“The ones you linger with are the ones you grow to love,” quoted our pastor this Sunday. I jotted the words down on a scrap of paper because, first of all, the word linger deserves to be written as much as possible, second, because it’s true, and third, because it reminded me of what happened last week.
Stan’s brother and his family flew all the way to Saskatoon, then drove the gravel roads to Missinipe to load canoes and push off with us into their first paddling trip. The nine of us had never spent so much uninterrupted time with each other. We thought of questions that no one could google the answers to and we were left to wonder together. The parents told stories of what it was like to meet our spouses for the first time, of past adventures, and what we actually do at our day jobs. We washed dishes on the rocks, made friendship bracelets, set up forest kitchens, and played Clue by the fire. We pointed out cloud pictures, listened to the wind rustle through the birch, and snacked on berries.
But that isn’t the whole story. There is another side of canoe-tripping which is quite different from lingering. A side which involves paddling for hours, squatting in the woods, setting up tents, tearing down tents, unloading dry bags, portaging boats, and navigating wind and rain. All this, while trying to keep track of what stuff is where, including the contents of our “precious bags,” holding matches, bear spray, maps, and toilet paper.
Every group has to find their own balance between lingering and pushing on back-country trips. The opportunity to relax in the wilderness does not come without work. Especially when eating and sleeping require so much preparation; from casting a line, to searching for kindling, to scoping out tent sites, to the final crispy mouthfuls and makeshift pillows. The balance we struck wasn’t perfect for everyone all the time, but even in the midst of finding our way, I was amazed that any of it was happening. That Philip and Anne had travelled so far to spend time with us on the water, to push through the wind and the rain and linger with us in a place we love.
The day we met Helen we were moving into the house beside hers. The first thing I noticed about her was her family. Does she live like this all the time? I wondered. Adults, teenagers, and children were spilling out of her house onto the deck and lawn. They were visiting, eating, drinking, and laughing. Later, I learned that you were all in town for a family event (was there a wedding in early July of 2009?); I’m not sure she ever had so many people at her place after that, but it soon became clear that even if her family wasn’t physically on her property, she held all of you close.
Her family was her favourite topic of conversation. Over the years I learned a lot about Reg and each one of you: how Philip rode on her hip (or on one of his siblings’) for the first five years of his life and how smart he was because he learned everything from his big brother and sisters, how Sheila was a spit-fire and a figure skater, how Val did well in school and became a nurse, and how Gary’s accomplishments led him to his presidency at Memorial University among the hills of St. John’s. I also got to hear my fair share of stories about the in-laws, grandchildren, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles. She spoke with admiration whenever your names came up and it wasn’t because her memories were gilded with the sheen of perfection. Even when she would explain some of your differences she would chuckle, and it was apparent that she was proud of everyone. The memories she shared about you packing into her home during Christmas holidays—the sleeping bags carpeting the floor from wall to wall in the basement, or about the busy days with grandchildren bouncing on her trampoline, made me think I want my family to be just like Helen’s when I grow up.
Shortly after we moved in, I noticed the pristine lawn and garden we had inherited was changing. We never sprayed our dandelions and didn’t mow as often as we could have, so the inevitable was beginning to happen. Once, when Helen came home after one of her afternoon trips to Good Spirit Lake, I surveyed the sea of puffy dandelion heads and spread out my arms. “I’m so sorry for all of this,” I told her. “I know you hire someone who looks after your lawn so carefully. It must be a pain to have neighbours producing weed seeds all summer long.”
She turned and looked me in the eye. “Don’t you ever apologize to me about that,” she said. “You know what’s important and you’re doing it. Your kids know it too.”
Relief washed over me and I thought to myself, that’s the kind of neighbour I want to be when I grow up.
She gave me free-rein of almost everything she owned and every spring I took over her greenhouse with my seedlings. Yet, when the favours went the opposite direction, she was worried about putting us out. She would call and tell me she had a big favour to ask of us, wondering if we might have time to unscrew her garden hose from the spigot. When I would laugh and say that I was on my way over, she would immediately protest. “Oh! Not right now! I meant in the next few weeks or so. It’s not that urgent!” Then she would go on to say how glad she was to have us as neighbours, when, in truth, we were far more indebted to her.
