October 28, 2011

Family, Revisited

At one time in our lives, four of my five siblings and I lived within a three hour drive of each other, and the fifth lived just a day's drive away from the rest of us. We were all used to frequent visits and family gatherings. Then in 1996 it was like God dropped a stick of dynamite into the center of our happy proximity and blasted us all apart. One sister, Clare moved to Manitoba, where her husband had grown up and had now landed a good job. Our eldest sister Monica moved with her family to Prince Rupert on the north coast of British Columbia, which doesn't sound far but required two solid days of driving to cover the distance, for her husband Matthew's new job with the Forest Service. My own husband was transferred from Kimberley to central Vancouver Island, accessible only by plane or ferry. Our sister Pauline and brother Francis both stayed with their families in the same town as our parents, and Pauline still lives there, while one brother lives in Calgary with his family and my other brother now lives in Vancouver.

My husband and I managed to visit Prince Rupert once with our children when my eldest daughter was a baby, travelling overnight by boat on the Inside Passage - most of us were sea-sick. I plan to make it to Manitoba in the next year or two as I have not yet been to visit Clare in her home; she has come to us once, but we mostly just meet the odd summer at our parents' house. We've been to Calgary, too and had the occasional visit from family when we lived on the Island. While it was not ideal for all of us to be flung about Canada, we have all gained from the experience as our families have grown and each formed their own identity, in part due to the various natural environments in which we have lived. For example, it rains a lot in stormy Prince Rupert, so Monica and her family became resiliant in all weather, came to love the ocean and the wildness of that part of the world. Clare and Stephen and their families live through typically long, cold and snowy winters and enjoy skating, snowshoeing, skiing and sledding and all that good snow fun which they are required to embrace if they don't want to spent the long winters entirely indoors. My husband and I and our family have lived most of our years on the coast, near water, and where the damp invades our bones in winter. What have we gained from the experience? We know that it is imperative for us to dress in layers and that we love Beautiful British Columbia enough to keep us from moving somewhere else more affordable, like Saskatchewan.

Last year, almost to prove that we are never safe from surprises, the Forestry office in Prince Rupert after a steady downsizing, was shut down entirely by the government. My brother-in-law, Matthew got a new job with the Ministry of Envronment in Williams Lake, which is in the Cariboo region of B.C. just a five hour drive north of where I sit typing this blog post, and a nine hour drive to our hometown and my parents and sister, Pauline. The newspaper Monica was reporting for in Rupert was also bought out by a large newspaper chain, but she decided to stay there for one more year with her children, work as a freelance reporter and as an archives assistant at the local museum, while Matthew got used to his new job in the Cariboo and took his time looking for a house for them. The year went by fairly quickly for them with several visits back and forth, and at the end of August, Monica and their two youngest boys, now aged 12 and 15, made the move down to Williams Lake where Matthew had found a rambling, character-full home for them within walking distance of the downtown area and with a view of the water. "When are you coming to visit?" they asked us.

Monica is the eldest in my family of siblings and nine years older than I.  Monica was always a busy, social, energetic sort of person, and I don't remember spending too much time with her when I was little, but the time I did spend was always fun. She used to pay me exhorbitant amounts of money to clean out her sock drawer or give her a neck rub. Monica was a Bee Gees fan in the Seventies and I had seen enough album covers lying around to be familiar with the look of the band. Around the same time, she had a bearded boyfriend who played the bagpipes, and years later I told her I had always thought of him as Barry Gibb in a kilt. She laughed - hard. She organized family games of poker with penny candy for betting chips, but I was too small to play. I was not too young to enjoy the baked treats she brought home every Saturday night after her shift at the bakery of some family friends, and Sunday mornings breakfasts were often composed of oven-warmed danishes and other delectible pastries. My memories of her are somewhat vague from those years, but I know she was kind, honest and generous to all of us.When I was nine she moved out of the house and by the time I was ten or eleven, she had moved with a friend half way across the country. One year, Monica brought Matthew home from Winnipeg for Christmas, and the next summer they were married in our Cathedral with myself as one of the five bridesmaids. I was thirteen and it was all terribly exciting. When I was seventeen and freshly graduated from high school, my mother suggested I travel by train with my bicycle to Winnipeg and spend the summer with Monica and Matthew and their little girl, Anna. It was that summer when our real friendship as sisters began. Our sister Clare was living in Winnipeg, too, newly married and we had a great time touring (and eating our way around) the city, attending the Winnipeg folk festival, and taking weekend trips. Monica and Matthew moved back to B.C. after that summer so Matthew could attend the Forestry program at the college near my hometown and Monica and I began to spend a lot of time together. We had plenty in common and grew very close although I was so much her junior in every way. Already an experienced mother herself, Monica was there for me when I had my first child, and my second, teaching me about feeding routines and the importance of naps, all with her trademark generosity and good humour.

