Tuesday, December 14, 2010

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Believe it or not.

If we value honesty so much, why do we tell our kids there’s a Santa Claus? One of the most elaborate lies of all time. At the tender age of 11, a friend reveals the earth-shattering truth and, upon some light investigation, they discover the gifts in mom’s closet... From Santa. From Santa my ass. But I guess this opens up a whole can of worms that reek of bullshit. Santa. The tooth fairy. The Easter bunny. Heaven. God. (Oh stop your gasping.)

On Thursday night, my brother and I went back to the homestead to attend a memorial service, hosted by the local funeral home. A tribute to all those who died in the last 12 months. Our father included.

Hymns were sung. Holy words were spoken. I heard the word “father” over and over and over. But they were not talking about my father. They were talking about the father. You know, the one with the Son and Holy Spirit to boot. That elusive, three-fold enigma.

I had brought my inner skeptic with me. Righteous dudes, who is this God person we’re talking about? I’m here to think about my father, not the father of humanity who seems more the stuff of legends than reality. I know my dad existed, and still exists in me and in everything I do. But you have to admit – the rest sounds a little sketchy.

When we sang How Great Thou Art, I was singing about dad. How great he was.

When through the woods and forest glades I wander,
I hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze...”

My dad loved nature. So for me, those lyrics are about what he enjoyed, not what God created. Sue me!

Don’t get me wrong; I was touched by the event. The mutual loss. A room full of people who will celebrate (or lament) this Christmas with an empty chair at the dinner table. Words floated up into the air above our sadness, spelling out I know how you feel. The genuine sympathy of those employed by the Grim Reaper themselves, working under a cloud of death, day in and day out; a well-deserved paycheck. In the past 52 weeks, 82 people had died in our town and surrounding area. That’s about 1.5 deaths a week. And with an ever-aging community, those numbers will continue to rise. Corpses flying. In fact, another funeral home is about to open any day now. Maybe the cost of caskets will drop. Deadly.

I giggled a couple of times. A few righteous brothers were raising their hands to the sky, eyes closed, all full of the trinity and what not. Dad would have looked at me with that notoriously foolish face, subtly mocking the drama; so I did the same to mom. When one musical act was performing, a hot mess indeed, I drew a thumbs-down sketch on my program and flashed it at mom. When I saw her blank-faced expression, I took a second glance at my drawing and realized – it looked just like a penis.

How do you take the whole God thing seriously when your brain is full of dinosaurs and evolution and comparative anatomy? We came from fish, you know. Explain that, Pope. And yes, I know there are wonders all around us that defy science and logical explanation. But all in all, the God thing is a bit of a stretch. I’m not atheist; I’m just a half-assed believer. Seriously, can you blame me? (Note to self: rent Contact again.)

There are two reasons I choose to sort-of-believe...

Reason one: my dad. A super intelligent man with a faith so profound, there simply has to be something to the fuss.

Reason two: Max. I don’t want to raise a child on bullshit, but more importantly I don’t want to raise a cynic. My boy must be full of hope and possibility. I will introduce him to my religion – WhoFuckinKnowsism. The principles of this doctrine? Many things are unlikely, but anything is possible. There is no absolute knowledge; I know nothing, and neither do you. I have doubts; everyone does – and should! And if someone says they have no doubts, they’re full of horseshit.

I’ll tell Max about Jesus and all that good stuff. The life lessons of the parables beat Aesop’s fables, hands down. I’ll give Max the information (and the hope) and one day my little Christian can decide for himself.

After all, how can I tell him about Santa but not God? God. Santa. Heaven. Yes, they exist. Well, probably not. But maybe. Let’s just say it’s more likely than not that they exist. Let’s go with that. And have something to look forward to. Besides a satin-lined box in a cold, cold ground.

Max watched his first movie on the big screen a couple weeks ago – The Polar Express. I had seen it before, of course. But the theme is even more relevant to me now in my motherhood. It’s a story about believing in that which you cannot see. They’re talking about Santa. But I think they’re also talking about God.