As time passed, we got to know each other, one drive-way chat at a time. Then came the phone calls any time either of us left for a trip or returned home. I invited her to Susanna’s fourth birthday party (Susanna is turning 16 soon) and she came with a gift, declined the cake, and stayed long enough to watch the pinata break. Another time, when I had just gone back to teaching, Susanna got sick and I had no idea what to do with her. I wasn’t prepared for a substitute and had no family close by to call. In the end, Susanna went over to lay on Helen’s couch and had a wonderful day watching cooking shows with her. Her reports were so positive that I warned Susanna it was a one-time thing, and that she wouldn’t get another TV date with Helen if she ever decided she was going to be sick again.
Besides pinch-hitting for me that day, Helen was one of our girls’ biggest supporters. She bought chocolates, cookies, hot chocolate, lemonade, and anything else they were selling. When they busked on the sidewalk, performing two different songs at the very same time, Helen handed them twenty bucks and made them feel like celebrities. “Your girls are just so smart and talented,” she would tell me frequently. I’m not sure she knew much about their schooling or other activities, but she said it so often and with so much authority, that I took note. That’s the kind of encouragement I want to give to other young moms when I grow up, I thought.
Our family has watched your family take care of your matriarch over her final year. We saw you rallying together, loading furniture into the back of your half-tons, trying to get her to the care home. I watched you joking and laughing while you carried her possessions out of the house and admired how you had gathered from all over the province, and even the country, to help her transition. Then the following Monday, only 3 days after you had moved her out, Helen came back. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the moving truck pull up, and her furniture was carried right back into her house. She had confided to me earlier that she didn’t want to go and that she was going to arrange for her return as soon as possible, but I had severely underestimated her.
When I described the whole scene to my own family at dinner that Monday night, my oldest daughter was nothing but impressed. “Way to go, Helen!” she cheered. “That’s exactly how I want to be when I grow up!” she said. I raised me eyebrows and reminded her that, first, she would have to see how much she liked it when I did that to her 45 years from now. But I understood my daughter’s reaction. A little burst of joy pulsed through me when I saw Helen back at home and the light shining in her kitchen that night. Helen was the kind of woman who knew what she wanted. And she knew how to make it happen.
Helen was our neighbour for thirteen years. I didn’t know her nearly as well as you did, but I felt the kind of intimacy that grows when you share driveways and everyday life. She heard my childrens’ howls and saw our underwear on the line. I looked out for her every morning, and felt better when I saw her shuffling around her kitchen in her pink bathrobe. The last time I called her she had returned to the nursing home. While she would be gone in days, she was still her gracious self, thanking me for the call and also apologizing that she was unable to speak more. Even then, she was a woman of generosity and grace. Our family misses her and won’t forget her spirit of largesse, how she forgave us for the dandelions, and how she loved each one of you. I will continue to look across my driveway and remember how I want to be like Helen when I grow up.
If you move to the tropics you might fall in love with a man who is outdoorsy, adventurous, and good with his hands. If you marry and move back north to a place where winter settles in from November until March, there might be times when a lot of snow falls at once. Times when the air is particularly chilly. When the flakes are so light and so dry, one can’t help but notice the ideal carving conditions.
If this happens, watch out. I am warning you now. The creative man you fell in love with, the one who would never spend hours holed up in a basement playing video games, might start throwing boards together and shovelling snow. And you will join him. It will be 34 degrees Celsius below zero. You will wonder, then, about the men playing video games and the choices you have made. But not for long. Your three children will join you and everyone will sweat, push snow, and stomp it down because you know what is coming next…
This sculpture is inspired by Abe and Ruth Lefever, Stan’s maternal grandparents. They were married for over 70 years. Both of them died in 2017. The following winter, Stan thought about making a snow sculpture of the two of them dancing–despite the fact they were conservative Mennonites and didn’t dance. But the snow wasn’t right for sculpting that year and the sculpture never happened. Which is why, during a blizzard on the last days of 2021, we thought we should give Abe and Ruth a chance at ice-dancing. We sculpted them right beside the skating loop behind our house so that other skaters might catch some of their carefree joy. We hope Ruth is okay with it.
“Can’t we just invite someone over? It’s been so long since anybody came for supper!” says Susanna as we walk beside each other, on the last stretch of her paper route. The night sky is overcast and dark. Lights and blow-up decorations twinkle and wave in the wind, even though it is already January 7. This isn’t the first time Susanna has asked about having company. She’s mentioned the same sentiment at least three times in the last month or so.
