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.