The Contractor’s Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house,
The drywall dust settled,
Smothering a mouse.

The stockings swung gently
In the living room breeze,
Blown through partially-fit windows,
Making everyone freeze.

One wall freshly painted,
The others, not so much,
The furniture shoved back
To the brown china hutch.

The tree trimming finished,
I lifted my beer,
When suddenly a great clatter
Entered my ear.

I stood quiet and still
to see what was the matter,
When I hear a voice say,
“Who left out this fucking ladder?!?”

Then into my living room Santa Claus came,
Limping somewhat, a bend in his frame.
He dropped his red sack and shot me a glare,
Clearly not happy with what he saw there.

“My good sir,” he said,
“I see what you’re doing.
But on Christmas Eve?  Really sir,
What were you thinking?”

He opened his sack and began to place toys
Under my tree for our girls and our boys.
Finished, he stretched, and grimaced in pain
“I trust I won’t trip over your ladder again?”

He stepped over my tools
And made for the door,
Muttering words under his breath
I thought best to ignore.

“Would you please pass me my cookies?”
He said with a bow.
“There’s so much stuff in my way
I’m afraid to move now.”

I passed him the cookies
Which he stuck in his pocket.
Then, still scowling, he went out the door
Like a rocket.

As a parting shot he said, “Buddy,
Better put down that cup,
And clean up that mess
Before your dear wife wakes up!”

Mommy Magnetism

This is a slightly edited re-post from 2014, when my kids were 16, 15 and 10. Now they are are 20, 19 and 14, one’s away at university and one has a job, the youngest is three years away from college. I think about these days a lot now, as they don’t happen very often anymore. I miss it.

I remember learning about magnets in school, but only understand on an intuitive level how they work.  Metal attracts to metal, and it has something to do with poles and fields (no-one ever accused me of being scientifically-minded).  Now that I am a mother, I have discovered another magnetic effect, an attraction not between metals but between organic materials, manifesting itself on a daily basis in my house.

My kids are magnetically attracted to me.  It’s the only explanation for why I can’t get  more than four feet away from them before I find them trailing behind me.  The trigger for this effect is any attempt on my part for a few minutes of alone time.  I can go unnoticed by them for hours when they are busy with their own activities, a comforting presence in their peripheral vision, but leave the room and all three kids gradually become aware that something in their universe is amiss. One child will eventually start a search.  From my basement bedroom, where I’ve gone with my tea to escape the atmospheric onslaught of music, video games, movies and sibling arguments, I can hear the process unfold:

“Mom?  Mom… (footsteps)… where’s Mom?”

“I don’t know.”

Footsteps down the hall.  “Where’s Mom?”

“I don’t know.  Get out of my room!”

Door slams, followed by more footsteps to the living room, the kitchen, and the bathroom; then they head to the top of the basement steps.

“MOM?  YOU DOWN THERE??”  I don’t answer; it’s not really necessary.  I sip my tea, awaiting the inevitable.  I’ve been down here less than ten minutes.

The footsteps now come down the stairs.  There is a pause, and then my ten year old daughter, Mikaela, appears in my doorway.  A huge smile, tinged with relief, spreads across her face.

“Hi Mommy!”  She comes in and throws herself on my bed.  “Me want cuddle with Mommy,” she says, clambering over the mattress to snuggle under my arm.  My drink sloshes precariously.

“Watch my tea.”

“Sorry.”

She chatters away, wanting to know what I’m drinking, what I’m reading; can she taste my tea; why am I down here.  Looking for some quiet time, I say.  Me too then, she says.   While we snuggle, I listen, waiting for what I know is coming next.  Sure enough, more footsteps now cross my ceiling, heading for the basement stairs.  Seconds later Max, half past 16 and ostensibly beyond caring about my whereabouts, walks in.

“Here you are.  What are you doing?”

“Having quiet time,” says Mikaela.

“Cool.”  Max joins us on the bed and starts talking as fast as only a teenager can, telling me about school, activities and friends in a verbal tsunami of information.

I try to sip my tea as I listen, which is difficult now that there are three on the bed and the mattress is not quite still.  I am trying to get as much of it down as I can before Act III commences.  Then another head appears in my doorway, and quiet time is officially over.

“Hey, why’s everyone down here but me?” says Meredith, 15 and brimming with middle child ostracization issues.  She climbs up on the bed, complaining loudly that there is no room for her, while her siblings protest that they were there first. They push and prod each other, fighting for territory.

“Hey Mom, can we look at our baby box?”

“Ya!  Baby box!”

