North of 66 ~ A Trying Year in Polar River (1993)

In 1993 we spent a year in a Northern Community. We had many good times but, there were at least three tragedies while we were there…

In early July 1993 we rolled into Polar River, just north of the sixty-sixth parallel in the North West Territories.  We had been driving for several hot and dusty days on the road across Canada, from Newfoundland to Alberta and then straight North.

We passed through Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon and then a full day up the gravel Dempster Highway, two hours beyond the Arctic Circle.

We had driven in tandem for a week, driving ‘Betsy‘ our ’76 VW Van and our tiny Chevrolet Sprint we fondly called ‘Puny’. Unfortunately, Betsy didn’t survive the trip.  Her engine blew in Whitehorse and, on a deadline to get to the job, we sold her body to a small Franco mechanic with the longest, most gorgeous ringlet hair we had ever seen. His dark ringlets reached way down his back.  He saw me admiring it and said with a lop-sided grin: ‘the ladees, estee, they love my hairs, they are curly, non?’  I just wanted to touch it to verify that it was real.  Of course my mind flitted back to the Francos marching in perfect formation in Nijmegen a couple of years prior, and singing their old, soulful regimental songs – making the Anglo teams look rag-tag by comparison.  Such was their pride and fervor for their culture.

Anyway, while in Whitehorse, we ate at a restaurant that is still there today: Sam N Andy’s. Interestingly and coincidentally, there is a very real chance we were served by my very good friend, Daisy, who lives and works in our current Nova Scotia town.  One day, decades later, Daisy and I came upon this nugget of truth while reminiscing about our Northern days.

So, Dean had accepted a one-year contract position as Recreation Director for a tiny northern community of 150 First Nations Gwich’in people and roughly ten whites living in about 25 houses.  The houses were built on pilings that were anchored into the permafrost.  There was a general store, an all-levels school, a gym, two churches, a health centre and a community office on a hill overlooking the confluence of two icy rivers. The setting was incredibly beautiful.  It felt like the final frontier.

The first thing we did was attend a community feast.  But, to call it a feast was a bit of a stretch.  It was simply hot dogs, pop and chips, but, we were so pleased to finally be there and soon to be on a payroll again, after more than a year, that we were all smiles and best intentions. The local children took our hands and tugged us along.

‘How long will you be here?’ Charlie asked. They don’t mince words, I thought.  They also were intrigued with our little black lab puppy, ‘Dempster’ whom we had on a bright blue leash and matching collar.  Full of questions: ‘Why is he on leash?  Does he bite?  Why does he have a name? Do you feed him fish?  Will he stay outside?’  And, of course questions directed at me like: ‘Is there a baby in your belly? (It wouldn’t be until 1998, 1999 and 2001 that a baby would be in my belly.) Where are your babies?’ These questions were telling.

At the feast, we met Allie, the daughter of the former old Chief Henry.  Allie was quite articulate and confident.  She told us of her recent huge adventure, trekking in Nepal. Little did we know then that we would be trekking in Nepal the following year, thanks to the seed planted by Allie at this little feast.

The Chief of Polar River, Gwen, was dysfunctional, mostly ineffective, extremely high maintenance and neurotic.  She expected Dean to be at the gym facility seven days a week, twenty-four hours per day. He was hired to do a job and she wanted him working non-stop.

Poor Dean, who is overly kind, was exhausted by her neediness in a couple of weeks. The gym, thankfully, was a very nice facility, a couple of minutes walk from our apartment, and was perched on the edge of the forest which was millions of acres of wilderness.  It was a state of the art building with a huge gym and fully stocked kitchen as well as Dean’s new office. Equipment galore: new, mats, rackets, nets.  New cross-country skis and new canoes came later when Dean applied for and received a grant for them, as well as money to hire an instructor to come up and teach canoeing. The instructor was this funny young guy from Manitoba.  He would exclaim, ‘I can’t believe I am being paid to teach the natives how to canoe’.

One of the main weekly events at the gym was the Wednesday night BINGO. Here was my husband with over seven years of higher education and a former Army Captain, calling BINGO once per week.  It was comical, if a little sad.  It was a big event and it came with big winnings.  Hundreds of dollars were won each week.  I hung out in the kitchen, offering burgers and pop for sale, the proceeds going into the gym coffers.

Dean was mandated to teach one of the local women how to run the gym facility and how to manage the budget and maintenance.  This young woman had four young children and a husband who played around on her.  Consequently, she wasn’t fully available.  Life in Polar River was both gritty and frustrating.  Like the day when one of the young kids who were always at the gym (free babysitting) told Dean, ‘I don’t have to listen to YOU, White Man’.  That child was about seven years old.

Dempster

The first tragic thing to happen to us that year occurred on a gorgeous evening a month after we arrived.  I had been walking our lab puppy Dempster who was scampering ahead of me over the beaten-earth pathways. I was just skipping along and watching bemusedly as he chased a rodent under a house.  That was the last time I saw him alive. He didn’t come out from under the house… that I knew of.

I was calling and whistling. Nothing.  Then, a dirty blue pick-up drove up.  A young Gwich’in man, Billy, rolled down his window and with a smoke in his mouth said, ‘Your dog’s dead’.  And drove off.

