Wednesday, January 26, 2011


It’s almost the end of the month and I happened to flip the page on my calendar to take a sneak peak at what to expect in the coming weeks. The first thing to catch my eye was a bright flag marking the occasion of my next dentist appointment. How could nine months have flown by so quickly? The gap between regular visits never seems long enough in my mind. I know I shouldn’t complain. It’s because of those regular visits that I still have all my own teeth and they remain relatively problem free. I didn’t have that luxury when I was a child. Back in those days we only went to the dentist when we had a toothache that became unbearable. In all the years I was growing up I only ever sat in a dentist’s chair twice and both times it was to have a tooth pulled.

My Dad used to tell stories of how my Uncle Antonio pulled out his own teeth with a pair of pliers whenever they became too troublesome. There eventually came a day when he only had one or two teeth left and his smile had a decidedly forlorn quality to it. His one remaining front tooth stood all alone in the gap and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the strange smiles we’d see carved into pumpkins every Halloween. At least no one could accuse him of vanity. I often wondered why he didn’t just pull out that last tooth and get himself fitted with a set of dentures but perhaps he held on to it for sentimental reasons. As far as I know he never went to a dentist in his life.

My own parents each had a set of false teeth before they reached middle age. My mother used to take hers out and make faces at us when we were children. It made her look positively sinister and never failed to leave us shrieking in horrified glee as we scrambled to escape her clutching fingers and smacking lips. Then she would slip her teeth back into her mouth and simply be Mom again, blithely ignoring our giggling pleas for her to do it again. She liked to save that game for when we were least expecting it.

She and Dad were visiting us when our own children were little and Mom decided to try it out on the boys. They were sitting on her lap when she reached up and slipped her dentures into the palm of her hand and turned to grin at them, her cheeks sunken and her empty mouth stretched wide. Their initial reaction was all she could have wished for but curiosity quickly overcame any fear. Instead of trying to run away, Daniel crowded closer to get a better view and Jason took his cue from his older brother. They were clearly fascinated and wanted to know how she’d done it. She had to put her teeth in and take them out several more times before they were satisfied.

A couple of days later I found Daniel rummaging around in the kitchen drawer where we kept a few household tools. He came up with the hammer we used for hanging pictures and he definitely looked like a boy with a mission in mind.

“What do you need a hammer for?” I asked as I deftly plucked it out of his hand.

“My teeth are stuck,” he complained. “I can’t get them out.”

I just stood there in stunned surprise. Clearly I was going to have to do some debriefing after my Mom’s little game. It was one of those occasions where I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I shudder to think what might have happened if Daniel had been able to carry through with his intent before I had a chance to explain the difference between false teeth and real. He might have ended up with a smile like Uncle Antonio’s.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

All The Conveniences

My brothers, Richard and Dave, along with a friend of theirs named Al pooled their resources back in the 70’s and bought a 50 acre lot on St. Joseph’s Island near Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. They hoped to eventually clear a spot in the woods and build a log cabin for themselves. Of course it would be quite a while before that dream could become a reality and they would need a place to live in the meantime. The area was quite isolated but there was an old abandoned farmhouse nearby that looked like it might do in a pinch. Dave and Al decided to locate the owner and ask if they might fix it up a bit and stay in it over the winter. Richard would join them the following summer.

It wasn’t much of a house. It hadn’t been lived in for about twenty years and the glass had been broken out of all the windows. The inside was littered with the accumulated detritus of years of exposure to the elements. There was only one room on the main floor and it was about 15 feet square. A lean-to on the back of the house made a handy place to store firewood. There was a loft reached by a set of rickety stairs and the floor seemed solid enough even though the walls let in the light in a few places. There was no electricity or plumbing at all so it would mean living rough. Undeterred, the boys eventually found the elderly couple that owned the place and discovered that they had no objections to having it occupied once again if it could be made liveable.

It didn’t take long to replace the missing glass in the windows and clean out the trash. There was an old wood stove made of sheet metal that would provide their only heat. It looked like a giant oval stove pipe with a hinged lid on the top. Dave christened it Tin Lizzie on the first day they lit a fire in it. That stove was going to keep them alive for the winter. It gave off plenty of warmth but it went through fuel at an alarming rate. With a little judicious patching of walls here and there they could keep the worst of the drafts out but they were going to have to cut and haul a lot of wood to keep old Lizzie burning.

They had three coal oil lamps and a good supply of candles for light. Their cooking would have to be done on a camp stove and there was a root cellar where they could store their food. Water was going to be the real problem. They built a sled that would hold two large garbage cans and every few days they would drag it about a half mile to the creek to fill those cans with water. There would be no baths till spring. A covered bucket had to serve as a toilet since the only alternative was to go out and squat in the snow.

I’m sure it felt like the longest winter in history. By the time spring arrived and the snow melted both Dave and Al were more than ready for a little break from each other’s company. Al moved into an old trailer that he fixed up and Richard took his place in the farmhouse with Dave. The first order of business that summer was to dig a well near the house. What unbelievable luxury it was to have a source of water just a few short steps from the door! They found a discarded bathtub that eventually came to occupy a place of honor right next to the well in the yard. The ease of filling it in its new location took precedence over any need for privacy.

Once the water question was dealt with they decided to go all out and build an outhouse. My Dad and my younger brother, Tom, showed up to help. They chose a spot some distance from the house and started to dig. Once the hole was deep enough they went to work on cobbling together a shelter from bits and pieces of lumber they had collected. They even managed to find and install a toilet seat…the ultimate in outhouse comfort. They ended up building the whole thing so that it faced the bush rather than the house.

