Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Lessons in Gratitude and Patriotism.

IMG_1825Grateful and patriotic.  That’s how I felt last weekend when E and I escaped again to the mainland.  This time there weren’t any medical procedures tagged onto the end of our trip.  No Big C cloud hovering over our heads like an alien space ship.  Just two glorious days of freedom and fun with our oldest daughter A.  Quite simply, it was divine. And exactly what the doctor ordered.

I like to keep an attitude of gratitude. I’m happier and far more optimistic when I do. Life just feels richer and amplified when I see the glass half full. This thankful continence isn’t always easy to maintain though.  Sometimes I engage in rip-roaring pity parties of one. But most of the time I count my blessings.  And they are many.

Last Saturday afternoon, smack dab in the middle of a busy crowded downtown Vancouver street, I had an epiphany.  The sun was shining gloriously overhead.  The energy and positive vibe in the city was electric.  Music and laughter, breezy summertime conversations, and the smell of suntan lotion wafted from every street corner.  It was picture perfect.  Endorphins flooded my limbic system, and by doing so released a profusion of happy childhood memories of summers at 204. In an instant, I was as lighthearted and mirthful as a ten year old girl running under the garden sprinkler. Yippee!  It doesn’t get much better than that.  Another neat thing happened in that moment. My gratitude muscle expanded and skyrocketed, then soared heavenward through the brilliant clear blue sky.

Giddy with glee, I turned to E and said, “Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

He looked at me as if I had suddenly grown two heads. I fully appreciate why he would find my declaration untrue, given the circumstances of our life right now.  But before he could protest or disagree, I repeated, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.  In this cosmic moment, which is all we have, life is perfect. Just the way it is.”

Then he got it.  His eyes welled with tears and he smiled. Big honest smile.  Right from the heart. One filled with gratitude.

Later that day, our daughter took us to a baseball game at the Nat Bailey Stadium, where the Vancouver Canadians and the Tri-City Dust Devils were playing. I can’t think of a more definitive summer diversion or pastime than going to a ballgame.  Some people find this game boring. Too quiet and slow.  But for me it is beautiful.  Elegant. Subtle and masterful. First and foremost, a team sport.  Yet each player has a time when they stand alone at home plate.  Armed only with a wooden bat, years of practice swinging it, the sagacity and the wits of a street-fighter, the indelible voice of their coach always with them, the encouragement of their team mates, the cheers of their devoted fans, and the genuine love of the game.  It is there that each player, one by one, bravely faces the nine guys from the opposing team, all focused on the same thing. Stop this guy from getting a run.

My love of the game goes way back.  The Old Man loved it too.  He was one of the guys who started Little League in our hometown.  He coached and umpired games well into his senior years. When I was young, I used to tag along and sit in the weather-beaten wooden bleachers and cheer on ‘our guys.’  It was during those long hot steamy Northwestern Ontario summer nights, that I fell for the game and the boys who played it. During my Toronto years, The Old Man loved visiting, especially in the summer.  Going to a Jays game was a dream come true for him.  To see a major league game close up and personal was beyond his wildest imaginings.

The Nat Bailey Stadium is gorgeous.  Most people wouldn’t describe a sports stadium this way. But to me it is. This was my first time, and like many firsts, it was memorable and I loved everything about it.  The pre-game excitement, the smell of popcorn and hotdogs, pizza and beer, cotton sundresses and pink cotton candy, fans in red tee-shirts and baseball caps, flip-flops flapping up and down concrete steps, hoots and hollers across the stands, the red wooden bleachers with perfect views of the field, the calls from the beer guy and the fifty-fifty girl, the playful fan photos taken with Bob Brown Bear, the cornball music, the repartee and easy banter of the announcers, the pre-game warm-ups, the national anthems, and the crack of wooden bat on leather ball.  Gorgeous.  Every last bit.

Before the game begins two national anthems are sung.  I don’t recall the name of the singer only that she gave a virtuoso performance.  Flawless. Resplendent. A crackerjack job. I love the American anthem.  It’s impressive and majestic.  But I’m a Canadian girl.  Through and through.  Tried and true.  Homegrown, born and raised.

From the very first note, when this crowd of devoted Vancouver Canadians fans stood shoulder to shoulder, hats in hand, young and old alike, and gloriously sang our national anthem, I was moved. Unexpectedly touched yet filled to the brim. With patriotism. With pride. With gratitude.

