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.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Groundhog, Anyone?

When our children were young we had the privilege of meeting and getting to know a wonderful young couple from Nigeria. David was here working towards completing his PhD and he and his wife, Eno, became very much a part of our family for the years they were in Canada. David, an avid sportsman, developed an interest in archery very early on in his stay. Living in an apartment made practicing difficult so visits to the farm became perfect opportunities to hone his skills. Of course, the boys were fascinated and never tired of watching, their fingers twitching in their eagerness to try it for themselves. They got their wish when David presented them with their own bows on Christmas Day. He had fashioned them from the materials at hand….good, pliable branches stripped of their bark and smoothed to a fine sheen, notched and strung with heavy twine. They could hardly wait to bundle up and head outside to test them.

David’s enthusiasm was hard to resist. Later that summer when we were all visiting Grandma and Grandpa Livingston’s farm in Markdale, he decided to go hunting with his bow. All three children clamored to go with him. I’ll never forget the sight of them out in the field the grain had come off of. David was on his hands and knees making a very careful approach to a groundhog they’d spotted sitting in the sun. It wouldn’t be easy to get close enough for a shot without the groundhog noticing him and scooting back into its hole. The rest of us watched as he patiently stalked his prey with three small children on their hands and knees strung out in single file behind him like ducklings of decreasing size, each one intent on mimicking his every move.

David got his groundhog in the end and he was eager to try cooking it over a slow fire in the yard once we got home. Hours later it was well and truly smoked but we had to finish it in the oven so it would be ready in time to include with the rest of our dinner. We had a couple of extra boys at the table that night but there was enough for everyone to have a taste. One of our young visitors announced with great dignity that he didn’t eat small rodents. The other was frankly horrified so we quickly assured them both that there were plenty of other choices and no one expected them to eat the groundhog. The rest of us were made of more adventurous stuff and we each took a portion. The first bite might have been tentative but it wasn’t long before we were all grinning at one another. It tasted like ham.

David and Eno had an impact on all our lives. Their endless patience, love, and Godly example as well as their willingness and even eagerness to try new things made them role models to our children that we treasured. They will never be forgotten. Our lives were richer and certainly more interesting for having shared those times with them.

Many years later our daughter, Lauren, was doing an ice-breaker activity in her Grade 12 environmental science class. Each student had to list four things they had done with only three of the four being true. Everyone else would then try to guess which of the things listed was false. Lauren’s list raised a few eyebrows. It included shooting a porcupine, riding an elephant, driving a dogsled, and eating a groundhog. Apparently that was a hard one to beat.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

One Stolen Cub

We’ve had our share of wildlife sightings on our travels this summer. The most recent was of a black bear we passed on one of our hikes in Northern Ontario. The bear was a good distance off the trail but the undergrowth was sparse and we were able to watch him for several minutes as he made his way through the scattered hardwoods. It was a rare treat, one my Dad would have appreciated. He never missed an opportunity to study the animals he encountered in the woods. Occasionally, he got to study them much closer than common sense might have allowed.

He was returning from a fishing trip somewhere around the time I was born when he noticed what appeared to be a large animal swimming across the lake in the distance ahead of him. Curious, he angled the boat for a closer look. As he approached he realized that it was a bear…a female with three small cubs swimming along behind her. Had they been on land he would have given them a very wide berth indeed. A mother bear with cubs is not to be trifled with. As it was, he could bring the boat right alongside with total impunity. She was helpless to do anything about it without solid ground under her feet.

Afterwards he could not really explain what he did next. He acted on impulse. Certainly, he didn’t think it through very well. In any case, he eased the boat up next to the last cub in the line and reached out to grab it by the scruff of the neck. With one heave he plucked it right out of the lake and into the boat at his feet before speeding away. Perhaps he imagined raising the cub himself. What better way to learn about bears? By the time he reached the shore at the far end of the lake he knew he’d have to fashion a leash of some kind or risk getting badly scratched. He was beginning to have second thoughts about the whole thing but it was too late to undo it all by then.

It caused quite an uproar when he came home from his fishing trip leading a bear cub on a rope. In the end they had to lock the poor thing in the garden shed as there was no other safe place to put it. No one slept that night. Who could have imagined the terrible racket that one small cub could make in an enclosed space? The noise had everyone on edge. By morning Dad was feeling pretty bad about the whole thing and thoroughly regretting his impulsive decision.

