Sitting poolside in south west Mexico dreaming of buying a wee little apartment. Just a two bedroom in a nice spot. We could leave our house to our grown son or let it out for six months of the year. What a tidy little life we would have now that we are both retired, hubby and I. We would go to the beach every morning to do a bit of yoga. Swim. Eat tons of guacamole and ceviche. The odd margarita. Mmmmm. A tidy, little life.
Ah, but there’s a wrinkle in said plan.
If I’m not absolutely careful with medications, (yes, plural) sleep, sun, frivolity, bloodwork and following up with both medical and psychiatric doctors as well as talk therapy with a social worker. If I’m not on top of this thing, I could easily be poolside talking to an invisible Virgin Mary. You see, mental illness is not tidy. Nor is it little. But, it is life.
I am blessed in many ways and some have told me that I ‘have it all’. If by that you mean waking up out of a dead sleep in the grips of a panic attack with lifelike apparitions about, then, yes. I do have it all. Or being amped up such that sleep is just impossible. Then yes. I do. You see, the amped up aspect means hypo-mania. Hypo-mania is dangerous as it makes me lose my sense of judgment. I also just get downright pushy and annoying.
Let’s touch on another true danger. Suicidal thoughts and plans can occupy my racing mind when hypo-mania settles into my tidy little life. In order to combat the situation I second and third guess everything I do and say. I will often get quiet and sensitive and will overthink even the tiniest of decisions. Should I have a coffee or not. Maybe I should never have coffee again. Ok. Maybe I’ll only have coffee every other day but only if it’s sunny and definitely only if it’s before noon and only if a squirrel is peering at me while she quickly cheeks another nut. And on and on it goes. Yes, shades of Rainman.
From hypo to full on mania is just a step away. Maybe a few sleepless, lonely, frustrating and scary nights. With full on mania I talk to and touch everyone. I call folks at 3 in the morning repeatedly. When talking to complete strangers in the street or in a shop I take hold of their hand and tell them about their life and what to do with it.
The next step after mania is psychosis. Straight-jacket thrown into a rubber room psychosis. Injected with an embarrassing amount of sedative that usually needs repeating to be at all effective. I’ve been psychotic twice. I was unrecognizable even to myself. I escaped the locked psych ward of our area hospital and with a johnny coat flapping, knee socks and Birkenstocks I was running home. It was February. It was dark and minus 20 Celsius but, see, no judgement. Two old ladies encouraged me to get into their warm car then they called 911. I have no idea who they were but they likely saved my life that night.
Folks, if you know someone with mental illness and they are behaving unlike their usual selves, tell someone who loves them or call the cops and ask for a wellness check on them.
When psychosis is in full swing it is in no way tidy. It is in no way little but, it is in every way life.
I have had another episode. Geez, I did not see this one coming. It started innocently enough with me needing to take an antibiotic for two weeks due to a stomach bug I had. Well, the stomach bug has gone and that is good but, the antibiotic left some detritus in its wake and for three weeks I have been reeling from the flotsam and jetsam of it. I have been stable and solid for five years. One gets used to not having an episode. So, when one arrives starting with a lovely little piece of hypo-mania, well it is hard to detect.
The first thing that happened was my appetite completely changed. I had almost no appetite for several days. I was putting that to the antibiotic. Then, my garden became a perfect place of unbelievable beauty. I was noticing so much. It was so pretty. The muted colours were brilliant. The brilliant colours were just bursting. The bees were little miracles. I couldn’t get enough. Didn’t want the day to end out there.
Then the numbers started: Leo was 22, I was 33 when he was born, I am 55, I was born in 66, Dean and I met in 88, Leo was born in 99. These numbers would roll through my brain over and over again. I checked the time and it was 4:44. Randomly, later I checked the time and it was 5:55. This just HAD to mean something.
After a couple days like this I told my hubby that something was coming down the pike. I didn’t really believe it. Nor did he. Five years of wellness. How could this be? It was a Wednesday and I told him that he better get his office stuff and work from home for Thursday and Friday. I was going to need supervision. Adult supervision.
That night, middle of the night, I awoke. My insides were roiling. My head was spinning. Into the blackness of our room I called out to my husband Dean. A blessed heavy-sleeper. ‘Dean. Oh no. No! No! No! Something is happening. Dean!!!’
I sat up. I could not feel my lower body. It was numb. I couldn’t leave the bed.
Now I was wailing at the top of my lungs. Dean was clutching me and smoothing my back. Cooing “It’s okay, it’s okay!”
“There is so much pain in the world, I said. So much pain in my family. So many people are so hurt. So many of my friends have such a hard life. I can’t take it, Dean. I can’t take it. My heart.” I wailed.
M, I am going to get the phone and get Leo in here (our 22 year old son).
Leo came to our bedroom door in his housecoat and sized up the situation. He had been fast asleep. He quickly saw that I was in complete distress. This was not pretend pain. This pain I was speaking of was real for me.
My hands clutched my chest. I was rocking and wailing, “No! No! No!” I asked him to help me.
“How can I help you Mom? What can I do?” he asked, his eyebrows stitched together in concern.
“Just sit here with me. Give me your arm to hold,” I said with desperation in my voice. “Talk to me.”
Now I was gripping his strong arm thru his fleece robe. It was helping. But I was still feeling the pain of the people I love.
“My heart is broken and it is going to open wide. This is going to be bad, Leo,” I stated.
Leo answered with calm, strong words. “Mom, you are having an episode. You have a chemical imbalance in your brain which is causing you to feel like this right now. Dad and I are here to help you. Try to let it dissipate.” He was so grown up now. So manly and mature. I loved him hugely for these words and everything else about him. This is my child. I am blessed.
Dean was running around trying to find the number for emergency mental health. Throwing items in a bag so we could get out the door to the emergency department of our area hospital.
Leo continued to tell me I was okay. But then it happened. A large hand, within a back glove and with pointy finger tips placed itself between my shoulder blades of my back. Words were whispered into my ear,
“Go into the bathroom,” it ordered. “Lock the door and take all the Tylenol. Go now!”
When Dean came back into the room, I told him about the words that had been in my head, somehow not my own words. His face showed his fear. Leo told me not to listen to that voice. He said I should try my best to connect with him now and ground myself. Those things were being filtered through my mental illness. “They need to be ignored,” he said. (Meanwhile Dean ran and hid the Tylenol bottle).
Then I saw the entity in the dim part of my bedroom. He was standing there in a trench coat and a hat. Collar up, hat pulled down low. It was the calm spirit of my father. He was pleased that I had figured out the riddle. I had been sexually abused because he had been sexually abused. I had figured this out because of the press about private schools which he had attended. All boys’ schools could be (not always, but often) horribly dysfunctional and abusive places. Not only that, but he had died with CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy- due to the incredible number of head trauma that he had received through sport – hockey and football. The CTE had caused his rage-a-holism. Riddle solved. Understanding him would allow for compassion. “Find the compassion,” he said.
By this time, I was ready and willing to go to the hospital because, thanks to Dean and Leo I was aware of the danger of my situation. It is a fact that suicide happens to a lot of folks with mental illness.
At emerg, a friend of mine, who is also an ER Doc, told me that suicide ideation is on the laundry list of items that happen to some folks during a panic attack. Who would have thought? He set me up with a psychiatrist for the next day and she was awesome. I feel like I am in very good hands. No black gloves. No pointy fingers.
In 1993 we spent a year in a Northern Community. We had many good and enriching times but, there were at least three tragedies while we were there…
In early July 1993 we rolled into Arctic Red 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 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 his mane 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 intensely in perfect formation in Nijmegen, Holland 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 mutual 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, producing, just the one gaffer, Leo.) 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, compact, 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 up here 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.
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 dusty, blue pick-up roared 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 MacKenzie River Delta where he was born.
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.
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, Fort MacPherson, 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 ‘MacPhoo’s’ 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.
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?’
‘Gordy’s dead’, said a voice.
Holy shit. ‘Dean!’ I screamed, ‘Get up! Gordy’s dead.’
We spent the next several hours sorting out Gordy’s body at his house. The RCMP came from MacPhoo 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 Gordy’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 Gordy’s body odour 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 corpse Gordy). The funny thing about the entrepreneurial coffin guy was that he was an ER nurse.
When we finally left Arctic Red 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 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 there 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.
‘I’m your friend…and as your friend I gotta be honest with you. I don’t care about you or your problems.’
~Chloe the Cat The Secret Life of Pets
We adopted a tabby kitten from a friend in Polar River, NWT. She was a tiny cat, but she was mighty. We named her Sahtu after the region by that name in the Arctic, but, perhaps we should have called her SAW-TOOTH, as one of my nephews would call her.
We were living in Inuvik then and in the midnight sun of the summer, insects grow freakishly large. Sahtu learned to hunt by catching the massive dragonflies in mid-flight. She would jump up and grab them in her two front paws. Then… she would eat them, turning her sweet head to one side and crunch as she used her chewing teeth to devour her catch.
The first night she was with us, she slept on the fridge. She was tiny and she had never seen two big dogs before. Within a matter of days, however, she was completely in charge of the dogs. We had an old couch that the three of them would share. Sahtu would put her two dainty paws on Delta
or on Grizzly and she would knead their abdomens. She would sometimes receive a nice big lick but never a growl. The odd time, not wanting her attentions, Delta or Grizz would quietly get up and vacate the couch to her. The dogs just loved her. They were ten times bigger, and could kill her with one powerful shake, or one absent minded bite, but they were mush in her green-eyed gaze.
We moved to Toronto after that, all five of us, and had this great three-story brick house at Birchmount and The Danforth. I am fond of saying that we were in the North Beaches, but those who know Toronto, know we were actually in Scarborough. There was a large, leafy shotgun fenced-in yard that the dogs would run the length of to chase their nemeses: SQUIRRELS, barking all the way. Never, of course, catching them. They should have recruited tiny Sahtu. She could catch anything. When Dean was studying and inevitably scrunching waste paper into balls, Sahtu would come a-running, the first time was out of curiosity at this new sound, the scrunching sound. Then Dean tossed the ball of paper high into the air and Sahtu executed a four foot high jump and twist to catch that ball of paper. After that, it became a game to her and a marvel to see. She had one lithe, muscular little body.
We had a little window over the kitchen sink that we would leave open for her to come and go. She was a happy little cat. We would put a bowl of food in a cupboard and we quickly taught her how to open the cupboard door. In she would go to eat in peace. Her food remained safe from the dogs.
The next year we moved to Virginia. Sahtu would come walking and hiking with us sometimes. My friend Nancy and her girls found it quite remarkable. We would be hiking through the woods and Sahtu would be following behind. We had a little bell on her which helped us keep track of her. Her cool feline presence added to the experience of hiking in the woods.
This one time, after we moved back from Virginia, to Milton, Ontario, we were living in an apartment out on highway 25 in the countryside. Going away for a few days, with our little guy, Leo and the two dogs, we decided to leave Sahtu with the affable young guy who lived in the apartment beneath us. We told him that if he left the low door window open, Sahtu could come and go and to simply keep her food and water full. After our weekend away, we returned to find what looked like blood and guts everywhere in the large front entryway and on the walls up to about four feet high. We found Buddy and asked what had happened, fearing the worst.
Eyes bulging out of his head to emphasis his words, he goes, ‘Man, that cat of yours is some kind of maniac hunter.’
‘What do ya mean? Little Sahtu?’ we asked, in harmony.
Still with the overly wide eyes, Buddy says, ‘Well, she may be tiny but she’s a force to be reckoned with! She caught a rabbit, bigger than her, and she jumped through the door window with it in her jaws! When I came out here it was half dead jumping around trying to escape her and it was bleeding EVERYWHERE. I had to get my hockey stick to kill it and put it out of it’s misery’. I am quite certain that Buddy had no idea what he was getting into upon agreeing to ‘watch’ Sahtu.
