on it.”

I suppose if you are going to stab yourself with a filleting knife, the gluteus maximus is not a bad place to do it. Nothing vital lurking under the surface. There wasn’t even much blood. The knife had gone straight in so the wound was small but deep. They cleaned and bandaged it as best they could and decided they would be wise to head to the nearest emergency room. The combination of a dirty knife and minimal first aid made infection a near certainty. Of course, getting to a hospital was not a simple matter when you were camping in a remote site and your car was hours away by canoe.

With no other choice the camp was dismantled and packed in record time. Richard hobbled around trying to help and eventually they were loaded and launched. He paddled the whole way back perched precariously on one cheek. By the time they reached the car and ultimately the hospital his entire leg had stiffened up and he thought he would give up sitting for good.

The emergency room was crowded when they arrived and he limped to the desk to register. The triage nurse began her assessment with a question or two about his presenting problem. He glanced over his shoulder at the assorted people filling the chairs in the waiting room and leaned in to speak in a low undertone that couldn’t be overheard.

“Excuse me, I didn’t catch what you said,” she offered with an apologetic smile.

He looked around once more, raised a hand to partially cover his mouth and increased his volume just a notch in an attempt to explain without broadcasting his problem to the entire room.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I stabbed myself in the butt with a filleting knife!” he blurted, huffing in exasperation.

So much for discretion. Ah well, let them laugh. It was an altogether perfect ending to their aborted weekend. He supposed he deserved it.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Paper Trail

This week I bought 8 double rolls of Pepto-Bismol pink toilet paper in support of the Canadian Breast Cancer Association. It catches me by surprise each time I step into the bathroom. That hot, bright splash of color fairly jumps off the wall in the otherwise neutral palette that I usually prefer. I find it a bit distracting not to mention unnerving to use something that looks like cotton candy for the purpose for which it was actually intended. Still, my mother went through breast cancer twice so I tend to try to put up with the pink in order to show my support.

There are things more important than color when it comes to toilet paper. My personal pet peeve is that scratchy, insubstantial excuse for paper that you sometimes find in public washrooms. It is generally wound so tight on the industrial size roll that it is impossible to pull off more than one square at a time without tearing it….very annoying. Of course there are occasions when encountering a better quality of toilet paper can have its own set of problems.

My parents were on their way to a follow up appointment in Toronto after my mother’s first bout with breast cancer. Neither of them felt particularly at ease in the city so rather than leaving their planned route to the clinic in order to find a place to eat they decided to stop at a hotel they passed and eat lunch in the restaurant there. They entered the hotel and Mom stopped to use the restroom before they went on into the dining room. Dad agreed to wait for her at the entrance on the far side of the lobby.

The bathroom was lovely but every woman knows how challenging it can be to manage in the close confines of a stall that is only two and a half feet wide especially if you are wearing a bulky winter coat. In the end she got herself sorted out and made her way to the sink to wash her hands. She failed to notice that she had somehow caught the end of the toilet paper in her clothing and it was trailing out from under her coat. Completely oblivious, she made her way out to the lobby and started walking across to where Dad was waiting. There was a lull in the conversation at the front desk as she passed. She couldn’t understand why everyone seemed to be looking at her.

Dad took a couple of hurried steps in her direction, his face a study in horrified embarrassment.

“What’s that?” he whispered urgently.

“What?” Mom demanded, truly bewildered by all the attention.

He pointed behind her and she turned to see a 50 foot long trail of toilet paper beginning somewhere under her coat and reaching all the way across the hotel lobby, under the restroom door and back to where it appeared she was still tethered to the roll in the stall she had occupied moments before. No problems with premature tearing there. It looked as though the whole roll would follow her no matter how many doors she went through. She snatched it free and dropped it as though it was burning her fingers. One look into each other’s eyes and the unspoken message, ‘Let’s get out of here!’ came through loud and clear. They abandoned all thoughts of lunch and hurried out to the parking lot, eager to escape the grinning faces of the staff at the hotel’s reception desk.

That little incident turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Whatever nervousness Mom had been feeling about her appointment was completely eclipsed by their experience in the hotel. It was like an episode of the I Love Lucy Show. No wonder everyone laughed. Once they were safely hidden away in their car Mom and Dad thought it was funny too. She could hardly wait to get home and tell us all about the paper trail she'd left behind.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Runaway Horses

The harvest is nearly done for this year apart from a few acres of corn still drying on the stalks. I can watch the progression of the season every time I glance out my windows at the fields surrounding our home. My children used to love watching the big tractors and wagons trundling past the perimeter of our yard on their circuit of the neighboring farm. They learned early on to recognize the different equipment used to plant, cultivate and harvest various crops. Farming has come a long way since our parents’ time.

