Who Says You Can Never Go Home Again?

“Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”  Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye

The west veranda at the farm.

The west veranda at the farm.

This is such a simple picture, and yet it brings back a flood of memories for me, even though it was taken on a day when I’m sure I wasn’t even there.  My dad was the only one in his family who made his living by farming.  His siblings were teachers and nurses and professionals, and ended up living in towns and cities.  And all of them – every one – came to visit him and mom here with their families.  If they hadn’t, we would never have known all our aunts and uncles and cousins so well, because running a farm means almost never getting away for trips much longer than a day.  But if the relatives wanted to come and stay?  They were welcomed with open arms.  We had lots of room and the doors were always open.  No offer of help was every refused.  You might end up peeling the potatoes or shelling the peas for your dinner, but you never went away hungry.

The garage is on the far left, then dad, mom, the window to the den, Aunt Lorna, the main door, Aunt Marie, the edge of the big kitchen window, extra lawn chairs, a strange looking wooden whirly decoration that twisted in the breeze, flower beds gone wild.  That little thing hanging on the bricks that resembles a bird house is a box that held a pencil and some notepaper.  On it was written “If at home you do not find us, leave a note that will remind us.”  I once pointed out to my mother that it didn’t make any sense.  If you were away from home, surely you knew that already and didn’t need a reminder of it.  I was just being a mouthy teenager.  But I still think the message is stupid.  And I don’t know why I’ve never forgotten it.

The view to the west was of maple trees bordering the laneway, the bank down to the pond, and fences and fields as far as you could see.    Those numerous round white dots that look like holes are actually real holes in the photograph.  It’s been pinned up to a cork board and shuffled around a lot, stuffed in a box, lost for awhile.  And then it made its way to me.  In this shot it looks like the veranda floor has had some repairs and a new coat of paint.  I remember it being a steely blue grey with loose boards you could lift up and hide things under.  I don’t remember dad ever saying he was tired of nailing them back down.

It’s a summer afternoon, dinner is over, the dishes have been washed and put away, and it’s just too nice to sit inside.  If there are kids around, they’re off climbing trees or throwing sticks for the dog, or gathering firewood for the bonfire in the backyard after the sun goes down.  I can almost hear dads voice, saying something profound in a lazy off-hand manner.  Mom saying “Oh, Hank”, and laughing,  Aunt Lorna’s droll observations (we never knew if she meant to be funny or not) and Aunt Marie’s infectious giggles.

The farm was sold years ago.  We drove by it last October and saw the changes.  The front veranda has been closed in, the barn is being torn down, the gigantic garden has gone to grass.  The house is so old I’m surprised it’s still standing.  It’s just another old building to me now.  It hasn’t been ”home” for a very long time.

And yet in my heart it will always be home whenever I remember all the people who were part of it, and who made it come so alive with laughter and fun.  I’ve had a lot of homes in my life and I carry parts of every one of them with me. The pictures in my head are as vivid as the real ones.  I can visit them anytime I choose, simply by remembering the people I loved who lived there with me, and loved me back.

Memory of a Doctor Visit

Daily Prompt:   What is your earliest memory? Describe it in detail, and tell us why you think that experience was the one to stick with you.

I’m afraid my memories are not arranged in chronological order in my head, so earliest is just a label on a big box full of picture slides.  Snuggled on my dads lap playing with his overall fasteners.  Hiding behind the big green chair in the corner, quiet as a mouse, when company came to visit.  Squealing with delight when I got a little brown Topsy doll and wishing my skin could be as smooth and beautiful as chocolate.  Proudly wearing my pirate patch after getting a chemical fertilizer in my eye.  Sliding down a hill behind my brother on his new toboggan with the wind stinging my cheeks.  Falling off face first into the snow.  Being horrified when our dog ate a cupcake without removing the paper first.  Leaping halfway across the room off our parents bed to avoid being grabbed around the ankles by the monsters who lived beneath it.

The still shots of vivid memories out of context eventually progress to little videos.  Here’s the one from the bottom of the box in the Doctor Visit category.  The memory has stayed with me all this time because of the doctor office hospital smell of antiseptic clean, and because it was one of the first times I remember it being hard for me to drum up a lot of drama with such a no-nonsense mother.

***

My mother is wearing her long mustard yellow coat with the vertical black pinstripes and the gigantic black buttons.  The big wide cuff feels warm and fuzzy on my fingers as she pulls me by the hand up the snowy sidewalk covered in people tracks.  We walk right in through the door without knocking, because this is a house with a secret office where the doctor works.  I like how the bell jangles.  If we had one of those at home I’d be opening and closing the door all the time just to hear it.  We sit together on a hard deacons bench.  I know that’s what it’s called because I asked.   We don’t have one of these at home either but it’s kind of dark and shiny and not very friendly looking, so I don’t like it much.