I ran down to the gravel road beneath the hill where I was standing, hoping it was a cruel joke, and this is what I saw:  My precious black lab puppy lying on his side with a growing pool of blood around his puppy head.  I began to cry bitterly, hugging myself and bending at the waist in my grief, one hand over my mouth.

Suddenly, I was feeling overwhelmingly betrayed by this new place.  How could this happen to me? How could he be so cruel? Looking back a quarter of century, I realize that I was dealing with culture shock and home-sickness, being so new in a very foreign place, albeit still in Canada.

The killing of our puppy didn’t mean much to young Billy because in his culture, they didn’t keep dogs as pets the way we do in the South. Someone went and fetched Dean and he came and wrapped his strong arms around me consoling me. Someone picked up Dempster in an old blanket and we drove down the Water Lake Road and Dean buried him while I sat in the car, still too upset to move, still in mild shock.

A few days later, on a sunny afternoon, a nice local man brought us a very cute puppy from his new litter. Our new puppy had pointy ears and muzzle.  He was fuzzy black and white, wolfish looking and stunk of fish – the only kind of food he knew.  We called him Delta, after the River Delta where he was born.

Delta
Delta, age 3

Dean worked away at his position and I picked up some work, just finding odd things to do that no one else would.  I made pots of soup and trays of sandwiches for Band Meetings.  I took people to the big town of Inuvik for shopping and medical appointments.  I typed minutes to various meetings.  Then I was offered a full-time position in the Community Office doing payroll, payables and receivables.

Later, I picked up the part-time position of Medical Centre Coordinator.  There was this beautiful Medical Centre equipped with two examination rooms, incredible instruments and medications and a locked cupboard of narcotics. There was also a small apartment meant for a visiting doctor or nurse.

Little Suzy

One day,  I was out walking when someone ran up to me saying that little Suzy had been mauled by a dog.  This was the second tragic thing to go down.  I ran as fast I could to find her laying just out of reach of a big, mean Husky that was chained in the backyard of someone’s house.

She was bleeding profusely from the many open wounds in her legs.  I screamed at anyone to go get Dean and to call an ambulance to come from the neighbouring larger community, Pierson, which was an hour away.  I prayed, spoke calmly to her and pressed rags on her wounds until Dean rolled up in our vehicle.  To this day, I do not know where her parents, friends or relatives were even though we were in the middle of town.  She was eight.

We drove as fast as we could toward the Pierson Health Centre and the ambulance met us halfway. We transferred little Suzy into the ambulance and then followed it.  She was put on the medical table and her ripped clothing was removed and as I watched the doctor poured hydrogen peroxide into her open wounds. She was laying on her belly repeating, ‘Owieeeee! Owieeeee!’   It occurred to me that this little girl was no stranger to pain. She received several hundred stitches to close her wounds.  A year later, after returning from Nepal, I would find myself managing the medical clinic in Inuvik and working for that same doctor that stitched her wounds.

Jordy’s Dead

As Recreation Director, Dean had a major event to plan and carry out:  the Spring Carnival which included many different competitions including snowmobile races and dogsled races.  He spent days planning and coordinating this major event which would attract many visitors from out of town, and which had several thousand dollars in prize money. Very early on the day of the big event, we were still in bed sleeping when the phone rang.   I picked it up: ‘Hello?’

‘Jordy’s dead’, said a voice.

Click.

Holy shit.  ‘Dean!’ I screamed,  ‘Get up!  Jordy’s dead.’

We spent the next several hours sorting out Jordy’s body at his house.  The RCMP came from Pierson and asked me all manner of lame questions. It was pretty obvious, if you had a nose, to detect  how he died.  The poor tortured soul smelled like a distillery mixed with a chemical waste plant. He died sitting up on his couch.

Next, we took his body by truck to the medical centre and laid it out on one of the beds. I had to stay at the medical centre until the coffin guy from Inuvik showed up.  Also,  two of Jordy’s female relatives came in to clean up his body in preparation for burial.

Despite the tragedy, it was an astoundingly beautiful sunny spring day and snow was melting rapidly.  I was happy that Dean would have a successful carnival because of it, but the warmth wasn’t doing anything for Jordy’s body odor issue. For a while I talked to the coffin guy and his wife on the deck at the medical centre (there was no being inside with good ole Jordy). The funny thing about the entrepreneurial coffin guy was that he was an ER nurse.

When we finally left Polar River in July of 1994, we were happy to go – we had big plans to go travelling, but, we had many mixed feelings about the North. Yes, the Gwich’in of Polar River had hired us, but, did we really have any business nosing our way into a tiny First Nations community, for a year? Did we do any good at all, or did we just cause surreptitious upset, undermining and questioning of the old ways?

I really don’t know for sure but, I think that the people of Polar River could most likely run their own gym (especially now that Dean had taught his protege), their own BINGO nights, their own health centre and do their own payroll, if push came to shove.  I think that maybe they had this idea that we Southerners knew more and could organize better but, we were left feeling that it would be best for them to leave our Southern ways and instead, get back to a more traditional way of life.