Another time, after we moved into our new house, we needed to have some electrical work done. My eldest brother Matt came over to do the work. Downstairs we had this huge basement which had a workroom at one end, which was unfinished with an open ceiling and a utility room at the other end, which also was unfinished with an open ceiling. From time to time, we would notice little Sahtu going up into the space between the ceiling and the main floor. She would often start in one end and come out the other, having done her rounds, looking at us as if to say, ‘Okay, my duty is done. Everyone can rest easy now.’
So, when Matt was having trouble telling a complex funny story while also pulling wire from the workroom to the utility room, he was getting frustrated because the wire just wouldn’t go through. His story came to a halt. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe Sahtu can pull the wire.’ So Dean ran to get her little metal bowl full of kibble and added a bit of fresh and fragrant roast beef. I tied a light-weight piece of cord onto her collar. We then put her up to the opening in the workroom ceiling and…in she went. Quickly, quickly, Dean, Matt and I then clambered through the rec room to the other open-ceiling room where we shook her food bowl, making the distinct sound that she knew and loved — we often shook her food bowl to entice her to come inside the house. Within a couple of moments guess who’s green eyes we could see coming? Little Sahtu. Matt was very impressed and for a few moments we tossed around the idea of putting little Sahtu on the payroll and hiring her out to pull wire at other jobs.
Another testament to her hunting prowess was the time our old Army friend, Nee asked if we could bring her along to his cottage in Haliburton because it had become infested with mice. ‘Absolutely!’ We arrived at the cottage, in tandem with Nee and Pauline. Just as Nee was unlocking the cottage door, I said, ‘Let’s put Little Sahtu inside first and see what happens.’
‘Really?’ Nee asked, skeptical. ‘Okay.’
We opened the door a crack and put Little Sahtu inside.
A split second later she came out with a wriggling mouse in her jaws and..she ATE it, head first. All but the tail and the gizzard. Such a delicate little thing. Pauline stood frozen with dainty fist pressed to her mouth, horrified.
All night long she battled the infestation in that cottage. There were minor crashes and thumps and bumps as she became the scourge of the Haliburton mice.
A few years later, we sadly lost our Little Sahtu. We aren’t absolutely sure, and we never found her body or any other evidence, but there was a massive bald eagle scoping her out as she herself hunted in a field.
A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.
Forest E. Witcraft
Mr. Laset was the quintessential good coach: kind, unselfish, knowledgeable and competitive when necessary. He coached me throughout elementary school for cross country running, gymnastics, volleyball, basketball and track. We had practices after school every day of the week. He was consistently present and consistently good to me. Over the decades I have thought of Mr. Laset many times and, every time it has been with fond memories. Kelly would say, ‘Marn, give him a call and tell him thank you.’ I didn’t really think he would remember me.
But, I searched for him and found a phone number and gave him a call…forty years later from three provinces away. I said, ‘this is Martha I am trying to find Lee Laset.’ His response:
‘How is my best point guard doing today?’
See, he said exactly the right thing! We had a wonderful chat on the phone. His memory is fabulous and we laughed about the old days of the 70s. I thanked him again and again for all of the time and encouragement he gave me way back then.
Now my story about the Huronia Games…
When I was 10 years old, I was on the gymnastics team for St. Mary’s School. We would practise everyday after school and all day on Saturday during the gymnastics season. Mr. Laset prepared routines for the floor, finding music to suit the routine and then we would memorize and practice until we knew it cold. The routine for the balance beam and vault didn’t have music but all three apparatus had mandatory moves and lengths of routine.
There was a big meet coming downtown Barrie at Central High School. The day of the meet arrived. I caught a ride downtown with my teammate, Cassie, and her Mom. There were a lot of people there. Hundreds. The place was crawling with parents and gymnasts and coaches. Moms were fussing over their daughters’ hair. Dads were looking at schedules with their sons, a large arm encircling their small shoulders. My little hand reached to check my simple pony tail. It would have to do.
Gymnasts were warming up. When I stepped on the huge technical floor mat I was immediately impressed with its give. It seemed like I could bounce higher, split better, balance longer. I was in love with that mat. I watched some of the more talented gymnasts who belonged to clubs and wished I could one day be like them.
It came time for me to do my balance beam routine. I nailed the mount which required a lot of upper body strength, something I naturally had. I bounced off of the small spring board, placing both hands on the beam and then, with hips high, brought both feet into a wide straddle on either side of my body, but not touching the beam. I balanced that way for a few seconds and then placed my feet on the beam. From the wide straddle I made my way into the splits, held it with arms raised, fingers poised, then swung my back leg forward into a pike fold, then into the required back roll. From there, I gracefully transitioned into standing and went through the rest of my routine, conducting the required moves: standing balance with one foot held in my hand above my head; 360 degree spin and front roll and with various dance and rhythmic arm moves, made my way to the culminating move: the dismount. Mine was a front pike hand spring off the end of the beam. I did it and I stuck it. Arms up, arched back, chin high, head back. My teammates clapped and there were a couple of smiling, pretty moms I didn’t know who made me feel special. I walked off to find Mr. Laset who was working with some of my other teammates. Mr. Laset was spread thin watching over all of us.
Next up was the vault. Our score was the best out of three moves. I did a pike head-stand over, hand-stand over and high straddle over. I stuck all three pretty well and felt good about it. Mr. Laset patted me on the back and told me I had done well. So far so good.
After eating my brown-bag lunch, I checked the schedule and saw that it was almost time for me to do my floor routine. Again, I went to the mat for a warm-up and, again, I was impressed by the springy-ness of it. My music came on as I took my place on the mat. I
knew this routine cold so it was no problem to do it to the very best of my ability. The one toughest move was a hand-stand which was to be held for a few seconds and then a quarter turn down into the splits. I had practiced this move umpteen times in our basement rec-room. My friend Laura and I would put on music and dance and do gymnastics: cartwheels, hand springs, handstands, splits, rolls and often we would do this in the dark. Lucky we didn’t kick each other in the head.
Anyway, in my routine, I was wondering if I was ever going to be able to hold the handstand for five seconds. Guess what. I DID IT! Oh my, was I happy and very proud. After the splits, I turned forward and ended my routine with my elbows on the mat, my legs in a wide straddle, my dark, curly pony tailed head in my hands and a big smile on my face.
I would like to say the crowds went wild, but, no. There were very few spectators for me.
A little while later, we were rounded up and told that the closing ceremonies would be held and that we should quietly sit in our team. I sat down beside Cassie. She had had a good day and had completed all of her tough moves. She put her arm around me and told me that she had heard that I did REALLY well. I looked at her with a question on my face. How did she know that? She had been on the other side of the gym all day. She told me that her mom had seen my points. She said: ‘Martha, you’re in the medals’.
“WHAT???! What does THAT mean?’ I asked her frantically. ‘What do I need to do?’
‘You just need to go up there when they call your name’. Cassie said calmly. She was ultra experienced at this.
A couple of minutes later, I was called to the podium and a SILVER medal was placed around my neck. Holy cow!! I felt like a million bucks. Holy cow!! Mr. Laset patted my back and told me he was very proud of me. I had not expected this at all. I was shocked!
The meet was finished and it was time to go home with my silver medal. I imagined my family picking me up and hugging me wildly upon seeing it hanging around my neck. I imagined a celebratory supper of my favourite foods and my favourite dessert.
What actually happened was rather underwhelming and, as I write this now as a Mom, I feel quite sad for my ten-year old self who was somewhat neglected as a girl, at times. Nevertheless, I got out of the car and skipped up the driveway. Jumped up the front steps and bounced into the front door, my heavy silver medal swinging on my small chest, my curly pony tail flicking happily.
No one noticed my big smile or my big medal.
Mom and Dad were arguing in their room with the door closed and my three brothers were off in all corners of the house likely avoiding the fight. My three eldest siblings would have moved out by then.
No one asked about my big day. No one picked me up and hugged me wildly to celebrate my success. There was no celebration meal and no fun dessert. I had this great big family, but no one was there for me that day. No one watched me compete. No one watched me receive the silver medal. I was left wondering if it mattered. Did I matter? ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’
One thing for sure is that this circle of neglect is broken. My husband Dean and I have one son, Leo. We have watched all of his sporting events and Dean has coached many of his soccer teams.
My parents were very likely doing the best they could with what they had in their tank. I am ever thankful for people in my life who were there for me when my parents couldn’t be. One such person was Mr. Laset. Speaking to him earlier today after forty years, made my year. The gift of his calm, smooth voice knowing and remembering me and chit chatting about our sports days in the mid-70s will be cherished. When he said, ‘How is my best point guard doing?’ Those words were golden. He was important in the life of a child. That child was me.
After Paddy’s had the fire and I was instantly out of a full-time job, I painted most of the rooms in our house and felt the freedom of deciding what to do with my days. Every day, after walking my son, Leo, to school, the day would stretch out with all kinds of possibility.
It wasn’t long before Dean and I were kicking around the idea of starting up our own business. We had noticed the need for a driving school in town, and one thing led to another, and before long we were up and running. This was ironic due to me having been a Transportation Logistics Officer in the Army. I had taken courses in military driving, off-roading, convoying, forward delivery points in the field and had even helped set up a heavy trucking school in Germany, teaching the Service Battalion soldiers how to drive the HLVW , (Heavy Logistics Vehicle Wheeled). These bad boys, as seen below (creds to the guy who signed the pic).
I also had all the office-related knowledge: payroll, payables / receivables, customer service and the like. Dean would be an instructor: he loved to drive and he was both laid-back and had great reflexes.
Just prior to opening doors of our new driving school in June of 2006, while awaiting a few details to solidify, we realized we still had two flights to anywhere in Canada due to cancelled trips of earlier that year. Dean and I brainstormed over where to go and we finally settled on Calgary with the idea that I would take Leo to The Bad Lands and to see the Dinosaur museum. I had my old and dear friend, Layla out there and could possibly stay with her for a few days in High River.
Off we flew and rented a car at the Calgary Airport, driving to High River and seeing Layla was amazing. It had been decades. We smiled and hugged, and I said, ‘we look the same, just weathered.’ Now, she was married with three boys. Leo, who was close to seven, was so excited about three instant new buddies. We walked to meet them after school and Leo was instantly enjoying his new mates as Layla and I got re-acquainted.
I began to notice that Layla was a bit distant. She didn’t meet my eyes fully. She didn’t have all of her normal energy. She was tired and she was keeping me somewhat at arm’s length. We went up in her sons’ tree house and saw a robin staring us down from her house’s rooftop. We put words in its mouth and then laughed and laughed because we had both been thinking the same thing: ‘Get the fuck out!’ That’s what it was saying to us. ‘Get the fuck out!’ There she was. Her old self had surfaced briefly.
Later that evening I had the pleasure of meeting her husband. I immediately sensed that this guy was off. It was all about him. She was in a bad marriage and it was all about him. I felt bad. (Thankfully, it ended a few years later and now she is rid of him. They had met in a religious cult which Layla was in for a few years, because of him).
The next day, Leo and I hit the road out to the Bad Lands and finally getting there, were astounded at the beauty of them. The striations of colour in the sand-stone were incredibly artistic. We took a walk.
Later we went to the Royal Tyrell Museum which was literally out of this world. We couldn’t do it justice though as Leo was feeling a bit sick from being in the car. In the town of Drumheller, Leo climbed up the inside of the steel T-Rex and he was giggling to the whole way.
Later we went to a pool which was the nicest and biggest and funnest pool we had ever been to. There was a huge foam floating climbing structure to jump off and ropes to swing from and slides to go down. This must be Alberta, I thought. At the time, it was very wealthy compared to Nova Scotia.
That night we stayed in a hotel with a Jacuzzi in our room (the clerk, seeing Leo, gave us a free upgrade – he was the cutest!). We put bathing suits on, got in the tub with the new movie ‘ELF’ on the big screen tv. We giggled and giggled and this is a fond memory for me because Leo had been feeling some nausea. He was better and that was a good thing. I loved to hear him laugh.