Oh Canada.  Dear sweet Canada.  My home and native land.  I am so grateful to be here.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: His Mother’s Name was Bessie.

beautiful bessie

Beautiful Bessie, the Bass Man’s Mama.

I’m taking a break from the all consuming Big C conversation for just a moment to share this bit about a sweet lady, E’s Mama Bessie.  He misses her dearly, especially now when confronted by the fragility of life.

On the day before 94-year old Bessie died, she announced to her younger son Larry that she was breaking out.

Clear out of the blue.  A declaration of independence so foreign to her nature that it was unfathomable.  Disarming.

Feeble and frail. Yet in the end, so fierce in her final conviction.

“Where are you going Mom?” he asked

“To New York City!” she proclaimed.

Bessie, who had never been more than one hundred miles from her small county home.

Bessie, who as a young girl spent a week up on the mountain, just a few miles away, was homesick and fearful.  She pined for her mother.  And missed the familiar valley farmland and apple orchards.  To young Bessie, this overgrown hill was much too high and close to the sky. Too far away from her roots and the bosom of the valley bed. It threw off her equilibrium.  Left her shaken and traumatized for life.

Bessie, whose wanderlust didn’t extend beyond a Sunday drive down to Waterville for lunch with Harlan.

Bessie, who had lost most of her sight and hearing, but none of her unpredictable wit and natural intelligence. To the end, razor sharp and fully loaded with an arsenal of quick retorts.

Bessie, who lived a simple life surrounded by “her people.”  Married Harlan and raised her boys just a stone’s throw from her childhood home.

Bessie, who never strayed far.  Always walked the straight and narrow.  Found dignity in the familiar and commonplace.

Yes, this same Bessie, on the Eve of the trip of her lifetime, revealed that she was now ready to travel.

Godspeed Bessie.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Countdown to Summer Vacation.

We loved to sit on our front porch in pedal pushers.

I like countdowns.  Especially ones that lead up to a happy event or special occasion.  Like Christmas.  The birth of a child.  A wedding.  On New Year’s Eve I like to watch the ball drop in Times Square.  All that glittery optimism and brilliant expectations for the year ahead.   A fresh new start in ten New York seconds.  Which could be 11 or 12 in the rest of the world given the speed with which a New York second passes.  Regardless, it’s out with the old.  In with the new.  A reason to celebrate.

Even though it’s been decades since I was in school, one of my favorite countdowns still remains that to the start of summer vacation.  There’s nothing else quite like it.  For me, it even trumps counting the days until Christmas. Despite all the caroling and egg nog drinking.  There’s no strings attached.  Just easy breezy eagerness.  And the joy of looking forward to lingering carefree days and laid-back leisure time.

Gretchen Rubin in her marvelous book “The Happiness Project” talks about the four stages of happiness, with the first one being anticipation.  This notion really resonates with me.  Because it goes hand in glove with countdowns.  As I am counting down, I am also anticipating and picturing that some kind of wonderful about to take place.  This in turn releases a bucketful of endorphins.  And those make me grin like a five year old coveting an ice cream cone covered in sprinkles.

Little back story.  The last month of school was both terrific and torturous.  By June in Northwestern Ontario, summer had fully arrived.  No longer lurking around the corner.  It’s presence was fully felt.  From the early morning dew to the humidity that blanketed everything long after the sun had set.  The heat was relentless.  Refusing to retreat.  Even in the darkest hours under a cheddar colored moon.  It was ever present.  And after a long cold winter, we welcomed it with open windows and screens on our doors.

This time was torturous because no one wanted to be there.  Not even the teachers.  Everything you really needed to know was already behind you.  If a teacher was bold enough to introduce something new, no one was listening.  We were a clowder of cats.  Completely disinterested.  We may have seen her lips moving but we heard nothing.  Attention spans were short.  And the intake valve to our brains even shorter.  There was no way anything education related was crossing the threshold to our brains.  Being inside was unbearable.  Being inside a classroom even worse.  The sun was shining.  The birds were singing.  The flowers were blooming.  We were all itching to get outdoors and be a part of it.

The fantastic part of that last month was the relaxed easy-going attitude of everyone.  The teachers did their part.  Classroom windows were flung open wide to allow summer in.  The sweet smell of heat infused with intense humidity, the divine scent of freshly mowed lawns and ubiquitous odor of freshly tarred roads settled over our desks, the blackboard, the books, the collection of potted pea plants on the windowsill.  It was a potent elixir that made us all positively giddy with happiness.

