Becoming Family

My friend Free, her daughter Saron, Vivi, and I are wandering around Seedy Saturday together. I’ve been volunteering at the seed swap but now I want to take a look at all the other vendors before the event closes. We stop at a table selling popcorn and soon the lady behind the table is giving Saron a piece of gum. Saron pops it in her mouth, her eyes sparkling, and then asks the vendor a question. The lady doesn’t hear her at first so she asks louder, “Can I please have a another piece for my sister?”

I am holding Vivi on my hip when she makes the request and smile because I know what is coming next. Saron doesn’t have any biological siblings and her relatives live half-a-world away in Addis Ababa, but the lady doesn’t know that.

“Of course!” the lady replies and gently shakes her Dentyne container so that a shiny little square falls into Saron’s open hand. Saron quickly wraps her fingers around it, ducks behind her mom and appears before Vivian and me with an outstretched arm. “Here’s your gum Vivi! You have to chew, chew, chew!” Saron says, half-shouting like she always does when she’s excited, which is just about all the time.

“Oh,” the lady starts, looking confused and surprised, “I thought maybe you were going to take it home to your sister.”

Free and I both laugh. “We are family,” I say, but don’t explain anything more. Perhaps she thinks we are a couple; one black mom, one white mom and their blended children. Neither of us offer more information and we walk away from the table, both girls chawing vigorously.

When Free first came to Canada a year ago she wouldn’t stop cleaning my house. Whenever I begged her to put away the broom she would tell me firmly. “No Tree-sha. Like sistah.” At that point I appreciated the sentiment and was touched by her open heart, but didn’t really consider our relationship to be sister-like. Then as the months passed something changed. It happened slowly. While she and Saron slept over many nights, while her daughter fell asleep in my arms, while she taught Belén how to braid Saron’s hair, while she became Vivi’s safest place outside of our home, while we tried roasting coffee the Ethiopian way on our back step (and failed), while eating injera and kolo together, while going to doctor’s appointments, while talking on the phone with her relatives in Ethiopia, while crying together, praying together and trying to read each other’s Bibles together, while applying for jobs, while cheering on Belén’s basketball team, and of course, while cleaning together.

When the school bus is cancelled due to a blizzard, Free and Saron wade a block-and-a-half through the snow to spend the day with us. After playing a few games, watching the kids perform dance routines, and drinking tea with honey, Free tells me, “Now it’s time to go downstairs and work.” I don’t even protest because I know it’s futile; she’s already heard me talk about my to-do list for the day. “What I’m gonna do?” she says as we survey the laundry piles, boxes of material, cheese-making supplies, bags of recycling, fermenting wine, and everything else in between. I tell her I have the same question, but soon she starts organizing all my canning paraphernalia. Somehow, in the darkest corner of my basement, she manages to bring order, throwing out buckets of dried herbs and medicinal flowers, and arranging jars and lids according to size. While we work we listen to Ethiopian music, talking a little, but mostly just comfortable not saying anything at all.

When we do talk we learn a lot from each other. I tell her about our most recent trip to DC and visiting Mount Vernon, (George Washington’s estate). When I get to the part about our kids meeting a costumed interpreter dressed as a slave, I ask her if she’s familiar with American history. She is not. I wince when I talk about slave ships, cotton plantations, and then abolition. In a later conversation climate change comes up. I explain the concept of the greenhouse effect and why we choose to walk and re-use dishes whenever we can.

She isn’t the only one learning. I am fascinated by her experiences and harrowing adventures. She tells me what it was like to work for one of the wealthiest families in Yemen. How she learned Arabic, how her madam shared her husband with three other wives, and how she never told anyone about her secret church. She tells me about how she has seen the hand of God work miracles and heard his voice. She reminds me that our way of life is crazy when she makes observations about her new country. “Why don’t you talk with your neighbours more?” she asks. And, “There’s food everywhere here; at the bank, at church, in the middle of the day, at night, at meetings, anytime! Everywhere you go people are eating, and they’re not even thanking God for it.”

Free and Saron live just down the street with our dear friend Rebecca and sometimes we joke that we are one family who happen to live in 2 houses. Our little intentional community has been such an unexpected and heartwarming blessing for me, but it isn’t always easy. I make mistakes, feel bad for things I’ve said or done, and blunder through our cultural differences. When Saron yells at her mom from the back-seat of the van, I slam on the breaks and react as if it’s my own child. When the noise reaches a dangerous decibel level (Stan’s measured it), Free asks what the orange, spongy things are sticking out of Stan’s ears. “Oh, those are just ear plugs,” I explain, adding that he’s used them regularly since the children were born to help keep him calm. Which is true.