Back in the forties when my parents were on a small farm in Northern Ontario, they still worked with horses. Getting hay into the barn was a labor intensive proposition. First it had to be cut, then raked into windrows and finally loaded onto a wagon with pitchforks. Of course the load would then have to be forked into the barn. I believe my mother was still in her teens the year she had a little accident with the dump rake.

If you were operating a dump rake pulled by horses you would sit perched on a seat between a widely spaced set of two big wheels with the rake itself behind you. Your job would be to drive the horses up and down the field while the rake caught the hay up in its huge curving tines. When it was full there was a foot pedal that would lift the rake to dump its load before continuing on. The trick was to dump each load in line with the one beside it so that a fairly straight windrow was created. The wagon could then be driven slowly along each windrow while the hay was loaded.

Mom sat clutching the reigns in both hands as she slowly drove the rake across the field with her friend, Mary, walking alongside to keep her company. No one knows for sure what caused the horses to spook. Perhaps one of them got stung by a bee. In the blink of an eye their placid, tail-swishing plod became a confused jangle of stamping hooves and tossing heads. Mom was struggling to get the team under control when they bolted. She was thrown completely out of the seat and fell under the rake still grasping the reigns. Mary screamed and kept on screaming, which did not have a particularly calming effect on the runaway horses. Mom had no thought to spare for her friend. She knew with a sickening certainty that if she let go of the reigns it would mean getting caught in the tines of the rake as it was dragged over her by the fleeing team. She held on with a desperation born of fear as she was bounced across the rough stubble of the hay field with the rake looming over her. It was one of those situations where every second lasts an age. With the horses showing no signs of slowing she could feel her last strength draining away and she knew she couldn’t hold on any longer.

She closed her eyes as the reigns slipped out of her grasping fingers, convinced she was about to be mangled terribly. At that precise moment the tongue broke with a splintering crack, the jagged end catching in the dry earth and flipping the entire rake up and over to land upside down on the backs of the two horses. It stopped them cold and they stood sweating and trembling, shocked into immobility. It took a few moments for help to arrive, enough time for Mom to realize that she wasn’t dead after all. When she finally understood what actually happened she couldn’t believe how lucky she’d been. The timing was incredible. The whole thing could have ended very badly but apart from scrapes and bruises she came out of it all in one piece. I’m not so sure about luck though. I’ve always believed it was a miracle.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

If Cars Could Talk

Not long ago I had a chat with a fellow whose hobby it is to restore rare old cars. He spends years searching out parts and thousands of dollars rebuilding a car from bottom up. The end result is a beautiful automobile that looks like it just came from the factory…a real treasure. I’ve noticed that a lot of men like to express themselves in the cars they drive. My son wanted a truck, not because he really needed a truck but because he felt it said something about who he is. Custom features, detailing, even color can be and often are an expression of the owner’s personality. Think of the Batmobile or James Bond’s car.

Of course some cars seem to have a personality of their own. That was certainly true of the old Volkswagen that my friend, Don, drove back in the late seventies. It was a Beetle with a
big heart and enough eccentricities to keep life interesting. Come to think of it, the same thing could probably have been said about Don. The car was easily recognizable even from a distance. Not only was it red, it was almost completely covered in bumper stickers that were slapped on like haphazard band aids proclaiming the slogans of the Jesus Generation to the world. My mother was always acutely embarrassed whenever he parked it in our driveway. My friends and I would all pile in and Don would drive off waving to the neighbors as we passed. I have to admit we enjoyed the stares and raised eyebrows.

We travelled a lot of miles in that old car. With a little judicious squeezing and stacking we could fit seven passengers in it and still leave Don enough room to handle the stick shift. Breathing was a little difficult but over the short haul it was doable. We even did some occasional off roading. The old girl was tough enough to handle driving down the steps in Bell Park without the wheels falling off and if we did happen to sink to the axels driving up the side of a sand pit, there were usually enough of us to lift her out.

