Packing up

thelake2We are all at the lake for the May long weekend. My mom. My sister Joan and her family. Me. My girls. And my eldest daughter’s new partner, who has bravely taken on “meeting the family” in this rather intense, total immersion setting. This is Sunday dinner on steroids, folks. Three days and two nights of togetherness in a log cabin on a small island in the middle of the Canadian shield.

My family has been coming here since this cabin had no neighbors. Since there was no government dock a handy 5-minute dash away in a motor boat. Since my 80-year old mom was barely toddling. For my children, this place IS summer. For my entire lifetime of summers, “going to the lake” has been the default vacation plan.

And now we’re here to say goodbye, on the very weekend that has traditionally been all about saying hello to the lake after a long winter. This spring the cottage is changing hands. My mom has decided it’s time to divest herself of the responsibility – the expense – the worry every spring about whether the ice has crumpled another dock, or the wind felled another tree across the roof. And, much as we might like to, neither my sisters nor I are in the position to take over ownership, each for our own assortment of reasons. It is some consolation that the buyer is a member of the extended family.

To my delight, the loon eggshell that I found the previous summer is still in the dresser drawer where I had stashed it. I make a mental note to remember to take it home as a memento.

We’ve brought my little city-cat along. Her interaction with the natural world normally happens from one end of a leash, and to date her whole experience of stalking and hunting has involved crumpled wads of paper or the red dot of a laser pointer. Nonetheless, I am woken midway through the first night by the sound of her scrabbling under the empty bed across the room from mine. I am fully conscious just in time to witness her hop backwards with a mouse clamped firmly in her jaws. I discover that, despite its size, a mouse is able to let out a pretty impressive scream. Startled by the mouse’s defiance, the cat drops her catch, which then alternates between playing dead and leading my inept huntress on a frantic chase around the dining room. Just when I begin to think the cat may have finally pinned the mouse once and for all, the mouse makes a break for it and sprints the entire width of the dining room and under the sofa, out of reach.

Joan says, “All we need now is a moose and a broken window.”

We all have our own set of iconic lake memories. For my sister the broken window goes back to her pre-school days—back to a spectacular thunderstorm that knocked out first the power and then the bathroom window, the latter discovered when my mom waded into what turned out to be a carpet of broken glass and hailstones. The sound of the hailstorm on the uninsulated roof that night found its way into my sister’s dreams as a recurring nightmare of “flying cars.”

Although technology crept in over the years, we held fast to no TV.
Although technology crept in over the years, we held fast to no TV.

There have been various moose incidents over the years, but the one that always leaps to mind is the afternoon spent gathered at the window starting at what we were all certain was a moose swimming out in the open lake. Until someone finally observed that the moose appeared to be swimming backwards. Until we finally deduced that the “moose” was actually a floating tree stump.

The lake was a good place for making us laugh at ourselves. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you look at yourself in the mirror right after getting caught in a rain shower while canoeing. Or when wearing that favourite work-shirt that you wouldn’t be caught dead in back in civilization.

Your high school English teacher likely taught you that pathetic fallacy is a literary device in which the weather or other natural conditions echo the emotional state of the characters. For example, something sad happens to a character and it coincidently starts to rain.  Or, say a group of characters have gathered for the weekend to say farewell to a place that has been the source of three generations of summer memories, and on the last day of the last visit they wake up to snowfall.

snow 2My six year old nephew is quite angry with Mother Nature for this obvious screw-up.

Good thing there’s lots of firewood.

My brother-in-law James’s annual birthday apple pie is in the oven the first time the lights flicker out.

“Noooooo!” I yell, and thankfully the power snaps back on. Wind like this is hard on the power lines. The lights flicker briefly once more, but to everyone’s relief the last pie is cooling by the time the full-blown power outage descends.