The cub only spent that one night in the shed. There was a man who ran a gas station out at the highway. He kept animals in his own makeshift zoo for the tourists to look at and he agreed to take the little bear and raise it. Dad would stop there from time to time to check in on the bear he pulled out of the water but I think if he had the chance to do it all over again he would have left that mother bear and her cubs to cross the lake in peace.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Goodnight JohnBoy

My Mom had a hilarious sense of fun and adventure. The first 13 years of her life were not happy ones and so in a sense, she missed her own childhood. Once she had her own family she was determined to experience all the fun she’d missed. No one loved a good joke or a surprise more than she did. You never knew when you’d find a rubber spider in your cup and games of any sort would inevitably end up being very lively indeed if she was participating. There was a lot of laughter in our house as I was growing up. The Bible says a cheerful heart is good medicine and I know that to be true.

One of my many favorite memories is of a visit home by my oldest brother, Richard, when my younger brother and I were around 12 and 13. Richard was 10 years older than me and we hadn’t seen him in quite some time. We lived in an old farmhouse with a huge open area upstairs. The boys had beds out in the open area and there were two small rooms partitioned off with paper thin walls for my parents and me. Bedtime often involved conversations through the walls followed by a round of ‘goodnights’ between all of us. Someone would always throw out a ‘goodnight JohnBoy’ at the end. We were fans of the Waltons at the time.

On this particular occasion as we all lay there in the dark, my mother was making observations about how thin Richard looked to her and asking him if he was getting enough to eat.

Richard groaned and fired back with an exasperated “Ma, I’m not thin…you should see my tits!”

Her instant response was “Richard, in this house we do not say tits”. There was a moment of embarrassed silence before she added in serious and extremely righteous tones, “In this house we say titties”.

The entire family erupted in peals of unrestrained laughter, the kind that has you falling off the bed or wondering if you’re about to pee your pants. Just when things would begin to calm down someone would snicker and we’d be off again. It was quite a while before we could control our giggles enough to say goodnight to the fictional ‘JohnBoy’.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Changrak and Su-Ling

I have a fondness for cats. When my brother, Tom, and I were children we visited a farm where we were offered one of the barn cats as a pet. We wanted one in the worst way and so we begged Mom and Dad to allow us to say yes. Mom wasn’t keen on the idea at first. It took us a couple of weeks to wear her down. Eventually she consented to give it a try but she was adamant that she did not want a scruffy barn cat in the house. She decided to search the newspapers and the little notices pinned on the board at the Laundromat for something more appropriate. The net result was that we became the proud owners of not one cat but two. Apparently they came as a set. No kittens for us…Changrak and Su-Ling were two full grown Siamese cats. They had always been together and their previous owner wouldn’t hear of separating them.

Changrak, the male, was a handsome Seal Point and looked like I thought all Siamese cats looked…almost white with a brown face, tail, and legs. Su-Ling, however, was a Chocolate Point. She was brown with a black face, tail, and legs. She was the smaller of the two and quite timid. It took a little work to win her trust but with Changrak setting the example she soon came around.

I’ve heard some people say that Siamese cats are temperamental and not very friendly but we never saw any of that with our two. It wasn’t long before they became an integral part of the family. They were good company and always entertaining to watch. When they hunted they looked like miniature panthers stalking their prey. They would creep along with infinite caution, their bodies low to the ground, the tips of their outstretched tails twitching furiously just before they pounced. I could easily imagine them in the jungle somewhere. It was like having National Geographic come to life before our eyes. Once summer came and they were allowed outside it wouldn’t be unusual to hear Changrak at the door, his loud and insistent meows summoning us to see whatever small creature he’d caught. He always brought them home and we would try to show him that we were duly impressed….except for the time he released a live mouse in the middle of the living room in front of my parents’ guests. That got everyone hopping.

I’m not sure there is another animal on earth that can relax the way a cat can. Changrak loved to sprawl on his back, completely limp with legs pointing in four different directions and what looked like a contented smile on his inscrutable face. If Su-Ling happened to be curled up on someone’s lap that would be the exact spot Changrak wanted for his own nap. Nothing else would do. He would sidle up next to her and begin his campaign to appropriate her warm nest by licking her face and rubbing foreheads with her in seeming affection. She never failed to respond by relaxing under his tender ministrations. In moments she would be completely lulled, relaxed to the point of bonelessness. Then, in her moment of greatest vulnerability, Changrak would give her a mighty sideways heave, knocking her completely off her perch to land in an undignified heap on the floor. Without a second glance he would settle himself comfortably in her vacated spot purring in unashamed contentment.

He used that same strategy time after time and she never seemed to learn from past experience. He was obviously the brains of the outfit….or maybe she just figured the attention was worth it.