California Girls

When I was seventeen, my sisters Linda, Susan and I traveled to California for the month of August. The furthest we’d been from home was Jasper, Alberta, since our usual family vacation meant going away to the farm. I know. That sounds like a euphemism for being killed. But we truly loved the farm.

Once we’d conned my aunt and uncle into inviting us to stay, we began our journey. A long car trip took us to Saskatoon where we caught the train. We were supposed to ride it all the way to Vancouver, but there was a fire in our dining car. CN flew us to Vancouver, then put us up in a sleeper car for the night. Except for the earache I had on the plane and the six hour wait in Edmonton, it was all an adventure. Then the real excitement began.

We hopped a greyhound bus for the long journey down to San Jose, California, where my uncle Marvin would meet us. We almost got sent back at the border because Susan and I were underage. Fortunately, my sister Linda had a letter from my mother with parental consent plus advice about not talking to strangers. Oh, the irony. There wasn’t a hobo, sleazebag or potential serial killer that we didn’t chat up over the next few days.

We didn’t sit together, not that I can remember. And the places where we had to switch buses were always interesting. Teenage girls can always find someone to entertain them. Nowadays, parents would have nervous breakdowns worrying about three girls on their own. My parents probably thought, ‘Three down, four to go.’ Just kidding.

When we got to San Jose, my uncle was waiting for us in a pink Cadillac convertible. Our sense of sophistication ratcheted upward, though we probably looked like young hookers driving off with a pimp. But the car top was down, our hair was blowing in the wind, and Linda got to sit in front, like always.

They lived in a distant suburb of San Jose, and man, was it classy. My uncle was a doctor and they had a beautiful house with an Olympic sized pool. That was nothing. We soon met rich folks who had indoor AND outdoor pools. At the time, Flin Flon had nothing like it. We had to take our swimming lessons at Phantom Lake or Denare Beach. The cute life guards partially made up for it, but this! We were in heaven.

Yes, there was some culture shock. Yogurt hadn’t reached Flin Flon yet. We were still eating basic meat and potato meals with regular vegetables like carrots, and breakfast cereal like corn flakes. People in these neighborhoods had pet goats so they could make their own yogurt. This makes it sound like a farm community, but it wasn’t. Everyone had acreages and did whatever they wanted. Hippies were still in fashion. These were wealthy, pretentious hippies, except for my fabulous aunt and uncle who were part of the dressy cocktail crowd.Think Mad Men, the later years.

Picture three teenage girls from Flin Flon, Manitoba, visiting California for the first time. My oldest sister, Linda, was a beautiful nineteen year old. Long blond hair, long soon to be tanned legs. Susan and I were just inching our way out of the dorky stage, which wasn’t helped by our behavior. My aunt and uncle had invited their friend’s teenagers over for us to meet, but we were too busy shooting each other off the diving board in a serious game of cops and robbers. Susan also complicated things by using what can only be described as a Eurotrash accent for the whole vacation. It was so annoying, and Linda and I were constantly telling new people that she was faking.

My aunt was thirty-six at the time and drop dead gorgeous. She was the first person to tell me that name calling my sisters wasn’t nice. My parents had done their best, but I’m sure having seven children left them wishing we were using weapons instead of words. Just kidding. Anyway, thank you, Auntie Joanie, for your kindness. She and Marvin took us to fabulous restaurants, she let us wear her clothes and wigs, and took us shopping. The beach was amazing, and I got to see my first anorexic person. Coming from such a large family, none of us could imagine a person voluntarily giving up food.

From the visiting teenagers, I learned that we had terrible wardrobes. That the children’s section at Flin Flon’s Robinson’s store wasn’t cool. (Susan and I were small for our age.) By the time we left, we had a growing suspicion of just how out of it we were. Many people I attended high school with could have filled me in, but I’m not sure I was ready to hear it, then. Though Debbie St. Goddard did take me aside in the Hapnot school washroom and tell me to try wearing my glasses under my sideburns instead of over. “You have a nice face,’ she said kindly. ‘Now, doesn’t this look better?’ Honestly, where did she learn this stuff? I’m still puzzled about it.