We never had an actual breakdown that I can remember but there were plenty of quirks that made driving a bit interesting. Don was the only one who could manage it. The gas pedal tended to stick from time to time so he had to drive with no shoe on his right foot. That way he could curl his toes around the end of the pedal and pull it up if he had to. The heater only seemed to work in summer and sometimes it just refused to turn off. Good thing the windows didn’t stick. Driving in the rain could also be a problem since the windshield wipers were a trifle uncoordinated. They would start out keeping time well enough but before long they would begin to operate independent of each other. Their smooth side to side motion would become more and more disjointed until inevitably they would meet in the middle and come to a shuddering stop, hopelessly tangled. Don would smack his fist against the inside of the window and that would be enough to shake them free of each other to start the dance all over again. If he hit the window too hard they would spring apart with such force that they ended up standing straight up in the air and waving about like disconnected eyebrows until someone rolled a window down far enough to reach out and pull them back to rest on the glass once more. In the winter the defroster would only clear a spot about the size of a coaster in the bottom left corner of the windshield. Don would drive all hunched over, peering out through that little peephole and it was the job of whoever was riding shotgun to ply the scraper in an attempt to clear the rest of the window to enlarge the view. Ah, so many fond memories!

Eventually, the Beetle went the way of the Dodo and we all moved on. We grew and changed and the things that are expressions of who we are changed with us. These days Don is driving a Jaguar and that fits perfectly in the world of finance that has become his milieu. Still, I have no doubt that there is still a small part of him that wouldn’t mind driving down some stairs in a beat up Volkswagen Beetle just for old time’s sake.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Swimming Hole

My Dad spent some of his childhood living with his family in a log cabin built back in the woods in Northern Ontario. The house was a long way from the nearest road and had to be reached by hiking along a trail through the forest. Supplies were carried in on a toboggan in winter and in huge backpacks in summer. He and his brothers and sisters made their own entertainment when they weren’t occupied in the many chores necessary to the family’s survival.

They were delighted the summer they discovered a beaver pond that was deep enough to swim in. Unfortunately, their first attempt at using it as a swimming hole revealed one major flaw. It turned out to be infested with leeches. There are few things more horrifying than emerging from the water covered in clinging three inch long bloodsuckers that refuse to let go unless you happen to have a handful of salt or a lit cigarette to burn them off. No one was keen to try it a second time but my Dad and his brothers refused to be put off. They were determined to make the pond their own. All it would need was guts, perseverance and a little ingenuity….no problem.

They ‘borrowed’ the axe to cut down a few trees and went to work constructing a raft. It wasn’t long before they had something big enough to carry them and they lost no time in trying out the plan they’d worked out to clear the pond of leeches. Armed with a bucket they poled themselves out into the centre of the open water. With infinite caution they inched their way to one side of the raft tipping it just enough so that the water would slosh around their ankles on that side. The last thing they wanted was to have it flip right over dumping them all in the drink. Once they had the raft balanced with one side underwater all they had to do was wait. They might as well have rung a dinner bell with their own feet as the main course. In moments the water covering the raft was black with leeches. On a prearranged signal, the boys would redistribute their weight and the raft would bob back to the surface leaving the leeches stranded on the logs. Then all that was left was to collect them in the bucket before setting the trap again. What do you do with a bucket full of leeches? In the end they decided to build a fire and burn them to ensure they couldn’t somehow find their way back into the water.

It took countless repetitions over the next weeks until they began to notice a lessening in the numbers of leeches they caught in that way. Eventually they could stand ankle deep on one side of the raft without enticing a single leech to the proffered feast. It was a victory of sorts. The pond was pronounced safe to swim in at last. They still had to contend with an occasional bloodsucker but after all they’d gone through it seemed a small inconvenience rather than any sort of deterrent to their fun. The Beaver Pond was rechristened the Swimming Hole and for the rest of the summer echoed with the sounds of children at play.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Child's Perspective

My husband, Bev, spent some years as a Dairy Herdsman when our children were preschoolers. We lived on the farm where he worked so it was the next best thing to having a farm of our own. Lauren was still a baby but the boys often went to the barn with their Dad to watch him work and to see the animals. They learned to be careful not to ride their tricycles too close to the gutters and to stay out of the way whenever the cows were being moved. If they were lucky one of the barn cats would have kittens that they could catch and play with.

There was no bull on the farm. The cows were artificially inseminated when the time came for them to be bred. The vet would come at a later date and do a check to confirm the pregnancy. He would pull on a shoulder length glove and lift the cow’s tail to one side so that he could slip his hand (and most of his arm) into the cow’s rectum.  From there he could palpate the reproductive organs.   No one paid much attention to two goggle-eyed little boys watching from the sidelines.

