Rules

Dear readers,

I miss writing here. Perhaps you’ve noticed I haven’t been around much lately. Instead of writing on my blog I have been concentrating on a different project that I’m excited to share with you. But not quite yet…

In the meantime, here’s a draft that I wrote a long time ago and never published. I re-read it this morning and it made me smile, so I thought it might be worth posting. This piece was initially rejected by my senior editors (aka my children) but it’s been long enough since I wrote it that I think they’d be okay  with it now. In a effort to absolve myself further, I’ll also add that it’s a snapshot of one evening in our home and not necessarily indicative of where we are today. 🙂

If you want to read something more Christmas-y please check out the pieces I’ve written in the past for this season: Losing out: the Christmas narrative and The Jesus-thing

Your absentee blogger,

Tricia

***

Some people are rule followers, some are not. Although I might appear to be a rule follower I’ve always had a distaste for them. Now that I think about it, I may have inherited this from my parents who never instated any kind of formal house rules when we were growing up. There was a code of conduct, including things like never put a hairbrush on the table, but bigger issues like curfews and dating were dealt with by an over-arching expectation that we would make reasonable decisions. For example, I had no curfew but I knew if I wanted to stay out until 3 am I had better find a phone to let them know where was.

You can imagine, then, how I surprise myself when I announce a new rule for my own household.

“I don’t want you girls to drink alcohol unless we’re around,” I say, wringing out my dish cloth and flinging it into the sink. I turn around to repeat it to my daughters who have just come home from school.  We are in the middle of a conversation about the upcoming weekend and suddenly, without warning, without thinking about it for more than two minutes, I had made up a rule. I had grabbed impulsively for the nearest stick and drawn a line in the sand.

I say the rule a few more times, just to roll the words around in my mouth and test them out. No one drinks unless mom and dad are at the party.

When Stan comes home we sit around cabbage borscht and baguettes and I update him on my declaration. Then we remember the friend (male) who had been robbed after unknowingly consuming drugs with his drink, and another friend (female) who had been brutally violated at a house party for the same reason.

“Ugh, don’t tell me that story again,” Belén said wincing and covering up her eyes. “It was horrible enough the first time.”

I had wondered, when I first told them what had happened to the girl, if I had shared too much. I decide again, in this moment, that education is better than naiveté. Then I circle back to the rule itself. “You got it, right? No drinking unless mom and dad are around.” Who knows when it will change (consistency is not my strength; flexibility is) but for today, this is the rule.

I look around the table and finally register that Vivian is with us. Of course I knew she was here but had all but forgotten about her. I hadn’t noticed that she wasn’t eating her soup. That she was ripping her baguette into a thousand pieces, crumbs dropping all over the floor.

“You can’t eat any more bread unless you try your soup, Vivi,” I tell her.

She looks at me for a while and I assume she is going to complain that she doesn’t like the cabbage or potatoes or carrots or anything else in her bowl. Then she looks over at her dad. And her sisters who are finally paying her attention. “But I drink,” she confesses. “When I’m thirsty at Twila’s house she gives me water.”

We all stare back at her.

She continues, “I drink… without Mom and Dad,” looking at each of us for our reaction.

I’m tilting my bowl to get the last of the broth out, but I stop scraping at the sides with my spoon to process her confession.

Then we burst out laughing. Vivi repeats what she just said, that she drinks without her parents, pleased that she is the centre of attention and has lightened the mood, even though she doesn’t know what is so funny.

I make a mental note to tell my friends who look after Vivian to please encourage her to drink. Especially if she looks dehydrated when I’m not around.

The point of this piece isn’t to convince you of the validity of rules, or when your children should or shouldn’t drink alcohol. It is simply to record that we are all always grappling and learning how to live and be. May we all have enough wisdom, wit and love in our households to continue.

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three daughters stomping Shelly’s cherries for homemade wine (2015)

Shots of Susanna

Susanna has wanted an Instax camera for a long time. We told her the reasons why we would absolutely not get her one: we already have enough cameras in the house, the film is expensive, the picture quality is poor and it’s another piece of plastic that will eventually end up in a garbage dump. Then, ten minutes before we sat down to eat her birthday lunch, I rushed to Walmart and bought her one. I couldn’t resist. Perhaps it was a terrible mistake or perhaps it was the right thing to do. In either case, she has one now. But the pictures don’t lend themselves to sharing online, so here’s my Polaroid version of of our thirteen-year-old Susie.

