Thursday, June 30, 2011

Endings and Beginnings

This week marks an ending of sorts.  After 65 postings I will be taking a break to work on other projects for a time.  The stories I've shared with you here on 'A Slice of Life' will be coming out in print in the book titled 'Eyes Wide Open....when life happens you want to see it coming!' which will be available in the fall.  This year of remembering and recording has given me a fresh appreciation for the life I've enjoyed and the people who have enriched it.  It's not really an end, though.  There is a whole new generation springing up around us and many more stories to live....certainly enough to keep us hopping for years to come.

Thanks to all of my readers who have shared the journey with me.
Robin

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It Feels Real

My Mom was just about the age that I am now the first time she had breast cancer. She had to have had the lump for some time before she finally decided to go to a doctor about it. I suppose she hoped that it would go away if she left it alone. Things might have turned out differently if she’d had some of the information available to women today along with the breast screening programs now in place to help with early detection. As it was, she went straight from the Doctor’s office to the hospital where she was hurriedly admitted. Less than 48 hours later she woke from anesthetic having had a radical mastectomy.

I won’t say she had an easy time of it. She did raise an eyebrow or two on the hospital ward when she declared that she was as good with one boob as she’d ever been with two. Cancer terrified her and she was so relieved to have it gone that her breast seemed a small price to pay. She did not grieve its loss though it would have been understandable if she had. The Doctors recommended a whole series of radiation treatments and there were very few side effects apart from a lingering shadow of fear that the cancer would return one day.  It tended to creep to the surface every time she had to go for a checkup.

Her wacky sense of humor tipped the scales in her favor over the years that followed. Laughter seemed to give her strength. In time she recovered enough from that initial surgery to be measured and fitted for a prosthesis that could be worn in a specially made bra. She was as delighted with her new “falsie” as a child on Christmas morning. The first time she tried it on she stood before the mirror in her room examining herself critically from every angle.

“You can’t even tell the difference,” she announced as she peered closely at her reflection. She gave herself a little jiggle to see how it moved and then tried a couple of quick hops. She grinned in satisfaction and came out to show off her newly restored figure to the rest of the family.

“I bet you wouldn’t be able to tell which one was which if you didn’t know,” she insisted.

In fact, much to our embarrassment, she was not averse to issuing that very challenge to anyone who asked about her surgery in the weeks that followed. More than one person would end up giving a red faced shrug before conceding that they really couldn’t tell which of her breasts was in reality a fake.

One poor fellow nearly choked on his coffee at dinner when she blithely asserted to the table at large that “It actually feels real.”

He wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly but her next words confirmed it. “Go ahead and give it a poke,” she offered with an earnest smile and a nod in his direction.

He hastily swiped a dribble of coffee from his chin and, darting a quick look in my Dad’s direction, shook his head vigorously.

“Why not?” she asked. “It’s not me you’ll be touching you know. I don’t mind.”

He glanced at his wife and then back at my Dad but got no help from either of them. They just sat there grinning at his discomfiture. Finally he reached out a tentative finger and gave the proffered breast a gentle prod.

“Not that one,” Mom snapped in tones of righteous indignation.

He jerked his hand away nearly toppling his chair in the process while my Mom broke into peals of laughter. The whole table was in an uproar.

“I’m just kidding,” she gasped. “I told you it feels real!”

“I guess you got me there,” he admitted with a grin of his own as he struggled to regain his composure.

Mom lived another twenty years. Eventually she lost her remaining breast…again to cancer. Her response was not unexpected.

“Well,” she shrugged. “Now I won’t need to bother with a bra at all. I never liked them anyway.”

There’s always a bright side if you’re willing to look for it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Runt of the Flock

Spring is the time of year for babies to be born…at least in the animal world. The woods and fields are bursting with new life. A trip to the barn yields its own reward in the sight of gangly new calves or lambs frisking in the yard whenever they’re not suckling, their tails twitching madly in their eagerness. There is something infinitely appealing about baby animals. Perhaps it is their very newness and vulnerability that pulls at our heartstrings. Whatever the reason, they can be irresistible.

That’s why I jumped at the chance for a visit to the farm where my husband, Bev, owned a quarter share in a flock of 100 angora goats back in the spring of 1980 when we were newly engaged. I met him at his apartment after work and we drove out to the farm together. The place would be just about exploding with new babies and I could hardly wait.

Angora goats are raised for their wool like sheep. The adult animals produce mohair but it is the first fleece of the young animals that produces the soft angora wool that we prize so much. The kids were even smaller than new lambs and covered in the finest silky white curls…adorable! I stood at the gate and watched, completely captivated.

“What’s wrong with that one?” I took hold of Bev’s coat sleeve and pointed to a tiny kid I’d spotted off to one side. “I think it’s limping,” I observed, my brow furrowing with concern.

“Yeah,” Bev replied. “She was born a couple of weeks before the rest and I think she was a bit premature. Then she got stepped on so one of her front legs got damaged. It’s not broken but you can see how she doesn’t put much weight on it. She doesn’t feed well and so she hasn’t been growing. The others are all bigger than her even though they were born later.”

“What’s going to happen to her?” I wondered.

He gave a shrug and shook his head. “We don’t expect her to survive,” he admitted.

I could feel myself going all maternal all of a sudden. It must have something to do with how God wired the female of the species. I just couldn’t let it go at that.

“Couldn’t we take her out of there?” I asked. “We could take her down to your parents’ farm in Markdale and give her to your little sisters as a pet.” It seemed reasonable enough.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Bev admitted. “She might do a lot better with all the attention they’d give her.”

It was a long drive to Bev’s family home and we decided to go the very next day. In the end we hashed out a plan that involved me taking the baby goat home to my apartment for the night so we could get an early start. I somehow convinced my part time farmer fiancĂ© that we ought to give her a bath. Warm water in a laundry tub, one bottle of baby shampoo and we were both up to our elbows in lather as we worked her over. I don’t know what she thought of the proceedings but the end result was worth it. Her curls felt unbelievably soft and she smelled like a Johnson and Johnson baby.

I bundled her into my car in a cardboard box and headed back into town with Bev’s promise to be there first thing in the morning. Till then I would be on my own. I made sure the coast was clear before I smuggled her up the stairs to my apartment. Once there I built a barricade to block off one corner of the kitchen, laid a sheet of plastic on the floor and tossed in the straw from her box. She didn’t seem too impressed. I discovered that a baby goat can make an incredible amount of noise when they’re upset. It sounded almost like a human baby crying and I began to worry about what my landlord would think was going on upstairs.
I thought she might be lonely for the other goats so I unscrewed the full length mirror from my bedroom door and leaned it against the wall in her corner. Perhaps if she saw her image in the mirror she could be fooled into thinking she wasn’t alone. It seemed to work for the first little while but it didn’t take long for her to set up her lament all over again.

Finally, in desperation, I put her back in the box and set it right next to my bed. If I slept with one arm dangling over the side so that my hand rested in the box with her she seemed to settle down. I guess she needed contact with something warm and alive and in the absence of her mother, my hand would do.

By morning I was convinced of the wisdom of not keeping farm animals in apartments and it was with considerable relief that I saw Bev’s truck pull up to the curb. The 5 hour trip went without incident and the girls were absolutely delighted with the surprise we brought them. The runt of the flock didn’t die after all. With all the TLC she got it wasn’t long before she began to thrive and grow. Eventually, Bev’s sisters were able to start a flock of their own with our little runt as the matriarch. Instead of survival of the fittest it was survival of the most loved.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Too Close For Comfort

Hunting larger game with my Dad was not for the faint of heart. Those were the days before modern technology simplified life. No GPS, ATV or hand held radio for him. He had only his own two feet and an uncanny sense of direction to depend on. He did occasionally take someone along with him but more often than not it was a solitary venture. He preferred to hunt alone.

He would head off on foot into the bush in Northern Ontario to look for signs of the deer or moose that he was after. Once he found tracks and knew which direction they were heading, he would take some time to study the terrain. He was quite skilled at predicting the path they were likely to take and he would set off on a route that would take him around in a wide circle to get in front of them. Then he could pick a spot that would put him downwind and in a perfect position to take a shot when the time came. Of course, all that tracking and circling meant that he often covered a lot of distance on a hunt. Anyone tagging along was taking the risk that they might find themselves trudging through 20 miles of forest and swamps before the day was done.

Dad was good at what he did so he seldom failed to bring home his prey. Once the animal was shot the real work began. If it was a deer he would shoulder the whole carcass after it was gutted and begin the long trek back to the road. If it was a moose things got a little more complicated. A moose is far too large to drag through the woods so it would have to be butchered on site. One man couldn’t hope to carry it all. Help would be needed in order to retrieve it and that meant hiking back to civilization to round up reinforcements. With a little luck there would be some relative or friend who was willing to lend a hand in exchange for a share of the meat. If no one was available he would head back on his own with a huge pack he kept for the purpose and used often. It would hold about 200 pounds and he would load it up with the choicest cuts and leave the rest for scavengers. Bushwhacking with a 200 pound pack on your back for any distance can take the stuffing out of even the strongest of men but Dad did it when he had to. It was all part of the experience.