I put aside my tea, now cold, and pull out the box I have with all my keepsakes of their respective babyhoods.  Birth announcements, ultrasound pictures and first birthday cake candles; Mikaela’s Spiderman pajamas, Meredith’s first shoes.  There are several pacifiers, or “nukkies” as we call them, and there is spirited discussion over which ones belong to which kid.

The four of us sit on the bed, sifting through memories, my quiet time forsaken for this precious time with my babies.  I don’t mind; all too soon every day will be quiet time.  We go through the entire box while I tell them yet again the stories of their births.  Eventually, there is a fourth, heavier tread on the stairs and ten seconds later my husband appears in the doorway.

“There you are!  I was looking for you.”

Those whom the gods wish to drive insane, they first send on road trips

Another disadvantage of being almost 50 was recently brought home to me.  Along with muscle tone and the ability to drink until 4:00 a.m. and still get up for work, it would appear certain driving skills also diminish with age.  I’m still a good driver, but for a couple of years now finding my way from point A to B without incident has been getting more difficult.  Since I’m planning a life of travel after retirement, this is worrisome.  How can I expect to hike from Dublin to Dingle if I can’t find my way to a city an hour away from my house?

I get incredibly stressed when driving to new places now.  The smallest conversation with anyone in the car at the exact wrong time can distract me enough to miss my exit.  Then I freak out because I don’t know how to get back to where I was going.  So this year I purchased a GPS to put an end to the problem.  Suffice to say, it hasn’t been the godsend I expected it to be.

You know those stories you read about people who died because they trustingly followed their GPS until they were stuck in the middle of nowhere?  It’s not as bizarre a turn of events as one would suppose. I took my daughter, Madeline, to the open house at Waterloo University this past weekend, which is about an hour and twenty minutes west of Oakville.  I didn’t start the GPS right away because I figured I wouldn’t need it until I got near Waterloo. Actually, I got lost before I even left town.

Madeline’s first tour was scheduled for 12:30 p.m., so we left at 10:00 a.m. – estimated ETA, 11:30.  Driving up a main Oakville artery, I saw the 401 East exit and passed it, watching expectantly for the 401 West sign to make an appearance, which should have occurred within the next 30 seconds.  I saw nothing.  After driving for almost 2 kilometers I realized I was in cow country.  After another half kilometer of growing unease, I pulled into a car lot to ask for directions and was told the 401 West exit was 2 kilometers behind me. So back we went and there was the 401 West exit, clear as day.  I have no idea how I missed the sign on the other side of the road but I’m going with “it was blocked by some construction signs that distracted me.”

Finally on our way after our 20 minute detour, I was fine until we got to Waterloo (after the 401 snafu I had turned the GPS on).  However, there is a point, after GPS gal tells you to “take exit 8”, where the road splits and #8 continues to the right, and the signs indicate that the left lane is for “King Street downtown.”  It was at this juncture that the GPS barked, “stay left on Highway 8.”  I panicked as I watched the signs approaching, clearly stating #8 was on the right, going 110 clicks and running out of time to make a decision.  I finally decided to believe that the “8” was correct but the “left” was wrong and took the #8 exit.  Before I was halfway through the ramp curve, GPS lady said “recalculating…”  Therein followed ten minutes of continuous direction that had me turning left and right on numerous narrow, 60 year old side streets until we met up with…King Street. Headed downtown.  I drove down King, profoundly wishing it was possible to strangle an inanimate object.

The GPS did manage to get us to the university, where its usefulness ended for the time being. I then discovered that manmade signs are no less fallible than the GPS programming.  There was a huge, mostly empty parking lot to the left, but signs saying “event parking” to the right.  After following the signs to the right we drove through campus only to find ourselves in (1) a permit only parking lot, (2) a dead end construction road and (3) a dead end loading zone. After the third misdirection I threw the van into reverse with profane energy, during which my daughter kept wisely silent.

We finally made our way back to a city street and drove around in a square, deducing that eventually we would emerge once again on University Avenue, which we did.  This time I turned left into the parking lot, followed those “event parking” signs down a road that appeared to curve right into the woods and made me so nervous I pulled a U-y and finally found the deserted lot, with the barriers up and no signs about event parking anywhere.  I decided a parking ticket would be less hassle than trying to figure out all these signs and parked.

All this driving around in circles made Madeline late for her residence tour, but fortunately they were running so many it didn’t really matter.  Afterwards, my difficulty with reading the campus map made us late for the first lecture.  Madeline had trouble reading it as well – apparently map dyslexia is hereditary.  By the end of the day, however, we had walked through the same area four times and were beginning to recognize our surroundings – just in time for the event to end. Now we had to find our way back to the car.

