The Easter Bunny Died On A Sunday

I wasn’t ready.  No one is.  I was sitting across from my 9 year old son in a breakfast diner.  I had just slurped down a welcome bit of coffee and was waiting on my waffles.  Suddenly, he said, “Mom, okay, you need to be a 100% honest with me:  Is there really a Santa?”  This was in May.  What kid asks this question in May?  Maybe November when thoughts of sugar plums begin to dance in their heads but not May.  This wasn’t the first time he had asked the question but I’d somehow dodged the bullet.  That was in December, closer to the ubiquitous thoughts of Christmas and I was ready for it.  Or at least, I was wondering if my then eight year old still believed in Santa.  So, I had a rough answer prepared.  But the May query caught me off guard and so, I decided in the space of 2 seconds a sacrifice had to be made to throw him off the trail.  So, I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Santa, is totally real.  The Easter Bunny is not.”  My husband, startled, looked up from his smart phone and gave me a look of what have you done ?!?!?! Which was followed by my son saying, “What?! But, everyone at school thinks the Easter Bunny is real!” Are you kidding me?  While everyone was discussing the existence of Santa in his Gr. 4 class, apparently  the Easter Bunny was off the discussion board because a 7 ft bunny that randomly hides chocolate for the amusement of children for no apparent motive, unlike Santa who has a moral undertone to his actions, is without question real in the minds of nine and ten year olds.  Go figure.

I guess a kid in his class had found unopened toys identical to those later received under the auspices of “Santa”.  He threw the class into a tizzy with his suspicions and I was left dealing with the aftermath.  I had sincerely thought the first mythical creature under suspicion would be the Easter Bunny because of the gaping hole in his back story.   Santa and the Leprechaun have loads of tales to corroborate their existence but the Bunny seems to pop out of nowhere and he has absolutely nothing to do with the spiritual gravitas of the coinciding Christian observances.  The Easter Bunny is just fluffy lore to pun it nicely.  Mental note:  children are easily fooled or at least their reasoning can be abducted with a few tasty morsels of chocolate; plan to lay out more chocolate around Christmas.

At this point you’re probably wondering what I told him to make him believe in Santa.  Well, it wasn’t that hard because some part of me really does believe in Santa.  The story I told him was evidence of some grander magic embodied by the man in red and it began like this:

When I was ten years old, we were living in a trailer on a First Nations reserve in Alberta.  This trailer was on loan to any teacher that wanted to live on reserve while they taught at the school, which my Mom did.  She was teaching special education, meaning they had cleared out a storage closet, stuck some desks in it and she tutored any student that had special learning needs.  The teacher trailers, as they were known, were relatively cheap to live in compared to the nearest town or city, which was Lloydminster, an hour drive away.  The major downside to these derelict trailers were the infestations of mice.  The trailers had never been properly sealed or if they had, there were now multiple entry points from the outside.  Trailer row was occupied by only one staff member from the school, that being my Mom and the rest of the trailers were occupied by band members since no roof was to be left unoccupied on a reserve with chronic housing shortages.  It was a testament to my mother’s economic situation which was more distressed than the average teacher at the school.  My step-dad was chronically underemployed and she being the only earner, we lived paycheck to paycheck.  The cheap rent made the money go further, even if the extra cash went into my step-dad’s pocket to play Bingo – one of his few pleasures and social outings that didn’t entail binge drinking.

Anybody who has lived in a mice infested home knows the first thing one learns is to never, ever trust a box of cereal or crackers or anything that can be chewed through by hungry mice teeth.  Upon pouring out the cereal into one’s bowl, you find a disappointing array of rice shaped black droppings and you curse yourself for having left the box lid opened.  One morning I found a half drowned mouse in the left opened honey container.  Being ten, I took this opportunity to place the distressed mouse in a cage we had kicking about and decided to give it water, some food and grass to bed on.  The mouse spent a long time trying to clean its fur but the grass kept sticking to it and it was a miserable mess.  My mother came home and demanded the mouse be returned outside which I dutifully did.  The reserve had various packs of roaming dogs, the teacher trailers being a popular spot for one group because of the readily available scraps pitched by a concentrated group of inhabitants.  Most homes at that time were built several miles apart but as the number of people grew and the economies of running infrastructure to groups of homes made more sense, rows of homes became more common.  I remember putting the sticky, sweet mouse outside and the pack of dogs sniffing and following the curious bonbon.  I didn’t wait around to see what happened.

I had a curious dream at that time, one that entailed my head being entangled in something and me trying to disentangle myself.  In the morning I found mouse droppings all over my pillow.  The mice were getting bold.  I decided I would try to catch them.  This was more for fun and to rid myself of boredom.  I propped a box on a stick with a string tied to it, left some food under the box and waited on the other end of the string.  My trap was set in the middle of the kitchen floor.  This usually never works because mice try to stay to the perimeter but by this point they had the run of the house.  I caught one, two, three, four, five.  It stopped being fun and I went to bed hoping they wouldn’t join me.

Christmas was on the horizon and that year my niece came to stay with us.  My step-dad had a daughter in her twenties and she had a four year old daughter.  It was fun having a younger kid to play with after my older sister had left home the year before.  It also made Christmas seem more exciting because Santa would have two reasons to visit. On Christmas morning, we had a plethora of gifts and the most memorable were the 4 ft cloth dolls we each were given.  I’m pretty sure that Christmas was special for my niece too because if I thought my life was hardscrabble, it was nothing in comparison to what she had and would eventually experience.