***

Susanna stands in front of the computer monitor. She wears her slouchy toque, plants her feet shoulder-width apart and holds her violin to her chin. She’s learning a new song and prefers listening, over reading the notes, to mimic the melody and phrasing.

I’m reading The Magic Fish to Vivian but I’ve read it so many times I barely need to look at the words. Instead, I watch Susanna. Even if I intended on concentrating on the book I’d be distracted. Susanna’s turned the volume up while Youtube-man plays Mazurka by E. Mlynarski as loudly as if he were playing right beside my head.

Susanna sets her jaw and purses her lips as she digs in with the bow. Her mouth twitches while she pulls hard across all four strings to emphasize each note of the chord, along with Youtube-man. In a few minutes she will switch to Madame Neruda, a fiddle tune that is fast, furious and showy. It is the kind of song that could drive a listener bonkers if they heard it repeatedly. It is also happens to be Susanna’s favourite.

***

(promoting our honey and garlic sale)

***

Older siblings shoot baskets while the thirteen-year-olds jump on the trampoline. Parents roast wieners and drink home-made cherry mead. When the sun sets, Belén and Tyler hide a trumpet in the park while the rest of the kids wait in our basement. Whoever finds the horn and blows on it first will win the game. Parents spread out across the park with strips of torn-up bed sheets, ready to tag and tie-up children to impede their progress.

After kids are hobbled, then set free; a cell phone is lost, then found; the trumpet is discovered, then blasted, we gather for birthday cake around the fire. There is a lull in conversation and I am tempted to introduce my trivia-game idea, but reconsider. Earlier in the day Susanna had instructed me—or rather, pleaded—not to bring up the game under any circumstances.

“It’ll just be some fun questions,” I countered, “to get people talking. A little competition to see how well parents know their teenagers.”

She resisted so I didn’t push it any further then. Now, with the embers glowing and people relaxing after running around in the dark, it seems like the perfect activity.

“So do you think this would be a good time for a little trivia?” I ask out loud.

Susanna buries her head in her gloves.

“There’s a big prize!” I add.

Susanna looks at the friends sitting beside her and groans. She’s monitoring their response to her mother who just won’t stop. Her face is flushed in the firelight. I am definitely one of the perils of her teenage life.

***

“I’ll go get the mail!” Susanna calls while stepping out the back door. When she returns she spreads the Canadian Tire flyer across the counter, eager to begin browsing.

“Look at this,” she says, pointing to a Roomba. “This week the price is way down!” She continues reading the details carefully and then looks up to check if anyone is listening. “Can you imagine? Clean floors without doing anything!”

No one responds. Belén is studying for her math test, I’m tearing up lettuce for a salad and Vivian is lolling around on the kitchen floor. Besides, it’s certainly not the first time we’ve heard this information.

When Susanna realizes she’s lost her audience she flips the page.

“Whoa! This is the deep-fryer we should get,” she continues. “Do you see that? It’s self-cleaning!”

Unlike her older sister, who has always dreamt of living in a sparsely decorated tiny-home, Susanna declared (at age 5) she was going to have a mansion in New York City. It appears she’ll need the space.

***

On our way home from Colorado this summer we stop at a gas station, buy a frying pan, find a stream near Mount Rushmore, and pan for gold. All because of Susanna. She’d been researching gold-panning techniques and paraphernalia for weeks before our vacation. The frying pan wasn’t exactly on her list of tools (and we didn’t get any gold) but we use it for cooking eggs sunny-side up and they turn out beautifully.

***

We’re waiting to board plane for the West Coast when I notice Susanna’s carry-on beside me on the bench. The backpack is partly open and I see packages of all shapes, colours and sizes jammed to the top.

“What on earth do you have in there?” I ask while I pull it towards me.

She grabs it quickly and pulls it back.

