Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Things We Do For Love

The very first Christmas Bev and I spent together was one to remember. We were officially a couple and I was in love. What sort of gift do you give in that situation? Nothing I could think of seemed appropriate. I wanted a gift that would be a symbol of the depth of my feelings. The sorts of things I could afford didn’t have the significance that I was looking for. In the end I decided I would make something and it would be a labor of love. I liked the sound of that. The only problem was I was a little short on the requisite skills. Let’s just say that handwork was not my strong suit.

Fortunately my friend, Nora Lea, was more than willing to coach me along. I decided I would attempt to knit something. I had learned to knit and purl as a child but never did keep it up. The project would have to be something impressive that didn’t require anything other than those two basic stitches. I had my eye on these wonderful hand knit pullover ski sweaters that Nora assured me were easy to create. The whole thing was done on a round needle, which actually looks more like two needles joined together by a long flexible plastic cord. It was just about as basic as you could get. The sweater in the pattern I chose had a band of huge snowflakes across the chest but she insisted that anyone who could count stitches would have no problem with it. I bought the needle, the pattern, and wool in the same blue as Bev’s eyes along with a couple of skeins of white for the snowflakes and I was in business.

Some people say they find knitting to be relaxing but I’m sure they must be lying. That’s probably because I never did manage to achieve the easy competency with the needles that expert knitters have. I know my mother could watch television while she worked and sweaters would magically grow under her flying fingers and busily clacking needles. As for me, it seemed the needles possessed a life of their own and if I did not grip them tightly and focus with fierce concentration on what I was doing they simply refused to submit to my control. One moment’s inattention would result in botched work that would have to be ripped out and redone. From time to time I was convinced the instructions were written in Chinese and I would have to call Nora Lea to serve as an interpreter. It was proving to be tougher than I expected but I was far too stubborn to quit once I’d started. Progress was slow so I began to carry it with me to work. I was on the night shift at the hospital and if it was a quiet night I could spend hours on my project. I would work at it doggedly until my hands cramped up and I couldn’t straighten my fingers.

Gradually, the results of my efforts grew to look like a sweater and when the snowflakes emerged actually looking like snowflakes I was thrilled. I was nearly done working on the sleeves when I began to have an uneasy sense that something was wrong. I’d followed the directions exactly but the sleeves looked as though they would end up at least four inches short. After countless hours of blood, sweat and tears the whole thing was going to be ruined and I was frantic. One quick call brought Nora Lea rushing to my assistance one more time. She took one look and told me that the sleeves ended up short because my knitting was much tighter than what the pattern called for. She saved the day by knitting a couple of cuffs and crocheting them onto the ends of the sleeves. By the time she was done it looked as though they were meant to be there.

The sweater was beautiful but it felt a little stiff and heavy. In point of fact, the whole thing was knitted so tightly that it could stand up all by itself like a suit of armor. I tried washing it with a lot of fabric softener but it didn’t make much difference. In the end I wrapped it up and gave it to Bev along with a note in which I’d calculated the exact number of stitches that had gone into it, every one of which was a painful expression of my love for him. He was duly impressed and actually attempted to wear it once. Unfortunately, the ‘suit of armor’ description was almost literal. It seemed that even air couldn’t penetrate those tightly knit stitches. He very nearly cooked in it. It may not have stopped bullets but it certainly would have slowed them down. He stoutly assured me that it would be perfect in case he ever went on an expedition to the Arctic and in light of that he kept it for years. Each time we moved he would lovingly pack it in along with the rest of the clothes. It was my one and only knitting project. I’ve never been tempted to try another. As a Christmas gift that spoke of love it was a huge success. As a sweater….well, not so much.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Intrepid Voyageurs

This weekend Bev and I went on a canoe trip. For extreme trekkers it might not have actually qualified as a real canoe trip. There were no arduous portages and our camp, once set up, stayed set up until we were ready to come home. Instead of the sleek lightweight canoes that most trekkers favor, we used a Sportspal. It certainly is lightweight but it doesn’t glide easily through the water at every stroke of the paddle. It’s designed more for duck hunting than canoe trekking. Some liken it to trying to paddle a bathtub across a lake but we weren’t in a hurry so we didn’t mind. We like it because it is nice and wide and consequently very stable. That will count more and more as we get older and our balance becomes an issue. Besides, it brings back a lot of memories.