“Probably a tree down on a line somewhere,” my mom says—unnecessarily, since we all thought it. It’s late afternoon but so overcast that without the benefit of electricity the cottage is dark. I light the first of the oil lamps, reflecting as always on how much better equipped we are for managing without electricity at the cottage than we are in the city. When it becomes apparent that the power is not coming right back on, we slide into problem-solving mode. Do we have enough propane to barbeque the chicken? What else do we have that can be prepared on the barbeque? A lot, it seems. And there’s still plenty of cold lunch meat if we need to resort to that.

Joan volunteers to bring up a pail of water from the lake to start warming by the fire for washing dishes. Without electricity the pump will not bring water from the lake up the hill into the kitchen via the small hot water tank in the bathroom cupboard. We’re channelling my grandmother Alice now, figuring out how to do the day’s chores the way they were done before the power lines reached the island in 1964.

snow 3Barbeque sauce in hand, James heads out into the icy wind storm to start the chicken while I improvise around the green beans with olive oil and aluminum foil. My little nephew, who is very adamant about his food preferences, declares he wants a “baconator.” Not only do we have all the components (his mother having been in charge of groceries) but it turns out you can even barbeque bacon.

It also turns out that drizzling green beans with olive oil and grilling them in foil packets is a menu item worth repeating even when cooking with electricity is an option. We feast on my pies which, like the beans, have also been an improvisation. A lot of things are improvisational at the lake, where it’s a major outing to go get a missing ingredient, if indeed it is something that can be purchased at all at the tiny local shops. This afternoon I’ve improvised 2% milk in place of condensed milk in the pumpkin pie fill and concocted a blend of apples and strawberries when I ran out of apples before the last pie shell was full. Somehow it all seems to work.

Dishes become a communal activity when you feed a crowd without a dishwasher.
Dishes become a communal activity when you feed a crowd without a dishwasher.

The water sitting on the hearth in a big enamel basin is getting surprisingly warm. I stack up the dishes and start by scraping them thoroughly. Realizing that my hot water supply is not going to go far, I splash some cold water from the pail into the kitchen sink and do a preliminary wipe to remove the worst of the barbeque sauce and pie crumbs. For the final wash, Lauren lifts the basin up to the counter and I swirl in a squirt of dish soap and a drop of bleach—just on principle. The twice-wiped dishes are quickly cleaned and Joan has them dried and put away by the time I’m wiping down the counter.

card gameMeanwhile, my niece has organized a multigenerational card game. This, I realize, is the biggest loss. As close as we all are – as involved in one another’s lives – there will never be any amount of coordination and organized city togetherness that can replicate what happens when are all just AT the lake. Not doing anything particular. Just being. Together. In the city we are in and out of each other’s homes all the time. But this place has had a way of being everyone’s home that we won’t get back.

Monday afternoon is the real farewell. As I empty the porta-potty canister down the outhouse hole for the last time, I think to myself that there are some things I won’t miss.

In 53 years of summer vacations at this cottage, this is the first time I have ever had to brush snow off the boat. After the battering of yesterday’s wind the air is still. The snow blanketing the shoreline absorbs what small sounds remain. Even the yodelling loons have fallen silent. I imagine them, huddled at water’s edge, guarding one or two grey-spotted eggs against the unseasonable chill. They won’t be out to say goodbye, but their spirit cries will follow me, along with their images tattooed on my skin.

I surprise myself by not crying when we leave. Once I am back in the city, however, it dawns on me that I have navigated the emotional minefield of the departure by refusing with unnecessary stubbornness to prolong the process with an ice cream stop.

In the end, I have decided not to bring the loon eggshell home. It belongs at the lake. It would be out of its element in the city. I am carrying the memory of it with me, and that is enough.

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I go walking: Day’s end

I have finally touched down after ten days of swirling in a self-imposed tornado of Doing.  Too. Much.

I knew I would overdo it, in the same way I know I will always eat just a bit too much at Christmas Dinner. I have been alternating between volunteering at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and happily gorging on the overwhelming buffet of theatrical treats ranging from lovely to thought-provoking to “well at least I only spent ten dollars on THAT.”

