Why I Care About a Mouse Tail

The moon is a small sliver and the sky is overcast tonight. Stan is trying to back our small Saturn, and trailer, down a narrow alley that borders a park at the edge of the city. The trailer hitch is short so it’s incredibly hard to back up at the best of times, never-mind doing it in pitch darkness with soft snow ready to swallow the tires. He gets stuck so I get in the driver seat while he pushes. Then we try again; I call out directions while he maneuvers the trailer back towards the fresh snow. (This is the second night of shoveling so we’ve already cleaned off the stuff that is easy to access.) Finally we make it to our destination and I start pushing up piles with the snow scoop while Stan hefts it into the trailer.

I notice a home owner peek his head out of his garage to find out what the commotion is about. He stares for awhile and then retreats and I wonder if he will tell his wife about the crazy people shoveling snow off public land. I also wonder if we actually are a tiny bit crazy.

Sweat starts to trickle down my back–under my tank-top, tee-shirt, sweatshirt and winter parka. I can hear Stan grunting while he heaves snow at his usual frenzied pace. “I wonder,” I call through my scarf that is frozen stiff, “if we’ll be nostalgic about this when we are in the old folks home. Can you imagine sitting around and talking about the days when we used to steal snow for sculpting?”

When the trailer is piled high we lumber down the block-and-a-half to our front yard and half-empty wooden box. About 3 loads later, it’s finally full to the top and ready to sit for a few days while we wait for the snow particles to bond.

About a week later, after Stan has taken the wood form apart and finished 95% of the carving, we spend a couple evenings taking care of the last details. He’s working on the mouse’s nose and teeth and I’m on a step ladder, shaping the feet.  It’s dark and quiet enough to hear the scraping sounds our tools make against the snow. “Just so you know,” I tell my husband, “I would never be doing this if I hadn’t married you.” I’m not unhappy, or even complaining about the -30 temps, I’m just stating the obvious. How marriage affects us in ways we never would have known when standing at the altar. The next night this truth becomes even more apparent.

We’re laying in bed, and just before falling asleep Stan comments, “I think the tail is too wide for the body. It would look less reptilian if we narrowed it.” I agree and roll over. Hours later, in the middle of the night, I awake for no reason. I toss and turn and think about all kinds of stuff, including the mouse’s tail. Suddenly it’s all I can think about: how I’ll need to get the saw out in the morning and shave off the sides, how the mouse’s hind legs are curved, and how the buttocks should partly cover the tail. And then I think, why on earth do I care about a mouse’s butt at stinkin’ four o’clock in the morning?

But I do care. I care because we’ve invested so much time in it already. Because snow is a beautiful thing to work with. Because people like to drive by slow and crane their necks and take pictures. Because my girls look forward to the sculpture on their yard every year. Because creating something–anything at all, even a mouse’s tail–is the opposite of apathy; it affirms that there is meaning and that we have a reason to care. And I care because I married Stan, of course. Which is the main reason why I’m worried about how a mouse’s tail comes out of its butt.

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Stan cuts off a lot of snow blocks when he starts carving–they girls love to use these in their snow forts

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Saron and Free help us pack the snow

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Ice-boating

“I’m feeling distressed,” Susanna tells me one day after school.

“Oh yeah?” I respond, not terribly concerned. Susanna has a penchant for being dramatic so I wait for her to continue before I decide if I need to get down on my knees and cradle her face in my hands.

“Yeah. I’m distressed because I’ve never, EVER, not even ONCE been to West Edmonton Mall!”

“Mmm,” I say, my hands still in the dish water. “Yep, West Edmonton Mall is pretty cool. Have all your friends been there?”

“Yes! And Disneyland too! I’m the only one in my class who hasn’t been to Disneyland!”

“That’s tough,” I say, because I am super-mom; so empathetic, so non-judgmental, and patient. But only for a few minutes. When her litany of complaints goes on a little too long something snaps and suddenly I don’t feel sorry for my well-fed, completely-clothed child. She senses my change in demeanor (I think it has to do with me telling her I will get very mad if she keeps on talking) and quiets down.

After a moment or two of silence I add, “We haven’t gone to West Edmonton Mall or Disneyland, but we’ve done other things. How many kids in your class have slept overnight in an igloo? Have any of them gone on a canoe trip? Or how about sailing on ice?”

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You don’t get to chose the family you are born into; you don’t get to chose if your parents give birth to you in Japan, Canada, or Iran. You don’t get to chose if they are Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim.  And you don’t get to chose if they are the kind of people who will take you to Disneyland or West Edmonton Mall… or take you ice-boating. My daughters got Canadian Christians who take them ice-boating. And they’re stuck with them.

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Belén and Susie with friends Jillian and Evan

We drive an hour to find a lake without any snow cover and when we arrive the conditions are perfect. Our friends, Kevin and Carol, have already spread a buffet of snacks on their tailgate and set-up lawn chairs around freshly drilled fishing holes. The sun is shining, (our thermometer reads +8c!), the wind is blowing, and the ice is thick. Even though the surface layer will melt throughout the day, there are still about 20 inches below all the puddles to support us and our vehicles.