“For the plane!” she chirps, even though it’s 6:30 am and we’ve been up for 2 hours.

While we settle into our seats and stow baggage overhead, Susanna is busy. As usual, she’s sorting through the bags of chips, candy bars, suckers, gum and random treats she’s slowly acquired in the past year.

“Here, take this,” she says, handing me a piece of Juicy Fruit before the plane takes off. It will help your ears pop.” Then she turns to Vivi. “Do you want a red sucker or a purple one?” she asks her little sister.

“Red,” Vivian says, stretching out her hand. Meanwhile, Belén paws through the stash, finds some chocolate Susanna won at a birthday party and unwraps it.

It happens like this on every trip. Susanna cheerfully doles out tasty morsels that she’s been collecting for months, seemingly unfazed by sharing with family members who immediately consume everything they’re handed on the spot.

***

***

Susanna is sitting on a park bench at the lake’s shore, reading a Prince Edward Island tourism guide. She’s rooting for a maritime family vacation now that she’s working her way through the entire Anne of Green Gables series—for the third time.

While her dad coaches her older sister in the rowing shell, Susanna hunches over the glossy pages that she’d mail-ordered and studies each line. She will remember all the details, the layout of the biking trails, the museums and the geographical highlights, because even though we have no plans to visit the island now, we might just make it there one day. And because that’s the kind of remembering brain Susanna has.

***

Happy Birthday Girl!

Wonderscape 2019

The theme of this year’s gathering was “Collaborate”
Artist-in-Residence, Katie Miller
practising
Katie taking a picture of Artist-in-Residence Bevin Bradley getting ready for her monochromatic painting workshop
looking for scenes/items to paint
Artist-in-Residence Felipe Gomez getting musicians of all instruments and skill-levels to groove!
Artist-in-Residence Clayton Cave introducing his soapstone carving workshop
polishing pendants
results
Clayton Cave’s work on showcase at the Maker’s Market
Freba Pottery for sale by Marea Olafson
I love it when participants choose to dedicate the whole weekend to their own projects
Meeting with other writers and reading/listening to their work is one of the most rewarding parts of Wonderscape
Did I ever say that Wonderscape happens near water?
Shannon Shakotko writes another song this weekend… gives me shivers.
I always feel so honoured that people actually come to Wonderscape!!

I don’t have many words today. I’m just so very thankful.

*Photos taken by myself, Susanna Reed, Katie Miller, Darcilyn Johnson, Tammy Shakotko, and Krista Herzog

Why I’m Not Crying

I wake up at 4:30 in the morning and my brain starts ticking through what needs to happen today. By sunrise I am out on the gravel path at the edge of town, making my normal rounds. I come back to wake my sleeping children, get out the cast-iron frying pan and melt some generous chunks of butter. We’re having fried porridge (leftover, congealed porridge fried in butter and topped with maple syrup). A special breakfast for a special day.

After going through the same 5 outfits we’d debated on last night, Vivian finally settles on a dress Belén bought for her with billows of light pink tulle and a bow at the waist. Susanna thinks it’s over-the- top and Belén gives Vivian important last-minute instructions like breathe with your mouth closed and then we are off. We rush passed Roger, our friend who walks by our place at 8 o’clock every morning, and he exclaims over Vivi, who normally waves to him from the other side of the living room window.

“We can’t be late today,” I say to Roger over my shoulder and keep walking to catch up with Susanna who is holding Vivian’s hand.

I snap some pictures at the bus stop, run home, throw on a helmet and grab my bike. The front tire is low but I don’t have time to fill it. I want to get across town before the bus arrives at the school so I can usher Vivi into the school like all the other kindergarten parents.

Everything goes as expected. Vivi figures out which is her locker, how to hang her backpack and fasten the velcro of her new indoor runners. Some moms take pictures and others hang back, watching their little ones colour the printed handouts ready at the tables. One mom is dabbing her eyes with a tissue and pats her daughter’s head while her husband motions towards the door, telling her it’s time to leave.

“Are you crying?” my mother texts me when I send her the photos from the bus stop.

“Nope,” I answer, then add, “I’m elated.”