The next day we were back at Layla’s, staying in a house of an absent in-law of hers and I made a simple supper for them all to come and enjoy. I looked out the window to see all four boys on one bike. Leo was having the time of his life!
We went for a hike in the mountains and had a picnic lunch. The mountains were spectacular! The gray jays were everywhere. We visited a friend of Layla’s with a trampoline and once again, Leo was out there and all the children were laughing and having fun on the trampoline while Layla, Beth and I visited and had coffee. Later Layla made us pate chinois and it was delicious (earlier, I had reminded her that it was my favourite childhood meal that mom would make. I would get home, famished from gymnastics or basketball practise and sit down to Pate. Scrumptious!)
We then played foosball and watched a doc. Foosball was a scream, because I was screaming and because I was screaming, so was Layla who also kept looking at me to see if I was for real. Yep. I get into it a bit much.
The next day, we walked down by the river and all through the little downtown. We had lunch at a wonderful diner.
Layla told me she had received a call that her Gramma was on her deathbed in North Bay. Layla would accompany us to Toronto where she would rent a car and head north. Sitting on the flight, during the safety briefing, Layla made a face in response to a curt instruction from the flight attendant. Oh my god, I nearly peed. She can make me laugh like that and it is just so stupid and funny that there is no rhyme or reason to it. Layla wasn’t able to rent a car because it was her husband’s credit card (and he wouldn’t allow it). She took a bus and made it to her Gramma who died just after seeing Layla. She had made it to say good-bye.
Upon returning to Nova Scotia, we began the driving school and it is still running today, twelve years later. It has been great undertaking with three or four employees whom we generally have a great time with. Driving instructors tend to be folks retired from other professions. We have had a retired school principal, a retired teacher, a retired scientist, an ex-airline worker and a retired engineer. They have taught me a lot over the years and I appreciate them immensely.
I also truly appreciate my old childhood friends. They are the ones who know you. Where you came from. How you were raised. What you are made of. Your values. A genuinely good friend is one you can just pick up with from where you left off. Even decades later. I have several of these people in my life and I appreciate them with all my heart.
My brother Jobe who was number five in the family line-up was a pure handful from the moment he was born. He was a cuter-than-cute red-headed, freckled-face boy who even as a baby was making headlines around the bridge table as Mom would tell the other mothers how Job had climbed out of his crib already. This was before he could walk. It began there.
A couple of years later, when all was quiet and perhaps Mom was baking something in the small kitchen in the Willows (our crowded townhouse on the Main St of Walden, Ontario, ( Let the Games Begin 🏀 ), little industrious Job climbed up on the stylish chrome and Formica table in the dining room eager to touch the glass chandelier. In that same dining room sat our beautiful upright piano that Mom had stylishly mac-tacked with orange and purple-petaled flowers (It was the 70s, Man). Anyway, before he could stop himself, and with little pink tongue clamped to the right side of his mouth, he systematically dismantled the whole intricate chandelier, but not a piece of glass would touch the floor. Four year-old Job had very carefully clutched each glass piece in his little hands and put each one down on the table top he was standing on… in exact order of its place aloft. He took a three-dimensional glass chandelier and made it one-dimensional. All Mom had to do later was carefully hook it all back up. She was fascinated by his ability to do this, and so were we.
One time, at the camp where all nine of us moved for the summer months to be on the lake and running a tourist camp, when the lake was whipped up with white caps due to an off-shore wind, Jobe thought it would be interesting to push the twenty or so aluminum boats and canoes out into the water to watch the wind take them across the lake. Imagine the spectacle that was. A fleet of unmanned water craft afloat in a line across a choppy eight-mile lake. Little Jobe was fascinated, jumping up and down, clapping and laughing devilishly and pointing a chubby finger at what he had done. Mom and Dad and our four older siblings scrambled to get the boats back, some swimming out to them, some using a motorized boat to get them. Who would think of doing such a thing…JOBE! Corporal punishment ensued. (Corporal punishment was quite popular back then.)
In later years, Jobe would usually be the one getting into trouble and doing more and more high-risk things. He would dive off the top of the diving tower and off Echo Rock and the Locks — these were all very high dives and more than a little dangerous. Jobe was the only one of the seven of us to master the back-flip-and-a-half on the trampoline. And when it came to water-skiing, he was quite impressive – slalom-skiing beautifully and even starting from the dock or the water on one-ski, which took a great deal of strength, balance and coordination. His physicality was confident and true. He was physically gifted. Mr Laset attested to this fact when I called him last winter to casually affirm my Elementary school memories when forty years ago he had been our beloved coach. In gymnastics, Job would fly off the spring board, catching tons of air before his hands met the leather box-horse and with high hips he would execute a beautiful hand spring. At the lake, Jobe would even ski down the Trouble River a twisty-turny, black-watered mysterious river that we all thought of as bottomless due to scary stories that we would tell by the camp fire.
Some of Jobe’s escapades required funding that he just didn’t have, nor could he easily earn. Luckily, he had worked out a solution for his shortfall. But first, you need to know the layout of the cottage that we called ‘The Office’, because the layout was key. The Office had two bedrooms on the main level. In one room was Mom and Dad’s twin beds (stylish at the time, no idea why) and a crib where Luke would sleep when he was a baby. The neighbouring room had a double-bed where I and one or both of my sisters would sleep, and then above us, up a rickety ladder in the hallway, was ‘the loft’ where the three boys would usually sleep: Matt, Mark and Jobe. The sides of the loft were open, such that those up there could look down through the rafters into the two bedrooms below. Privacy? I think not. In fact, now that I am writing this, I remember a game in which we would reach way over on the rafters and then swing down over the beds below and drop down with a squeal, landing on the soft mattress, or anyone who happened to still be in bed. (This was a forbidden activity, so only done when the adults were out of the office.)
So…Jobe’s funding…right. Well, the ceiling was open into the loft, and when Dad would be inevitably taking a nap on a warm summer afternoon or on a rainy day, or on any day really, Jobe would spy Dad’s seldom-washed polyester double-knits hanging on the hook by the bedroom door. Stealthily, hazel eyes rolling this way and that, with a fishing rod, and pink tongue stuck out just so, he would hook said pants and reel them up, ever so quietly, stealing glances down at Dad who was crashed out on the twin bed. The pants would seemingly float up into the loft where he then would quickly reach his small sure hand into the right front pocket and take out the roll of cash from Dad’s polyester double-knits. (Every summer, Dad would busily sell various items to campers: ice, worms, fuel – all for cash. Cash being cash, it was untraceable, so Jobe would help himself to a twenty or two (a small fortune back then) and he would be set for his next escapade. Of course, his hazel eyes keenly watching Dad, face slightly flushed, he would then expertly reel the double-knits back down to the hanging place in Dad’s room, ensuring that any noise he made at all was made when the loudest cycle of the snore was emerging from Dad. With the money, Jobe and I would sometimes go horse-back riding which back then was $5 per hour! Or, Jobe would buy gas to put in the Budd family’s motor boat tank for ever more water skiing. We did get paid for chores at the camp, but not nearly enough for all that Jobe wanted to do.
One of the chores at the camp was the daily picking up of garbage using the big red wheel-barrow. We had to wheel over the gravel roads around the 21 acres to each of the campsites and to the nine cabins and ask at the door for their garbage. Then, to the upper or lower field, often rolling over a large rock and accidentally dumping the whole mound due to its precariousness in the wheel barrow. With gloves on (in theory). we had to then sort it: burn the burnables in a huge 40-gallon barrel and pitch the cans, jars and bottles into the old open trailer that Dad would take to the dump every few weeks. Sorting people’s garbage was really gross and more than a little dangerous; so was burning it, especially in a field of dry-as-bone hay. We were burning garbage in a huge barrel at tender ages. I would have been seven or eight and Jobe would have been ten or eleven. I have no idea how we didn’t all have 3rd degree burns or didn’t lose an eye because something would inevitably smash or blow up. Of course Job LIKED it when something smashed or blew up. He would often HELP it to smash or blow up and then he would exclaim, ‘Morgan did you SEE THAT?!’ or ‘WATCH THIS!!’…BANG… It terrified me. I was often cowering and inching away as Jobe had his maniacal fun. A side note: Jobe NEVER smashed beer bottles. They were refundable and provided yet another nice little stream of income.
Jobe’s temper was also famous. He would often be a happy-go-lucky youngster, looking for fun and loving to laugh. But, often, he was treated meanly by our father…he wasn’t the quiet, obedient academic-type that Dad wanted in a son, I guess. None of his sons were showing signs of being university types (at this point, Luke was too little to show the signs of his future studiousness). Dad could be downright mean with biting sarcasm and cruel comments. He would say things like, “Jobe, you could have been a good hockey player, but, then you got hard to handle.” Dad would also be quite physical, grabbing an arm, pulling hair or an ear to propel one of his children in the direction of his choosing. One Christmas, Dad wrapped up a used dictionary and put it under the tree for Jobe. On the inside cover he had written: Have a read of this once in awhile. You might learn something. From Dad.
I believe this treatment didn’t help Jobe to find his way very well. His temper would flare more and more as he got closer and closer to his teenage years. Perhaps he would be building something with hammer and nails, and if he missed that nail, there was a very good chance the hammer would end up in the lake and hopefully your noggin’ wasn’t in its flight path.
* * *
After Jobe got out of juvie, he went to live with our eldest sister Eva and her husband, Peter for a year due to he and Dad having serious personality conflicts. (A few years later, I would take a turn at living with Eva and Peter. While living there, we forever have the funny story of Jobe’s attempt at reeling a box of beer up to his upstairs bedroom (a two-four!). Unfortunately, he was caught due to its visibility when passing the main floor window. Peter looked up to see a box of Labatt’s Blue floating by and thought he had better investigate. He found Jobe leaning out his bedroom window, just about to haul in his case of beer. Peter put the kibosh to the beer party 17-year old Job was planning on having in his bedroom. Good try though.
Nowadays, Jobe is a farmer out in B.C.. We definitely do not see enough of his big smile, good heart or jovial laugh but, we will always have these memories to cherish, laugh and wonder at. He certainly made memories, did my brother Jobe.
My baby, the one who arrived in a maelstrom back in 1999, well, he is now a tall young man. Intelligent, kind, fun-loving, adventurous, athletic and handsome. (But, this is his mother writing. What else would I say?)
He is finished high-school and getting set to go off on a huge adventure and then to University. I have five weeks left with him before he departs. My heart is breaking and I am tearful, scared and joyful all at the same time. I never thought I would be this way, but, then again, I never thought I would be in a straitjacket in D.C. either. That’s life, right?! It sneaks up on you and BAM!
Your son, your only, is leaving for University.
But, what about that big adventure you ask? Leo applied and was picked to be one of forty-five youth to assist as crew on a tall ship from Halifax to France. Yes, that’s right. Across the Atlantic. Thankfully, there is a professional crew as well and they will be teaching the youth the ropes, literally. They will do duties: watch, galley, cleaning and maintenance duties. I am sure there will be lots of time for fun too. They will dock in Le Havre in Normandy France and spend five days in France before flying home to Canada at the end of August.
About ten days later, Leo will leave our house for University.
What happened to the days of Buzz Lightyear? Or the days of hiking, just me and small him and the dogs in the parks, on the beaches, up the hills? The days where every playground became a wealth of potential fun and that he would point at and cry hopefully, “Can I play in the playground, Mom?” and inevitably exclaim: “Mom, I’m having SO fun!!”
The holding of my hand. His, so small and soft and warm. The moments of insecurity when he was a toddler and would wrap himself around one or both of my legs as I stood in conversation with someone. The morning greeting, “It’s morning time, Mom!” The sleepy, cuddly story-times, sweaty fevers, rosy-cheeked kisses and all the stuff we learned together. The tears are streaming as I ask, “Where did the time go? and WHY does this hurt so bad??!”