I came into the kitchen on a day soon after one such visit to find Jason down on his hands and knees, mooing plaintively. Daniel had one arm encased in the plastic sleeve that the newspaper came in and he was poking his brother in the behind. I halted just inside the doorway and stared.

“What are you doing?” I demanded. I thought I could make a pretty accurate guess but I was curious about how they would explain it. I kept my face carefully neutral as Daniel straightened up and turned to me.

“I’m the pooper man,” he announced in a businesslike voice. “I’m checking for poop.”

“I see,” I nodded, my cheeks stiff with the effort not to laugh. “Well, carry on then.”

Obviously they’d drawn their own conclusions about the mysterious activity they had witnessed. I decided to let Bev handle the explanations. No wonder farm children learn about the birds and the bees at such a young age.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Miss Independence

I took a year off between High School and College. It was my chance to move away from home and become an independent adult. I decided I would go to Prince Edward Island and find a job in Charlottetown. My mother always referred to it as the time I ran away from home but I didn’t see it that way. I was seventeen years old and very “responsible”. I made arrangements to stay with a church family in Charlottetown and purchased my train ticket with the promise that if I didn’t find a job within the first three weeks I’d return. I was fairly confident that wouldn’t happen so it was an easy promise to make, especially since I could tell my parents were trying very hard to pretend that they weren’t worried about me being on my own out there.

As it turned out, they didn’t need to worry. Within two days of my arrival I was able to find a job that included a place to live. I went to work almost immediately at Sunset Lodge, a Salvation Army home for elderly ladies. It was an old mansion converted into a retirement residence with two women officers from the Salvation Army to run the place and live on site. I had the top floor all to myself with a spacious room and a private bathroom. My job was to fill in for the kitchen and housekeeping staff on their days off. I would also be the staff member in situ whenever the Major and the Captain had to be away for meetings. It was a great job, almost like living with two mothers and twenty one grandmothers.

It was the first time in my life I was being treated as an adult and I wanted very much to earn their respect and prove that they’d not made a mistake in hiring me. After the first week I asked about doing my laundry and the cook told me there were big industrial machines in the cellar for doing the residents’ laundry and all the linens and towels. For my own personal laundry I could use the smaller machine and hang my things on the clotheslines that were strung at one end of the room. I thanked her and made my way down carrying my basket and the soap I’d purchased on my day off.

I’d never been in this part of the basement before but I groped around until I found a switch and flicked on the overhead lights. I glanced at the big stainless steel washer and dryer. Next to them sat a long table with a basket of clothespins on a shelf above it. The lines were there and I looked around for the smaller machine I’d been told to use. There it sat next to a couple of washtubs in the back corner…an ancient wringer washer. Did people actually still use the things? I had a vague memory of my mother using one when I was very young but that wouldn’t help me much. There was absolutely no way I was going to march back upstairs in defeat, admitting that I didn’t have a clue how to operate it. How hard could it be anyway?

I set the basket down and glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was around before lifting the lid on the washer to have a peek inside. A thorough inspection of the rest of the machine gave me at least an idea of how it was supposed to work. It had two on/off switches, one on the wringer itself and one on the body of the washer. The second one had to work the agitator. There was a hose clipped to the outside that could be unclipped and fed into a bucket for draining. I found another hose that I could attach to the tap to use to fill it. I plugged it in to test the switches and smiled in satisfaction when they did exactly what I suspected they would. I found a little lever and discovered that it would allow the wringer to swing around to 90 degrees. That would solve the problem of rinsing. I could fill the machine to wash the clothes and then run them through the wringer and into the washtub filled with cold water to rinse them by hand. Then I could swing the wringer around to run them through from the rinse to the empty washtub before hanging them. Satisfied that I had it sorted out correctly I set about to do my first wash, inordinately pleased that I hadn’t had to confess my ignorance and ask for help.

