Eulogy for a Love Story

headscarf.JPGMy husband has been the subject of many of my blog posts. I’ve celebrated his kookiness, made fun of his wardrobe choices and planned on writing many more over our years togethr. But he died on March 28th of this year, and at his funeral, I left the eulogy to our kids. Now its my turn. So here goes.

We shared a home town, but I didn’t meet Clarence properly until university. On my fifth day there, I saw him standing in the doorway of our residential dining hall with his friends. He wore a red plaid shirt, faded jeans and a curly, brown, clown shaped Afro. There was something about his face that I instantly loved. He’d gone to the same high school as me, but I’d never been interested in the slimmer, hockey player version of him. I wanted the guy with the added freshman fifteen. The one ready for anything and definitely different from everyone else.

‘I’m going out with him,’ I told a friend. ‘What if he’s not interested?’ she replied. ‘Too bad,’ I said. ‘It’s going to happen.’ And so the plotting began. He was completely oblivious to the way I arranged to sit next to him when a bunch of us went to the pub. I was relentless in my pursuit, and the only mistake I made was in conversation when I told him he was a little weird. (Which his friends would totally validate.) I meant it as a compliment because I like people with a little something extra in their personality. He thought I thought he was gay. For about two weeks, he avoided me. Then, at a Ukrainian themed party, he asked me to dance. When the song was over, I made my bold move by continuing to hang on to his arm. I was like a stalker and a jailer at the same time. Nowadays he might complain to the administration, but he just shrugged and let me stay. We talked all night, and no, that’s not a euphemism for something else. We were pretty inseparable after that point. We’d been dating for two months before I knew his real name was Clarence, because everyone called him Ace. But I had already fallen in love so it didn’t matter.

I’ve never met anyone less self conscious than my husband. Once, we were waiting for the bus with a bunch of other people when suddenly, he dropped to his knees and started reciting his version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. (He was really great at making stuff up.) I was charmed and mortified–not the last time I’d feel that way. His quirky side was really on show whenever we traveled. Clarence had no problem pretending to speak the language wherever we were, and was not above doing the chicken dance when trying to buy meat for his cooking group. In Switzerland, I came out of the bathroom in the world’s largest restaurant to find him up on the stage yodeling. At a gathering in Flin Flon, we decided to try square dancing with Clarence as the caller. He was very persuasive, and when he hollered, ‘Swing your partner round and round, clap your hands and pull your pants down,’ people followed his instructions. It was a very fun party.

I’m a home body, but Clarence was not. He loved traveling, and talked me into trekking up the Himalayas to Base Camp, then hiking the golden triangle in Thailand, and slogging through the West Coast Trail once we’d settled down in Canada. He loved to go walking and in the early days, I pretended to love it too. And then I did, and it became something we did every day.

We’re an even match when it comes to being chatty. At times, we’d get home from a party and accuse each other of not letting other people talk. But there was one party where we were the only people interested in holding a conversation. We tossed the ball back and forth to each other until we began wondering if we’d accidentally stumbled into a Buddhist retreat. Clarence took our failure to liven things up very personally.

Everything between us didn’t jive completely for the first couple of years. We didn’t lived together before we got married, so there were things we had to figure out. I came from a family of seven children, and an open bathroom door policy (with a closed shower curtain if one was bathing) was considered appropriate. He was not used to anyone interrupting him in the bathroom, and acted like I was trying to steal his virtue.

‘What are you doing!’
‘Brushing my teeth?’ I was truly mystified by his attitude. Who knew that peeing was supposed to be a private affair? Not me. But he grew more relaxed over time, and I got better at respecting his privacy.

Everything got sorted during our third year of marriage when we traveled through Asia with a group of strangers who became very dear to us. Far away from family, our own relationship tightened and we realized what we had in each other. I would highly recommend poor living conditions and a certain amount of danger to ramp up the closeness factor. Only for a short time, of course.