Becoming family hasn’t been quiet, quick, or easy. It certainly wasn’t expected or anticipated. But now, being family for each other is as natural as asking for another piece of gum.

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Canoe Tripping; Is it worth it?

Is it worth it?

The question rolls through my mind with every sleeping bag I stuff into dry sacks, every diaper, toothbrush, and toilet paper roll I zip into plastic baggies, and every dish, match, and knife I stow away. No extra article of clothing or edible slips in unaccounted; Shall I pack a sweatshirt or a long-sleeve shirt? Will we eat four bagels or five? All the little decisions I make add to my stress. When we go into the back-country with our three children it has to be this way, or else the sheer volume and weight of our so-called necessities stop us in our tracks. Literally. It sounds like a wonderful idea, to see how little we can get by on for a few days, but packing for it makes me feel anything but wonderful. After years of practise I’m getting better (I don’t pack cheese graters anymore, much to my husband’s relief) but it’s still overwhelming. Which is why the sentiment rears its head as I run up and down the basement stairs between our camping supplies and canoe trailer: This trip better be amazing or else…

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After a seven-hour drive north, and after every survival item has been packed, then unpacked, and re-packed into our canoe, we are finally on the water. The sun is hot and I turn around to make sure Vivi’s hat is on tight. I check in with Susanna, whose main job is to look after Vivian, and ask her if she’s comfortable. Then I re-adjust the pool noodles stuck to the gunwales of the canoe so it’s softer against my knees. Suddenly I feel incredibly thirsty and I haven’t even paddled more than 30 strokes. Where’s my water? And does Vivian have her water? She’ll be getting hungry soon, too. I find my water bottle under my seat and after noting the edge in Stan’s voice decide I can hold off for at least one more kilometre. I won’t start looking for the snacks just yet.

Slowly we leave the marina, cottages, and beach full of sunbathers behind us. Soon all I see is the water ahead of my paddle, the 2 other boats in our party, and the next island on our path. When we reach the landmark we were aiming for we pick a new point and with every metre gained the nightmare of packing fades. Maybe it’s the simple act of only doing one thing at a time. Lift paddle. Thrust through the water. Repeat. Or maybe it’s the calming scenery. Water. Rock. Spruce. Poplar. Birch. Repeat. Whatever it is is part of the answer to the question I had while packing.

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Vivian eating supper on the cliff with her buddy Tyler

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After our first night at Echo Island our crew is divided. Some want to stay here forever, naming every rock and tree and cliff-jumping their life away. Others want to keep moving and explore new territory. After listening to everyone’s opinion (well, except Vivian’s–but she seems to be happy as long as we’re happy), we decide to keep going. The island is beautiful but too close to civilization–we’ve seen two party barges and a handful of motor boats during our short stay. Listening to everyone’s opinion takes time, much longer than if someone would make an executive decision, but if we have one thing out here it’s time. Time to fish, to swim, to make food, to eat, and to get to know each other.

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The Reed and Walker children introducing Vivian to a traditional canoe trip dance

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This is the second back-country trip we’ve done with the Walker family and it shows. We talk about things and act in ways we wouldn’t under normal circumstances back home. Surviving in the wilderness requires vulnerability and brings a new level of intimacy to relationships, even among our own family. This deeper intimacy isn’t always pleasant, sometimes the isolation exacerbates difficult dynamics until they seem unbearable.

On the third day Stan and I paddle back to our campsite after exploring an abandoned gold mine. I’m in the bow and all three girls are in the middle of the boat.

“What’s wrong?” Stan calls up to me. “Are you okay?”

The question may be one of concern but that’s not the way I hear it, and his next phrase confirms it for me.

“Let’s see you paddle like you mean it!”