Oh dear, did I spend enough time with him? Did I do enough for him? Did I help to shape a good young man? Will he find his way? Will he find a love? Will he miss me?
He wrote his last exam of high-school today and had arranged with two good buddies to go camping in New Brunswick at Fundy National Park. Both my husband Dean and I were home for lunch (we come home every day for lunch due to our Simple East-Coast Life) and so we witnessed the flurry of activity in getting ready for the big out-trip.
Leo was walking back and forth to his room grabbing all that he could imagine needing for the trip. Meanwhile, I set up a sandwich-building smorgasbord on the kitchen island with large slices of buttered Italian bread, sliced cheese and tomato, ham, bologna, bacon, mustard, mayo, and lettuce fresh and green from the garden. While Leo ran around, I invited the two buds to build their sandwiches and dig in. I wouldn’t want to see them on their way without a good lunch.
The curious thing happened. While Leo ran around, his two friends and I had a nice little visit in the kitchen. Mainly talking about some hiking memories that Dean and I made at Fundy National Park while going Across Canada in Betsy and then about their plans for the fall. Leo came out to the kitchen and snagged the last two slices of bacon for his sandwich, which I then volunteered to build for him, as I could see he wasn’t even close to being packed and ready yet.
Just then, we realized that Leo’s phone was vibrating on the corner cupboard. Leo looked at it, then reached for it. From where I stood, I noticed that his hand was slightly shaking as he reached for his phone. My heart caught in my chest to see that hand, the very one I knew so well and had held time and again including when he was fourteen and he reached out for my hand during a movie the two of us went to see together…shaking.
Looking at the display, he said, “Dad, this is the call about the summer job.” When he looked up, there was a nervous strain on his face that instantly caused an anxious reaction within me. You see, Leo is a very laid-back kinda guy as is evidenced here.
Almost nothing phases him. But, I had to remind myself to take stock: he just wrote an exam, the last of his high-school career; a couple of nights ago, he found out he was selected for the Tall Ship experience to cross the Atlantic; there was a summer job being negotiated; friends were waiting for him for a couple day out-trip; Prom in a few days; he would be leaving for University in late August and he hadn’t even eaten lunch yet. So, perhaps a slight tremor of the hand and bit of a strain on the face is understandable. Regardless, the reaction within me was hard to deny. All I wanted to do was make it better. Take away his strain and nerves. Jeepers. I’m gonna need to chill.
Prom was fantastic and the prom parade went off without a ‘hitch’ and is featured in this little video:
When we first moved to Halifax, we lost a second-trimester pregnancy, Leo’s little brother, and it was heartbreaking. So…I am really hoping that the ‘loss’ of Leo to the great wide world (although surely tough on me) will be wonderful. That we shall see him spread his wings and soar through life, having adventures, doing good and following his dreams….TO INFINITY AND BEYOND!
When 16 to 18, Dad and his new wife Wendy took my little brother, Luke and I, to Florida with them for Christmas break (our older five siblings were all moved out by then). Except for the first year, we drove down, all 2500 km in Dad’s Mercury Zephyr. Yes, there used to be a car called a Zephyr. Dad had a skin-tone coloured one. It was super sexy. Not.
The first year, however, Dad put Luke and I on a Greyhound bus for the forty hour trip. We had to change buses at 2 o’clock in the morning in Detroit, Michigan which is known to be one of the most dangerous cities in the US of A. Let’s face it, Grey Hound bus stations are not usually located in the nicest parts of town. I was 16 and Luke was 13. Dad’s best advice was to use my scarf to tie my purse tight to my body. Luke and I found a seat on the dingy molded plastic chairs and linked arms with eye-balls peeled. We were terrified. Since I am writing this today, I guess we survived the Detroit Bus Station, twice, actually. We were there on the way home too.
Ever organized, we packed this little cooler with things like hard-boiled eggs, fruit, cheese, bread so that we didn’t have to spend much on restaurant stops. All we wanted to do was get off that bus as much as possible and stretch our legs. A long Greyhound ride gets rather ripe, especially after eating one too many hard-boiled eggs. By the time we arrived at Valdosta, Georgia, we were overjoyed to see Palm trees, finally.
When we finally arrived in Fort Myers, we were picked up by our eldest brothers wife, June’s Mother, who’s name is also June (rest in peace), driving a huge caddy and telling us in a thick Southern accent that she would adopt while in Florida for the winter, how very dANgerous it was here: ‘Nevah take out your wallet in pahblic’, she advised. ‘Almost ahveryone has a GUUN so just be caheful’ and then she accelerated to get across a lane of traffic and screamed: ‘HANG ON!!’ June Senior was quite a character. She took us in and fed us (I remember one meal in particular was turkey necks — I had never had a meal of turkey necks before) and made sure we had everything we needed for the couple of days before Dad and Wen arrived and we would move into the motel that Dad had booked from afar.
Luke and I spent many hours on the beach and walking around the town of Fort Myers. We didn’t have much spending money so we would usually have an ice-cream and maybe some fries around lunch time. Then we would walk all the way back the couple miles to where we were staying with Dad and Wen. By that time, we were wiped. We had swam, sunbathed, played frisbee plus the walk to and from the beach. Luke would carry his boom box on his shoulder and play music for us all the way.
Sometimes we would eat supper all together or we would go to a very good value All-U-Can-Eat Buffet which are prevalent in Florida. The odd time Dad would say, you kids are on your own, we are going out for supper without you. After supper, Dad would get us into the car and we would drive through the well-to-do neighbourhoods looking at the Christmas lights. It was so strange to see this without snow. Sometimes Dad would take us to some random high school gym to watch basketball. There seemed to always be a basketball game on somewhere and both Luke and I were big fans of the game. Luke could even spin a basketball for a significant length of time on his finger, then bounce it off his knee and back to his finger. In basketball practice with Mr. Laset, ball-handling drills had been highly encouraged. Luke and I would often play hours of 21 in our driveway and when sitting watching a television program, we would often be holding and spinning the ball.
One day, we met this family on the beach. The Bates’. There was a boy my age, a girl one year older and they were from Indiana. We hung out. They were really nice and we loved their accent and they liked ours. They arranged for Luke and I to go out for supper with them at a Mexican restaurant. We had never eaten Mexican food and we were so eager to give it a try. That was a fun night. Especially trying hot sauces and pico de gallo for the first time. The virgin lime margarita was spectacular too. Sour, sweet and salty all at once. I still love margaritas today. We ended up staying over at their house, which was actually their relatives house, in Fort Myers, for the night. Luke and I slept on the couches in the den. I was astounded by their generosity. In fact, I have been astounded at the generosity of Americans again and again when I lived there over the decades. The Bates’ were good people and they liked us. It was a nice feeling. We kept in touch and saw them the next years too.
Wendy found this beach park for us to go explore. No one was there and it was gorgeous. We walked along the sand and found wee little treasures while a very relaxed Dad slept on a towel on the beach. Luke and I jokingly calling him a beached whale, when we were out of earshot. After a good snore, he awoke and sat up with sand all over the side of his face and pine needles in his hair. Oh my, we chuckled. Perhaps he did these things on purpose to get a reaction. I’m still not sure about that.
That pure white-sand crescent-shaped beach was just spectacular and I have always enjoyed, for some reason, the places where few people go, but which are incredible. I have also enjoyed the wondering. The wondering why they are not there.
When it was time to head North, I dreaded it. Going back to the cold, dark North after all this sun, sea and sand. The only cool thing would be showing off our sun-kissed tan skin to all of our pasty white friends.
Those trips to Florida were bittersweet. In one sense it was amazing to be with my little brother, Luke and be on an adventure together down to Florida, especially for three years in a row, making it almost a tradition. Luke and I were very close. In another sense it was tough to be trapped with our parents in a car for several days on a road trip. The travail of teenagers, perhaps?
In the car, Luke and I would be in the back seat finding any reason to laugh hysterically at Dad. Dad had these habits that drove us wild with hilarity. Every so often, he would reach up to daintily scratch his balding pate with just his middle sausage-shaped finger. Next he would be asking Wendy if she wanted to split a black coffee. He would pull into a gas station, struggle into his huge down coat, and pay a quarter for the gut-rot coffee on offer. With a big smile on his face he would come back to the Zephyr with a single styrofoam coffee cup which was barely visible in his large hand. Wendy would hold it.
Dad would pull out and get back onto the highway and only then would he take off his huge coat. Every time, while driving and with the three of us helping to get his coat off, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. Another time, we were at some diner in a tiny little town, for some lunch. Dad asked the server a question about her hometown, the very town she had lived in her whole life. The server answers but her answer is not what Dad was expecting. Much to the embarrassment of Luke and I, and as we would have liked to slide off our chairs and hide under the table, Dad says, ‘Honey baby,’ waving his thumb at himself and Wendy, ‘We’re both teachers. You must be mixed up. That can’t be right.‘
There was one thing about Dad. He was not boring and he enjoyed both a good argument and a good adventure, as long as he didn’t have to walk too far.
We trekked for about thirty days in the Himalayas doing the Annapurna Circuit, in an unconventional manner, which will come to light as the story unfolds. To get to the starting point of the trek, we bought a ticket for the bus. Not lucky enough to grab a seat each on the inside of the bus, hubby and I, with our hired guide, Naba, were seated on the roof of the bus. This trek was sure to be interesting, if we could get there in one piece. That bus, that we were on top of, was not driving a straight, smooth roadway. Picture the opposite: a twisty-turny, gravel, crumbling donkey track along the side of a mountain with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet if the bus driver was to make a wrong turn, or get too close to the eroding edge. Not to worry — the horn worked well and seemed to be the sole means of defensive driving techniques employed.
We had flown into Kathmandu late and were immediately wooed by several touts wanting us to take his taxi. We picked one, told him our destination: the Kathmandu Guesthouse and agreed on a price. The ride was darker than dark. Not an electric light burned. Later, our guide would indicate to us how wasteful Westerners were with electricity. So exhausted were we that our eyes were closed before our heads hit the pillow.
In the morning we made our way to their breakfast room and ordered our first lassi of the trip which is a blend of yogurt, water, spices and fruit. The server was a sweet and most attentive Nepali man who put his palms together and bowed his head to us, ‘Namaste’. Dean said to me afterward that he was an example of ‘service without servitude’.
When we returned to the Guest House after a walk all over Kathmandu and through the fascinating market, the sight we saw was like something out of an old fashioned orphanage. All of the staff of the Guesthouse were in the main lobby. They were fast asleep, lying on straw mats and wrapped in wool blankets like toasty sausage rolls on a baking sheet. If one rolled over, so would they all.
The next evening, we attended a slide show for a river rafting expedition that we thought was too expensive for our budget. This cool group of Westerners with several Nepalese had started a river rafting group which charged $200 US for a five-day expedition on the Kali Gandaki River. After eating several bowls of incredibly delicious, buttery fire-popped pop-corn and drinking a few of their complimentary rum drinks each, it seemed that we suddenly had enough money to go on this expedition. It was a great decision as we had a blast. We met several other fun and adventurous travelers on the trip too.
This is a group of children we met on the beach who were running and tumbling together. Suddenly, there was a whistle from their mom and off they ran, full tilt UP the mountain. So fit.
Next we went trekking: the Annapurna Circuit hike. Here I am on top of the bus enroute to the starting point of the big trek. From on top of the bus, I asked hubby to buy me a pop (Canadian speak for soda) from a place advertising GOOD FOODING AND LODGING. I liked that sign, although I was feeling rather queasy by that time.
The trek was, of course, amazing. We did about 20k per day, depending on weather and best stopping places and Tea Houses, which were known to our guide, Naba. We saw incredible beauty all around us.