Last weekend we accepted Monica and Matthew's invitation and took the kids for a three-day trip up to the Cariboo. We drove through the misty Fraser Canyon along the old Trans-Canada highway, up along the Fraser River before veering west along the Thompson River.

One of the many tunnels in the Fraser Canyon

A scene repeated throughout our journey through the Lytton area

We drove out of the coastal rain forest into the drier region of the Thompson Platea where the rolling hills and yellow grasses are marked by the old roadhouse numbers from the days of the Cariboo Gold Rush: 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House, 108 Mile House, 150 Mile House. Old log buildings, some refurbished and some left to the elements, dotted the landscape, and it was not hard to imagine the gold seekers seeking their uncertain fortunes and enduring all kinds of challenges along the way. By the time we reached Lac la Hache the sky was blue and the air markedly chilly compared to what we are used to.

One of the original roadhouses, now a heritage site

Just entering the Williams Lake region

We arrived at the house just after Monica and her older son had returned from his soccer match. Eager for a walk to work out the kinks from five solid hours in the car, my husband and I and a couple of the kids accepted Monica's invitation to walk and meet Matthew on his way home from work. The cousins got re-aquainted quickly. It had been just over two years since we had all been together at our family reunion.

We spent the weekend cooking together, going for long walks in the sunshine, exploring some great shops Monica had discovered, watching my nephew play ice hockey with some team-mates twice his size, my sister and I talking steadily and Matthew and my husband doing the same. We gathered around the table in the mornings, enjoying the view of the lake through the autumn foliage in their front yard, drinking coffee with cream and just, well, celebrating being together with the prospect of being able to do so much more often than we had in a very long time.

I love the elasticity of life. I had long ago accepted the fact that our families would stay connected mainly through writing and Facebook and the telephone, with the physical distances between us all being somewhat forbidding. Now, however, with my own family on the mainland, Monica's just north of us, and the others with children growing to the point of independence, visits are happening with greater regularity. Our family life is a bit like 'old times', but even richer somehow, after living far apart for so long and bringing a diversity of experience to share at the table. I'm looking forward to our next visit already.

Have a wonderful weekend!

October 20, 2011

And....We're Off.

The other night in Pricesmart, in the forefront of the Halloween candy display, I noticed a full shelf of imported cookies in tins and boxes. They weren't decorated in a Christmas theme, but it was pretty clear the store had brought them in as a first hint of the looming, (did I say 'looming'? I meant 'coming') Season. Beside the shelf of cookies was a cardboard stand full of Christmas cards, which I thought was fine for October 9, if someone needed to mail cards to relatives in some far off place like an undiscovered village deep in the Amazon Rainforest or the International Space Station. Last weekend, in the ever-shameless Superstore, we were greeted with a sign declaring: HALLOWEEN COSTUMES 25% OFF, while over in the seasonal display area, the Halloween stuff was already being pushed rudely aside in preparation for the piles of the more lucrative Christmas paraphenalia. I suppose that means the Thanksgiving things were out in July, but I must have wilfully ignored them. (I have also recently observed that the traditional holiday decorations are cross-pollenating: one can now buy Easter tree decorations and Thanksgiving crackers - the kind that go 'bang' when pulled, not the kind you eat). Don't they know that we parents are just trying to deal with one holiday at a time?

I'll admit I felt differently as a child. When I was little the Sears Wish Book would arrive in early fall and my brother, Stephen and I would pore over the pages, make fun of the ultra-serious male models in turtlenecks and satin smoking jackets, and mark all the toys and games we liked. We'd lie in bed at night asking each other what we wanted for Christmas and dream of air hockey, Easy-bake ovens, and velveteen skirt and jacket sets with lace collared blouses (at least in my case). I'm pretty sure it was mid-November when I would break out the 'Radar the Happy Reindeer' record. I'd sit in my dad's big green chair with heater and massage feature, listening on earphones to the story and music (the earphones were considered a great peace-keeping invention in our house.) After all, looking forward to Christmas is half the fun of it, but really, there are limits!