Perhaps this was meant as light-hearted encouragement. Perhaps he is merely trying to motivate his lovely wife to do her best. Perhaps he is perfectly content and grateful for his canoeing partner. Unfortunately, none of this occurs to me in the moment. All I can think about is our incompatibilities. He loves to paddle hard, feel the power of wood against water, and reach our destination as fast as possible; I love to paddle like I’m not really paddling at all, to drag my toes in the water, and have meaningful conversations while doing it. Stan wants to cover as much distance as possible and see all there is to see; I prefer to swim as much as possible and close my eyes while I’m sunbathing on the rocks afterward. As I think about this out on the lake, in the middle of nowhere, it all seems dire. Anger warms my stomach. Not every woman would take her one-year old into the woods! Not every woman would be willing to set up and tear down their campsite each night! Now I’m really seething. He’s got no idea how good he’s got it!

But it’s hard to seethe for too long when you’re on 86,000 acres of water dotted by hundreds of pristine islands. It’s hard to seethe when your husband knows how to rig up a bear cache like nobody’s business, catches you fish for supper, and navigates your fleet when everyone else is lost. It’s hard to seethe when you know, deep down, even though you are both very different, you wouldn’t want to be in the wilderness with anyone else.

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On the fourth day of our trip I wish we could extend our time away. Vivian seems unfazed by this strange way of life (for all she knows the canoe is her new napping place and the boreal forest her permanent home), and I don’t yet miss the convenience of internet connection or washing machines, even though Vivian has peed her pants multiple times–there’s always more water to wash them and a stick on which to dry them, but it’s time to head back.

For the first time in our family history, our 11 and 9-year-old will take turns in the bow to get us home. With 12 kilometres ahead of us, the wind in our faces, and steady rain, I’m not sure how either girl will perform and am worried about their morale. Sarah (the Walker’s daughter) and I are in the tandem kayak and gain ground faster than both canoes. We take shelter from the wind on the leeward side of a small island to wait for the rest of the group to catch us. When they arrive we check in with everyone, gain our bearings, and get moving again. This happens over and over, and each time our canoe pulls up beside us I expect crying and complaints from my three daughters. But it never happens. Vivi is tucked under bed rolls and sheltered from the rain with her wide-brimmed hat. Belén admits she is cold and can’t feel her fingers but she is still smiling. We keep going.

I watch as Belén puts her head down and digs into the water. I can tell Stan is impressed. Soon it will be Susie’s turn and she will prove to be as strong as her sister. There are many things we hope to teach our daughters and resiliency is one of them. If nothing else, trips like these help foster it, along with resourcefulness and stamina. So even if the sun isn’t hot, the fish don’t bite, the fire doesn’t blaze, and we don’t get any sleep (oh wait, that really did happen), not all is lost.

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“sketching”

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calm moment with no rain on the way home

After lunch Susanna takes over and the rain stops. The water calms and the distant islands look even more beautiful than before. Sarah’s brother, Tyler, is in the front seat of the kayak with me now and we race the Reed canoe on the final home stretch. Then just before we reach the docks the rain starts again, falling harder than ever. We’re already wet and all our gear is soaked so it doesn’t matter much. Tyler and I are in the lead and attempt to cut off their boat when Susie and Stan slip in between us and the dock and declare their victory.

We unload and then repack everything into our cars as fast as possible, which still seems to take forever. Nobody else is on the water or hanging around the marina. Nobody asks us how our trip was or if it was worth the hassle, so we don’t have to think about how we might answer. But on the drive home, in clean dry clothes and munching on left-over beef jerky and yoghurt-covered raisins, we’ll have already made up our minds.

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at an old gold mine site

Beans, Wine, and the Real Vivi

“Mom, do we have to clean today?”

“Nope, no cleaning. I mean, no extra cleaning. We just have to tidy up after ourselves–like if we eat, we’ll clean those dishes,” I explain nonchalantly. It’s a bit of a lie, and by now all of us know it. Because somehow this cleaning up after ourselves seems to take most of the day. The summer is more than half over and I’m still mystified by how much work the four of us create. No sooner do we clear the couch of one load of laundry than the next fills the cracks between the cushions. Lunch dishes crowd out breakfast dishes that are nesting in last night’s supper pots. This kitchen was perfectly clean at five o’clock yesterday I’ve been known to say, hoping everyone else will realize the gravity of the situation and acknowledge the mess we make. But I don’t expect them to understand it because I certainly don’t. I’ve been looking after myself for at least 20 years now (running a household with children for the last eleven) and still don’t understand the math of household maintenance.