On the wall across from us there is a big framed black and white photo of a tiny baby tucked under the covers at the very top of a gigantic bed.  It’s little head is almost lost between two puffed up pillows.  I want to know why the baby doesn’t have a crib to sleep in.  Mom tells me it’s just a picture, for goodness sakes.  The “tree” where our coats are hanging is made from the same black shiny wood as the bench, and there’s a black shiny chair here too.  I wonder if all doctors prefer dark ugly shiny things, but I don’t ask because I think the answer will be it’s just a chair, for goodness sakes.

I also want to know why it always smells so strange and funny in here, like everything has just been polished up with rubbing alcohol.  Or antiseptic, or gross mouth wash or the most disgusting tooth paste ever invented.  Mom tells me it’s a hospital kind of clean.  So nobody will get sick with anyone elses germs.  I guess it’s okay for families to share their germs, because our house certainly never smells anything like this.

The doctor pokes his head into the waiting room and greets my mother who stands up and smiles and greets him right back.  He talks to me and I stare at my feet.  He wants to know if I’m all ready for my vaccination.  Of course I’m not.  How could anyone ever be ready for THAT.  It doesn’t matter what I say, I’m going to get it anyway.

The doctor is about the same age as Santa Claus I think.  He has snowy white hair and a big white moustache, but no beard.  He wears a long white coat and he always washes his hands for about ten minutes while we watch him and I think it’s his way of showing off.  It can’t possibly take that long to clean his hands when he was just sitting at his desk doing whatever grown ups do sitting at desks.  Which looks like a whole lot of nothing to me.

Then he’s holding the dreaded needle up in the air, checking to make sure the pointy end is super sharp.  He asks me if I want it in the arm or the butt cheek.  I want to know which one hurts the most.  He says they feel about the same, just a little pin prick (what a big fat liar) but this one might leave a scar.  A scar!  Well of course I want it on my arm then.  I won’t be showing off battle wounds on my bum.

(Photo: George Frey/Getty Images)

(Photo: George Frey/Getty Images)

I watch as he rubs my skin with an alcohol soaked cotton ball.  I hope I won’t smell like a doctors office all day.  I turn my head and look the other way and scrunch up my face for the needle and it stings and I say OW in a whiny little voice but I don’t cry.  Because it’s already done.  And my brother will ask me if I cried and with mom as my witness I will say no I did not.  It was just a little pin prick after all.  And I’m going to have a scar!  He will be so envious and  jealous.  This rarely happens.  I will milk it for all it’s worth while I have the chance.

The doctor says to my mom that my arm might get red and there could be some swelling and if there’s any pain she can give me baby aspirin.  I love baby aspirin.  I look hopefully at my arm, but so far it looks like nothing happened.  I will check on it faithfully all day long, waiting for it to swell up and change color and hurt enough to warrant medication, but my mother just rolls her eyes and says it’s only a needle, for goodness sakes.

Pictures From Moms Kitchen (Part One)

The end of our wedding day, in moms kitchen doorway.

Finding a few favourite pictures taken in moms kitchen has turned into a treasure chest of memories.  We spent a lot of time there whenever we went to visit the farm.  It’s a place we didn’t appreciate enough when we were growing up, and then a place we could hardly wait to return to after we moved away.  It was where our family (which grew) sat down to eat the best meals ever.  It was all about us, until it became all about our kids.

Our baby daughter with my brothers oldest son.

Only at grandmas could you get away with crawling around on top of the kitchen table.
The kitchen wall paper was faux brick for a lot of years.  I think my love of red and orange must have come from my mother’s side of the family.  It was a strange old house – on the other side of this window was the built on “back kitchen” where mom put the old blue cupboards after she got new ones, and all kinds of old tables and cabinets and chairs that were almost worn out.  You never threw anything away until it was completely worn out.  It got shuffled off to the back kitchen where it could sit for years, waiting for that to happen to it.

My daughter, my brother, his boys.

I love the look on my brothers face – he was a man who loved his sons.  I don’t think it was ever a difficult thing for them to love him back.

