Getting there

Getting there

Thursday, March 31, 2011

It All Began With Irish Mike

There are things in our lives we don't devote a lot of thought to, things that we accept without question, and that have just always seemed to be. When we suddenly realize why those things are true about us or why they happened we may find ourselves surprised because we simply didn't realize where these things began or why. This occurred to me recently, and if you indulge me, dear friends, I'll explain.

I've known for a long time that I was drawn to a certain kind of man. Men and boys with accents, particularly from England or Ireland, always enchanted me. I married a Canadian born but half-Irish-heritage man named "Patrick Sean" (does it get more Irish?). And when I was in Ireland recently I realized that I found Irish men the most charming creatures on earth and I could talk to one (any of them, really) for hours. If that Irish man happened to have that lilting accent combined with dark wavy hair (again, like my husband, although he lacks the accent) then the world seemed practically perfect. The funny thing is I had no idea why this was, or how this came to be true for me. Shortly after arriving back in Canada I was flipping through one of my parents' old photo albums (I've become the unofficial family archivist), and I found a photo of someone I hadn't thought of in, well, decades, really. That moment it hit me like a lightning bolt. This was the reason I had this unexplainable attraction to these men. This was the genesis of it all. This thing was named Irish Mike.

That wasn't really his name, of course. When he came into our circle of family friends, though, there was already a Mike present and in order to distinguish between them he became Irish Mike. I don't recall how old I was when my sister brought him home, and I don't really recall many details. I do recall, though, that I was old enough to have noticed boys (being considered precocious this could have been any time after I was 8) and that it was before I really started dating. I also recall that he had an effect on me that I did not understand at the time but now realize set in motion a lifelong pattern. Now, to be clear Mike was much older than I and did nothing to encourage this. I imagine he didn't have any idea, and if he did probably either found it cute or weird that this little girl followed him around staring at him and waiting for him to speak so she could hear his accent. Mike was simply one of those friends my sisters brought home who spent time with my family and quickly became a welcome guest.

In current parlance I would say Irish Mike "rocked my world". I thought he was fascinating, from his accent to his dark wavy hair to the fact he was from this exotic place called Ireland. I imagine I tried to hide my crush, and hope I was successful, but never being the most subtle person imagine I did not succeed. It was innocent, of course, and harmless...and I imprinted on Irish Mike like a duckling does to it's mother. What amazes me now is that I blithely went about my life never noticing that almost all the men I truly found attractive had accents, Irish heritage, or dark wavy hair (or some combination of the three). What amazes me even more is that it's taken me thirty years to figure out where this began and why. When I realized it that day, holding that old photo in my hand, it was like a puzzle you've been working on for years finally coming together. It was like finding that final piece and saying "aha - it all makes sense now". It was the answer to a question I didn't even know I'd been asking, but finding it explained so many things and tied together so many loose threads in my life.

So, now I look at my young daughter, and wonder if she will meet someone like Irish Mike some day, or if she already has. Will she imprint on a man like I did and will he become the template by which future men are judged? It worked out well for me, no doubt, as I hope it does for her should it happen. For me, though, discovering where and why this all began may have taken many years, but like all long trips the destination was worth the journey. I look at the photo of me above and wish I could tell that little girl to pay more attention and to write these things down so they don't leap out at her in thirty years - but of course, here we are, that little girl and I, and you know, we've managed okay even without that advice. And perhaps if she followed that advice I wouldn't have had the joy of discovering this hidden truth about myself, and the pleasure of sharing it with you, my friends.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's A New Perspective Worth, Anyhow?

Last week I'd been having a very bad, no-good, horrible week. On Tuesday my iPad, a device that has quickly become central to my existence, crashed. It crashed in a most horrific and catastrophic way, wiped clean of all I had accumulated on it the past few months. To make it all more difficult I am terrible at remembering to sync it, and thus much data was lost permanently. That was enough to put me in a pretty foul mood, and then on Wednesday my poor beloved car was viciously attacked by a pickup truck in a local parking lot and almost had her bumper ripped off. This second incident was even worse than the iPad as I was in no way to blame and thus just felt victimized.

To top it all off the winter just seemed to be dragging on entirely too long - the snow that in November had seemed crisp and clean and lovely was now brown and dirty and depressing. I needed to get away, to forget it all for a bit - so how fortuitous it was that on Thursday I hopped on a plane and flew to Canada's loveliest city, Vancouver.

Vancouver in March is just beginning to see spring, but the signs are everywhere and cannot be missed, especially by someone desperate to find them. The flowers are just beginning to bloom, and the grass beginning to turn green. People are dispensing with heavy jackets and instead wearing trench coats and carrying umbrellas. In the people you meet you feel a sort of joy and hope for the season to come.

I went to Vancouver to attend a reunion of my sisters and aunt (more of that in a later blog) and it was a fabulous time. It would have been wonderful anywhere, but in Vancouver it wasn't just seeing them that lifted my spirits but rather being in the city itself.

I shopped like mad, buying things like the brand new Macbook Air from which this is being posted, and some utterly fabulous shoes. I dined in wonderful restaurants, and had late night drinks in several different bars. I enjoyed a lovely gentle flirtation with the barista at the Starbucks across from my hotel, which began when he remembered my coffee order from the day before (if you ever want to bring me a coffee it's a grande skinny cinnamon dolce latte - with whip as a girl's gotta live a little, right?) and used it as a device to start a conversation to find out more about me (including trying to find out when he might see me again). I spent time with a dear friend who also acted as tour guide for my family, an act of kindness and generousity for which I am profoundly grateful. I adored my hotel in downtown Vancouver, steps from shopping and the harbour and the restaurants. I wore some of my finest attire every day and found it ego boosting to discover that I dressed just as well, if not better, than most of the locals. I savoured every moment and found by the end of those few days that I had not forgotten the smashed up car and still-wonky iPad but that these things no longer bothered me.

When I got home the car was still smashed and the iPad was still not acting right. My attitude had changed, though. What last week seemed major problems were now minor annoyances and simply issues to deal with as opposed to things to fret over. It's funny how quickly your perspective can change, and how something so simple as a few days in a wonderful place can do it. Some day I need to find a way to get to that place in my head instead of having to get on a plane to do it. For now, though, I know that it's just a short plane ride away to a new perspective, and frankly, it's worth the cost of the ticket.