“Covid,” I say. “Remember that?”
The old jogging stroller that we use to haul bundles of newspaper is almost empty now. A loose piece of plastic strapping used for packaging, flies out of the stroller and onto the sidewalk. I bend down to pick it up. When I straighten, I tell Susanna about an idea that I’ve been mulling over.
“Once we don’t have to social distance anymore I think we should start Soup Nights. Like an open-house, every Friday. We’ll tell a whole bunch of people, or maybe just announce it, and see who shows up. I’ll make a huge pot of soup each week and it will be a standing invitation.”
Yes!” Susanna says immediately, before we split ways. She goes down one side of the street, I take the other. When we meet up near the laundromat I can see her eyes shining in the lamplight. “I’ve been thinking about what you said the whole time. Oh, I can’t wait to have people again. When can we start? Next week?”
I hesitate. Covid restrictions are harder for some than others. “It might not be this winter, Susanna,” I answer.
She moans and then musters enthusiasm. “Well, as long as we get this going before I leave for college.”
As soon as we arrive home from our route, Susanna announces our plans to her older sister.
“Open to all of Yorkton? In our home?” Belén echoes. She does not look impressed. “This is not a good idea. Have you told Dad?”
Her initial reaction doesn’t surprise or deter either of us. Susanna runs for a pad of paper and starts scribbling names of every friend and acquaintance she can recall. I continue explaining the idea to Belén. “It will be simple. I’ll write out the expectations for Soup Night and post them.” Belén winces when she hears the last phrase.
I go on about how people will be free to come and go (Stay for 2o minutes or 2 hours!), we’ll offer homemade soup and water (Bring bread or beverages to share, or bring nothing at all!), I won’t be serving people–just enjoying their company (Find the pot on the stove and serve yourself!), and how it will feel organic and informal (There will be space for you at the table, on our couches or on the floor!).
“Well, now this is sounding like a homeless shelter,” says Belén. “So, what, exactly, is the point? Why do you want to do it?”
I still haven’t taken off my ski pants, and chunks of snow and ice that gathered on my cuffs during the paper route are melting in a puddles around my feet. I wipe them with my socks and look at Belén. “To make connections and get others connected.”
“Don’t most people already know each other? Yorkton is a small city,” says Susanna.
“We can make it smaller,” I say. “I’m always meeting people I think we should have over but it feels daunting to invite them for dinner, especially if we don’t really know them. This way, whenever I come across someone interesting, I can tell them to come over the following Friday night.”
“Like the guy from Spain you met at the grocery store, and his very pregnant wife?”
“Yes. And maybe even the people on our street we never talk to.”
By this time Susanna is scrolling through my Facebook feed, looking for names of potential guests.
“Henrique?” she calls out.
“Nope, Brazil,” I say.
“Ka..jer..stin?” she continues, stumbling over the pronunciation.
“Yep,” I interrupt her. “Local”
Susanna adds the name to her list which is now more than 3 pages long. “These people can bring their friends, right?” she asks.
“Exactly, that’s the whole idea,” I say.
Have you heard about Vivek Murthy? Former surgeon General of the United States and passionate advocate for community and connection? I listened to him in an interview recently and immediately ordered his book from the library. In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World he tells stories and explains why loneliness interrupts our sleep, is riskier than smoking and shortens our life. And what we can do to intervene.
Murthy wasn’t always interested in the intersection of social and physical well-being. When he began his tenure he had had expected to deal with things like tobacco-related illnesses, diabetes and the opioid epidemic–serious issues well-documented in the medical field. As he travelled the country listening to nurses in San Franciso, teachers in Boston, parents in Birmingham and many doctors in between, he was surprised by another national crisis: loneliness. Not only was a palpable lack of connection felt by a huge segment of the population, it was producing measurable and devastating outcomes on their health.
Susanna turns around from the computer screen and shows me the contacts she’s compiled. “I added Marea even though she’s not from Yorkton. She might decide to come anyway.”
Perfect,” I say, then add, “You know, what if this becomes a thing? What if we’re not the only ones who do it, but other people in neighbourhoods all over Yorkton start opening their kitchens on Friday nights too. The city could post a map, lit up with addresses where people are meeting and gathering. In homes! With real people and real conversations!”