I do know green beans are part of the equation. Each time I pick them I feel incredibly grateful to be growing our own food. I also feel incredibly sweaty and itchy. The mosquitoes ascend like plumes of smoke, attacking my neck, wrists, and ankles as I swish through the plants. Swatting and blowing them out of my face I remind myself that this, too, is one of the benefits of gardening. It’s called appreciation. The next time I open up a plastic bag of store-bought beans and dump them into my pot I will be thankful. Instead of balking when the cashier tells me the total for my groceries I will wonder how such a great amount of energy can come so cheap.

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I love purple beans

It’s not just the beans. The ruby-red siren song of cherries, raspberries, strawberries, and tomatoes are factors in the formula we never seem to balance. For the last six weeks I’ve kept a stack of empty buckets at the back door so we can fill them at a moment’s notice. Which, of course, leads to other urgent jobs, like stomping cherries for wine. Another reason our days at home get hijacked by nagging and the tiresome task of looking after ourselves is because it’s hard to keep up while we’re at the beach. Which means I have no right to complain about anything.

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All three girls treading Shelly’s cherries with very clean feet. I promise.

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Garlic harvest!!!! The girls garlic did better than mine. I planted mine in a heavily composted bed; theirs was in poorer soil. Not sure if that was the reason?

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Belén skiing for the first time at the Whyte’s cabin

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Susanna after her ski. Thanks to Duane!

***

When babies reach their first birthday it’s cause to celebrate. According to me, all the hoopla should be for the parents; the ones who give up so much to ensure those helpless, seven-pound, naked creatures survive. In Vivian’s case, it wasn’t just her parent’s lives that were turned around. Her sisters’ world changed too. Which is why her birthday party was more about them than Vivian. They planned the games, bought prizes, and helped with the cake. It wasn’t baby-friendly either. No healthy rice cakes here to mark the occasion. No siree! We served New York style cheesecake with cherries—because that’s what we like. I didn’t get the obligatory picture of Vivi blowing out the candles, and I don’t even know if she tasted it. Did I mention this was more about us?

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The girls had games for both the moms and the dads. Here Stan is asking his Dad to answer one of the questions on the beach ball: “What is my favourite toy?”

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The moms’ game: be the first to find your crying child while blindfolded. Even the 40-year-old children had to cry so their moms could find them with the candy soother. (I’m looking for Susie in this picture.)

I’m not sure what I would’ve done without Belén and Susanna this past year. Susanna seems to have extra patience when mine runs out. Like her dad waiting for fish to bite, Susanna sits quietly by Vivi’s crib humming lullabies while Vivi tosses and turns, making sure she’s asleep before she tip-toes out of the room. Belén is the one who hates for her to cry, who hears Vivian screaming while I’m giving her a bath and appears at my side with graham crackers. While the tap water pours off Vivi’s head and body, Belén plies her with crackers and soothing words, anxious to stop her tears. And though it’s probably not best-practise to stuff your baby with treats while bathing, I don’t tell Belén to stop. It’s hard to argue when the baby is happy.

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The walker Stan rigged for Vivi works well. Maybe too well. She hasn’t really struck off on her own yet.

But, despite all this care, something has happened to Vivian lately. I think it has to do with becoming human–like she’s got a brain of her own or something. Imagine! Never mind that she can’t talk yet, she’s got opinions alright. She probably has political preferences too, we just don’t know them yet. We noticed all of this because of the way she throws her head back and cries now. It’s not a hungry baby cry, but more of a I-need-my-way wail. It’s the way her limbs turn to wet toilet paper when we want her to stand and the way she stiffens them like iron when we want her to sit. All of this makes me think she really is her own person. At first this was disheartening, realizing she won’t be perfect or even what we projected onto her infant-self, but I’m coming to terms with having another complex human around here. So much for sweet baby Vivi without personality. Here’s to the real Vivian. Happy birthday!

Tricia

PS. The math of household maintenance got a whole lot simpler with Stan’s parents around for the week. There are good reasons why three-generation households are common in many cultures.

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doughnuts

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We played a little game that landed us up at the ice cream shop. Can you tell who lost?

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Be Curious

Everything, and nothing at all, happens in summer. Plants burst out of tidy rows and create a a canopy over black dirt. Songbirds in my yard perform like it’s the encore at their final concert, as if they know this gig won’t last for long. We pack for camp, for sleepovers with grandma, for the beach, and for a whole new round of firsts with Vivian. It’s hard to believe the sun won’t always shine while we get ready for bed or that our cooler won’t forever rotate from the kitchen to our car. The regular hum of life is a pitch higher as we try to squeeze every drop of life out of these nine weeks, but yet, it also seems quieter. There’s nothing new in my inbox. I haven’t checked facebook since last week. People are away. I have no schedule, no daily routine.
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The girls and their friends adopt a fledgling crow for a few hours, before they realize it isn’t hurt and their google search shows they should return it to where they found it.

