The Anniversary

My parents celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary on February 24th.

You would have thought they were getting married; they were that excited! My mother bought a new outfit and then set about losing five pounds so that it would “fit better.” Dad bought a dapper new suit. Cakes and flowers were ordered, a reception planned, and announcements put in the paper.

Mom and Dad, their four children and in-laws, and their nine grand-children met at the Mandarin for a family dinner celebration on Friday. An incredible meal was enjoyed by all, especially the two teen-aged boys in the party, who were doubly appreciative of the concept of “all you can eat.” Towards the end of the meal, our very conscientious waiter dropped his professional demeanour for one moment as he passed my nephew with an armload of dirty dishes and commented, “Oh, I see you’re slowing down over there.” We laughed uproariously, and that wasn’t the only time. My father stood up and delivered a few heartfelt words about how he and Mom were so happy to share their special occasion with  family and how they hoped they would have many more anniversaries to celebrate together. We presented them with a travel voucher to commemorate the occasion. Mom and Dad have always wanted to travel by train to Halifax to see Pier 21. Both of them arrived there as children when they came to Canada from Holland on converted troop ships. 

Children of Dutch immigrants who came to Canada after the end of World War Two, my parents endured many hardships and challenges in their younger years. Neither one of them had the opportunity to finish elementary school. They went to work quickly so that they could help to support their large families. Mom and Dad met through their church’s Young People’s Society.  My mother was too young to date my dad, who was almost six years older. He waited, and they were married when my mother reached the ripe old age of eighteen. I was their first child, and I had arrived by the time they had been married for ten long months. Jim and Wendy followed quickly. By the time she was 22, Mom had three small children to tend to. My brother Collin came along several years after that. Life was not always easy for this couple. We kids caused all of the typical stresses and exasperation that kids are prone to cause, and we had arguments with our parents. The most amazing part is, I never once saw Mom and Dad have an argument with each other. Impatient times, perhaps. But never a snide comment or snappish retort.

Yesterday, my parents dressed in their wedding best for their Open House. The reception was held at their church. Before the crowds spilled in, my parents sat down to watch the slide show of old pictures that my daughters had put together for them, set to music composed and recorded by my younger brother. Mom remarked with great hilarity on the changes in her hairstyle over the years. She laughed often through the whole thing. My dad had a quieter response, and his eyes were just a little red at the end of it.

Mom had her wedding dress and album on display. Seldom-seen relatives and old friends and neighbours poured into the room. Mom and Dad were delighted to see all of them, as were we. A lovely afternoon of hugging and catching up was enjoyed by all. It didn’t end there. Several party-goers drifted over to Mom and Dad’s home to continue the celebration there. After everyone was gone, my brother, his wife and I still found ourselves there. Mom and Dad were still chipper at the late hour. Mom said she never wanted the day to end. She was up to her eyeballs in unopened cards, gorgeous spring bouquets, dirty cake plates, and a mountain of veggies. I honestly think she would have welcomed the opportunity to do the whole day over again.

Sadly, people like my parents are becoming more and more rare as time progresses. The day may come when people don’t even bother to make a life-time committment any more. So, it was a very big deal, this milestone anniversary–as well it should be. How common is it to find a couple married for half a century in this day and age?

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Fern

My dear friends Lucy and her husband Hugh recently purchased an old yellow-brick house that is very “high needs,” with the intention of gutting it, restoring it, and flipping it.  Hugh is a tenor/drywaller (isn’t that a delightful combination?), and a renovator extraordinaire. Surprisingly enough, this is their first flip. Up until now, Hugh has been too busy with other people’s renovations and in staying on top of his musical commitments to branch off into flipping. However, this house came along at an opportune time. They bought it.

Lucy promptly christened the place “Fern.” It is right around the corner from their place of residence, and Lucy is delighted to have her husband so close by. Often, Hugh’s jobs take him to far-off locations and his hours are crazy. Lucy and Hugh’s two children have spent their summers working for their dad, and they pitch in with Fern whenever they are in the neighbourhood.

To my delight, I was invited to tour Fern today. We pulled up in front of the house. The workers were industriously engaged, filling the front lawn with piles of busted boards, broken hunks of plaster, and slabs of wallpaper with patterns circa 1960. There was an enormous garbage bin there, but it was filled to the brim–and that was the second one.

We went through the enclosed front porch. Lucy told me about their plans to winterize it. I imagined airy white curtains in the many windows, welcoming the breezes–summer furniture, plants and a pitcher of icy lemonade on a little table. Maybe a small writing desk where I could sit with my laptop and a glass of wine….or hot tea in the winter while the wind buffeted the windows.