Now Susanna is starting to look dubious. “Maybe by the time you’re a grandma,” she says, raising her eyebrows.
Perhaps the whole idea is over-optimistic and foolish. Perhaps I shouldn’t write about something before I actually start doing it. Perhaps idealism will give way to disinterest or fatigue. Perhaps none of this will happen. But tonight, I want to believe it will. I can smell the basil and fennel in the air. I can see the steam rising from the pot and fogging my windows. I can hear laughter and spoons clinking against bowls. I can feel warmth. I can taste togetherness.
Please. Tell me this is possible. Tell me you think it could happen, too.
There are many things to be sad and angry about. I wept while watching “Public Trust“, a documentary on the privatization of wilderness areas. My friend’s marriage, so brittle it may crumble any day now, moves me to tears. Watching politicians spew nonsense on the world stage disgusts me. Violence and heartache is happening on a global scale, and yet there are still small things, tiny things, that sadden me.
I’m sad that dancing is no longer socially appropriate and that Vivian is not allowed to sing in music class. “We can only watch videos of other people singing, but we can’t sing ourselves,” she tells me.
I’m sad that I didn’t get to scream and clap while runners tore past me, heading for the cross-country finish line, this fall. I’m sad that volleyball season is halfway done and Belén and Susanna haven’t been on the court even once. I’m sad that schools have become institutions of isolation, even though I know it’s necessary. I grieve the systemic separation and loneliness, the one-way hallways, the gathering spaces and rituals once used for community-building that are now roped-off or squelched. I’m sad that Susanna’s first year of high school is different than Belén promised her it would be. I’m sad that instead of working face-to-face with university students, we stare at each other through screens and apologize about garbled connections and fumble with our keys when the screen goes blank. I’m sad we had to cancel the reservation we made to spend a week with uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents in a cabin in Minnesota. And I’m sad that even though it’s been more than a year since we’ve seen each other we still cannot make plans to reunite.
Belén picks some straggling blooms from our garden, pounds them into unbleached cotton and sews a mask that she “absolutely can’t wait to wear”. Vivian and I helped her gather violets and pansies and all of us fought for a chance to hit the rubber mallet against fabric and cement. It felt good to smash something, waiting for beauty to come of it.
Although Vivian is restricted to a featureless rectangle of grass during recess this week, I know there is joy and play at school. When I tuck her in at bedtime and ask where she saw God that day she looks at me for a moment then starts rearranging her stuffed animals. I don’t think my question registers so I add, “You know, sometimes you can see Jesus in other people.”
She rolls onto her tummy, then back and starts kicking the bunk overhead. I think she is ignoring me. Suddenly she stops. “I see Jesus in my teacher,” she says.
“Yeah,” she says, “When she walks towards me.”
Vivian is acutely attuned to fashion. I wonder if the teacher was wearing sequins or sparkles, or perhaps something pink or purple that day.
“I see Jesus when she comes beside me to listen to my words. She’s the best teacher in the world!” Then she starts bucking around again and I get out and shut off her light.
We order pizza with a “drizzle of local honey”, as recommended by the waitress, and ask about the artwork on the chalkboard. “The dishwasher does it,” the waitress replies. “Isn’t it beautiful? He came from Vietnam four years ago and is a graphic designer but hasn’t found a job in his field.”
After dinner we head next door to the Broadway Theatre. We saw an advertisement for an improv comedy show, and though both girls have doubts and we’ve never heard of the comedians, we decide to go. “It’s live, girls,” I had said to convince them. “If someone’s willing to go on stage and bare their heart, we’ll watch them.”
We open the theatre doors and are greeted by the smell of popcorn and a man that seems very happy to see us. We soon learn, as he hops on stage to introduce the show, that he is the theatre manager. Surveying the sparse and socially-distant crowd, he slowly raises his mic. “Thank you,” he says, then pauses. “It’s been eight months since we’ve hosted a show here…” His voice trails off. We can’t see his lips, but his mask doesn’t hide the emotion. Even though he is silent, something about the way his eyes crinkle and head turns ever so slightly, we know he is crying. The audience waits.
After a moment, he continues. “It is an honour and a privilege to be together with you tonight. We’re so thankful you’ve decided to wear your masks and support live entertainment. You are smart and you are beautiful!”