Oh and this was after a full day at the office.

As usual, my sleep deprived immune system has punished me for my excesses by conspiring with a nasty head cold. But I’ll live.

Meanwhile, viral disciplinarians notwithstanding, life is pretty good. Daughter #1 is riding high on a prime new job opportunity, and daughter #2 has been safely dispatched to camp for four weeks. I am even feeling considerably less panicky about my grading deadline now that I am nearly halfway through my virtual “stack” of e-papers. (Funny– as much as I like not having to sacrifice so many trees on the altar of higher learning, I do miss the physical satisfaction of watching the “done” pile rise as the “to be done” pile wanes.)

Most of my walking over the past ten days has been Fringe Festival walking– treading the downtown pavement from my office to my volunteer venue to another venue to see a play to the food vendors gathered in Old Market Square. It’s a different kind of walking: a getting-somewhere walking as opposed to the more contemplative going-for-a-walk kind of walking that fuels my writing.

Tonight, however, I managed a loop around the golf course.

The old concrete sidewalk that formed the path under the bridge has, in the past few weeks, been chewed up and replaced with a pristine strip of asphalt twice the width (the better to accommodate bike traffic to the stadium, methinks.) There are enough little brown rabbits grazing the lawns along the riverbank to populate the entire works of Beatrice Potter. A pelican floated by on the river. I was surprised to see a group of pelicans in a nearby retention pond a few days ago. This summer is the first time I have ever seen them in city limits. Perhaps because there is so much excess water this year?

On my way back, the sky was beginning to redden, and I reflected on how little time it takes to notice the days begin to grow shorter. I was reminded, as I often am at dusk, of the time my youngest astonished her camp counsellor by being the only seven-year-old in the history of Zoo Camp to arrive already knowing how to use the word “crepuscular” in a sentence.

Ok boys and girls, we call owls and bats “nocturnal” because they come out to feed at night. Does anyone know what you call an animal like a deer that comes out to feed at dawn and dusk…?

And then, as if cued by my reminiscence, there were the deer. Two of them–one young and one full-grown.

Sometimes it’s good to slow down.

Blurry -- because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.
Blurry — because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.

 

 

Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping

When I was in my twenties, new to a busy teaching career and newly married, I remember having a conversation about housework with an older colleague. The conversation went something like this:

Me:      How do you ever manage to get everything done? By  the time I am finished my marking and course prep I can’t imagine coping with all the laundry and the dishes and the housecleaning…

Her:     Well now, I just don’t go to bed until everything is done.

That was the last time I asked her for advice.

Instead, I opted to adopt the philosophy of housekeeping espoused by my great-aunt Molly.

My grandmother’s sister Molly was a creative woman who spent much of her adult life applying her creativity to managing a farm household with limited resources. Molly’s resourcefulness was of the variety that could turn a scoop of leftover chicken fat into melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies. While her culinary creativity may not translate well into the 21st century, I did learn from her other very important lessons that have stood the test of time.

Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping consisted of one fundamental principle, which she explained with this scenario:

You are sitting relaxing and you look up and notice a dirt spot on the wall. You have two options.

  1. You can obsess about the fact that you are now going to have to find a pail and fill it with soapy water and thoroughly wash all the walls, which of course will involve moving all the furniture, which will mean that you are going to end up washing the floor as well— and that sounds like way more work than you have the energy for today. Or tomorrow. So you leave the spot on the wall for days (weeks? months even!) during which you will become increasingly oppressed by the knowledge that you are a failure at housekeeping and probably by extension a failure at just about everything else.
  2. OR, you can stand up, grab the damp cloth that is probably already hanging by your kitchen sink, and wipe off the spot. Then you can go back to sitting and relaxing.

Aunt Molly advocated option #2.