One year he was out after deer with his 300 Savage lever action rifle. He’d been walking for some time and was caught completely by surprise when a moose rose to its feet almost directly in front of him. It was a cow and his reaction was instinctive. He lifted the rifle to his shoulder and fired before he had time to think about it. The 300 is shorter and lighter than the gun he normally would have carried to hunt moose but it was a good clean shot and she went down like a stone. He’d only taken a few steps toward her when a crashing in the brush some distance behind him brought him up short. He swung around in alarm to see a huge bull moose snorting and shaking his massive antlered head at the puny man that stood between him and the cow he’d been approaching.

When the animal charged Dad stood his ground and fired. He fired again and again until he’d used all 5 of the shots that remained in his gun after the one that brought the cow down. The big bull not only kept coming, it didn’t even slow down. I don’t know if Dad’s life flashed before his eyes in that moment but it well might have. He took a quick step back and stumbled, the now empty and useless gun dangling from one hand. He fell onto his back and lay there helpless as the moose, confused by the sudden move, skidded to a stop and stood panting over him. He was close…so close that Dad could have reached up and touched his lowered head. There was blood streaming from the broad chest where his shots had found a mark but it was obvious that with the lighter rifle he had failed to pierce anything vital. He held his breath and waited through ten long agonizing seconds before the moose turned aside and trotted off through the trees. He was lucky to be alive. As it was, he didn’t even get stepped on.

“I thought I was a goner,” he later confided. “It was a little too close for comfort.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pest Control

The place that my husband, Bev, and I call home is a farmhouse out in the country that we’ve lived in for the past 19 years. The house actually qualifies as a heritage home since it was built over 150 years ago. It’s a house that has character as a number of visitors over the years have pointed out. I have to agree that the tall ceilings, deep windowsills and spacious hallway give it a certain flair. The house doesn’t belong to us but we’ve always considered ourselves blessed to have the opportunity to live here. I do have to admit that there are a few quirks that go along with living in a home of such a venerable age. To say that it is well ventilated would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions.

A number of years ago a study was done to determine the efficiency of the heating systems in the various houses managed by the university. On the appointed day a massive fan was installed and sealed into our open front door. It was designed to suck air out of the house to lower the air pressure inside and determine how airtight it might be. It was an impossible task because as fast as the air was sucked out it was replaced by a constant and substantial inflow from nearly every direction. Curtains billowed in front of tightly shut windows while doors trembled on their hinges in the breeze. To open any one of the kitchen cupboards that sat against an outside wall was to be blasted by a veritable windstorm blowing out from among the canned goods. Even the plaster walls seemed to be oozing air. In the end they gave it up and concluded that at the very least we didn’t need to worry about being asphyxiated in our sleep by carbon monoxide poisoning. We resigned ourselves to wrapping up in comforters to watch television and occasionally wearing knee high felt boot liners around the house in winter.

The other problem with living in a house with more than its fair share of cracks and holes is that we have to deal with the pests that manage to find their way inside. Every spring and fall we have an influx of cluster flies that gives me a deep appreciation for what the Egyptians must have endured during the plagues of the Exodus. The first snowfall generally heralds the entrance of a few field mice looking to get in out of the cold and occasionally we get a visitor of a more alarming sort.

Our daughter, Lauren, found herself stirring out of a restless sleep in the middle hours of a warm summer night the year she was 12 years old. She lay in bed wondering what could have wakened her, absently noting that the rhythmic whirring of the ceiling fan sounded a lot louder than it ought to. Her eyes snapped open completely when she belatedly remembered that there was no ceiling fan in her room. Something was flying in circles in the darkness above her head! What else could it be but a bat? She snatched the covers up over her head and called out softly in an attempt to attract our attention without alerting the winged intruder to her presence.

Back in our room, Bev raised himself up on one elbow and cocked his head to listen.

“What’s wrong,” I muttered.

He was already getting out of bed and pulling on some clothes. “I heard someone calling Daddy,” he whispered. “It had to be Lauren. I’ll just go check on her.”

In the meantime, Lauren was convinced that no one could have heard her feeble cry. She decided she couldn’t stay where she was so she gently rolled out from under the covers and off the edge of her bed to a prone position on the carpet. Bats were supposed to have excellent radar but she wasn’t about to stand up and risk a collision. She began a slow torturous crawl along the floor while the whirring continued unabated somewhere near the ceiling above her. She’d almost reached the door when Bev arrived and pushed it open. He looked down in astonishment as she scooted past his ankles and pulled the door shut behind her.

“There’s a bat flying around in there,” she gasped.

Bev grabbed a towel from the bathroom and stepped through the door into Lauren’s room closing it firmly behind him before flicking the light switch on. Sure enough, there was a bat flying circles around the room at just above head height. Bev stood watching long enough to see that its flight path never seemed to vary. He simply stepped in front of it on one of its crazy circuits and caught it in the folds of the towel. From there it was easy enough to carry it outside and set it free…a classic catch and release. Lauren was mightily relieved. Her Dad had proved to be a most effective air traffic controller when it came to bats and she returned to her bed surrounded by the blessed sounds of silence. Still, I think she spent the rest of the night with the lights on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

School Days

My Dad never had much formal schooling when he was a child. He did attend a small one room schoolhouse in his early years in Northern Ontario for long enough to master the basics. When he was just going into Grade 4, his family moved to a cabin back in the woods and my Grandma Landry carried on with teaching the children their lessons at home. Eventually they moved back to a farm that was close enough to the school for them to join the other children but the teacher refused to recognize the work that had been done at home and Dad was told he would have to repeat the grade. It was to be the last grade he completed before he left school for good to work in the lumber camps with his father and older brother. In the meantime, he was placed back with the younger students and that was a serious blow to his pride.

Perhaps that explains why he felt the need to put on a little extra swagger when he was out in the schoolyard during the lunch break one frosty day in January. It just so happened that he was carrying a brand new pocket knife. It was his most treasured possession and he brought it out to carve himself a whistle from a twig he stripped from a tree in the yard. The other boys cast envious glances at that shiny new knife as they gathered around him to watch. He even consented to let one of them hold it for a moment before the bell rang to call them back to their desks. That was the beginning. That very afternoon one of the boys tried to buy the pocket knife from him. He offered him a whole nickel but Dad was adamant that the knife was not for sale. He didn’t reckon on how determined that boy was. He simply refused to accept ‘no’ as a final answer. He was convinced that if he kept at it long enough and tried every incentive he could think of Dad would eventually give in.

Over the next few days his dogged persistence became a form of exquisite torture to Dad. It seemed that no matter where he went he couldn’t escape that wheedling voice. Telling the boy to quit did no good at all and attempts at ignoring him failed utterly. He almost regretted ever bringing the knife to school in the first place but what was the use of having a treasure if you couldn’t show it off from time to time. He couldn’t even walk home in peace with his young schoolmate trailing along behind him offering in his most coaxing tones to do whatever Dad asked if only he would give up his pocketknife.

Finally, in a fit of exasperation, Dad stopped in the middle of the snowy road and turned to his tormenter who skidded to an eager halt beside him.

“So you’ll do whatever I say will you?” he shouted. “Well then…eat that!” He pointed to a pile of horse droppings that lay frozen on the ground and then stood scowling his most formidable scowl with his arms folded across his chest as he waited.

Now horse droppings, sometimes known as ‘road apples’, could hardly be termed an appetizing prospect even in a frozen state. Dad was fairly confident that his demand would be the end of it once and for all. It wasn’t his fault that he seriously underestimated the strength of the boy’s resolve. He must have wanted that pocketknife in the worst way because he only hesitated for a moment. He snatched up one of the hard brown lumps, screwed his eyes tightly shut and sank his teeth into it before Dad could even think about saying he changed his mind.

It was inevitable that a fight would ensue. The boy loudly insisted that he had fulfilled my Dad’s terms and the knife was forfeit while Dad just as loudly proclaimed that one bite most certainly did not constitute eating, especially since he’d meant for him to eat the whole pile. There was no way that he was going to hand over his precious knife. What began as a shouting match quickly degenerated to the two of them rolling around on the ground pummeling one another for all they were worth.

In the end, Dad emerged victorious. His shirt was torn and his nose bloodied but the knife still rested where it belonged…in his pocket. He smiled to himself when he thought of how the boy finally cried mercy and promised to give it up for good. ‘I should have done that in the first place,’ he thought. The smile slipped a fraction as he pictured the tanning he would get from his mother when she saw the state of his shirt. Ah well, it was worth it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

When in Doubt...Run

One of the things my husband, Bev, loved about growing up on a farm was the freedom he had to roam over the expanse of their 150 acres when the work was done. Our own children loved to visit the farm where he grew up for the very same reason. The rolling hills and sun kissed fields offered endless possibilities for adventure. There was a stream at the back of one of the farthest fields and close on its banks was a stack of cedar rails left over from the dismantling of a rail fence. We called it the teepee because that’s what it resembled with the rails all standing on end and leaning together at their apex to form a rough circle. It was the perfect destination on the day when Jason and Lauren decided to hike to the back of the farm to pass the time while their older brother, Daniel, was away with the men getting a load of wood. I wasn’t worried about letting them go off on their own. Our dog, Brownie, would stay with them and there was nothing dangerous out there anyway…. or at least that’s what I thought.