I squeeze my girls’ hands and a tear rolls into my mask. Then we clap as hard as we can. The show hasn’t even started and I’m already glad we came. I’ve been to a lot of performances in my life and I’ve never heard an introduction that was as grateful and heartfelt as this one.
The spotlight shifts and the actors walk on stage as the audience welcomes them warmly, with the words “smart” and “beautiful” still ringing in our ears. Story lines develop, characters react, pivot and keep us believing. I feel Belén’s shoulders shake beside me. Not everything is clever or hilarious, some lines fall flat and other responses miss the mark, but all of it is stunning; the courage, the creativity, the skill, and the quick-thinking of the actors. There is a thrilling elegance when real actors interact and feed off each other in real-time before our eyes.
When we leave our seats and walk back to our parking spot in the dark, we talk about how none of it was rehearsed or scripted. How did the actors push their limits so far, and the other actors’ limits–suggesting new information, accents or even requiring their colleagues to answer in haiku–without knowing how it would all work out? How could they see their way through the twisted plot line when any reasonable ending seemed out of reach?
Thanksgiving Day has passed. My Auntie Erika posted a picture of a pumpkin she decorated with words describing everything she is thankful for. I think it’s a wonderful idea and plan to do something similar, but we still haven’t gotten to it. I need a little more time. I need Thanksgiving to last longer than a day or a weekend. Perhaps I’ll institute my own entire season of Thanksgiving, at least while all my small “sadnesses” last. Because during this world-wide pandemic there are still smart and beautiful people in the audience. There are actors who say yes to every line they’re offered. There are dishwashers choosing to make art. There are teachers listening to six-year-olds trying their French. And there is at least one person wearing a mask pounded with flowers.
Belén is snuggled under the duvet in her loft bed when I blast Johnny Maestro from the other end of the house. You’re only sixteen, but you’re my teenage queen, he croons while Belén wanders into the kitchen, still in pajamas. I insist she slow-dance with me before she eats her Honey Nut Cheerios. Because she is still sleepy enough, she humours me–but only for a few moments.
“These lyrics seem different than how I remember them,” I muse aloud when she pulls away. From the perspective of a mother with a just-turned-sixteen-year-old they’re more predatory than romantic. “Kinda creepy,” I say. Both Susanna and Belén agree.
Then I suggest a date idea to Belén. “Want to get a drink after school and head to the art gallery to see the new installation?” I’m asking her not only because it’s her birthday, but because I like being with her. She’s been one of my favourite companions for a while now.
Yesterday, we sat around a fire on our patio and ate a pumpkin cake that Belén had baked and decorated. Then we came up with sixteen special things about the birthday girl:
“Maybe she will be the best runner in all of Canada one day,” Free said. “Because she is fast like the girls in Ethiopia!”
“She helps me with my math homework.”
“She’s not easily swayed.”
I scribbled the comments down as fast as people gave them to me so I wouldn’t miss anything. Nodding my head as I wrote, I concurred with everything being said. But now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it, I want to add one more thing to the list. Belén is certainly smart, athletic, organized, disciplined and principled. She stands by her convictions, shows leadership and yes, she is tall, but there is one word that always comes to my mind when I think of my eldest daughter. Belén is an understander.
The moment I first realized this we were living in a tiny house with a purple sponge roof in the north end of Winnipeg. Belén was two years old and coming downstairs with me to switch a wet load of laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. We descended the narrow stairs one at a time, and at every step, she asked a question. I responded and she listened. Then she thought about it, stretched her foot out for the next stair and asked another question. When we reached the landing and I had to duck my head so I wouldn’t hit the ceiling, I told her, “You are such a great companion.” It was true then and it’s true now. Because good companions ask good questions. Good companions “get it”. Good companions are fun to be with. Good companions are empathetic; they have enough energy to funnel their thoughts away from themselves to focus on something, or someone, else. Good companions are understanders.
So my dear 16-year-old, may you continue to run, row, sail, study, play, create, grow, sing and draw, and through it all, be the understander God created you to be. And of course, this ancient blessing once more. I hope I have not dulled it by shouting it after you down the street, nearly every day, while you and your sisters run for the bus. I can’t seem to recite it the same, word-for-word, each time, but it’s a good one. And I know you understand.