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Retreating to the basement on a hot afternoon to sew doll clothes

This suits us all just fine for now. Especially Vivian. She thinks she has died and gone to a place where school buses never take big sisters away. It’s not a bad deal for me either. The other day I went to sleep after putting Vivian down for her nap and when I awoke I saw her crib was empty. No Vivian; she had disappeared. I looked around until I heard voices coming from the playroom. They were playing “house” and filled the necessary roles (mom, puppy, and baby) perfectly. So far, Vivi doesn’t seem to mind being typecasted.
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It’s not all bird-song and sunshine though. On the first day of summer holidays somebody jumped out of bed at 5:30 am. By 8:30 family relations had deteriorated significantly, and at 9:00 they were writing down rules, which I titled “Summer-long Slumber Party” in an effort to re-frame the concept. (I keep telling them this is their chance to be together and that in a few short years they will likely travel just to spend time with each other, like my sister and I do now, but I’m not sure it’s working.) I’ve also noticed a pattern with the strife; it’s exacerbated by any kind of cleaning or daily chores. On one hand it might be worth it to let them lounge around all summer, there would be less screaming and it might even be less tiring to do it all myself, but I have a feeling this is part of my job-description as a parent. Foster work ethic is right down there with scrub toilets according to me. Only worse. Which is why I suggested we think of it as “getting ready for our slumber party”. Is that corny? Yes. Was I desperate only 3 hours into the holidays? Definitely.
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Fortunately, fighting gives us an opportunity to learn about forgiveness. One evening, I climb up to Belén’s top bunk to say goodnight and she asks me a question.
“Mom, do you know how I pray sometimes?”
“No. Tell me.”
“I don’t just pray that God would forgive me but also the other people who have done bad things to me.”
Upon hearing this Susanna pipes up from below with a suggestion that may indicate a conflict of interest on her part. “Belén! Belén! I think you should be more specific in your prayers. Like I think you should say exactly who it is that has done mean things to you so God can forgive them.”
I wonder if she has anyone in mind.
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First canoe ride for Vivian; she was mostly mesmerized by the paddling, or asleep.

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my mom and dad

We’re also learning about how curiosity affects the way we relate to each other. Dave, a marriage and family counselor at our church, says it helps to look at your spouse the way you did when you were trying to get to know them. Then, it was easy to think of questions and things you wanted to more about. Tapping into that same curiosity during an argument can help change the dynamic. Why are they saying what they are saying? What makes them react that way? What do they need or want?

When I hear stomping or mimicking, see eye rolls or huffy faces, I have a new line now. “Be curious!” I command through gritted teeth. Perhaps Dave didn’t intend it to be a threat, but it’s novel enough that it thwarts the arguing. After a day when all of us run out of curiosity at one point or another Belén sums it up this way: Being curious is hard–it’s tiring and takes more time. We all agree.

Curiosity isn’t always onerous. Sometimes it’s exactly what we need, like opening the window and letting fresh air into the stuffy room of self-absorption. Pull back the curtains and watch her face when she talks to you. Throw up the blinds and ask him what he needs you to know!

Before leaving for book club one night I read this quote about another way to open the window: “There are two types of people – those who walk into a room and say: Here I am! and those who walk into a room and say: There you are.” Of course that’s how I want to be, but it’s easier to agree with than implement. You have to swing the heavy inner spotlight off self and pass on the microphone. You have to stop monitoring how you sound to hear what others are saying. I’ve got an advantage tonight because I haven’t read either of the suggested books so I can focus on “finding” who I am with.

We sit on lawn chairs around a fire. There is sangria and chips, marshmallows and snap peas. I see Sara* through the flames. She is laughing and slapping the plastic arm of her chair. She just tacked a one-liner on to someone’s story and now everyone else is laughing too; her mini-epilogues make people seem funnier than they are. There she is. The skin on Amanda’s chin tightens. She is wearing sunglasses but there must be tears in her eyes. She is telling us about post-traumatic stress and diagnoses and the fear of not knowing. She is the one I was intimidated by at first, but now I see her more clearly. There she is. I see Karen make fun of herself, vocalizing her inner dialogue with perfect expression and intonation; an actress Hollywood never found. There she is. Erin summarizes a book we read a while back–something about how the author humanizes the villain, and articulates exactly what I was trying to say. There she is. Christine recounts her last parenting battle and how she turned around (right in the ice cream shop!) and took her children home without treats. I am in awe. There she is.