Stan unloads the boat he fashioned out of wood, a bed frame, and an old hockey stick. While he puts the pieces together the children take turns helping and tripping over each other, discussing who will go first.

I interrupt them. “I think Dad should go first and explain how to do it; he needs to give instructions while everyone is listening,” I say firmly. “Right, Stan?”

“Uh… I think this is the kind of thing that you just have to figure out while you do it,” Stan mutters while trying to attach the guy wires to steady the mast, which isn’t really the response I was looking for.

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After everything is rigged Stan gets in the boat and motions for Susanna to sit in his lap. I am watching from afar (changing Vivi’s diaper in the front seat of our car) and hoping Susanna’s helmet is on tight. The wind isn’t strong enough to propel them both so Stan gets out after a little ride and gives Susanna what I imagine to be more instructions and a strict warning not to go near the open water by the mouth of the river. At least this is the conversation I have in my own head when I see my daughter lay low in the boat, haul in the sail, and pick up speed.

“Does she know how to stop?” I yell at Stan while I grip Vivi’s bare ankles. Stan can’t hear me of course and it’s useless to shout at Susanna–all I can do is watch silently. My daughter is riding the wind, flying across the ice, whooping and screaming, and heading straight for our Mazda 5 and our friends’ half-ton truck. I stop pulling at Vivi’s diaper tabs and wait for the moment, and the fear, to pass. It does. Susanna sails the boat right between our parked vehicles and then steers into the wind to stall it. Turns out she does know how to stop.

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Giving Susanna a push to get her going

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When Belén tries it for the first time the sail catches the wind and lifts the right side of the boat a few feet into the air. The next moment all three skates are in contact with the ice and she is in motion. Stan tells me the the boat is inherently stable and the risk is fairly low but adrenaline courses through my body anyway. I feel the same rush when it’s my turn and I’m scared, amazed, and confused all at the same time; it goes faster and is more fun than I expected, but I don’t understand how it works. When should I let the sail out? When do I suck it in? How does the speed of the boat interact with the force of the wind?

Stan tells me it’s something you just get a feel for, so all of us take turns feeling the wind as it pushes us across the lake, listening to the metal blades on the ice. The breeze dies down sooner than we’d like and it’s almost completely calm by the afternoon’s end. Never before have I wished it would get good and cold and windy, but I do now. If the mild weather keeps up we might have to wait until November to try it again, which seems too far away.

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Soaked through! Using our car to dry layers of clothing.

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Shelly and Jack come in time for another fish!

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On the way home both Belén and Susanna thank their dad for building the boat and taking them sailing. I agree with them. “That’s the coolest thing we’ve ever done with our kids,” I say to Stan. But don’t take my opinion at face value. We’ve never taken them to West Edmonton Mall or Disneyland after all.

When Heads Roll

When heads roll is a better forecaster of spring, around here, than any American groundhog. All season long the kids (and their friends) await the annual destruction of our snow sculpture and the beheading is always the highlight of the event. While I can’t say it feels exactly like spring (it was almost -30 yesterday), we know it’s on its way. In fact, we’ve probably got only few weekends left of good snow. What will you do with them?

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The whole process is not as easy as it looks; the sculpture is always more sturdy than they expect. They persisted with their feet, a machete, butcher knives, and a saw made of barbed wire, for at least half an hour, to take it down this year. It made for a nice little play-date.

***

Last weekend we went cross-country skiing all together for the first time this season. We told the girls to be quiet so we could see the local moose family but Vivian didn’t listen–she kept hooting and chirping happily. Perhaps she’s been feeling as cooped up as I have and was too relieved to be out that she couldn’t stay quiet. On the way back, after a fire and snack at the warm-up cabin, she fell asleep. Still didn’t see any long-legged mammals except for these….

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Enjoy this one coming up!

T

Slippery Elm Lozenges and a Winter Holiday

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When I’m feeling healthy I don’t think about swallowing. I just do it. There, I did it again–without thinking or wincing. Isn’t it amazing how we appreciate even the simplest functions when our body isn’t working the way we are used to? When I have a cold, and daggers line my throat, I wonder how I could ever take good health for granted. Then I get better and forget all about it. Until the next virus shows up–when I’ll search my site to find this recipe again. These homemade cough drops soothe the throat, don’t contain refined sugars* or artificial colourings* like commercial lozenges, and are easy to make.

Recipe for Herbal Lozenges

1/2 cup slippery elm bark powder (mucilaginous herb useful for treating inflammations)
1 tablespoon cinnamon (an antibacterial and antiviral)
1/2 cup licorice root tea (treats sore throat and cough)
4 tablespoons of honey (for flavour and antibacterial qualities)

Boil water, brew licorice tea, and sweeten it with honey. (This tea is extremely sweet–be sure to taste a drop before you add it to see for yourself.) Mix with elm powder and cinnamon and shape into little balls. Keep some powder aside to help roll the dough (dip the balls in it while you are forming them) as it will be sticky. Place lozenges on a cookie sheet and leave to dry. You can dehydrate these or place in a warm oven to speed up the process. When they are dry they will not be as hard as conventional cough drops but they last just as long in the mouth.