The trail was often quite rough and sometimes included donkey trains — which were tricky because you had to be sure to get to the inside of the donkey train. They could easily bump you off the trail. That would be bad.
We would see tiny women carrying huge loads of wood on their backs. We even saw a porter carrying an injured person in a chair strapped to his back. Heading to the hospital many tens of kilometers away.
After a week or so, we got into the snow at elevation. This came with the obvious challenges due to the cold and wet and the need to be very careful about stepping properly so as not to slip off the trail or anything. Being Canadian, we are naturally pretty good about understanding the slipperiness of snow, but we were meeting other travelers from non-snow countries, particularly Ozzies and South Americans who were having trouble with it.
We finally made it to Thorung Phedi which sits at a cool 4,538 meters above sea level. This was the jumping off point for the Thorong La Pass with an elevation of 5,416 meters. There was a large group waiting for a clearing in the weather so as to safely set out for the pass. This was February – so, lots of snow. As a group gathered in the smokey dining hall with large tin cans full of smoking coals to warm us under the tables, we decided to leave at 4 a.m. after a breakfast (which, due to the high elevation was difficult to eat) at 3 a.m. There were about a dozen of us: a couple of Swedes, an American, a Japanese girl, a couple of Ozzies, a couple of New Zealanders and a Chinese guy, plus we two Canadians.
With headlamps blazing on some heads, we started up the mountain. Step, breath, step, breath. It was slow and steady. Would we ever get there? After a couple of hours, my hands were frozen. Our guide gave me his mittens which were toasty warm. He just smiled at me gently. He had done this pass many, many times.
We finally made it to a little shack which was at 5,000 meters. The weather worsened. The wind blew colder and stronger. Then ice-pellet snow began to pelt us like tiny sharp knives. We could tell that our attempt at the pass was not going to work today. Even if we could make it over, there was no way we were going to drag these other folks with us, and besides, that, there was six more hours down the other side, before the next village. The American woman with her state-of-the-art Arctic hiking gear and porter who carried all her gear, went on into the storm, but we turned back and headed down. A week later we met up with some of the folks from the snowy pass attempt. They told us they were waiting on us to decide about whether they would attempt the pass that day or not. ‘Why us?’ we asked. ‘Because you’re Canadian.’ they said. ‘You know snow and weather. If you weren’t going, neither were we.’
So we trekked down to the bottom, re-grouped in Pokhara for a couple of days and then went back up the other side for another ten days. I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in Tatopani. Dean arranged for the baking of a cake for me. I was very surprised and pleased.
After trekking, we decided to head to the Royal Chitwan National Park for a week at sea level and with warmth and sunshine, plus the odd elephant or two.
We met this hilarious traveler who behaved just like Jerry Seinfeld and knew all the funny lines too. So, of course we spent time with him, walking about and telling stories, laughing and being silly.
A comment on the people of Nepal. We have yet to meet a nicer culture, although Cuban would be close. The Nepalese are cheerful, gentle, kind, strong and thoughtful. It was an honour to spend time in their exceptionally beautiful country.
Yesterday I asked my friend Victoria if she wanted to get out for a mid-afternoon walk in a nearby Watershed Nature Preserve, just a few minutes from our Nova Scotian town. She had never been there she said as I explained where it is located. She asked if it would be a tough walk because she still had a sore leg from taking a tumble over a root while walking Cape Split the weekend before. My response:
‘No, it’s just a little stroll’….
Into the woods we wandered, after taking a big swig of water. ‘Are you bringing water?’ Victoria asked. My response:
‘No, I never carry water for a short walk. I just top up now.’…
Our first stop was to look at the old Reservoir Lake, walk over the new small log bridge and then along the shore of the lake for a little bit. Then, a hard right into the woods again and it was there that I thought it would be a good idea to go on the Ravine Trail for a few minutes. There was not a soul around and the trail was quite nicely marked with bright orange tape on trees the whole way. The problem being that my phone rang and so I was not really watching as we got further and further along the trail that I had previously thought we would just be on for 5 minutes or so. I had been distracted and wasn’t really watching the way and thus missed any chance of getting off the trail and heading back to the car.
Victoria asked me if I knew this trail? My response:
‘Nope, but I can’t image it will be too hard to figure out. This park can’t be THAT big. Right?
We saw startlingly green ferns bathed in a beam of sunlight and stopped for a moment to admire them. Little creeks and small waterfalls. I was tempted to take a drink from the rushing water, but, thought better of it lest I give Victoria a heart attack. She is from a medical background. Enough said. I informed Victoria of the cool item I had seen on TED talk called the LifeStraw. That you can just use the straw to drink from even stagnant water and it is totally safe. In fact our friend Daisy and her boys had used one in Australia on a hike there. I had two LifeStraws at home. Oh well. It takes days to die of dehydration, right?
We forded a few boggy areas, stirring up many a biting bug: black flies and mosquitoes. Victoria then showed me an angry red bump on her forearm and explained that she gets a bad reaction from black fly bites. Oh wait, let me dig out my emergency bug dope for you. I thought as I reached over my shoulder for my small day pack. Nothing. Didn’t bring anything on this ‘stroll’ except my phone and a tissue…we were now approaching two hours in the woods. Victoria’s face was getting pink.
I started to imagine what we would need to do if we couldn’t find our way out of this pretty place. We would have to hunker down and try to stay warm until morning and then just walk until we would come to a road. I was loathe to get hubby Dean to come look for us, should we then all be lost in the woods. My imagination was getting the better of me. We had hours of daylight yet. For sure we would find civilization before dark. Right?
I said to Victoria: ‘It could be worse, we could have a fifty-pound pack on our backs.’
‘And an army radio,’ chimed in Victoria, ever the good sport. We both had army experience, mine Reg force, hers Reserve. An army radio is an army radio, is an army radio. We both knew that to be true.
Over another log bridge, a glimpse of a ruins of an ancient moss-covered stone bridge then squealing like school girls when a brown stick wriggled furiously away from our falling feet. Next, up a soft pine-needle trail where the path split. One way went slightly down through a nicely cut trail into a sunny meadow, the other went slightly up and into a dim tangle of woods. The upward tending trail was marked with orange tape and upon inspection of the map just now, the very map we didn’t have yesterday, it would have taken us on a incline back up to the parking lot in about 2 clicks. We chose the downward sloping pathway and walked for about another forty minutes coming out at a country road.
Looking right we saw L’Acadie Vinyards. I smiled with relief. I knew exactly where we were. I may or may not have been here before, sampling their wares… I said, ‘Okay, now we have to follow this road left and then left again on the next road and the next.’ It would have been 5 clicks more.
‘Can’t we just go in and have some wine? Couldn’t Leo come get us?’
My response: ‘Um, YES! What a fabulous idea!’ My son Leo had his licence now. He could come get us.’
Much like that old much-loved but very corny tv show we all watched as kids in which a group heads out for a ‘three-hour cruise‘ and ends up on a deserted island for years and years…we had headed out for a wee twenty minute stroll and ended up in the woods for about three hours. It all ended well. Our worst fears were not realized and we even had wine and then a cutie come pick us up and pay the bill. Gotta like that.
We had zigged when we should have zagged. Ever done that? How did it end up for you?
~Leave a comment below.~
(Thank you google and those who took them for the pictures!)
In the summer of 1989, while posted in Lahr, Germany, I was asked to join a marching team as the token female, to head to Holland for the four-day International Nijmegen Marches, which is the largest multi-day marching event in the world. It has happened every year since 1916 to promote sport and fitness. Military participants walk forty kilometers per day for four days in a row, in formation of 20-soldier teams. Almost fifty thousand marchers now walk this walk every year.
At the time, I was a transportation platoon commander in Supply and Transport Company in 4 Service Battalion in the Canadian Army. To put it simply, I had a platoon of 30 soldiers who drove MAN 10-ton trucks (like these bad boys below)
which would carry supplies: ammunition, water, rations, various items, and spare parts needed by both forward fighting troops and other support units within the Brigade. During peace time, we conducted training operations such as weapons use, field exercises and fitness competitions to improve morale, esprit-de-corps and to prepare for future deployments.
As the Platoon Commander, I routinely conducted all manner of administrative duties, personnel evaluations and reports, test and inspection readiness, subordinate training, orders groups, equipment maintenance checks, and many other duties in accordance with my rank and position. In a field unit, staying physically fit is one of the requirements of the job. Five days per week, we did physical training first thing at 7:30 am. Joining the Nijmegen March team covered the fitness requirement and provided an adventure and a trip to another country, all expenses paid.
A month prior to the event, the march training began. In combat boots and combat uniform, we would form up, two by two in lines and walk for eight to sixteen K out through the German countryside, along farmers fields, river-side pathways and over trails through small woods. Back then, in ’89, there were no ‘devices’ to listen to, other than the odd Walkman, which almost no one had anyway, and nothing like spotify or itunes or podcasts to listen to. Marching in formation was a little bit like torture. The back of one head to stare at and exacting ‘left right’ pace to maintain for the whole two to three hours. Thankfully, there were a few songs we would sing for a while. One soldier knew all the words to ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. You can get anything that you want at Alice’s Restaurant…(by Arlo Guthrie). It was only slightly annoying to listen to it after about the second time, but, well, what could be done? ‘Just take one more step. Now, one more step,’ became my mental litany. Most of the time, I was extremely bored and under-challenged by this walking. Not only that, I couldn’t easily ‘talk it up’ with the soldier beside me because of the need to maintain a professional ‘distance’. Sometimes being a female officer could be both isolating and awkward. It was tough to stay positive and pleasant but that became another litany. Stay positive and pleasant.Just one more step. Stay positive and pleasant. I chalked this training up to good discipline. One could never get enough discipline. Am I right?
We went to Nijmegen by bus. It took about six hours, due North, and when we arrived, there was already a tent city erected by the forward party and we were assigned to our tents and to our cots, within the tents. We were to begin Day 1 at 06:00 the next morning. The route for the four days formed somewhat of a clover leaf out and around the city of Nijmegen. The route wound its way through the Dutch countryside with its green pastures, cows grazing, chickens running, fences diminishing into the distance.
One time, a civilian marcher was playing the bagpipes and low and behold all the cows in the field got curious and began to trot toward the fence to more closely see the man. Thankfully, at the fence, the cows stopped and then just stood and stared, chewing their cud, looking bemused and fluttering their long eyelashes at the bagpiper. Could it be that these ladies thought the bagpiper was a well-hung bull ready to service them? One will never know.
At ten K, twenty K and thirty K marks, we would come upon our unit’s flag and see our kitchen trucks, first aid station, water stations and porta-potties in a field. We were well taken care of. There would be a menu of foods or snacks and drinks for us, including huge schnitzel sandwiches. I don’t think I ever went hungry, not once, while in the Canadian Forces. We would sit on the grass with our plate and drink and rest for twenty minutes before beginning again. One doctor attached to our unit even organized a child’s swimming pool with ice for us to soak our poor feet at the end of the day.
While resting, we could also inspect our feet for the dreaded blisters. I am pleased to report, I didn’t get a single blister. Fortunately, a friend had told me of the wonders of moleskin and how to wrap it over the heel in such a manner as to provide fool-proof protection against blisters. Secondly, Vaseline on and in-between the toes. I now pass this on to anyone I know going on a long walk. Blisters are nothing to sneeze at in a long, multiple day march,hike or walk. Good feet are crucial to the success and comfort of the walk. Bad feet can be debilitating and very painful especially if they also become infected. Game over. On training at CFB Borden called Environmental Specialty Land, which I did just after Nijmegen, our final test of the course was to complete a night march from Stayner, Ontario to the back gate of the Base, about 30 K with packs and rifles. We started at 11:00 pm and we walked all night. Our friend Andy carried a huge boom box up on his shoulders and had it cranked and playing ‘FINAL COUNTDOWN’ by Europe, the whole way. Song finishes. Rewind. Song begins again. We were all very sleep deprived because we had been in and out of the field for weeks, up all night sometimes on missions, patrols and then duties and classes during the day and with no real time to recuperate. Myself, I was literally falling asleep as I walked, while carrying my rifle at the ready. There was this line that they would shout whenever someone was in danger of hitting the deck due to exhaustion: ‘SOLDIER! MAKE SURE YOU HIT THAT DECK BEFORE THAT WEAPON DOES!!!’ Kinda sums it all up, doesn’t it?