One afternoon during our California vacation, I met a thirteen year old who looked like an eighteen year old Ann Margaret. Her makeup and hair were immaculate. Seventeen!’ she kept saying to me. ‘You can’t be!’ “This is how a seventeen year old looks where I come from,” I lied. Later, I got introduced to my uncle’s liquor cabinet and got drunk for the first time and broke a glass in the shower. Why, I’m not certain. My sisters covered up for me, and I’m only able to tell this story because my mother is dead. Susan and I drove our sister Linda crazy. She might have looked the part of the sophisticated teenager, but her idea of risky behavior meant staying up all night to finish her book. Our immature shenanigans did not interest her at all. We couldn’t even tempt her into a game of cops and robbers.

For the trip back to Vancouver, my uncle decided to fly us in his small plane. We had one too many people, so Linda flew commercial. When we arrived at my aunt’s friend’s house, I couldn’t get over how other people lived. It was such a beautiful place, and the mom stayed home with the kids and had her own sitting room that her children couldn’t enter without knocking first. I hoped my mother wouldn’t find out how the other half lived, because we simply didn’t have the space for that kind of entitlement.

While in Vancouver, we went to the horse races and sat in the la di da section. (Not sure of the official name.) We all had to dress up, and my uncle bought us champagne. I even got to bet on a horse, but I didn’t win. Apparently you’re supposed to study the racing book to help figure out your odds.

While there, we met more teenagers with beautiful houses who simply ignored us. By this point, I didn’t blame them. ‘I know,’ I wanted to say. ‘We’re working on it.’ One night the three of us went down to the P&E fairgrounds. We had a blast and flirted with three teenage carnies who had the audacity to show up at our place the next morning with little stuffed animals for us to take home. Susan and Linda were gracious, but I stayed up in my room, horrified. After all, I had a boyfriend at home who wouldn’t leave for university for a couple of weeks. That demands a certain standard of behavior, right?

Returning home must have been dull compared to weeks of sun, fun and new experiences. I promptly bought a Beach Boy’s album and fake remembered my life as a surfer girl, or possibly someone whose name was Wendy. I’d brought home a new pair of crushed strawberry velvet hipster jeans, a fabulous sweater that I shrank in the wash the following week, a very cool hat that Susan and I shared, and a black unitard that we all fought over for the next few years.

I also remember:

Watching cable TV for the first time.
The almost instant change from day to night compared to the long twilight of the north.
The movie, Love Story, on the largest screen I’ve seen yet, and the copious tears that followed.
Floating around the pool on large Styrofoam chairs with drink holders. (Explains burglarizing the liquor cabinet.)

My auntie Joanie is still alive, and Jennifer has brought her back to Winnipeg with her. When I see her, I’m going to give her the biggest hug and thank her for putting up with us. She was a saint, but a very fun one. In honour of our trip and all of our memories, here’s a video of the Beach Boys. My aunt looked just like the girl in the polka dot bikini, but blonde.

The Vasectomy Song

After our third baby was born, my husband made the nerve wracking decision to have a vasectomy. Having been through childbirth three times, I had to hide my lip curl at his anxiety. ‘Try passing a bowling ball,’ I wanted to say. Okay, did say.

His only request was that I accompany him for the procedure. The doctor agreed, but said if I felt light headed, I should leave the room. Seriously, I thought. I’ve been to the pain Olympics, my friend. This is a day at the fair.

When we got to the hospital, I was handed a gown much like the one my husband was wearing. Only difference, he was lying on a table looking extremely vulnerable. Awww, I thought. Poor guy. He looks apprehensive. I really did feel bad, having morphed from wife mode into mommy mode.