May God bless you and keep you. May his face shine upon you and be gracious to you and give you peace…
Belén, Vivi and I are in our dining room, digging through a Ziploc bag, looking for the last few pistachios mixed in with peanuts and cashews. We took the nuts on our canoe trip and they are one of the few food items left over. I hate to toss them into the compost, even though they aren’t as fresh as they once were, so we’re snacking on them now. It’s our first day back home and we’re too exhausted to come up with anything else to eat.
“I could go back tomorrow,” I say while cracking a shell.
“Really?” says Belén.
“I mean, I’m ready for another canoe trip. I’d go right now if I could,” I say. I’m surprised that she seems surprised. After all, Belén was the one who, after unloading our van and portaging to the put-in site, exclaimed how she’d been waiting for this moment since we’d finished our last canoe trip two years ago.
“Oh good,” she says with relief. “I’m so glad you still like it.”
“Yeah, of course! What did you think? We’re the ones who raised you like this. We’ve gone nearly every summer since you were two years old.”
“Well, it’s a lot of work and I just don’t want you to stop liking it and taking us on trips.”
“Oh no,” I say, “these are the gravy years. You and Susanna push water and haul gear like grown women, and I didn’t even have to carry Vivian once during all of the portages. We’re not stopping now.”
Then I laugh and imagine myself as an eighty-year-old woman, still paddling. “I’ll come with you and your children and be the crazy grandma who goes skinny dipping, my wrinkled skin flapping off my shrivelled biceps.” I’m not sure if this is a threat or a promise.
I reach for another pistachio. It’s stale from sitting in our canoe for a week and smells of smoke, but if I think hard enough I can taste the lake, the granite, the waterfalls, the howling wolves and the wind at my back. I peel back the shell, pop it in my mouth and pass the bag back to my daughters, knowing they can taste it too.
Vivi, Belén and I are trying to figure out a new card game (IOTA – it’s very tiny so we are bringing it along on our upcoming canoe trip but we’d like to know how to play it first) when Stan requests Susanna’s help.
“Can you take a look at my foot again,” he asks while he hands her the tweezers and a headlamp with a magnifying glass on it. He ordered the light/magnifying apparatus online to help him select eggs from queen bees but it’s also come in very handy for our domestic surgeries. Susanna jumps away from our game, glad to get away from the litany of instructions Belén is reading off her phone, and gears up on the couch while Stan pulls a chair towards her and puts his foot in her lap.
Susanna is our resident physician, (after her father, of course–who isn’t a physician at all but we think he might have been a good one). Susanna’s got the memory and brain capacity for it, but whether or not medicine is in her future, I’m glad she’s willing to deal with our slivers. I, on the other hand, hate digging around people’s heels and the undersides of their toes with needles.
About 15 minutes later, after scratching and needling, she uses tweezers to gently extract a long, thin, hair-like sliver from Stan’s foot. “What is this?” she asks, while Stan gets up and pulls our microscope off the piano.
“I think it is a hair,” he says, “maybe an ingrown one…”
“No way,” I say, looking up from our IOTA game, which is actually much more fun than I anticipated. “No one has hair on the soles of their feet.”
We debate the possibility of it being a hair over a number of different materials. This is not an uncommon conversation in our home as our family gets an inordinate amount of slivers. We’re constantly picking shards of glass, metal shavings and wood splinters out of our feet. I suppose it’s the price we pay for all the activity here; we break glasses nearly every day while bumping around our kitchen and the floor of Stan’s workshop often sparkles with potential splinters just waiting to get tracked into the house.
“You’ve been cutting lots of aluminum lately for the bear box. That’s got to be it,” I say.
“But it doesn’t crimp like aluminum would, or any other kind of metal,” answers Stan while he and Susanna take turns peering through the microscope and pulling out their own hair to compare it to the specimen Susanna just removed from his foot.
While this is happening, I notice Vivi playing with the IPAD. I usually take it away when I see her noodling around with it, but the day is almost over and I’m too tired to enforce any sort of limit. In a few minutes she slides off her dining room chair and walks over to her dad to show him the screen. This is what he sees: “kan a har groe in yor fot”
At age six, Vivian has executed her first Google search. I didn’t think she was listening to our conversation–our teenage/adult interests don’t always keep her attention–but it’s evident now that she was engaged.”It took me a long time to figure out how to spell all those words,” she says, while we jump up and down and gush about how proud we are of her. And then we click on the pertinent link, “When Patients Present With Hair Slivers in the Foot”, from Podiatry Today.
