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I am pretty sure I saw a robin yesterday. It was across the back laneway, but I swear I could see the red breast. It flew off, landing in another tree where its round-belly silhouette looked right for a robin. The earliest I have seen a robin. And it was in a tree. Rachel Curry, our cleaning lady when I was a kid, said it was good luck if the first robin seen in spring was in a tree. Yes, I am positive it was a robin. Or maybe I am just desperate for any sign of good luck.
Christiane is very diminutive, you could easily believe she is one of the faery folk. So it was surprising when she showed up driving a huge boat of a car she had bought off some farmer on a country road near Winnipeg. Even perched on a seat cushion her eyes just barely cleared the steering wheel. One day I borrowed her car to go to town. “It does not go over 75 kliks,” she cautioned. I took it to 100 with ease. Then we realized it was because her legs were not long enough to fully depress the gas pedal.
I love to drive. And since I hate post-9/11 airports we have done mostly road trips since then. Nova Scotia, the Grand Canyon, New York. The feeling of the country-side slipping by beneath the wheels of the car is seductive. But from time to time I would enjoy being a passenger. Steve was just getting his licence at age 30, when I met him. He creamed the transmission in the car I had at the time. Since then he has christened every vehicle we have owned with a sizeable dent. Generally, I insist on taking the wheel.
Somewhere in the world there are still places where groups of old men still sit on stoops and shoot the breeze. It used to be on the sunny porch of the general store, back when I was growing up in rural Ontario. Even by then there were modernizations to the traditional cliché. The pickle barrel had been replaced by a soft drink vending machine. But then, in less than a generation, the general store was gone. Any that have survived have become cutesy tourist traps selling oversweet fudge and jars of ‘homemade’ jam with frills of calico covering the lids.
“How many polyesters died to make that shirt?” we used to taunt people who wore synthetic clothes. But who could blame people back then? I remember it was my constant lament trying to find clothing made with natural fibres. Even t-shirts in those days were 50% polyester. That was the early seventies – polyester and brown. My other never ending search was trying to find cool black clothing. If I ever came across a black garment I snapped it up immediately. Now, ironically, I am trying to get away from black. But it is such an easy colour to wear.
Like many mothers, mine told me my underwear should always be clean and respectable – just in case I was in a car accident. A nurse I met at a party once laughed at that idea. She said most people who are injured in car accidents soil themselves and, in any case, have their underwear cut off them – so not to worry. All the same, I like to keep my underwear wardrobe well maintained. It is guilt-free shopping provided by my mother’s imperative to always make sure I am well-stocked with pretty knickers. Affordable when finances are limited.
Vern Yates was known for getting into the bathtub at parties after he had a certain number of drinks, so it was no surprise when I walked into the washroom and found him luxuriating in the claw-foot tub. As I sat on the toilet talking to him I was seduced into taking off my pantyhose and soaking my feet. It felt good. I had consumed enough champagne to lose my inhibitions. Before knew it was enveloped in warm water and sandwiched between two gay men in a an uptown New York apartment. The party had moved into the washroom.
Growing up in a resort town I identified with beach movies as a child. Maybe it is one reason why I hated to see the end of my teens. I had already achieved my childhood aspirations. We really did hang around the beach all day and night during the summers. I worked at the tuck shop on the beach, participated in the complex relationship dance of local kids, tourist kids and life guards, and our main gathering spot was the dance hall on the beach. My most keenly remembered teenage angst was that my fair freckly skin would not tan.
I inadvertently removed a bit of my body. It was the tip of my middle finger, including a small crescent of fingernail. I sliced it off while cutting cardboard to build a set design model. It was a weird feeling looking down and seeing a piece of me now separated from the rest of my body. I wonder what it must be like to see larger, more significant parts separated from you. Funny, I had no feelings like that when interior parts, such as tonsils, were removed. Not even when I looked at the placenta after my daughter was born.
It was spelled out to me in no uncertain terms that a woman could not have a baby until she was married. I thought there was some kind of biological transformation that enabled pregnancy after the wedding. The sisters also told us that the only true vocation was for boys to be priests and girls to be nuns. When I passed that on to my brother he said then there would be no more children. What about ‘unwed mothers,’ I shot back. I had heard of them and figured they were an anomaly that could keep the human race going.