Vancouver, March 24th, 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Injured (p)Ride

When I saw the RCMP cruiser parked in front of my BMW I knew it couldn't be good. The irony that just yesterday I wrote about my love for my car didn't escape me when I noticed the pickup truck that was attached to my car's front bumper in an unhealthy way. Seems that when the lady parked next to me was leaving the parking lot she tried to take part of my car with her, and was only marginally successful.

I walked up to my car in a state of shock and dismay. The lady seemed reluctant to get out of her truck (understandably so - I wouldn't want to, either) and didn't get out until I had spoken to the officer and, aside from a few sniffles, hadn't made a scene. The officer was very kind and reassuring, very calm (after all, he sees much worse than dinged up bumpers, right?), and professional. I do believe I stole his pen after I wrote out my part of the report, though. Sorry officer - I was a bit beside myself. Hope you'll forgive the pen thievery.

I was pretty much okay, and even thanked the driver of the truck for calling the RCMP and reporting it - after all, she could have just driven away, like the person who hit my minivan in a parking lot did last year. The truck driver thanked me for being so understanding and while I might have been a bit short and snippy I really tried to not make her feel any worse even though I felt pretty miserable about it.

So, my ride is injured. My sweet husband has said he will deal with the insurance company when he gets home tonight, and I will try to pull myself together because it is, after all, just a car. I know insurance will fix it. I know it'll be fine. I know it wasn't my fault. My baby is in the garage where she is safe from further harm (although considering my luck I now fear roof cave-ins), and I'm considering a gin and tonic. Fishbowl size. Maybe fish tank size.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My (p)Ride and Joy

People are often surprised when I tell them that I didn't have a driver's license until I was 33. Sometimes people are quite shocked as being able to drive is a fairly basic skill in North America, and adults who don't drive are pretty rare. In my own defense my parents never encouraged driving or driving lessons when I was a teenager. In my mother's case it was because she worried about my safety. In my father's case I suspect he worried about the safety of his car. I took Driver's Education in high school but found it anxiety-producing, so never did try for my license.

For most of my adult life I lived in major Canadian cities, where having a car was unnecessary or even an inconvenience. I took buses, subways, and streetcars to the places I wanted to go. Not having a license was actually a badge of honour in these places - I was an environmentalist by default! I married a man who could drive (and enjoyed doing so) and thus happily assumed the role of passenger. It wasn't until I was 33, pregnant, and living in a remote northern Ontario town that I realized that my inability to drive had become a liability. The town in which we resided was a 15-minute drive from another town that housed all the local services - doctors, dentists, grocery stores. I realized that when my daughter was born I would need to be able to drive her to appointments, and couldn't rely on my husband who, after all, had a job to go to support our family. So, with a deep breath, I signed up for Driver's Education.

My Driver's Education instructor was someone my husband knew from work. He did the Driver's Ed for the local high school kids, and he told me that he felt I should do the actual course. So, there I was - 33 and pregnant, in a classroom with 25 15-year old kids. At first the kids were baffled that I didn't have a license. They avoided me initially, but after they discovered that I knew the answers to all the quizzes they began to fight to sit next to me. We did the entire course together, wrote our exam for our learner's licenses together, and most of us even got our actual licenses on the same day. I was proud of them, oddly enough, and they seemed downright pleased for me. Thus began my driving career.

Driving to me was very much utilitarian. I drove the ubiquitous minivan, a hunter green Dodge Caravan. It was a tool, nothing more or less, and one that I never really enjoyed using. Eventually the Caravan was replaced by a silver Dodge Neon, but that car was also just utilitarian. I didn't enjoy driving - I just did it because I needed to get from point A to point B, usually with a toddler in tow.

In time the Neon was replaced by another Caravan, this time a red one, and I drove it for several years. It was definitely a shuttle vehicle - skating, swimming, appointments, school drop-offs and pick-ups. It's name should have been "The Bus". Driving it was like a visit to the dental hygienist - necessary, but hardly enjoyable.

A year ago, though, I went on a short vacation with my sisters. When I returned home I discovered that my husband had sold my van and purchased a Ford Escape to drive himself to work (until then he had driven a company truck). I was bewildered when he picked me up at the airport and led me to the Escape - what was I going to drive? And then he handed me the keys to his beloved hunter green BMW 328XI, a car he had customized and ordered two years before. In an act of great trust and generosity he was essentially giving me his baby to drive, a baby that until then had spent most days safely ensconced in our garage, coming out only for special occasions.

At first I was leery. I was terrified of scratching it, or worse, getting into an accident. It seemed so low to the ground, and so very fast compared to my clunky old van. I drove it cautiously at first, but slowly, ever so slowly, driving stopped being utilitarian. Driving became marvelling at how it handled on turns, and how I had to be uber-cautious not to speed as it was so easy to go far faster than I intended. Driving became being amused at how I could beat baby-faced, ball-cap-wearing, pick-up-truck-driving twenty-year-olds off the line at red lights. Driving became plugging in my iPod and listening to all my favourite tunes loudly. Driving became fun.

Over the last year I've come to love this car. I love it when people, usually men, ask how I enjoy driving it (although I glaze over a bit when they talk about the engine - I still don't care about that stuff!). I love how it shines when it just comes out of the car wash. I love how it makes me feel to get into it in the morning, and I love that driving it has awakened me to the joy of driving. A skill that had seemed utlitarian is now a skill that I delight in. Who knew what a difference a car could make?

My husband is a bit saddened that his beloved car is now driven mostly by me. I am encouraging him to think about customizing and buying another BMW for himself in the future. This car and I have bonded now, and I don't think I'd ever be able to give her up. I've never loved a car before, and never believed I could. I guess that cars are like men - you don't think you'll ever love one, until the right one comes along. How fortunate that I've found both the right man - and the right car.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My Cracking Heart

Ever since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan I've been trying to write about it. Initially I was too immersed in the images on CNN to write - the flooding waves carrying cars and houses, and, of course, bodies. Then there were the stories from the nuclear power plants and the palpable fear that seemed to envelope everyone. After a few days I sat down to write but found I couldn't because there was just too much, and because just thinking about it made my heart hurt. I couldn't find the words to use. I couldn't even find the words to describe my emotions. I admit it - I ran away, both in the physical sense of avoiding reading or watching, and in the emotional sense of just not wanting to think about it. I am, I freely acknowledge, a coward.