Perhaps what feeds my inner skeptic most is the image we conjure up in our mind’s eye. Heaven: a place in the clouds where the deceased go to hang out and play harps and eat Philadelphia Cream Cheese. God: a gentle-faced, white-robed chess master way up there in the Almightosphere, surveying his handiwork but unable to interfere. (Let’s go with this theory since I’d hate to imagine an all-powerful being simply choosing not to prevent the Holocaust.) Santa: a jolly geezer in a creepy red suit, delivering toys to children all around the world in one night.

Forget the imagery; let’s focus on the feeling. An emotion without flesh or postal code. It’s believing in what is possible but not proven. It’s HOPE. And hope is more essential to life than air and water. Especially when life gets tough. Which it always does, sooner or later. For all of us.

I don’t know for certain about God, or Heaven, and I have epic doubts about that Kringle fella. The only things I know for certain: hope springs eternal and love is immortal. Love is the miracle that doesn’t rely on fantasy or organized religion. It spans all space and time, beyond death, beyond all the material bullshit in which we are immersed. Forgive me all you jovial Jesus fans, but at the memorial service I was not feeling the love of God; I was feeling the love of my dad. But maybe, and I think dad would agree, they are one and the same. I’m not saying my dad was God (although some might say he was a deity of sorts); I’m saying that God is not a person or a place or even a He. God is just another word for Love. Plain and simple. And in that case, I wholeheartedly believe.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A beaver tale...

Perhaps I was a bee in a former life. Or maybe it was a beaver. Yeah, a beaver; beavers are really busy. I had buck teeth as a kid too. That settles it – I was once a beaver. There’s a chewing on wood joke here somewhere, but I digress...

I complain about having too much to do, but truth is, I’m addicted to being busy. I need to be doing something productive – creating something, building something, making something better. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t need to be my mother’s kind of busy – cleaning, cooking, and churning butter while knitting sweaters and polishing silverware. That’s not my kind of busy. I like to be on the move. Shopping; seeking the perfect something for our humble abode. Writing – if not for work then for myself; working on my dad’s book, or my own. Watching; feasting my eyes on the mastery of Mad Men, or the delicious debauchery of Californication. (Which reminds me – anybody got Season 3?) I need to be constantly seeking something. A new vintage toy for my boy. The perfect metaphor. A great photo opp. A new idea.

But I know, life is short; God, how short it is. So I remind myself daily to stop and smell the roses. Pet the dog. Cuddle the boy. Spank the husband. Sip the tea. Be in the moment.

I’m good at being in the moment. I’m deep like that. I’m a writer for God sake; it’s a curse. Sometimes I'm so in the moment, I forget to be in pants. But sometimes my high-speed nature gets the better of me. (Thanks for the crazy genes, mom.) Especially during this time of year with the hoards of people and endless traffic (will the Torbay shit-snake ever die?) and lists of things to do compelling me to go go go go get ‘er done NOW.

Holiday mall mopers? I hate them. And they travel in packs. So not only are they slow; they form an impenetrable wall of mope.

I start my Christmas shopping early so I don’t have to stand in busy checkout lines when the holiday rush is on  – a fate worse than death. 20% night at the Avalon Mall? No b'y. I'd rather pay 20% MORE to NOT stand in those lines. 

Tonight, the Torbay Santa Claus parade started 15 minutes late; I rained curses on the jolly old elf and his entire slow-ass posse. It was cold and I had a little boy who kept flicking his mittens off. Time was of the essence; digits were on the line. But I kept my patience, largely due to the friendly reminder I received earlier today...

A reminder to slow down, via an officer of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. Yes mom, it’s true; I got a speeding ticket. And yes, I am about to drop the f-bomb. Fuckin' ghost car! Damn those clever crime-fighters!

Despite my predicament, I was in a good mood, so I went with it. For a moment, I thought I would flutter my eyelashes a little, see if Goody Blue Shoes might be influenced by a fair damsel on her way to volunteer at the orphanage. (Or to get her hair done, whatev.) But naw, that‘s not how I roll. So I decided to just own it. I screwed up, I admit. Now, how about a bit of tomfoolery to lighten the mood? I rolled down my window to greet him and said...