A short time later, I don’t recollect how the conversation started, maybe I was asking my Mom if Santa really existed, my Mom admitted to me there had almost been no gifts for Christmas.  She told me that as we sat in the motel room in Lloydminster, the load of groceries bought and the overdue bills paid, just a few days away from Christmas, she had just $30 left.  We were driving home the next morning so she decided to give my step-dad his Christmas present – the last $30 to play Bingo.  There was probably two reasons for this, one to keep him at the motel for the night so he wouldn’t ditch us to go drinking and two, to chance a bit of luck.  Well, he got lucky – twice.  He won $700 that evening and so they decided to keep the room another night so my Mom could buy presents the next day.  He went back to play the next day and won $500.  This was 1988 and that was A LOT of money back then.  My step-dad had also lost a lot of money at Bingo but that one time, the most important time as far as I’m concerned, he won.  As my Mom told me this story, as disturbed as I was that our fate could have been much worse and that it also implied Santa had not directly given us these gifts, I felt – no I believed powerful magic had enabled my step-dad to win.  From then on, my understanding of Santa matured from the jolly fellow that swoops down the chimney to the spirit of something much larger than ourselves, the cumulative understanding of something good and holy that pushes us to do better and create magic for the downtrodden and vulnerable.  We were not a Christian household, so the birth of Christ never factored into this epiphany but as I’ve grown older, I recognize the spiritual duality of Jesus and the Santa lore.

When I told this story to my son, he nodded his head knowingly and looked relieved.  Children understand magic.  They understand it inherently and we have to protect it  when we are trying to make sense of the world.  I feel a bit bad about killing the Easter Bunny.  My husband secretly admonished me that night, after the kids had gone to bed.  He told me he believed in the Easter Bunny for a long time.  I think a tiny part of him still does.  In future I need to be more careful in guarding those mythical creatures that inhabit my home for they also inhabit my family’s hearts where they embolden the imagination and fortify against despair.  For what is more precious than faith whether it be in a God, the universe, or in a red nosed, grizzled old man?  Who am I to judge.

 

 

 

Christmas Vacation

My son is a holiday dictator.  I mean that in a good way.  He has taken our playful observances of Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas and imposed a strict timeline of decor, tradition and excitement.  He can be depended on to initiate and sometimes completely take over decorating for the holidays and only due to his short stature are we obliged to hang lights above 4 ft or help with the stove and measuring if baking is required.

Since he was old enough to talk he would come outside and help me in any way he could to prop, hang and dig our Halloween decorations into place.  It didn’t help that I would talk about Halloween starting around the end of August and build the momentum until we had baked Halloween cupcakes, bought more Halloween decorations to add to our growing collection, tried on and played with our tickle trunk of costumes for several weeks and slowly overtook the end tables, mantle, walls and coffee table with an assortment of kitschy Halloween paraphernalia.  My husband eventually imposed an October 1 start date on our Halloween madness so that no planning or purchase of  goods or early decorating could be mentioned so as to minimize his growing ire with our enthusiasm.

Valentine’s Day was forever imposed on happy memories when we took our 14 month old son to a fancy restaurant on a ‘family date.’  Most people would think us insane to attempt it but we were on kid #1 and we wanted to maintain some sort of normalcy in our relationship.  Our son recognized our attire and decorum had changed in the candle lit and flowered setting.  He similarly put on a charming display of smiles and goodwill as he wolfed down mashed potatoes and braised beef in a wine reduction sauce.  The delicate desserts of chocolate encrusted confection impressed him as much as it did us.  The crowning moment came when we handed our Valentine’s Day cards to one another which we alternatively gushed over and then handed an envelope over to our toddler; he opened it to discover a card embossed with a smiling truck and large billowing hearts.  He was over the moon to receive it and he kept opening and closing it, each time looking up to express his amazement.  Every year we go on a ‘family date’ on Valentine’s Day and believe me, kid #1 and #2 love getting their cards and sometimes a few red, shiny knick knacks to go with it.

Easter is of course the time of the Bunny and all the tasty treats waiting to be found.  St. Patrick’s Day found a foothold when the year long ban on sugary cereal was lifted by a rascally leprechaun who left an opened box of Lucky Charms and wee little gifts of tiny handwriting and a forgotten shoe (the shoe was taken to school the next day for the other children to marvel at and is now in storage in a treasure box hidden somewhere in my son’s room).

Nothing quite compares to my son’s reverence for the tradition of Christmas.  By the time December 25th had been realized this year, my son had made laborious attempts at creating a magical feeling in our household.  He was adamant about purchasing a 12 ft blow up Santa with his own savings of gift and allowance money but his father and I demurred and made the purchase ourselves.   He strung the tree with lights before I even knew he had finished and he brought up the ornaments from the basement with the fervor of reclaimed memories.  Despite the Christmas music and his little sister’s drunken delight in the glass balls and delicate figurines, he grumbled the tree was perhaps too haphazardly assembled and would require some better coordination of lights, garlands and ornamentation to be truly beautiful.   He then could not stand the hollow beneath the lowest branches and proceeded to wrap the presents he had purchased at the school Christmas flea market and even hustled to make some drawings carefully folded and wrapped so as to add height to the first stack of shiny papered packages.  Surfaces were claimed for singing dioramas of polar bears and penguins and removable hooks were attached to the walls and mantle to string even more lights.  His little sister got on the wagon of festive cheer by insisting beautiful cookies were to be made for Santa and our friends.  On Christmas eve the four of us sat around the table for several hours dabbing the final edible beads on our iced sugar cookies of trees, snowmen and snowflakes.

What happens to a boy as he grows up each year with another layer of memory and fondness for the warm glow of family and magic?  Four Christmases ago, when his little sister was just 7 month old and I and my husband were straining under broken sleep, the reality of searching out a live tree was too daunting.  The family in Saskatchewan, 7 driving hours away, was anticipating our visit and the new baby for Christmas so we told our son that we would forego a tree that year.  Our son had just turned six a few days before and he made a remarkable decision.  We had a three foot plastic tree in a weighted decorative pot with white lights meant to decorate the outdoor threshold of a home.  He asked that we bring it up from the basement and use it as our Christmas tree.  We thought it was a great idea and decided the white lights would suffice for decoration.  But, over the next several days while we were distracted with the usual baby/household demands, he dug through the Christmas boxes and finished decorating the humble tree by himself with a plethora of ornaments.  It had begun.