I’m elated because Vivian and I have been watching her sisters get on the bus for the last 5 years. I’m elated because I’ve spent almost a decade-and-a- half at home with my preschool children. I’ve worn pyjamas til noon, worn out the couch cushions and worn out my voice. I’ve suckled, fed, bathed, wiped, nuzzled, spanked, listened, ignored, imagined, waited, rushed, doodled, read, explored, painted, run, jumped, skipped with my kids–and a lot of other people’s kids–and now we are here. At the end of this long, hard beautiful season.

My last child, my little girl, my bonus baby, is going to school.

But there are no tears. Instead of crying, I feel like an eighteen-year-old throwing my cap and tassel into the air. I did it! It’s not just the first day of kindergarten folks, it’s also mommys’ graduation day! We made it!

When I get home I’ll review my to-do list that I made at 5 am, when I was lucid enough to write but still in dream-state…

  • certify as a doula
  • become a licensed chaplain
  • grow garlic from seed instead of cloves
  • make tomato sauce
  • apply for mentorship program with Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild
  • teach grades 6-8
  • teach kindergarten
  • teach high school
  • teach adults creative writing
  • sweep my laundry room
  • write poetry
  • plant an apple tree in the front yard
  • finish writing my book
  • walk for miles
  • pray
  • read fine writing
  • do Wonderscape
  • foster children
  • move my family overseas
  • build up nutrients in our garden soil
  • package honey in jars

The list is long, which is why I don’t reach for a tissue or stay in the classroom for an extra hug. I don’t have time.

I push out the heavy doors of the school, get on my bike and start pedalling. Fast. Under the over pass, leaning into the curve at the roundabout, passed the courthouse with the pretty fuchsia petunias, down Myrtle Avenue where the flax mill smells of oil, nuts, green and dirt. Over the train tracks and up the hill I go, standing to pedal now, my orange windbreaker flapping behind me, like the swish of a blue gown crossing a stage.

Growing

At 7:30 pm, shafts of sunlight filter through the spruce boughs at the western edge of our yard. Belén is bouncing on the trampoline then jumps down to the stump-step and walks barefoot across our stone patio.

Stan has just come home from a 12-hour workday at the mine. He is lifting a cob of corn to his mouth, butter dripping off the end, when Belén makes a suggestion.

“This is the perfect night for rowing. Can we go?”

I look over at Stan. He looks at me. Without speaking he sets his corncob back onto his plate, half-eaten. The golden kernels will have to wait. His teenage daughter has made an invitation he can’t refuse.

In fifteen minutes, both father and daughter have changed and are unloading the rowing shell from the van. They carry it to the shore and roll it off their shoulders onto the lake. Belén holds both oars with her left hand, to steady the boat, and steps into the skull carefully for her first time. Stan gives instructions while standing calf-deep in the slimy water (among plenty of leeches), which is the least of his concerns. He is focused on coaching her how to slide and reach forward at the catch to maximize her power. Belén pulls back on the oars hesitantly and the boat wobbles like a newborn fawn just learning to walk.

The next stroke is steadier and on the third, both blades dig in at nearly the same moment, surging the boat backwards. The sudden glide surprises Belén. Her eyes widen and she grins quickly before concentrating on her next task.

Then she is off. Back and forth across the lake. Her dad standing tall near shore, watching the whole time.

*

Vivi’s hands are at 10 and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel. She turns toward me when I open the driver’s door of our van and tightens her grip.

“It’s my turn Mom!”

I try to take her seriously even though her feet can’t touch the floor and her ice cream flip-flops dangle from her 5-year-old toes.

“Susanna and Belén got to drive on the way here.” She lifts her chin and waits, then turns her head and stares forward. “I can do it too, Mom! I promise.”

I open the back door, where her booster is waiting, then reach forward to extract her from the driver’s seat.

“It won’t be long before you get the chance. Only ten short years.” I am not being facetious.

Postpartum

Dear one,

This is harder than you expected, isn’t it?

Come now, sit right here. There’s a space beside me on the couch. I can see that you are tired and not yourself. And now you are crying.

