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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Life and Death

My son is back at school.  I am left to quietly reflect and blog on our summer visit to Saskatchewan.  It was a trip of invigorating scenery and of unexpected death.

For those of you who hail from other parts of the globe, Saskatchewan is one of the prairie provinces of Canada.  The license plates read “Land of Living Skies” which nicely sums up the expansive backdrop of clouds, piercing blue sky and rolling storms of weather that mesmerize its residents on any given day.  The land is flat and checkered by fields of canola, flax, barley and wheat in the south and enveloped by a swath of boreal forest and stunning lakes in the north.  Rivers and feeder streams etch out valleys and ravines that are hidden in the broad swells of land and provide locals with depressingly stunted ski hills and oases for deer, bear, beaver, weasel, raccoon and migratory birds.

This summer I traveled to Saskatchewan with the kids and visited six grandparents- three remarriages after divorce.  My Dad never remarried.  My children are blessed with a generous ratio of grandparents to grandchildren.  We also stopped at my friend’s parent’s farm, one hour west of the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  She had brought her three kids and we were welcomed to enjoy several days and nights of the epic solitude their farm enjoyed.  The ditches were ablaze with native prairie sunflowers and walks along hardened farmer access roads were delightful excursions along shoulder high grasses and flowers.  The grandfather gamely offered a mini motorcycle for my eight year old to ride and also introduced him to the joys of the riding lawnmower.   The younger kids ran amok, usually naked, without the usual concerns about street traffic or passing strangers.   After three wonderful days at the farm, we proceeded to Saskatoon.  Despite their kind entreaties for us to stay longer, I respected the old adage:  guests are like fish, they stink after three days.

The visit to Saskatoon was going to be of perplexing short duration for the kids: one hour.  My mother-in-law was on a day pass from the hospital after undergoing a stroke (the clot was removed quickly with no ill after effects) and then an angioplasty three days later (which was also successful).  These surgeries followed the discovery of several concerning lumps in her lungs which had yet to be biopsied.  She was adamant  the kids should not see her in the hospital and so we agreed to meet at the house for a brief visit on our way to visit other grandparents.  She managed to will herself into a comfortable lawn chair in the backyard so the kids could expend energy in her much loved garden.  She had, through the years, created a magical world of fairy folk paraphernalia that lay hidden in surprise for curious children among the ferns, bushes and tree trunks.  She also had a basket of toys in the garden shed that were to aid and abet in their imaginations.  After an hour, the smile on my mother-in-law’s face began to diminish with the onset of more pain and fatigue.  As agreed beforehand, I took my cue and gathered the children to depart.  The kids were jarred by the suddenness.  “Aren’t we staying here?” was their response.  I had to explain Grams was going back to the hospital and we would return soon (when my husband would make a return visit after his initial panicked flight to Saskatoon after her stroke).  She needed to time get better.

We drove to Prince Albert and were enjoying a few relaxing days with my husband’s father and stepmother when I got a text from my mother-in-law: please come as soon as you can.  She sent the same text to my husband.  He was back in Calgary trying to dive back into work that he had abandoned during the previous visit to his mother’s hospital bedside.  I called my husband and he made plans to arrive at the end of the week.  We knew what she wanted to tell us; they finally had the biopsy results.  When they first discovered the lumps, she had told us that if it was cancer she didn’t want treatment.  Years of bad health and a bad heart would likely not withstand the physical onslaught of chemo.  She wanted to spend her last few months enjoying life outside a hospital.

My husband and I agreed for me and the kids to arrive a day after his arrival.  I would still take the kids north to  Prince Albert National Park to go camping.  This park is the secret gem of Saskatchewan.  Nestled in the boreal forests, the town site of Waskesiu  and the adjoining campgrounds are a serene habitat hugging the shoreline of Waskesiu Lake.  There are a handful of eateries, a local store where Parks Canada and the community pin up their summer event calendars and an old theater that plays PG and G movies on the weekends and PG-13 movies during the weekdays.  Wednesday night is community bingo at the town hall where the biggest payout is $20 and the kids can play if they know their alphabet.  Before kids,  my husband and I had gone to Wednesday bingo on a whim and between the two of us had won a record four times and walked away with our next day’s breakfast money.  The following day,  we caught strangers pointing at us and murmuring about our lucky streak.  Fame comes easy in a teeny tiny resort town.  Prince Albert National Park is also known for its aggravating mosquito population.  No one quite knows why but from year to year the mosquito, horsefly and black fly population is unpredictable.  I heard whispered rumors of a year when the locals could barely see across the street because of the horrendous swarms of mosquitoes. This year, I bought a can of 15% Deet mosquito repellent in preparation of our camping trip and we never used it.  Well, not exactly.  I pulled it out when I saw a mosquito, my prior experiences having conditioned me to spray on a thick layer at the first onset of buzzing but then I realized it was one mosquito.  I swatted it, killed it, and continued on with my day.  We also had fantastic weather:  mid 20s, with a beautiful sunset over the lake every night.  It was like heaven had descended down to earth.   My Mom, stepdad and niece drove up for the day from their home west of Prince Albert to help celebrate my birthday by eating pizza and enjoying the beach.  It was a nice distraction from the absence of my husband and the looming visit to confirm the news from my mother-in-law.