I like to see the world upside down and with a split.

In elementary school it was also the month of outdoor gym classes.  Track and field events.  Baseball games.  Red white and blue hard rubber balls bounced and boinged off sun drenched brick walls.  Hula hoops in neon colors sashayed around tiny waists.  White chalk hopscotch art filled the sidewalks.  Cartwheels.  Headstands.  Skipping ropes and Double Dutch.  Play of all sorts was extended.  And clothes were lessened.  Bare legs and bare arms showing off the beginnings of suntans.  Sandals and rubber flip flops.  Pony tales and new summer haircuts.

In high school every opportunity to be outside was embraced. It was a time to start working on the tan.  The goal was to be beach-ready when the final bell tolled.  Lazy lunches and spare classes were spent languishing on the grass.   P.E. classes were all about the outdoors.  It was track and field season and whether you liked it or not you were out there.  Running or dragging your butt around the track. Horse laughing with your friends.  Good nature teasing.  Disgusted by the sweating.  Complaining at every turn.  But secretly loving every moment.

Breakfast at one of the campsites on our Circle Route trip.

I don’t think Ma and The Old Man counted down the days until my school year ended.  But they too welcomed the lazy hazy crazy days of summer.  Relished the longer days and warm evenings.  This meant more time for The Old Man to tend to his vegetable garden.  Or umpire Little League games after supper. More time for Ma to pause and relax with a cup of tea.  Go for walks or simply watch us kids play from our front porch stoop.

We weren’t big travelers.  Especially going anywhere that required a plane, train or boat.  But we did have an automobile. A Ford.  This was all we needed to get away.  The Old Man got two weeks off in the summer which was a big deal back then.  During that time we’d often go camping or drive down to Duluth for a few days of shopping and sightseeing. One time we went as far as Minneapolis.  And another time we drove and tented our way around Lake Superior.   Doing the Circle Route was considered quite the adventure to our family.  I’ll never forget the thrill of traveling the Soo Locks.  Another favorite summer pastime was driving to Sibley Park, Boulevard Lake or Chippewa for a Sunday afternoon picnic and swim.  Oh the picnics.  How we loved those.  Some planned and some spontaneous.  On muggy evenings, Ma would pack up a basket of food and we would drive to Boulevard to cool down and have dinner.   Who needed a pool or a summer cottage when one of the best places to swim and hang out was just twenty minutes from our house.  We were blessed.

Evening picnic at Boulevard Lake.It’s been said that the family that prays together stays together. That could very well be true.  But I also think that the family that plays together stays together.  At least that seemed to be the case for ours.  Especially in the summertime.  Everyone just seemed to get along better.  A bit like the way we were around Christmas time.  Only the rosy glow lingered.  For two solid months our spirits were raised and uplifted.  Happiness hovered in the clear blue skies over Lake Superior.  Washed over us in Boulevard Lake.  Splashed us from behind at Sibley.  Shone over the Sleeping Giant with a big yellow smile.  Echoed across Ouimet Canyon.  Shouted from the top of Mount McKay.  And giggled inside a tent pitched in the backyard at 204.

It’s June and summer beckons.  Calls me back to that place.  I count down.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Stray Cats, Hitch Hikers and Under Dogs.

Some of the strays who found their way to 204.

I love stray cats.  I’m not talking about the feline variety, although I do like them.  Nor am I talking about the band from the eighties.  I like them too.  The stray cats I’m referring to are all the misfits of the world.  The ones who don’t belong.  Or haven’t found their home.  The square pegs. The oddballs.  Weirdos.  Freaks.  Under dogs.  The ones called last to the team.  Or not at all.  These are my favorites.  I have a huge place in my heart for this motley collection.

I don’t remember when my heart first opened up to let the strays in.  From the very beginning of me, it seems.  Like Lady Gaga, I was just born that way.  I also think that Ma and The Old Man were born that way too.  Maybe it’s in our family DNA.

Little back story.  Over the years many stray cats found a place at the table at 204.  Or on the couch.  Sleeping bags in the backyard.  Rusted out vans in the driveway. Everyone from cute young hitchhikers to the lost girls I met at school.  The travelers.  The seekers.  The Emotionally wounded.  Those consumed by wanderlust.  And the temporarily homeless.  All were welcome.

Some travelers who camped out in the back of 204 for the night.