His doctor was a good one, but without the city experience of a thousand previous customers. My Winnipeg brother in law bragged that when he had his vasectomy, it was done in fifteen minutes at his doctor’s office, and he obligingly held the family jewels himself.

As per my job description, I stood by Clarence’s side and held his hand. The doctor injected some freezing and then we stood around like we were waiting for drinks. When the doctor finally got started, it wasn’t long before I realized that the freezing hadn’t completely taken hold. I think it was the way Clarence’s eyes rolled back in his head whenever there was a tug on the merchandise.

With my husband, no occasion can proceed normally so, before long, he began loudly whistling television theme songs. Judy Betteridge, the nurse, gave him a startled look. I thought to myself, let the crazy games begin. Clarence wanted us to play, ‘Guess the Correct Show.’

“Quick, which one is it?” he gasped. Fortunately, I knew his full repertoire. “Ghost Squad, 1963,” I said hurriedly, in case our nurse beat me. He moved rapidly from song to song while Judy and I began shouting out wild guesses. “Gunsmoke! Bonanza! Gilligan’s Island! Surfside Six! The Barney Miller Show! And so on. Mostly older themes.

Meanwhile, unaware they’d booked appointments on the same day, one of his many brothers-in-law was nervously waiting outside the room for his own vasectomy. ‘Who’s the nut whistling in there?” he asked. “That’s your brother in law, Clarence,” they said. “Ah,” he replied, needing no other explanation.

While all of this was going on, I was indeed growing a little queasy. The doctor had pulled something like a telephone cord out of Clarence’s private parts, saying, “What do you think? Cut about this much?” He held his fingers a half inch apart. “I have no idea,” I said, gripping the table and ready to faint. My gown was lightly spattered with blood and I truly wanted to leave the room. Don’t get me wrong…this was still a walk in the park compared to childbirth. But I wasn’t prepared for the reality of it.

In the end, it turned out that the theme songs benefited me as much as him. We laughed, we held hands, and when it was all done, he was fine. At home, we applied the glove of love (rubber glove filled with crushed ice gently resting on the affected area) and watched television, possibly gearing up for the next theme song occasion. Our neighbor, Rick Hall, made up a song about the whole experience and recorded it for us. I can’t find my copy, but it’s nice that the occasion was marked in such a special way. I hope Rick still has a copy, but since I can’t paste his tune here, I’ll add the one that Clarence whistled first. If, dear reader, you’re a guy with your own vasectomy memories, please feel free to join in.

Welcome Home

When I think back to moments in my childhood, I always remember three things: playing in the bush, walking out to Phantom Lake, and buying penny candy at Johnny’s. These were my favorite summer activities. Winter was a long slog to the gray penitentiary we called Birchview School, broken up by weekends of learning to ski at the club, skating at the Birchview bunkhouse, and driving our parents crazy with our shenanigans inside the house.

Summer was a whole other country. At times, the shock of freedom was almost too much for me. In those days, parents really knew how to take their eye off the ball. If you were quiet and sneaky (which I could manage with my eyes closed) you could have your Freshie made, a sandwich slapped together and be on your way to the bush in about ten minutes. I was never alone in these enterprises, because I had a lot of siblings.

Being in the bush involved a number of games: playing tag at the sandpit, building fake tree forts, (because we were never any good at the real thing) and playing house on any available rock or sheltered area with a mossy floor. We also liked to spy on people, having read many Enid Blyton and Trixie Belden books. This is equally true for kids who lived uptown, or so I’ve been told.

Finding pop bottles and turning them in at Johnny’s Confectionery was a summer ritual in Birchview. I’m not sure how we got so lucky because as far as we knew, only rich people and teenage boys could afford to consume such exotic, expensive drinks as coca cola and orange crush. Johnny’s, to my young mind, was the best store in town, and every night I dreamed that somehow I would get locked inside and eat candy until I died of happiness.