But it’s okay. Because even though having a baby has changed your life and everything is chaos, you are still made for this. You are brave and strong. This is a refining fire that will make you even more beautiful. I know this is true.

So sit awhile. Rest. You are going to make it through. You are not alone. See? I wrote this poem just for you.

With love,

Tricia

Postpartum*

The thing about having a baby,
or tumbling through a dark hole night after night
not knowing which way is up or down,
feeling like you’ve lost your way
and definitely your mind,
with bile and breast milk stains on your shirt,
is that someday your baby will be fourteen.

She’ll help you paint your walls,
and dip the roller in the tray
without making a mess.
She’ll play her music and you’ll sing along to every song,
except the French ones,
and when you ask about the lyrics
she’ll translate for you.
“It’s about guitars and being free,” she’ll say,
pausing with the roller above her head,
“but it’s not as romantic in English as it is in French.”
And you’ll finish the room together wondering
what you’ll listen to after she leaves in a few short years.
Wondering how a nightmare turned into this.

And you’ll want to tell every women
with cracked nipples and crazed eyes:
Hold on.
It won’t always be this deep
or dark
or hard.

Wait for what’s ahead.
Wait for white walls and music.

 

*First published in Mothers Always Write

 

 

For Susanna and Bella

“You zip the suitcases and I’ll start carrying groceries to the car,” I say to my oldest daughters on Friday morning. I bend down and pull on the handles of a plastic bin overflowing with pots, pans, spatulas and other tools. The weight of the load strains my lower back and I remind myself to bend my knees for the second bin. I’ll have to come back for the third one later.

Belén, Susanna and I are getting ready to leave for our biennial “girls weekend”, a getaway offered to any woman in the family older than twelve. Although we’ll only be gone for a little more than 48 hours, it appears as if we’re permanently relocating to another city. We’re hauling almost everything but the kitchen sink. Literally. Our baggage includes three kinds of electric mixers–a bulky food processor, an immersion stick blender and hand-held beaters–as well as multiple pairs of shoes, boots, jackets, games, books and art supplies. Which, considering how we normally travel (with one pair of underwear for a week in the backcountry), all feels very extravagant.

My sister and I have organized the weekend by ourselves and haven’t bothered our mother with booking accommodations or researching entertainment options. When my mom called me a few days before the trip she wanted to know if there were any details left to figure out, or what she should bring.

“What do I need to do?” she asked me on the phone.

“Nothing,” I answered. “You don’t need to do anything except be there and be happy. No complaining allowed!” Of course, she’s more than happy to enjoy the weekend without the planning and I’m not worried she’ll be grumpy. I’m simply stating Rule #1 of our family tradition.

On Friday evening, after checking out our downtown condo, we head to a local bookstore to browse and eat dinner.

“We’re pretty packed,” the host warns us when we approach his kiosk. Biting his lower lip and running his finger down the reservation list he adds, “It’ll be a while before I can get you a table.”

“Great!” I say, still grinning.

“Like an hour and half,” he clarifies, looking at me apologetically. “Do you still want it?”

“Mark us down,” I say. After all, we have no agenda and aren’t in a rush. We all split ways and wander in our own directions. I head to a book launch in one corner of the store, where the poet and musician Scott Nolan will be reading verses he wrote during miles of daily walks. Squeezing between book stacks and audience members milling around with coffee in hand, I find an empty chair beside an an old man sporting a beret and a young women wearing bright red lipstick. Eavesdropping on their conversation, I remember how delicious it is to be out and about in the world by myself.

At nine o’ clock all of us reunite over candles, flat bread pizza and West African peanut soup. The soup is underwhelming and tastes like diluted pumpkin puré, Susanna finds a curly black hair baked into the crust and Bella is exhausted after waking up at dawn and travelling all day to meet us. Still, we are together. The youngest two, especially, have been looking forward to this initiation for years.

“I feel so old,” Susanna repeats throughout the evening, without a single complaint about her pizza strewn with arugula. And not even a rogue hair can dim the shine for her.

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The next morning we walk a couple kilometres to an Etsy Maker fair. About halfway there we stop at The Don, a breakfast diner with a German Mennonite menu owned by a Korean family.