Is it truly necessary for the malls and shops to break out the Christmas decorations before Remembrance Day? It never hurts to be organized with one's shopping and preparations, but can't we do it on the sly instead of being so damned obvious about it?; ie. if I see something I think would make a great gift I will probably buy it and store it away in my hidden cache, but I don't need to be surrounded by tinsel and animated plastic Santas to do it. I mean, by the time Christmas is over I'm sick to death of hearing Elvis' 'Blue Christmas' while I shop for bread, milk and toilet paper. I would be the first to vote for a law against PDC's (Public Displays of Christmas) until December first.

My family and I spent this Thanksgiving with some very good friends at their farm. Since the day promised to be fine, we opted for a mid-day meal followed by a walk in the fields. It was wonderful to spend the morning cooking and the afternoon, after a huge turkey dinner followed by dessert and coffee, out in the fall sunshine. We first walked to the salmon spawning channel where the last of the coho struggled and splashed, next we walked to the second furthest field and spotted a big black bear enjoying the furthest field's grass. We watched the bear for a few minutes until it seemed to notice us, then headed south towards the house. We admired the row of sugar maples, all yellow and glowing against the deep blue of the mountains, we hunted for and dissected owl pellets in the cedar grove, and picked all the pumpkins in the farm's patch and loaded them onto the wagon. Back at the house we did the dishes while the children nibbled on pie and leftover potatoes, and then home we went, our bellies too full for anything resembling supper. And the best part? We didn't think about Christmas even once.

The above is a re-posting of a blog post I wrote two years ago. I hope you enjoyed it (and don't get me wrong, I love Christmas, truly I do!) My kids saw the first 'Holiday' themed TV ad of the year back near the end of August.

October 14, 2011

A Very Canadian Thanksgiving

It seems for the thousands of Wooly Bear caterpillars that risk their lives to cross the roads here in the fall year after year, the grass must truly be greener on the other side. Why would they risk the perilous crossing otherwise, poor things? Squashed, runover caterpillars appear everywhere, and soft hearted people swerve in an attempt to miss the ones still inching their way across the asphalt. Fall is the tragic, but beautiful death of the year. From the smoke from crackling bonfires of fallen leaves and pruned branches and the damp, earthy scents after days of cool rain, to the overripe sweetness of apples and plums fallen to the ground and the water's edge smell of decaying salmon that have completed their epic spawning mission and succomed to their exhaustion, the air is full of it. It is during the middle of this season when we Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. The idea for celebrating it at this time is to enjoy the bounty of the recent harvest and to give thanks for the cycle of life and all its gifts, a practise inherited from our European and British ancestors. The holiday also gives us a day off in October. During the latter part of the 1800's and before World War I, we celebrated Thanksgiving in November. After World War I, which brought the November 11th Remembrance Day holiday, the Canadian government decided to move Thanksgiving back to the second Monday in October. Americans celebrate their Thanksgiving late in November to commemorate the arrival of the first Pilgrims to their shores, and they, being further south enjoy a typically later harvest.

We spent our Thanksgiving Sunday with our friends again on their beautiful farm. Across the road from their house are man-made spawning channels, an extension of the natural slough that surrounds the island on which they live. After a delicious mid-day meal of roasted turkey and all the trimmings, and while their two children and three of ours (our eldest spent the week visiting his grandparents) went canoeing, we adults walked along the shore of the channels, watching the coho and spring salmon fight and splash their way up the stream.

launching the girls' canoe

And the boys are off

A beaver trail leading from the water to some
very fine trees for dam building

rosehips and racing!

Still water reflection

Beautiful fiery sumac on the walk back to the house

Room for rent

After our outdoor adventure, we headed back indoors for dessert, which consisted of pumpkin pie made with maple syrup as the sweetener (you cannot get much more Canadian than that) and delicious blackberry pie with plenty of whipped cream. My husband and I did as many dishes as our hosts would allow us to do, and then we rounded up the kids who were enjoying a rousing battle with 'nerf darts'. We are so thankful for these friends who shared their holiday and their harvest with us. We came home with fresh eggs, potatoes directly from the field, apples and pears from their trees, but more than that, we came home with pictures, in our camera to share with you, and in our minds to keep forever.