To give you a sense of what awaits our family you need only to watch “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” circa 1989.  Chevy Chase stars as Clark Griswold, the torch bearer to all hopes and dreams of Christmas past and present.  Hours are spent on a confusing array of string lights, ladder and staple gun to bring messianic splendor to his home’s and family’s exterior.  An epic crusade to the forest finds him the perfect tree which induces his daughter’s hypothermia and overwhelms his living room.   When it is destroyed by neglected watering and a reckless cigar, he is driven to a temporary insanity which finds him hacking down a front yard evergreen.  Two thirds through the movie I had my epiphany – all Clark Griswolds were once little boys who embraced the holidays with overzealous dreams and lofty ambitions.  They were the boys that hauled the boxes two times their weight up from the basement and began the decorating in earnest while mom and dad drank wine and played cribbage.  These were the boys that grew up to be men with synchronized Christmas music and light shows that choked up neighborhood traffic and were later posted on YouTube.  I saw all of it clearly and in the midst of the movie I turned to my son and jokingly said, “That’s you.  That’s you when you’re a dad.”  Except my son didn’t laugh.  He turned back to the screen, took in the frenetic joy of chaos, lights, family and eggnog and gave a knowing nod in agreement. Damned if I hadn’t raised our torch bearer.   He would surpass even my own aspirations of holiday grandeur.  Now, I just had to survive several more years before he relinquished my home and decorations in exchange for his own.  It’s a wonderful life when you got family like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Am Nine Years Old*

I just had the January 2017 National Geographic delivered to my house.  It is a special issue on “Gender Revolution” which examines our entrenched and evolving biases towards males and females.  Page 30 is titled “I Am Nine Years Old: Children Across the World Tell Us How Gender Affects Their Lives.” A cultural cross section of nine year olds from 80 households across 4 continents are asked seven questions pertaining to gender because “Children at this age are unquestionably taking account of their own possibilities-and the limits gender places on them.”  I was intrigued by the questionnaire because my son turned nine on December 12.  He can be a soulful little kid sometimes so this morning after he made us pancakes (I woke up to him whispering a question of how much flour and baking powder is needed and after I jotted down the recipe he measured, mixed and fried up the pancakes) I asked if it would be okay to ask him seven questions.  Here are the seven questions posed in National Geographic and my son’s answers:

1)What’s the best thing about being a boy?

70% of the time boys are more athletic than girls.  We’re very athletic.

2)What’s the worst thing about being a boy?

People make fun of us if we wear girly clothes like dresses, lip gloss, nail polish.

3)How might your life be different if you were a girl instead of a boy?

I wouldn’t be made fun of for girly stuff like dresses, nail polish, lip gloss or dolls.

4)What do you want to be when you grow up?

An engineer or geologist because I like learning about minerals and the value of gems.  An engineer because I like building stuff and creating stuff.

5)What is something that makes you sad?

Grumpy and harsh parents. People bullying me – but it also makes me very angry.

(Me in my head:  Ouch.)

6)What makes you happy?

Family is number one.

(Me in my head:  Thank God.  I haven’t messed you up too much yet.)

7)If you could change something in your life or in the world, what would it be?

Better care of the environment.  Invent new stuff that will keep the environment clean like electric cars, solar panels, electric scooters or bikes.  Keep people from using that stuff in spray cans that wrecks the atmosphere.


Just for fun I decided to ask my three and a half year old the same questions.

1)What’s the best thing about being a girl?

Sliding on a crazy slide.

2)What’s the worst thing about being a girl?

Going on a creepy slide with ghosts and zombies.

3)How might your life be different if you were a boy instead of a girl?

I would be grown up.

4)What do you want to be when you grow up?

A princess.

5)What is something that makes you sad?

Parents.

(Double Ouch. I sense a theme here.)

6)What makes you happy?

Happy parents.

(Okay.  I get it.)

7)If you could change something in your life or in the world, what would it be?

I could change into a butterfly.


After these insightful answers from my nine and 3 1/2 year old I’m led to believe they will buffer society’s expectations only as well as the padding of love and support I and their Dad offer them.  My daughter believes ghosts and zombies won’t torment her specifically because she’s a girl.  Rather, they are scary for girls and boys alike because childhood, whatever setting or context, is a shared experience.  Parents will passively or assertively influence the choices that are offered whether it be dolls, guns, domesticity or education because we’re not perfect specimens of parental nurturing.  We are constantly taking the temperature of gender equality and pushing our offspring to categorize themselves in the roles on offer-preferably highest in the hierarchy.

When my son went to daycare, I was blown away by the partitioning of interests among the majority of boys and girls.  Up until that point, I thought gender neutrality was possible.  I was wrong.  The girls liked dolls and playing house and the boys spent inordinate amounts of time vrooming.  They occasionally dabbled in other spheres:  my son would play the baby when the girls played house.  He sometimes wore dresses and frequently wore my Mardi Gras beads and gaudy faux diamond bracelets.  Eventually, the three year old girls asserted only girls could wear jewellery.  The boys didn’t care and I could point out several male rappers that blinged while they swaggered.  It seemed there was a gender partition of interests but tastes were imposed.  Unlike the body paint and finery of men in tribal cultures, many men and boys have few options to add striking color to their mundane palette.  No wonder mossy oak camouflage is so popular among white males in patriarchal communities.  Is the camouflage nature of their fashion an unconscious nod to their stylistic suppression?