This week, though, my husband brought home a copy of the Vancouver Sun that he acquired on his recent trip. I took it with me to a local coffee shop to read while I enjoyed my latte on a leisurely Friday morning. There was a special section on Japan, and, after taking a deep breath, I dove into what I knew may be treacherous waters.

The initial stories didn't trouble me - stories of the nuclear power plant, while poignant, were more about the efforts to contain the reaction. But then, on the next page, was the story that stopped me in my tracks. There is an elementary school in Ishinomaki that was in the path of the tsunami. The school was spared, but the area surrounding it was not. The tsunami hit just as parents were beginning to arrive to collect their children. Some parents made it. Some did not - and thirty schoolchildren now sit in this school, waiting patiently for their parents to arrive. And that is exactly the point where my heart cracked, my friends, and I began to weep in full view of everyone in the coffee shop.

For several years I drove my daughter to school, and picked her up every day when the bell rang. I was almost always on time, and usually early - but I remember her panic on those very few occasions when I was late. She would worry that I had forgotten or been in an accident. She seemed close to tears when I finally arrived, full of apologies and reasons for my delay. Arrive I always did, though, and everything was fine. That isn't going to happen for those thirty children in Japan.

The story of those thirty children broke the dam of my own attempts at distance. I wept for all those who had lost loved ones in Japan. I wept for a world that would never be the same for them, and I wept for my own inability to do anything in the face of such a disaster. I wept for thirty children who know by now that their parents will never arrive. I wept because I know that only death would keep me from my daughter. I simply sat and wept for all of them, and all of us.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kiss Me, I'm Irish

Well, here we are again, March 17th and Saint Patrick's Day. I've been thinking about this day for almost a week already, starting about when I put my Ireland flag on the pole outside my house (so far it's attracted some attention but no stupid questions from the neighbors - I rather hope they either know what country it is from or they've gone home to google it). I've been trying to think of another holiday that we celebrate in North America that is fundamentally based on another country entirely, and I haven't been able to think of one. Christmas and Easter are religion based holidays, as opposed to relating to a specific country, and Valentines Day has been taken over by greeting card companies and chocolatiers. Halloween is really based on religion as well (All Hallow's Eve) but it isn't really about religion any longer. There is Oktoberfest, I suppose, but, really, how many people celebrate it?  Now, it could be argued that Saint Patrick's Day is a religious holiday as well, but it's been a very long time since it was recognized as the feast day for a saint. In North America it's become all about pretending or believing you are Irish, drinking green beer, and occasionally painting your face like the Irish flag. What makes me marvel a bit, though, is that what we celebrate is a caricature of Irish culture, rather like the caricature of a leprechaun in the photo above. Ireland is not beer dyed green and boxer shorts with shamrocks, my friends. It is not "Kiss me, I'm Irish" tattoos on your face or green socks. Ireland is so much more.

When I was in Ireland an Irish friend who works in the tourism industry was telling me about "Irish cruises". These are cruise ships that sail from Florida and tour around the Caribbean, but they are Irish themed - meaning Irish musicians and food, Guinness and storytelling. He found the concept baffling and frankly so do I. If someone wants to experience Ireland why would they attempt to do so by taking a cruise on an American ship in the Caribbean? Sure, it might be less expensive than a trip to Ireland, but then again sniffing the air in a bakery is a lot cheaper than buying a donut - but what the hell is the point? It's just a simulation of the experience, not the real thing. It's like someone wanting to experience Canada so deciding to eat some poutine and see a Celine Dion concert in Vegas. All I could tell my Irish friend is that North Americans are actually a bit obsessed by Irish culture (as evidenced by how we embrace Saint Patrick's Day) but we don't really understand it. We think that we can find that culture on cruise ships in the Caribbean and in Irish themed Canadian sports bars. We think by wearing a green t-shirt on March 17th we've embraced the Irish. We have a suspicion that Ireland is something unique, but we aren't quite sure why we think so or what to do about it. So when this day rolls around we get a bit silly and start painting shamrocks on our faces and heading to the bar. It's a bit embarrassing, really(says the woman who flies the Ireland flag on her house and has a kid who is today decked entirely in green, dripping in shamrocks - her choice, not mine!).

So, I've said it before, and here I go again. On today of all days, though, when you are perhaps feeling most in touch with your inner Irish, I will tell you yet again - go to Ireland. Either rent a car and buy the most basic map (the kind that will require you to ask directions in every pub, restaurant, and hotel you visit, forcing you to speak to the locals), or, better yet, call these folks and get hooked up with a local driver. Learn about Ireland - the history, the people, the politics. Visit Blarney and Bunratty. Go to Kinsale and Cobh and Cashel. Stop in Cork and Galway and Dublin. Head into every tiny pub you can find, order a Guinness, and speak to every person who even looks at you. Embrace your true inner Irish soul by experiencing Ireland, not by drinking cheap Canadian lager dyed green. Don't bother with Irish-Caribbean cruises that will only disappoint with their faux-Irish "conviviality" (their word, not mine!). Instead book a seat on Aer Lingus and be charmed by the flight attendants with the cute little green hats. I promise you will come home proud of your native country but also in love with another that has captured your heart and soul. And when you return give me a call - I know where you can find great Ireland flags to fly on March 17th.

So, to my "Irish for a day" friends, and my "honest-to-goodness, for-real" Irish friends - Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Blue Eyes Cryin' In The Rain

Did you know all people with blue eyes can trace their genetic lineage to a common ancestor 6000-10,000 years ago? That it was one person with a genetic mutation who gave rise to all blue-eyed people? I didn't either, until I heard it on television one day. Being generally skeptical of, well, everything, I did some internet searching and discovered it was true. A scientific study performed in 2008 determined through evaluation of mitochondrial DNA that this was so.

Now, I was delighted by this. It almost made me want to burst into a verse of "We Are Family" when I saw a blue-eyed person. Or at least run up and inform them of our close connection on the family tree. I suddenly felt closer to all those with blue-eyes - my blue-eyed kin! Perhaps this was compounded by living with a brown-eyed spouse and a child with eyes that are either brown, hazel, or green depending on lighting and mood. I was decidedly a lonely island of blue eyes in my house.