“Nice moustache!”

Okay, no I didn’t. But I thought it. That lip caterpillar was colossal.

What I actually said was, “Gosh darn it, officer, ya got me.”

“License and registration, ma'am?”

I opened the glove compartment with glee. The kind of smile that hurts. “Pink sheet – check. Blue sheet – check. Got it, yay! Here ya go, officer.”

“Do you know how fast you were going, Ms. Murphy?”

“Ommm... one millllllllion?”

“90. In a 60 zone.”

“Wow. My heavy foot disease must be acting up today.”

Awkward laugh.

“Okay wait here, Ms. Murphy.” He turned to walk back to his Decepticon.

“Hurry back!” I say with a genuine Texas-size grin.

He came back with a yellow slip of paper.

“Yellow, my favourite colour. How did you know?”

There was a brief chuckle. And the slightest hint of bacon on the wind.

His parting words, “Slow down, okay?”

“Oh I will. Slowing down is my favourite.”

I’m lucky he didn’t give me the breathalizer. This encounter is not without embellishment, of course. But hey, there’s a moral to this half-true story...


It’s a busy time of year, but let’s not let it cloud our judgment. Let’s not be so caught up with the details that we forget to see the bigger picture. Let’s be beavers! Do a lot. (You know you’re going to anyway; it’s what we women do.) But do it slowly, thoughtfully, and carefully. Not necessarily perfectly. If you have to be full speed ahead to do it all, then maybe you’re doing too much. Silly beaver.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A vroom of ones own.

Thursday is garbage day in our neck of the woods. Around 8am, the big green trash eater pulls up out front. It passes by twice – once to get the trash on the opposite side of the street, and then again on its way back to get ours. When Max hears the slow groan of the truck, he scurries to the couch, climbs it like a koala bear on bennies, pulls open the drapes, and leans his face to the window to witness the glory of the big-wheeled hunk of metal. Sweet garbage-collecting action. A Thursday morning ritual.

I sometimes wonder about the nature versus nurture debate when it comes to gender, intelligence, sexuality, etc. Well, when it comes to gender at least, Max has convinced me – nature is boss. I certainly didn’t teach him to be a dirt-diggin’, train- obsessed boy; he was simply born that way. Predetermined machismo. One of his first words was vroom. Onomatopoeia – well done, Maximus Manliness. He was just seven or eight months old when he started driving a toy car up the arm of the sofa; a perfect hill. (And my boobs; imperfect speed bumps.) Who taught him that? Not I. Not anyone. He is snakes and snails and puppy dog tails, through and through. Sometimes I expect him to emerge from his bedroom with a frog in his pocket.

I admit – I let him watch too much TV. He likes a variety of shows, but the ones that really get his blood pumping are Bob the Builder, Mighty Machines, Thomas and Friends; you get the idea. Tools, heavy equipment, trains, trucks. How does he even know what these things are? He doesn’t, but he knows what he likes; it’s in his DNA. He has an innate attraction to things that have power, movement, and aggression. The vroom of Roary (the racing car)’s engine, the buzz of Bob’s powertools, the choo-choo of Thomas and his chugging chums. Give ‘er, says Max Murphy, in not so many words.

When he was about ten months old, he could use a hockey stick like nobody’s business. Check out the natural goalie stance. When he makes it big in the NHL one day, they’ll use this pic in his player bio.  NHL. Torbay rec league. Whatev.

Eat your heart out, Patrick Roy!

We take walks to the farm down the road, with an eye out for cows and horses that often graze in pastures sloping to the harbour. We are lucky to live near such breathtaking scenery. But Max has other ideas. On the way there is a big, yellow school bus, parked on a strip of gravel, off duty. With eyes as big as saucers and a twinkle to boot, Max points to it and makes a vroom-like sound in his throat, with a question mark vocalized at the end. “Yeah, that’s a school bus!” I assure him. He sits back in the umbrella stroller, satisfied. Who needs animals when there’s this big, beautiful, yellow creature before us?