My parents told me and my sister we were amazing when we forgot and we forgot frequently from the ages of 13-23. We were reminded enough to make us believe that we were capable of anything.  I’m not a perfect parent and I’m sure I’ll stumble along to get it right just like my parents did but I’m also pretty sure my kids will never doubt I and their Dad are their biggest fans.  The balance will be found in recognizing and supporting their gender differences while giving them freedom to explore and find comfort in whomever they need to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Petulant Daughters

I love my kids.  I love my son for his zombie humor and his older-than-eight-years introspection and thoughtfulness.  I love my three year old daughter for her complete and utter belief in the empowerment of little girls and in her superhero awesomeness.  They are fascinating creatures to watch – better than television.   At this stage of the parenthood game I have a few tricks up my sleeve and a well of patience I’ve dug from the multitude of traumatizing experiences of being a parent: public tantrums, pale yellow torrents of diarrhea that signal impending vomiting, horrific embarrassment after your child ‘truths’ you out to your friends (yes, I think your kid plays too many video games), and of course the epic fail of realizing the movie you watched was totally inappropriate for your 3 year old and she tells everyone she meets about the “monster sucking out the man’s eyeballs and eating them.”   When you’ve committed $60 to the movie tickets and the snacks, your moral compass gets hocked.

For all my procreating hubris, there is one challenge that I have yet to meet eye to eye – that of the petulant daughter.   Our family doesn’t have the best track record of mother-daughter relationships.  They are fraught with narcissism and in some instances, mental illness.  Sons seems better adept at rolling with the punches – thank you Oedipus and the simplified social gratification of men.  Women’s brains are hardwired for mapping out the circuitous routes of hierarchy and alliance.  We are by nature striving for the perfection of give and take and so we are incredibly perceptive of imbalance.  It only took several thousand years to begin balancing the scales of housework and career with our spouses because as you know, women have the ability to hold a grudge for a very, very long time.  It drives us to betterment. Or at least pushes us to take a step upwards on the ladder of whatever social contrivance we are trying to best.  I suppose it is no small wonder our daughters’ first rung in on the backs of their mothers.

My daughter wants power to do as she pleases.  My job is to temper her enthusiasm with facts.  Yes, you must wear a winter coat, it is -10C outside and you will catch a cold if you don’t.  Yes, you must be kind and gentle to other children because no one will play with you if you yell at them.  Yes, you must hold my hand while we cross the street because the odds of being hit by a car climb substantially if you run out on your own.  I have to remind her daily it is my job to keep her safe and teach her the social customs that will allow her to get along with the world.  I have had the same conversations with my son and he accepts these truths  wholeheartedly.  My daughter begrudges my interference.

What is a Mom to do?  Alas, I have been a petulant daughter, myself.  Inevitably, daughters will cast off what they will and accept what they wish.  It is a process as old as fermentation.  Sometimes you get a wonderful byproduct such as bread and beer and sometimes it is a rotting mess of a science project gone awry.  There is a certain comfort in knowing you are raising the next matriarch.  She will take over the planning and preparation of family feasts and will ensure the connectivity of her brethren.  It is innate.  I must remind myself to step back, step back and watch.  My daughter needs the freedom to explore her superhero awesomeness.  Today she will leap from her bed onto a pile of stuffies, gaining mementos of confidence and tomorrow she will argue and provide counterattack to perceived parental injustice.  She must do this because in the future she will battle greater foe than I.   In the meantime, I will provide her with the best memories I can (sorry about the eyeballs), keep her safe and love her with every ounce of my soul and heart.

Shotgun Soup

In Canada growing up poor is shotgun soup.   Anyone who is living paycheck to paycheck or grew up in a household that lived paycheck to paycheck might have an idea to what I am referring.  In their home it might be called “casserole surprise!” or “mishmash hash” but whatever you call it there is no mistaking the ungodly union of yesterday’s leftovers with the leftovers from last week.  My Mom liked to add water to the mix and because we weren’t quite sure what was in it, it was christened “shotgun soup” because it truly was a shotgun blast of unidentifiable food leftovers.   There is nothing like eating a twice cooked piece of pasta while pondering if the orange mush clinging to it is sweet potato or carrots.

When you are a kid running home from school, hungry to devour whatever tasty snacks are to be found in the fridge, disappointment doesn’t come much harsher than shotgun soup.  As soon as you saw the chilled vat sitting in the fridge you knew payday was two days away and there wasn’t a fresh piece of fruit to be found.  Forget cereal: the milk was all gone and you had tried Corn Flakes with water before and it sucked.  Toast?  Ha, in your dreams.  The peanut butter and jam were gone too.  The next day of school you were getting crackers stuck together with margarine and some carrot sticks that had lost their crunch 5 days ago.  You just needed to survive to Friday when Mom got paid.  Until then, you decided it was a better idea to play over at your friend’s house where they had an ample supply of Cheez Whiz.

I wish shotgun soup was the worst thing I’ve ever eaten but poverty has end members of feast and famine.   We never starved but I contemplated not eating for a few days so I could avoid tofu pie.  This was the era before YouTube and the Food Network so even though today tofu pie might exist somewhere out there on the website of a vegan hipster promoting local organic food with gourmet twists on once unpalatable food, my Mom took a stab at this sometime in the early 90s.  It did not go well.  There were two things left in the kitchen that week, besides the flour and lard which never went anywhere: tofu and jars of mincemeat.  I wish I could say the mincemeat was bought at a farmer’s market or a trendy boutique food store but sadly it was the clearance jars of mincemeat found in bins at the grocery store after Christmas.  For some reason my Mom had decided to stockpile several jars – I can only assume she knew this day was coming.  Except on that day there was tofu in the fridge and my Mom, wanting to be sure we didn’t sugar crash on mincemeat pie, added the tofu to satisfy our protein requirements for the remainder of the week.  Tofu mincemeat pie is a sickly grey color.  There is nothing that can prepare you for the first bites of this horrendous combination and I was hungry for several days before I attempted it again.  Hunger can render anything palatable.  By the end of the week, we were onto pie #3 and by then my mind and taste buds had decided tofu mincemeat pie was just fine.

