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.