The back-splash of orange flowers I remember  vividly.  Because it was vivid.  That space between the top of the cupboards and the ceiling was always covered in a hodge podge display of things that weren’t useful but were just too nice to throw away.  Gifts from well-meaning people and antiques belonging to grandma.  There were ceramic roosters on the other side.  I don’t need a picture to remember those.  Sometimes on a visit we’d climb up there for mom and wash and dust everything and check out the names on the bottom of things.  Grandma was great for writing the names of her relatives on adhesive or masking tape and sticking them on things she thought they might like to have after she was gone.  It’s a great system – certainly easier than writing it all down on paper.  Mom carried on that tradition.  My own cupboards go right up to the ceiling with no space on which to put things.  There are some traditions that aren’t that hard to give up.

Little sister, grandma and W, with nephew Andy bottom left: Christmas dinner circa 1974

I can tell it’s Christmas because of the plastic holly and the tree shaped candle.  But every meal at moms was like a Christmas feast.  Small people were supposed to sit on the bench on the far side of the table, but obviously on this day we got a little mixed up. Funny, no matter how many people showed up to eat, there was always room at the table, and  left overs for later.  It was a magical place.

Heroes on a Holiday Monday

Happy Victoria Day Weekend!  I’ve worked the Saturday and the Sunday of it, so it’s hard to get overly excited about a Monday off, although any day off work is worth celebrating.

For the past week or so I’ve been watching the tv show “Heroes” on Netflix.  At first my intention was to view only season four, which I never watched the first time around.  Then I thought it might be a good idea to watch it all from the beginning, so that season four would make sense.  THEN I got completely hooked on watching every single episode, and ‘just one more’ before doing whatever else needed doing and should have been a priority.  Like going to sleep, for example.

Today at last I’m going to get into the fourth season.  Even though my brain is now completely overloaded with villians and heroes and time travel.  And people who die a violent death in one episode and then come back for a do-over in the next.  And change the future and save the world so many times that you begin to wonder why they persist.

I think I’ve discovered the reason why I’m still kind of hopelessly drawn to the whole thing and need to see it out to the bitter end.  It’s because of Mohinder Suresh and his wonderful voice-overs.  The fact that he’s easy to look at doesn’t hurt either.  I tried to keep the list short, but decided that’s impossible.  So here they are.

Where does it come from? This quest, this need to solve life’s mysteries when the simplest of questions can never be answered. Why are we here? What is the soul? Why do we dream? Perhaps we’d be better off not looking at all. Not delving, not yearning. That’s not human nature. Not the human heart. That is not why we are here. Yet still we struggle to make a difference. To change the world. To dream of hope. Never knowing for certain who we’ll meet along the way. Who, among the world of strangers, will hold our hand. Touch our hearts. And share the pain of trying.

We all imagine ourselves the agents of our destiny, capable of determining our own fate. But have we truly any choice in when we rise? Or when we fall? Or does a force larger than ourselves bid us our direction? Is it evolution that takes us by the hand? Does science point our way? Or is it God who intervenes, keeping us safe?

For all his bluster, it is the sad province of man that he cannot choose his triumph. He can only choose how he will stand when the call of destiny comes, hoping he will have the courage to answer.

When a change comes, some species feel the urge to migrate, they call it zugunruhe. “A pull of the soul to a far off place,” following a scent in the wind, a star in the sky. The ancient message comes calling the kindred to take flight and gather together. Only then can they hope to survive the cruel season to come.

Evolution is imperfect and often a violent process. A battle between what exists and what is yet to be born. Amidst these birth pains, morality loses its meaning, the question of good and evil reduced to one simple choice: survive or perish.

You do not choose your destiny, it chooses you. And those that knew you before Fate took you by the hand cannot understand the depth of the changes inside. They cannot fathom how much you stand to lose in failure…that you are the instrument of flawless Design. And all of life may hang in the balance. The hero learns quickly who can comprehend and who merely stands in your way.

The Earth is large. Large enough that you think you can hide from anything. From Fate. From God. If only you found a place far enough away. So you run. To the edge of the Earth. Where all is safe again. Quiet, and warm. The solace of salt air. The peace of danger left behind. The luxury of grief. And maybe, for a moment, you believe you have escaped.

You can run far, you can take your small precautions. But have you really gotten away? Can you ever escape? Or is it the truth that you did not have the strength or cunning to hide from destiny? That the world is not small. you are. And, fate can find you anywhere.

In the beginning there was discovery. A confusion of elements. The first snowfall of impossible change. Old lives undone, left behind. Strange faces, made familiar. New nightmares, to challenge sleep. New friends, to feel safe with. Only then comes control. The need to impose order unto chaos, through determination, through study, through struggle. All in defiance of a thundering truth. They’re here, and the earth shudders underfoot.