We had spent some time with the Old Chief Henry.  He would come to our apartment door and want a cup of tea. He told us many stories of the old days and spending time on the trap line, drying fish and getting caribou for the whole community, going by dog sled over the snow.  The traditional jobs that would be carried out by the women and the young men. How the children would play, tumbling and were cherished and spoiled by their Elders.  Traditional feasts and celebrations.  His eyes would glisten with the memories behind them.  I was in awe of this man who had lead his people for over three decades.  If I had a wish for the Northern Peoples it would be to go back to those ways and to embrace them once again, even if just little by little.  Perhaps that is impossible, but, I’m gonna wish it anyway.

dempser

 

(Thanks to google images for the pics)

We’re Not in Canada Anymore…this is Oz (1994) 🦇

Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover…..
~Men at Work

We arrived in Melbourne, Australia in 1994 and kicked around the city for a few days, staying with friends we had met on the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska (Across Canada in Betsy (age 26) 🇨🇦. But, wanting to experience the true outback, we decided to take the historical Gahn train to the centre.

gahn with red sand

So, onto the train we got, bound for Alice Springs.  On the train, I had some sort of sudden mucous problem and water poured from my nose and eyes.  Dean cracked open a smuggled-in bottle of red and after a few sips the mucous stopped flowing. (We don’t usually go too far without a nice bottle of red.)

gahn

The next day, we stepped off the train into a brick wall of heat.  Just imagine walking into an oven.  Now add about 300 degrees and you have the heat that is Alice Springs.  We found a hostel where we rented a small trailer, and spent some time slowly walking around and seeing the sights.  There were many aborigines about and we saw a few homes with living room furniture out in the yard where people would sit.  One evening we decided to go to a movie and just by chance, the movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert was opening.  It had been filmed in Alice Springs and starred Guy Pierce.  It was a bizarre film which the Ozzies in the cinema found hilarious. Us, not so much.

Next we decided to hitch-hike to the coast.  Some 2776 km away and most of it through arid Australia.  We had no idea that arid Australia is deadly.  We simply could not fathom it, coming from Canada.  Arid Australia is brutally hot, sometimes 50 degrees Celsius and has very few water sources and very little traffic.  There are biting ants and other insects, kangaroos, venomous snakes and spiders and the odd dingo about.  In Oz, when you see a spider or a snake, you have to assume it is venomous because most are.

We were very lucky, once again.  One of the first drivers to see us hitching pulled over. It was an 77 year old man named Lockey.  He helped us put our huge packs in his small Toyota van.  Dean took a seat in the front and I climbed into the single rear seat in the back and immediately became a river of sweat.  No air conditioning except the two front windows which were perpetually down and circulating hot air.  It took us five days (five days!!!) to travel through the Outback to the east coast.  We camped each night in the free campsites that Australia nicely provides so that folks don’t parish in the outback.

Lockey drove slowly, necessarily.  The scenery was mostly desert-type scrub and four foot high phallic shaped ant hills formed from red sand.  Now and then we would see a troop of kangaroos. And the odd bloated dead cow carcass.  We were told that the cattle ranches are so vast that there is no way the farmers could fence them, so sometimes cows would get killed by road trains.  Oookay.  Road trains are very, very long tractor trailer trucks with accordion-type mid-sections.  It was not fun to be passed by a road train and have to man-handle the steering wheel so as not to be sucked under it.

We would stop in the mid-afternoon for a bite to eat, usually after getting gas.  The little gas stations were remote but had everything you could possibly want AND a huge cage of cockatiels and parrots.  We would order a sandwich or a burger and a beer. Invariably, the sandwich would arrive with not only sliced beet (yes beet) on it but sometimes grated carrot and a sunny-side up egg sitting on top. Huh?

Where ARE we??!

Arriving in Bundaberg, Lockey offered for us to stay with him for a few days.  We all got along so well and Lockey was very funny.  He was always making sounds like errrrrk when he opened the fridge door or zzzzzip when he did up his jacket zipper. Lockey had several geckos that were friendly and lived with him informally in his house trailer. They were so cute and made little chirping sounds that Lockey would imitate perfectly. Lockey told us he did 100 push ups per day to stay fit.  He had been a Air Navigator in the war. That’s saying something. Lockey’s house trailer was in a trailer park with many other residents.  There was a common washing room and shower house close by in one direction and the short trail to the beach in the other direction.  We were offered the back of his station wagon to sleep on a foam mattress.

One day we decided to do some laundry.  It was dusk as we walked to the washing house. Suddenly there was loud cackling from the tree top above us, almost like an old married couple cackling at a funny tv show or a progressive bridge game.  Looking up we shivered to see two flying foxes, yes FOX bats that can fly!!! having an upside-down gander back at us and cackling over it.  

Holy shit! Where ARE we??

The next day Dean went for a nice long morning run before the sun became too hot.  He was down a dirt road a few miles from Lockey’s place when he realized that he was being watched by an seven foot tall kangaroo.  He stopped dead in his tracks and with heart racing, tried to figure out what to do.  He could not read the roo who was now lazily scratching his chest, licking his lips and staring at Dean.  We had been warned to not corner a roo because they will quite easily lean back on their tail and kick you into next week.  Dean lowered his eyes and smoothly backed away from the giant roo.  Next he ran to the toilets as fast as he could.