I don’t sit back and study faces faces all night. I interrupt and interject like usual, but I come home happy. Happy for the chance to listen. Happy to have found the people I was with.

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Trying to stay curious,

Tricia

*names changed

Unwrapping

You’d think by now I would know my own family. Some of us have been together for 14 years (our wedding anniversary is today) and we’ve spent countless hours talking, working, laughing, fighting, observing, and sharing the same space. But despite the time we’ve logged together, I’m still surprised by them. Still discovering who each one is. Still trying to figure them out. Every day, if I’m paying attention, I find more clues as to who these people are, their gifts, what makes them tick, and who I’ll want to live with when I’m an old woman.

Belén and Susanna were designing their dream homes the other day when each tried to convince me to live with them. Belén showed me her piece of paper and told Susanna confidently, “Mom will like my place. She’s more like me. See? All I want is a tiny cabin with no electricity and a garden.”

“But Mom,” Susanna interrupted her. “I don’t want that much either. Just a five-story house–you’ll live on the top floor!–with servants, a pond, and a Ferris wheel. In New York City.”

Sometimes it reminds me of the shower game where you pass around a present, unwrapping it until the music stops. Living with other people is like peeling off layers of paper; each interaction a chance to get closer to what’s inside. Raising children is one of the quickest ways to strip your spouse and exposes things we might never see otherwise. With our third child, I’m seeing a different side of Stan. It was there all along, but it took Vivian to help me see it.

Not long ago we were at church and I decided to leave Vivi in the nursery so I could go back to the service. While I slipped into the seat beside Stan he mouthed, ” Where’s Vivi?” I whispered back, feeling proud of myself. Training our older daughters to stay somewhere without us had been such a trial, an epic journey wrought with comparisons (how do other parents do it?) and worry that we pushed through. Now, I thought, he would be pleased I was launching her towards independence, but his look was more questioning than congratulatory.

About ten minutes later I was called back to the nursery. Vivian was a mess. Her face was wet and swollen and she looked like they’d left her out in a violent rain storm. Her body shuddered with each ragged breath while the young volunteer explained how they couldn’t do anything to calm her. On the way home, I told this to the rest of the family and Stan surprised me with his response. “She shouldn’t have to stay with anyone else if she doesn’t want to. Why would we take her to the nursery if we can hold her? There’s no need for it.” After pulling our car into the driveway he got out quickly, making sure he was the one who got to unbuckle Vivi and take her out of her car seat. Making sure she knew he was her rescuer. Then he nuzzled her neck all the way to the backdoor. Another layer pulled back.

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And then there are some things that never change. We took Susanna to an orthodontist recently and afterward, while thinking about all the work that needs to be done and the resulting bills, I tried to look on the bright side.

“Imagine if we were living in a garbage dump with no opportunities?” I said. “No doctors? Or dentists? You’d be stuck with your teeth problems for the rest of your life.”

To which Stan replied immediately, “Well, now. That’s not necessarily true.” Then he said without a shred of doubt, “I would do it. I would fix her teeth.” And of course I know he’s right. I can picture him now, scavenging recycled metal and rubber to wire up our daughter’s mouth.

But he’s more than just our back-up dental plan; our family would be less, and certainly do less, without him. My daughters wouldn’t be running drills or jig saws, wouldn’t be veteran back-country campers, wouldn’t be talking about Gregor Mendel’s plant experiments, simple machines, how glass fares better under compression then tension, or, should they ever be in a pinch, how they might repair their boat with spruce pitch and bear fat. This isn’t to say they’re his little protégés, that they’re always enthused, or even listening to him, but that he makes them–and us–who we are. And I’m so glad I get to keep on finding out what that means.

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Looking for newborn calves at Michelle and Kevin’s

Happy Father’s Day everyone. Keep on unwrapping while the music is still going!