On that trip, we learned to love the same books, because there were no kindles or even book stores in most of the countries we visited. Instead, we’d swap with strangers, happy to have something new to read. I grew to love Dick Francis, who wrote British mysteries about jockeys and horse trainers, and Russian author, Mikhail Sholokov, who wrote about depressing Russian things. Before we left for Asia, reading was something we both enjoyed. But when we were overseas, we began the habit of reading each night before bed. It was one of my favorite things about our married life.

When we moved back to Flin Flon, it wasn’t long before we’d built our first house from plans we’d drawn up ourselves. It turned out well, but I still remember the carpenter saying, ‘Did you really want a window in the closet?’ We did not, so an adjustment was made. I still love that first house because it was ours in every way. We moved in to floors bare of carpet or linoleum and a kitchen holding only a toaster oven, hot plate and fridge dating from the forties. The sink sat on a board floating between two sawhorses. As we got paid, we bought flooring and appliances until the house was fully furnished. Although our kitchen chairs were cast offs from the Flin Flon School Division because we were still very thrifty.

It was an adventure, especially when I was painting the trim on the second story. I was afraid of heights, so Clarence tied a rope to my waist and wrapped the other end around a beam. It wouldn’t have done much if I’d fallen, but psychologically it worked very well. Our fathers helped us with the carpentry. When we were done, we bought them both VCR’s. They were $800.00 each, because they had just been invented. At least in Manitoba. After that, we had kids. But that’s a story for another day.

Excuse Me, I’ve Misplaced my Brain

My cell phone had been giving me grief for a while. Since it’s a few years past its free replacement date, I headed to our local MTS shop to pick up a new one. Because there always seems to be a lineup, I packed the necessities. But to my surprise, I was the only one in there. I walked up to the counter, thrilled with the lack of other customers. ‘It’s past time to replace my phone,’ I said. ‘And I have some changes to make to my account.’

‘Let me see it,” said the employee, a friendly guy I’ve dealt with before. I checked my pockets and the handy cloth bag I was carrying. I dug through my jeans and my secret inside-the-ski-jacket zippered compartment. Nothing.

‘I’ve forgotten it,’ I said, trying to look nonchalant.

‘Well, let’s take a look at your account. Do you have some ID?’

I checked my coat and jean bag once more. ‘I can’t seem to find my wallet. But I brought my kindle.’ I held it up like a trophy as we stared at each other, unsure of who should speak next. ‘I was worried about being bored,’ I said, over explaining as usual. ‘I always bring something to read and I just got a new book from Amazon before I came up here.’

‘Uh huh,’ he said. I get this a lot from sales people. A kind of measured look, like I’m taking a test I’ll never pass no matter how hard I try. I can’t crack the code of people who know how to behave in every situation. Anyway, it took a few days for me to get back there with my phone.

Meanwhile, on the same day, in preparation for doing chores around the house, I plugged in my ear buds, picked a playlist on the phone I’d found in the laundry room and started changing the sheets on my bed. I was busy grooving to the cool sounds of Taka Taka when my ears began vibrating with such intensity, I felt like I was sitting on one of those motel beds from the ’70’s. I stopped moving. Everything was fine. I snapped the sheet in the air and spread it out onto the bed. Suddenly, zap! I looked around. What was going on? I backed away from the bed, but nothing more happened. So I started tucking in the sheet. Zap! Zap!

I ripped the ear buds out, feeling like the unwitting participant in a science experiment. Am I being body snatched? I wondered. Being a writer, I’m open to all kinds of possibilities. This idea, though frightening, was also intriguing. I picked up the next sheet, and as my fingers got a shock, reality set in. I was electrocuting my ears with static.

I’d missed some sleep the night before and I’m always a little zombie-like when that happens. Not brain dead, exactly. Just brain displaced. And my default setting for situational analysis is never very logical. I always prefer the more exotic reason for strange problems. Like aliens. Or rogue government agents planting thoughts into my head. It was actually a little disappointing to realize that plain old static electricity was causing the problem. If you’ve experienced this and you’re inclined to believe in a darker and more interesting theory, perhaps with conspiracy elements, please let me know. I really want to believe that my brain is not the problem.