The first canoe my younger brother, Tom, bought with his own money was a Sportspal. He spent many happy hours on the water in that boat. We were nearly done High School when my two older brothers conceived a plan for the greatest wilderness adventure of their lives. They would take the whole summer and canoe all the way to James Bay and they would borrow Tom’s Sportspal to do it in. They bought huge backpacks from the army surplus store. Dave learned how to make Indian bannock and began to plan for the food staples they would need to carry. They were counting on supplementing their diet by fishing and hunting along the way so Richard bought a crossbow. There were no cell phones back then but they did think to carry whistles in case they got separated.

The day came when everything was ready and we drove them north to their chosen put in spot near Chapleau. The canoe was loaded to maximum capacity and excitement ran high as we said our farewells. No explorer ever set out with greater anticipation and hope of adventure than those two. They had no idea just how short their trek was destined to be.

They hadn’t gone more than six kilometers when they came to a set of rapids. With the canoe as heavily laden as it was they decided to portage the packs. Richard would walk along the shore and guide the canoe down the rapids by means of a rope. It was a method called “lining the canoe” that neither of them had ever actually tried before. Meanwhile, Dave would begin the task of carrying the packs to a point beyond the rapids. The big square 80 pound packs were cumbersome and Dave was struggling to adjust to the weight when he tripped and fell on what turned out to be a wasp nest. Angry wasps swarmed upward to surround him and he instantly forgot the weight on his back as he scrambled up and took off running through the bush. He soon left the wasps behind and finally came to a gasping halt on the bank of the river once more. He just managed to ease the pack from his aching shoulders when he heard the desperate tweeting of Richard’s emergency whistle coming from around a bend in the river.

Before Dave could respond Richard himself appeared at the bend looking like thunder. He was drenched from head to toe and there was no sign of the canoe. Apparently “lining the canoe” down the rapids wasn’t as easy as it sounded. At a particularly rough patch the lightweight aluminum Sportspal had spun out of control on the end of the rope turning sideways so that it was caught by a huge wave. Richard, who still held the rope, ended up losing his precarious balance and getting pulled into the river. He had to let go in order to save himself but the canoe wasn’t going anywhere. It had very nearly folded itself in half around the boulder it was pinned against by the force of the wave. It took their combined strength to eventually pry it loose. Even though they managed to stomp it back into shape it didn’t much resemble the canoe they had started out with. The ribs were broken and it was holed pretty badly. It was ‘fix it’ or ‘walk’ so they opted to attempt repairs. They spent two days making new ribs for it from some nearby cedar and sealing the holes with the patch kit they’d brought along.

When they put it back in the water it actually floated but it was obvious the patches weren’t going to hold very well. It was leaking badly when they set out once more. Progress was slow as they had to spend as much time bailing as paddling. They made it as far as the next lake and decided that was as far as either of them was willing to go. Fortunately there was a fishing lodge on the lake and the people there offered a means to return to civilization. They were happy to take a break from their exertions and camped there for a week or so before heading home. The great adventure was at an end less than 20 kilometers from where it began. Strangely enough, they didn’t seem at all disappointed. They came away with at least one good story and it only cost them the price of Tom’s canoe…oh, and one crossbow which is probably still somewhere at the bottom of the river.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Horrible Haircuts

Have you ever found yourself seated on a kitchen chair draped in one of your mother’s tablecloths while one or the other of your parents circled you with a pair of scissors and a frown of concentration on their faces? That’s what getting a haircut meant in our house. My Dad would trim away, stand back for a critical examination and reach out to trim some more. My hair had some curl in it so getting the bangs straight was challenging. Just when he thought he’d managed it he would spot a few strands longer than the rest and take another snip. That’s how I often ended up with ragged inch long stubble sticking out in every direction instead of the bangs I was hoping for.