It took a day or so and then the fallacy of this obsession occurred to me. You see, if you believe in evolution (and friends, if you do NOT believe in evolution I'd rather you not tell me - it's one of the few things I'm a bit rabid about and telling me can only result in me sending you copies of Darwin's book) we are all related. Perhaps some of us are a bit further removed on the family tree, but all of us, from whatever country or culture or race we come, are family. 

I can't help it, though. Now whenever I meet someone with blue eyes I wonder if they know we are just a little bit more related than the rest of the human species. We share something unique. We are a club within a club. We're going to need a secret handshake...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Beaufort Bourgeois Vs. Fishbowl Fridays

Last night I did something I rarely do, and went to a local bar for drinks. Generally speaking I prefer to drink at home and avoid the noise, confusion, and general mayhem of the local bar scene, but occasionally it's nice to get out for a bit.

When we arrived at the local bar we had to wait a bit to snag a table. The bar was quite full and it meant watching tables closely to see who was settling up their tab and looking like they were about to depart, and then pouncing immediately. Once we had secured a table we ordered a pitcher of Stella Artois, but our bartender instead brought a pitcher of Rickard's White. While my two companions, my husband and best friend, could accept this I found it unappealing and decided instead to order a gin and tonic, my go-to drink in any situation. The waitress took my order and then asked if I'd like the fishbowl size. Fishbowl? Fishbowl indeed it is, minus the fish, but with 3 shots of gin and enough tonic water to drown a few minnows. The fishbowl was amusing, but I couldn't help but think of the contrast of fishbowl drinks in my Alberta city and the drinks I'd recently enjoyed in bars in London.

In London, you see, I stayed at the glorious Savoy Hotel, which has been recently renovated in lavish style. One night on a whim my husband and I decided we'd like to go to one of the hotel bars for a drink, and we called the butler to see what they would suggest. This impromptu decision for a drink caused some kerfuffle, as the bars are generally full in the evenings and securing a table a difficult task. The butler called the concierge. The concierge called the bar managers. The bar managers finally agreed that they could squeeze us into a table at the Beaufort Bar, but only because we were guests and had had the butler and the concierge intervene. Woe to those wanting a drink but lacking access to the butler and concierge!

We dressed to go down as these bars are rather formal affairs and jeans would not do. At the door of the Beaufort we were whisked past those waiting outside and they shot us glances of envy as we were shown to our table. Once seated the bar menu was presented, and what a menu it is! Incredible varieties of champagne served in crystal flutes, and cocktails served in gilded bird cages. We ordered our champagne (at 80 pounds per glass an extravagance indeed), and settled back to take in the view. The Beaufort is a beautiful bar, done in an Art Deco style of black and gold. For the record the gold is, in fact, gold leaf - 40,000 pounds worth of it, all over the walls. It is decadent, opulent, and lends itself to extravagant guests as well. This is a bar where people wear their silks and furs, Louboutin on their feet and Chanel bags in their hands.

I don't have any photos of myself at the Beaufort bar, as I suspect using a camera in places such as this can be perilous. There are celebrities who hang out in these bars (I'm quite certain I saw Jude Law during our stay at the Savoy), and as such they are quite sensitive to the potential for paparazzi and those who may try to take compromising photos for personal gain. It's not an atmosphere that lends itself to photos, really, as one would look a bit starstruck to pull out a camera and begin snapping. In places such as this you are supposed to just act as if you feel at home, not as if you're a tourist on safari.

So, there we sat for a couple of hours, taking in the parade of style and glamour at the Beaufort bar, sipping champagne presented on a silver tray. It was an experience in luxury and decadence quite unlike any I'd ever had before.

Last night I sat in the local bar where we had had to gain our table through a combination of savvy and persistence. I drank gin and tonic from a fish bowl, and appeared somewhat overdressed compared to those wearing coveralls and work boots. Drinks were presented with a smile but silver trays were decidedly absent. And yet it was in many ways just as enjoyable as my evening at the Beaufort bar. The gin was reasonably good, the music was decent (thank god, no rap!), and the company of my husband and best friend was the best anyone could want. Perhaps the bar was lacking the silks and furs, and the shoes were Redwings while the handbags were from Walmart. What it had, though, was what all bars, from the grandest like the Beaufort to the humblest like my local bar, have - a sense of possibility, of an evening that could unfold in any way, and enough alcohol to help it along. Whether it's a Fishbowl Friday or a night of Beaufort Bourgeois adventure awaits those who dare to pursue it, fishbowl or champagne flute in hand.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Love, Loss, and Letting Go

Two years ago today my mother died. Those last three words seem a bit surreal even now, and it was quite certainly surreal then. When I thought about this blog post I knew I wanted to write it but found ways to avoid it all morning. I knew what I wanted to say but wasn't sure I would find the words, so all I can do is try. I hope I do this story justice.

When I decided to blog about today's anniversary I realized there were many things I could write about. I could write about the phone call from my sister telling me there had been an "incident" with my mother - "incident" now being a word that has forever taken on sinister connotations for me. I could write about being told it was time to come home as her survival was unlikely. I could write about the airplane flights that passed as if in a nightmare. I could write about the men on the airplane who, when I rushed past them, made some comment about my obviously being important to be in such a hurry, and my vitriolic response of "My mother is dying - is that reason enough to hurry for you?", and rushing off the plane with tears in my eyes to beg for the last standby seat on my connecting flight. I could write about those days and nights in the ICU, the most terrifying place in the hospital, where you meet other families, some who will take their loved ones home and some who will never see them alive again. I could write about the decision to end life support. I could write about holding your mother's hand as she dies. I decided, though, that while all those things deserve to be written about that I wouldn't write about them today. Rather, I would write about my mother, and me.

In the photo above I would guess I am about 3 or 4, which makes my mother about the same age as I am now. I was her last child, born to her late in life. I have been called by others an accident, but never by her. She always called me a surprise, and one of the very best. She and I were very close, and I suppose some of that is because I was her last child, and the one who remained home after the others had left the nest.