After our camping trip concluded, we drove back to Saskatoon.  The kids were excited to see Dad and Grams and Gramps.  We stayed in a hotel to be sure not to exhaust my mother-in-law and her husband.  We also made sure there was a pool; every morning we took the kids swimming after the hotel’s free breakfast so we could spend their energy.  The reality of our three days at Gram’s home was this:  the kids spent quiet afternoons in the basement watching movies while the adults tried to make my mother-in-law more comfortable and to help around the house.   My husband and I volunteered to cook.  My step father-in-law knows how to open a can and microwave a hot dog.  We made a hug pot of chicken soup and froze most of it.  I also spent every spare moment weeding the garden that had been neglected for the past three weeks.   There were two reasons for this: 1)  I knew the garden was very important to my mother-in-law and I wanted to give her peace of mind regarding its state and 2) I had always had mixed success conversing with my mother-in-law and so I felt the urgency to stay outdoors and avoid conversation under extremely sad circumstances.  We had a mutual respect for one another but I found her vitriolic rants about any number of mundane offenses to her sensibilities to be uninspiring for an intimate friendship.  It is difficult to give your affection to someone who wants your emotional investment but won’t give you the safety and liberty to do so.   For every great conversation we managed to have, I was equally frozen into silence by her negative reaction to the most innocuous of statements.  It was a no win situation.

The oncologist had give her a window of 6 months to a year to live.  After our three day visit (remember we were fish), I concluded she had two months at best.  In three days she descended further into pain and discomfort.  They had also found more lumps during the CT Scan.  The cancer was spreading and fast.

We drove home and my husband was called back to Saskatoon two more times over the span of four weeks.  Once to help his step father manage the overwhelming burden by looking after their four cats – one of which was pissing all over the house in an act of feline distress, managing the endless requests to massage her back or fetch more pills or remaining at the house for a couple of hours while my step father-in-law ran for groceries or took a couple hours of reprieve from the moans of his dying wife.  The second time was the last.  They gave her two days to live.  My husband flew out at 11pm on a Saturday and she spent her last breath at 9:15pm on the Sunday.  All the good-byes had been said over the last two months of panicked visits and brief moments of lucidity.  My husband said he had never known misery until he saw his mother dying.  From the day of the stroke until her death, 52 short days passed.  Fifty two days to unburden her heart of truths and misgivings and cry and make do with the choices that had been made during a life of seventy years.  As was her request, I and the children did not visit her while she descended into the vortex of pain and hallucinations.  We lived out life in Calgary going to play dates, the zoo and handling the mundane tasks of buying groceries and vacuuming the house.  I didn’t know how to comfort my husband at this time.  The death of a parent was something I hadn’t experienced.  I only knew that words were useless.  So, I cooked.  I made chili, chicken soup, spring rolls, cookies and every time my husband came home exhausted and emotionally drained from his visits to his mother’s bedside, there was good food waiting for him and happy children.  And he said that that was all he needed.

I am left with a strange void of knowing someone is dead but not having the sensory proof they are dead.  My mother-in-law stipulated no funeral and no memorial.  My husband is to receive an urn with a 1/3 of her ashes.  The other thirds will be given to her other son and her husband.  I will have no dead body to witness or even the communal tears of friends and family to appreciate her passing. All I have are the jarring trails of electronic correspondence.  I have a text from my mother-in-law  wishing me happy birthday on July 27th.  She died August 28th. She was good at remembering birthdays and anniversaries.   She also had a knack for giving memorable gifts and imparting them with a backstory of fantasy or intrigue.  My son has a multitude of such magical items:  smoothed glass eggs that hatch after 100 years to birth faeries, a hairy and grumpy faced porcelain troll that only moves at night – and which my son carefully checked every morning for two months for changes in location, a book to aid in casting spells.   My mother-in-law took white and black paint to the healed knots of pruned limbs on her birch tree to accentuate the relief which had an uncanny resemblance to an eye.  My daughter is now on constant look out for “eyeball trees” after being pleasantly startled by Gram’s watchful tree. It is at the dimming and final extinction of a person’s inner spark when we realize their presence allowed us to better experience our own lives.  Special occasions will pass without being heralded, the sparkle of her coveted traditions and ceremonies made acutely absent by her death.  Good bye Breeze.  We love you.  I love you.  And thank you.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