Belén and I love the way these taste and eat them like candy. Susanna, on the other hand, won’t touch them. When I offered some of my last batch to Stan he responded with, “Do I have to?” I kind of don’t blame him, they look a lot like deer droppings. But they seem to help and that’s good enough for me.

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*Disclosure: I avoid all artificial colours and sugar unless they happen to be in Skittles, or anything else I want to eat. I’m also the kind of person who drinks my kombucha with hotdogs and potato chips. Just so you know.

***

We’re at the fiddle contest and I’m trying to jiggle Vivian to sleep at the back of the hall, when I spot two other little girls heading for the water fountain. Arms linked and tripping over each other’s winter boots they whisper and giggle, the way most nine-year-olds do. Except they’re doing it in French. Later when Belén and I are waltzing in the swirling crowd of dancers she hears it too. Young people, middle-aged people, and old people, all speaking the language of instruction at her school. And they’re doing it voluntarily. On the drive home from Winnipeg I ask the girls if they noticed it.

“Yes,” Belén says, “And I kept wondering why they were doing it when nobody was making them speak French.”

Which is one of the reasons we like to go to the Festival du Voyageur; so our girls can hear people singing, dancing, partying, and joking in French–a language they associate with math and science, teachers and textbooks. This time we went with my parents and made a little vacation of it, skating on the river, going to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, staying in a hotel and eating out.

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At the Museum for Human Rights. I love this picture of my dad and Vivian. My mom is to the right of my dad.

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Our favourite group at the festival–Bon Débarras

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I got them to look at me for the photo but they mostly entranced by the step-dancing on stage.

My parents at one of the Festival snow sculptures

The sky darkens and our bodies are starting to ache from the cold when the next singer comes on stage. She strums a few chords then yells out to the crowd, “If I were you, I’d have stayed home tonight!” The tents are warmed with huge propane heaters but we can still see our breath and can’t shake the chill of spending the day outside. A few more notes ring out from her guitar. “But I had to come because I’m playing!” The crowd laughs and claps with mittened hands. Soon we’ll go back to the hotel where I’ll run the hottest bath I can handle, the older girls will run back and forth between Grandma and Grandpa’s room and ours, Vivian will finally be able to nurse without distraction, and Stan can kick off his boots after accomplishing another day’s holiday. Which is a bit what it feels like as we get used to traveling with an infant again. She’s been mostly content but it’s not like we haven’t noticed her, and that’s good, but still harder. In Vivian’s defense, she hasn’t had much time to be a baby; like lollygag in her playpen or suckle in a quiet corner. There is too much at the museum to see, maple syrup taffy to taste, and too many miles to skate.

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My parents with B and S behind

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Skating on miles of river trails. They had wooden chairs outfitted with skis to give people a break:)

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Vivian is under that pile of plastic and blankets in the stroller.

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 Stay warm,

Tricia

This could be… Saskatchewan

Do you ever compare where you are to another place? I do it all the time; maybe because it lends appeal to where I happen to be. It makes the ordinary more exotic. For example, I love the month of June in the valley where I grew up. Every year in early summer the rolling fields are carpeted with green shoots of wheat, as if God tips a jar of paint over, letting it drip off the poplars and pool on the land before cleaning it up with July’s dry sun. “It’s just like Ireland,” I’d sigh when I was a teenager, feeling very lucky to live in place so similar to the Emerald Isle. The fact I’d never been to Ireland never dampened my enthusiasm for the comparison.

Now, years later, I still haven’t dropped the habit. When I go to our nearest beach and watch the kids tumble down sand dunes or spot them diving into the waves, I’m reminded of the coast of Maine–not that I’ve ever visited the shore there, of course. None the less, I like to remind whoever I’m with that we could be on the coast. And that despite the logistics (we’re more than 2,000 miles inland), the way we feel when we scrunch the sand between our toes would be no different if we actually were on the Eastern seaboard.

European destinations are among my favourites to bring up; any cafe with outdoor seating qualifies for a mention of France or Italy, and skiing on our local golf course conjures up visions of Norwegian fjords. Suggesting these faraway places enhances the whole experience as long as I don’t bother with the nitty-gritty details of the similes. It’s kind of like adding accessories to a plain black dress; geographical name-dropping adds flair to our outings.

This past Saturday, while checking out a trap-line, I was tempted to do it again: Hey, we could be in the Russian taiga! (Have you watched Happy People on Netflix?) But I decided not to. The snow was falling softly, a buck and several doe sailed through a field nearby, Vivian fell asleep to the hum of the snowmobile–sandwiched between her mom and dad, the big girls were yelping and shrieking in the toboggan we pulled behind us, dry spruce tinder set our bonfire ablaze, and the wind stung our faces out in the open stretches. We were definitely in Saskatchewan…

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Our friends, Shelly and Jason, took us to another friend’s place to run his trap-line with him. He didn’t get anything that day but we got to see how he set his traps, and have some fun in the bush.

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Susanna learned how to drive Ainsly’s skidoo. Here she is with instructor Shelly.

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Belén and Vivi at a bonfire pit-stop.

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And it was right where I wanted to be.

Tricia