Two sweating hours later I was ready to kick the confounded thing to China and back. Two of my nightgowns had inexplicably gotten tangled in the wringers and by the time I’d managed to free them they looked like they’d been chewed up by an army of starving mice. My favourite sweater came through the other side all right but the sleeves ended up six inches longer than when I’d started. I tried putting it in the industrial dryer in the hopes that it would shrink but it was a long shot that didn’t pay off. At least I got the job done with all my fingers intact. Obviously, this new/old way of doing the wash was going to take a lot of practice. I carried my basket back upstairs with my chin high and a pained smile for the cook as I passed the kitchen. I never admitted to a soul that I’d had a problem but I did wonder if I might have saved my clothes a beating if I’d asked for a little help after all. Perhaps there was such a thing as being too independent….or too proud….or both.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tarzan of the Poplars

My husband, Bev, having been trained in forestry, has very definite ideas about trees and their comparative value. He has always considered the poplar to be a “weed” tree. Of course he tends to look at trees with an eye to their potential usefulness in one of his woodworking projects. My brothers and I always liked poplar trees when we were children. They were tall and slender and would sway gracefully in the wind to the accompaniment of the fluttering dance of myriads of pale green leaves….beautiful and perfect for climbing.

My Dad told my brother, Tom, and I about how he and his friends would occasionally chase one another through the treetops when they were children. He said they would climb the trees in a poplar grove and when you got up high enough you could set them swinging by throwing your weight from side to side. You had to get your tree to bend far enough to allow you to reach out and catch hold of the tree next to it. Occasionally it would involve a bit of a jump but it was possible to swing from tree to tree eluding your pursuers without ever touching a foot to the ground. It was a mode of transportation that required a fair bit of agility not to mention nerves of steel. It was just the sort of game to appeal to boys growing up in the woods of Northern Ontario.

It sounded exciting to me but it also sounded dangerous, far too dangerous to tempt me into trying it for myself. I did climb trees but I kept my climbing confined to one single tree at a time, preferably one with reassuringly thick and sturdy branches. I had no illusions of being able to fly and I wanted no sudden encounters with thin air.

Not so my brother, Dave. He confessed recently that when he was in Grade 7 he discovered a stand of poplars in the forest near our home and decided to try a little treetop travel for himself. Perhaps he’d also heard my Dad speak of his childhood experiences. In any case, he chose a starting point and began to climb, pulling himself up from branch to increasingly slender branch until the whole tree began to bend and sway under his weight. His first attempts to swing and catch hold of another tree were a bit clumsy but he eventually managed to get a firm grip with one hand while letting go with the other, transferring his weight to the new tree. Timing was critical but he kept practicing until he could move easily from tree to tree. It was an exhilarating experience, one that he wanted to share.

Eventually he talked one of his young friends into coming along to witness his newfound skill. His enthusiasm was contagious as he climbed the first tree and proceeded to demonstrate his technique. He swung mightily and made a grab for the tree next to the one he’d come up, snagging it on the first try as his friend stared up at him in wide-eyed wonder. “See…it’s easy!” he called down from his new perch with a grin stretching wide to reveal the gap in his two front teeth. “Come on!”

It only took moments for the other boy to climb the tree he’d just left. Dave moved on to the next tree and kept going, knowing that his friend would be following. Tarzan had nothing on the two of them, he thought. All they needed was a troop of monkeys to make it perfect. A terrified shriek followed by the crash and snap of breaking branches somewhere behind him brought his daydream to a sudden and abrupt halt. There was no response to his call and his vivid imagination flared to life with a picture of his friend lying broken and bleeding at the base of a poplar tree. Galvanized into action, he scrambled down, dropping from branch to branch, frantic to reach the ground. He jumped the last couple of feet and turned to push his way back through the undergrowth, terrified of what he would discover.

The angels must have been watching out for them that day. Dave’s friend actually survived his fall with nothing worse than having the wind knocked out of him. He landed squarely in a patch of soft moss and that’s where Dave found him gasping for air and surrounded by a litter of fallen twigs and leaves. It was the only spot in the entire area that was free of boulders and jagged outcrops of rock. They counted themselves more than lucky and decided to keep quiet about the whole thing. There’s nothing like a near death experience to take the fun out of playing Tarzan.

I sometimes wonder how any of us survived childhood.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Force to be Reckoned With

My parents moved to Guelph when my Dad was in his early seventies. He was never entirely comfortable living in the city. I think he expected to get mugged every time he went for a walk in the park. He made himself a good solid cane that he began carrying long before he had any need of one. If anyone had ever actually tried to mug him they would have gotten much more than they’d bargained for. He fully intended to use that cane to defend himself. Fortunately, Guelph is a fairly safe city and he never had occasion to prove he wasn’t a helpless old man by knocking some hapless would be attacker over the head.