October 5, 2011

Opening a Can of Worms...and not for Fishing

There is a family joke about me when I began Kindergarten. My teacher, Mrs. Campbell, who had taught Kindergarten to, I believe, all of my five older siblings, took my mother aside after the first day. "Mrs. Lamb, you did very well with all of your other children in preparing them for Kindergarten. They were independant and capable, but you've missed the boat with this one." Apparently, although I arrived at Kindergarten already knowing how to read, when it was time to go outside I had stood with my coat in one hand and my shoes in the other, waiting for the servants to put them on me. I think my mother was aghast, and I was taught to tie my shoes post-haste, or at least buckle them by myself.

After school, I would meet my mother down at the corner of Ward and Baker streets where the buses were waiting. She often wore her beautiful red coat with the black frog buttons, her long, dark hair pulled back in a barette and I could always spot her from far away. Sometimes we rode the bus home together, and sometimes she took me for a treat at the Woolworth counter. Other times she would take me to visit the nuns up the hill at the convent - they always had good cookies, or to visit one of her interesting artist friends. Sometimes she had her bicycle with her and would 'race' the bus home. I only had to go to school for half the day, but truly, I think it was enough for me. I don't remember making a fuss about going to Kindergarten where we acted out The Three Billy Goats Gruff and spent 'quiet time' on bits of carpet samples, but I treasured the afternoon time alone with my mother too much not to look forward to it. My wonderful, noisy crowd of siblings would be home soon enough, and often my parents were out in the evenings at play rehearsals or choir practise. Those evenings I would be put to bed by one of my sisters or one of the university students who boarded with us in our large rented house by the lakeshore.

These memories came to the surface the other day when I had walked with my youngest daughter, who is turning ten soon, to school. This fall, for the first time in this corner of Canada, five-year olds must go to school for the full day. It is mandatory and legislated by the government. The official reason for all-day Kindergarten is that too many children are arriving at Kindergarten without even the basics of numeracy or literacy, not to mention the social skills necessary to function in a crowd of eighteen children. The unofficial reason seems to me to be an answer to the inconvenience that half days give for working parents, which is fair enough in this day and age, I suppose. Somehow, though, the idea of full day Kindergarten for all these tiny little urchins makes me sad.

My youngest child was the first of my children to go to Kindergarten in a public school. The others were taught by me at home. She went for the mornings, and a couple of days per week, when I picked her up, I brought home her friend Simon with us. Simon's mother is a teacher at our school and his father is a farmer who needed some regular afternoons to get his chores done without a five year old 'helper'. Simon and Katie would eat their lunch at our table and then spend the afternoon playing games together, which often invoved both our collection of small plastic dinosaurs and our doll house, reading with me, and if the weather was fine, going to the park. Simon's parents paid me to look after him, but sometimes I thought I should pay them for supplying Katie with such a fine playmate. That being said, about once a week, Katie would ask, "Mommy, when can we have a you-and-me day?" and then she and I would hatch a plan for an outing or an activity together one afternoon when her brothers and sister were at school and Simon was at home helping his dad with the vacuuming.

I do realize that children are incredibly adaptive creatures. Is full day Kindergarten really the end of the world? Probably not, and some will handle the days packed with prescribed learning outcomes very well, but I can think of two of my own children who would have found the long days very hard. My second son would have come home completly tied in knots after a full day of trying to 'get along well with others', and Katie, who is incredibly sensitive and finds it hard to keep up with the energy of the class even now, would have missed me too much. She and Simon may have been happy enough ignoring me as they played, but they both knew I was there and were content in the knowledge that I would basically leave them be, until they needed a snack or asked for 'book time' as we called it, while they got on with the business of being children.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that children grow up so fast as it is. Perhaps, rather than farming children out into the school system full time in Kindergarten, we should be supporting parents to stay at home, read to them, let them play, take them outside, and build a stronger parent-child bond. The numeracy and literacy will come soon enough if the schools are allowed to do their job properly. If this nineteenth day of the March on Wall Street proves anything, it is that our society needs to do a much better job of prioritizing what really matters in life. This endless drive toward owning and consuming, which then causing a domino effect, creates an economic environment in which it is expected that both parents will work outside the home or that single parents will hold down two or more jobs, leaves the schools to deal with the fallout. My heart goes out to all the people camping on Wall Street, and those who are going to gather at the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on October 15, as well as in other locations around North America. They say 'enough is enough' and for the sake of our children, I say 'hear hear'.