I’m not going to say much about Phantom Lake, because I’ve written about it before. But for readers who have never been to Flin Flon, picture heaven for a kid and you’ve got it about right. That crazy merry go round that sat high off the ground, the barrel you could run on, the giant game of checkers you had to wait in line for. Then there were the docks. Swimming from first to second was a rite of passage. Hanging out with the lifeguards when we got to the lake early was a perk, too. I defy any Gidget movie to have better looking guys than the ones saving our lives at Phantom Lake.

Hanging out at Rotary Park meant spending some time at Ross Lake Cemetery. We spent hours wandering around the graves and making up stories about the people resting there. My parents are there now. I know they’d love to have a bunch of kids sitting next to them and making up some whoppers.

For those of you coming to Flin Flon and area to celebrate home coming, don’t forget to bring the kid in you along for the ride. Some things may have changed, but no one can take away the magic of your northern childhood. That goes for my own kids, too. So, welcome home, all. We’re so happy to see you. Let’s have some fun this weekend, and if you’re headed to the Whitney Forum on Friday or Saturday night, you might hear something like this. Here’s the karaoke version of a Canadian classic by Trooper. Practice up and we’ll see you soon.

Zen, and the Art of Bathroom Maintenance

Things change as a person grows older. As time for leisure increases, so does one’s ability to make scientific observations while seated in the bathroom. For instance. One can always measure the passing of time by the rate of  toilet paper use. And at our house, the roll is almost always empty.

I’m married to a man whose small family was very generous with their toilet paper. I have six siblings, so my parents allowed about four sheets per bathroom experience. Now that I’m older and richer, I still can’t break that parsimonious habit.

My husband acts like the stuff grows on trees. No, honey, it was a tree. He uses a half roll every time, like he’s cleaning up battery acid. It’s the little things, folks, than creates strained moments between married people.

With all our concern over international politics and that bizarre behavior to the South of us, it’s this bathroom pettiness that preoccupies me. Let’s be honest. The bathroom has become, for many, a kind of mini-sanctuary. ‘No, honey,’ I shout gleefully from my perch, ‘I can’t answer the phone! I’m in the bathroom! No, I don’t know where your reading glasses are!’ (Lie…I’m wearing them.) So when my sanctuary is disturbed by minor irritations, it kind of ruins the whole, serene, fung shui-ness of it. I’m not sure if my husband notices the empty roll and waits for me to fill it, or if it magically un-spools before I enter the room. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really happen?

Then, there’s the other bathroom irritant: magazine postcards. You know those little rectangles of paper that fall from every magazine you open? They have the address of the publisher on them, and say things like, ‘Mail in to subscribe!’ You hold it in your hand and mutter to yourself, ‘But… I’m already a subscriber.’ Oh, foolish bathroom magazine reader. They don’t care.

What if you’re reading for free at the library? Well, they want you to mail the thing in and get your own subscription. Which you won’t do, because you want to read for free. To paraphrase either Confucius or Eleanor Rosevelt, ‘It is better to light these cards on fire than to sit and curse the darkness.’

Worse still are the magazines that staple those suckers into the spine. They’re made of heavy paper and when you try to tear them out, the magazine cover slides off. These petty annoyances take their toll. I picture them as a tiny creature with a hammer and a very small chisel. Every time I see the empty toilet paper roll, or the bathroom floor littered with magazine postcards, the creature taps the chisel against my flesh and bone and, as the song lyric suggests, ‘Takes another little piece of my heart.’

This is why a person should meditate and do yoga. While the toilet paper and magazine card stuff still happens, it’s put firmly into place by the relaxed zen-like attitude of the practitioner. I, on the other hand, want to start a campaign over it. Or form a resistance group. Whichever one allows the most shouting. It will be a paperless movement. Email only, unless we all decide to drive to Ottawa and present our concerns.