Armchair Athlete Wins Gold!

I have never been an athlete. Or even an ‘athletic supporter.’ I’ll watch the Maple Leaf’s on TV with my hubby, because misery loves company. (Though not this year! We’re so hopeful right now!) Otherwise I feel no affinity for one team over the next. I’ll cheer for the Flin Flon Bombers, but that’s home town pride.

With the Olympics in full swing, Clarence and I have stopped watching other shows. From sunrise to sunset, we’re all about the games. We enjoy every sport, but I can’t help feeling that athletically, figure skating trumps the luge and any kind of skiing beats the bobsled. But my inner critic really shows up when it comes to curling.

I’m having difficulty with choices the skips make. ‘No! Take them out!’ I’ll holler at the TV. Clarence never curled so he isn’t as opinionated. But I’ve just watched Kevin Koe throw a draw with such little weight that it reminded me of myself in grade ten. Come on. Be better than the freshman me, Kevin. Be better!

I used to hold Canada to a very low athletic standard. We were killing it in the music business so who cared about the Olympics? Apparently, we Canadians do. Currently, we’re third in total medals and I can’t help wondering where all these coordinated, hard working people came from. How does one decide to go from snowboarding over the weekend to flipping off a ramp at seventy klicks an hour while performing twists and somersaults, then hurtling straight down while trying to land on one’s feet? Someone with a death wish. Where will it end? With polar bears waiting at the bottom, ready to eat the contestants who land in the wrong spot. It’s getting very ‘Rollerball’ in Korea.

The luge might be my sport. I could do it if someone tied me to the machine with a pillow beneath my head so I wouldn’t have to stress my muscles. I’d definitely scream all the way down. But unless fear is a speed enhancer, a successful arrival time would be purely accidental. And really, isn’t everybody’s? Are there things lugers are doing to provide a better outcome? Mostly it looks like a slippery death run with a low survival rate. If so, there’s probably a praying component in this event. Without the pillow, the whole thing is like one long and difficult sit up. Hopefully, the payoff is rock hard abs and a medal. Not a concussion or a broken leg.

I can’t help noticing that when we’re winning medals, we like to share in the glory. ‘We won gold! We took silver! We got a bronze! When a Canadian team or athlete loses, though, its all on them. ‘Oh, so and so really choked. Too bad for us.’ We had no part in it. Which we never do, of course. But winning draws us in and makes us feel like part of a team. Like the Canadian Tire ad says, We all play for Canada. It’s a nice thought for all the couch potatoes, including me. The fact that the athletes worked so hard to get to Korea should earn our unending support and approval. It doesn’t always work that way.

If I could offer up some alternative events for people like myself, none of them would be athletic. I’ve heard they’re considering video gamers for the next Olympics. The athletes would be fifty pounds overweight, with a steady stream of snacks nearby to keep them nourished during the competition. If that’s a potential sport, I’d like to suggest the art of talking be another category. Not debating, otherwise people would have to be smart. Not lectures, for the same reason. Just talking. It would be a people’s choice award kind of thing. I’d enter myself as a candidate. If we can make it happen, I’m counting on some hometown support. Hopefully all of Flin Flon will get on board, and all will be able to say, ‘Yahoo! We got a gold in the conversation category! And if I don’t win, feel free to let your inner critic rain down. On second thought, we’d better hold local tryouts. It’s only fair.

Even Stranger Things

When people marry, they usually discover new things about their partners. A dislike for returning library books, a penchant for Big Macs. And then there’s the clashing of family cultures. My husband’s clan were kind of superstitious and had certain beliefs about good and bad luck. Salt played a huge part in things. My family believed in God, the devil, and the consequential fallout of making the wrong choice. Luck played no part in anything and to even suggest such a thing put a black mark on your soul.

But according to my mother in law, there was a whole other dimension to consider. For instance, if you spilled salt, you’d better throw some over your shoulder. If you wanted to bind the devil (same guy, different theory) you’d also toss a little salt, left shoulder only. If my mother broke a mirror, it was a tough cleanup. For Clarence’s family, it meant seven years of bad luck. For someone like me with clumsy moments, this became a problem.