We stepped inside the front door into a haze of dust. The kids were scraping plaster off the walls, and everything was mostly down to the studs. Looking down, you could see through the gaps right into the basement. Looking up, you could see glimpses of the upstairs.

Everyone was wearing dust masks, and we followed suit and stuck them on over our mouths and noses, too. Several of the walls were taken down and a new support beam was up. Hugh explained where new walls were going to go, how the space was going to be reinvented. Through the dust and the bare studs and the rubble, I saw the house knit itself together. I saw a bright kitchen with an open eating area, a batch of muffins cooling on the counter and a big bowl of red apples on the table.  A comfortable living room with fresh walls and shining hardwood floors, a wall lined with books. Colourful throw pillows and the perfect “nap” couch. Nearby, a tiny little two-piece bath for quick dashes.

 Upstairs, were three bright bedrooms and a roomy bathroom. The stair landing had a window–so the stairwell was filled with sunshine. Once we were up, I immediately started to think about which room would be mine. I chose the one at the back of the house, and I even imagined where the bed would go. The beautiful bed with white linens, and fat lacy pillows. An antique dressing table and an overstuffed reading chair in a floral pattern, positioned near the window. A thick rug beside the bed, to accent the glowing hardwood floor.

The other bedrooms were smaller, one without a closet. A lovely pine wardrobe would do for that room. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a tiny house…I have always loved smaller spaces. I guess that’s kind of strange. I feel safe in close quarters, like a dog. Small equals cozy, in my mind. I love nooks and corners…

I was thoroughly enjoying my tour and all the wonderful offerings of my imagination, when Hugh pointed upward towards the exposed attic and explained how the entire area would become loft space. Under the hot mask, my mouth opened in an ecstatic “O.” The sloping ceilings and the triple windows at the front–a large one, flanked by two smaller ones. A room for retreats or parties, movie nights and video games…there were no stairs yet, but I floated up there nonetheless, choosing the colours and the carpet, where all the furniture was going to go…perhaps a guest bedroom area on one side, and a television area on the other….a playroom for….grandchildren!?! Here, in the battered confines of Fern, I allowed myself to entertain thoughts of grandchildren for the first time….I could hear them laughing up there!

I think Fern really liked me.

How I envy Hugh that talent, to take something so wrecked and hopeless and then to so confidently step in with a vision for it–and have all the skills to bring that vision to life. Stressful, no doubt–the financial risks, unforseen obstacles–but, exhilarating, too. Hugh is meticulous; I am certain that place is going to be utterly fabulous by the time he is through with it. Lucy, with her artistic flair, will colour in all the details, and poor little despondent Fern will find herself delightfully transformed and enjoying an unexpected resurrection as not only a house, but some lucky family’s home. How sensitive of Lucy to recognize that the first thing that house needed was an identity beyond its seemingly hopeless disrepair. A house needs wires and plumbing and drywall and paint. Fern, however, needs tender, loving care. She is getting it.

Under all the mess, there is something very special…a new story, just waiting to be written.

Gown Boutique

The long winter has been a frozen barrens for my eyes, and they are thirsty…thirsty for colour. We’ve existed in shades of grey long enough. I crave banks of sunny daffodils and vibrant red tulips, lawns greening and purple hyacinths…

As my daughter and I trudged along the slushy sidewalks yesterday, I glanced into a boutique window and saw some  beautiful and unique gowns displayed there. She suggested going in, and we did. I admire pretty things, although I have very little fashion sense or knowledge. I knew right away that this was no conventional dress shop. The store was overflowing with lush colours and shimmering fabrics, sequins and swirling ruffles, lace crinolines and sparkling beads. The gowns on the racks were glorious–far beyond the prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses one sees in malls. These were…creations. As I began to explore, it  recalled to my mind the scene in “Cinderella” when her devoted little mouse friends gathered leftover scraps of ribbons and beads and fabrics and designed a beautiful gown for her to wear to the ball, until those miserable step-sisters ripped it right off her shoulders.

Until the moment I stepped into that boutique, I hadn’t realized how desperate my craving for colour was. The dresses were fashioned from every shade of colour imaginable, from deep jewel tones to soft pastels and smoky greys to sensual black. Some gowns had gathered waistlines held in place with a clutch of rhinestones. Others had an intricate array of strap work across the backs. Some were strapless, others backless. One dress had an overlay of translucent pink over a more dense orange that made the most delicious sorbet colour. Another was a swirl of what I can only describe as melted rainbow.  I ran my hands over a long gown that was the happiest shade of yellow imaginable, accented with sunshine rays of sequins. Wearing that dress would have been like  clothing oneself in sunshine.

If I could have shrunk those dresses to a hundred sizes smaller and taken them all home, I would have been content to play with Barbies for the rest of my days.