To the Walrus magazine, and Macleans, to Oprah, Writer’s Digest and the United Church Observer, here is your first notice. Don’t make me come down there and start throwing things. As you know, I have the time to do it and my fuse is shortening. And thanks to you all, I have the makings of a really good bonfire.

The To Do List

In my favorite Ann Tyler novel, ‘The Accidental Tourist,’ travel writer Macon Leary decides to save time and energy by eating popcorn at every meal and washing his clothes while he showers. This decision was motivated by depression, but I couldn’t help admiring his minimalist lifestyle.

My brain is so filled with Things That Need Doing, I feel like a wimpy Atlas trying to hold up the world. The list swirls around me in the morning, and slaps me on the back of the head in the evening. ‘Thanks for nothing,’ it grumbles as I pass by. Life would be so much easier if inanimate objects would hold their tongues.

When, oh when will I finally touch up the paint on the kitchen cabinets, weed the garden, work on my novel, wash clothes, dust (so hard to do without a gun to my head) vacuum, change the sheets in the spare bedrooms, get the car washed, go to zumba, make meals, binge on Netflix when I should be writing, attend choir practice and massage the kale before making a salad (this one is from my friend, Lois. I never knew how I was neglecting this vegetable.)

I have no children living at home but I feel busy anyway. And I’m terrible at multitasking. I can’t help comparing my life to that of a cave dweller ten thousand years ago. Here’s what her list would say.

Survive childbirth
Find berries
Pray mate lives through mammoth hunt so no need to flirt with caveman UGH, who can’t be bothered to run a twig through his teeth
Pick bone out of supper dish to wear in hair
Weave basket and fill with berries

Doesn’t that sound relaxing? Like a camping trip that never ends. For sister, Jennifer, this would be torture. To me, it’s ideal. Other benefits of living like a cave woman:

No make-up application, just slap on some bear fat if the hunt was good.
Tie hair in a knot. Add bone. Repeat in six months.
Nurse naked baby. Let naked baby play on cave floor. Give naked baby large bone for chewing.
Light fire to keep animals away.


I love camping. But making the pots from animal hide and scavenging for food may prove too challenging. Especially when I accidentally let the fire go out and have to embrace the raw foods movement. The upside is, I wouldn’t have a list that nags me. No pens, no paper, no computers. No email, or Facebook, or twitter. No books to read or television to watch. No shaving for men or, happily, for women. No saving for retirement, just a gifting of the woven baskets and pots after I reach the creaking old age of thirty.

Instead of whining on my blog, I would regale my fellow cave dwellers with tales of the day’s difficulties. The basket didn’t turn out, there were no berries, we might all starve. On second thought, maybe I’ll embrace my life as a modern woman and let my To Do List bend my ear for a few more minutes. After all, I took the time to write this blog post. I can certainly combine some dusting with Netflix binging. Do some laundry between shows. As it turns out, as long as there’s some entertainment involved, I can multitask after all.

The Gardening Games

The cold rainy spring is finally over. Gardeners around town are emerging from their homes like new kittens blinking into the sunlight. Dearest hubby takes a step outside, but I sweep him away with my arm. ‘I volunteer!’ I gasp. ‘I volunteer as tribute!’ Somewhere in the crowd of neighbors, someone whistles a four note mocking jay salute. As one, we open our gardening shed doors and brace ourselves. The hunger…I mean, the summer games have begun.

I fetch the wheelbarrow and my bag of necessities: String for marking off the rows, shears for trimming hedges, various digging appliances, an old spoon. Like Katniss Everdeen with her arrows, I lay them carefully on the wrought iron table near the leaning arch of Clarence. Packets of seeds wait patiently inside the house. But I’m not ready for them yet.

Dressed in my Gomer Pyle hat and mom jeans, I turn over the soil in the garden, fill pots for the deck and finish cleaning the perennial beds. After five trips around town to pick up plants (Too many! It’s an addiction!) I’m back at the Pettersen farm. We have a plan for outside that is more ambitious than mere survival. Clarence is the bigger visionary (More fruit trees! Another statue for the back garden!) but I manage to rein him in on the pricier items. We must pace ourselves for the long game.