Tricia

Seven Good Things

It’s Sunday afternoon and I decide to go for a walk. All by myself. While the rest of my family plays a board game. I know, crazy isn’t it–going off on my own instead of spending quality time with my husband and children? But it gets worse (or better, depending on your point of view). I head to 7-11 and attempt to purchase a few chocolate bars before realizing I’d scooped up Mexican pesos from our change box. Because I don’t have enough Canadian currency for all the bars, I buy only one. The one I like best. On my way home I nibble slowly, face towards the sun, crunching on peanuts and sucking on caramel. I walk back and forth on my own block just so I can finish it before reaching home to dispose of the evidence. While the wrapper floats to the bottom of our garbage bin I slip in the back door and try to keep from smiling suspiciously.

***

The woman ahead of me in line watches while I nose my full cart into the cashier’s lane. It doesn’t take long before she meets my eye and launches into conversation.

“Did you hear about the baby that almost drowned? It was a car crash and the mother died but they found the baby, still strapped into its seat.”

I told her I hadn’t heard the story until now. Then she added, “It was alive,” as an afterthought. “How old is your baby?”

“Seven months.”

“Mmm… babies. So many things to worry about. Terrible things. The accidents that could happen… And then, when they get bigger–”

I’m not sure I want to hear more but I say, “It must get even harder as they get older.” I sense she’s just trying to make conversation, even though she sounds like a church bell ringing the death toll, because people do that. We say weird things, even offensive things, just because we’re clumsy at connecting.

Then the man in front of her jumps in and the next moment we’re not talking about tragedy anymore, but curling. The cashier gives her opinion on the Brier and the conversation veers again while the gentleman tells us exactly what he thinks about “those Albertans.” By the time I have my bags packed I feel like I’ve been at a local coffee shop. In the parking lot I see the man who was ahead of me in line and he waves and nods. Friendly places are like this, I think, where goodbyes are needed after standing in line with strangers at the grocery store.

***

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***

The meeting is getting long and there are no windows in the room. I’m wondering if the sun will still be shining by the time we leave when a man gets up to speak. At first I lean forward to pay attention and then I realize he’s not like “us”. Not normal. I try to appear engaged but inwardly I lose interest. His gestures are getting bigger now and he’s repeating his spiel for the fourth time. I look around the room and see some smiling patronizingly; others are starting to fidget. How long will they let this guy keep going? Who has the nerve to interrupt him? His words tumble out fast, like a train building momentum–unable to stop itself even if it wanted to. Then someone else clears his throat and without pausing starts speaking over the first guy. Immediately I feel uncomfortable, dreading the public awkwardness sure to follow. But it doesn’t. The new speaker directs his words to the one he just interrupted and they come like a long, cold drink of water. What you are saying is important. I understand you. We appreciate hearing this. Thank you for sharing. Everyone relaxes. Then we are clapping. A bit of grace.

***

These books:

  1. The Story-If you think the Bible is just for little girls in pretty dresses to carry under their arm on their way to Sunday School, read this. It’s all about bloodbaths, cowardly men and woman, feuding tribes, supernatural powers, and the ancient culture that still informs the lives of millions of us today. As I’ve read I’ve laughed aloud, cringed, and most of all, wanted to know more. Was Ruth’s heart pounding when she sneaked in to wake Boaz on the threshing floor? What exactly was Saul thinking while he cowered in the supplies closet to hide from those who wanted to crown him as king?
  2. Animal Dialogues-Beautiful essays that will make you want to trek in the wilderness for days on end.
  3. Bread of Angels-More Christian stuff that’s well-written enough you might enjoy it even if you’re not Christian. I’m reading it slowly, hoping I don’t reach the end of the book.

***

Before the girls leave for school they get the birthday chair ready for their dad. Presents are wrapped, balloons inflated, and seats are lined up so the audience can watch Stan’s expression as he opens each gift. He does not disappoint. The mushroom farm elicits smiles and curiosity; the pair of chopsticks, a bear hug; the four Coffee Crisps, many lavish thank-yous. It was just what they hoped for.

***

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A pleasant moment during a photo session in which I managed to bring at least two of my children to tears.

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Be well,

Tricia

 

One Little Vanilla Pudding; another way to look at sibling rivalry

I can hear their voices jabbing each other even though I’m at the other end of the house. Without looking into the kitchen, I picture the scene: one of them is standing on the counter, reaching into the highest shelf where we keep our snacks and processed lunch foods, swiping the last vanilla pudding. The other sister is dancing around the stool that has been pushed up to the counter, clutching her empty lunch kit and claiming the last pudding for herself. Of course there are granola bars, yogurt, crackers, apples, carrot sticks, sunflower seeds, oranges, and cheese available but that is irrelevant now. Now that everyone knows there’s only one pudding left. Now that there’s something to fight over.