I might have been a little less complacent if I’d known that the first thing they would attempt to do on reaching the teepee was to climb it. I must have forgotten my own childhood and the irresistible power of those three little words ‘I dare you’. It was no surprise that Jason managed to reach the top of the stack but Lauren, not to be outdone, also managed to pull herself up the steeply tilted rails. Brownie was intent on her own pursuits. Her keen sense of smell had picked up the scent of some creature hidden away inside the teepee and she was busily nosing around its base looking for some way to get in. She eventually found what she was looking for and immediately squeezed herself into the small opening in an excited attempt to reach whatever animal had its den in there.

The children looked at each other in considerable alarm when her barking changed to yelps of pain and there was a frantic scrabbling that set the whole stack of rails to trembling. The animal she’d cornered in the teepee turned out to be a porcupine and the encounter was an agonizing lesson for Brownie. She managed to get herself turned around in that small space but that just meant that she got hit both front and back. By the time she emerged she was fairly bristling with quills from one end to the other.

Jason had climbed down by then and he could see for himself what had happened. He didn’t know much about porcupine quills and he was convinced that if Brownie brushed up against him those spiny darts would stick into him as well. There was only one thing to do….run.

“You better get down,” he shouted over his shoulder to Lauren who was still up on the teepee. “Porcupines can climb trees!”

With that parting bit of sage advice he lit out for the house as fast as his legs could carry him. Much to his consternation, Brownie tore off after him and no matter how fast he ran she was never more than a few steps behind him. We could hear him screaming long before he appeared in the yard, feet flying and arms pumping wildly with the dog racing at his heels. I couldn’t believe he’d run all that way without stopping or slowing down and I wasn’t too happy that he’d left his sister back there by herself. Then again, under the circumstances I could see that he felt he’d had no choice. He was only too happy to go back for her once we had Brownie firmly in hand and there was no further danger of her touching him with the formidable array of quills sticking out of her. As it happens Lauren was already well on her way back to the house by the time he reached her. Jason’s warning about tree climbing porcupines was a good incentive not to dally anywhere near the teepee.

Meanwhile, poor Brownie was in terrible pain. Even her eyelids were covered in quills. Bev’s sister and I donned heavy gloves and worked together to hold her securely while we used pliers to try to pull out the ones nearest her eyes. It wasn’t working very well. We couldn’t do it without hurting her and she kept snapping at the pliers. In the end we made a quick phone call and bundled her off to the vet in town. He gave her an anesthetic and was able to extract the quills while she slept. He removed over a hundred of them. She wasn’t too lively for the next few days but it wasn’t long before she was back to her usual rambunctious self…a little older and a little wiser about what sort of animal to leave strictly alone.

Brownie has been gone for a number of years. She lived long enough to have been considered eligible to vote which is a great old age for dogs. She was a constant companion on many adventures and saw all our children grow to adulthood. She never forgot the lesson she learned that day on the farm and neither did we. We still have a plastic bottle filled with quills as a memento.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Home Again and Still Afloat

It was the summer of 1981 and the fishing was good in the French River district in Northern Ontario. When my Uncle Pat and Aunt Lilianne offered to take us on a weekend fishing trip we jumped at the chance. Bev and I had only been married a few months and it seemed like a perfect opportunity for one of those family bonding times. My Mom and Dad were planning on coming along and in a burst of happy inspiration we invited my brand new parents-in-law to join us. That meant there would be eight of us and we would have to do some fancy planning in the logistics department to make it all happen.

Uncle Pat was an experienced guide and he meant to take us down the French River to its outlet in Georgian Bay. We could set up camp on one of the islands there and he was confident that we would have no trouble catching our quota of pickerel in such choice fishing grounds. He offered to take Bev’s parents in his own boat along with Aunt Lilianne and most of the supplies. Mom and Dad had a 16 foot aluminum canoe with a little 3 hp gas motor on the back and Bev borrowed a 14 foot aluminum boat and a motor from a friend for the two of us. The weather was perfect and our spirits were high as we set out from the dock at the marina with our little fleet. Life just couldn’t get any better.

There was one point on the journey that offered something of a challenge. The river split into two rocky channels and the currents were tricky. One channel was navigable if you knew what you were doing. The other was too dangerous to attempt with a boat. We pulled in to shore and disembarked to walk along the rocks to the lower end of the fast water. Uncle Pat planned to take the boats through one at a time and meet us there. Naturally, my Dad insisted on taking his own boat through. He would follow closely and didn’t expect to have any trouble. Mom didn’t even bother to get out. Her confidence wasn’t misplaced and the whole transit was accomplished without a hitch. She looked a little smug as she sat there waiting with a smile on her face while the rest of us sorted ourselves out and climbed back aboard to continue down the river.

In due time, we arrived at our destination and chose a likely spot to pitch the tents and establish our camp. The fishing was all we could have hoped for and we feasted on fresh pickerel the whole time we were there. Not even sleeping on the ground could dampen our enthusiasm. We were all a little sorry to see the weekend come to a close when the time came to pack up and head home.

By the time we reached the spot where the river divided I was glad of the chance to get out and stretch my legs. Uncle Pat proceeded to take the first of the boats up through the channel and the rest of us started walking. Mom and Dad, predictably, didn’t wait for his return but decided to head up on their own. The first intimation that something was wrong came when we saw my uncle running along the rocks waving his arms above his head and shouting.

“Nooo! That’s the wrong way!” He turned to us as we scrambled to join him, his alarm all too evident in his clenched fists and tight face. “They’re in the wrong channel.”

Of course, by that time Dad was well aware of the mistake he’d made. Unfortunately it is quite impossible to turn a 16 foot canoe around once you’re caught in a tight place. He had no choice but to go forward and hope that his little motor would be up to the challenge. It was a wild ride with Mom clutching both sides of the canoe in a white-knuckled grip while the churning water tossed them around and threatened to swamp them at any second. One quick glance at my Dad’s grim face was enough to cause her to swallow the scream that was threatening to erupt at any moment. She didn’t dare distract him. His blue eyes glittered with a look of fierce determination and his mouth was set in a thin line as he worked to keep them from capsizing in their struggle against the current.

The tension on shore was palpable as we held our breath watching the drama unfold. My uncle was practically jumping up and down as he alternated between muttered curses and shouts of encouragement. It was with profound and heartfelt relief that we saw them emerge from the upper end of the channel, drenched but still afloat. We met them at the shore with cheers and many a “Thank God you’re safe!” Gone was the look of smug satisfaction that Mom had sported on the trip downriver. She looked decidedly pale.

“I think I may have peed my pants,” she croaked.

That was one unforgettable fishing trip where the ensuing stories had nothing to do with the size of the fish we caught.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Pitter Patter of Tiny Feet

My husband, Bev, has always been an extremely light sleeper. The slightest sound that is out of place is enough to wake him. I’ve known him to get up in the middle of the night because the pump that filled the water troughs in the pasture next to our house failed to cut off as it should. Over the years I learned that no matter how carefully I moved it was impossible for me to get in or out of the bed without alerting him. He could be snoring heavily only seconds before I’d begin to inch my way out from under the covers in a stealthy attempt to get to the bathroom without spoiling his night’s sleep. Inevitably, some whisper of sound would betray me before I could manage to get very far and the snores would come to an abrupt stop. I would freeze and hold my breath hoping that he was simply shifting position until I’d see him reach out to check the time on the bedside clock and hear his muffled voice asking if I was okay. Impossible.

That’s why we had serious doubts about the wisdom of acceding to our middle son, Jason’s request to have a hamster as a pet. Hamsters are notoriously active during the middle watches of the night and we had visions of Bev never getting a full night’s rest again. Still, there were many factors to be considered on the plus side. Jason had a special fondness for small animals and this one could live out its entire life in his bedroom where the rest of us needn’t worry about having it underfoot. It seemed much less intrusive than a larger pet would have been. Jason was ecstatic when we finally agreed.

He found an oversized birdcage in a garage sale and insisted that he could make it work for his soon to arrive pet. It was tall enough for him to redesign it with three levels which he proceeded to construct with plastic coated wire mesh and ramps leading from one level to the next. The results of his efforts looked like a veritable three story townhouse for up and coming rodents complete with a basement bedroom, middle floor dining area, and a recreation facility in the attic. It boasted air conditioning and spectacular views on all sides. All it needed was a tenant and we duly made the trip to our local pet store to bring home the hamster of Jason’s choice. That’s how Cookie came to live in the boys’ bedroom the summer Jason was 10.