You would think I might have learned something from my childhood experiences and opted to let the professionals handle haircuts for my own children but I was convinced I could do better than my Dad. Consequently, all three of my children have had their chance to sit on that kitchen chair. For the most part I did do better. I bought a set of electric clippers that came with a video and several attachments that insured a uniform cut at the length of your choice. What could be simpler? My daughter’s hair would still have to be cut with scissors but the men of the house could all get clipped. It would be virtually impossible to mess up. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

There came a Saturday when the boys were beginning to look quite shaggy so “Mom’s Barber Shop” was declared open. By then I had already accomplished several successful haircuts using the new clippers and I was feeling quite confident. Jason, who was in Grade 7 at the time, was perched on the chair with his feet drawn up under the tablecloth I had pinned around his neck. His younger sister, Lauren, was watching the proceedings with considerable interest. Jason flinched when the clippers caught his hair and complained that it was pulling. I assured him that I could easily fix the problem. A bit of oil was probably all that was needed so I removed the attachment and carefully dribbled a few drops onto the exposed blades. I let it run for a moment to make sure everything was well lubricated before proceeding with the haircut from the spot where I’d left off, taking one long swipe up the back of Jason’s bowed head.

I realized too late that I had forgotten to replace the attachment on the clippers. I turned them off and gazed in horrified fascination at the long naked stripe running up the back of my son’s dark head. Lauren sucked in her breath and clapped a hand over her mouth. Jason wasn’t sure what the problem was but he could see his sister’s face and that was enough for him. He jumped up and headed to the nearest mirror with me only steps behind him. One look and he took off for his bedroom where he could hide his misery behind a closed door. He swore he was never coming out. We both cried as I begged his forgiveness and tried to come up with some solution. A hat couldn’t begin to cover it.

It was my husband, Bev, who finally saved the day. Jason had a set of pastels in his art box and Bev found one that was the exact shade of brown to match his hair. He simply colored in the exposed scalp thereby effectively disguising it. He then proposed to Jason that we attend church as usual the next day to find out if anyone noticed anything strange about his haircut. Jason was a bit nervous but his confidence grew as it became obvious that no one could tell there was a problem. That settled it. Every morning for the two weeks it took for his own hair to fill in the gap Bev would use the crayon to touch up the color on the back of Jason’s head disguising the stripe that my mistake had put there. No one at school ever noticed a thing. He did forgive me but he never let me cut his hair again. Neither did Bev. The clippers were relegated to a back corner of the bathroom cupboard where they have been gathering dust for years.

I did get to cut my Dad’s hair a time or two during my brief career as a home hairstylist. It was an odd feeling to have our roles reversed. They say that what goes around comes around but I hope that doesn’t always hold true. I hate to imagine myself seated in the dreaded chair one day at the mercy of Jason and a pair of scissors.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Grab That Bird

Hunting was a part of life when I was growing up. My Dad enjoyed it immensely but he never did it just for sport. It put meat on the table and that was important. I’ve seen those jokes where “you know you’re Canadian when every fall your kitchen turns into a butcher shop”. Well, that was true at our house. The meat, whether it was venison or moose, or even bear, would get cut and wrapped in butcher paper and stored safely in the big chest freezer. Smaller game like rabbit or partridge usually got eaten the same day it was killed.

My younger brother Tom and I often went along when Dad was hunting small game. We’d follow behind him as he stalked through the woods, doing our level best to walk without stepping on twigs or otherwise making unnecessary noise as we navigated through the tangled brush. I loved to pretend we were frontiersmen and that our survival depended on our success in the hunt. Our heads would turn from side to side as we searched the trees around us, hoping to spot something before Dad did. We never could though. It was like he had x-ray vision or something. He’d stop suddenly and swing the gun up. That was our cue to freeze and we’d hold our breath wondering what on earth he was looking at. He was an excellent shot so we rarely had to go home empty handed.