Now, don’t assume that to mean that Molly was a lazy housekeeper. I am certain her walls, floors, and everything in between got a thorough scouring on a regular basis.  But there is wisdom in Molly’s spot-cleaning approach to housekeeping that has translated itself into a wealth of life lessons as I have contemplated her words over the years. Here are a few of those lessons:

  1. You are your own worst critic. When you look at the wall, do you see a small and insignificant spot, or do you see the whole world judging you because your entire house is a massive expanse of filth? Chances are someone else doesn’t even see the spot!
  2. There is always something you can do now. When life gets overwhelming, sometimes just exercising control over one tiny piece of it helps me regain a sense of perspective. If you can’t afford that big purchase you desire, can you put aside the first five dollars? If you can’t run the marathon, can you walk around the block?
  3. Solve the immediate problem. Sometimes I get stuck because I am trying to solve the wrong problem. Or too many problems. When that happens, I have learned to reframe the problem into something I do have the resources to address. Is the problem really that my whole house needs cleaning from top to bottom right this minute? Or is the problem that at this particular moment this particular spot is bugging me?
  4. It’s important to know what constitutes “enough.” Having been inclined, in my youth, to an unhealthy degree of perfectionism, I have spent a long time learning that you don’t need to do everything to have done something worthwhile. Don’t load unrealistic expectations on yourself when you should really be patting yourself on the back for what you have accomplished.
  5. Planning makes the big things more manageable. Eventually you will have to wash the whole wall, but in the meantime a little spot-cleaning can make it bearable. And then you can plan to wash the wall when you have more time. Or energy. Or helpers!
  6. A lot of little things together make a big thing. Does washing a wall mean you need to wash all the walls? Can you do one room today and another one tomorrow?
  7. And perhaps most importantly, it’s better to do the simple thing that’s right in front of you than to just think about doing something grand. Getting out of your chair and going for a walk is more productive than thinking about running a marathon. Writing a two or three blog posts a week may not be writing a best-selling novel, but it is several steps ahead of just thinking about writing a novel.

Of course it’s good to do the grand things too. But you’ll never get to the grand things if you spend too much time worrying about how clean the walls are.

Have a… Day

It’s complicated.

And by “it” I mean families. Which is why I find the whole notion of “Mothers’ Day” and “Fathers’ Day” problematic.

For some families, it’s an unnecessary guilt trip. I have a good relationship with my mother. Likewise I know that, through all our differences, my kids love me. It irks me that on one particular calendar day we are somehow expected to go through a set of motions to prove all that. For one of  my daughters, Mothers’ Day falls at a point in her school year that is outrageously busy. I try that to make it clear that I personally have no expectations surrounding this date, but at the same time I am not immune to thinking that, regardless of the fact that I do things with my mother on a regular basis, I must organize some so sort of joint activity on this particular day, regardless of whether doing so fits with everything else that is going on in our collective lives.

For other families, it’s a slap in the face. Today is Fathers’ Day. My own father died in 1990. I know children who are estranged from their father for a variety of complicated reasons. I know children and fathers who would like to spend the day together but are prevented from doing so by equally complicated reasons. For any family that is going through any number of crises, these days serve only to pour salt into already gaping wounds. And that’s not even talking about those situations where a parent is, or has been, genuinely abusive.

It’s all about the marketing. At my most cynical, I see both days as elaborate marketing gimmicks. If you make a living off of flowers, neckties, or Sunday Brunch, clearly you have a vested interest in these celebrations. And it hurts my head to even think about the number of trees that are felled to produce the rows upon rows of greeting cards, oozing with generic saccharine messages of parent adoration. Messages that, for most families, don’t even begin to capture the complexities of parent-child relationships.