Anyway, the Captain of this officer training course was Airborne – an elite group of Infantry. His feet turned to hamburger during this march. He had to get in the first aid truck and be driven to base. Embaaarassing. It wouldn’t have been so bad but he had bragged about what a great and fit soldier he was. Of course, HE didn’t know the secret of the moleskin. Myself, Dean and Nee sure did, and anyone else who cared to be prepared. I had just finished the Nijmegen marches a couple of months prior, so I was fully aware.
Back in Nijmegen, by the time we walked into the camp at the end of the forty K march, we were done. I would soak my feet in ice water for ten minutes, show the good doc the mysterious lump on the top of my foot which may or may not have been a stress fracture, he said. Having eaten at all the stops during the march, I certainly didn’t need more food, so I simply made my way to my tent, tucked my combat boots under my camp cot and fell fast into a heavy sleep until the next early morning.
I like this picture I found of a female soldier fast asleep on her arm. There was no staying awake during rest breaks. The need to sleep just took over.
We Canadians are very much loved in Holland because our troops liberated the Dutch from the Germans in World War II in 1944. So, anytime we would come across large Dutch civilian marching groups, they would holler and cheer and sometimes sing a song for the Canadians. Weren’t we proud to receive these accolades. We would all smile and wave bashfully and then take one more step. Just one more.
Everyday there would be at least one city to march through. There would be a lot to see and invariably young children would run along side our team for a bit. We would give out those tiny Canada flag pins and then receive a sweet smile, sometimes with missing front teeth. A few times, a tiny warm hand would slip into mine and we would walk together for a few minutes. Priceless memory.
While marching, there would often be other Canadian teams from other units unrelated to ours, except that they were also Canadian and also posted in Germany. For instance, there was an Armored Team, an Infantry Team, a Signals Team and the like. I remember that I so enjoyed when the French Canadian Teams would be near us. They would invariably be singing their old regimental songs which I found to be incredibly moving and haunting. They would often pass us singing these songs in their deep rich voices. Sharp beret with dark-haired head tilted to the ground. Arms swinging. Boots hitting the trail in perfect synchronicity. It was mesmerizing. One song they sang which is about the building of the dam across the Manicouagan River in Quebec, was especially sorrowful. If I try hard, I can still hear their deep voices singing this incredible song by Georges Dor. It is a song of longing, boredom and homesickness.
After the last day, there was a huge party in which a lot of Heineken were quaffed and then, the next morning, we boarded the bus back to Southern Germany.
Nowadays, there are so many folks wanting to participate in the Nijmegen Marches that they have set a limit of forty-seven thousand marchers per year. Doing this march was an honour and is a fond memory.
(All photos courtesy of google images — I would have loved to have some of my own photos but I didn’t own a camera back then and there were no smart phones either.)
Last summer an idea struck. How about I take summer seriously? How about I make a concerted effort to get out on our beautiful Nova Scotia beaches on as many nice days as possible. I own my own business and can work flexible hours, so in keeping with the tides, I could arrange my work to allow for beach walks on nice days. Why in keeping with the tides? Well, in this part of Nova Scotia, at high tide, there is often no beach to walk on. Also, there is a danger of being trapped down the beach should the tide be coming back in. It happens to unsuspecting folks every year. Best to walk the beach knowing what the tides are doing. Rainy days would be for catching up on office work. So, no waiting for weekends. I would take summer seriously. I just wanted to eat those beaches up. The second half of this was that I wanted a friend or two or a family member or two to accompany me on each said beach walk. I started asking around and several of my friends sounded interested.
First up was Blomidon Beach at low tide, once with my friend Lisa, then Jessie (and dogs) and then again with Victoria. Victoria was home for the summer holiday and as eager to walk the beaches as I. That worked! Blomidon Beach is a red, flat beach with red sheer cliffs hemming it in. There are often tiny little avalanches of red stones coming down off those cliffs. All along the top of the cliffs there are nesting holes for the swallows that make their homes there.
Next up was Scott’s Bay with Victoria. It was perfect. As we rolled along on the highway above Scott’s Bay, we each gasped at the beauty of the scene that emerged on approach to the big hill leading down into the village. The Big Blue, I like to call it. And, I can not visit Scott’s Bay without recalling fondly a novel I thoroughly enjoyed which is set in historic Scott’s Bay by local best-selling author Ami McKay. The Birth House is about the age-old struggle of women to be in control of their own bodies. Imagine. I would look at the houses and flapping colourful clotheslines and imagine the characters from that novel. Their tough but incredibly rich lives…all of it happening right there.
The tide was way out. Victoria parked the car and walked over the small bridge onto the pebbles of Scott’s Bay beach on the Bay of Fundy with the highest tides in the world. We walked out and off to the left, stopping to remove our footwear and talking and relating while we stepped into the cool grey mud of Scott’s Bay at low tide. The floor of the ocean. Part of the time the grey mud was quite soft and deep. The temperature was perfect. The sun was high. It was warm but not hot and it was ideal. We walked and walked, the only two souls on the vast, shimmering beach: Shiny Happy People Laughing!
Afterward we had lunch on the patio of ‘The Haze’ Diner which is located close to the beach, on the highway approaching Scott’s Bay. It was a good day. Homeward bound we stopped at Stirlings Farm Market for something to cook up for supper. Feeling refreshed, kissed by the sun, salt, wind and sand, we had taken summer seriously.
The next trip out was with my friends Mary and Victoria and over to Penny Beach at Avonport. Another perfect weather day and off we went, walking way down the beach, marveling and exclaiming at the beauty all around us. There was so much to see, to examine, to show each other and to talk about. I told them about the time, years prior, that Daisy and I had been on this beach, eating a picnic lunch with our three boys when we saw a group approaching us. They hadn’t even seen us, they were looking at the rock, the shale, the pebbles, the eagles, the shore birds. I told them that I was curious about what they were doing. Turns out it was a famous scientist and his students and they had come a great long way to see this beach. He said it was world famous to geologists. That it was once an inland sea and would have had a plethora of very large creatures and dinosaurs on it. The boys were quite impressed. I was just so thankful to have had the opportunity to glimpse them in action.
Anyway, within no time we realized that three hours had slipped by. On Mary’s suggestion, which surprised me because I think of her as quite fastidious, we walked way out to the edge of the receding tide, knowing that the trip back would be through sticky mud. In Nova Scotia, when one says they walked way out to the edge of the receding tide, that can be a LOOOOONG way — like a mile sometimes. No kidding.
Another benefit of walking on beaches with friends is that sometimes surprising qualities and details about them (and me) emerge. In my experience it has always been a positive and our friendship grows deeper as we admire the beauty, sometimes sharing stories and anecdotes and sometimes just walking silently bathing in the salty breeze, sometimes bending to help the other wash the tenacious mud from their feet or the troubles from their hearts.
At the water’s edge, it was astoundingly beautiful, the patterns in the rock, the ripple of the waves, the call of the gulls and before that, the emerald green moss on the tiny, perpetually trickling runoff waterfall. We savoured it all and it was magical. Returning to the parking lot, we sat at the hexagonal picnic table and each ate a Valley apple and drank fresh water from our water bottles. So simple. So good. The day had been perfect. We had taken summer seriously.
Next it was Blue Beach with Rachel and Simon. I picked them up and off we drove on another very pretty day. Blue Beach is located between Avonport and Hantsport on the Minas Basin. It wasn’t a far ride for us. We parked and started the wee jaunt down the dirt road to the beach. Every time I walk down that dirt track, my mind is aflutter with memories of the previous walks on that beach. The time my step-sister was visiting with her family and her palpable anticipation of this fossil-riddled beach. She normally walks with a cane. Not that day. She was just too excited and the adrenaline was rampant. She was almost skipping. Then, while she and hubby examined fossils, I spent time with their two children and Leo. Skipping stones and doing handstands, running and tumbling, chasing and being chased and getting wet with furry, joyful Lady. A great memory. Leo idolized his big cousins and it was sweet to watch.
So, as it emerged, we could see the distinctly blue tinge of the rock and sand which forms this incredible beach. We all walked slowly and methodically, heads bowed to the rocky beach surface to notice its treasures, to bend and point and remark, three heads came together peering at marvels on the ocean floor. It was magical. At some point, hunger called us back to the car and away we swept to a close-by coffee shop for a snack and a drink.
Betty and I did Medford Beach together, parking in the cul-de-sac and walking down the grassy slope, across the tiny bridge and carefully stepping down the eroded small cliff, onto the red sand, beside the fresh run-off stream. The dogs were with us and into it full tilt. The chance to run free, smelling all the smells and swimming willy-nilly made their tails wag furiously happily. Following their lead, we kicked off our footwear, sinking our feet into the cool red sand. Then we walked and walked and talked and talked solving all of the problems of the world.
Later that summer, Leo and Dean and I went down to the Kejimkujik Seaside Adjunct for a hike on one gorgeous day. It was about a ten-km hike, partially over the windswept hills and then down along a boardwalk and onto a rocky beach. As we approached the beach, we could see what looked like structures sticking up all over it. Turned out, to be many many inukshuks. They were everywhere and they lent a surreal quality to the remarkably pretty beach. Leo immediately began to take photos of them and then to build one himself.
From the rocky beach, we walked on a windy woodland trail and then out onto an incredible white-sand beach where we spent some time contemplating a swim. Make no bones about it, the water was, as always, freezing. Dean managed to submerge for a split second then rushed out to the warmth of the sand. It had been a lovely day and finished on a spectacular beach.
In was a fantastic summer mission which also included Evangeline, Hirtles, Avonport, Crescent, Margartsville, Aylesford, Kingsport beaches, all with their various qualities ranging from fine white sand to pebble to rocky, red sand, blue sand, golden sand. Near, far, remote, popular, unheard of, it was a grand summer full of wonder, family and friendship. No better kind.
P.S. It was on this beach above (Keji Adjunct in Nova Scotia) that I asked my son if I should do a handstand and he get a picture of me again and his memorable response: “That ship has sailed eh Mom.”
Her hair is Harlow gold
Her lips are sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold
She got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll turn the music on you
You won’t have to think twice
She’s pure as New York snow
She got Bette Davis eyes
My beautiful sister Amy…where do I begin. She was always a guy-magnet with her long blond hair and huge, kind, blue eyes. She has an aquiline nose and peaches and cream, skin but even with those attributes, it is her character that the guys fall for in a big way. She is sweet-natured, generous, thoughtful, fun, kind and hard-working. A guy gets a whiff of that, and game over. Trust me, I have witnessed this phenomenon my whole life.
Amy was born second in the family line-up. She was born ten months after Eva, in 1955. She is eleven years my senior and a very close sibling and friend to me. I could tell Amy absolutely anything and she would nod in a kind and understanding way and with non-judgement would do her best to see my reasons why. And then, she would join me.
One of the first men I can remember who LOVED Amy was Ike whom she met thru the A&W in Walden. They were quite young when they met and it was the days of free love, peace, drugs and bell-bottom jeans. Amy and Ike spent every waking minute together, that they could get away with. It wasn’t long before Amy found herself in the ‘baby’ way. Of course our parents did what any good Catholic parents would do.
They hastily and by cover of night, sent Amy off to Toronto to live with the Nuns.