I remember talking with Clarence’s Baba, (who believed the earth was flat) and trying to pin down behavior she regarded as careless. Most of these exchanges involved me saying, ‘Really? Really?’ It was the Twilight Zone of conversations. Black cats, ladders, the proper way to walk through a graveyard. There were too many rules for me to possibly remember. And then one night, I crossed the risky behavior line. Since my mother-in-law was not around to help, Clarence had to step in.

We’d just moved into a rental house not far from my mom and dad’s place. Our bedroom had an unusually big window and curtains that barely met in the middle. One night, I was fast asleep when Clarence woke me. He was shaking my shoulder and hissing my name. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Look away from the window!’ I should have just rolled over. Instead, I asked why. ‘The full moon is shining on your face,’ he said.

‘It’s not bothering me,’ I replied, appreciating his thoughtful concern about the light keeping me awake.
‘No! You can’t let the full moon shine on your face!’ said my husband with five years of university and a double major in economics and history. I went back to sleep, because I was young and didn’t have kids and slept well and easily. But the next day, I asked him what the problem was. He wasn’t sure.

But it was something he’d learned, probably from his grandmother, and his knee jerk reaction was to follow it. ‘Will I turn into a werewolf?’ I asked, almost charmed by the idea. Again, he didn’t know. But something bad would happen. I couldn’t get over the craziness of it and bugged him about it daily. For some reason, we never asked his mother. (She might have been getting a teeny bit defensive about some of this stuff.) I’m still not allowed to break this rule, but if you’re up for the challenge, throw open your window coverings during the next full moon and bathe yourself in its light. Then get back to me about it. But if you find yourself covered in hair and howling your way through the bush, a telephone call will suffice. Here’s a song about superstition by a woman my husband had a mad crush on in junior high.

Hi Jinks

Growing up in a house with six other children required a certain amount of hardiness. After a traditional baptism, another followed that was more like an ongoing episode of Fear Factor. It involved loud squalling, bare knuckle fighting, laughing, and general hysteria. Since six of us were less than two years apart, my mother was always in full survival mode. People talk a lot about the common sense of parents in the sixties, but let’s be honest. Families were larger and a few toys couldn’t possibly compete with wild ideas and the lure of general mayhem. Many parents buckled against the pressure and allowed their offspring to run free. Until I was fifteen and Jennifer was born, all of us lived upstairs. It was a tight space for the eight people there at the time. ‘Go outside!’ was a common refrain at our house.

‘Quit climbing the walls!’ was another. My sisters, brother and I would take turns bracing our hands and feet against the sides of the entryway to our living room and see who could hike their way up to the ceiling in the quickest possible time. This was done with a lot of yelling, jeering and possible sabotage, like pulling someone’s legs out from under them. Susan and I were often the instigators, and she remains to this day the most competitive person in the family. If you showed her something you could do, she’d figure out a way to do it faster. The important part was when she got to win.

When we weren’t climbing the walls, Susan and I were busy making up new commercials. We were certain we could do a better job than the ad companies we heard on the radio, or saw on television. My mother encouraged this kind of behavior because it took less yelling and a lot more planning. Another favorite activity was pretending to be movie stars. I’m fairly certain that Linda enjoyed this too. If you needed a glamorous, tight dress look, you would simply insert both feet in one leg of your pajama bottoms, and use the empty leg for twirling. I was Connie Stevens or Donna Douglas from the Beverly Hillbillies. Someone else in the family was Annette Funicello, though I can’t remember who. Possibly Bill. (Just kidding.) Though we did encourage him to take part in our crazy plans. ‘Encourage,’ meaning a fair amount of arm twisting. Literally twisting of the arms. Remember snakebites? That was torture for beginners at our house.