She had not had an easy life. She lost both her parents prematurely, and felt very responsible for her younger siblings as a result. She had lived through poverty and grief, and likely more bad times than good. She had five children and I know at times it must have been a struggle, especially when my four eldest sisters were all little and she was often home alone as my father tended to the farm.

She was the quintessential stay-at-home mom. I remember when all my friends discovered that I had a mom who baked her own bread, buns, and cinnamon buns. They quickly learned her daily schedule and it seemed that every week on baking day they would suggest that day to study at my house, knowing they would be fed. In fact after she died I received notes from friends, some whom I hadn't heard from in years, expressing their sympathy and telling me they would always remember how kind she was to them and how she always fed them. I recall her feeding all my boyfriends, including some who showed up when I wasn't home. There were a couple of times when I asked her to stop that as I suspected that men are like cats in that if you keep feeding them they keep coming back, and I was trying to dissuade those particular boys from returning.

Most of my friends liked to hang out at my house because my mom was home. Many of their parents worked, but my mom was a comforting presence in their lives, and in mine. I will admit she may not have been the most educated woman on the planet but she had common sense paired with a huge and loving heart. Those things make up for a lack of education in my opinion, and I suspect my friends felt the same.

I don't want to make it sound like she was perfect. Throughout her life my mother struggled with mental illness. For those who think that I shouldn't reveal such things publicly all I can say is that I believe the reason the stigma about mental illness remains is because we refuse to acknowledge it, and only by shedding light on it can we address it. I suspect the stigma is the reason my mother avoided treatment for her problems. The thing is, though, I didn't love her despite her mental illness - in some ways as I grew older I loved her more because of it. Even as a child I recognized that at times she needed someone to be her logic and reason when she could find none, and I decided I would be that for her. I also became fiercely protective of her, knowing that at times she was too fragile to cope with the world.

Most of all my mother loved her children unconditionally, without reservation or apology. She loved me when I did well, and when I failed. She loved me through good decisions, bad decisions, and decisions that frankly now make me shake my head. She loved me when I was good to her, and when I was cruel. She loved me every moment of every day of her life, and I never doubted that. And I loved her that way in return. I still do. She gave me the most tremendous gift - not just life, but a life knowing I was loved, and being able to love that way in return.

After my mother died the funeral home called and said that even though we had requested a closed casket any family members who wished to see her prior to the funeral could do so. I don't know which of my sisters went - we've never really discussed it as that was an intensely personal decision. I decided to go see her one final time. Now I share with all of you something I have never told anyone but my husband. When I went to see my mother I brought her something. I slipped an envelope behind her pillow as I said good-bye. The envelope contained a short letter I wrote that day. I told her how much I loved her, and how much I would miss her. I told her how much I would miss knowing that there was one person in the world who loved me unconditionally and with the kind of love only a mother knows. And finally, I thanked her. I thanked her for giving me the greatest gift of all - teaching me how to be the kind of mother who loves their child without condition, reservation, or apology. That, my friends, is what she gave me - the ability to love my daughter in the same way she loved me.

My world tilted on it's axis two years ago, and in some ways it has never been the same. I miss my mother every day, and love her as intensely now as I ever did. What I also do every day, though, is love my daughter as intensely as she loved me. I hope some day my daughter can say she loved me not despite but also because of my faults. I hope some day she finds strength in knowing that her mother always loved her without condition, and without reservation. I hope some day when I am gone that she can let me go but also carry me with her every day, just as I carry my mother with me.

Mom, this is for you. I love you.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves

Last night a gentleman friend informed me that today is International Women's Day. Yes, I was informed of this by a man. I have no idea why I am so utterly clueless except that I don't watch the news or read the paper if I can avoid it. I digress, though, from the original point which is that today is a day to celebrate women, and I'd like to pay homage to some special women in my life - my sisters.

As I've mentioned previously I have four older sisters. Not only am I the youngest, I am the youngest by several years, meaning that at times growing up it felt rather like having five mothers. This was both a blessing and a curse as they all seemed to have eyes in the back of their head and knew when I was up to no good. On the blessing side I was privy very early to the world of make-up, clothing, shoes, and a wealth of good advice (which I routinely ignored, of course).

I could tell you a lot about my sisters - their careers, their families - but I respect their privacy and instead will tell you a bit about my relationship with each one. I don't really have the words to describe my feelings for them, so this will have to suffice...

My eldest sister was 15 when I was born. Family lore says she named me, and chose my name based on Saint Theresa of the Little Flower (yes, my family was Roman Catholic - pretty obvious, isn't it?). Now, there have been times when I actually regretted her choice of name, especially as I grew older and embraced my inherent atheism. I felt the name marked me as religious and I even toyed with having people call me Tracy, which was fine except I always forgot to respond to it. As the years have gone on I've made peace with the name, and recently in Ireland actually found it a bonus as when I was introduced by name every Irish person assumed I was of Irish Catholic origin - with a name like Theresa what else could I be? This delighted me, as my husband and daughter, who recently nicknamed me "IrishWannaB", can attest. Name aside when I was growing up I was slightly in awe of this sister. She is fiercely intelligent, beautiful, and successful, and seemed a tough act to follow. She left home to attend university when I was still quite young, and as such was the sister who sent uber-cool presents from exotic places like Ottawa. In many ways she continues to feel like another mother to me.

My next eldest sister is one to whom I freely admit I was not close when growing up. I didn't really understand her, I suppose. She seemed so serious all the time, so focused. This is the sister who while in university would be so exhausted that you could enter the room, turn off the TV she seemed to be watching, and she wouldn't notice. What I didn't see at the time was her seriousness and focus was the result of her drive and ambition, which was formidable. She had goals, and she planned to attain them - and she did. When my husband returned to university as an adult student we moved back to the city we had grown up in, and rented a tiny apartment just a couple of blocks from this sister. I was in my late 20's then, and far more appreciative and understanding of her personality. In the four years we lived there she was incredibly generous, taking us out to lunch or supper at least once weekly, and she and I became very close, as we remain to this day. She has become not only a sister, but one of my best friends as well.