(A little while later she disappears into the kitchen to try her trick again. Buoyed by our enthusiastic reactions to her last inquiry she asks Google another burning question. This time, though, we have a hard time deciphering her intent as we stare at the phrase, “hay bib geesos gat mabe”. Google seems stumped too. “How did Jesus get made!” Vivian hoots as we all hunch around the IPAD. It occurs to me that we have a new game for the canoe trip. Vivi can write down all her burning questions and then we can try to figure them out and debate the answers. It may entertain us longer than any card game.)
When I try to think positively about our all our slivers I convince myself that they are merely the shrapnel of a creative life. Indeed, it feels like an explosion is going off here some days, with everyone’s ideas and agendas colliding in our home. There’s sailing and spas for the neighbourhood ladies and pottery (in pyjamas, past bedtime!) and construction (always construction!) and honey harvesting and saskatoon picking and beans and more berries and pinatas and sand castles and camping and canoeing and cupcakes and cousin sleepovers and macarons and ganache and, and, and… Everything about life at this stage is fast and furious. I remind myself that it mirrors summer at our latitude, which is to say, it is fleeting. I know, as surely as the days shorten in mid-August, that nothing lasts forever. And yet, it’s all still very messy. Because making and doing things is never neat and predictable. And with our family, like any collection of humans, there are surprises along the way, including slivers.
The huge community garden garden plot we rented this year has turned into a surprise that falls under the sliver category. The six long rows of corn are stunted, the potato bugs are relentless and the soil has been parched most of the summer. We’ve poured both water and money into it, not to mention hard labour, sheer hope and optimism. In early spring, we even took down the name of a passerby who asked if he might get produce from us at harvest time. “Definitely! We’ll have way more than we need,” I had said confidently while typing his number into my phone. Sadly, I don’t think it will be necessary to contact him; there won’t be any extra to go around.
Fortunately, there are happier surprises. My dear friend Bonnie has been calling this season the “summer of her amazing luck” (Hello, Miriam Toews!) because almost anything can happen when nothing is planned. I know what she’s talking about. Even though I thought our summer calendar was blank due to COVID restrictions, not a day passed in July when we didn’t have overnight company or were out camping ourselves.
Over the August long weekend we attended an intimate wedding where Susanna and Belén were asked to play cello and violin. During the dinner the MC instructed the guests to come to the mic at the front and sing a song with the word “love” in it to get the bridal couple to kiss. Stan immediately leaned over and whispered something about getting his guitar from the car, in case anyone would want to use it. I raised my eyebrows, doubting anyone would take up his offer, then shrugged my shoulders and nodded.
He returned with the guitar and propped it against the wall near the front. No one picked it up until, just before the dance was about to begin and we’d heard guests sing “You are My Sunshine” and speeches and forks tinkle against goblets, a man ambled towards the front of the room. I’d chatted with him earlier and found out that he and his wife had immigrated to Canada years ago and were Melissa’s (the bride) neighbours. They were in their thirties or forties and their child was a playmate of Melissa’s son.
When the man picked up the guitar and sat in a chair far from the reach of the mic, I nudged Stan, hoping he might take care of the situation. Stan stayed in his seat, it looked like the MC was trying her best anyways, so as not to distract from what the man was saying. He stammered a little and spoke apologetically in a thick Ukrainian accent. Every now and then he would pause, searching for the right words, and his wife would interrupt him from her seat at their table. Finally he stopped talking and let his thumb test the guitar. The next moment he erupted into song. It was loud and large and showy with lots of extended R rolls that seemed to go on forever. I’m not sure anyone but Melissa’s grandparents could understand the Ukrainian lyrics, but everyone was riveted by his finesse, the volume (he definitely did not need a mic) and talent. People looked around at each other with mouths wide open and faces of disbelief. Once I caught my breath I whipped out my cell phone, as did many others, to record the last bit of his unexpected performance. “He’s the Ukrainian Garth Brooks!” I overheard another man murmur. When the song was done, he placed his right hand over the strings to quiet them and added simply, “It was about love” before the audience broke into applause and whistles.
While I’m remembering this, rain begins to pelt my window panes. Soon it’s pooling in the gutters and the cars are making big splashing sounds as they drive by on the street. We’ve been waiting for moisture–it’s been so dry all summer–and even if it’s too late for our corn, it’s still wet, drenching the thirsty earth.
