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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Rainbows: Turns out Mom was right

rainbowThe funny thing is, I can’t even remember what the crisis was, but I do remember clearly how upset I felt. I even remember where the conversation took place. I was in my early teens, and we were standing in the front hallway of my childhood home. I was in tears of rage and distress about I don’t know what, when my mother turned to me with the quiet advice that when she was going through an upsetting experience, she followed her mother’s advice to focus on the thought: “This too shall pass.”

I remember that in the moment I did not find this wisdom especially helpful.

Actually, I remember that I was sufficiently angry with her that it temporarily took my mind off the original upset. I was insulted. It seemed to me that she was dismissing my distress as something irrelevant– that I shouldn’t be feeling upset about the thing that was upsetting me. It took me a long time to understand what she was really telling me. Decades, in fact.

When I was young, the end of the world was always just around the corner. Every setback and disappointment was a catastrophe of epic proportions, even though at that point in my life the setbacks were pretty minor compared with what I would eventually encounter.

I have had my share of crisis and catastrophe over the four decades since receiving my mom’s advice. And it turns out Mom was right. It all passes. Even when there have been lasting repercussions of the crisis at hand, the actual crisis state always passes into some new sort of equilibrium.

It took me well into my 40’s to comprehend the wisdom of This too shall pass. And it’s only now, in my mid-50’s, that I am able to say with any conviction that I am learning to actually live it. Learning. I may never master it.

But I can say that each time I have made it safely through to another rainbow, it becomes a tiny bit less daunting to walk into the next storm.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”  –Haruki Murakami

 

 

 

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.

Happiness is… not quite what I expected

happinessIf you are old enough you will likely remember this little book by Charles Shultz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. This simple little book put the phrase “happiness is…” into daily vernacular decades ago.  It was first published in 1962, but since I was an infant at the time, my introduction to the book more likely correlates with its 1970 paperback release. The simple notions of happiness presented in the book by Shultz’s familiar characters would certainly have resonated with a nine-year old.

Or an eight-year old, like the one who threw me for a bit of a loop the other day when she asked me what was the happiest moment of my life.

Normally I would dodge a question like that. I tend to resist the whole notion of choosing a “best” of anything.  I have marvellous friends, but I would not be able to say so-and-so is my best friend. Favourite song? Changes by the minute. Favourite movie? I’ll give you a list. Favourite book? How much time do you have?

But in this instance it suddenly felt very important that I not only come up with an answer, but that it be the right answer. Because I was very conscious that this particular eight-year old was, at that particular moment, experiencing a colossal truck-load of very legitimate unhappiness.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy doing deep personal reflection while your questioner is staring up at you, unblinking, waiting breathlessly for your response.

The first thought that came to mind was the birth of my children. But that didn’t seem quite right because, for one thing, that’s automatically two moments. Furthermore, as soon as I thought about it for a few seconds I began to realize that there were a lot of moments in which  my children have brought me great happiness, and how could I say that the happiness I felt at the moment of their birth was greater than, say, the happiness I feel when they accomplish something wonderful or demonstrate their cleverness or their compassion? I couldn’t think of any source of happiness that I could narrow down to a specific point in time.

The closest I could come was the moment, nearly fifteen years ago, when I knew that I would be leaving the hospital and going home to my family. When I knew that we were finally beating the illness that nearly killed me. When I knew that the next family event would be my daughter’s second birthday and not, as we had all feared, my funeral.

But what surprised me, as I wrapped my mind around this memory and struggled to package it in an answer that would make sense to my young interrogator, was that the root source of that happiness was not about being glad I had survived. It wasn’t about me at all. When I tried to name the moment of my greatest happiness it wasn’t a moment at all, but rather a lifetime of moments, all of which revolved around the particular way my family has of rallying in a crisis.

The thing that makes me happiest, I tried to explain, is knowing that even though bad things will happen, I can always count on my family for support.  That no matter what the bad thing is — how big or how long or how monstrously scary — there are people I know I can always count on to drop everything and organize whatever help needs to be organized.

Happiness is knowing in the midst of the crisis that you are not alone.

Maybe it doesn’t feel like happiness at the time, but in hindsight it is the joy that comes of walking accompanied through the valley that stands out far more than the joy of celebrating on the mountain-top.

I’m not sure that was the answer she was looking for. It felt like the right answer.

 

Motherhood: What the “What to Expect” books failed to tell you

You will never get it right. You will twist yourself into knots to be there for your child in every way and at all times, until your child says, “That’s enough! Let me do it myself!” And when you do step back, they will rail at your callous abandonment.

You will be faced on a daily basis with impossible choices. Your life will frequently feel like that moment in the crowded shopping mall when one child ran ahead and one trailed behind, and you felt torn apart at the atomic level trying to cling to two small hands moving in opposite directions at the speed of light. Each child will have a completely different set of lessons to teach you, and the lessons you learned with the first child will help you only marginally with the next.