Three days ago, I decided it would be a great idea to throw some leftovers into the remaining  vegetable soup.  There was steamed kale and carrots, bits of steak and the zingy background of canned soup.  I toasted slices of multigrain bread, spread ample butter to melt on top of it, and then we dipped it into the newly conceptualized melange.  It was good.  Really good.  Though my family is blessed to have a surplus of food, shotgun soup leaves a mark.  Wasting food is not an option but creative reinvention is definitely on the menu.

 

FRANCE

We got back from France on June 17.  We was myself, my eight year old son and my three year old daughter.  Dad stayed home to tend to the economic fires.  My sister and her family live in Perth, Australia so I thought it would be a great idea to meet them in Marseille, France where her husband’s family resides.  And it was great.  Great for culture, history, family and the stunning beauty of France.  And it was also hard spending three straight weeks with your kids, everyday, every hour, every minute, every second.  I woke up on day 16 to the delightful laughter and screaming of children beckoning me to feed them, feed them, feed them and to find the IPad and Princess Elsa and were we eating chocolate croissants because they love chocolate croissants.  This was into minute two of day sixteen and I lost my mind.  Somewhere in Canada my husband was sleeping deeply, spreading his carefree body across my side of the bed and drinking in the solitude through every pore of his body.  I was burning brioche in the oven and embellishing my exhausted rage with the reckless use of “Fuck.”  My sister, her husband, my nephew and my kids made a hasty retreat to the other room while I embraced the madness of burnt breakfast and unmade coffee.  It was an epic parent fail.

Let’s step back in time.  I am a lover of the unknown.  I have wholeheartedly jumped into adventures to Guatemala, Ecuador, Egypt, Belize and Mexico with nary a concern for research about political unrest, tourist kidnappings or terrorist threats.  I like to arrive wide eyed and blundering so as to catch the locals with their worried stares or offer up predatory hopes to the the knic knack vendors and con men.   After I returned from Guatemala during a university led trip (this was shortly after the end of the civil war but guerrilla groups were still kidnapping tourists), I finally phoned up my parents to tell them where I had been.  It was an afterthought because I was independent and I had paid for the trip myself.   That Christmas, my father, a man not prone to much emotional sharing, gave me a book titled, “World’s  Most Dangerous Places” with Guatemala lovingly earmarked.

Several years have passed since I’ve been on a trip that has surprised my senses or tested my character.   I’ve managed to keep our family away from resorts or Disney cruises but Hawaii or California hardly test one’s mettle.  Don’t get me wrong, a resort would be really relaxing but once you’ve crossed the line into watered down cocktails and Kid’s Club babysitting you’ve entered into easy and easy is scary.  Easy is processed food dinners with high carbohydrate and sugar content, credit cards and binge watching on Netflix.  Easy doesn’t feed the soul,  it builds debt that will eventually need to be repaid.  It doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to suffer through life – I’ve avoided crack and prostitution and still feel surprisingly whole.   I’m just saying France with two children in tow was hard and hard is good.   I found a well of patience hidden in my depths especially after the 9th hour on the plane when my three year old still hadn’t slept and was careening off into irrational fits of squawking and contortions of unrest in her seat.  She fell asleep on landing.

The two best surprises from our trip to France:  my daughter stopping to gaze intently at the same Picasso painting that had captured my attention.  Unlike most of the Picasso artwork at the exhibition which was layered with curvatures and obliques of color, this large painting was centered on a person of singular blue.  It was striking and surreal and shockingly beautiful.  The second best surprise was my eight year old son, sitting across the aisle from me on the plane, striking up a lengthy conversation with two young bearded men from Oman.  I nodded to the men so they knew I was his mother but gave my son space to engage freely with his row companions.  He showed them how to play the onboard video games and they answered his polite questions about their country and themselves.  After landing back in Canada, my son told me they were geologists on their way to the AAPG (American Association of Petroleum Geologists) conference in Calgary.   He had told them I was a geologist and I had traveled to Egypt for work and spoke a little Arabic.  The eight year old boy who arrived back in Canada was not the same boy who left for France.  In fact, none of us were.

 

My Daughter Burps Like a Truck Driver

My daughter burps like a truck driver. She somehow lets out low, prolonged belches like it’s nobody’s business.  She probably learned it from her big brother but even he can’t burp like she can.  She is almost three.  She stands on her tippy toes and tries to spin like a ballerina.  She wears taffeta and adores rhinestones.  She can also fart like an old man on a warm bench in July.  She will suddenly fart, say “fart” and then chuckle like a self satisfied old man on a warm…… never mind, you get the picture.

I suppose admonishment is what is called for in these situations but secretly, I’m impressed.  Her older brother is definitely impressed.  Yeah, we insist she says, “Excuse me.”  But, she also knows that every time she either farts or burps, our eyes will open wide and then a smile will follow and then a suppressed smile will follow after that.  She’s got the world by the balls and she knows it.

Kids are good fun.  If only we remember to laugh before we scold.   I doubt my daughter will take her burping or farting beyond her middle school years.  If she does, I may be risking the chance at future grandchildren or she marries a truck driver.  I just hopes she never stops laughing.  Even at her own jokes.

Her eight year old brother has an equally impressive talent that would offend good company.  Here is his effeminate characterization of a fashionista:

“Oh. My. God.  Look at my nails.  They are sooooo glamorous.”  Hand postured outwards, head tilted sideways, a dramatic roll of the eyes.

“Oh my goodness.  Look at what I’m wearing. I’m sooooo perfect.”  Swagger, provocative sideways shoulder glance.  Flittering eyelids. Big flashy smile.

The flashy smile gets me every time.  Only because eight year old boys are a toothy mixture of large adult teeth and awkward gaps where the adult teeth have yet to come in.