I love his rough and tumble ways. But I want to show him that’s it okay to be tender too. When he pulls on Splash’s tail or hugs her a little too hard, I say “be gentle”, and he starts to pet her softly. Though his inborn nature tells him to be strong and fast, I want to nurture him to also be soft and thoughtful. I will start with a Cabbage Patch Doll for Christmas. No joke. Think little boys shouldn’t play with dolls? Fair enough. But by telling your son "dolls are for girls", aren't you also telling him that caring for children is the mother’s job? Not cool. I save this debate for another post. It’ll be called Long Live Paddy Shane! Paddy Shane was the name of my husband’s Cabbage Patch Kid, circa 1983. Laugh if you want, but Paddy Shane could very well be the reason Andrew is just as nurturing as I am, if not more.

The other night, Max was walking around the living room hugging and squeezing a plush dog. A rare sight. Since birth, Max has never taken to anything for comfort. Not a soother, not a stuffed animal, not a blanket. Now, here he was, cuddling this stuffed pup. Wow, I thought; maybe he’s finally developing a softer side.

Five minutes later I found the toy facedown in Splash’s water dish. It was too late for CPR.

Sunday driving.
Playing with dinkies at Nanny's in Badger's Quay.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Where the hawt is.

“So when aw you goin' back ta I'eland?”

“We’re from Canada.” (Dum dum.)

“Oh! I have a cousin in Canada.”

(Let me guess... Toronto?)

“In Toronto.”

“Oh, cool.” (Pity.) “That’s pretty far from our home. We’re from Newfoundland.”

“Oh. Okay...”

Uncomfortable silence, cut short by Kim’s chuckle and my question – “You don’t have a clue where that is, do ya?”

“Not really.”

Fair enough. I mean, I didn’t know much about Boston either. Except it’s the home of Ben Affleck, a famous marathon, Paul Revere and his uber fast horse, the inspiration for the 80s hit television show Cheers, Boston Cream Pie, and tea parties (wink).

Turns out they are a friendly bunch, despite their piss poor grades in world geography. The first person we met was the hotel concierge – a jolly cross between Rodney Dangerfield and Santa Claus. “Where should we go for supper?” we asked him. “My place for a baw-ba-cue,” he replied, followed by a quaking laugh. His name was a slap-in-the-face reminder of the city’s Irish heritage. Seamus Murphy. Perfection. We told him we were from Newfoundland, and although he knew little of it at first, the next time he saw us in the lobby a couple hours later, he proudly rhymed off some googled factoids about our beloved easternmost province. A tip-worthy gesture. The morning we left, his shift hadn’t yet started so we left him an envelope of money at the front desk. On the front we scribbled “Long may your big jib draw!” He’ll figure it out.

Seamus wasn’t the only friendly face in town. We ate at an Italian restaurant, served by the most Italian waiter on earth. Antonio. A 60-ish man with a gut like an overstuffed ravioli, cuddled by a simple white apron. Rolling his r’s and sometimes dropping them in a charming Boston-Italian mishmash, he rocked our worlds with wine and homemade pasta. When I was at least two sheets to the wind with chianti, I decided to try out my Italian accent. “How are your meatballs?” I inquired in my best Italiano. I told him how much I loved the word meatball. He thought this was quite funny, and had a little laughing/coughing episode that shook my cannolis.

Boston. What a lovely little town of only 650,000 people. So big (it’s America’s 20th largest city), yet so small we could walk almost anywhere within 10 minutes flat. So modern, yet so intoxicatingly ancient. The downtown streets are narrow. Sky-high office buildings tower overhead, and yet it feels like a horse-drawn carriage could whizz by at any moment; I hold onto my bonnet. The people are of all shapes and colours, and they look you in the eye. Sometimes the crotch, but mostly the eye. The fat squirrels on Boston Common eat out of your hand, which explains the fatness.