The ride home was quiet and uneventful, because in that direction I recognize all the signs and know where I’m going.  It’s a good thing I do, because the GPS failed to recognize that Highway 8 East automatically turns into the 401.  No exit exists, so the machine was unnaturally silent all the way to Oakville, wherein it suddenly piped up again, advising me to get off the highway prematurely and take a route home that would have added fifteen minutes to our trip.

It may be my dreams of driving all over Canada are going to need an adjustment. I had been planning to either buy a small camper or outfit my minivan into something I can sleep in.  But perhaps, in light of recent events, I should replace those ideas with something more suited to my skill set.  Like a bus schedule.

Looks hard to miss, doesn't it
Looks hard to miss, doesn’t it

Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington

If you asked me to suggest a place to spend a February afternoon in Ontario, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington would not have been the first thing that came to mind…or the second, or even the seventh.  Gardens…February…no.

The RBG is where I found myself yesterday, however.  The Orchid Society was hosting their annual show.  I didn’t know there was an Orchid Society, let alone a show, but my daughter’s art class had been invited to participate with a display of their artwork.  So of course we had to go – it’s not every day your child’s artistic efforts are on public display.

It turns out the RBG is a pretty cool place to go even in winter.  Their main building holds several atriums of plants from all over the world.  In addition to the orchid show, they were also hosting a Frog Show described as “ribbiting!” on the poster. I hadn’t gone there with the thought of writing an article in mind, so we just had a nice mosey around.

We ventured in, welcoming the heat coming from the temperature controlled rooms, although I was wishing I had hung up my coat by the time we entered the Mediterranean Room…the temperature required to keep Chilean plants at their best is not the greatest environment for Canadian winter fashion.

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The frogs were on display and clearly not letting their celebrity status interfere with their regular routine…most were sleeping.  The ones that were awake were still not moving.  In fact I didn’t see a single frog so much as flex a flipper the entire time.  Those heat lamps must be really relaxing.

Waxy Monkey Frog
Waxy Monkey Frog

We had a tour of the orchid room which was pretty, but I was clearly out of my element.  I don’t usually notice flowers; I never buy any and my husband has learned not to get me plants for any special occasion unless he secretly wants them himself, because I will thank him, put it on the table, and not notice it again until a spider swinging on a withered branch catches my eye.  Clearly hours had gone into the creation of these orchid displays and ribbons for first, second and third prize were pinned to the winners.

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After the orchid room we went in search of the high school’s art display.  All the kids’ drawings and paintings had been hung on a wall except for Madeline’s, which was displayed separate and apart on its own easel – I am assuming for no reason other than maternal pride they did so because hers was the best one.

 

Madeline's orchid; charcoal/chalk on paper
Madeline’s orchid; charcoal/chalk on paper

The RBG is the largest botanical garden in Canada and a National Historic Site with 2450 acres of nature on display.  They regularly hold lectures and host school trips to educate the public on the importance of conservation.  There are 27 km of hiking trails, two canoe launches and picnic grounds.  It also manages one of the largest freshwater marshlands in North America. Admission is $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for children 4-12; kids younger than 4 are free.  Trail users do not pay admission, just parking at meters located at all trailheads.  Leashed pets are welcome in the outdoor garden areas.  The RBG is fully accessible and companion animals are welcome throughout the entire facility.  There is a no smoking policy in effect on the entire property.

Directions:  From Toronto take the QEW to Hwy 403 West (Hamilton). Exit at Waterdown Road and go south on Waterdown to Plains Road West. Turn right onto Plains Road West and travel 2km; RBG will be on your left.

From Kitchener: take Hwy 401 E to Hwy 6 S. Follow Hwy 6 S for about 20 minutes to the York Road exit; make a left and then a right on the new Plains Road. Drive south over the 403. Turn left at the lights; continue on Plains Road West for about 1 km; the RBG will be on your right.

From Niagara/US:  take the QEW to Hwy 403 West (Hamilton). Exit at Waterdown Road. Drive  south to Plains Road West. Turn right onto Plains Road West; travel 2km; RBG will be on your left.

Winter brings the blahs

This time of year I don’t go out much – kind of a buzzkill for a supposed travel blog.  I have never really been interested in spending time outside in winter, at least as an adult.  I’m not into winter sports at all, and my asthma is aggravated by cold air, so even a walk on a sunny day doesn’t hold a lot of allure for me.  I am in a state of semi-hibernation for 8 to 12 weeks until my senses detect the first warming of the winds in spring.