 A young girl came out of a change room in something exquisitely gorgeous in about a size 2. I was so appreciative of how beautiful she was in the dress that I wasn’t even jealous. I didn’t need to be able to wear the gowns–I only wanted to feast my eyes.

In a quiet corner of the shop, a Persian cat sat observing the comings and goings from his chair. He perched regally on his “throne,” his scrunched up little face quite wise and tolerant. He seemed to me the perfect overseer for this amazing store. I extended my hand and he sniffed it delicately and then bestowed a small kitty kiss on my fingers. If he could have spoken, I know he would have said, “So glad you are enjoying yourself, my dear. Do come again.”

February Woods

There’s a thaw on the way, so my friend Lucy and I made our way to the  woods this afternoon to enjoy the snowy trails before they disintegrate into mud and slush.

The forest in snow does not change much through the winter months. The trees stand waiting through their long sleep for the first warm whisper in the wind. Today, that promise of a warm whisper seemed very far away. The sun was a faint, watery smear in the sky and it was a cold wind that moaned in the tree-tops. My fingertips inside my gloves were cold, and yet I was thankful that the bitter temperatures of the last week had subsided and it did not hurt my lungs to breathe in some much-needed fresh air.

The treetops were all waving as we went into the woods. Sometimes, the winter woods are suffused in a deep silence, everything muffled in snow. Today, the wind was causing a ruckus, clattering branches together and exacting groans from the timber. We scuffed our way over the bridge. I scoured the creek for patches of open water, and was surprised, after days of frigid temperatures, to find that there still was some. We continued over the bridge and headed off around the loop. Going down the hills proved a bit treacherous–I windmilled a few times, struggling not to topple over backwards into the slippery snow.

As we entered the “church,” I looked up and saw that the lines of firs were standing in utter stillness. Some how, the wandering winds did not find their way into that part of the trail, and as always, the sanctuary was deeply silent. The tall pines up the hills were not as fortunate. Their tops flailed around as we ascended the hill. A few times, the wind in their branches created what almost sounded like animal shrieks.

I looked carefully, but aside from the persevering evergreens, saw few signs of colour this time– I did notice a thicket of saplings with intricate, thready branches, a pale ghostly grey. And a lone twig , sticking out of the snow, which was an impossibly rich shade of purple.

Perhaps the most amazing sight this afternoon was a delicate, winged insect, skimming over the surface of the snow.  I wondered if it only seemed alive because the wind was pushing it along, but when I bent for closer examination, I saw that it was very much living. How this could be possible in the dead of winter, I cannot imagine. I can only look at it in an overly-optimistic hope that it’s a sign of an approaching spring.

Orchards

Deep winter, looming drifts along the roads, and temperatures so cold; even the kids are sticking to the indoors.  We drove to London today and the wind was sweeping off the tops of the drifts along the highway, covering the roads and creating strange, sun-suffused whiteouts. We counted five cars in the ditches as we crawled past.

My friend Rich sent me a few pictures of “his” orchard in B.C. Rich is an artist who also tends an orchard throughout the year. The photograph of the peach orchard in generous bloom with the mountains behind is my screen-saver, and  I have paused to contemplate it often over the past few  wintry weeks. I feel spring stirring inside my heart when I look at it, and the awakening of my child’s spirit, which is too often silent these days.

I spent my early childhood playing in an orchard beside my house. It was an apple orchard, filled with the “old” variety of trees–not those genetically modified dwarf trees that almost keel over under the burden of their fall harvests, but the kind that grow gnarly and knotted–the ones that require ladders to access the upper branches. The orchard was filled with different varieties of apple trees, but my brother Jim and I chose a MacIntosh tree, which marked the corner of the orchard near the road, closest to our house. Its low branches were ideal for climbing, and Jim and I had our own designated branches to perch in. It was like that tree was made for  us. I was not one for high-climbs–my brother was the squirrel in the family, and he often went off into higher branches while I opted to stay in my spot and holler in panic when he got too far up. (This was the same kid who got into the highest branches of a very tall pine along the neighbour’s lane and I had to run into the house to get my mom when he couldn’t get back down. She really couldn’t do much more than I had already tried, which was to scream at him at the top of my lungs). I remember my mother bringing gumdrops back from the grocery store every Thursday, and just sitting there in the apple tree, swinging my scabby legs, and making the gumdrops last all afternoon. I never dreamed that memory would follow me for the rest of my life and frame my whole perception of what Heaven might be. All my happy thoughts are caught safe in the branches of trees, and it has always been that way for me. I remember  hearing the phrase “tree-hugger” for the first time, and smiling in recognition. That was me.