I don’t know much about Boston (two days is hardly immersion), but I like how it feels. It has a unique face, an intriguing story, and an awesome sense of place. Good for you, Beantown. I hereby forgive you for not knowing anything about my awesome place. My home, with a story so deep it makes yours seem like it was written yesterday, and a face so breathtaking it makes yours check itself in the mirror one more time. I’m not trying to pick a fight, of course. You’re wicked good. And I thank you for reminding me how a place can mean so much to a person.

I board the plane at Logan, click my rubyless shoes together and say to myself, There’s no place like home. When I touchdown in St. John’s seven hours later, no amount of fog would keep me from seeing my wide-eyed boy and how very lucky I am.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Poppy.

On the battlefields of World War One, chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble, allowing “popaver rhoeas” – poppies – to thrive. John McCrae’s 1915 poem In Flanders Fields made the poppy a popular symbol of remembrance, honouring soldiers who died in battle.

Lest we forget.

But for me, the poppy means something else. Not so much the flower, but the word. I say it every night as I tuck my Max into bed – “goodnight, Poppy Jim” – with a tender skyward gesture.

Poppy Jim, my dad, was no soldier, but he did fight a war. Cancer is the common enemy of so very many. When will we ever declare victory?

But instead of focusing on the loss, I focus on the legend; keeping it alive. For me, it’s easy; my dad is with me every day – his face, his voice, his humour. But for Max, I must take extra measures.

Max was just nine months old when dad got the final verdict. I still remember when he said to me, “I guess Max won’t know me very well.” A knife straight through my heart, all the way to China.

I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation; surreal is an understatement. But I was stronger than I knew, and I reassured him that I had a gazillion photos (dad loved getting his snap taken) and hours of video footage – of him and Max together! It's true; I had been taping him for months, immortalizing him on a high-def JVC camcorder. Quite possibly the best purchase I ever made. I bought it, not only to record the new little life in our world, but to capture the lives of those who might not be around forever. (Which is every one of us, really.) I didn’t know how things would play out with dad, but I wasn’t taking any chances. If cancer was going to win, I needed to record my unique and wonderful and crazy father as much as humanly possible – to show my Max one day. Roll tape!

I started with the photos right away. At least a couple times a day, I ask, “Where’s Poppy Jim?” And Max points to the big, beautiful photo on the wall of two hopeful and childlike faces staring up at the camera from a pillow on the floor.

I have a little photo album on a table in the living room, right in the midst of Mad Max’s Thoroughfare. Cover to cover photos of Poppy Jim. Sometimes I pick it up and show Max for a few moments. “That’s Poppy Jim!” I say happily. "And that's baby Max in his arms!" I poke Max's chubby belly to help him make the connection between the boy in the picture and the boy in the flesh. Sometimes I catch him flipping through the album himself, his nimble little digits savagely flipping through the pages.  He throws it, stomps on it, bends the photos. I don’t care; I have copies. I just want poppy to be a household name and a familiar face; whatever it takes.

I know I can’t possibly make Max remember him. I mean, what’s your earliest memory? I have a vague recollection of kindergarten class - playing in the sandbox, and making impressions in Play-Doh with the soles of my Strawberry Shortcake sneakers. That’s as far back as I can go. So yeah, I don’t expect miracles here. I’m not trying to inspire in Max a memory of Poppy Jim; I’m trying to create a sense of him.

The books will help. Max has his very own copy of Jim Combden’s Fogo Island Boy. A gift to the future, for a teenage Max. There is also a second book in the works. A collection of the poetry and prose of Jim Combden, including 100 pages of his second, unfinished book chronicling his adventures as a young teacher in rural Newfoundland. The tale is incomplete and unedited, but I trust you will find some magic in his raw words nonetheless.

There are a million stories of dad. Dad the teacher, dad the golfer, dad the lunatic, dad the dad. And we must keep telling them, even if it hurts. Max will be proud of his pop, even if he doesn’t remember. The way I am proud of my father’s father who died at the age of 39 when my dad was just 10 years old. But his short existence is the stuff of legends. Google “Eli Combden” and “polar bear” and you’ll see what I mean. He was my grandfather, and though I’ve never seen his face, I am proud.