My father was more cunning than my mother when it came to filling up our time. If she was at work, he’d put on one of his Spike Jones records and we’d dance like crazy until we fell down. Seriously, like teenagers popping ecstasy at a rave, we’d exhaust ourselves boogieing to ‘Cocktails for Two.’ He played music the whole time mom was out, especially some of his crazier jazz records by artists like Stan Kenton. Or, to paraphrase my mother, ‘I’ve died and gone to hell, and this is the soundtrack.’

In the early years, we had a wood stove in the basement. Occasionally, we’d thread hot dogs onto sticks or coat hangers, for roasting. Or we’d play with fire, adding interesting things to the stove and waiting to see what would happen. My mother was usually upstairs washing floors, preparing meals and generally working like an indentured servant. She worried we’d burn ourselves or put our arms through the ringer washer that always seemed to be running. It was the dilemma of every mother: ‘They might be in danger. But they’re so quiet right now.’ Her need for some kind of peace and order gave us plenty of opportunities to try out our crazy ideas. In no particular order, here are a few more:

Sliding on cardboard down the basement stairs.
Making a slide with blankets for the younger kids to slip from the top bunk to the bed on the other side of the room. We only dropped the blanket a few times.
Sneaking food from the kitchen. I liked to pretend I was a hungry orphan.
Lighting the candles hidden in a cross on the wall that were meant for special religious occasions. I spent the rest of the week worrying I was going to burn in hell for being sacrilegious.
Playing mass and taking turns squishing bread and shoving it into each other’s mouths. We mumbled fake Latin words and had the parishioners kneel for a really long time. (My children did the same thing, but with different hymns and more Holy Spirit carryings on.)
Flipping through the gigantic family bible that was filled with horrifying images of the torture of saints. We couldn’t get enough of it.

There were times when we played regular games, too, like Monopoly and War, (the card game, though we were always up for the other kind, too.) Clue fascinated all of us because we really wanted to live in a glamorous mansion with murderous people. Chinese Checkers promised a good hour’s worth of arguing, then there was Sorry, and the hipper kinds of games, like Password, also a television show.  We truly loved Password.

The only reason my parents lived as long as they did was because we all loved to read, or have someone read to us. I’m sure mom and dad tiptoed through the house on such days, usually a Saturday when we’d all been to the library. There was also the lure of the great outdoors, though that often involved a command rather than a wish.

I like to think that our wild youth directed our futures. Linda (always seeking refuge) became a librarian, researcher and major source of info and help to breastfeeding moms everywhere. I was an entrepreneur (I can make it better!) and a writer. Susan left home to seek her fortune as a performer and traveled across Canada singing backup for Graham Shaw and his Juno award winning album. (Okay! You win!) Bill became a carpenter, probably for reasons of self defense. (saw, hammer, nails) Cindy’s been a preacher and a fantastic saleswoman, which may be one and the same job. Joni has had too many careers to name, is the best painter and can restore order to any home. (She was the kind of kid who put tape across the bedroom floor so your mess couldn’t wander onto her side.) And Jen grew up singing, simply as a way of being heard above all the noise, and carried it further with a couple of albums and a personality large enough to subdue nations.

Thirty-five years after my mother had her first baby, Jennifer left home and gave my parents the gift of an empty nest. They couldn’t get over the quiet. Then, there were grandchildren. But that’s a story for another day.  For those of you who want to turn your pajamas into a sexy outfit, it’s the dress below, worn by the ever stylish Audrey Hepburn. And for those who need an excuse to cut loose, please enjoy some Spike Jones. Listen past the 30 seconds of slow music, then hang on for the ride.

Image result for Audrey Hepburn in floor length black dress, tight at the ankles

 

The Turkey

Before I had my first child, I’d never cooked a turkey. I didn’t feel grown up enough for the task. To me, that mysterious arrangement of stuffing and those magnificent sides of creamy mashed potatoes and turnip apple casserole could only be produced by a mother. Many years later, I’m on the other side of countless Christmas, Easter and ‘just because’ dinners. For those who’ve not done it, it’s easy, yet time consuming.