You wouldn’t imagine that a hamster would have much in the way of personality but Cookie was unique in that respect. He showed signs of being exceptionally clever and resourceful, not to mention determined. One night at about 3 am I woke up to find Bev down on the floor beside our bed on his hands and knees. I sat up abruptly thinking something must be very far wrong. Perhaps he was taken with some sudden and mysterious illness.

“What’s going on? Are you all right?”

He raised his head to peek at me over the edge of the mattress. “Jason’s hamster is loose. I heard it a minute ago,” he whispered.

I have to admit I had my doubts. Our room is carpeted and Cookie only weighed about three ounces. It seemed far fetched to think that even Bev could have heard him walking across our bedroom floor in the middle of the night. Then again, Bev specializes in the impossible when it comes to nocturnal noises. I should have remembered that. As it turns out he was right. A diligent search with all the lights turned on revealed the fact that Cookie had indeed escaped and was in the process of transferring as much food as he could carry in his chubby cheeks to a spot in our closet that he had staked out as a getaway retreat.

The fact that he’d been able to get out of his cage at all was a remarkable accomplishment in itself. The only point of egress was a trapdoor in the roof of the contraption that opened outward. He would have had to climb up the side and then hang from the wire ceiling by his front paws at which point he would have to work his way across to the door with his body dangling beneath him. Once there, he’d have to use his head to unlatch the door and push it up enough to allow him to climb out to freedom. We watched in fascination as he proceeded to do just that the moment we’d returned him to his rightful place.

Cookie made a somewhat ungainly acrobat. His technique wouldn’t have won him any prizes for style but it was effective. We had to laugh at how absurd he looked with his fat little body swinging to and fro as he reached for his next hold on the precarious journey across the ceiling of his cage. Jason was inordinately proud of his pet’s unexpected talent but we made it clear that something would have to be done to improve the security on that trapdoor. It turned out that not even a padlock fashioned from a twist tie could offer much hindrance to our furry Houdini. In the end a massive Funk and Wagnel’s Dictionary provided the solution we were looking for. With that weighty tome resting on top of the trapdoor it would take more than a three ounce hamster to push it open.

There would be no more night time visits to our closet and Bev could rest easy knowing that he wouldn’t be disturbed in his slumbers by the faint pitter patter of tiny hamster feet. It made me realize that my own efforts to sneak in or out undetected were utterly pointless. I might as well have been wearing bells and whistling Dixie for all the good it did.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Right Between the Eyes

Back in the early 30’s my Dad was one of many brothers and sisters living on the family farm near Noelville in Northern Ontario. They kept a few cows and pigs and a henhouse full of chickens. When a litter of pigs was born they were kept until they reached 200 pounds or so before they were sold for meat. It was customary to keep one or two back to be raised for the family larder. Whenever one of the brood sows had outlived her usefulness she would also be sacrificed to the butcher’s knife and replaced by a younger animal. They did all their own butchering right there on the farm and Grandpa Landry built a smokehouse out back so they could cure the pork.

They had one particular sow that they kept for a number of years and every year that pig just got bigger and bigger. Eventually she became the talk of the whole county. Grandpa guessed that she must weigh close to 600 pounds. She measured nearly six feet from snout to tail so she was longer than he was tall. No one had ever seen such an enormous pig. She began to resemble a small hippopotamus and people dropped in to visit just so they could catch a glimpse of her.

One crisp fall morning Grandpa announced that the Day of Reckoning for the old sow had finally come. The children, my Dad included, rushed through their chores so as not to miss any of the action. The time honored and accepted method of execution was to use the blunt side of a long handled axe rather than a rifle. It was quick and clean. No need to waste a bullet when one solid blow between the eyes with the heavy axe would drop a pig in its tracks and it would be stone cold dead before hitting the ground. Grandpa was confident that it would work even on a sow of such monumental proportions.

In due course the pig was lured into the shed with a bucket of mash and chained to the centre support post where she stood in sleepy indifference, occasionally shifting her colossal bulk from side to side with her belly nearly brushing the floorboards. Grandpa ordered all the children out and went for the axe. Undeterred, they scrambled up onto the flat roof which was made up of boards that had weathered and shrunk leaving cracks large enough to offer a convenient view of the dim interior. They were perched there like a flock of upended birds, eyes pressed to the boards and rumps in the air when Grandpa returned and entered the shed. He stood there for a moment hefting the familiar weight of the axe in his hands and taking careful aim. One mighty swing of that axe and his blow landed right on target with a heavy ‘thunk’ that shook the rafters. The sow, however, did not drop down dead as she was meant to do. What would have killed a lesser animal barely seemed to make an impression on her obviously thick skull. She merely let out a squeal of startled outrage and gave her massive head a shake as though to clear it. This was unheard of. There was a collective groan from the children watching and Grandpa scowled at the pig as though she were somehow at fault.

He wound up to take a second swing at her and this time he struck her between the eyes with such force that his feet actually left the ground. It didn’t even bring her to her knees but it did destroy whatever indifference she’d started out with. She exploded into action, her squeals and grunts deafening in the enclosed space as she thrashed about in her panicked efforts to get away from her attacker. Grandpa jumped clear just in time and ran for the house to fetch his rifle. This was no time to begrudge the bullet he would need to bring the old sow down. The children were practically jumping up and down on the roof in their excitement. The show had proved much more entertaining than they could have imagined. Their enthusiastic chatter changed to cries of alarm when moments later, the sow made a break for the open door. The chain that held her lashed to the support post proved to be no great obstacle to her freedom. It was never meant to withstand the frantic heaving of a 600 pound behemoth. The post gave way with a loud splintering crack and when it caught in the doorway she pulled part of the wall down as well. In moments the whole shed came down with Dad and the rest of his siblings landing in a tangled heap amidst the rubble.

Grandpa caught up to the runaway pig and finally did her in with the rifle before she got too far. The post and assorted lumber she was dragging behind her slowed her down a bit. He didn’t try to shoot her between the eyes….the bullet probably would have bounced off. The shed was a total write-off but apart from a few scrapes and bruises the children emerged very nearly unscathed. Not one of them would have missed it for the world. My Dad was still telling the story 50 years later.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Whole New World

My mother was christened Vjekoslava Godinic when she was born but the family called her Slavica. Her father, my grandpa Ivan Godinic, left their home in Odra near Zagreb and travelled to Halifax by ship back in 1930. He planned to settle here in Ontario and earn enough money to pay for passage for his wife and daughter to eventually join him. My mother was only 6 months old when he departed. She wasn’t to see him again until she was 10. Times were hard in Canada back then and it was 1939 before he was able to save the money necessary to purchase tickets for his family.

Mom always insisted that she and my grandma, Mariya Godinic travelled to North America on the last voyage that the Queen Mary made before the onset of World War II. If that was the case, she and her mother would have travelled by train from Yugoslavia to the port city of Cherbourg to embark on their long voyage. Neither of them spoke a word of English or French and I can only imagine how stressful it would have been for them trying to make their way in totally unfamiliar territory.

The huge ship was a strange and intimidating world and they spent the first few days hidden away in their cabin subsisting on what was left of the food that her mother had brought along in the capacious bag that she carried with her at all times. Eventually, hunger forced them to venture out and they somehow found their way to the dining room. Mother and daughter sat in uncomfortable silence looking around at what other people were eating and drinking. A waiter brought them a menu but they just stared at the unfamiliar words in helpless indecision. Finally, my grandma, who was only twenty seven years old at the time, simply pointed at random to something on the page and shrugged at her daughter as if to say we’ll hope for the best. It wasn’t long before the waiter returned bearing a tray containing a teapot and cups and saucers along with milk, sugar and a small dish containing freshly cut wedges of lemon. He set it all before them and retreated with the empty tray.

Slavica couldn’t conceal her disappointment. The man hadn’t brought any food other than lemons and he hadn’t even brought any whiskey to flavor the tea. At home they’d always flavored their tea with a splash of whiskey. It was considered normal even for children. She’d never had it any other way. Her mother hushed her with a soft-spoken word and reached into the bag resting at her feet. She pulled out her own bottle of whiskey and proceeded to add a tiny measure to both cups before pouring the tea. She’d just set the bottle on the table when the waiter came hurrying across the room in a state of obvious agitation. He kept pointing at the bottle and shaking his head but she could make nothing of the torrent of words flowing from his mouth. He snatched the offending bottle from the table and Mariya, thinking he was about to make off with it, jumped up and took hold of it herself. For a moment they stood poised, gripping the bottle between them and staring into each other’s eyes in a contest of wills. The waiter glanced nervously at the other diners. He must have been conscious that they were making a scene and he decided on a new tactic. By using hand signals he finally managed to convey the idea that he wanted her to put the bottle away and that she shouldn’t have taken it out in the dining room. Of course she couldn’t understand his objections but she did get the gist of his message. The bottle was returned to the depths of her bag and she and my mother hurriedly finished their tea before making their escape.