I Wish Bill Murray Was My Dad

The best dream I ever had was about five years ago.  I walked into a delicatessen with linoleum squares of white and green and a few round tables with a scattering of black chairs.  Sitting at one of the tables was my dad, Bill Murray.  He greeted me with a warm hug and we sat down and had a great chat over a great cup of coffee.  Soon, my other dad, William Shatner arrived, kissed Bill on the cheek and sat down beside him.  The dream was short but the feeling of warmth and goodwill lingered after I woke up.   I don’t have a secret desire for two gay dads but the dream resolved a mutual admiration for both actors.  I have read enough magazine articles about both men to guess that Bill is a no nonsense kind of dad, affectionate but not indulgent and Will is charming in a self-aggrandizing kind of way- the parent that would likely get the eye rolls from the kids.   I imagine they would be a dynamic power couple, both charismatic and rambunctious; dinner guests would be left roiling on the carpeted floor as the two men fed each other lines, their cheeks rosy with wine and good humor.

Bill Murray has received an iconic status of late.   I have seen stenciled silhouettes of his face on T-shirts and on vehicle decals.  He has become cool for a hipster race of Gen Y’s and Millennials that watched Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Saturday Night Live before his sublime casting in Lost in Translation.  His morbid detachment – the stone face is his coup de grace in high brow and low brow theatrics -is the zeitgeist of an overstimulated populous with an unrelenting social media feed of Donald Trump, Middle Eastern terror groups, and YouTube stars.  He is the de facto guy everyone wants to hang out with while we wait out the maelstrom.

William Shatner looks like my Mom.  He really, really looks like my maternal side of the family.  The bulbous nose framed by padded red cheeks and wide, large eyes is a hallmark of my mother’s family.  He was also born in Canada and is an alumnus of my alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.  That’s pretty much where the similarities end but it really helps to have a few similarities when you idolize someone.  Why would anyone idolize William Shatner, you say?  Well, he has a lot of spunk; he’s still working at 84 years.  He has a sassy kind of appeal – he told his loyal Star Trek fans to get a life (let’s be honest they needed to hear it) but he also humbled down by 2011 to address an audience at McGill University and told them: “Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of making an ass of yourself. I do it all the time, and look what I got.”  And let’s be honest, any person who has the cajones to release multiple spoken word albums that are actually good, has my respect.

On introspection,  why does a 37 year old woman look up to older men for life guidance?  What happened to my own parents?  What happened to Gloria Steinem for feminist idealism or Kristy Wiig for witty realism (or  is it raunchy realism?)?  Let’s face it, we rarely fantasize about being our parents.  We spend half our lives trying to make improvements on their model with later epiphany we are maddeningly similar.  As women we are attuned to the flaws of other women.  That is why we get dressed up for a night out with the gals but don’t even bother to shave when it’s date night with our husbands.  We are always trying to impress other women hence the new skirt and freshly cut hair.  Women are women’s biggest critics.  Men are happy we’re warm and smell like soap.  If you happen to have shaved, they interpret it as open for business.   Some social anthropologist will say something to the effect this is an attempt to place us higher in the social pecking order as to appear more attractive to a potential mate.  I think women are just plain jerks.  Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of really great friends that are supportive and kind.  But, we are all competing all of the time.   We offer up ourselves as exemplars of wifery, motherhood and professional elitism when our girlfriends suffer self-doubt.   This is where the foundations are laid as future mother-in-laws.  We all know the universality of mother-in-laws. They take your 20’s self delusions of grandeur and knock them down a peg or two.  If you are awesome friends with your mother-in-law you need to entertain the possibility she a)is an alien b)is a man disguised as a woman or c)does not have a competitive bone in her body and can be classified as a subspecies of jellyfish.

So yeah, I think it would be awesome if Bill Murray and William Shatner were my dads. Perhaps their example of self-effacing humor and light banter would make me a better person.  I might be less inclined to judge other people’s follies and laugh more at my own.  And, for my future daughter-in-law and son-in-law, I send you a  wish:  that visits from your future mother-in-law are whimsical and fun; that my padded cheeks are rosy and filled to the brim with good humor and kindness. And if you have delusions of grandeur, I promise to bring you back to earth.

 

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…..

 

 

 

The Dark Side of Love

I’ve decided to write about love.  February 14th is just around the corner and I thought, hey what a great topic.  Except, right now my husband and I are having an argument and I’m having a daydream about renting a fabulous apartment where I can entertain handsome suitors on the weekends I don’t have the kids.   I also fantasize my husband finally realizes my profound wisdom and disavows his inner voice in favour of blind servitude.  Too bad reality gets in the way of most fantasies.

