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).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A work(ing mother) in progress.

To work or not to work? That is the question... for those mothers who have the choice.

These days, it’s difficult for the average family to survive on a single income. As much as I want to believe all you need is love, my empty fridge suggests otherwise. I can’t help but add a few things to the list of necessities – clothes, shelter, food, and a reservoir of homogenized milk.

Should mothers go back to work or stay home and raise their children? Who the hell knows. I know some women who think putting children in daycare is next to abandonment. I do see the absurdity of bringing a child into the world and then handing him or her over to someone else to raise 8-12 hours a day. I also know women who have returned to work after a second or even third child, even though the cost of child care devours their entire paycheck. A reasonable price for sanity, I guess?

Both choices are difficult. Both entail some sort of sacrifice. And both options have their benefits and their bummers. My year of maternity leave opened my sleep-deprived eyes to the fact that full-time motherhood is insanely consuming. When I returned to work, I would regularly proclaim my admiration for mothers who stay home and raise their kids, day in and day out. “You have the tough job,” I’d declare, meaning well. But one day, my friend Kelly put me in my place with one short reply. A mother of three boys including five-year-old twins, she simply said, “It might be hard for you, but it’s not for me.” Holy crap. She was so right. Who am I to pity her? She loves her job and wouldn’t have it any other way. Maybe it’s my shortcomings that make the job tough to me. I no longer say anyone has a tougher job than anyone else. It’s all relative. Every child is different, and no woman is created equal.

I need my paycheck. But even if I didn’t, I’m not sure I’d choose any differently. Maybe I’d work on my own terms. Write a book, or breed puppies, or knit tea cozies (right after I learn how to knit, and figure out what a tea cozy is.) Or maybe I’d miss the high-energy collaboration and water cooler comradery of the working world. Maybe I would be doing exactly what I’m doing now, by choice.

Truth is, I love my job. It’s often fast-paced and high-pressure, but I prefer chaos over boredom. My job is creative, which just so happens to be the kind of soul I was born with, as corny as that sounds. It’s simple logic, really. My job makes me a happier, more complete person, and that makes me a better mother. If I am happy, I teach Max happiness, and I can’t think of a better lesson. Sure, I’m away from him a lot, but at least when I am with him, he gets the best of me.

I respect all mothers for their choice to work or stay at home, but I think it’s important for each of us to be more than a mother. We are individuals, with needs and talents and interests and opinions. Or at least we were before we got impregnated! So for God sake start talking about something besides how cute your kid’s poop face is. Actually, the poop face is pretty cute, so keep talking about that. But most of the other stuff – change it up, sister. Seriously. The stench of the diaper pail has penetrated your brain.

Without a shadow of a doubt, being “Max’s mom” is my number one role in life. But that doesn’t have to define me wholly, no matter what guilt society would have me feel. I am a mom, but I am also a wife, a friend, a teammate, a writer, a unique and complex person who can give so much more than Cheerios to my wide-eyed wonder boy. 

Ironically, he’s the one who makes it possible for me to work in the first place. Every writer needs a muse.