My Dad was tall and lean and much stronger than most people would guess by looking at him. As a young man he had quite a reputation among the miners he worked with. He’d been seen to bend spikes with his bare hands. Once, when his Model-A Ford had a flat and there was no jack he simply lifted the corner of the vehicle and held it until his brother could roll a stone into position to prop it up high enough for them to change the tire. My brother, Richard, remembers Dad challenging him and three of his teen-aged friends to try to lift one end of an 800 pound rail. They tried mightily and weren’t able to budge it an inch even with all four of them lifting together. Dad just smiled at their efforts before taking the end of the rail in his two hands and heaving it up to waist height. For good measure he then squatted, shifted his grip and slowly raised it above his head. The boys just stood there gaping in awe.

Dad wasn’t ever one to start a fight but heaven help whoever was foolish enough to throw a punch in his direction. He didn’t back down when it came to protecting himself or the people he cared about. That was the case the day there was a Miner’s Union picnic held at our house some time before I was born. They had a pig and a lamb roasting on spits out in the yard and zinc washtubs filled with ice and beer. All the food was set up outside. The house had no indoor bathroom…just the outhouse at the back, so no one would have any reason to go inside. That was exactly the way my parents wanted it. They had just bought a new couch and chair and my mother was concerned about something getting spilled on it. New furniture was a rare luxury.

Things got a little rowdy as the afternoon faded into early evening. Everyone had just eaten and someone who’d had a little too much beer wandered into the house looking for a bathroom that wasn’t there. A number of people simply followed him in, completely forgetting my Dad’s request that the party stay outside. He knew my mother wouldn’t be happy about it so he hurried in and began trying to usher everyone out again. An argument started between two miners and it escalated as tempers flared. They were both big men and Dad stepped between them just as one of them took a swing at the other. The blow landed square on my Dad’s jaw and rocked him back on his heels. He believed it was deliberately aimed at him and he flew into a rage at being attacked in his own home. That miner never knew what hit him. Dad simply picked him up by the neck and pinned him to the wall as though he weighed nothing. When two others tried to grab his arms and pull him away he threw them both off. A fourth man joined the fray, catching him in a crushing bear hug, lifting him off his feet and attempting to squeeze the breath out of him. He just couldn’t hold onto him. Dad broke free and in the resulting mayhem, the stove pipe got knocked off and a cloud of black soot billowed out to settle on everything including the new couch and chair. It was like being doused with cold water. The fight was over but so was the party. It was obvious that my Dad was still angry and no one wanted to chance having that anger turned on them. A few friends stayed to help clean up the mess but most people made their apologies and headed for home.

I doubt it was the first fight my Dad ever got into but, as far as I know, it was the last. Word got around and the other miners treated him with a wary respect. They’d learned the hard way that he was a match for any four of them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Harmless Doesn't Mean Defenceless

I was biking along the Georgian Trail this past weekend and twice nearly came to grief when I narrowly missed running over a garter snake slithering across the path almost directly under my wheels.  There is something about the way a snake moves that is both beautiful and repulsive at the same time.  Their speed can be unnerving though in both of these encounters it was probably what saved them.  I clutched desperately at the brakes and went into a spastic sort of front wheel wobble as I skirted past the first one.  The second was even closer.  I was convinced that a collision was inevitable and my shoulders hunched reflexively as I pictured what would happen.  Something that small wasn’t likely to survive the encounter.  I don’t much like snakes but that didn’t mean I wanted to coast right over it like an unexpected speed bump.  I was hugely relieved when it slipped past and disappeared in the tall grass edging the trail with only an inch or so to spare.

Garter snakes are harmless enough.  I grew up believing that they didn’t have teeth and so, of course, that’s what I told my children when they mentioned seeing one in Grandma Livingston’s garden.  My daughter, Lauren, would have been around five years old at the time and she and her brother, Jason, who was seven, decided they would try to capture it.  No doubt they had visions of producing it at the dinner table for maximum effect.  It was bound to be worth a shriek or two.

They set out for the garden and began to hunt through the rows of vegetables for their unsuspecting prey.  It looked like an enterprise that would keep them occupied for the afternoon so I left them to it and went to work in another part of the yard.  When they finally discovered the garter snake sunning itself between the peas and carrots they discovered it wasn’t going to be as easy to grab as they’d expected.  It was fast, much faster than they were.  There was a bit of a scramble and Jason got a foot on its tail effectively pinning it in place.  The snake thrashed about frantically trying to free itself.  "Grab it around the neck," he urged, waving an arm at his younger sister.  Without a second thought she reached out to do just that.