I lamely tried to copy my son’s antics one day when I was attempting to regale my friends with humorous stories about my children.   Either my son is not as funny as I think he is or I’m not funny telling people how funny my son is because they gave those painful polite chuckles when your story has fallen flat but they are trying to humor you.

We have a family joke that we’ve been riffing on for  a couple of years now.   It starts off by someone directing serious attention at another person.

“Son, I have something very serious to tell you.”  This is followed by son’s eyes getting wide and concerned looking.

Big sigh. “Okay, this is really hard to tell you.” Another big sigh. “I’m not sure if I should.”   Kid’s eyes are starting to look scared now.

“What I’m about to say may shock you.”  Look down.  Pause.  Kid has stopped breathing.

Look up with a slight twinkle in the eye. “I LOVE YOU.” Big grin.  Kids exhales a huge sigh of relief and then gives you a crazy smile.

We randomly initiate these exchanges whenever the mood hits us, trying to fool the person so they don’t catch on the I Love You bit is coming.  My son loves it and likes to parlay off of me and his father.  His little sister caught on to the concept this year except she can’t keep a straight face yet.  She does a lot of sighing while she’s trying to suppress a huge grin.  When we’ve all forgotten to play the I LOVE YOU game for awhile, it’s really fun to remember to trick someone you love.

I realize this type of humor has a shelf life along with flaxen haired dolls and G rated movies.  But, right now, it is pretty awesome.  Take that Jon Stewart and Amy Schumer.

 

What a Silverback Gorilla Taught Me About Diplomacy

I live in Calgary, Alberta.  We have an excellent zoo in our city and I have held an annual membership for eight straight years.  Let me deal with the zoo detractors now:  yes, keeping an animal in a cage is not cool, even if it is for educational purposes but let’s face it, city folk are desensitized to cramped habitat.  Our day is broken up into compartmentalized spaces:  our homes, our work, box stores, grocery stores and the gym.  When a walk in the forest or jungle isn’t an option, the next best thing is distraction. When I take my family to the zoo, we derive entertainment from watching the animals and the animals derive entertainment from watching us.  People watching is an actual thing; sit on a bench in a mall or attend a Comic-Con convention.  You get the picture.

Needless to say, we have gone to the zoo A LOT.  My eight year old son would rather not go to the zoo now but he loves his little sister and she loves the zoo.  She is two years old and the last time we went, we rode the carousel which has lovely ornate animals carved out of wood.  On her first ride (because, believe me, there were several) she started pointing and naming off all the animals: giraffe, tiger, penguin, lion, gorilla, seal, lizard, horse, hippopotamus (yes, all 5 syllables). Wow.  I actually took it for granted she was learning anything. Though, I doubt she’s concerned about habitat loss or species endangerment.  For myself, especially on quiet days when the zookeepers are starved for human interaction, I have been able to acquire juicy tidbits of zoo gossip. For example, the female hippopotamus is a bitch.  There is only one breeding pair and she is on husband #2.  She was originally paired with a fairly elderly fellow and she gave him a hard time whenever the mood suited her.  Whereas her dark grey body was smooth and folded into healthy rolls of fat, his skin was usually lacerated and puffy with pink contusions caused by her short tempered nips.  Have you ever seen hippopotamus teeth?  Love nips these were not.  He eventually died of old age but his health was made poorer by domestic abuse.   Alas, husband #2 is now showing the same tell tale signs of  abuse.  How quickly the honeymoon phase ends.

It is no surprise the best zoo gossip can be found with the gorilla troop.  Their social dynamics are most akin to ours being that both our genera started up the same family ladder.   They wrestle, tease one another, attempt displays of bravado or intimidation, nit pic each other – literally, because grooming is an important habit and generally look occupied with mutual observation and boredom.  Which is the same look I have when I’m sitting at the mall waiting for my daughter to finish up with the play area.  These play areas are usually a boxed in assortment of car and animal moulds finished with spray paint and a flexible veneer so the kids can slide easily on and off.  The walls are padded and have the occasional placement of puzzle boards with things that swish, grumble and clack when moved.  All the parents are usually numb with a mixture of boredom and fatigue and their faces are aglow with smartphone reverie.  At least the bench seats against the interior enclosure are padded.  And you have to take off your shoes so you get to sit there in socked feet.  In retrospect, I’ve experienced the anthropomorphized version of a gorilla enclosure.  The gorillas have moulded trees and rocks , ample straw to lay about and enrichment activities all the while barefoot and shrouded in the glow of smartphone camera flashes.

The Calgary zoo gorilla troop is special because of one member in particular: Kakinga.  He is the silverback gorilla or the leader of the troop.  He is paternal, calm and good natured.  He rarely if ever displays outward signs of aggression and steps in during family disputes only after holding back and observing, allowing the fractious members time to sort it out themselves.  15 years ago, a female gorilla, Zuri was brought to Calgary after a failed attempt to integrate her into the troop at the Toronto zoo.  The problem was Zuri acted too human.  She had been bottle fed and handled by the zookeepers at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs and had inadvertently picked up some of their habits and behavior.  The Calgary troop and Kakinga were her best chance at integration and seven years after her introduction, she successfully birthed a baby girl, Yewande.  What was the more significant aspect of this story was Zuri didn’t know how to be a gorilla mom after her experiences with humans.  The Calgary zookeepers taught Yewande to feed on a bottle offered through the cage mesh to avoid handling her and  Kakinga took over the majority of the parenting. I observed first hand Zuri wandering away from Yewande, leaving her young daughter in potentially hazardous situations and Kakinga quickly sauntering over to his daughter to gently nudge her to safer play and feeding areas.  He has allowed her and her playmates easy access to his private space, demonstrating exceptional patience and gentleness for a silverback.  Kakinga’s demeanor is so gentle, there was an attempt to introduce two juvenile males to the troop.  Kakinga, it turns out, is no dummy.  The males were not allowed to join the troop, securing Kakinga’s dominance and eliminating any possibility of future squabbles.