I baked a lot this year, so decided to take a short cut when it came to Christmas dinner. Instead of making my own stuffing from scratch, I bought a frozen, stuffed turkey that I could remove from the freezer, unwrap, place in the roaster and cook. Three hours went by, then four, and still no delicious smell wafted from the oven. I kept checking until at last the turkey started to brown. Soon I put the lid on the roaster and cranked up the heat. Four hours later, the leg seemed wiggly enough to pronounce the thing done.

My family mostly stayed in the living room, which is how I like it. No problem, I thought, as I unloaded the huge bird onto a tray and proceeded to make the gravy. The other food went back into the oven to keep warm. It was when I started carving the bird that I realized I had a problem. At first, the meat just seemed moist and lovely. Un-turkey-like, one might say. But gradually, I realized that the darn thing wasn’t fully cooked. And it was past dinner time. After thirty seconds of cartoon-like panic, I started placing the carved meat in glass bowls for microwaving.

I must digress. When we got our new appliances, the microwave was too large for its usual spot. So we put it on a counter with no wall behind it. To operate it one must cradle it firmly, like an uncooperative lover, while attempting to press the door opener, also difficult. The counter was covered in glass bowls filled with meat and dressing. I was working up a sweat trying to beat the microwave into submission and save my family from a gastronomic nightmare.

The revelation came to me while I wrestled with my problem. Three days of -30 weather with the turkey parked on a garage shelf had caused my problem. It was a very large bird. And there was no room at the inn. I mean the freezer. It probably took four hours in the oven just to thaw out.

But at last all was ready, and I’m happy to say that no one got sick. So if you ever consider keeping your turkey in the garage, check the forecast. If you live in Manitoba, you may have a problem. On the other hand, half the turkey was left on the bone, and it made the loveliest broth.

Once Upon A Time, in Flin Flon

When I was at Zumba one night, we were doing this Greek dance that involved lots of finger snapping. The bottom half of me performed just fine, but the top half had to fake it because I’m snap impaired. Always have been. And it made me wonder. Like in fairy tales, was there a good and bad fairy at my christening? If so, it’s obvious which one held the most power. I picture the good fairy standing over me with her wand, ignoring my bewildered parents who begin praying that the priest will show up any minute.

Tapping me lightly on the brow, she says,”I grant Judith average good looks.”

Bad fairy speaks. Her tap is a little harder. “But her teeth will never line up properly. And she’ll be really short and need glasses. And…” At this point, the good fairy steps up. Her voice is high and light.

“Judith will have the ability to make people laugh.”

Bad fairy:

“She will have a lifelong affinity for strange accidents: She’ll fall off the stage at her ballet concert, forget to wear underwear on a windy day in Ashern, embarrass her first boyfriend with her appalling lack of info on human anatomy which she will voice loudly while surrounded by teenagers in a local movie theatre. And so on.” (The bad fairies voice sounds like she’s smoked for five hundred years and eaten way too much dairy.)

Good fairy:

“She will have enough brains to get out of high school and fake her way through university.”

Bad fairy:

“But she will have blonde moments, many of them, even though she hasn’t truly been blonde since her 12th birthday.”

Good fairy: (forgetting to add another blessing.) “Blonde moments? Why, I myself am a gorgeous blonde. What moments are we talking about?”

Bad fairy: ‘Don’t get me started.”

And the bickering continued with nary a mention of further gifts. There was to be no athletic ability or gracefulness. Or even the ability to keep my mouth shut from time to time. It’s not that I talk too much, (insert husband’s opinion here) but that I speak thoughtlessly about pretty much any topic. I get an idea in my head and it catapults out of my mouth before my brain has a chance to rally the troops and lock the gate. One might say the same about these blog posts.

The whole idea of fairies at my christening actually makes me feel better about things. So don’t try and tell me that my forgetfulness comes from my dad, or my inability to sit still is a gift from my mother. Nope. Bad fairy. Good fairy. I’m still waiting for the middle aged fairy to make an appearance because she has a lot to answer for. But that’s a topic for another day.