Ukrainian folk songs belted out with flair are definitely under the heavy-rain-during-a-dry-summer category of surprises and remind me that almost anything is possible. As we’ve been getting ready for our canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park I’ve been trying to keep this in mind. It’s a hard balance to strike though, while scrupulously combing through our menu plan and counting every last nut, piece of cheese and dehydrated crumble of chicken. (Last time we went canoeing with my sister’s family we brought far too much food and paid the price during the gruelling portages.) Belén has been watching Youtube videos on snaring rabbits and her dad helped her make a snare of her own to take along. I don’t want to depend on wildlife for calories, but we’ll see how far Bonnie’s luck stretches. I know, for sure, we can count on surprises along the route, including a splinter or two.
Some photos of our happier surprises in the last few months…
It’s true that ten minutes ago I set down a bucket of mulch to admire a spider web stretched between two sturdy raspberry canes just beginning to leaf out. Now, the setting sun is making the grass beyond our fence glow neon green, the birds are singing and a train whistles. I have my laptop positioned perfectly so I can look at the zinnias and the bed of cucumbers I just planted while I write this. When Stan comes out of the shop he asks me what I’m doing. “Indulging myself,” I answer.
It’s also true that I wonder what my friends are up to. It’s Friday night. Are people getting together without us? Do we even have friends anymore? Will we remember how to find each other when Covid-19 is over?
It’s true that my compost pile is starting to heat. After a year of storing leaves and piling kitchen scraps on top of last year’s garden plants, I finally worked up the courage to face the mess yesterday. “What are you doing?” asked Saron when she came out of the house.
“Making soil,” I said. She perched on the fence beside me and I gave her the hose to water the pile while I stirred and jabbed and pushed and pulled and heaved the ingredients into place.
“Will you smell bad when you are finished?”
“Yes. Most definitely,” I said.
“Is this it? Did we make it already?” Saron asked when she saw me shovel some compost from the bottom of the other bin and work it into the new pile.
“Nope. It is magical but it doesn’t work quite that fast.”
It’s also true that gardening has distracted me from nagging, checking and guiding school work. Don’t want to do those novel study questions? Neither would I. Science looks boring? Come, help me plant these apple trees. Want to play in the basement all day? Great, just don’t bother me. Fiddling is more up your alley than math? Have at ‘er.
It’s true that we went to the beach this week, jumped off sand dunes and called it gym class. I took pictures and was overcome by smiling eyes, peach-coloured sweatshirts, blue sky and the taste of potato chips.
It’s also true that I’ve dropped into bed every night this week, nauseous with exhaustion, before 8:30 pm. Yesterday I had a headache and wondered if I was dehydrated. I got out of bed for a drink and had 3 scoops of peanut butter, just in case I needed more calories, while I was at it. Then I remembered why my head hurt. I had gotten mad earlier in the day, so mad that I had probably burned up some important neurological pathways.
Two children, who shall remain unnamed, had been going from room to room, intentionally farting behind closed doors to contaminate the space. When I found this out, I stormed into the bedroom (the one with white walls, white sheets, and a white loft that’s always pristine) where they were hard at work. Seeing the shysters’ sweaty little bodies and garden-dirty feet tangled in the duvet ignited me.
“How dare you fart in other people’s beds?” I yelled, trembling. While I heard myself railing against them I realized how ridiculous it all sounded, but I didn’t let myself give in to the comedy of the moment. I just wanted to be good and mad. Because really, there are so many things to be angry about on any given day, so many straws to break all of our backs.
It’s also true that I left shortly after to accompany Susanna on her paper route. When we returned an hour-and-a-half later, we were greeted with profuse apologies, multiple cards and a penitent light-up sign. I wondered, then, why I had been so fierce.
It’s true that I would like to be alone this evening, maybe in a little writing cabin at the edge of some woods, with a fern on the windowsill and a simple desk where I would think long, deep thoughts in silence.
It’s also true that I’m hungry, it’s 7:42 pm and I didn’t make supper but Susanna is pulling a saskatoon crisp out of the oven that will count for at least 2 servings of fruits and veggies for each of us. Vivian is plunking spoons into bowls she set around the table. And so I close my laptop with my mouth watering.