And yet I know that there are good things that come of these arbitrary days. Somewhere the ubiquitous marketing will prompt someone to pick up a phone and call a parent with whom they have not communicated in a long time. Somewhere a small child will gain a new sense of confidence and agency from mastering the toaster in the process of producing a celebratory breakfast-in-bed. In spite of my cynicism, I still have a collection of plaster disks embedded with little handprints tucked away in a box of priceless keepsakes. I am, as evidenced by my previous post, generally a great advocate of the importance of annual rituals and remembrances in our lives.

Lots of families will have brunches and barbeques and other sorts of joyful gatherings today in honour of Fathers’ Day. But here’s the crux for me: maybe those families happily celebrating the day didn’t need the greeting card manufacturers to tell them they should do it today. Maybe the rituals and remembrances about something as personal as family relationships should be just that: personal. Maybe if you are able to celebrate Fathers’ or Mothers’ day uncritically and unambiguously you don’t really need an official day to celebrate the role a particular parent plays in your life, because you celebrate that on a routine basis. If that’s the case, then the only purpose these days serve, aside from the obvious economic purpose, is to make us feel bad when our lives are not, at this precise moment, living up to the expectations placed on us by these secular “holy days.”

Have a happy Fathers’ Day…

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have the day you need to have. Today. Now. In whatever uniquely complicated family situation you find yourself. No neckties required. You don’t even have to be happy if doing so would violate the truth your family is living at this moment. Give yourself permission to just have a day.

Plan B

The Daily Prompt wants me to “Tell us your funniest relationship disaster story.”  Hah!

Technically, it wasn’t even a relationship, except perhaps in his imagination. But it was disastrously funny.

I was 15, in grade ten. He was an “older man,” in grade twelve. We met at a rehearsal of the school musical theatre production of Pajama Game.

He had a girlfriend, who was, conveniently (or inconveniently, depending on your vantage point), not in the musical.  Mostly we chatted while we were waiting for our turn to rehearse. No. Mostly he chatted and I tolerated his company.

And then the night of my first high school dance rolled around. I was excited about the dance. Excited to be going on my own to meet up with my friends.  Almost ready to leave, in fact, so that when the doorbell rang there was no mistaking the fact that I was dressed to go to the dance. No pretending otherwise.

And there he was, on my doorstep. Also clearly dressed for the evening’s festivities. And, I couldn’t help noting, minus one girlfriend.

“Hi there. I just happened to be passing by and I thought I would stop in to see if you wanted a ride to the dance.”

Now based on the simple geography of where his home, my home and the school were respectively located, there was no possible way that he “just happened to be passing by.” Those words have thus been logged forever in my family lore as the lamest of all pick-up lines.

I didn’t really want to go to the dance with him, but refusing the offer didn’t seem to be an option.  I asked, awkwardly, “Where is your girlfriend?”

“Oh, she was in a bit of a car accident….”

“A car accident!?”

“Just a minor one. She didn’t even need to stay at the hospital. She’s resting at home.”

“…and…you’re going to the dance?”

“Yeah. She’s fine. Shall we go?”

And so, dumbfounded, I went. And spent a totally surreal evening not hanging out with my friends.

When the time came for him to drop me off, he insisted that he was hungry (having missed supper to check on his injured girlfriend before heading off to the dance with me) and he simply had to come in and order a pizza. My parents were out, and my grandmother was babysitting my younger sisters. The plan was that when I got home she would hand off the babysitting duties to me and head home. Which, to my horror, she did.

And there I was, stuck with loverboy, waiting for the damn pizza to arrive. Injured girlfriend notwithstanding, it soon became clear that his idea for how we should put in the waiting time differed greatly from mine. I kept trying to come up with reasons why he really ought to be leaving, but he was impervious to all hints.

And so I was forced to resort to my secret weapon: my three-year-old sister.

“Oh Oh,” I said, hand cupped dramatically to one ear, “I think  she’s awake.”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure she’s calling. I’d better go check on her.” At which point I marched into her room, shook the poor kid awake, and dragged her out to the living room. “See. She’s wide awake. There’s no way she’ll go to sleep until you’re gone.”