They might never have summoned the nerve to return to the dining room if not for the kindness of a stranger. My mother remembers him as a large man in a fur coat. He was Russian but he spoke several languages and he took pity on the two of them. He made it his responsibility to help them and the rest of the voyage passed uneventfully. They would have landed in New York City and then made the rest of the journey into Canada by train.

That trip into Northern Ontario must have felt like an odyssey into the wilderness. The man who met them at the station was a virtual stranger to my mother. He was her father but she had no memory of him and it was as if she was meeting him for the very first time. Everything was strange and different. Children are resilient though. She would have to embrace this new life with all its challenges and make the best of it. She went to school determined to begin by learning a whole new language.  On her very first day one of the other children gave her the English name Gloria when the teacher couldn’t pronounce her name properly. She became Gloria for the rest of her life even though she discovered years later that her name should have been translated to Sylvia. She learned quickly and eventually was able to speak not only English, but French as well. She never did lose her accent though. I recently came across one of her hand written recipes for Mikrovave Chicken and I could almost hear her voice even though she’s been gone for many years. It made me smile. Young Vjekoslava Godinic definitely made her mark in the new world she found herself a part of.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

There's No Fool like an April Fool

Last Friday was April Fool’s Day, one of the highlights of the year in my mother’s thinking. She would plot and scheme for days in her determination to catch us unawares and have us fall prey to one of her tricks. It was the one day in the year when, for a few hours, it was acceptable to lie through your teeth. You could tell any kind of whopper and the object was to do it so convincingly that the person you were targeting actually believed you until you shouted a triumphant ‘April Fools!’….or as Sheldon Cooper would say, ‘Bazinga!’

In our house you had to succeed on the first attempt or concede defeat for that year. Once people were reminded of what day it was they were on their guard and it was very nearly impossible to trick them. My Dad considered the whole thing foolishness, which was the point of the exercise after all. He never did try any tricks of his own but he would smile indulgently at my Mom’s enthusiastic efforts. I can’t count the number of times she persuaded us to run to the window to see whatever it was that was getting her so excited that she was practically jumping up and down. I have to admit that she was a pretty good actress when she set her mind to it.

I remember with considerable pride the first year that I managed a preemptive strike that caught her completely by surprise and won the day for me before she even had a chance to put her own plans into action. Sometimes the simplest idea works best and that morning I was inspired. Mom was busy out in the kitchen when I woke up and headed to the bathroom. I took a few moments to compose myself in front of the mirror. I had to make sure that I could produce a look of consternation that would be utterly convincing. It wouldn’t do to let a grin slip out to spoil the effect. When I was as ready as I could ever be I flushed the toilet. I gave it a few seconds before letting out a desperate shriek and bursting out the door.

“Mom,” I shouted. “The toilet’s overflowing!”

She didn’t stop to ask questions. She flung open the door of the broom closet, took hold of the mop and rushed past me down the hall and into the bathroom to stem the flood she expected to find spreading over the linoleum. There was a moment of silence before she turned and came back out to face the music. My brother, Tom, and I were falling over ourselves laughing out in the hall.

“April Fools!” I gasped. “I got you! Finally, I got you!” It was a sweet victory.

Years later my husband, Bev, and I happened to be visiting my parents on April 1st. We’d only been married a short while and Bev was still doing his best to make a good impression when we sat down to breakfast. I suppose it was my fault for not warning him. Halfway through the meal my mother looked up at him, hesitated, and then tried to get his attention without alerting the rest of us. When he glanced at her she leaned closer and discreetly touched her upper lip.

“You’ve got something stuck in your mustache,” she whispered.

His face reddened and he immediately began brushing at his mustache trying to dislodge whatever it was that had attracted her attention. The rest of us paused to watch as Mom sat back, her expression lit with smug self-satisfaction as she sang out a gleeful ‘April Fools’. Dad just smiled and shook his head.

“Now you know you’re really part of the family,” I laughed.

I haven’t tried playing an April Fool’s joke in ages. It’s just not the same without my Mom’s unbridled enthusiasm. I made an attempt this year just for old times’ sake. I pulled out our binoculars to peer out across the fields outside our kitchen windows.

“I think that’s a coyote out there,” I announced.

I kept squinting into the binoculars and I heard Bev take two quick steps toward me before he stopped abruptly and turned back to the stove where he was making breakfast.

“I doubt it,” he replied.

He was onto me and I couldn’t keep my face straight for one more second. I guess I’ve lost my touch. It’s just as well. We have a better reason to remember April 1st anyway. It was on that day 31 years ago that we got engaged.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lost and Found

There is no worse feeling in the world than that which overtakes you when you lose track, even temporarily, of one of your children. I didn’t really understand my mother’s near hysterical reaction the year I was in kindergarten and I took my younger brother, Tom, to school with me one afternoon so that he could play on the swings in the yard. She didn’t notice him leaving the house with me and it never once occurred to me that I should mention my idea to her before setting out. It seemed like such a good idea…at least until we got home.

Once I had children of my own I had opportunity to discover first-hand what that reaction was all about. We always wanted our children to grow into strong, independent adults with a keen sense of adventure and a desire to see what might lie around the next corner. We just didn’t anticipate that the seeds of those very qualities would begin bearing fruit at such an early age. Daniel was not quite three years old when I left him playing in the sandbox in our yard while I brought his baby brother into the house to place him in his crib for a nap. We lived on a farm and the house was set quite a distance from the road so I thought him safe enough for the few minutes I would be gone. I was wrong. When I returned his trucks lay abandoned in the sand and there was no sign of him.

I searched everywhere I could think of, getting more frantic by the minute until the only place I hadn’t looked was out at the highway. I broke into a stumbling run, my pulse pounding loud in my ears and my voice cracking as I shouted his name. The ditch stretched empty in both directions and I didn’t know what to do. I was having a melt down every bit as hysterical as my own mother’s had been all those years ago. Just then a car pulled out of the driveway of the neighboring farm where my husband was working and cruised to a stop in front of me. The woman driving was a stranger to me but she could see what a state I was in and she rolled the window down to ask if I was looking for a little boy.

“He’s at the barn next door,” she explained. “He was looking for his Dad.”

Daniel had walked all the way to the next farm along the ATV trail that my husband, Bev, used to go to work. He’d ridden along it with his Dad a few times and he knew exactly where he was going. Bev had been trying to reach me on the phone. Those moments when I didn’t know what had become of my son were the most terrifying that I have ever endured. Once I could breath normally again, I offered up a silent apology to my mother for what she’d endured that long ago afternoon when Tom had gone missing. Bev was very sympathetic. He knew I was upset but he didn’t really know what I’d been feeling until a similar thing happened to him a few years later

Once again it was our first-born who disappeared. I was out for the evening and Bev was putting the younger two children to bed. Daniel, as the eldest, was allowed to play for a few extra minutes but when Bev came back downstairs he couldn’t find him. At first he wasn’t too alarmed. He searched the house but there was no sign of him so he thought he must have gone back out to the yard. By the time he’d searched the yard and both barns he was beginning to feel frantic. He burst back into the silent kitchen thinking he might have come in while he was looking elsewhere. He hurried from room to room calling out Daniel’s name but there was no response. He’d been searching for at least 20 minutes, the longest minutes he’d ever experienced. Where could he have gone? He was getting desperate and was beginning to wonder if he should call the police when a muffled giggle brought him up short. Two strides brought Bev to the kitchen table which was pushed back against the wall to save space when it was not in use. He flipped up the tablecloth and bent to peer into the face of one little boy curled up on the seat of the chair on the opposite side of the table.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, his voice trembling with a mixture of frustration and relief. “Why didn’t you answer me when I called?”

Daniel crawled out, his tentative smile filled with childish innocence. “I was playing hide and seek,” he explained.

He’d managed to stay hidden the entire time that Bev searched and who knows how long it would have taken to find him if he hadn’t given himself away in the end. To be fair, no one had ever told him that you can’t play hide and seek unless everyone actually knows you are playing. No doubt he didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. At least no harm was done. Daniel grew up into the strong and independent adult we hoped he would become and we….we managed to survive the journey.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stand Up and Stand Out

I once had a saleswoman try to help me pick out earrings that would fit with my personal style. I’ve never thought of myself as having a particular style but she was quick to disabuse me of that notion. Apparently everyone has a personal style whether they realize it or not. There are those whose style is “classic” while others could be labeled “flamboyant”. Some might be termed “dramatic” and some simply “eclectic”. It didn’t take her long to come to the conclusion that my style was what she termed as “natural”. Perhaps the fact that I rarely bother to wear make-up was a dead give-away. In any case, she was probably right in her assessment. No one would ever liken me to a bird of paradise. I like to keep things simple and my preference has always been to avoid a lot of attention….no wild and crazy hairstyles, chunky jewelry, or multi-colored nails for me.