October 1, 2011

A Blog Challenge...Pass it On

My good friend Alistair from Crivens, jings, and help ma Boab, (a great blog, by the way, which includes several adventures with The Lovely G and a cat named Jess) tagged me in a challenge earlier this week. It was a good thing, for he gave me a blog topic for a week when all my creative energy was being sucked into an onerous vortex of grant and report writing. Workwise, it was a week from, as we say here in Canada, H-E-double-hockey-sticks, but I have begun to surface from beneath an Everest sized pile of papers. The Report was delivered yesterday morning and the grant application, completed with no time to spare, put into the hands of the fine folks at Snail Mail Incorporated (Canada Post) for its journey to the British Columbia Arts Council headquarters in Victoria. A lot of other things happened this week as well, but I won't bore my friends with the details. Instead, I will get on with answering the following questions before I tag five more friends.
 Nominated blogs have to create a list of the following:

What's your most beautiful post.
What's been your most popular post.
What's been your most controversial post.
What's been your most helpful post.
Which posts success has surprised you most.
Which of your posts do you feel didn't get the attention it deserved.
Which post are you proudest of

My most beautiful post? I'd have to say A Week Away because writing it was a beautiful, multi-sensory experience the result of which nearly equalled my vision for the post. That does not happen very often!

My most popular post? Well, this answers the next question as well. My most popular post, according to my stats anyway, was A Trip from Bountiful about two Fundamentalist Mormon young women I went to college with. This post garnered a lot of attention and some heated debate between myself and a friend. I was glad to move on to the next topic after that!

My most helpful post? I would have to say The Turning Point because this post seemed to reassure some parents, and give some others something to think about regarding their own children in a positive way. It also served to help me articulate some of the deeper thoughts I have about parenting children in what can sometimes be a callous world.

Which post's success surprised me the most? One of my earliest posts, "I Had a Farm in Africa", brought comments from people all over the blogosphere and beyond. The post is about my friends who did, and do still, have a farm in Africa, but its title was what initially attracted so many visits and shows how well loved the book and film Out of Africa is around the world. I had never had a post gain so many comments and it was a delightful surprise way back in 2009 when I had only just begun as a blogger.

Which of my posts didn't get the attention it deserved? Gosh, that sounds a bit like sour grapes. However, if I have to pick one, it would be The Dancer who Rattled the Boards, because when I posted it, not many people knew I even had a blog, let alone were following my posts! This post is about a dance I went to once, and a very special dancer who cleared the floor.

Which post am I proudest of? I'm going to go out on a limb (pardon the pun) and say, at least for today, I am proud of my post Tractor Yoga, because it was funny, well received, informative...and I dearly love to be funny if I possibly can.

Now it is my turn to tag five friends for the blogger challenge! (Thanks to Al for the Calvin and Hobbes pic.)

1.  Anita from Beyond the Diapers and Spills because she's always making her readers think by framing every post as a question, and now it's our turn to return the favour!

2.  Lucille from Useful or Beautiful because her blog title says it all. Lucille manages, with a few crafted images, words, borrowed or original, to evoke a life worth living. She takes beauty very seriously, but there is always an underlying whimsey to her posts. And she can be very funny, too! (see her 'Cow Patty Cake' post)

3.  Brian from Waystation One because he has a huge variety of posts to choose from, and I'd like to see what he comes up with as answers to each question...maybe some poems I haven't had the chance to read?

4.  Tracey from Unos dos Tracey because she needs something to challenge her after her recent ten-day Alaskan cruise. And because she has some very, very funny posts!

5.  Vince from Reeds because he is interesting, provoking, thoughtful, and wacky by turns. His blog is like that friend you don't always agree with but can always be counted on to liven things up.

So, I hope these friends take up the challenge. If they can't be bothered then I won't be offended...these tag things are supposed to be fun in any case, not a burden.

Cheers, all! And happy reading.