You will long for them to grow up faster and wish for them to stay small forever, all at the same time. You will watch with pride a young woman drive off at the wheel of your car and still see a tiny hand clutching the handlebars of that brightly coloured tricycle you assembled at midnight one long-ago Christmas eve. You will listen to your teenager belt out a spectacular vocal solo, and hear the faint echo of a kindergarten music concert.

You will discover that any anger you ever felt at any personal hurt or injustice was a mere ripple compared to the tsunami of rage that arises in you over any hurt or injustice directed at your child.  You will understand at a cellular level why it is never wise to step between a mother bear and her cubs, and why a loon will charge a boat many times her size if it threatens  her nest. You will also learn how to hold back the tsunami  when what they need most from you is the right to fight their own battles.

You will be thrilled and astonished when they develop the same interests as you, and astonished and thrilled at all the things they know that are strange to you. You will realize that they will grow up having experiences that you are not a part of, even as babies. This will terrify you. You will learn to live with this terror as though it is simply part of the air you breathe.

You will discover strengths and skills and inner resources you never imagined you possessed. You will question everything you believed about yourself, and everything you believed about the world, as you begin to see it all through they eyes of your children. Things that you previously took for granted will become strange and wonderful. Things that you previously rejected will become comfortable companions. You will think the unthinkable, bear the unbearable, and get up the next morning and do it all again. You will be Alice’s White Queen, doing six impossible things before breakfast, while feeling for all the world like the Mad Hatter.

You will be constantly caught off guard by moments. The random hug. The unsolicited “thanks Mom.” The bouquet of clover picked lovingly while the rest of the six-year-olds were chasing the soccer ball. The bittersweet role reversal of the first time your daughter immediately drops what she is doing because you are sick and need a ride home.

Nothing will be anything like what you expected. In fact, you will learn early on that the mere fact of expecting anything is sure to guarantee that something wildly different will occur. Chances are, even what I have said here will be wrong for you, with your particular child, in this particular time and place.

It will be so unlike anything you could possibly have expected, that most of the time you won’t even be able to talk about what it’s really like. For fear no one would believe you.  For fear you’re the only one who is experiencing quite what you are experiencing. For fear that some might think you crazy for thinking that something that tears you to pieces day after hour after minute is the one thing you would not give up for anything in the universe. Ever.

It will change you. That, you can expect.

me and girls

…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.

A New Year Carol

New Years Past

I remember one really great New Year party. I was in high school, and we were visiting my cousins. The party was great for a lot of reasons. I thought my cousin and his friends were cool. We were in a strange city, so none of the people at the party knew me. (As in, none of the people knew that I wasn’t cool.) And all the parents had gone to a party at another home, which made it a cool party even if nothing terribly wild happened.

There were other parties, some  “cooler” than others. But mostly, when I think of New Years past, I think of rented movies (remember those?), pajamas, and takeout Chinese food.

One year when my eldest was small we got ambitious and went downtown to see the fireworks. We found a vantage point close to the action , which proved to be a spectacular judgement error. The toddler was TERRIFIED of the noise, but because we were at the very front of the crowd it was difficult to move back to a lower decibel location. I spent the whole show with my mittened hands clamped over the ears of  a sobbing child.  After that we went back to celebrating at home. Over time, Chinese food was replaced with things the kids would actually eat, and rented movies gave way to whatever family-friendly specials happened to be on TV.

One New Year when the kids were too young to stay up late, but old enough to negotiate, we were suckered into allowing them both to stay up until midnight. We all piled on the big bed in the master bedroom to watch TV. Both girls decided that the most comfortable seat was on Mom, so I spent the evening fighting to maintain some circulation in my legs, and some peace between my daughters.  The later it got, the less charming my overtired offspring became.  Shortly before 11:00 pm, the youngest, and grouchiest, child left the room for a bathroom break. While she was out of the room we hastily located a channel from a time zone one hour later and swore her older sister to secrecy with the promise that, if she didn’t rat us out, she could stay up until it was really midnight. When daughter #2 came back into the room, the TV was counting down to midnight. The con succeeded, and she was out cold in her own bed by 11:08, satisfied that she had achieved her goal.

Par-tay!
Par-tay!

New Year Present

As my children grew into their teens, my New Years evolved . Some years my role was to be home waiting for the call to pick them up from their festivities. I did manage one year to go to hear a friend’s band, but for the most part my New Years are quiet. Mostly that suits me just fine. This year I don’t even have any pickup duties. I might watch a movie or curl up with a book. I’ll stay up until midnight, but then I do that regularly. I will actually enjoy the solitude.

New Years Yet to Come

But lately it has occurred to me that I may have erroneously left the universe with the impression that solitude is all I enjoy. That I wouldn’t ever be interested in a big noisy party. It’s true that there have been lots of years when a quiet night at home truly appealed to me. But I have a secret to confess.

Someday, some year, I’d like to go dancing.