One girl comes to mind readily.  Although we haven’t spoken in decades, I have never forgotten her.  To the best of my recollection, and photographic evidence, we met for the first time in grade eight.  We were an unlikely pairing.  Yin and yang.  I was painfully shy, quiet and introverted.  She was naturally outgoing, loud and gregarious.  One day she would blossom into a beauty but in grade eight there was very little to suggest that this would ever happen.  That was an awkward age to begin with.  For all of us.  One look at our grade eight class photo says it all.  Not one raving beauty in the bunch.  In all fairness, we were transitioning through that God-awful uncomfortably homely stage where our body parts hadn’t quite jelled.  You could see it in our grim expressions.  If there were smiles at all, they looked tentative and forced.  We were a collective mess.

But in her case things were even worse.  Add a high forehead.  Acne.  Lazy eye.  Thick glasses.  Not a pretty picture no matter what lens you use.  Too bad there weren’t more crystal balls around back then so we could have seen the swan emerging.  There were hints of course.  Perfectly even white teeth, great smile and beautiful legs.  I didn’t have a lazy eye nor a high forehead but I did have acne flareups, thin lips and skinny bowed legs.  So I could relate.

Beneath her wise-cracking-gum-smacking-nothing-bothers-me veneer, she was also angry.   I was too.  Another thing we had in common.  Except she probably had more cause to be.  I was angry at the world for its lack of equitability.  I moaned and groaned at how unfair life was.  And she was my case in point.   Her mother died when she was a little girl leaving her and her older sister to be raised by their alcoholic father.  The Old Man was an alcoholic too but he was a saint next to this guy.  They lived in a tumbled down weather beaten house on the fringe of our neighborhood.  I don’t recall ever going inside.  The outside looked like one of those scary haunted houses in horror movies. That was enough for me.  The ramshackle nature of the place, and her father, both embarrassed and humiliated her.   Like many alcoholics, especially those who are gooned most of the time, he was unpredictable.  She often sought refuge at 204.  Like in the Dylan song, we gave her “shelter from the storm.”

Ma and The Old Man loved this girl.  Flaws and all.  They saw past the loud, often obnoxious behavior to the insecure girl crying out for love and attention.  And for whatever reason, I just plain flat-out liked her.  She was hilarious and fun.  Spontaneous and full of surprises.  Every day was a new adventure.  She took me places that I would never have gone otherwise.  Introduced me to people I never would have met.  Widened my circle.  Broadened my horizons.  Expanded my universe.  We may have had a few close calls along the way.  But it was worth it.  All relatively innocuous when I look back on it now.   She dressed up my drab life and I am grateful.

She added thrills and spills to my life and I kept her out of trouble.   When she went to the edge of darkness, I had her back.  Took care of her when she got drunk.  Held her hair out of her face when she threw up in the revolting toilets at the Arena where the weekly teen dances were held.  The smell of the urine soaked concrete is permanently imbedded in my head. I also made sure we got home safely to 204 before things went too far.

Ma saw herself in this motherless girl. She understood profoundly  the craving for a particular kind of love.  That only a mother could satisfy.  The truth is, this girl was a snap to love.  She was abundantly affectionate and demonstrative.  Hugged hard.  Squeezed the love right out of you.  She expressed her rainbow of feelings without hesitation or self-consciousness.  Who wouldn’t be drawn to a person like this?  Ma, The Old Man and I were like bees to honey.  She had us at the first hug and tight squeeze.

All were welcome at 204 even the cute ones.

Some people bring out the best in you.  Others just bring you out.  That’s what she did for me.  I always felt more courageous when I was with her.  Less inhibited.  More myself.  I liked who I was when she was around.  We may have been yin and yang but we were also two peas in a pod.  We were more alike than we were different.  I think that’s true of most people.  If we dare to peel back the layers.  We find ourselves there too.

It’s what’s on the inside that counts.  Most of us are taught that at our mother’s knee.  Tired cliche.  Overused platitude.  Hack-kneed homily.  But cliches don’t become cliches for nothing.  Within their lackluster facade are essences of truth and wisdom.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  Another cliche.  Also true.  It’s hard not to judge people.  Especially when they are different.  All the more reason to pause and open your heart and mind to what it feels like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  Another cliche.  Again true.  It changes you when you do.  I have proof.  Sitting in the front row of our grade eight class picture. The only one wearing boots.  My unlikely friend.

What did Ma, The Old Man and I see in this girl?  Quite simply. Ourselves.