My aversion to standing out in a crowd stems back to my early teens and those years when I first began to be conscious of what other people thought of me. Some people might glory in being different from the majority of their peers but I wasn’t one of them. I just wanted to blend in. There is something to be said for the advocates of school uniforms. We didn’t have uniforms in my High School but there was a dress code back when I started into Grade 9. Pants were not allowed except on rare designated “Wear What You Want Days”. I remember pulling a pair of pants on under my skirt to keep from freezing as we waited for the bus in the sub-zero temperatures of midwinter in Northern Ontario. I could slip them off once I reached my locker. Eventually the intrepid members of our student counsel lobbied successfully to have the outdated dress code rescinded and every day became a Wear What You Want Day. Of course in order to wear what I wanted I had to get it past my parents and that was a problem of a different sort.

My parents had very definite opinions about clothes. They wanted me to wear a dress to the very first High School dance I ever attended. It took me forever to convince them that if I did I would most certainly be the only girl there wearing one. Jeans, which would have been the garment of choice for the youth of that day, were absolutely out of the question. As far as my parents were concerned, jeans were what you wore to work in the garden. They believed absolutely that I would be laughed at if I showed up at the dance wearing jeans. My mother went out and bought me a brand new outfit….a white blouse with ruffles at collar and cuffs and a pair of corduroy pants in a lovely gold color. Horrors! I wanted to go badly enough that I actually wore the outfit and prayed no one would really notice it in the darkened gymnasium. I’m thankful to say that once my parents heard that everyone else had indeed been wearing jeans, they shook their heads in baffled incomprehension, conceded that I might have been right after all and agreed to let me make my own choices from that point on.

That didn’t mean I would never again be the focus of all eyes. Sometimes stuff just happens. We still wore dresses or skirts to school from time to time. I was wearing a navy blue skirt on the day I was asked to come up to the front of the room to write on the blackboard during French class. As soon as I stood up and began to make my way forward I noticed a few muffled giggles behind me. I immediately checked to make sure that my slip hadn’t somehow migrated downward to dangle below my hemline. It was a wardrobe malfunction not unheard of in those days. Everything seemed in order so I proceeded to the front and began the task assigned to me. It wasn’t easy because what had begun as one or two giggles was fast escalating to become the chuckles and snorts of an entire roomful of people trying desperately to restrain their laughter. I was mortified. I couldn’t imagine what on earth they were laughing at. I scrambled to finish the sentence I was supposed to write so that I could hurry back to the comparative safety of my desk, my chin up and my entire face burning with embarrassment. My friend, Annie, who was seated in the desk directly behind mine was laughing so hard there were tears leaking from the corners of her eyes.

“What’s so funny?” I demanded in a furious undertone.

She leaned forward to whisper haltingly in my ear. Apparently she had been resting her foot against the back of my chair earlier. There was a space between the chair back and the seat…just enough that when I rose to walk to the front of the class my navy blue skirt was no longer plain and simple. It was adorned with a perfect and very distinct footprint positioned exactly in the middle of my butt. I couldn’t have stood out more if I’d tried.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I Think I Can

My Dad was a great believer in willpower. He always insisted that once he decided he was going to do something there was nothing on earth that could stop him. In the course of a lifetime I’ve learned not to underestimate the importance of that kind of steely determination. It can mean the difference between success and failure when the odds are stacked against you.

I suppose I may have inherited a tiny bit of my Dad’s stubborn will. At least it shows up occasionally when I tackle jobs that are manifestly too big for me. That was the case when I decided not to wait for help in moving some furniture to an upstairs bedroom in our farmhouse. I managed to tip the dressers, minus their drawers, onto their polished tops and so was able to slide them along on the wall to wall carpet without much difficulty. Even the stairs which were also carpeted posed no great obstacle as I pushed each piece up to the second floor.

I kept at it until only the wardrobe was left to move. It stood at least a foot taller than I was and looked massive. It did occur to me that I was being a tad foolish but I was determined to finish the job. I’d just have to be smart about it. I wrestled the wardrobe to the foot of the stairs moving first one side and then the other a few inches at a time. Once there I very carefully tipped it onto its side so that it rested against the stairs with its top reaching halfway to the upper landing. I got my shoulder under the bottom of it and somehow managed to straighten my legs and start it moving. It was even heavier than I’d imagined but by then I was committed. I couldn’t figure out how to extricate myself without the effort ending in disaster so I struggled onward with every muscle vibrating with the strain. I was two thirds of the way up when I lost my balance for a moment and the force of gravity took over. I ended up slipping with the monstrous weight of the wardrobe bearing down on me and I lost several inches before I managed to stop my downward slide. I froze, paralyzed by the vision of me lying crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, the wardrobe splintered to kindling on top of me. If ever there was a need for a healthy dose of my Dad’s willpower it was in that moment. It was keep pushing or perish so I tapped into reserves I didn’t know I had and resumed my slow upward progress. I did manage it in the end but you can bet that my husband, Bev, had words for me when he got home and discovered what I’d done. What was I thinking indeed?

They say that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree and I must say that my daughter, Lauren, has also been known to tackle obstacles with that same disregard for what other people might see as her limitations. She’s never been very big and some might even think her fragile. They would be mistaken in that. What she lacks in muscle she makes up for in the strength of her will and her indomitable spirit. Back when she was thirteen or so she and Bev went on a father and daughter canoe trip with another Dad who had twin girls the same age. The trip involved a 300 meter portage and she was determined to pull her weight when they reached that point. The men shouldered the canoes and moved off along the trail leaving the girls with the packs. They planned to come back for anything the girls couldn’t carry. That probably should have included the pack that Lauren decided to take. It looked as though it weighed more than she did and that might not have been a stretch. She wore size 0 in those days. It wasn’t easy but she somehow managed to get it hoisted onto her back and once she settled her shoulders into the harness and got her balance she lost no time in marching off after the others who’d gone ahead.

The trail was a bit rough in places. There was even a low section built up with logs like an old corduroy road. That was where she came to grief. One slip and her feet shot out from under her landing her squarely on her back. Luckily the pack broke her fall. Then again, maybe not so luckily. Once she caught her breath she discovered that she couldn’t get up with the heavy pack anchoring her to the earth. With her arms and legs in the air she felt much like a turtle that has been flipped onto its back. No matter how hard she struggled she just couldn’t get herself turned over. She was just about to try extricating herself from the harness when another canoeist happened along and, seeing her dilemma, reached down to grab the top of the pack where it protruded above her head. With one heave he lifted the heavy pack with Lauren still strapped in and set her back on her feet. Undaunted, she offered him a slightly red-faced thank you before resuming her trek. She managed the rest of the trail without incident and I have no doubt that given the chance, she might have tried carrying the canoe as well. I wasn’t surprised at all when I heard the story. There’s a little of my Dad in all of us.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Reluctant Soldier

My Grandpa Landry spent a short time in the army when he was drafted in May of 1918. He never did end up going overseas to fight because the war ended a few short months later. He received his discharge and he and my grandmother settled back into life on a farm in the Noelville area and began to raise a family. He hoped that his own sons would never be faced with the prospect of fighting a war but that hope was in vain.

My Dad travelled to Toronto in March of 1945 to enlist in the Canadian Infantry Corps during the final months of World War II. He had no way of knowing that the war would end that very year. He was 20 years old.

He was sent to Quebec for basic training and his stories of life on the base there left us all with the impression that he hated every minute of it. He never felt that he fit in with the rest of the men. Being raised in Ontario meant that he spoke French with an accent that set him apart and he was nearly a head taller than every other man there. The rest of the recruits thought of him as some sort of country bumpkin and he got into a number of fights before they learned to leave him strictly alone.

Not all of the fights had to do with him and his difficulty fitting in. His roommate was probably one of the shortest men there and the two of them looked like a very oddly matched pair when they went into town together. Having my Dad at his side gave the fellow a boldness he never would have shown otherwise and that meant trouble. I suppose he figured no one would mess with him as long as there was a chance my Dad would step in to back him up. They were in a bar one night and Dad was minding his own business but his roommate was a little drunk and got pretty mouthy with a couple of other soldiers. They eyed Dad warily and left without making a fuss. Eventually, his roommate decided to head back to the barracks even though my Dad wasn’t ready to leave yet. He set out on his own and that turned out to be a big mistake. One of the men he had insulted earlier was waiting for him there and when my Dad finally arrived it was to find his roommate severely beaten and in the process of being throttled by a very determined attacker. It looked like murder was being done and Dad jumped in without even thinking about it. The fight was over quickly with his roommate’s assailant ending up in the hospital with a broken jaw and Dad wishing for a different roommate. He wasn’t expecting to have to fight his way through the whole regiment before ever facing the enemy.

Dad’s one great fear was that his superiors would find out that he was a crack shot with a rifle and decide to make him into a sniper. He could handle the idea of a face to face fight but he couldn’t bear the thought of being asked to shoot a man from hiding. He just didn’t think he could do it. He had been hunting since childhood but he decided he’d better keep that bit of information to himself. He pretended to be clumsy in cleaning and handling his gun in the hopes that his awkwardness would convince his officers that he had little experience with firearms. He took special care to miss when it came to target practice even though it would have been a simple matter to hit the mark every time. Putting on such an act was a strain for a man who hated dishonesty as much as my Dad did, but he felt he had no choice. News that the war was over came as a welcome relief.