My middle sister had the unenviable role of middle child. I was relatively close to her as a child, but this changed a great deal during my teen and young adult years. She was always far more religious than I, and when I finally realized that I was (and likely always had been) an atheist I thought the gap between our world view might be unable to be bridged.  She married the first, was the first to have children, and moved out of my immediate sphere fairly early. She became focused on her family, and I was very much focused on a life of fun as I was in my late teens and early twenties. During those years I remember some spectacular arguements with her, too, ones that shame me a bit now as I realize as I've grown older that I don't have the market cornered on having an opinion. In recent years things have changed again as she became a huge support to me during my father and mother's illnesses and deaths. What became even more apparent when we spent time together is that despite our differences she and I are very similar in sense of humour, attitude to life, and things in which we find pride. The discovery that I enjoy her company was an absolute joy. She has become a treasure in my life, the kind of treasure you didn't even know you had.

The sister closest in age to me has always been close to me in other ways as well. This was the sister with whom I shared a bedroom during parts of my childhood. She was a known neat freak, and as such leaving a book on the bed to go to the washroom was perilous as you would return to find it shelved alphabetically. She was also the sister who taught me cynicism when she found a toy car in the heating vent at the house we'd moved into, and sold it to me for 50 cents. Why? She explained that it had "sentimental value" and thus she could not just give it to me (I was probably about 7 at the time). That story became family legend, but it taught me a valuable lesson - how not to be taken in by a con! She was the sister who took me to university classes with her on a regular basis and with her on weekends to her job at the university library. She opened a world to me that had seemed mysterious, and allowed me a sneak peek into it. I was her maid of honour at her wedding, and I was so proud to be asked to perform that role for her. She gave me so much of her time during years when she was busy with school and work, and I remain grateful for that. She and I don't talk all that often, but when we do it is always comfortable and easy, and I continue to feel very close to her.

I know I started this post talking about my sisters, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention another woman in my life - at least, a girl on the brink of becoming a woman. That would be, of course, my daughter. My daughter is stunningly beautiful, ferociously intelligent, and funny as hell. You know she is special when she is able to charm almost every adult she meets, and when others describe her as accomplished - at the age of 11. She talks of her goals and dreams, like where she will attend university (not if, but where - current front runner is University of College Cork in Ireland). She is not perfect, and I see occasional glimpes of teenage attitude that flare like flashes of lightening from a summer storm on the horizon. She is, however, the most perfect thing I have ever been involved in. When she becomes a woman she will be a force to be reckoned with. Watch out, world - you've been fairly warned!

So, there you have it, friends. These are the favourite women in my life. These are women who have inspired me, motivated me, spanked me, and otherwise made me who I am. I hope you've had similar women in your life because they make life richer, happier, and frankly more entertaining than it would be otherwise. Today might be International Women's Day, but for me it is "celebrate the women you love" day. To my sisters and my daughter I raise my glass and say "Slainte" - and  I thank you for sharing your life journey with me. I treasure each and every day I have with all of you.

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves - Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mystical Inchagoill

There are words in our lexicon that have been bandied about so much that they've lost their power. The overuse of these words often means that it's difficult to convey what you mean about something because when you describe it  using those words it sounds trite. The problem, of course, is that these words still often remain the best possible ones to use, but you do so at some risk of having your thoughts ignored simply due to the words you use to present them. One of these words is "mystical".

Mystical is a word we hear a lot in North America. I've heard it refer to ideas, places, television shows, and people. I think it has lost it's meaning in many ways, and I truly didn't understand it until I went to Ireland. There are so many places in Ireland that stop you short because they are, quite simply, the most mystical places you've ever experienced. It feels like there is something in the very air and soil of these places, something far deeper and far older than you'll ever understand. One of these places is, undoubtedly, Inchagoill.

Inchagoill is an island located on Lough Corrib in County Galway. I came to Inchagoill on a boat on New Year's Day 2011, and must admit that initially there were places I'd rather be, like back in bed nursing my champagne-induced hangover. Once we'd arrived, though, I was so happy I'd left my bed and embarked on a journey to the mystical island of Inchagoill.

When the boat docked we disembarked with the other 80-some passengers, and I noticed some were either continuing their drinking from the night before or had started again. I didn't think this would bode well for a quiet tour of the island, but I underestimated the power of this place. The group may have set out noisily but very quickly became quiet as the island worked it's magic on them.

As you walk on the path to the churches and graveyard that remain on the island you marvel at how green it is. Even in January the island is astonishingly lush. It's the sort of place where you expect to see strange creatures lurking, and strange things did once lurk here - the Druids.

There are many different variations of the history of Inchagoill, but my favourite says that in the 5th century (the 5th!) St. Patrick was banished to this island, along with his nephew and navigator, by the pagan Druids. While building a church on the island St. Patrick's nephew, Lugnad, died and was buried here. The island was christened "Inchagoill" (translated as "island of the stranger") because that is where the "stranger", St. Patrick, was kept to prevent him from spreading Christianity in Ireland. Lugnad's headstone remains there today, with an inscription still decipherable. Surrounding the headstone are several others in various states of decay - it is clearly an ancient place. There are two very old churches on the island as well, and while they are not restored are in a  rather lovely state somewhere between preservation and decay. The beauty and magic of Inchagoill is really best shared in pictures, so rather than try to describe it I hope you'll enjoy the photos below.

So, that's a bit of the island of Inchagoill. The one thing the photos can't do, though, is give you the wonderful feel of this place. I've said it before, friends, and I'll say it again. Go to Ireland. It's a decision you'll never regret, and you might just come back to Canada with a renewed appreciation for the word "mystical".

Friday, March 4, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog, Disc Two

A few weeks ago when I wrote about music I was listening to I thought it was pure self-indulgence that no one would read or be interested in. I was startled when that post got so many views, and it continues to get views almost a month later. So, being in the mood for further self-indulgence I've decided to share what I've been listening to lately. Friday seems the right day for it, too, as my blog this week has tended towards crankiness and melancholy, and perhaps it's time for a change of pace! So, here goes....