When we embrace what lies within, our potential knows no limit. The future is filled with promise. The present, rife with expectation. But when we deny our instinct, and struggle against our deepest urges… Uncertainty begins. Where does this path lead? When will the changes end? Is this transformation a gift… or a curse? And for those that fear what lies ahead… The most important question of all… Can we really change what we are?

To survive in this world, we hold close to us those on whom we depend. We trust in them our hopes, our fears… But what happens when trust is lost? Where do we run, when things we believe in vanish before our eyes? When all seems lost, the future unknowable, our very existence in peril… All we can do is run.

The sun rises on a new dawn. Yet few of us realize the debt we owe to those responsible for this. To those who dwell among us. Anonymous, seemingly ordinary, whom destiny brought together to heal, to save us, from ourselves.

It is man’s ability to remember that sets us apart. We are the only species that is concerned with the past. How memories give us voice. And to bear witness to history so that others might learn. So that they might celebrate our triumphs and be warned by our failures.

There is a moment in every war where everything changes. A moment when the road bends. Alliances and battle lines shift. And the rules of engagement are rewritten. Moments like these can change the nature of the battle, and turn the tide for either side. So we do what we can to understand them. To be ready for change, we steady our hearts, curb our fears, muster our forces, and look for signs in the stars. But these moments, these game changers, remain a mystery. Destiny’s invisible hand, moving pieces on a chessboard. No matter how much we prepare for them – how much we resist the change, anticipate the moment, fight the inevitable outcome – in the end, we are never truly ready when it strikes.

There is good, and there is evil. Right, and wrong. Heroes and villains. And if we are blessed with wisdom, then there are glimpses between the cracks of each where light streams through. We wait in silence for these times, when sense can be made. When meaningless existence comes into focus, and our purpose presents itself. And if we have the strength to be honest,  what we find there, staring back at us, is our own reflection. Bearing witness to the duality of life. And each one of us is capable of both the dark, and the light.. the good and evil, of either, of all. And destiny, while marching ever in our direction can be rerouted by the choices we make. By the love we hold on to, and the promises we keep.

Generations unfold — father to son, mother to daughter. Where one leaves off, the other follows, destined to repeat each other’s mistakes, each other’s triumphs. For how do we see the world if not through their lens? The same fears, the same desires? Do we see them as an example to follow, or as a warning of what to avoid? Choosing to live as they have, simply because it’s what we know, or driven to create one’s own identity? And what happens when we find them to be a disappointment? Can we replace them? Our mothers, our fathers? Or will destiny find a way to drive us back? Back to the familiar comforts of home?

It is our nature to protect our children. For each generation to pass on their cautionary tales to the next. So it is with the myth of Icarus, the legend of a boy who fashioned wings from feathers and wax, daring to fly into the heavens. His father was fearful and warned Icarus to be careful, begging him not to tempt fate by flying too close to the sun. But in the end, the boy couldn’t resist. His waxen wings melted from the sun’s rays. And he plunged to his death.

For every being cursed with self awareness, there remains the unanswerable question, “Who am I?” We struggle to find meaningful connections to one another. We are the caring friend, the loving father, the doting mother, the protected child. We fight and we love in the hope that somehow, together, we can understand our significance in the universe. But in the end, no one can share our burden. Each of us alone, must ask the question, “Who am I? What does it mean to be alive? And in the vast infinity of time, how do I matter?”

There are nearly seven billion people on this planet. Each one unique. Different. What are the chances of that? And why? Is it simply biology, physiology that determines this diversity? A collection of thoughts, memories, experiences that carves out our own special place? Or is it something more than this? Perhaps there’s a master plan that drives the randomness of creation. Something unknowable that dwells in the soul, and presents each one of us with a unique set of challenges that will help us discover who we really are.

We are all connected. Joined together by an invisible thread, infinite in its potential and fragile in its design. Yet while connected, we are also merely individuals. Empty vessels to be filled with infinite possibilities. An assortment of thoughts, beliefs. A collection of disjointed memories and experiences. Can I be me without this? Can you be you? And if this invisible thread that holds us together were to sever, to cease, what then? What would become of billions of lone, disconnected souls? Therein lies the great quest of our lives. To find. To connect. To hold on. For when our hearts are pure, and our thoughts in line, we are all truly one. Capable of repairing our fragile world, and creating a universe of infinite possibilities.

