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


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.