Lockey was a retired motor mechanic and we were in need of a car.  We decided that trying to get around Australia, which is huge and mostly empty in the centre, we would need a car.  Lockey helped us find a very sensible white Toyota Corona.  The next day we drove it to a large shopping mall and went inside to watch a movie.  Coming out, we were dismayed to find my day pack missing from the rear floor.  My passport was in that day pack so, now this was a problem if I ever wanted to get home to Canada.

We drove to a bank of payphones by the side of the road.  Is was dusk… Dean was on the phone with the Canadian Consulate when suddenly the sky darkened with some very large entity moving over us.  We cowered and looked up to see a sight that will be etched in my brain forever…HUNDREDS of flying foxes moving as in a herd overhead.  Holy shit! Where ARE we???!  We were informed later that the flying foxes were heading to the fruit orchards.  They eat fruit all night.  They are fruitatarians.  I am not sure if that is a technical term.  I am just happy they don’t drink blood or anything.

After we visited the consulate and retrieved my passport, that the kind thief must have sent in we continued with making plans for our next stop.  We liked the idea of heading up to Bowen to work on a farm for a bit.  Off we went after many many thanks to our host Lockey.

We arrived in Bowen and found a trailer to rent in a park by the sea.  Oh my, it was pretty.  We only found out later that there was no swimming in the sea due to the box jellyfish, the most deadly creatures in the world.  It was box jelly season.  Where ARE we??!

We visited a few different farms and had a day here and a day there picking tomatoes, rock melons (cantaloupe), capsicums (green peppers).  It was hard bloody work out in the elements.

IMG_5889There were acres and acres of low growing fruit and not one single real shade tree. The water in my precious water bottle was HOT. I thought I was pretty tough but, nowhere near as tough as those career pickers. To say the sun was brutal is a serious understatement.  One day, I laid under our car for shade during break.  The Oz sun is the very reason why we decided to not live there.  It’s just too oppressive.  We were finally offered a position working in the barn.  It was hard work too, but so much more civilized for we Northern, white-skinned types from cold Canada.  It was in the barn that we met the couple who had just returned from India.  They told us of the exotic country and amazing food and how they speak English and also how inexpensive it was to travel there compared to Western countries like Oz.  We wanted to go there!

We worked in the tomato farm barn for a couple of months and put almost every penny away to save for our tickets to and adventures in India.  The only things we would buy were the Ozzie meat pies (omg the BEST thing ever — and they are square just so you remember where you are while eating them.  We even discussed importing them to Canada.  So good.)  We would also buy beer and, okay, groceries.  The farmer we worked for would often send us all home with a wonderfully fresh watermelon.  We would devour half of it and put the other out for the parrots.  Within moments, several brightly coloured parrots would be perched on the watermelon and eating it.  Near our trailer, there was an abandoned lot with a mango tree just begging to be picked.  We would gather a whole bag of ripe ones and the gorge on them.  More delicious than words!

After leaving Bowen, Queensland, we hightailed it to Caines then said, why the hell did we do that?  It was horrible with brutal humidity levels up there.  From there we went south and climbed Mount Kosciusko and camped for a night at the top.  It is only about 2200 m high, (Everest is 8800 m by comparison).  We also went to the spectacular Great Barrier Reef for a day and then spent a couple of days in Sydney.

IMG_5885We managed to sell our car for the same amount we bought it for.  Score.  The sale was touch and go for a bit though because on our way to motor vehicles with our buyer, much to my horror, steam began to come out of the front dash vents.  What the???  I was sitting in the back and began to surreptitiously pound Dean’s left arm.  He didn’t see what I was seeing. Nor did our buyer.  And then the steam stopped and it was all fine. Heart attack!

When we finally went to purchase our flight tickets to India, because of Chinese New Year, we could not fly into India.  We could only fly into Nepal.  We shrugged: when a couple of billion people celebrate Chinese New Year, it can cause jam ups in the airlines. So, we flew into Nepal and it was one of the best things we ever did. As the Dalai Lama says: remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.

We arrived in Kathmandu on Chinese New Year of 1995…but…

that’s another story…

Before you leave, here is the link to a blog with an incredible Ozzy bird performing for his mate.  Too cool! Link

The Camp ⛺️

In the 60s my parents buy a piece of lake-front property north of the Muskokas in Ontario, Canada where we move to every summer to live bare-foot at the lake: fishing, swimming, sunning and doing chores each day…

In 1960, the year Mark was a born, my parents with my paternal grand-parents, bought a 21-acre piece of lake-side property north of Huntsville, Ontario.  The Camp, as we came fondly to call it, had ten cabins, each on private, wooded lots, most with their own water frontage and docks, on beautifully picturesque forested property beside the soft mineral waters of Eight-mile Lake.  The lake is part of a very long and historic river system.  The camp is still up and running but is now owned and operated (since the mid 80s) by my eldest sister, Eva and her family.