For months we barely saw or heard from Amy. Suddenly she had been ripped from my life and because I was just a little girl (I was six), it really really hurt. Amy came back once to visit and I remember my older siblings behaving strangely. Of course they didn’t want me to notice her baby-belly because how would they explain it to me. We all lived in such a tight-lipped manner back then. I can still remember this wonderful black velvet, embroidered, baby-doll blouse she wore on that visit and how pretty and rested she looked. Her cheeks were a healthy pink, her hair was lustrous and thick. A couple of months later and she was back with us, as if nothing ever happened.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I learned the truth. One night, Mom and Dad had friends over and Dad had too much to drink. I had been sleeping in my bedroom down the hall from the living room but had awoken upon hearing Dad’s voice raised in anger. He was talking about how his blond daughter (whom I knew must be Amy) had had a baby with ‘a club foot’, ‘out of wedlock’ and had given her up for adoption. My little brain began to spin. I was an Aunt, but not an Aunt. Where was my baby niece? I did not sleep that night and at the crack of dawn, pounced on my siblings for answers.
Poor Ike, a few years later, lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. Their daughter grew up, married and had a child. They all found each other after thirty years, but, alas there were many challenges in the relationship between Amy and her daughter, Kassie. Kassie was raised with different values. She had serious health issues, addictions and, of course, mobility issues. She had a wonderful sense of humour but she was needy and was always asking, inappropriately for a hand-out from her biological mom, Amy. Now, in the way of money, Amy survived and did okay because she worked bloody hard as a hair-stylist and a single-mom to Josh, who was still in middle-school at that time. She routinely pulled twelve hour days, eating poorly and barely sitting down. No matter how kind and generous Amy was, it wasn’t long before, with sinking heart, she realized that her daughter was a user. Amy suffered with guilt and self-doubt but, she finally told Kassie that there would be no more hand-outs. Kassie was rarely seen again for about fifteen years.
She is now back in Amy’s life and is no longer the free-loader. One ironic thing about this story that niggles me in the back of my mind is this. If Kassie were to stand beside her biological father, Ike, you would see a remarkable family resemblance. She was her father’s daughter. AND, they both have just one leg.
(R.I.P. Ike. He passed in 2019.)
Next up was a guy Amy actually married. Dick was a quiet and haunted seasonal mason. In the off-season, he was basically a full-time stoner. It wasn’t long before we got wind that Toe-shit was physically abusing Amy. Our oldest and second brothers, Matt and Mark went to their flat and moved Amy out of there and brought her home. Toe-shit was an asshole.
Buzz was this short, dark-haired, crooked smiled cowboy who was a farrier (horse-shoer) by trade. He suffered from short-man’s syndrome. Buzz knew it ALL, and then some. Name a topic and then just sit back and listen to him spout the bull-shit. It was incredible. He would come up to the camp with Amy and wear this teeny little noodle-bender Speedo bathing suit and yes, he would hope that you glanced down to check out his stuff. He was quite proud of his manhood. WhatEVER. Bottom line was that the guy was completely bad news. As soon as the family met him, we wanted Amy out. He was a user and he was verbally and emotionally abusive. We are still not sure what Amy saw in the Buzz-ard.
Blain was a car salesman. Tall, blond and a real talker. He had a Great Dane named Thor (compensating for something?) and fidelity issues. Enough said.
Phil was from the village on Eight Mile Lake. He was constantly in bare feet with a smoke between his teeth, of which a couple were missing. Phil was a nice enough guy and we all liked him but, he was completely passive aggressive. Everything had to be done his way. He was also without a driver’s licence and often without work and therefore a bit of a drain on the finances, especially considering that welders can make big money any day of the week.
Amy came out to visit me for two weeks in August 2013 when Phil was still living with her and we had one wonderful vacation together. It started with a weekend yoga, herbology and belly-dancing retreat entitled:
The Juicy Goddess Retreat at Windhorse Farm done by two of my friends, Daisy and Lucy.
The retreat was such a great time. We did lovely yoga led by the highly skilled teacher, Daisy. We ate wonderfully prepared, catered meals that the caterer continuously told us proudly were ‘vegan’. I would then say, that’s nice, but no need to go through the trouble because we aren’t vegan. The next meal though, she would announce the same message again: I hope you enjoy this meal. It’s vegan. I was left wondering if I had imagined the previous conversation. So I told her again: that’s lovely but, please don’t trouble yourself, we aren’t vegan. When she announced it a third time, I took a look at her face to see if she was joking. She stared back at me rather vacantly and smiled.
Ooookay. Stepford Wives much?
We hiked all over the property of Windhorse Farm and were given a herbology talk by my lovely friend, Lucy. The weather was hot and dry. It was an incredible day and we learned all manner of wonderful tidbits from Lucy. Next, we put on belly-dancing costumes and makeup, had white wine, and were given a lesson. We then walked through the peaceful lush forest of the farm and did yoga moves on fallen logs taking photos and such.
The next item on the agenda popped up out of nowhere. Lucy had mentioned to us that she had a tooth that was bugging her and that probably just needed to be filed down a bit so that it would stop irritating her cheek.
Amy says: ‘Marti can do it!’ And, with that vote of confidence, so I did. I put my reading classes on, and in belly-dancing attire, filed down Lucy’s problem tooth. The pictures were hilarious. I asked Amy later why she nominated me for such a task. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘because you were in the ARMY. You can do anything.’ Ooookay. Just checking. (The other day, my teenage son said something similar. I was asking him to show us how to download a free movie. He says, ‘come on Mom. You were in the ARMY, you should be able to download a movie. Geesh.’)
Leaving Windhorse farm, I took Amy to Hirtle’s Beach. I wanted her to experience the vast, white sand beaches of Nova Scotia. We got out of the car and barefoot, took the
boardwalk over the dune to the beach. Amy gasped at the sight of Hirtle’s. So vast, so empty, so perfect. Arm in arm we walked the beach and Amy told me then the sad tale that she and Phil were not going to last. Up until that point, I had thought Phil was the ‘one’. Amy had not told me her struggles with Phil. She told me then, on Hirtle’s. I will never forget that exchange. Sadly, Amy told me that she thought she would end up alone in her old age. Fat chance of that, I thought.
Upon leaving for a Cuban vacation, our second brother, Mark told Phil to be moved out by the time he and Amy got back, or he would move him out himself.
At my best-friend Kelly’s wedding to the asshole she finally just got rid of twelve damaging years, but two beautiful sons later, comes this proposition. I had just finished saying my speech about Kelly. It had gone over well. I was especially glad to see Kelly’s Dad, a retired cop, laughing so hard he had pushed himself away from the table and bowing down between his knees. He found the story about ‘get out before she blows’ (from the post Fun and Foibles at the Camp) quite hilarious and the fact that he never had heard about it, was also funny.
Anyhoo, I was pleased to be done. I walked to the back of the room and there was Amy speaking to Kelly’s mom who then turns to me and says, ‘Martha, your sister Amy is a remarkably beautiful woman’. Like I didn’t know this? She carried on to another group of folks and Amy and I then chatted and laughed and were anticipating a great evening of dancing. Then, over walks Kelly’s brother Sam and begins a friendly conversation with Amy and I. The next thing you know we are all chuckling and enjoying ourselves with recalling fond family memories. Sam had been our youngest brother, Luke’s best friend. During the course of the conversation, it came out that Amy was now single.
Sam leans in, ‘So, Amy, you’re single now?’
Sam inches a bit closer, turning his body slightly toward Amy. His eyes riveted on her face.
Picking up on the body language, Amy cocks her pretty head to the side, blond hair cascading, smiles and asks, ‘So, Sam, how OLD are you…..?’
‘……How old do you WANT me to be?’
We laughed uproariously, bent over double at his sweet attempt to entice Amy.
Just the other day, I was on the phone with Sue, the guy (yes, Sue is a guy) from the post Fun and Foibles at the Camp (18). We were talking about all the members of my family that he had met over the years and especially at the camp. It wasn’t long before Sue asks, (and I wasn’t one bit surprised) ‘So, what is Amy doing these days? Is she single? Tell her I said hi. I always thought she was so nice and pretty, even though she made me clean up her car after I got sick in it.’
At the next opportunity, I told Amy that Sue had asked after her and was saying he was interested. Amy says, ‘Oh that’s sweet, he was always such a good head. How OLD is he, Martha…?’
‘……How old do you WANT him to be?’
Total Guy Magnet.
(Credit for the feature image at the top goes to my other big sister…the ever talented, Eva Player)
~Remember to leave a comment below. I love your comments!~
It was 1997 and we were living just North of the North Beaches of Toronto. Yes, okay, we were actually in Scarberia, but, whatEVER. We were there because hubby was attending a school called iti: Information Technology Institute, downtown Toronto. (We had just spent three years above theArcticCircle.)
With my two older sisters and Mom just a couple of hours drive away, and me without a job, I would travel down there each week or so to visit them and their families as well as to go see Mom. Mom was in a nursing home suffering with Pick’s Disease (basically, the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s) and was almost completely non-verbal by that time. She was, however, in fine physical condition, a fact that played with our minds. She could walk for ten miles, no problem, yet, she didn’t know us and she couldn’t speak. It was hard.
Mom loved chocolate milkshakes. I would pick one up and while she worked away on it silently, I would drive to a park so we could go for a walk. Those times were very sweet but heart-breaking at the same time.
In those days, we were all reading Deepak Chopra: QUANTUM HEALING; THE SEVEN
SPIRITUAL LAWS OF SUCCESS; AGELESS BODY, TIMELESS MIND; and PERFECT HEALTH. Eva, Amy and I would discuss the concepts at length and do our very best to incorporate the thinking into our lives. So, when it became known that Deepak Chopra would be speaking at a nearby venue, we were overjoyed and quite excited about the idea of attending his talk. We got tickets and eagerly awaited the big day.
(Now a days, good ole Deepak is friends with OPRAH and ergo, thus, therefore quite famous.)
On the day of the Deepak talk, I drove the couple of hours to Eva’s house and arrived at her door to find her in the middle of finishing off a second batch of her world famous (okay, not WORLD famous, but potentially…) home-made buttertarts. They were little individual pastry cups filled with a gooey mixture of butter, raisins and brown sugar. Mom had taught Eva how to bake when Eva was a girl. Mom had been an amazing baker and could whip up a pie or a fruit crumble, a cake or a batch of cookies pretty quickly, from scratch. Let’s not forget Mom’s sugar pie. Neighbours would lean in and whisper to each other about it, their knees weakening as they spoke. It was mouthwatering and the stuff of dreams. ￼Never under estimate the power of a French-Canadian’s sweet tooth!
I asked Eva why she wasn’t ready and she explained that there was a death in the family of a friend. She needed to drop off some buttertarts to the grieving family after the talk. Could I take a tray in my car and she would pick up our other sister Amy and meet at the venue. Okay, sure, I said. I took the tray of precious buttertarts. That was my first mistake. I laid them on the passenger seat. That was my second mistake. Backing out of her driveway, I headed down to the talk. It was about half an hour away. The buttery sweet smell in my car was overwhelmingly mouthwatering. My stomach began to grumble. I salivated a little as I looked at the tray of buttertarts. Oh my, they were beautiful little items. The aroma of the fresh baked, still warm buttertarts was torture. Breakfast had been hours ago.
Playing the radio, I tried to distract myself by singing loud and off key to all the radio songs like Tanya Tucker’s remembering our family sing-songs featuring this very song:
Delta Dawn what’s that flower you have on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by? And did I hear you say he was ameetin’ you here today To take you to his mansion in the sky She’s forty one and her daddy still calls her baby All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy ‘Cause she walks downtown with a suitcase in her hand Lookin’ for a mysterious dark-haired man….