There are many ways to define our fragile existence, many ways to give it meaning. But it is our memories that shapes its purpose and give it context. The private collection of images, fears, loves, regrets… we choose the importance of each. Building our own unique histories, one memory at a time. Hoping the ones we chose to remember don’t betray us or trap us. For it is the cruel irony of life that we are destined to hold the dark with the light, the good with the evil. This is what separates us, what makes us human. And at the end, we must fight to hold on.

HEROES
HEROES (Photo credit: Keng Susumpow)

If you read all of that, wow – good for you.  You must have almost as much time on your hands today as I do!  But all this philosophical meandering is what sets this series apart and makes it worth watching, despite all the blood and violence.  It’s not so much about heroes and villians and black and white, but about the myriad of traits mixed up inside every one of us and the things we ultimately do for whatever misguided reasons.  Who is right and who is wrong?  Who really knows.

An Early Epiphany

The best childhood lessons are the ones we figure out on our own. You know that kid you shake your head at while you roll your eyes and remark that he’s just going to have to learn everything the hard way? Sometimes the strongest people are the ones who start out that way.

It doesn’t really matter for a lot of us how cajoled and threatened and showered with advice we are while we’re growing up. There’s a stubborn streak that questions the rules and the reasons for them, and makes us stomp off in another direction to do whatever we want.

There are always consequences of course. And little ‘ah hah’ moments when we finally get it. Or gleeful moments of triumph when we prove, if only to ourselves, that the rule was stupid and useless in the first place.

My earliest memories revolve around being made to do things that were unpleasant but supposedly GOOD FOR ME. Eat your porridge. Take your vitamins. Wear a hat. Go to bed early. Respect your elders. Be polite. Wash your hands. This time with soap. Please be quiet.

I remember sighing a lot, and dutifully doing whatever I was told. Wondering why the fun things were bad for me, and the irksome disagreeable things were always for my own good. That must have been my four year old mind-set the day I decided to eat dirt.

The texture and the taste is something that has always stuck with me, never mind whatever ‘lesson’ I had dreamed up for myself at that particular moment. I do recall anticipating that the experience would no doubt be awful, but something I should just do so that I could get it over with and thus become a better person.

I also remember my brother being grossed out and telling on me. And how unfair life seemed if it was always going to be so hard to get things right.

Is that the day I began to nurture the tiny seed of rebellion? Maybe. It may not have been a coherent thought in my childish little head, but I’ve never forgotten figuring out that icky things were not necessarily good, so it had to follow that boisterous fun was not always bad. That black and white produced lovely shades of grey.

I still distrust being told what to do. I question advice, well-meant and otherwise. I know that doing something for my own good which is making me truly miserable should send me off immediately in another direction to find a different way of reaching the same goal. What is good for you may be wrong for me. If I believe that, it will be hard for you to change my mind.

Because since that epiphanous childhood day, I no longer eat dirt.

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The No Great Shakes Chronicles

Confessions of an Ordinary Life

Chapter One

This is not a compilation of memories from a lifetime filled with lofty aspirations and brilliant accomplishments. I find that type of person rather hard to like, and much prefer the unpretentious and the down-to-earth. Unless of course they reach the stage where they’re completely unambitious and devoid of any kind of passion. Apathy is a terrible thing. Better to be merely lackadaisical. It just sounds better.

As a baby I liked to sleep. Apparently people remarked on it to my mother so much that she began to wonder if I was normal as she jumped to her own defense by vowing that I had not been drugged in any way. I still like to sleep –  it’s one of my favourite things to do. Perhaps in another life I was a cat. I can nap anywhere. If there is ever a sleep marathon, I like to think I would be a serious contender.

As a child I liked to tell lies, the bigger and more ridiculous the better. I was strongly advised to tell the truth. I knew the difference, but the truth was way less fun. When my daughter showed a similar inclination to exaggerate we called her interesting ramblings ‘hard to believe stories.’ Perhaps I’ll throw a few of those into this book just to see if you’re paying attention.

As a teenager I was Miss Goody Two Shoes, secretly longing to be wild. I made some mistakes, I fell in and out of love, I tried to decide who I wanted to be. I got married and had children and worked hard and lost myself, being so many things to so many people for so long that now I’m afraid I still don’t know exactly who I am. Sometimes I think it’s rather unfortunate that I’ve reached the point in my life where I’m just too lazy to care whether I ever figure that out.

As an adult, mother of grown children with families of their own who call me grandma, I’m thinking maybe this is one of the best people I’ve ever been, one of the most delightful roles I’ve ever played.

I’ve been awake for years and years! It’s time to put my memoirs together and pass them along before I forget everything. Maybe someone else can define this ordinary life and discover what it meant to be me, before I fall asleep again forever.

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