The Camp was an integral part of my childhood and it was instrumental in my love of the outdoors.  You see, as soon as the school year finished, Mom and Dad would have us packed up in the huge boat they called a car and we would move, lock, stock and barrel, up to the camp for the two months of the summer holidays.  We never returned to the city during the summer.  The City, in the summer, was a place where the less fortunate had to live.

marti-fish-bmp-2
Morgan’s first fish – age 3

Driving to the camp was always an undertaking.  There would often be five or six of us in one car at a time for two hours straight.  Once we were in, it was the lake or bust. Dad didn’t dare stop for anything.  He had already gassed-up the boat and if one of us had to pee, it would be at the side of the highway, no kidding.  That two-hour drive seemed to last forever, such was my eagerness to get there. Once we would pass Gravenhurst, we would be into The Rocks where the Canadian Shield would start to show its lumpy head.  The Rocks was the first milestone that proved we were making progress.  The Rocks we would say to each other and grin and point, then poke at each other in anticipation of all the fun the summer would surely hold for us.

The lake was the best place in the world to be in the summer and oh, how we pitied, for once, our neighbours, The MacNeils who only got to go on a short summer holiday somewhere closer to Walden.  One or two of the MacNeils would usually come to visit at the lake and stay for about a week.  Never the whole family though.

Once at the lake, life became a little simpler and a lot more basic.  We would shed our shoes and heavier clothing and run around for hours at a time in shorts, tee shirts or just bathing suits.  I can remember days filled with hours of swimming, canoeing, running back and forth to the trampoline, playing outdoor games and having the time of my life.  All of us became expert swimmers, canoeists,  fishers and water-skiers thanks to the black, soft water of Eight-mile Lake.  I was swimming by the time I was three.  I would spend hours in the water and became such a great underwater swimmer that people would often think I had drowned because I could hold my breath and swim underwater for so long.

The Camp had a built-in source of friends every summer.  Nine of the cabins would be rented out to various families who had usually made bookings for them in the winter months.  The campsites would also be filled up with people on vacation from the hotter, muggier climes of southern Ontario and of the northern United States. The odd time we would have customers from somewhere exotic like Europe.  We would make friends one summer and then see these same people and their families return for several summers to follow.  Together, my friends and I would explore the camp and surrounding area.  We would swim, trampoline, canoe or walk to town, go for a hike, go fishing, go bull-frog catching, play hide-and-go-seek and have amazing sing-songs around the camp fire and under the vast starry sky at night.  We were constantly on the go.  We had a lot of good times.  On rainy days we would play board games and spin-the-bottle above the work-shed that we called The Shop.  Dad didn’t like us to have friends into The Office where he was trying to conduct business.  (There were many fights about keeping The Office – our house where we ate and slept – professional and quiet.  It was very difficult to keep it so serene especially with the screen door always slamming on the way out.)

‘Slam it!’ Dad would sarcastically yell from his inevitably prone position on the couch, with the newspaper.  Conducting business was exhausting work.  Meanwhile, Mom had already probably cut three huge grassy cabin lots, cleaned and dug four grimy, foul outhouses and had nothing but an open-face sandwich, a cup of black coffee and a gingersnap for lunch.  A calorie deficit was often bragged about for some reason.

Saturdays were the worst days of the week at the camp.  Saturdays were turnover days.  All of our friends would be leaving and because we had so many chores on Saturday, we often didn’t even get a chance to say our good-byes.  From the crack of dawn, we would be tasked with cleaning the cottages, picking up the garbage, cutting the grass, painting and making repairs.  Of course, we had many of these same tasks on a daily basis but on Saturday we had a new element involved: time constraint.  We had to have it all done before the new customers would begin to arrive and would be expecting their cabin or site to be absolutely sublime.  When I was little, I would work closely with Amy, Eva or my mom on cabin cleaning.  I would marvel at how quickly and efficiently they could complete a task.  I would wish and wish that I was older and more capable, and I would try very hard to keep up with these experts but, I was a child and had the attention span of a child so I would find myself wishing I were swimming instead.  Mom knew my love of the water and so would give me a task that would take me down to the dock.  I would be given a large blackened kettle to scrub with sand or told to sweep off the dock!  A few years later though, I was in charge of cleaning some cabins on my own, or with Luke as my assistant.  Wanting to do the very best job, we drew up a list of the various tasks that would have to be completed in each cabin.  It went something like this:

Make the beds. Wipe the bedroom furniture down. Sweep out the bedrooms. Clean and sanitize the fridge.  Remove any left food and bait. Organize the cupboards. Blacken the wood stove and empty the ashes. Sweep down the cobwebs. Clean and sanitize the sink. Clean out the outhouse and drop ashes down the hole. Sweep and mop the floor. Sweep the porch. Sweep the dock. Tidy up the outdoor fire-hole.

Dad was very proud of this list that we drew up and he would show it to some of his friends and they would all have a chuckle over it – especially the sweep down the cobwebs line.  Even now, when I sometimes (actually very rarely due, sadly, to living a few provinces away) help Eva with the cleaning, I mentally run over this list as I lovingly go about the task of cleaning those rustic, very special but ancient cabins.

