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: 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: Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Hitting one out of the park.

I can feel it.  Spring is definitely in the air.  But even better, summer is just around the corner.  And with that notion comes all the paraphernalia of summer.  Lighter brighter sweeter clothes made from cotton and other carefree fabrics. Red toenails and colorful rubber flip flops.  The summer toys are brought out of the  basement, back shed or garage.  Things with wheels and pedals.  Things designed for the water and hot sandy beaches.  Games that are synonymous with sunshiny days and long warm evenings are played.  Racquets, bats and balls of all description.  This is the season when my favorite sport is played.  Baseball.

Let’s make something perfectly clear right up front.  I am not the athletic type.  Sporty Spice I am not.  I don’t gravitate towards playing team sports of any sort.  I’m a loner when it comes to anything even remotely athletic.  Running.  Walking.  Yoga.  Skip to my Lou. That’s about as close as I get to being an athlete.  But there’s just something about baseball that I like.  And I think it has something to do with The Old Man.

Little back story.  I never thought of The Old Man as terribly athletic either.  Despite what the black and white photos of his younger self reveal.  I only recall a man with a round girth and skinny white bowed legs.  But he did love sports.  In particular, hockey and baseball.   Back in the day, when homes had one television set, Saturday nights were  Hockey Night in Canada, and nothing but.  You could always count on him to be sitting front row and centre, glued to the television set for the two solid hours the game was televised on the CBC.  A bag of Old Dutch potato chips, sour cream and onion dip, and a large bottle of Pepsi at his side.  It was loud.  Raucous. And grating on the nerves.  Ma would often busy herself in the kitchen.  Some Saturday nights I would take refuge in the bedroom I shared with my older sister, if she happened to be out for the evening.  Otherwise, I would sit in the living room in the cozy chair next to the fake fireplace and read.  It was like Ma and I were held captive for those two hours.  Prisoners of Hockey Night in Canada.  But in a strange way, I think I actually wanted to be close to The Old Man on Saturday Nights.  Figure out a way to share his passion and excitement for the game.  Or maybe I just wanted some chips and dip and a tall glass of Pepsi.

Four things came out of those Saturday night sessions with The Old Man.  A lifelong craving for junk food.  A preference for Pepsi over Coke.  An ability to block out ambient noise.  And a love for reading, especially fiction.

On Saturday nights, while lost in a book, I learned to filter all those shrill sounds, the extraneous racket and cacophony blaring from the television set.  I retreated to the world of make-believe and fiction.  I became a mental escape artist.  A cerebral Houdini.  This ability has served me well over the years.  It has been particularly helpful when working in open-concept environments where you can hear everything and everyone. Including the pin drop.  But when necessary, I can press the mute button.  And hear nothing except the sounds within. I’m grateful for this gift, compliments of The Old Man and Hockey Night in Canada.  To this day, I hear the Theme Song and my mind goes to another place.  I switch off.

Baseball on the other hand, is a different game all together.  There is just something about the understated elegance of this sport that appeals to me.  Whereas the hockey nights were filled with shouting, cursing and bellowing at the television set, watching baseball was much more civilized.  Baseball wasn’t intrusive and never monopolized an entire night.  There was no such thing as Saturday Night Baseball, at least not back then.  Plus, during baseball season I could go outside and play with the neighborhood kids while The Old Man watched the game.  I wasn’t trapped inside a small wartime house in the dead of winter with nowhere to run.

Another redeeming quality of baseball was that there were no theme songs that involved a full-on brass section.  No trumpets blaring.  Drums pounding.  Chests beaten. The only baseball song I knew was Take me Out To the Ballgame.  That charming little ditty was universally loved, and whistled, for its sheer unpretentious and innocent hokey corniness.  That’s what I loved about it.  Then and now.

Music and civility aside, there are a few other reasons I preferred baseball over hockey.  First of all, it was warm when you played.  You didn’t have to wear tons of clothing and balance yourself on lace-up boots with blades.  A spontaneous street game could start right in front of your house, at any time on any given day. It was uncomplicated with straightforward rules. All you needed was a ball and a bat.  If you had a glove.  That was a bonus but not necessary to play the game.  And everyone was welcome.  Including girls. Today girls play all kinds of  team sports. But that wasn’t the case back then.