“That way we don’t need to bother with a door,” Richard announced with a grin. “It’s better for ventilation.”
“I never dreamed I’d think of an outhouse as a luxury but this is going to be great,” Dave added.

They turned that old farmhouse into a home and ended up spending another entire winter in it before they were through. It gave them a taste of what it must have been like for my parents growing up…back in the days when having an outhouse definitely made life easier.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Driver Training

It’s strange to think how far we’ve come in one generation although I suppose that every generation feels the same. My parents didn’t grow up with cars. My mother’s first experience behind the wheel of a vehicle was almost her last. My Dad was away at his job for the Department of Highways back in the late 1940’s and Mom was at home on the farm near Noelville in Northern Ontario.

They had hired a man to help with the hay while Dad was at work so she and the hired man were forking hay into the wagon when the unthinkable happened. Mom decided she needed a drink of water so she gave the pitchfork she’d been using a hard thrust to stand it upright in the hay that lay knee deep where they stood. The hired man straightened with a grunt and Mom glanced over, a question in her eyes.

“You stuck the fork through my foot,” he announced in a calm voice that was at odds with the way his face drained of color.

“Oh, no!” she cried dropping to her knees to brush the hay aside. Sure enough, the fork had gone straight through the top of his foot to pin him neatly to the earth. She lifted tear filled eyes to stare at him and tried to think through her panic. It was a disaster and it was her fault.

“You’d better pull it out,” he instructed through gritted teeth… “One quick pull.”

She took a deep breath and pulled the fork free, tossing it aside before helping him to the front seat of the truck he’d arrived in. They managed to get his boot off and staunch the bleeding with a couple of handkerchiefs but she knew she had to get him to the Doctor and there was only one way to do it. She never could remember how she managed to get the truck started and into first gear or how she was able to keep it on the road and pointed in the right direction on that drive into Noelville. It was only later, sitting in the parking lot at the hospital that reaction set in. The hired man had been admitted and she sat behind the wheel of the truck in a state of near paralysis. A policeman happened by and stopped to ask what the problem was.

“I can’t get home,” she responded in a forlorn voice. “I don’t know how to drive.”

It was at least fifteen years before Mom worked up the nerve to try driving once again. We owned a black Volkswagen Beetle and my oldest brother, Richard, decided he would teach her. My Dad was only too glad to let him. He could guess at just how stressful that undertaking would be and he wisely chose to stay out of it. Mom couldn’t seem to get behind the wheel without falling into a state of near panic. It was a tribute to her force of will and Richard’s determination that they persevered. The first time Mom drove on the highway she got a ticket for driving too slowly and holding up traffic. In the end she couldn’t pass her road test because she got so flustered when she attempted to parallel park that she ended up backing over the curb and up onto the sidewalk. No matter how hard she tried to correct the problem she wound up back on the sidewalk each time. Much to her disgust, her second road test also failed and for the same reason. She refused to give up though. She practiced relentlessly and it was on her third try that she finally succeeded and came home a fully licensed driver. It gave her a measure of independence that she treasured.

Of course, that didn’t mean she was a great driver. She never fully relaxed in a car. Even when my parents went from a standard to an automatic she still used both feet to drive. She always gripped the steering wheel with her two hands, knuckles white with tension. She would sit leaning forward with her chin thrust out and her shoulders hunched, a look of intense concentration pinching her face. It didn’t inspire confidence in those of us who were passengers. I always imagined that was exactly how she must have looked on that long ago day when she drove the truck all the way to Noelville to get the hired man to the help he needed. Back then the hired man had problems of his own and probably didn’t notice.

I have to admit that in spite of her anxieties or maybe because of them, she never had an accident in all her years of driving. She may have looked awkward and even a little frightening in the driver’s seat but she managed to stay safe all the same. I can’t be too critical since she was the one who ended up teaching me when it was my turn.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dare to Dream

I had a birthday recently. I am long past the days of candles on cakes but I am not above making a wish or two even now. These days we call them goals and add them to our bucket list. My mother was a great one for making wishes. All through my childhood we blew out candles and wrestled good-naturedly over wishbones whenever a turkey got roasted. We’d spend hours sitting in the middle of a clover patch looking for that elusive four-leafed specimen. My mother thought it would bring her luck but mostly we just enjoyed the hunt for something rare and the triumph that comes along with success. I suppose that’s why I used to enjoy the “Where’s Waldo” books that were popular years ago.

I remember sitting on the back porch on long summer afternoons and playing a game with my Mom that involved her imaginary “presto” machine. We would take turns sharing our fondest wishes and then we would presto them into existence. Of course one thing would lead to another until the dream we built grew to massive proportions bordering on the ridiculous. It was a happy game…almost on a par with the times we recorded ourselves giggling and laughing hysterically on a cassette player until we’d filled the whole tape. Then we would play it back and try to keep our faces straight as we listened. It’s actually quite impossible to do.

We learned two important lessons from those games. Laughter really is good medicine and exercising your imagination is a wonderful way to open up new worlds and explore outside the ordinary every day bonds of life. We learned that it was okay to dream and even to dream big. When you dream together with someone you both get a glimpse into each other’s hearts.

My husband and I keep a list of dreams and wishes. Who knows? We may even achieve some of them. I just love the sense that we have a lot to look forward to that it gives me.

Thanks, Mom.