Minnie

Dad had a few nicknames that were given to him by the older boys: Cheapskate, Tightwad, Lard-ass, Oaf, Ogre, Moose and Minnie.  Moose and Minnie were the ones that stuck although, on occasion, when Job was mad about something, and he was often mad about something, he would refer to Dad as that cheap tightwad or that Lard-ass or something akin to that. Nicknames were big in our family.  From the second my Dad laid eyes on me he nicknamed me.  I had all this black hair and my skin was a little brownish in colour.  I was not cute.  I became known as Petite Laid, meaning little ugly and later this was shortened to just Titty.  I can still feel the humiliation, as a young girl, perhaps just starting to develop, Eva would holler across the aisles of Woolworth’s, Titty, come over and take a look at this.  Just the other day, when on the phone, long-distance with Eva, she slipped and called me Titty.  Oh my God, where did that come from? she asked.  We just had a chuckle over it.  Now, a few of decades later, I think it is a cute nickname.  Back then, we all had a nickname, except for Eva who only got one when she met her hubby who called her Tuda.  Amy was Doobie and Big Sweets.  Matt was Feebert and then Feb.  Mark started out as Goobie-Goo and then got Bert (except for the summer he was Manic and got ‘Skeletor’ due to not eating or sleeping).  Job got Bert as well.  I got Titty and then Ditch.  Luke got Bert then Bertrum Brothers then Buttox.  Mom was Big Bubbles.  She used to leave the kettle on until there were lots of big bubbles and Dad used to goad her about that calling it a waste of energy.

Flying Bacon

Raising a family of seven kids, on a teacher’s salary, means that frugality is necessary.  One day, at the lake, My brother Job 🧡 climbs out of bed and down the ladder from the loft.  He decides to cook up some breakfast before starting on his morning chores.  Noting that Dad is on the riding-mower out front, he decides to take some extra time and savour the peace of being alone in the office. He can just about taste the crispy bacon and eggs he will make.

Job pulls a pound of bacon out to the fridge, takes one look at the generic brand, and is so disgusted by how fatty it is that he flies out the screen door and whips the pound of bacon at Dad on the riding mower.  The pound of bacon hits Dad on the back of the head while Job yells, Minnie you’re such cheapskate!

Dad would try very hard to stick around The Office most of the day.  He liked to be there to collect the mail and to answer the phone and to sell a bit of ice and worms or gasoline to the customers.  Of course whoever paid in cash made him very happy.  Dad had a perpetual role of twentys in his pocket and would often get one of us, especially me, because I was honest, to count it for him.

Anyway, during the warm afternoons while the Northern Canadian sun danced on the large south-facing windows of the office, and the house flies buzzed angrily on the fly-catchers, Dad could invariably be found snoozing on the couch with his newspaper on his chest.  Dad had bought a couple of massive, partially rusted deep freezers second-hand and they lined the north-facing exterior walls of the office with ICE printed on front and each sporting a Yale pad lock.  Dad would tediously freeze huge blocks of ice in discarded fridge crisper bins.  He’d then put the bin up on its edge on the kitchen table and it would begin to thaw and drip on the kitchen floor and then finally, it would yawn and tumble out.  Dad would most often be there to stop the block from smashing on the floor.  Here we go kids, another couple of blocks of ice to sell.  Make sure to tell the customers that we sell ice down here at the office.

Dad would then, almost lovingly, wrap the blocks in old newspaper and sell them to the customers for a buck or two, as inflation dictated.  Dad seemed to enjoy the process of making and selling ice and could be seen smiling dreamily as he slid the beef-laden freezer baskets out of the way and lay another completed block in its bed in the bottom of the massive freezer.

One afternoon, while Dad was snoozing on his back on the couch, a slim, curly dark-haired, handsome seventeen-year-old Mark decided to have a steak dinner.  At that point in time, Mark was on the outs with Dad and was staying in one of the unrented, less popular cabins.  Mark or Job and even Matt were often on the outs with Dad.  Usually it was over a lack of respect.  Personally, I don’t think there was much respect flowing in either direction in these relationships.  Mark sauntered up the office screen door, to verify what he suspected would be the scene at that point in the afternoon.  He then whipped out a screwdriver and proceeded to work the screws out of the latches on one of the freezers.  He was successful.  He opened the freezer.  Squeak, the old hinges complained loudly.  Oh Shit!  Sure enough, Dad had heard his freezer door opening when it had been locked.  He was up and he was mad and he was coming out of the screen door.  Mark had already snatched a couple of steaks and was running through the trailer park up into the camp and yelling, I got some!  I got some!  Dad never saw those steaks again.  Dad didn’t like to run and especially didn’t like to make a scene in front of the trailer park.

The Pattersons

The trailer park was located beside the office on the way up to the rest of the cabins and other wooded camping sites.  There was one older couple who used to always take the first site and were, therefore, closest to the office.  The Pattersons were excellent fishers and liked to be close to the office dock where their boat and motor was tied.  Every time we would have an argument or a kafuffle in the office, which was usually a couple of times a day, Dad would say: Keep it down, The Pattersons will hear.  One of these fights got pretty bad one day.  Fights were about money, nick-names, laziness, poor grammar and lack of respect.  This time the fight involved Mark and got extra bad and very loud.  Lots of harsh words were screamed in each direction and, of course, Dad said: Shut up! The Pattersons will hear.  At that point Mark flew out the front screen door, slammed it loudly, jumped off the porch, ran down past the shop and right past The Patterson’s tent-trailer and screamed, at the top of his lungs,

FUCK THE PATTERSONS!