There are long panes of windows that cover roughly a third of the enclosure’s perimeter.  The female gorillas sometimes prop their feet up against the window, rest lazily on the straw while chewing their cud and take the occasional interested glance at the children smooshing their faces against the glass.  There is one gorilla that likes to randomly thump the glass to watch visitors’ startled reactions.  I’ve never seen Kakinga do this.  He displays proper gorilla etiquette, keeping his wide, muscled back to us and maintaining the aloofness as befits a noble leader.  Actually, this isn’t entirely true.  Many years ago, before kids, my husband and I went to the zoo.  It was one of those dead winter days, half an hour after the gates had closed for the day and so quiet the zookeeper told us not to rush as he did his final checks through the ape and monkey building.  We moved up to the glass and because there was no one to judge us, we squatted down and half turned our backs to the troop, casting our gaze down to show our submissiveness (yes, I watched “Gorillas in the Mist” with Sigourney Weaver).  Kakinga moved toward the glass and rested his back on the window.  He was inches away from us; he occasionally glanced over his shoulder at us and we kept our gaze down and snuck the occasional look towards him.  The other troop members made half attempts to peer at us but otherwise left Kakinga to inspect us.  We sat there huddled like that for half an hour, impressed by the strength and presence of his mass and honored that he wanted to be close to us.  We had to leave when the zookeeper came for the final sweep but I could have stayed there for hours just for the remarkable feeling of humbleness that had overwhelmed me.

Given the question of what  I admire in a person, I would have to reference my knowledge of Kakinga: patience, compassion, intelligence and an innate goodness.   As a result, his troop is happy, rambunctious and relaxed.  I like to think I’ve taken a few pages from his playbook and given my own family that same sense of safety and caring.  More importantly, I’ve learned to step back and observe and wait.  We don’t do it enough, I think:  the idea of relinquishing control to give others the opportunity to make mistakes and solve their own problems.   There is always someone out there willing to solve your problems.  They seem to live in a special land called infomercial or in the self-help section at Chapters.  Maybe we need to trust ourselves more and listen to our instincts.   While we’re busying ourselves trying to save the animals, we should pause to learn how they can save us.

 

Cruel Shoes

I have a two year old daughter.  She will be three in three months and what I find remarkable is how enamored she is with beautiful things.  This is not a girl thing per se as I have distinct memories of my son adorning himself with gaudy faux diamond bracelets and Mardi Gras beads until the little girls in his daycare harassed him about wearing jewellery.  They clearly thought bling was exclusive fashion for females but I was okay with it because I had seen rappers get away with giant festoons of gold around their necks.  It was also a great way to get rid of all the tacky jewellery I had been given.  Your mother-in-law can’t begrudge an uber cute three year old boy tromping around the house wearing the bear claw necklace she gave you.

I was a little girl once and there are pictures of me in dresses but I also remember my older sister begging me to wear them.  She was six years older and nothing pleased her more than tying my hair up in little ponytails or braids and dressing me up in scarves, dresses and bows.  The rest of the time I was happy to roam in jeans and shirts and to this day, people are surprised when I show up to Christmas parties with makeup on.   Which is why I’m so intrigued by my daughter.  She  insists dresses are de rigueur daily wear.  She is an unabashed mugger with sunglasses on and can’t fathom why her black velvet slippers aren’t practical for a blizzard.

Steve Martin came up with a great skit back in the 70’s to lampoon women’s painful obsession with fashion.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Carlo disappeared into the back room for a moment, and then reappeared carrying an ordinary shoe box. He took off the lid and removed a hideous pair of black and white pumps. But this was not an ordinary pair of black and white pumps; both were left feet, one had a right angle turn with separate compartments that pointed the toes in impossible directions. The other shoe was six inches long and was curved inward like a rocking chair with a vise and razor blades to hold the foot in place.

Carlo spoke hesitantly, ‘Now you see…they’re not fit for humans.’

‘Put them on me.’

‘But…’

‘Put them on me!’

Carlo knew all arguments were useless. He knelt down before her and forced the feet into the shoes.

The screams were incredible.

Anna crawled over to the mirror and held her bloody feet up where she could see.

‘I like them.'”

Full disclosure:  I love, love shoes.  If I had unlimited wealth, I would be that woman with three walk in closets full of shoes.  I am also a size 11 which is a cruel twist in nature’s imperative to have me beautify for a mate.  I am very proud of a pair of gold sneakers with Chinese embroidery on the side.  I wear these to the theater to fit in with the cool artist types.

I suppose it is somewhat hereditary that my daughter loves, loves her little brown cowboy boots.  We were in Nashville last spring and we discovered that not only is this a magnificently cool city with a great vibe and an amazing music scene but it is also a great place to buy three cowboy boots for the price of one.  They need some way of attiring the masses in country uniform and I’m guessing this is the cheapest place on earth to buy leather boots.  That is saying a lot from a gal from Calgary, Alberta – host to the world famous Calgary Stampede and major shopping hub in cowboy country.   We bought one pair for our little girl and two pairs for our son because my son seemed enthralled by the boots and we weren’t sure if our daughter would find them comfortable.  My son settled on a brown pair and red pair (but only after confirming with sales staff that the red pair were boy’s boots – sales staff are not going to crush the enthusiasm of a seven year old boy in a town that thrives on dreams).   It was nearly impossible to take those brown little boots off of her.  I didn’t know a two year old could strut but she sure did.   It was only the Canadian winter that forced those boots off her finally.