Let's start with Canada:

Spirit of the West - Home For A Rest

I've loved this band since the very first time I heard them a long time ago - decades ago, actually. The fact that they are Canadians just makes it that much better. Last summer they visited my city and played an outdoors gig. It was the same night we hosted my husband's annual workplace BBQ, but I snuck out early as my husband so kindly agreed to entertain our final guests and take care of the 3 preteen girls who were sleeping over at our house, and headed downtown to see the band. Accompanied by my best friend I danced from beginning to end. When the band finally left the stage for the night my friend disappeared for a bit and then came back and told me to follow her. Knowing that I've always wanted to meet these guys she had arranged to have us head backstage where I had the privilege to meet a few of them, including lead singer John Mann. I told John that I've always thought he has the best voice in Canadian rock, and he suddenly gave me a huge hug. He seemed very pleased at my compliment, but I didn't know why until I found out a couple of weeks later that John had a cancer scare a couple of years ago, and due to some complications thought he'd never sing again. All I can say is that he sings just as well as he did 20 years ago, and perhaps even better due to the maturity that age can bring. My friend even convinced a local photographer to snap a pic of me and the guys so here it is:

Photo credit to Dan Lines, photographer extraordinaire!

Next up, Ireland:

The Pogues - Lorelei

Dear lord, how I love The Pogues! This song is absolutely haunting and beautiful. Speaking of The Pogues I saw Shane McGowan in a more recent video. He performs "Little Drummer Boy" with a group called "The Priests", who are, indeed, actual singing priests. Shane looks a bit like a truck drove over him. And then backed up, and drove over him several more times for good measure. Hard living has taken it's toll on the man, no doubt - but he could always sing like a fiend, and continues to do so. I fear he can't be long for this world at his current pace, though. When Shane goes we lose a true musical genius in my opinion.

And now England:

Men They Couldn't Hang - Rain, Steam, and Speed

I have no idea why these guys weren't bigger in the 80's. They are so very talented, and they should have been huge. Instead they stayed relatively unknown, playing small clubs instead of big gigs and stadiums. I had a chance to see them in Toronto back then and didn't go - I was a fool. I listen to them frequently in my car at top volume, singing the lyrics and pounding the steering wheel. Apparently I'm still a fool.

And England again:

Placebo - Running Up That Hill

If you are a Kate Bush purist this version of the song may appall you - but I love it. I find it absolutely haunting. Kate's original is absolutely lovely, of course, but this is a damn good cover of a damn good song. Again, this gets played loudly at my house. Lots.

And let's end in Canada:

Rural Alberta Advantage- Edmonton

This band is based in Toronto. I was recently introduced to their music by a friend from Ireland. That's right, someone from Ireland had to tell me about a Canadian band that sings about Alberta. That is both so funny and so pathetic that I refuse to speak about it further as my complete lack of musical coolness will become blatantly obvious. Suffice to say I'm just grateful to my friend for recommending them to me as I think they are fabulous!

So, there you go, friends. That's what I've been spinning these past couple of weeks. Hope you find something you enjoy amongst it all. If you haven't been doing it lately try listening to something you love this weekend - and as Spinal Tap would say, turn it up to 11!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Memory of a Scent

Recently a friend posted on her Facebook status that she was cooking and suddenly the smell of the food transported her back to a memory of her grandmother. I've always been prone to smells triggering memories, and often wondered if other people experienced this as well. Often the memories are good ones - the smell of cinnamon buns always takes me back to my mom, who made the best cinnamon buns in the world (confirmed by everyone who tried them), and the smell of rosewood instantly takes me to my father's workshop when he was building cedar chests lined with that particular wood. There is one smell, though, that I actually find very troubling as it always takes me back to a certain time in my life when things just seemed to be in a different language that I couldn't decipher, and when I felt very lost.

It all began the summer before I started university. I had just graduated high school, and was experiencing real freedom for the first time. I was legally an adult, and had recently ended a series of "young adult" relationships. I felt ready to embark on a new adventure - an adult relationship. I had someone in mind already, but I didn't know him. I'd seen him around town over the summer, a local artist with flaming red hair. Our paths had crossed on occasion, and he seemed fascinating. I confess I've always been drawn to people who are unusual - who march to a different drummer, who aren't quite normal - and he fit the mold very nicely. Shortly after I started university I actually met him at a house party I attended. I went to the party with another young man, but when I actually met the artist I was smitten. It turned out the party was at the house he shared with his housemates, a group of artists and musicians. It was an eclectic group, and very different from any I'd ever known.

It took some time but our paths crossed again (mostly due to my manipulations), and we began to spend time together. What I found odd, though, is that we virtually never spoke. He never told me much about himself, and the silences struck me as strange. I am a talkative person by nature, but around him it just seemed that I fell silent. Occasionally we spoke about his art, or my classes. Occasionally we spoke about a movie we'd seen (separately - I don't recall ever going to one together) or bands we liked. He told me little about himself, except that he was ten years older than I (secretly I found this thrilling - it made him as old as my sisters, and lent the relationship edge). I told him very little about me, because he didn't ask.

It was late November, and every day after university I would get on the bus and take it to his house. There we would sit in his room in virtual silence. That we were attracted to each other was obvious - but the silence was something I couldn't figure out. Being an artist he smoked, of course, and this is the only time in my life when I did, too. We would sit and smoke and say nothing.

I would eventually have to leave to head home, and when I left rather than take the bus directly home I would walk across the bridge that spanned the river in our city, heading towards downtown and the bus stop on the other side. I would walk in the frigid temperatures, smelling stale cigarette smoke rising from my clothing, and try to comprehend what exactly was going on. I didn't understand this "adult" relationship. I had no idea where I stood in it, and I had no idea who this man really was, because he never told me. I was, in fact, floundering all over the place, my first year in university going badly as I began to spend more time at the bar across the street from campus than in class. When my philosophy professor, who had taught one of my elder sisters and thought her a spectacular student (which she was), stopped me in the hall after I had missed several classes to tell me that I "obviously wasn't like my sister" I stopped attending his class at all. High school had been a breeze. University was, quite honestly, kicking my ass. I was clearly lost on many levels. I didn't know how to navigate this brave new world I found myself in.

I contemplated asking one of my sisters for advice on this relationship but thought better of it as I knew once they heard his age they'd be concerned. And I'd learned some information that made it worse. It turned out that even when we did speak he had lied to me. A good friend who was worried about me had her mother, who worked for the police, run a check on my male friend. He was not ten years older than I - he was closer to twenty years older, and older than all my sisters. He had a criminal record for things that even I, at 18 and probably the most liberal I would ever be in my life, had trouble reconciling. Not only didn't I know him, even the things I thought I knew were wrong.