Both my husband and I come from broken marriages.  I think our parents’ generation really took to the novelty of it.  These are people who grew up in the normalcy of domestic abuse, racism, paternalism and sexual oppression.  They were in their twenties when the 60’s liberation begun and by the time they hit their thirties, their world view had been drastically altered.   In your thirties, you stop eagerly engaging new playground friends in favour of a  nuanced selection of personalities that best accommodate your beliefs.  More tellingly, you start shedding people that piss you off.  Today, this means unfriending on Facebook; in our parent’s time it meant not returning phone calls or answering the front door or getting a divorce.  With women working, it wasn’t a bad idea anymore.  To hell with Mr. Simpson, Mrs. Simpson can buy her own milk and give it away for free if she damn well feels like it.  Of course, the kids grew up a bit smarter – or so we thought.  We realized getting divorced meant no more fancy cereal or vacations for several years while the lawyers got paid and new furniture was bought.  It also meant new adults showed up who smelled different and took up room on the couch.  Sometimes it was okay. Sometimes it really sucked.

When I decided to get married, I was 26.  I had a pretty good idea of what I liked and what I didn’t like.  I didn’t like drug addicts or alcoholics.  I liked good kissers.  I didn’t like physically or verbally abusive assholes.  I liked good food and anyone who could cook it for me.  When my husband asked me to marry him in a bar in an anxiety ridden moment of drunken hope, I said yes.  Since we had only been dating 8 short months and living together for 4, I stipulated an opt out clause of one year.  For one year, my husband was on pins and needles waiting for me to disembark.  We’ve now been married 11 years and have two really cute kids.  He is a great cook, a great kisser and a great friend.   During our arguments when I have those secret movies in my head along the plotlines of Sex In The City,  my imaginations never go as far as elopement.  My reality is much better than Carrie Bradshaw’s frustrations with Mr. Big and the trappings of existential urbanity.

I don’t pretend to understand what a good marriage looks like.  My mother remarried an alcoholic who thought domestic violence was normal until my mother beat it out of him.  I was angry for a long time because she worked and he stayed home and watched a lot of television. But, I realized in my twenties that whatever they had seemed to work in a really, really strange way.  My step-dad is incredibly quiet and my mother likes to talk a lot.  She sometimes forgets to filter important things out like anything inflammatory to her coworkers or her students so we moved every couple of years.  My step-dad does two great things: he always listens to her and he always agrees with her.   For my Mom with an insatiable need to be heard and to be accepted, these are gifts he gives her in abundance.  He simply accepts her for who she is and has never asked her to change.  In return, my mother has loved and provided for a man with a Gr. 8 education who would have likely died on the streets in an alcoholic stupor.  My Mom is really smart but she thinks her husband is brilliant.  He says a lot without saying anything at all.

Love is not always shiny and white.  It can be dark and subjective.  I have a friend who has been divorced twice from abusive men and is now dating a much younger man from her church and schooling him in everything but coitus.  He can’t imagine marrying a divorcee with two kids and she can’t imagine getting ensnared in another marriage but they scramble to share every spare moment together.  I have another friend who has had two beautiful children with a man currently relegated to roommate-with-benefits; he looks after the kids but sleeps in the basement bedroom until invited.  The fulcrum of their power balance was decidedly shifted when he returned after 6 months in absentia after the birth of their first child.  The guilt of desertion was a sentence of submission.  Another friend, extremely adept at everything, married a man plagued my ineptitude. The only thing he did really well was fall madly in love with her.  Disillusioned by her inability to transform him into a prince, and stifled by his growing insecurity and jealousy, she divorced him.  Their divorce was finalized at the same time he entered into a hospice for Lou Gehrig’s disease, the stress of the divorce having brought on the acute symptoms of a disease that in retrospect may have attributed to some of his prior failings.  She takes their 5 year old son for weekly visits to the hospice, her angry disappointment now softened to compassion as she watches her ex husband’s slow demise.  These are love stories unlike those told in movies and fairy tales; there is no satiety at the ending.  Like anything sticky and sweet, gorging on empty calories can be its own satisfaction.  Having an emaciated heart is no fun.

If love does not liberate us from ourselves then why bother?  Perhaps it shouldn’t.  Perhaps the benefit is found in the sharing of our pathologies.  Entwining ourselves is implicit in our desire to love though fraught with an infinity of opportunities to inflict pain.  Everyone has to decide for themselves what is bearable.   My measure are the good moments far outweigh the bad.  So far, so good.