He wanted desperately to be transferred back to Ontario and even dreamed of just walking away and disappearing into the forest one day. He knew that if he chose to do it they would never find him. His sense of duty won out in the end. He remained where he was until the order for his transfer was issued at last and he returned to Ontario thinking of home. He was discharged to return to civilian life when the army was demobilized in May of 1946, just before his 22nd birthday. He’d been a soldier for 14 months and even though he never saw a battlefield the experience left him absolutely convinced that he wasn’t cut out for army life. He could hardly wait to get back to the farm.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Unwanted Guests

We finally installed our second garage door opener this past Christmas and what a luxury it is not to have to get out of the car to open or close the door manually every time we go out. We did it the old fashioned way for years and I admit that there were times when we just left it open to save ourselves the inconvenience. That was before we discovered that the open door was a tempting invitation to the local wildlife to come in out of the cold.

We’d had an occasional bird find its way in but that wasn’t entirely unexpected. I was considerably more unnerved the morning I stepped through the connecting door into the garage to be confronted with evidence that something much larger than a bird had been inadvertently locked in overnight. There were muddy tracks all over the hood of our car and my husband, Bev’s workbench was adorned with a pile of droppings that had certainly not come from any bird. A closer examination of the paw prints on the car confirmed that our intruder was undoubtedly a raccoon. I took a quick look around, half expecting the beast to jump out at me from some darkened corner. I didn’t see anything but that didn’t prevent me from scurrying back into the house where I reported my findings to Bev and left the whole thing in his capable hands.

An hour later he came in still armed with a flashlight to announce that it was indeed a raccoon and that he’d discovered its hiding place. Apparently there was a small opening near the rafters in the garage that led to a narrow space between the roof and the ceiling of the adjoining front porch. The coon was making itself at home in the farthest corner of that space and Bev said it looked to be the size of a small Volkswagen in the feeble glow of his light. He went out to the porch and stood gazing speculatively at the ceiling for a few moments.

“It’s probably going to want to stay right there till dark,” he mused. “I just don’t want it to decide to take up permanent residence.”

He opened the garage door to provide an escape route and then proceeded to try to drive our unwanted guest out of its secure bolt hole. He put a thick padded glove on the end of a broom handle and used it to pound relentlessly on the ceiling at the point where he judged the raccoon to be resting. There was some slight scuffling but none of it was moving in the direction of freedom. When it was obvious that a new tactic was needed, Bev abandoned the broom and went to fetch a portable radio. He set it up directly below the spot where the coon lay and tuned it to the most abrasive music he could find before cranking the volume up to an unbearable level.

“At least it won’t get the idea that this is a good place to sleep,” Bev announced, his smile grim.

I nodded mutely and went to look for earplugs. In the meantime, Bev went back out to the garage to rig up a makeshift trap. He took an extra large plastic garbage can and secured it to the edge of the workbench so it couldn’t be tipped over. It was deep and the sides were smooth and offered no purchase for climbing. He placed an open can of sardines in the bottom of the can thinking that the raccoon wouldn’t be able to resist the odorous treat and would end up jumping down after it only to discover it impossible to climb out again. He positioned a few empty soup cans on the workbench so that he would hear the raccoon’s approach and then retreated into the house to wait.

It was late in the day when we heard the rattle and crash of a soup can rolling to the concrete floor and knew that our hungry visitor had been lured from its hiding place to investigate the tantalizing scent of sardines that had been wafting around the garage all day. Apparently raccoons are not as stupid as we’d hoped. Not even sardines could tempt it into that garbage can once it learned that the can wouldn’t tip over. By the time Bev got out there the coon was gone.

“Waste of a perfectly good can of sardines,” he muttered as he inspected the scattered soup cans and the empty trap.

He was able to find fresh tracks leading outside and he wasted no time in locking everything up so that there would be no returning. The hole leading to the space above the porch ceiling got sealed up that very night and the next day he borrowed a proper live trap to set up just outside the garage. The raccoon was eventually caught trying to find a way back inside and we were able to get rid of it at last.

That whole experience made it clear that leaving the garage door open for the sake of convenience was a choice with consequences. We were just going to have to bite the bullet and get out of the car to open and close it every time we went out…or maybe not. I probably owe that raccoon a debt of gratitude because that was when the idea to invest in a garage door opener was born.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hitting the Jackpot

I love learning where various unusual words or expressions originated. When I was growing up we often heard people use the phrase ‘What a jackpot!’ to describe a place or situation that was a total mess. More often, though, when you heard the word jackpot you thought of an unexpected windfall of either money or other good fortune. The term actually comes from the early 1900s and the game of poker in which you need at least a pair of jacks or higher in order to open a hand. The pot is the total amount of money wagered and the winner gets the jackpot. Because a number of hands are often dealt before anyone can open and players must put in money for each round, the jackpot tends to be quite large.

My mother never played poker but she did play Bingo whenever she got an opportunity. The largest prize of the night was called the jackpot and it was played for in the last game of the evening which was a blackout game. That meant that every one of the numbers on your card had to be covered in order for you to win. The game would continue until someone finally called ‘Bingo’ to indicate they had a winning card. If there was more than one winner, the prize was shared.

My brother, Richard, remembers a night before I was born back in the mid fifties when Dad was working the late shift at the mine and Mom was having her night out at the Bingo. She arrived home at the end of the evening and the boys knew immediately that something momentous must have occurred. She burst through the door of our mobile home clutching her purse to her chest, her eyes wide and her whole face lit with excitement.

“Come and see!” she chortled as she danced her way down the narrow hallway to the back bedroom. She opened her purse and began pulling out handfuls of cash to toss onto the bed while Richard and Dave stood gaping at the spectacle. It certainly looked like an enormous pile of money.

“I won the jackpot! $350 and I was the only winner!”

Mom began meticulously laying out the bills side by side on the bed just so she could see all of them at once. The prize had been paid out in small denominations so by the time she was through arranging it all, her winnings covered the entire mattress in a bizarre parody of a paper bedspread.

“I think I’ll just leave it all right where it is,” she announced. She couldn’t stop smiling. She was practically rubbing her hands together in gleeful anticipation of the look on Dad’s face when he came home.

The boys got hustled off to their bunks but sleep was impossible. When my mother was excited about something the whole household was electrified. The hands on the clock moved with glacial slowness as they awaited Dad’s arrival at the end of his shift. When he finally did walk through the door he was a little surprised to find Mom waiting up for him. She took his lunch box and thermos from him and set them on the counter quickly to disguise the fact that her hands were shaking. She hardly dared look at him for fear of giving herself away. Dad was busy hanging his coat in the closet and didn’t notice anything amiss. He headed for the bedroom and Richard and Dave held their collective breath, pretending to be asleep as he passed by the door they’d left ajar in their eagerness not to miss anything. Mom trailed closely behind him.

He reached for the light switch as he entered the room they shared and then froze at the strange sight that confronted him when the darkness fled. “What the….!?” He turned quickly to see Mom, her face wreathed in smiles, doing her own unique version of the Happy Dance behind him while muffled giggles sounded from the darkened room he’d just passed. As surprises went, it was a huge success. Mom had hit the jackpot in more ways than one.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On the Roof

I’ve never been able to adopt a cavalier attitude when it comes to heights. Ladders have always been a challenge to me. Back when I was in College my family lived in a small one and a half story house. I came home one day to find the doors all locked and myself without a key. I remembered my father mentioning that you could get in through the upstairs window which was accessible from the porch roof. I stood there weighing my options and finally decided that the porch roof wasn’t really all that high. I was reasonably certain that I could manage to get up there and climb through the window. Besides, the prospect of standing around in the yard until someone came home didn’t hold much appeal.

I fetched the ladder from the shed and carefully leaned it up against the eaves trough. I was halfway up when I realized I probably should have set the base of it a little further from the wall. It didn’t feel at all secure but I told myself it was likely my nerves that were making everything wobble. I gritted my teeth and kept moving upward one agonizing rung at a time. When I managed to crawl onto the roof it was with considerable pride in the accomplishment. Then I attempted to get the window open and discovered that it wouldn’t budge. I struggled with it for a good ten minutes before I gave it one final frustrated thump and ungraciously conceded defeat. I made my way back to the ladder but one look at the ground below convinced me that there was no way on earth I could bring myself to step out onto that precarious perch. I was going to have to wait it out after all. How humiliating! I spent the next two hours pretending that I’d climbed up there deliberately to get a suntan and do some cloud watching. I determined that from then on I would leave the roof to the birds and squirrels and keep my own feet on the ground. I wasn’t counting on eventually having a son like Jason.