As a child I don’t remember ever being cold.  But then I was wearing a skidoo suit, which every child  under the age of 13 wore from November to March.  This was before tween fashion and Baby Gap.  Back then children were dressed for utility, and since we spent all day walking, playing, rolling and falling in snow, we all had ski-doo suits.  Now only people actually driving a ski-doo wear them – I assume.  I actually haven’t seen anyone on a ski-doo in over 20 years.  That’s what happens when you move to the city.

This time of year I think about my childhood a lot, brought on by a mixture of the usual bummed out feeling one gets when the holiday season is over, and the contemplation that another 12 months of god knows what stretches before me.  My birthday, my dad’s birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary all take place during the last week of January, so it bring a lot of reminiscing.  After the holidays nothing much happens around here until the sap starts to run in spring, and the cold, dark days create a perfect atmosphere for brooding.  It’s at this time of year I always feel an overwhelming urge to go home.

I grew up in Midland, Ontario, population 10,000, a little town carved out of the Canadian forest a hundred years earlier when a Georgian Bay location, grain shipping and the railroad made it an attractive spot for early settlers.  When the first subdivision was built in 1970, it was simply one long street cut through this bush, so all houses on both sides backed onto the woods.  My parents bought one of the first houses on this street.  They sold it a few years later and bought a bigger one up the street, but it never really grew on them and they eventually sold it and bought a nicer house with a pool right across the street.

My house
My house

No sidewalks or city parks where I grew up.  We walked to school down a woodland path, with squirrels, grasshoppers and rabbits bounding out of our way every morning.  The trees eventually gave way to a large meadow that boasted three acres of buttercups, wild berry bushes, and what we called “wheat grass” swaying in the breeze.  My friends and I would make nests in the long grass and pretend we were birds.  We took picnic lunches with us and stayed all day, invisible to anyone walking by on the path.  There was an old stone foundation, the early settlement house once attached to it long gone, where teenagers would go to smoke and smash beer bottles – at least, this was our surmise.  We never actually saw anyone, but the bottom of the ruin was littered with butts, broken glass, and for some reason, spent shotgun shells – we did occasionally hear the faint roar of a gun during hunting season.  If you bypassed the meadow and continued down the path you would reach a swamp, where we spent hours catching tadpoles.

So many memories of my childhood took place in that bush.  As the last generation of children still allowed to play unsupervised, we were outside morning, noon and night, only going home to eat and sleep.  We built tree houses at a height and of a structural integrity that would give today’s parents heart failure and probably earn them a visit from Children’s Services.  We spent hours wading in the swamp with nets, catching small fish, frogs and tadpoles, leaving our shoes on the shore with no thought of contracting possible injury or illness.  We picked wild apples off the trees and buckets of wild raspberries and blackberries, no pesticides to worry about.  The ghostly tang of those berries is still on my tongue, forever spoiling any chance of enjoying the bland berries sold at today’s supermarkets.  We even had a Kissing Tree, a huge sprawling maple with branches that bent to the ground, perfect for climbing.  Courting couples for years had carved their initials in that tree.  My boyfriend climbed so high to carve our initials that the branch he was standing on broke and he fell 10 feet before becoming caught by the lower branches.

No rules, no supervision, a glorious freedom to explore and learn that today’s children rarely experience.  There was the occasional mischief of course.  One day we decided it would be great fun to hide behind an embankment and throw acorns at passing cars – until one stopped and the driver got out, sending us running into the swamp in a blind panic to hide.  My friend Sharon got stuck in the mud and lost her shoes – I never found out how she explained that one to her mother.  Another day one of the boys found an old jean jacket and decided to see if it would burn.  Well it did – spectacularly.  He picked it up and ran down the path with it, intending to throw it into the swamp.  However the flames falling off the jacket ignited the leaves that had been on the ground drying for decades.  The resultant bush fire brought the fire department, which doused the small flames and marched said boy off to his father.  We didn’t see him again for two weeks.

Once we started Grade 9, we walked up our street to the high school, no more woodland path.  The picnics and swamp expeditions ended, replaced by purposeful loitering and a lot of flirting under the street lamp on my corner, where we would sit literally for hours until our mothers called us home.  The Kissing Tree was forgotten – real kisses now, from that same boy who, after twenty years apart, is now my husband.  He swears he had no idea jean jackets were that flammable.

We have a collective passel of five children, ages 11 to 19.  None of them have ever seen a swamp, or climbed a tree.  They couldn’t build a box, let alone a tree fort.  We both feel they have missed out on something important, a connection to nature and life experience they never had a chance to explore.  They get a small taste of it on family vacations to Muskoka, but it’s a drive-by experience only.