Our job was to carry the game so on one occasion when Dad shot a partridge he sent Tom off to collect it. Tom went bounding off in the direction Dad had pointed, scanning the ground as he went. The bird was there all right and without hesitation he reached out to take hold of it. He jumped back in startled dismay when the bird at his feet suddenly burst into the air with a mad flapping of outstretched wings. It only went a short distance before settling back to earth so Tom reasoned that it must be wounded and its short flight was merely the last gasp before death overtook it. He began his approach with more caution the second time. The partridge lay perfectly still…surely it wasn’t breathing. He heaved a sigh of relief and bent to retrieve it. His involuntary shout echoed in the stillness and he jerked his hand back as the partridge seemed to come to life. Once again it took to the air only to land twenty feet away. By then Tom was beginning to get annoyed so he rushed to the spot where the uncooperative bird had touched down only to have it flutter off and settle beyond his reach one more time.

He looked up at the sound of Dad’s voice calling his name. When he turned to look back the way he’d come he spotted Dad, a broad smile on his face, holding up the partridge he had shot and beckoning him to return. He glanced back at the bird he’d been chasing. The fool thing wasn’t wounded at all and was probably laughing at him.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


When our boys were three and four years old we lived in a small two bedroom house on a farm just north of Arthur, Ontario. With our daughter approaching her first birthday things were a little crowded. All three children were sharing a small bedroom with the crib and a set of bunk beds crowded in together.

Daniel, being the oldest, had been relegated to the top bunk. He had already discovered the hard way that a certain degree of caution was needed when playing or sleeping in his lofty nest. Fortunately for him, his one fall had landed him neatly in the open drawer of the dresser standing next to the bed. Apart from a couple of bruises on the backs of his legs he survived his accident with no lasting harm done.

One day when I was working in another part of the house, Jason, always and forever a climber, decided to join his brother up top. I had no idea he was up there until I heard a scuffle followed by Daniel’s heart wrenching drawn out cry of “He-e-e-l-l-p!!” Panic lent wings to my feet and I made it to the bedroom in record time. There was my three year old, Jason, hanging upside down from the top bunk with his brother stretched out above him grasping his ankles in a desperate attempt to stop his fall. He couldn’t have held him much longer. In fact, I don’t know how he was holding him at all. They were almost the same size after all but Daniel’s face wore a grimace of stubborn determination that I have since come to know well. He just refused to let go. His relief was palpable when I came to the rescue and took the weight from his straining arms.

Jason learned caution on the bunk bed that day but it wasn’t the last time he got himself into a fix with his climbing. Daniel was always the one to go for help whenever his brother got stuck in some impossible situation. We would be sitting peacefully in a campsite somewhere and Daniel would come running. “Dad, you better bring a rope. Jason is on a ledge halfway up a cliff and he can’t get up or down.” Or I would be making supper and Daniel would burst through the door with a shout of “Mom, Jason’s stuck on the roof.” Of course, that’s another story.

Eventually they grew up. None of Jason’s experiences spoiled his love of climbing. He spent five years as a roofer when he was paying for college and now he climbs for sport. Daniel hasn’t had to come to his rescue in years but back when they were boys he was definitely his brother’s keeper. That’s the great thing about brothers. They’re there when you need them.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bathing Suit Blues (this one's for the girls)

There isn’t a woman on earth who hasn’t struggled at some time in her life with the question of body image. I was a “late bloomer”. In fact, by the time Grade 7 rolled around and I still showed no signs of the curves the other girls were sporting, I began to wonder if I would ever bloom at all. At least I wasn’t the only one. Susie and I became friends out of shared flat-chested misery. None of the boys were making fools of themselves over us. I overheard someone tell the boy I’d had a crush on all year that I liked him. It was one of those times I wished I’d listened when my mother warned me of the perils of eavesdropping. His response was “Her? She’s got nothing!” Obviously, breasts were the only thing that counted.

Susie and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out a way to speed up whatever development was destined to happen. I remember one discussion behind the closed doors of my room where she insisted that she’d heard that placing ice cubes on your breasts for as long as you could stand it would do the trick. It didn’t seem logical so we just laughed at the idea. A couple of days later we both confessed that we had secretly tried it. After all, what did we really know?

That summer we tried stuffing socks into our shirts just to see what we would look like with a figure. After much careful adjusting and a few safety pins to safeguard against disasters like slippage, we even ventured outside for a walk down the road. Of course we made sure no one we knew was likely to see us.