While we whip the garden and yard into shape, the house languishes. These are not the days for inviting guests over. The bed goes unmade, clothes unwashed. We simply remove our gardening clothes at the end of the day and don them again in the morning. We are our own mosquito repellent. Meals must still be made, but for lunch we eat things like kippers and onions, peanut butter and strange looking wheat free crackers.

The craziest thing about the game of gardening is the expense. Like gamblers with no self control, we can’t resist buying the BIG tomato plant with a tomato already on it so we know it’s a winner. There’s nothing worse than putting heart and soul into gardening, only to be let down come the fall.

Working out in the sunshine, barking at each other over hedges and bags of mulch, we have a pretty good time. ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere,’ is a very rewarding aspect of gardening. Sweaty, covered in bites, with drinks clutched in soiled hands, we survey our front and back yard. It’s our Tara, our reward for enduring eight months of winter. And as God is our witness, we’ll never be hungry in the month of September. (Okay. I know that’s from Gone with the Wind and not the Hunger Games, but I couldn’t resist.)

So, here’s to you, neighbors and fellow gardeners. For all of you brave Katniss Everdeen tributes who have volunteered for the game, here’s to your trowels and shovels, your sore backs and dirt speckled faces. I kiss the three middle fingers of my grimy left hand and hold them out to you as a salute to your tenacity. May your crops be abundant, may your bug bites diminish in size. And may the odds be ever in your favor.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Mom Jeans

My sisters and I used to wear each other’s clothing when we were teenagers. Occasionally, my brother was included. He was ten before he realized that tights weren’t the same as long underwear. The tradition of passing on clothes has continued, though unfortunately, Bill cannot be duped anymore.

My sisters and I, like every woman, have shrunk or grown over time, so the habit of passing along clothing has continued. My oldest sister has lost a bit of weight, whereas I have gone in the opposite direction. Lately, my clothes have taken to mocking me. ‘Really,’ they say derisively. ‘You’re going to force me over those hips again?’ My jeans in particular are very expressive. Sometimes they cat call from the closet, which is why I always sleep with the door shut.

I recently gave Linda four pairs of pants which no longer fit me. They were never nice to me, anyway, being the most scornful pieces of clothing ever worn. In turn, she gifted me with a pair of mom jeans. She’d gotten them from a friend, but they never fit so she passed them on. I haven’t worn anything like them since the nineties, when I dressed badly on a fairly consistent basis. I tried the mom jeans on just for a laugh.

When I looked in the mirror I saw my nineteen nineties silhouette. Like fly fishing waders, the bum joined the thighs in a continuous line. And yet there was a kindness to them. They practically purred as I buttoned them. The waist sat high, the relaxed fit gave them the feel of stiff pajamas. ‘You look marvelous,’ I heard them say. Having a kind, well mannered pair of pants went a long way toward soothing my self esteem.

The longer I wear them, the more I like them. It’s unlikely they’ll be seen outside the house unless I’m gardening or the apocalypse has struck and I haven’t had time to change. But its nice to have clothes that fit in a relaxed manner. ‘No pressure here,’ they say. And they mean it.

The next time you’re in a second hand store, find some khakis or jeans with the ‘mom’ look. Locate your size, then go one larger. Wear them at home for personal events like eating an extra big lunch, or working in the garden where you do a lot of squatting. You’ll love the feel and the complimentary nature of mom jeans.

Not everyone has conversations with their clothes, but as someone who does, let me say this. If your shirts or pants are too tight, you can be sure they’re making fun of you. Get the last laugh by throwing those bitches in a giveaway bag. Just don’t trade insults with them as you’re walking into the store. Not everyone understands the cruelty of a pair of Simon Chang yoga jeans. You can rest assured that I do.