As so many things do it ended with a whimper, not a bang. I met someone else, and without telling him began to see them. Why would he care? We'd never spoken of commitment. We'd barely spoken at all. He called my house a couple of times after I stopped going by after classes and spoke to my mom. She said he sounded hurt when she said I was out. I figured she misread it - he couldn't be hurt because there was nothing there to be hurt about. Finally one day he saw me with the other man, someone who also happened to be a person he'd never liked. I guess that's when he knew I'd moved on.

That night he went home and trashed the house he shared. His housemates asked him to leave, and I became persona non grata in that group. A friend of his that I met much later told me that he'd told them that he loved me and couldn't stand losing me. I was competely, utterly, and totally shocked. Love? We'd never spoken of that. We'd never spoken of any feelings. If that was love then clearly I had no idea what love was. I was pretty certain I wasn't in love with him. He actually packed up and left the city altogether, and I never saw him again.

After it was over I spent a lot of time trying to figure that relationship out. Perhaps it wasn't him who was silent, but me. Perhaps he was waiting for me to talk. Perhaps it was just one of those things destined to burn out, like a shooting star. Perhaps he was just as lost as I was at that time and didn't know how to say it. I suppose I thought back then that there was a secret to being an adult and I just didn't know it yet. I thought that adults just knew what to say and how to act. I knew I was struggling with being one.

 Now as an actual adult all I know for sure is that the smell of stale cigarette smoke instantly takes me back to that bridge and those late evening walks, hearing the snow crunch under my boots and feeling snowflakes mingle with the tears on my face as I gazed at the twilight stars and tried to understand what being an adult really meant, and wishing I was better at it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Look At This Photograph

This is not my house. It hasn't been my house in over twenty years, when I left to move to Toronto to join my boyfriend (the man who eventually became my husband). You see, this is the house I grew up in, and the only house I remember from my childhood. This was my parent's house for almost 30 years.

We moved into this house when I was about twelve. It was brand new then, and certainly the largest and grandest house my parents had ever owned or likely ever lived in. It was the culmination of their dreams and hard work. They had both grown up in rural poverty, had struggled with poverty throughout their own lives, and eventually managed through good management to achieve a degree of prosperity they had probably never imagined when they were children.

It's hard for me to look at this photo sometimes. There are so many memories here. So many special events, like the weddings of my sisters, and myself. So many holidays. And yet so many mundane memories, too. Sometimes I think it's those everyday memories that are really the special ones.

 I recall my mother's lavish garden. Her green thumb was legendary, and the only trouble was the area cats getting into her vegetables. My enterprising father, once a farmer, erected a tiny electrified fence, and the neighbourhood cats quickly learned to avoid our rather "shocking" yard. I will always associate the smell of sawdust with my father's backyard garage/workshop, where he built cedar chests and repaired all manner of small motorized appliances. I think back to when my uncles delivered the enormous rock seen on the far left of the photo. They had brought it from the farm and stopped at the local grain elevator to have it weighed. I don't recall the actual weight, but I spent many hours sitting on that rock as I grew, just thinking. I remember my father planting those two pine trees in the front yard, one of which would eventually become the tallest tree on the street, towering over the houses and housing all manner of birds. I remember all the care and attention they poured into that yard, always planting and trimming and watering and tidying. It was a showpiece every day of every year.

Every Sunday meant a family dinner, with sisters and brothers-in-law and children and whomever else happened to be around. You see, my parents had an open-door policy - any friend of their children was always welcome, and they welcomed many. We had Jewish friends who celebrated a Roman Catholic Christmas with us, and friends of mine (and my sisters) who would always show up suspiciously close to supper time (having discovered my mother cooked like a fiend and would feed you until you burst).

I had four older sisters, most of whom were living on their own when we moved into this house, but over the years they moved in and out as their lives changed and they needed to come home. And it was home - always home, in every sense, because we knew no matter what happened it would be there for us. The door was always open for us, too.

I remember coming home to this house from school, bad days and good. I remember returning from dates as I got older, some that were wonderful and some that were so spectacularly bad that I couldn't wait to get inside the door and breathe a sigh of relief as my latest date drove away (hopefully to never be heard from again). I remember coming home tired, and sad, and happy, and drunk (and I'm sorry, mom - when I fell down the basement stairs it wasn't clumsiness, it was gin). I remember as I grew older wanting so badly to get away from this house, to be on my own, and then once I was on my own, paying my rent and making my way, wishing for the relatively carefree life I had lived there.

There were bad times in this house too, of course. There were fights and long dark silences. There were family dramas. There were times of illness and fear. When my father left this house it was to move to the hospital where he died. The funny thing is, though, that all these memories have mingled and what I remember now the most is the good times, the best times. The times of laughter and joy. The dinner table discussions that new guests often found bewildering as they were surrounded by people talking all at once and trying to drown each other out. The summer barbecues that often went late into the evening and no one wanted to leave. The quiet meals with just my mother and father and I. Those are the memories I hold closest to my heart.

After my father died my mother lived in this house for another year and then sold it as she needed to move on with her life and downsize a bit. It was too large for her, too much maintenance, and honestly it wasn't good for her. I took my husband and daughter back to spend one final Christmas in the house in honour of all the holidays I had spent there. It was a very bittersweet Christmas that year.

After my mother died unexpectedly two years ago I went back to the house. I hadn't gone back before - I hadn't felt the need. With both my mother and father gone, though, I suppose I felt a bit rootless and needed to see the house. The new owners had changed many things. The cedar siding was repainted, doors and windows had been replaced, and the house looked...different. It looked good. It looked loved. My parents would have been pleased. Even more I was able to let go of the house and keep the memories because the house was clearly someone else's home now, and they appeared to love it as much as my parents did. The circle had closed, life had moved on, and so had the house. It was not my house. It was no longer home.

When I first heard the song below the very first thing that came to my mind was this house. As the song played I flashed through so many memories of this house, and of my family. I imagine when you hear it you may think of a different house and different memories. I think sometimes we discount those memories too quickly. Those memories, good and bad, are what make us who we are. Sometimes it's okay to revisit them - and to revisit those houses, too. Sometimes we just need to do that in order to say good-bye.