And then, because he was still too thick to take the hint, I propped my semi-comatose kid sister up on the couch between us and repeatedly elbowed her into remaining conscious until he finally wolfed down his pizza and accepted that he was not going to get lucky with Plan B.

 

 

 

 

 

…in an Oldsmobile

Twenty-four years ago today my Dad died. I still miss him. I wrote this piece shortly after his funeral.

dadWhen my father bought the Oldsmobile it came with a cassette tape of assorted songs by popular artists– a demo for the stereo. Side one began with the “Oldsmobile Jingle”– a stirring orchestral sweep followed by a joyous tenor exclaiming, “There is a special feeling in an Oldsmobile…” Hokey as this sounds, it was quite rousing if you listened to it at top volume (and top speed.) At our wedding, my husband and I danced the first waltz to a little-known Neil Diamond song from the Oldsmobile tape. I’ve never come across that song anywhere else.

The Oldsmobile was a BIG car. Bigger, even than it’s predecessor, a green-grey Buick I nicknamed the “tank.” If I had to park downtown I would take Mom’s Tempo, or later my own beater that Dad and I split the cost for, fifty-fifty.

Sometimes I would meet Dad driving downtown on his way to or from a meeting. He would honk and wave from behind the wheel of that car that went on forever.

Dad bought Lotto 649 tickets religiously. He used the same number every week, because “it had to come up eventually.” The number consisted of the birthdays of each of his three daughters. He was going to buy us each a new car when he won the big one.

When my father died there was still one Lotto ticket that hadn’t been drawn, that he had bought just before going to the hospital.

That morning he had driven the Oldsmobile downtown and parked quite a distance from his meeting. Afterwards, on the long walk back, he had realized, perhaps for the first time, how weak the cancer had made him. He became frightened, gasping for breath, afraid that he wouldn’t make it to the car. A hundred mile journey in a few city blocks, but he made it, and he drove the Oldsmobile home and asked my mother to drive him to the hospital. They took the Tempo.

In the surreal haze of the first few hours of mourning, it became very important to us to find my father’s last Lotto ticket. Dresser, wallet, and nightstand eliminated, I was sent to check the glove compartment of the Oldsmobile. The ticket was there. After I found it, I sat there a while, surrounded by maroon velour and the smell of my father.

My mother refused to ride in the funeral-parlour limousine. The six of us– Mom, her three daughters and two sons-in-law– drove ourselves to church in the Oldsmobile.

The draw was after the funeral. We didn’t win. I thought I should start buying Lotto tickets with Dad’s number, but I never have.

Becoming

As someone who likes to write about  personal change, it would be hard for me to pass up a Daily Prompt about metamorphosis: “Tomorrow is the first day of a brand new year. Tomorrow you get to become anyone in the world that you wish. Who are you?”

OK Daily Prompt, this one is easy, and not just because I wrote this poem many years ago, but because all these years later I still know that the one thing I most want to be when I grow up is to be just like her…

Almost smiling! She hated being photographed.
Almost smiling! She hated being photographed.

Psalm

grand/mother
in my childish eyes
I see you stately and serene
in tailored navy dresses punctuated
with a hint of coloured silk
your sparse unruly crown of grey
all disciplined with net and pins

I am six and I have
asked you the same riddle
every day this week     “what
do you call a dog without
a tail”    and though i
know you’re very smart
you never get the answer
“hot dog” and you always
laugh and i feel clever

we play cards    you teach me
how to lose by playing to
win    you teach me how to win
by letting me

at your funeral we toast you saying
not a woman here who doesn’t wish
that some of you lived on in her

i inherit
your engagement ring    the one
i learn    you flung across a golf course
in a fit  of rage at your fiancé
my grandfather

with this ring
this story
changes everything

grannie I’m still throwing things in anger
and my hair is creeping grey
your ring fits loosely on my hand
i haven’t had it altered
I’ve been praying
i’ll grow into it someday