How well I remember the bathing suit my mother bought me that year. A bathing suit was something I couldn’t inherit from my older brothers and my mom didn’t think she could sew one so I was going to get something brand new from the store. We didn’t have a lot of money so she decided she would get it a size or two bigger than I really needed at the time. That way I could grow into it and it would last more than a year. She bought a two piece suit that had an actual bra with fairly stiff cups that could stand on their own even without breasts to fill them. We went camping a lot and I loved walking around campgrounds where nobody knew me wearing that bathing suit. I felt like a million bucks. Unfortunately, getting it wet could sometimes result in extremely embarrassing cave-ins. I couldn’t possibly go swimming when there was always the danger that I would stand up only to discover that one of my so-called breasts was accidentally inverted and pointing in the wrong direction.

We moved when I was in Grade 8 and I never saw Susie again. I assume she must have finally blossomed in the end. In spite of all our fears it was inevitable after all. By the time I got to High School I was finally wearing a 32AA bra and had had my first period. That old bathing suit was still too big and eventually I replaced it. I never did have a figure that would catch anybody’s attention and to top it off I turned out to be smart. No boys would be chasing me any time soon. Somehow in the midst of it all I realized that that didn’t really bother me. I had good friends both male and female among the group of students the rest of the school called ‘Browners’, short for ‘Brown-nosers’ because we got good grades. I found I actually liked myself.

Getting my period hadn’t turned out to be such a picnic after all so I reasoned that having a boyfriend was probably just as likely to result in all kinds of unforeseen pitfalls. Being a woman was going to be about a lot more than breasts and what the boys thought of my figure. What was I in such a big hurry for anyway?

Monday, August 2, 2010


When I was a child we loved catching insects of all sorts. An empty glass jar and a hammer and nail to punch some air holes in the lid were all we needed and the hunt would be on. No grasshopper or cricket was safe from pursuit. Bumble bees were the trickiest because they tended to fight back. I’ll never forget the day I turned over a log at school and discovered the biggest spider I’d ever seen in my life. It was gray and looked positively muscular with thick hairy legs like a tarantula. When I brought it home in my jar Dad said it was a wood spider. I named him Hercules.

We were living in a little mining subdivision nestled in the woods south of the highway between Blind River and Spragg with Georgian Bay on one side and the railway tracks next to the highway on the other. There were about two dozen houses and not much else so we children made our own fun. We had the run of the woods and did a lot of exploring and building forts. Whenever two children got into a tiff everyone would choose sides and the mock war would be on. It was a favorite game that somehow never got out of hand. We would send out spies, take prisoners, and do our best to destroy one another’s forts until one side or the other gave up.

The battle I remember best was the one Hercules played a part in. We were having a strategy meeting in a tent in our back yard when it suddenly occurred to me that we had a ready made secret weapon in Hercules. I dashed into the house and brought out the big pickle jar that housed my captured spider. My fellow warriors were duly impressed and we resolved to make him part of our arsenal. Excitement ran high as we marched out to the road to confront our opponents. They were there all right, waiting for us to emerge. Someone yelled “Charge”, and we all ran straight at them shouting “Hercules…Hercules!” My job was to run out in front with the pickle jar held in my outstretched hands as both shield and sword. It worked! They fled like rabbits with a pack of dogs after them. The war was over and we were victorious.

Looking back, I doubt they even knew what was in the jar. Our excess of confidence was probably what unnerved them. Nevertheless, Hercules was the hero of the hour. We retired to our tent and prepared to reward him. I don’t know who came up with the idea but it was decided that each one of us would pay our respects by reaching a hand into the jar to touch him. He was part of the team after all. It was all very exciting not to mention seriously creepy.

I kept Hercules for a few more days before deciding that he deserved better than life in a pickle jar. I took him out to the woods and found a spot where a tree had fallen and was starting to rot. It looked like a place that would appeal to a wood spider so I opened the jar and tipped him out. In seconds he was gone but I’ve never forgotten him. He was certainly the most impressive creature I ever caught in one of my jars.