The apple orchard was my outside home in all seasons. In the winter, I would stand caught up to my knees in the deep snow and admire the emptiness of the limbs and branches, framed against a cold blue sky. Spring would come and with it, the sudden buds and the greening, and the burst of creamy blossom with their drifting sweet, cool aroma. The petals would fall and the tiny hard nubs of apples would appear. We tested the apples throughout the summer, our tongues curling against the sour and our mouths going dry as we spat them back out again. Then came the first day near the beginning of fall, when the apples found their first sweetness, and we littered the orchard floor with cores. I learned the names of all the different varieties from Mr. Fuller, the orchard’s owner. They are with me still when I visit orchards to pick apples–Cortlands, Macs. Red Delicious, Spies….Mr. Fuller had a cold storage shed near his house, where he kept some of his take in the winter. It was partly buried in the ground, and he had to duck to go down into it. We were not allowed to go in there, but some days in the winter, Mr. Fuller would go down and choose two bright red Macs for Jim and I, and we would stand there and taste the summers in the orchard and wish for spring again.

That little house where we used to live  is a half hour’s drive from here, and I’ve driven past it from time to time. The house is shabby (as it was back then, although it seemed a palace to me) and all the tall pines that lined the Fullers’ driveway are gone now (I remember the tiny purple violets that grew under those trees). Saddest of all, the orchard is no longer there. It’s just a field now, not even one tree left to stand sentinel over my memories. My mom told me some time ago that she never liked that house–it was small and cold, heated only by two oil stoves. The three of us kids had to share one small bedroom. Even so, all my happy memories of childhood are held there in those uninsulated walls and in the long, grassy rows of the orchard nearby. Would that I could go back there, even for one sunny hour…

Wearisome Winter

I thought January would never end. It seems to get worse and every year, that  eternal stretch between Christmas and the first robin. As Christmas holidays were early this year, we were back to work on January 3rd.  The days slugged by in slow motion.

The worst thing about winter for me has to be the car. Driving in snow and ice is certainly not a picnic, although the misery is lessened with the seat warmers (which were the first thing on the list when I went car shopping a few years ago). It`s all the things that have to be done TO the car before commencing to drive. That is to say, brushing and scraping.

Like most Canadians with common sense, I like to get the car started and the heat blasting before I grab the snow brush so that everything can start to thaw out before I pull out of the driveway. Even the act of opening the driver`s side door becomes far more complex than one would suspect. My Ford Focus, although beloved to me in many ways, betrays me every snowy morning. The way the door is designed, it doesn`t matter how slowly or purposefully I open it–if there is snow on the door, it sheets directly into the car and plops itself down directly in the middle of the driver`s seat. I can pretty much plan to drive to work with my butt planted in a mini snowdrift–or, conversely, a cold puddle, once the seat warmer  or body heat kicks in.

I have two winter coats. One is an enormous hooded affair, dark blue and shapeless, and about as unattractive as it is possible for a coat to be. It`s about twenty years old and of course, shows no sign of wearing out. It has a drawstring in the hood that, when pulled tight, keeps my face tucked in as cozily as Michael Martchenko`s Thomas in the Robert Munsch story. This is the coat I usually wear to school. Its ugliness is directly proportionate to its warmness, which makes it an ideal yard duty coat. However, on the days when I don`t have outdoor yard duty, and I don`t want to look like a Sasquatch, I like to wear my darling coat–a not-so-warm grey pea coat, with big buttons and flattering lines that looks so cute with my Uggs. It does not do up past my collarbone. I don`t think my Focus likes my darling coat. The first swipe of the snowbrush and a great swathe of snow swirls up like an angry mass of bees and hurtles itself into the top of my pea coat and down into the front of my shirt. I cannot be quiet about such things. My roar of outrage must be disconcerting to the kids walking past on their way to the bus. I make no apologies.

A Focus is not a big car. Somehow, though, my arms are too short to scrape the middle parts of the windshield. Often, this results in me driving on frigid mornings with constant wiper fluid applications, alternating squirting and freezing, for the first few minutes of my trip.

I googled this, to no avail.  Those clumps of dirty snow that build up in and around a car`s wheel wells and make it sound like your muffler has come unloosed and is dragging along the road under your car…I hate those things. I always have a kick session around the circumference of my car in the winter, before I get in. Sometimes, those suckers are frozen solid, and they aren`t budging. Brutal on the toes! But when they fall of in one, big slushy hunk, it`s like getting the big end of the wishbone. Yesterday, I wished for a snow day. And guess what…

The school board called the snow day last night, which was good of them. A lot of energy was saved by thousands of families turning off their alarms. I stayed up late by the fire, watching through the window a chaos of snow whipping around the streetlights, and sheeting through the back yard. The wind battered the windows all night. There`s no place like your own bed when it`s doing something foul outside.

Winter`s bad, but…it`s not ALL bad.