All this remembrance of Poppy Jim doesn’t come close to the actual experience of him, but it’s something. Max will know his poppy’s face. He will hear stories about his awesomely crazy character. He will have a sense of the legacy he left us. And there will be a place in his heart for the poppy he once met and cuddled and played with, but can’t possibly remember.

On this day, I leave you with a poem penned by the one and only Jim Combden.

November 11th
Although the years have washed away

the blood upon the hills;

Although the birds in chorus sing,

where once the whine of shells;

Although the maples peacefully

replace the mighty guns,

and grassy carpet now contrasts

the blood of mothers' sons;

Although the cannons cease to bark,

and cries of war have died,

I still shall place a poppy on

my chest and wear with pride.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Remember baby walkers? The ancestor of the exersaucer, with wheels on the bottom? I don’t remember them, but I have photos of my miniature self in one, rolling around the house at breakneck speeds with a cookie in one hand and a death wish in the other. These devices have led to many injuries, and yet they were a household staple for nearly a hundred years.

Check out this happy baby from 1905 (courtesy of Wikipedia). It was all fun and games until someone lost a... leg?

In 2004, Canada had finally seen enough smashed up babies and became the first country to ban the sale, importation and advertisement of baby walkers. (It was either that or ban stairs, and that was a little ridiculous.) Even selling second-hand baby walkers at yard sales and flea markets is illegal. Take note: If you’re harbouring a baby walker in your home, you could be fined up to $100,000 or sentenced to up to six months in jail. You’d scarcely get a harsher punishment for making toddler pie. But hey, there’s no price on our kids’ safety.

Even without those munchkin mutilators, it’s still a dangerous world out there. And by out there I mean in here – in our house. It’s just a bungalow with a couch, a TV, a fridge – the usual stuff. But a toddler can find trouble in a room full of cotton and rainbows. Especially when he’s half chimpanzee. In Max’s mere 1.5 years of life, he has fallen down the stairs. He has fallen face-first out of his highchair – twice. He has busted his lip at least a half dozen times. Once, he even bit his tongue so bad, I thought he had bit it clean off and swallowed it.

I still remember the horror of that morning. I was in bed (my turn to catch a few extra Zs) when I was awakened by Max’s screams. As Andrew reached my bedroom door with the wailing boy in his arms, I was mortified by the sheer amount of blood; his sleepers were saturated! It was like baby Hannibal Lecter had just eaten his first liver. He had in fact fallen down and chomped a huge gash in his tongue; one of the pitfalls of having 14 teeth at just 10 months of age. Amazingly, his tongue healed in a day or two. It is one of the fastest healing organs in the human body. Who knew?

Max has not swung from the chandeliers or rafters, but only because we don’t have chandeliers or rafters. He works with what he’s got, like cupboards and drawers...

Once, when I was washing the dishes, he was playing near my leg, pulling dishrags from the drawer. I noticed a sudden silence – a sure sign of trouble, right mothers? – and I looked down to see Max standing there, peering up at me with wonder, with a giant meat cleaver in his hand. Holy shit, it’s Chucky! I calmly removed the king of the knife rack from his hand and breathed a sigh of relief. So that’s where I put that sucker.

All this, and not a single trip to the emergency room.

Safety. It’s a tricky thing. Obviously, I try to be cautious, but I don’t want to be one of those mothers (or grandmothers!) who follows the kid’s every move, gasping every time he stumbles. I use common sense, but I don’t overdo it. If we said NO to everything, we’d be uttering one, long, drawn-out NOOOOOOOOOO the entire day, every day. The way I see it, a scattered bump, bruise or pinch is a good thing. A lesson in cause and effect. Action and Consequence 101.

But hey, we don’t tempt fate. The meds and chemicals are safely stored away up high. We pay attention to product recalls. We don’t leave him unattended in the bathtub. (If we can’t give him our full attention, we just don’t bathe him. Dirt makes ya grow.) We cut up his food so he doesn’t choke. If the wire is frayed, we stop him from chewing on it. (Kidding, of course.) We don’t let him run with scissors, or let him have scissors for that matter. And we don’t keep the sharp knives under the dishrags (anymore).