It wasn’t helping. Now there was drool spilling out of the corner of my mouth. I pulled up to the parking lot attendant window and was permitted into the lot. I then reached over and grabbed a buttertart, and,
Oh my god. It was incredible!!! My eyes rolled back into my head. The pastry was flaking all over my lips and down my chin. But wait, was that Deepak CHOPRA getting out of his car right there???!!! Holy shit. It WAS Deepak. I swiped at my mouth. I stopped the car, and while chewing furiously, rolled down the window. Deepak Chopra was walking over to me because I was waving at him with both arms like an idiot. He probably thought I was choking and that he would have to save me. He is an M.D. after all. My mouth bulged with buttertart. My lips could barely contain the delicious crumbs. The dark and mysterious Deepak was at my car door but I still could not speak due to the god-damned delicious buttertart that I was still masticating furiously.
I did the only thing I could do.
I opened my car door.
Climbed out and threw my arms around Deepak Chopra, getting a whiff of his spicey, exotic cologne. Then…moving slightly back from him, I looked into his deep, piercing, intelligent yet peacefully dark eyes as my crumb-coated lips somehow met his.
He was obviously accustomed to women throwing themselves at him. He wasn’t the least bit flustered.
At this point, the remainder of the buttertart was in my cheek and I was able to say something completely asinine:
Oh my god, I LOVE your work, Deepak!! You are an amazing writer!! You are doing wonderful things! You have helped me so much! If I wasn’t happily married…
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Okay, okay. Calm yourself.
His hands motioned me into relaxation and I nodded and smiled at him with crumbs falling out of my mouth. (Attractive? Most definitely Not!) I moved my car to a spot and berated myself for making such a fool of myself.
His talk was riveting. He stood at the edge of the stage and for two hours spoke about his books and his theories on life and health. I was really glad, by then, that I had eaten a second buttertart after pecking Deepak Chopra on the lips.
Now the sun’s gone to hell and
The moon’s riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die
But it’s written in the starlight
And every line in your palm
We are fools to make war
On our brothers in arms
We’ve all lost someone who we are sure is a mistake of nature to have died. A friend, a relative or, a celebrity: John Candy. Robin Williams. Princess Diana. Why? Why would they die early? They who never hurt anyone, but, who only did good things and helped people or who made people laugh. Why were they taken from us? It just is not fair.
Uncle Ted was that person for us. Ted was married to my husband, Dean’s eldest sister. They got married in the seventies and built their bungalow from scratch on a dead-end street in a small city in Newfoundland. They had three children and raised them with the utmost care and attention. There are now several grand-children who will never be held, played with or read to by Poppy Ted.
When I met Ted, I knew instantly that he was one of those truly good people. With his clear, gentle eyes and sweet smile. Always helpful. Always offering quiet advice. Always chuckling at my lame jokes. Always taking Leo and going off for a good play, running around outside playing shoot ’em up games, flying Buzz around, or reading books or squished up into Leo’s play cubby building Lego. I would sometimes forget how much time had gone by. Leo would be so well amused, there was no need for mommy. One time, on a day we were expecting Ted and Lanna to arrive anytime, I over heard a conversation between two six-year olds: Leo and his buddy, Kevin from next door. Kevin was asking would Leo be able to play after lunch.
Leo’s response: Can’t. Uncle Ted is coming.
Kevin: ‘So? Do you want to play?’
‘Oh no, I’ll be playing with Uncle Ted.’
‘He PLAYSwith you? asked an incredulous Kevin.
‘Like, anything you want?’
‘Yeah. Anything I want,’ answered a dreamy Leo.
‘Wow!’ said Kevin.
Some other wonderful things that Ted would do. He would shovel driveways and mow the grass of the elderly in his neighbourhood. He may be out there for hours after a snow fall – come in for a bite to eat and a cup of decaf tea and then right back at it. There were scores of examples of Ted’s kindnesses, acts of forgiveness and incredible selflessness. We’ve heard the saying What would Jesus do?
What would TED do?
In military college, there were four cadets tragically killed. Over reading break, four of them went off to fly a Cessna. One of them already having his pilot’s license. We never saw them again. It was a very small school. We all knew each other. We knew each other sometimes better than we wanted to know each other. We were struck dumb with the news of our missing classmates. We lived in this big old four-story building which was just like a Residence Dorm. Someone hooked up a major sound system outside the dorm and we all went to the windows of the south side of the building and held lighted candles while one cadet blasted Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits.
Everyone was wailing. Tears streaming down faces.
It was a powerful display of our misery for the loss of our classmates. I remember feeling completely helpless and very angry. Again, the question of why? Now that I am a mom, I could not fathom how any parent could survive a call about the death of their child. Imagine receiving that call, having raised your child and sent he or she off to college. Tragic.
When Mom was in her mid-fifties, she began, slowly, to lose her mind. Mom had always had a memory that would put anyone to shame. She could remember all the details. Who was born where, what time and how long each labour was. Birthdays of relatives and friends. The location of each pin in our house. Phone numbers and important details of her seven children’s lives. I remember calling home from Comox when I was posted out there and the dawning realization that Mom was losing her memory. She just could not answer my questions the way she would normally. She was almost stuttering and saying things like: I must be nertz! Mom did lose her memory. It didn’t go overnight though. It went slowly over the next fifteen or so years, until she was just a shell of herself. Sarah McLachlan sings a song called Mary. One time it was playing on the radio around the time that mom was getting more and more ill. Hearing it and the lyrics:
Mary walks Down to the water’s edge And there she hangs her head To find herself faded A shadow of what she once was
had me weeping and moaning at the early loss of such a great person. Another time, Dean and I were watching a movie in our basement apartment on a rainy day the months before we moved to the Arctic. There was a scene of an older woman in a nursing home who resembled mom in her looks, as well as in her dementia.
I began to cry.
I laid back on our bed and pulled my knees up toward my chest and rolled on my spine side to side. The sobbing came from deep in my centre with loud heaving moans that I could not stop. It was primordial. The feeling of loss was profound. I would have been embarrassed by this raw show of emotion but then I realized that I was grieving for the loss of my mom before she was even dead. That awful fucking disease had taken her long before her time. I missed her very badly. Mom was a good person. Everyone who knew her knew it. At her funeral, Mark sang his song that had grown men weeping with tears streaming down their faces.
Our special mother through all those years. Who gave us hugs and dried our tears. To help us out in every way. Always knowing just what to say.
A harder worker you could not find. Heart of gold and open mind. Thinking of others before herself. Even when she was ill of health.
But when Mom had the time to spare. Her special talents she would share. She swam the lake with graceful strokes. And sang us all the songs she wrote.
She would go on a painting spree. Paint the rocks white at number three. Paint the porch at number one. While singing her song, Please Mister Sun.
A gourmet meal was made from scratch. Pickerel, pike or small-mouth bass. Homemade soup and sugar pie. Crumbled fruit of any kind.
Even with the crosses she had to bear. Her strength and hope were always there. To get us through another day. In our hearts she’ll always stay.
So thank you Mom from all of us. For the care and love you gave so much. You truly are our guiding light. That will shine forever day and night.
We know you’ve finally been released. And now you’ll always rest in peace. AS you look down at us from heaven. Farewell for now, your loving seven. Copyright Dec 2001
Theory of loss? Could it be that it is not the event that is meant to teach us a lesson, but in the reaction to the event and in the love that is shown in support of the grieving? * In fact my sister Eva reminded me of it because I had been tearfully telling her about the tragic loss of a lovely 22 year old young man here in my neighbourhood. I was asking, ‘Why? Why should such a wonderful young person die?’ Eva reminded me. Perhaps it is just that simple.
* I just saw this idea portrayed in a television program called ‘Call the Midwife’.
At eight months pregnant, my friend Nancy asked me if wanted to go on a road trip with her to her hometown of Virginia Beach from Leesburg, some four and a half hours away. It was summertime, her two girls were out of school and she wanted to take them down to see their grandparents. We piled into her SUV with snacks and a cooler of drinks, including my ever present bottle of prune juice. You see, at that time, I had been told that one of the keys to a healthy pregnancy was to ensure a daily movement…of… well, the bowels. Always a sucker for health tips, I grasped onto said tip and sure enough, I would have a glass of cool prune juice every morning of my 270 day pregnancy term (I haven’t touched it again, since). Keeping that in mind, when I awoke on the second day of our trip and being out of routine, forgot to take my beloved prune juice, I was more than a little worried by mid-morning when nothing had, as of yet, moved.
Nancy was a nurse. She understood my worry. She asked her youngest daughter, Kerry, to bring me a glass of prune juice. We were seated on the patio, just taking a break after a stroll around the neighbourhood. Out comes eight-year old Kerry with quite a large glass of prune juice. Where I would normally have about four ounces, this was more like ten. Feeling rather touched to be served, I graciously accepted Kerry’s offering and, what the hell, drank it down, hearing Mom’s voice in my head: Waste not, want not, Morgan.
Not long thereafter, Nancy offered to take all of us for a walk on Virginia Beach, about 20 minutes away. We again all got into her vehicle and off we went. Nancy was pointing things out all the way with a look of nostalgia on her face: there was her old school; her old shopping area; her old hangout; her old favorite fast-food joint; her friend’s house. I could feel the vibes of her memories and could almost see a youthful Nancy running along beside us as we slowly toured the neighourhood.
Onto the highway next and up the ramp and over the bridge. Suddenly, my bowels started to feel odd. I must be imaging it, I thought. Everything is fine. Everything is fine, I thought. Next, out seeped a silent but deadly one with the automatic instantaneous human reactions: windows rolled down; four noses into the clean wind; worried eyes; hands over mouths. Sorry, sorry. I seem to be having a reaction to something. I told Nancy and the girls.
My guts churned and roiled and tiny stink-bomb expulsions continued. A few miles later I was bent in two holding my very pregnant middle. Which was difficult in itself. It was like bending over at basketball.
Oh my god Nancy, I have take a dump right now!!!
Nancy told me to hang in there and to let her know when it was a true emergency. She clearly did not understand. My pants would be soiled in a matter of minutes if I didn’t get out of the vehicle and onto a toilet. All I could see out the windows though, was a guard rail and what looked to be a fairly seedy area of the city.
This is truly an emergency, Nancy. I see an Arby’s. Can we go in there?
By this time I wasn’t talking very clearly because I had every part of my anatomy CLENCHED.
Nancy said, Morgan, that’s a really bad part of town. Are you sure?
Yes, Nancy. Hurry!
Nancy pulled in and out I got, walking funny into the Arby’s due to my full-body CLENCH coupled with my huge baby belly. I found the Lady’s room which was just inside the door. In I went and closed and latched the door. Maternity pants down and onto the cool toilet seat. What happened next was not pretty.
A bomb went off into that toilet bowl.
At that point, the couple of other ladies who had been in the bathroom, made a hasty departure with an OH MY GOD, just outside the door. I can hear you. I thought. Whatever, I had to get this out.
I was on the toilet for a few more minutes and was feeling a whole heck of a lot better. Washing well then waddling out of the Arby’s, there was Nancy with wild eyes, her driver’s side window cracked open pushing coins out to a Rastafarian-looking guy who was obviously quite down on his luck.
Jenny unlocked my door and I hopped in and off we went to the beach.
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. But, wanting to experience the true outback, we decided to take the historical Gahn train to the centre.
So, onto the train we got, bound for Alice Springs. While 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.)
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. He 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 Ramchers 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 an 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 move in 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 dropped into a mailbox, 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 on Earth. 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.
There 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 then offered a coveted 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! As an aside I have a funny moment to tell about a day of standing at a huge wooden bushel with a dozen other ladies cleaning garlic (peeling the dirty outer layer off). We were going around the circle telling stories to ease the boredom. When my turn came, I told ‘The Poo Story’. (Read it next at this link). Well the ladies died laughing. They were bent double. Some said they had to pee. Anyway, it helped pass the time.
We worked in that 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 with faces covered in watermelon pulp and juice, 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.
We 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. Another good tale.
Please Note: Credit for first two pics goes to google images. The last two were taken on a small, pocket Canon camera and rolls of film were saved for several months until returning with them to Canada. Once developed they were opened and viewed with care. They were our precious keepsakes. And still are.