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.