I tried very hard in later years not to communicate my fears to my children when it came to heights. I must have been a little successful because Jason has always loved to climb. He was only in Grade 1 when he climbed the tree beside our house. When he got near the top the tree bent over just enough to allow him to jump onto the roof of our porch. Unfortunately, as soon as he let go it sprang back into its former position which was quite out of reach. He was trapped on that porch roof just as I had been on that long ago day when I failed miserably at my one and only attempt at breaking and entering. When his brother, Daniel, came to tell me what happened I had to fight to disguise my rising anxiety. I couldn’t let it get the best of me this time. There was no one else to do what had to be done. The only ladder I could find was a step ladder that was nowhere near tall enough. I pasted a smile on my face and climbed up to the top step. I was going to have to let go and reach up with both hands to where Jason sat waiting for me to rescue him. It just didn’t bear thinking about. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done but it’s amazing what you can accomplish when one of your children needs you. I even managed to appear reasonably calm and matter of fact in a performance that should have won me an Oscar. At least Jason came out of the whole experience with no emotional baggage.

Eventually he got a job as a roofer to pay for his College education and I did my best to be supportive. Unlike me, he was completely at home on rooftops. He liked to entertain us at the dinner table by recounting some of his more hair-raising experiences on the job. Those stories convinced me that it was probably best that I couldn’t actually watch him at work. Hearing about a slide down a steep pitch when you’re sitting safe in your own home is much easier than watching it happen.

“Don’t worry Mom,” Jason reassured me. “We’re wearing a rope.”

I tried to imagine it. “What do you tie the rope to?” I asked.

He never batted an eye. “We tie off to each other and work on opposite sides of the roof.”

I froze, my fork poised halfway to my open mouth.

“That way if one of us slips over the edge, the other can jump off the roof on his side to keep us both from hitting the ground.”

There was a split second of silence before the snickers started and I realized I’d been had. I shook my head and bounced a dinner roll off of Jason’s chest to wipe the grin off his face. Roofers have their own twisted sense of humor. I decided it was better not to ask questions. Instead I just made it my business to pray for him every day. Birds, squirrels…and Jason.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Frog Legs

When my Dad was growing up in the woods of Northern Ontario he learned a great deal about those things that were edible in his environment and those that were not. Much of that knowledge was passed down to him from his parents although he did confess that whenever my Grandma Landry pointed out something that was poisonous and warned him away from it when he was a boy, he usually ended up taking a bite of it as soon as her back was turned. He was always careful not to swallow but his curiosity demanded that he see for himself what it tasted like.

Once my younger brother, Tom, and I were old enough to tag along on hikes through the woods with Dad, he would point out the things he’d learned as a boy. We tried what he called winterberries and thought they tasted a little like minty toothpaste. We learned to recognize and enjoy eating the leaves of a plant he named sour grass. He declared that he and his brothers and sisters had grown up chewing spruce gum instead of the gumballs we were so fond of so we tried that as well. I can’t say it tempted me to make a habit of it. It was chewy all right but it tasted like medicine of the most unpleasant sort.

Our favorite part of any day in the woods with my Dad was when we stopped for lunch. After our experimental nibbles on the plants Dad showed us, the food we’d brought from home looked awfully tempting. He would set us to gathering sticks to make a fire so he could put water on to boil. He had an old tomato juice can rigged with a wire handle that he could set on a stone near the flames with a couple of tea bags tossed in. It was perfect for making bush tea if you didn’t mind a few bits of ash floating in the brew. He would cut and sharpen some sticks so we could toast our bologna sandwiches and nothing ever tasted better.

We were looking forward to our usual lunch on one of our many fishing trips with Dad so when the sun stood directly overhead we began looking for a good spot to pull the canoe out of the water. The lake we were on was a small one and the spot we chose had a rocky point where we could cast in our lines and fish from the shore for a while before we headed back out. We were just getting ready to start the fire when one of us asked Dad if he’d ever tasted frog legs.

“Sure,” he replied with a shrug. “They taste like chicken.”

Tom and I looked at each other and it was plain that our thoughts were racing along in tandem.

I leaned a little closer. “How did you cook them…the frogs?”

“You find me a nice big bullfrog and I’ll show you.”

“Can we take the canoe?” Tom asked.

Dad waved his hand in the general direction of the lake and we jumped to our feet and scrambled to launch the boat. There was a little bay choked with cattails and tall grass that looked like a perfect haven for frogs and we lost no time heading in that direction.

There was an old saying that helped when it came to identifying a frog by the sound it made. Small frogs could be heard to pipe out with a shrill “Too deep! Too deep!” where a bullfrog would croak out with a deep bass “Go round! Go round!” That “Go round!” was what we were listening for as we eased the canoe through the lily pads and reeds close to shore.

We did find the bullfrog we wanted but grabbing it without tipping ourselves into the water was next to impossible. We just couldn’t get near enough. It took several attempts at a stealthy approach before Tom, losing patience, suddenly swung his paddle in a whistling overhead arc, giving the frog a whack on the head that was surely lethal. It left him floating belly up and within our reach at last. It was a simple matter to retrieve our prize and head back across the lake to where Dad was waiting.

We were nearly there when Tom shouted a warning and I twisted around to see that the corpse in the bottom of the canoe was starting to twitch and then struggling to right itself. For a few moments chaos reigned while we tried to reach the frog without capsizing the boat. Bullfrogs are slippery and this one was particularly frantic. Perhaps he had an inkling of our murderous intent because he put the very legs that we’d been hoping to taste to excellent use and leaped right out of the canoe to disappear in the waters below.

We never did get to taste frog legs on that day or any other. It was back to bologna sandwiches for us.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shivareed

I’d never heard of a Shivaree until I met my husband, Bev. It was a custom in the rural communities he grew up in that involved family and friends of a newlywed couple staging a nocturnal visit to the hapless bride and groom as soon as they’d set up house together. The crowd would show up at the door with every sort of noise maker imaginable and set up a clamor that would rouse even the soundest sleeper. They wouldn’t quit until their rudely awakened victims struggled into robes and slippers and opened the door to invite them all in for a cup of tea.

Over the years the practice evolved to include the playing of pranks. Bev recounted stories of how he and his family and friends would find a way to sneak into the home of the couple they intended to Shivaree and do all sorts of mischief. They would strip the labels off of the cans in the kitchen cupboard or stitch the cuffs together on a shirt or two hanging in the closet. In one unforgettable instance they plugged in all the appliances they could find and left them turned on while they flipped the main breaker off. As soon as the young couple returned home and realized they had no power they switched the breaker back on, and the resulting din combined with shouts of ‘surprise’ from all the culprits hidden in closets was enough to frighten them out of a year’s growth. Things just kept getting more and more out of hand as the young people got more creative.

I started hearing the stories as the date of our own wedding drew near and I was frankly horrified. One friend recounted how they had emerged from the church on their wedding day to find that their car had been set on blocks and all four wheels removed. We also heard stories of brides being kidnapped by the so-called friends of the groom before the reception could get underway. I became very vocal about how I was likely to react should anyone be foolish enough to attempt such a thing with us.

Bev had to confess that after some of the Shivarees he’d been a part of we were going to have to expect some attempt at payback. He spent a good deal of thought and effort in the days leading up to our wedding to prevent that very thing. He actually nailed our windows shut and let it be known that we had neighbors with instructions to keep an eye on our house in our absence. He thought there might be a possibility that we would be followed to the location we’d chosen for our wedding night so all plans were made in the utmost secrecy. We packed our suitcases and stowed them in our car which he then hid in some obscure parking lot in the city. He arranged with his brother that we would leave the reception hidden in the back seat of his car and then be dropped off a block or two from where our own car was parked. Once Bev could be certain we were not followed we could walk the rest of the way to retrieve our vehicle and set out in earnest.

Unfortunately, in all his elaborate precautions, he failed to take into account that his parents and younger sisters would be spending a night in our house before they set out for home. We returned from our week long honeymoon to discover that we had not escaped unscathed after all. Every tea towel we owned had been knotted together into one long rope and the entryway was festooned with ribbons and bows. A gallon or two of confetti had been stashed in various places throughout the house like heat vents and teacups. We had a glass canister filled with popcorn that we found liberally laced with confetti and over the next few days we kept discovering it in the most unlikely locations like the toes of whatever socks we’d left in the dresser. Bev eventually discovered his work clothes hidden between the mattress and boxspring on our bed after he realized they were missing from the closet. It was months later when I accidentally bumped a picture hanging on the wall as I was vacuuming the floor and was unexpectedly showered with confetti that had been carefully stashed behind it. I laughed so hard it hurt.
I suppose you could say we got shivareed in absentia. I think we got off lightly considering some of the tricks Bev had been guilty of in his youth. It ended up being a lot of harmless fun and I know he would have been disappointed if no one had bothered to try anything.

That next summer I was attempting to open a window in our bedroom and found it to be stuck. I struggled with it for a good twenty minutes before I remembered that they’d all been nailed shut the previous year in Bev’s attempt to outfox the pranksters in the family. I guess he didn’t expect his mother to be one of them.