A few years later Mr. Patterson died of a heart attack while seated in his lawn chair.  He had been looking out at the lake.  His ashes were scattered over his favourite fishing hole.

Make Work Your Favorite (1971 – 1986)

‘Make work your favorite, that’s your new favorite, okay? Work is your new favorite.’
~Elf, The Movie

I bet I was the only ten-year-old kid who knew that the address of The Toronto Star was 1 Yonge Street, Toronto.  I knew this piece of completely useless information because at the tender age of five years old, I had a paper route – The Toronto Star.  I exaggerate slightly.  The route was actually my older brother’s but, I had been given the responsibility of delivering a single paper to one out-of-the-way customer:  Mrs. Wilson– about ten doors north of our house.  I got paid a hefty 5 cents per week for this.  It was much to my embarrassment though, when the phone would ring while all nine of us were ensconced at the supper table and Mom would look at me and say, Martha, did you deliver your paper?  Invariably I had forgotten.  I would have been too busy at play to think of it.  I had to then drop my fork and run off with Mrs. Wilson’s paper.  As the years went by I was given more and more of the route to deliver and customers to collect from and one day I found that the whole route was mine – handed down from Matt to Mark to Job and finally, to me.

The Saturday Star was so heavy that, in order for me to be able to deliver all the papers from one load, I had to lug the bag to the top of our front, concrete stoop.  I would sit on the third step and back into the head-sling of the loaded paper bag and then, leaning way over until my nose was almost touching the ground, I would stagger forward and allow the full weight of the bag to sit on my back. Not a parent-figure in site to worry about me injuring my neck.  I often wondered how badly off I would be if I were to just fall the wrong way?  Or, if I were to stumble, out-of-control onto the street, would the car that hit me be damaged by the sack of papers on my back or would I just simply be crushed beneath them?

Most of my paper route, thankfully, was in an eight-story apartment building, just down the hill from us that we imaginatively called, ‘The Apartments’.   When I was still quite little, I wasn’t able to reach the buttons for the seventh and eighth floors on the elevator’s button panel.  Alas, I had the ultimate solution.  I would lumber into the elevator and somehow drop my paper bag off my head, without wrenching my wee neck, and stand on the full paper bag in order to reach the button for the top floor.  I would then deliver the papers on the descending floors, using the heavy bag to hold the elevator door open as I progressed.  When the bag was no longer heavy enough to hold the elevator door open, I would carry the bag, deliver the papers and then take the flight of stairs down to the next floor. The whole process was quite an art.

My career as an earner started then.  I was a papergirl until I was 15.  I started to baby-sit at the age of 12.  I worked as a bus-girl at The Crock & Block Restaurant at the age of 15 while living with my sister Eva.  I then had various serving jobs: Lafayette, O’Toole’s, Silky’s, and July’s Restaurant for five summers until joining the army at 19. Dad did not believe in giving us an allowance.  We had to earn everything we ever got.

It was at Fancy’s in Barrie that I experienced working for the most dysfunctional couple of crazy people I have ever encountered.  I hated working there because of it and dreaded each shift.  Tom, the chief cook and owner would SCREAM at his wife, Darlene all the live long day:  BUTTER RIGHT TO THE EDGE OF THE BREAD FOR FUCK SAKES! RIGHT TO THE FUCKIN’ EDGE!!! AND GET IT OUT HOT!!! YOU BLOODY STUPID BITCH.  Oh Lord did I detest that place.  The tension should have been on the menu because it was the most abundant item they produced. I just now googled the place.  It is still open.  Unbelievable.  The food was good fairly good though, unfortunately.

Why work there?  I was in grade 12 and needed a job.  My sister Amy had helped me get the job through a friend of a friend and I was ever so grateful.  Amy always had so many connections made through her work as a hairstylist. By this time, Mom was living in a tiny apartment with her alcoholic boyfriend and working as a server for minimum wage at cafeteria-style restaurant in Woolworth downtown.  I would go visit her and she would look so tired.  So worn out.  Oh god.  It would break my heart. This was her reality after raising seven children and keeping a wonderful home for us for 26 years.  She did not come out of the divorce nor the annulment well. I could not ask her for a penny.  She worked so hard and made so little.

At that time, my younger brother and I had a bedroom each in the basement of our bungalow and Dad was upstairs. I had been getting a couple of shifts per week at O’Toole’s Roadhouse Restaurant, but, it went bankrupt and it wasn’t long before I was without money.  One particular day, having spent my savings, I had to ask Dad for money for necessities: menstrual pads.

He turned my down.  He would not give me five bucks for pads.  I was seething.  I hated him.