We have had an unseasonably warm February this year.  There were more days above + 5C in a month which usually sees temperatures below -5C.  The snow has all melted and the ice rinks are slushy pools.  My daughter came to me a week ago and asked if she could wear her cowboy boots. “They make me feel good,” she said.  Who can argue with that?  We got her boots and she started putting them on.  Except, 9 months had passed and she had grown.  With a squinty look of pain, she forced her left foot into the boot.  I asked,”Are you in pain?” “No.” She let out a gaspy breath as she forced the right foot into the other boot.  I asked, “Are they comfortable?” “Yes.”  She hobbled out the door with a smile on her face.  I knew what this meant. The cowboy boots had become her Cruel Boots.  She wore them for one hour before she discarded them and ran around in socks.  But, it didn’t stop her from putting them on the next day. Or the day after.

In three months it will be her birthday.  I am buying her a new pair of cowboy boots and the Cruel Boots will quietly disappear.  I suspect there will be other cruel shoes and I will continue to nudge my daughter to more humane choices.  That is my job. Everyone has their cruel shoes; those beautiful impractical things that imperil our common sense and make us feel good.  The trick is knowing when to caste them off and run around free.

 

 

The Liars’ Club

When I was three or four years old, roughly the time I realized adults couldn’t see out of the back of their heads or read my mind, I took a brief foray into lying.  I say brief because kids have a horrible poker face and my Mom, after deducing that my new lucky rabbit’s foot (not so lucky it turned out) was pinched from a neighbour, sat me down and with a particular look of concern told me that if I started lying I’d stop being able to tell the difference between truth and lies.  The deep furrow in her forehead told me this was a serious matter.  My Mom was a fairly laid back parent and she only interceded if it merited strong parental guidance.   The only other significant memory I have under the age of five was when she suggested smiling might be a good idea – apparently I was a serial scowler until the age of three.  It unnerved adults when I would give them a squinty eyed stare of death after they felt the liberty to tousle my hair.  Both times I heeded her advice and my family grew up with a fairly amiable and honest kid.

Childhood is great because most things are laid out in black and white.  Bad: stealing, punching, lying, cheating, picking your nose and eating the booger.  Good: smiling, sharing, taking turns, putting on clean underwear.  It hits a snag somewhere in your teenage years when your girlfriend shows up with the high and mighty front bang held a foot above her hairline by a full can of aerosol hairspray.  When she asks you if you like it you say Yes.  When she asks if you want help styling your hair the same way you say Yes.  And Yes, you stop being able to discern if you truly like it or you’re living a lie. Welcome to social pressure.

Marriage becomes the new frontline.  The black and white is now entirely grey.  Should I tell him I ate a free promotional piece of pizza on the way home while he was preparing dinner?  I did.  Don’t.  Should I tell him his black fedora looks super dorky?  I didn’t.  Thank God, because he wore it for five more years.   I had to school my husband on the good ‘white’ lies in our first year of cohabitation.   One day, he walked in just as I had finished dressing myself in a blouse in which I felt fairly confident I looked good.  My new husband informed me that I could do better and I should probably change before we headed out for the evening.  In his pragmatic man head he was doing me a favour.  In my head I was about to do him a favour.  I proceeded to explain that our marriage would survive much better odds if he incorporated the infrequent, but awfully useful, white lie in situations where I was happy and content in my self-delusion.  He balked at any kind of lying in a marriage, believing it would set a bad precedent.  Then, I pointed out how ugly his shirt was.  He was an easy convert.

The funny thing about getting older as your parents sidle into retirement is Mom and Dad turn up to old age with selective memory loss.  The lovely folks that told you to be yourself, never steal and never lie suddenly draw forth memories that don’t look familiar.  Don’t mistake this with dementia, the memories are intact, they are just more titillating.  Minor characters are introduced born several years after the event occurred and when time travel is not used as a plot device, they rely on an illegitimate child raised by a distant relative.  Sometimes, when I’ve had a few beers, I can listen and fuss not that reality has been abandoned for the sake of a good story.  On other days I can’t resolve the contradiction of the parents from my childhood from the shysters sleeping in my guest bed.

I recently read that every time a memory is recalled it is altered, albeit in a small way.  Over time, memories that are recalled frequently are the most indistinguishable from the original.  The person doing the recollecting is unaware they are forever altering the past.  It seems it is human to err and we are all doomed to join the Liars’ Club.  It gives one pause when remembering your Mom’s furrowed brow when she was setting you straight at four years old.  Or was it a twinkle in her eye?

I descend from a tall family tree of gifted storytellers.  I can remember my Grandfather making his coffee pals chuckle over some saucy story or guffawing at the outlandishness of his own tales.  My Mom has a story of me just hours old being encased within the hospital plastic bassinet by tensor bandages because I had nearly escaped.  I’m not sure how a swaddled baby is able to climb out of a bassinet but then again, my memory from hour 3:16:05 is a bit sketchy.  In any case, my entrance into the world seemed a bit more interesting than the average baby.

A few months ago,  after having a sit down with our son about lying, using the same delivery my Mom gave me years ago, my son asked if I had ever lied.  I lied and told him no.  As he walked away with his chirpy confidence in all that is good in the world, including his Mom, I paused to think about Santa Claus.  This is a humdinger of a lie perpetuated by parents the world over.  As I see it, the old geezer is setting us all up for a major fall from grace.   A quintessential moment in childhood is when you realize your parents are fallible and may have questionable moral character.  You know the cardboard box of kittens left by the side of the road?  Yep, that was my Mom.  Remember when the peanut butter and jam packets were easily accessible by the straws and napkins?  My Dad is the reason they are now behind the counter.   My day of reckoning is coming.  Even if my son forgives the fallacy of St. Nick, his world will come crashing down with the truth about the Tooth Fairy, the Leprechaun, the Easter Bunny, the Candy Fairy (she visits the night of Halloween to take some of the candy loot in return for cash), trolls, fairies, gnomes and the time I told him girls don’t fart thereby resting blame on his father for the next five years of methane outbursts. I guess if I’m in the thick of it, I might as well take a tip from the older set and develop a few indispensable plot devices.  I’m sure I have an identical twin somewhere…..