Their arguing crescendos while I hunker over Vivi’s change table and decide to stay put. The lamplight throws soft shadows on her nursery walls while she sucks on her toes. I take my time, rubbing calendula salve on her bum cheeks then packaging them up in a diaper, and tickling her under her neck. No way do I want to leave my sanctuary and head out into the war zone now. Unfortunately, my daughters don’t wait; they bring the battlefront to me instead. I hear them come closer: stomp, stomp, stomp down the hall way. Loud shrieks. Names growled in exasperation. Su-S-A-A-A-N-na. Buh-L-É-É-É-n. Keeping my hands on Vivian, I balance on one foot and lean to shut the door with the other. It doesn’t help. In the next second they’re in the room, tripping over themselves and their words.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, NO,” I interrupt the onslaught of accusations. “I don’t want to hear it–”

“Butit’snotfairBeléntookthelastpuddingandIdon’tget–”

That Susanna. She’s good at getting the last word (or many words) in and interrupting. Almost as good as me.

“Get out of the room and work this out in the kitchen. By the time I come out I don’t want to hear one word. Not one! You can figure this out yourselves.”

And I mean it. I mean, I sound like I mean it but I’m not sure. Can they figure it out themselves? Are they able to? You might think it’s nothing; two sweet girls and one little vanilla pudding. What’s the big deal? Well it turns out that two sweet girls and one little vanilla pudding are a combustible combination. Explosive, actually, according to all the “YOU NEVERs” and “I ALWAYS” crackling in the air. I figure I may as well pretend to have confidence in them even if I’m doubtful. One of my favourite techniques is the ignore-it-til-it-goes-away approach. I could try to pass this off as parenting tool, but it’s more of an exhausted surrender. And quite honestly, I’m tired of channeling Marshall Rosenberg. Tired of posing questions like How are you feeling right now? Have you told your sister what you need? and trying to be a professional mediator. I reach over, shutting the door with my foot, again, and their voices recede to a background static.

Over the last few days we’ve been watching Twelve Angry Men. It’s an old black-and-white movie with lots of talking, no action, no ice castles or princesses, and no interesting scenery. In fact, the script is played out in a single room while twelve jurors argue around a table for the entire movie. Astonishingly, the girls love it–they even ask us to pause it when they have to go to the bathroom. At first I wondered if this was downright weird. Which kids are interested in watching somewhat incomprehensible dialogue between Henry Fonda and other, now long-dead, actors? Then I thought about their lives and the amount of time they spend convincing, accusing, complaining, and provoking each other. Perhaps they loved the film because they could relate so well. Or maybe because at the end of the story, all that fighting and arguing saves the day, or more specifically, saves somebody’s life.

It’s probably a stretch to draw a connection between the movie and our lives to redeem our own domestic conflicts. Mostly, I can’t foresee anything worthwhile resulting from all the nattering, much less anyone’s life being saved. And the main reason the girls (and their parents) argue is because it’s not easy to accommodate someone else’s ideas and egos when we’ve all got our own to nurse. But maybe a teeny, tiny part of their need to argue is wired in them for a purpose. To figure out how to negotiate, to persuade, to feel the resistance of another’s point of view–like a tiger cub wrestling with their sibling–and learn how far to take the fight. Just like play is actually a survival tool for children– necessary for brain growth and development, maybe so too is fighting. Could it be impossible to keep my daughters from arguing precisely because they need to build those skills?

About ten minutes after the shouting peaks during the pudding incident, Susanna unzips her backpack. She takes out her lunch kit and opens it up. There, in her lunch kit, sits an untouched pudding. A vanilla pudding. Just like the one they were fighting over.  Belén looks incredulous.

Susanna glances down and says, “Oh, that’s left over from yesterday. I don’t even like pudding.” As if that should explain it.

Belén looks even more incredulous.

Then Susanna adds quickly, “Oh, let’s not talk about that, I’m feeling jolly right now! Don’t even worry about it.”

Don’t even worry about it? Feeling jolly? Really? That’s it? That’s what a morning’s worth of conflict and angst boils down to? It’s so incredible I almost start another round of family fireworks. But I don’t. We’ve had enough of a show, and more than our share of skill-building, this morning.