Soon they will spread their wings and leave the nest and we are thinking about what we will do with ourselves once they’re gone.  We would like to leave the city and live in the country again, or another small town.  Someplace that reminds us of the home that now exists only in our memories.  The woods are gone, the path paved over.  Houses stand as headstones on the graveyard of our meadow, long ago buried by an expansion to the original subdivision.  Some unknown plant assassin even cut down The Kissing Tree.

It is said that as one nears the end of their life, the urge to return home grows strong.  We are not quite 50 but already feeling the pull.  But what do you do if home is no longer there?

You brood, wistfully.  And wait for spring.

Pie Dough 101

It’s time for Christmas baking, and check out my assistant:

My mega mixer
My mega mixer

This is the $700 industrial model, the same one I had at cooking school. It was on sale at Costco for $299. I couldn’t afford it but I wasn’t about to pass that deal up.

This should make things like pie dough much easier. I am starting to get arthritis in my hands and long bouts of mixing and kneading can be painful. And pie dough is a pain in the ass, which I discovered when I took my basic cook diploma last year. It sounds simple, only three ingredients – flour, shortening and water, yet I managed to take these ingredients and formulate a substance that could be substituted for brick mortar.

First you sift your flour, then drop the shortening in by bits you pinch off. Then you work it through the flour either with your hands or a pastry cutter until you have a bowl of product resembling beach sand. Then you add the water literally a teaspoon at a time – apparently pie dough has the sensitivity of a reality show diva. You work in the water until desired consistency is reached, then put it in the fridge for a half hour. Pie dough works best when cool.

My first attempt started out ok. Everything was sifted, bitted, sanded and trickled upon. The dough looked like it had come out right until I tried to roll it out. It was stiff. It cracked. It stuck to the table, even though it was bone dry, and to the roller, even though that was dusted with flour. Multiple additions of flour to the table surface and the roller only dried the damned thing out more, which by that time resembled a clay pigeon. Everyone else had their dough rolled and were working on their apple filling; I was reworking and reworking this stupid ball of dough, adding water, then flour; nothing worked. I was so frustrated I had tears in my eyes for a good ten minutes. The chef’s assistant came over and helped me with it and we finally managed to roll out enough dough to make two small mini-pies. They tasted ok but the pie crust was way too thick, and you could bang on the top crust with a knife and it didn’t even crack it. I was expecting it to be hard as a rock, but it was eatable. But no blackbird was pecking its way through that pie without a jackhammer.

I got a second chance with another batch of pie dough that had a slightly different ingredient list and process, and that time I was deliberately reckless with my water, making the dough too sticky on purpose. After I took it out of the fridge and dusted it with flour for rolling, it actually turned out way better than my first effort. Still not perfect, but I could roll it much easier and I made four apple turnover-like things out of it that we then deep fried and rolled in brown sugar – a favorite recipe of the Southern States, where the instructor originally hailed from. I’m not sure what they were called since I was still contemplating leaving the kitchen to cry in the parking lot when Chef handed out the recipe, so I didn’t hear a word he said and never even read what they were called. They tasted good, but I’m not sure I’m a fan of deep fried pie.

I remember I did make my apple fillings well – that part tasted great. My husband and kids tasted everything and they thought it was all good, although they agreed with me the pie crust was a bit thick and heavy, but surprisingly no-one said it tasted bad, or dry.

Now that I have my monster mixer, I’ll be giving this pie dough thing another go, and paddle that bitch into submission. No smug bowl of wheat dust is going to get the better of me.

Happy Birthday Meredith

Meredith Rose

Sixteen years ago this day
You first lit up the room with your smile,
Ten pounds, pink and white, with wavy blond hair,
Sparkling eyes you could see for a mile.

From the very first day you were your own boss
Hardly sleeping, throwing toys, food and clothes,
Stealing Cranberry from your big sister,
Punching poor Shelby in the nose.

First day of school; no wallflower, you
Made friends with every kid there by noon.
Dragging Madeline round the playground,
Taking charge of every game, craft and tune.

You grew to a lovely young lady
A great daughter, big sister and friend,
A small spot of trouble, you came through like a champ
Like I always knew you would in the end.

Now here you are, so close to grown up
Your new confidence and strength does impress,
New school and friends, even a new boyfriend
A strapping redhead named Alex, no less.

Whatever you do with your future,
Whatever riches life may carry for you,
Remember, to me, you’ll always be
My baby, my sweet Dithy-boo.