That’s when we discovered that garter snakes do indeed have teeth.  Lauren’s startled shout caused Jason to jerk his foot back and the snake took advantage of the moment to beat a hasty retreat.  I looked over to see the two of them with their heads together examining Lauren’s hand.  She finally came running to me, sporting two tiny puncture marks on the end of her finger.  It actually drew blood. 

“You said they didn’t bite,” Jason accused.  Lauren looked ready to cry.

“Well,” I hedged.  “If someone stepped on your foot so you couldn’t get away and then tried to grab you around the neck, you’d bite them too.  You scared that poor snake half to death and he was pretty desperate to get away.”

That was a point they were willing to concede.  You have to respect an animal’s instinct to fight back when it’s trapped.  There was no further snake hunting that afternoon.  In fact, the garter snakes of the world have had nothing to fear from the Livingston’s since that day…unless of course they are trying to cross a bike path in front of one of us.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blame It on The Smoke Detector

The upstairs apartment I lived in when Bev and I were dating was in an older four-plex across the street from a Public School in Sudbury. It was a quiet building with my landlord living just below me. My apartment was cozy and bright with plenty of space. There was even a door from the kitchen opening onto a tiny railed balcony that sat on the roof of my landlord’s porch. I eventually got used to the orange plaid carpet in the living room. It didn’t clash too badly with my furniture if I covered the couch with a blanket. Fortunately, the flowers on my second hand swivel rocker were also orange. Okay, perhaps it was a decorator’s nightmare but I wasn’t hard to please in those days. At least it had character. All in all, it was the best I’d had since moving back to the city the previous year. The appliances were in decent shape and there’d even been a brand new smoke detector recently installed in the kitchen.

I decided to invest in a little hibachi that I could place out on my balcony so I could barbecue and I invited Bev to come over for dinner so we could try it out. We got the charcoal lit and as soon as the briquettes were burning hot enough we tossed on our hamburgers. Bev squatted by the barbecue and took over the burger flipping and I crowded out onto the balcony to keep him company and admire his flipping technique. It was going well till I noticed that the smoke was blowing right into the kitchen through the screen door. I had an instant vision of that brand new smoke detector and imagined my landlord’s reaction if it suddenly blasted out it’s shrill warning that something I was attempting to cook was about to burst into flames. I felt embarrassed just thinking about it so I reached in and pulled the inner door shut to keep the smoke out. It locked.

I stood with my hand on the doorknob, my face burning with mortification. So much for making a good impression. I felt like an absolute idiot. When Bev asked what was wrong I had to swallow a couple of times before I could get the words out.

“I’ve locked us out,” I admitted in a very small voice. He stood up to try the knob himself.

“Yup, it’s locked all right,” he conceded before calmly returning to his former position squatting by the hibachi. “First things first though. These hamburgers are almost done.”

How could he be so calm? We were probably going to have to shout for help till someone got the landlord to come up and let us in. I was never going to live this down.  I fretted and stewed for five more minutes till Bev handed me the plate of burgers and leaned out to look over the railing.

“I think I can climb down,” he announced.

I started to protest that he didn’t even have shoes on but he was already over the rail and lowering himself to hang from his arms and jump to the top step of the porch below him. I fervently hoped my landlord wasn’t looking out the window at that very moment. I couldn’t imagine what he would think to see a man’s jean clad legs and stocking feet dangling in the air outside his kitchen. It was probably a vain hope because when Bev knocked on his door a moment later and stood there in his socks asking him if he’d mind opening the door to my apartment, he never batted an eye. He just smiled and fetched the key with no questions asked. I suppose he had a window open and heard the whole thing. I’m sure it was more entertaining than the evening news. It took me at least until dessert to see the humour in the whole thing. We ended up having a good chuckle and wishing we’d had a camera to capture the moment. Even so, I could hardly look my landlord in the eye the next time I went to pay my rent.

We drove past the old place on our last visit to Sudbury. It’s looking a bit run down after 30 years but the balcony still sits perched above the porch the same way it did back when we were dating. These days the railing is lopsided and aged to a silver grey with only a few tattered paint flecks to show that it was once a pristine white. I glanced fondly at the man sitting next to me in the car. I may not have made much of an impression that day but he married me anyway.