“What are the cracklings like?” I ask the waitress, trying to recall vague memories of my grandma serving them.

“They’re rendered pork fat fried in oil,” she replies, poised with her pencil and pad of paper. “People say they have a distinct flavour.”

“But you’ve never eaten them yourself?” I press.

“No,” she adds, shifting her weight, “but they’re really popular.”

“You used to love cracklings!” my mom interjects. “Or at least your brothers did.”

I order a plate for everyone to share while my mom launches into an explanation of our Mennonite heritage for the waitress. Once our food arrives, including the crispy pork fat that is just as good as my brothers always thought it was, we turn to Belén, Susanna and Bella for some conversation. What are their classes like? Their friends? What are the best parts of their days? The worst?

Listening more and talking less is something I’ve noticed in the generations who have gone before me. I remember my Grandma Mary sitting in her rocker, hands folded in her lap, silent in the midst of my aunts, uncles and cousins who gathered in her home regularly on Sunday evenings. My Grandpa Hans and Grandma Susie behaved similarly while hosting weekend reunions in hotels, listening to their kids and grandchildren visit and play games around them. I had observed their quiet and wondered if they didn’t participate because they couldn’t hear. Or was it because they couldn’t relate to the topics in the conversation? Perhaps, as people age they are less inclined to be the center of attention? Whatever the reason, I sense the same shift in who’s “got the floor” as my own family grows older.

The next morning I find Belén, Susanna and Bella huddled in the kitchen. They are talking in low voices and I draw closer to find out what is going on.

“Ha!” Belén laughs when I get too near. “Look who wants to listen-in now!”

“What to you mean?”

“Well, adults are always whispering and talking about things we’re not supposed hear. Now it’s our turn.”

Yes indeed.

I assume their conversation has something do do with the meal they’ve volunteered to prepare for us. My mom, sister and I are shooed out of the condo for a 2-hour walk while they work. They’ve already spent long hours on the phone deciding on a menu and figuring who would bring what. Susanna printed off recipes she’d found online and made colour-coded grocery lists. Days earlier I had dropped her off at the store so she could pick up the top-secret ingredients and when I’d returned home from my own errands I knew something was missing but couldn’t think of what it might be. Then I remembered Susanna. Backing out the driveway and returning to Superstore I found her, still combing the aisles for ingredients like fennel seed and and almond flour.

Now preparations for the feast are in full swing.

“Don’t look! Don’t come to the kitchen! You can’t see what we’re doing,” yells Susanna when we return too early from our walk. I flop on the bed and close my eyes while traces of citrus and chocolate, mingled with basil, waft into my room. Finally we are served freshly-squeezed lemonade, spaghetti with marinara sauce, salad and a buffet of handmade macarons.

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Besides the no-complaining rule there is one other tenet of the Girls Weekend: No Parenting Allowed. This means no rushing, nagging, pushing, cajoling, or telling anyone else what do. Although I cherish my role as a mother, the weekend is a vacation from that role, from all the orchestrating, programming, and managing of other humans. No one is in charge of what anyone else eats or drinks, when they wake up or go to sleep or what they do in between. We are all on an even playing field and it gives me a taste of what it might be like to have have adult children and enjoy their adult company.

“Pretend you are 21-year-old university students,” we explain to the twelve-year-olds at the beginning, “and we’re all just hanging out as friends.”

It’s not that I don’t want to be their mom–I’ll never give up that identity–but it’s refreshing to take a break from some of our normal interactions. Instead of forcing violin practice or reminding them to do their laundry we can all relax into simply being in each other’s company. And when we do, it’s a little easier for me to remember that I like these individuals just for who they are. Not as daughters or students or little mini-me’s but as the people they are becoming.

On Sunday morning everyone sleeps in and there is no time for anything besides packing. Once all of our kitchen paraphernalia has been stowed and our bags are ready we take one last look around the sparse, but stylish, space.

“It feels like there should be some kind of ceremony to celebrate the end of your first girls weekend,” I say to Bella and Susanna, who are putting on their jackets.

There are groans in response.

Then my mom sets down her purse and begins to pray a blessing on each one of the younger generation. It is ceremony enough.