I long to return to the fruits of my youth. And not poetically; I yearn to savour the quality of produce that was available then, when a tomato was deep red and fleshy all the way through and sweet as an apple. I have not had one like that in years – even from friend’s gardens. It seems like only seeds for the woody hybrid varieties that are engineered for transport are commonly available these days. I turned to cherry tomatoes for the sweetness, but they simply do not provide the same satisfaction as a nice slab of beefsteak tomato.
The sandals were the most she had ever paid for any footwear, but she could not resist them. The first time she wore them was to her summer job at the nuclear plant where she worked as a tour guide. At the end of the day she went through the screening and when the wand was passed over her sandals, it beeped, which meant she would have to hand over the sandals to be incinerated. “Do it again!” she demanded. It beeped again. She made them repeat the procedure until there was no beep, and walked out wearing the sandals.
I had a christening gift for my nephew in my carry-on bag. “What’s this?” asked the security person as I went through the gate. On the screen was the perfect outline of a pig. I wanted to say, “It’s a pig gun,” but I held my tongue; airport security people are not known for their sense of humour. “It’s a sterling silver piggy bank,” I told her, thinking that would satisfy her. She hauled my bag off the belt, pulled out the gift, and unwrapped it so she could see it was exactly what I said.
My fate is to see ones on digital clocks. It might be one eleven or eleven eleven, for some reason I always managed to look at clocks when it is one of those times. Almost every night, when I turn out my lights the display on my bedside alarm clock will read eleven eleven. And very often when something significant happens I will see the time is one eleven or eleven eleven. Is it some kind of message from the beyond warning me of a dire fate I could avoid? Will I be able to decipher the meaning on time…?
He was a friend my parents had invited to a barbeque at our place. He mentioned his place was a mess and I convinced him he should hire me to clean it. I went there while he was at work and was confronted with legendary bachelor chaos. I went through the place like a whirlwind until I got down to the floor. I could not believe how caked on the dirt was. I found a knife and literally scraped it inch by inch. He was surprised I was still there when he got home. And more surprised by the bill.
I really could have used that couch – it was a nice deep sectional with lots of soft pillows to snuggle into. Technically it was mine; a birthday present from his parents. But, as with a number of things in the place, I decided to just walk away from it because it was not worth the fight. Even with all of my considerate largess, when the day came to move things out, I discovered he had changed the lock. I had to appeal to his father to make him open the apartment for me and stay to keep Bill under control.
With a Scots streak in me, I was raised on porridge. My mother made it every morning, unless there was an occasion for pancakes or eggs and bacon. I have often heard porridge maligned, but personally I love it. I continued to make it for myself for years after I left home. We always joked about my brother who lived on it in university and would make huge batches which he kept in the fridge to warm up for a quick meal. A special treat for me is cold porridge, sliced and fried in butter, served with syrup. Fried Mush!
When I started to introduce solid foods to Lenny’s diet, the sweetest thing he got was uncooked applesauce I made by straining apples through a China hat, no sugar added. He never got store bought food. Gramma decided to take him for a walk to get herself an ice cream cone. She was carrying him on one hip and holding the cone in her other hand. I watched her coming toward me. She was smiling and calling hello. In that moment Lenny grabbed her wrist and pulled the cone into his face. That was the end of his healthy diet.
The phys-ed teacher informed us there was no room for modesty in the post gym class showers. We were all women and nobody was looking. That was so not true. Comparisons were definitely being made. Although I do not possess an ‘impressive rack,’ I developed early. For a brief period of time in early grade nine I was given the nickname ‘Boobsy.’ It was not long before the other girls blossomed and overtook me. But during those first few months of high school friends would call out the nickname and the guys in the hallway would turn to look.
The difference between sleazy dressing and sexy suggestive dressing is how much a woman reveals. If you are showing off some cleavage, wear something more demure below. If you are going to knock them flat with your legs, keep your neckline more modest. Baring your midriff requires balance and discretion. Stretchy, formfitting clothing is another area where the line can be easily crossed. It is possible to break the rules and still carry it off, but only if you are sensitive to very refined nuances. You have to make the men wish they could touch you, but know they cannot.
Donna and I reconciled our stories beforehand so that we could corroborate if questioned by the guys we would potentially meet. We were never locals because the city guys were not interested in meeting townspeople. In a resort town it is always about exotic, fleeting encounters. For that Labour Day weekend Saturday dance we decided to be Americans. I met Bill, from Detroit, and we had a carefree last blast of the summer, thinking we would never see each other again. At school on Monday, I heard my name called and turned to find myself face to face with Bill.