I was forced to use cotton t-shirts cut into rags.  Nice.  God I hated him.  It was incredible how much I hated him.  I feel that hatred even now, decades later.  And not giving me money, when he had plenty of money, for necessities, was just one of his many faults.  The others were worse. Like when he would come barging into my room, even though my door was closed, and catch me half-dressed or naked but with the old sorry, sorry.  I didn’t know you were dressing.  Or he would forcibly hold me down and lick my face with his very wet, gross, warm tongue – his bad breath washing over me as I would struggle — I just want to give my daughter a little kiss.  Or, he would comment on my developing body you’re getting rather hippy, Martha, you better watch it, you don’t want to get fat.  Or, he would routinely reach out and touch my bum as I would be walking past him and then exclaim yippee in a falsetto voice.  Then there were the many times his robe would mysteriously open and there would be hairy, wrinkled member for all to see.  Oh god.  I would be mortified when he would inevitably do this with teen-aged Kelly and Sally visiting.  Show us his penis, by accident, of course, and then giggle about it as he would sneak away back to his fart-stinking room.

With all that I have read, learned and experienced in life regarding body image (see The Body Positive 🙃) and now as a parent, here is one truism: never comment on a child’s body except to say how lucky we are to have one that does so much for us.  Our body is truly a marvel which should be loved, respected, adorned, nourished, cleaned, clothed and loved some more.

So, my relationship with Dad was love / hate for sure.  At times I would love him for his silliness and his zest for life and enthusiasm about certain topics: sport, recreation, small business, celebration.  Dad loved to laugh.  He would often have us all in stitches at the supper table, recounting his Skollard Hall days in a falsetto voice.  He liked that falsetto voice.  I do truly think he was doing his best to father us the best way he could, considering the factors at play in his upbringing and his generation and with the added factor of the Catholic guilt monitoring all that he did.  Another factor in the break down of his marriage was mental illness.

Mom had been a classic Bipolar 1 (Definition: A person with bipolar 1 will experience a full manic episode usually leading to psychosis).  When she was pregnant or nursing, which was a lot of the time until she was 42 and weened Luke, she did not have symptoms of mental illness.  But, then it hit and it hit hard.  She was hospitalized with full on psychosis several times in the seventies.  I remember waking up around age six and walking around looking for mom.  No one would tell me that she had been taken to the hospital: 5C – the psyche ward. (Who would know then that in thirty years time, I would have my first big struggle with mental illness: Locked Up in D.C. 🔐 )   She was there for weeks.  We would go visit her and it was like she was a different person.  She was in a fog.  It was heart wrenching.  I missed her so badly. I just wanted my mommy back.  I would cry myself to sleep missing her so much. She would sometimes be smoking when we visited.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  (Back then you could smoke in parts of the hospital.)

In the summer, at the lake, Mom would become more and more manic.  Her manic energy was put to good use with cleaning and maintaining the ten cabins of The Camp ⛺️that we moved to every summer.  Lock, stock and barrel, all nine of us would move two hours North to the camp and live on the lake all summer – running the tourist resort – as it used to be known.  It was truly beautiful there: 21 forested acres, half-mile of lake frontage, only 2 miles from a village for supplies, ten antique, rustic cabins on private lots with tall trees, most cabins on the water with their own dock and a sandy beach.

Jaden and frog

For many years we even had a diving tower and trampoline over the water.  Dad’s idea.  Dad being a teacher, had envisioned the need for a business and an escape from the city. (We would have killed each other staying in the city all summer.  No doubt about it.) It was pure genius and is one of those things I loved about my Dad.  He had these great ideas at times.  We enjoyed idyllic summers – running around barefoot, swimming, boating, water-skiing, canoeing and socializing with all the campers.  Yes, we had work and chores, but, we were paid for them as a business expense and it was just a couple of hours a day.  Our summers at the camp were the envy of my friends.  In fact, many of my friends would come to the camp, either to stay with us in the office or as paying guests and stay in a cabin or tent.

Marti-fish.bmp (2)
Martha’s first fish, age 3.

 

I remember waking up early to find mom’s twin bed empty.  She would already be out there working.  Dad was much more sedentary.  He would do all of the business-end of things: letters, bills, payments, promotions.  All this to say, that mom’s mental illness was raging on, unchecked for several years.  From reading I have done, because I too am bipolar 1 (Crazy Train 🚂 (part 1)…All ABOARDCrazy Train 🚂 (part 2) ) the more episodes there are the more easily an episode will occur.  The brain makes these pathways that become easier and easier to follow and so sanity slips further and further away.  So, to be fair, it could not have been easy dealing with this major impediment.  When Mom finally went on lithium, and stayed on lithium, things were so much better.  She was stable.  Stable is good.

***

I wasn’t the first in my family to work at July’s Restaurant up at the Lake.  My older sister Eva had worked there a decade prior to me.  Eva would sometime recount one of her most embarrassing moments while working there.  This man would come into the restaurant almost daily.  He would take a seat beside the coffee maker in the kitchen in the mid-afternoon when it wasn’t too busy.  He would just sit and chat up the kitchen staff and the servers as they would come and go from the kitchen.  So, Eva walks into the kitchen this one day and slaps Buddy on the back and asks him how the heck he is doing today.  That would have been all fine except that when she slapped him on the back his toupee went flying off his head and landed a few feet away on the kitchen floor.

Silence.

You could have heard a mosquito outside the window.  After a split second hesitation and with a very red face, Eva quickly grabbed the toupee off the floor.  Put it back on Buddy’s head.  Smoothed it out.  Told him: ‘You have very nice hair.’ Then, turned on her heel into the dining room.