My friends are always envious when I tell them my father had a yacht and we sailed Georgian Bay every summer. They imagine the sun and crystal clear waters. I tell them they should imagine spending two teenage weeks cooped up in small spaces with their parents. And Dad was no social sailor, tying up late afternoon to do the cocktail circuit around the docks. We sailed hard until the last light of day, then to bed so we could be up at the crack of dawn. Around us we could hear the music and partying late into the night.
I discovered the miniature guitar case in the basement when I went down to do my morning exercises. I could not resist opening it. Not a guitar, but a ukulele, left by one of my son’s friends. I passed my fingertips across the strings and it sang prettily. The memory of my mother’s old ukulele bobbed up to the surface of my thoughts. I used to love to play it as a child. Just the right size for little hands. In one of the old albums there were pictures of Mom clowning with her dorm mates, playing ukuleles.
Their lease was not being renewed. The building had been sold and it would be torn down to build an office tower. So they had a party and invited all their friends from Art College. Bring your own art supplies. We drew, painted and carved every surface in the place. I hope somebody got pictures. Hugh rendered a very realistic, life-size door on one wall. Then he unscrewed a doorknob from the actual door and attached it to the image. After that we sat around laughing at all the drunken people who tried to go through the hoax door.
My cousins lived in the country. Their house was not serviced by water lines. A reservoir on their roof collected rainwater and they had to be very careful with their consumption. Toilets were not flushed unless there were solids to be disposed. Not all the guests at the family reunion that year were aware of that, and the reservoir ran dry. One of the guests worked for the volunteer fire department. He drove into town, came back with a fire truck and refilled the reservoir. Needless to say it was a memorable reunion for the cousins of the youngest generation.
I was being observed and viewed with ridicule as I edged around the cow-pies in the field. The town girl who was squeamish about excrement. One of the boys caught my eye and with a wide smile plunged his bare foot into a big soft pile. “Oooooh! Still warm!” he said, ecstatically. Later, when we were climbing trees they made a fuss about seeing my underpants under my skirt. I thought it was funny that they were so pragmatic about shit, but became delicate about seeing a piece of cloth designed to cover areas best not openly displayed.
If you knew me when I was a child, you would never guess I would grow up to be a vegetarian. I steadfastly refused to eat any vegetables except iceberg lettuce salad and celery sticks. I sat staring at my plate for many an hour after everybody else had left the table. “All we want you to do is try it – just take one bite,” my parents would say. No way I was going to fall for that, when in the past I had cooperated only to have my mouth flooded with a taste so horrifying it made me gag.
Whenever I see a bottle of Bombay Sapphire I think of the Raj in India, sitting on shaded verandas pickling themselves with gin and tonic during long, hot evenings. I am sure it was of the utmost necessity, in order to sleep in that sweltering climate. Much as I use the same concoction to knock myself out when I am camping. Contrary to all notions of that healthy outdoor activity, I drink the heaviest when camping because I do not sleep well in a tent. Beer or wine cause too many trips to the latrine. Gin and tonic is ideal.
If our family was stranded in the woods in winter I would have been the first to go. I was the scrawniest kid and had no insulating fat whatsoever. Swimming lessons in Lake Huron left me ashen blue and gripped with shuddering shivers even on the hottest day. I would race home and dive into the tent that we kept up in the backyard all summer. It would get hot as an oven baking in the sun all morning. Nobody else could bear even a few seconds in there, but it would take me a good hour to warm up.
My mother often cites the metaphor of people banging their heads against a brick wall because it feels so good when they stop doing it. There is certainly a feeling of great release when long-standing chronic pain finally comes to an end. It was euphoria at the end of my labour giving birth to my daughter. I could not believe how completely stoned I felt. It was more of a gradual creeping of contentment getting over my first marriage. But I do remember the bliss of one day realizing I no longer felt tortured by the memory of Bill.
Mitzi was the name that was planned for me. Then Mitzi Gaynor made a comeback. My parents did not want it to look like they were naming me after a movie star. So Mary Jo it was. A name that seemed like a curse to me as a child – nobody back then had double-barreled names. Until “Petticoat Junction.” Then I got Billy-, Bobby-, and Betty-Jo. Either that or people take my sister’s name and tack it on, renaming me Maryanne. More often than not I get christened, Mary-Jane. Nobody who knows me shortens it to Mary.
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