Aside from the friendly neighborhood scrub ball, I played on our school’s all-girl softball team.  I didn’t have to try out to make the team.  We all got in.  It was part of the grade eight P.E. curriculum.  Most of us weren’t very good.  But we enjoyed ourselves just the same.  We played against the other grade eight teams in our town.  And lost most of our games.  But that wasn’t the point.  What mattered was, we got to play.  There were some girls on the team who actually knew what they were doing.  And I recall we had a pretty good pitcher.  They admired them from afar.

I performed badly under pressure.  If I even caught a sniff that the opposing pitcher could actually throw the ball I was a goner.   And if it turned out they could throw like a boy I was dead in the water.  Struck out.  One, two, three.  I was okay in the outfield though.  It was pretty quiet and safe.  Not a lot of action but it offered an interesting outlying perspective.  Mostly I chewed gum and spat.  It was fun being a Tomboy.  And at the end, win or lose, it was glorious to be out there with the other girls playing this beautiful inclusive game.

The Old Man receiving his Bicentennial Medal for community dedication and service.

The Old Man shared his love of the game with me.  And it didn’t even necessitate consuming junk food.  For years, he had been deeply involved with Little League in our town.  In fact, he was one of the guys who got it started.  In 1984, in celebration of the Ontario Bicentennial Year, the Minister of Northern Affairs Leo Bernier awarded my father, along with 42 other folks from our town, a medal for Exemplary Community Dedication and Service.  The medal was given to me after he died.  I never realized at the time, the significance of his contribution to the game in our little town.  I never thought of him as the kind of guy who had a positive and worthwhile impact on the lives of others.  At least not to this degree. He was The Old Man for God’s sake.  A medal?  But now as I look at it, hanging from the red, blue and yellow ribbon, I am proud.  Very proud Dad.

I have fond memories of going to the ball field with The Old Man.  He used to Umpire the games.  I’d sit in the weather-beaten wood bleachers and watch.  Girls had come just far enough to be able to play ball at school and on the street, but not in the Little League.  There weren’t many fans or spectators.  Back then parents didn’t go to watch their kids’ games.  The boys would walk or ride their bikes to the field and play.  And when the game was over they took their gloves and went home.  It was so poetically simple.

I watched as The Old Man leaned in behind the batter at home plate.  Proudly wearing his Ump’s mask and black vest.  To me, he looked just like the real thing.  A pro.  This was a whole other side to him that we rarely saw.  He was confident. Tough. Spirited. And oddly athletic.  This experience was nothing like the Saturday Night in Hockey nights.  It was the complete opposite.  I was fully engaged in the game.  Lost in the warm sunny evenings.  The smell of dusty canvas base bags and chalk powder.  Green grass and young boys covered in dirt stains and glowing sweat.  Snap.  Crackle.  Pop.  Wood on leather.  Cheers and shouts.  You’re safe.  You’re out.  Strike.  Ball.  Batter up.  Batter out.  Loss.  Or victory.  Always good sportsmanship.  Handshakes all around.  Better luck next time Buddy.

The last game I remember going to with The Old Man was during the summer between grade eight and high school.  Everything changed after that.  He continued to umpire games for years afterwards.  In fact, the same year that he received the Bicentennial Medal, my first marriage ended.  Badly.  I was a hot mess.  And that’s putting it politely.  We separated in April and by May I had packed up my two kids and travelled a thousand miles  to that little wartime house in the west end of town.  Ma and The Old Man welcomed us with open arms, unconditional love and above all no judgement.

It was the start of Little League Season when we arrived.  My son, who loves sports just like his grandfather, embraced the idea of playing.  The Old Man got him onto a team, and what could have been the worst of all possible summers, was made enjoyable by his participation in this sport.

All decked out in his green and white uniform and ready to play.

I don’t remember a whole lot about that summer.  Some memories are better left unearthed.  But I do recall going to watch one of my son’s games and thinking how marvelous he was.  How he looked like the real thing in his little green and white uniform.  A pro.  Just like his grandfather.  Then I remember how grateful I was to The Old Man for taking him under his wing.  And for putting some fun into a young boy’s  summer.  I was also grateful that The Old Man got to do something with my son that he was never able to do with me.  Umpire one of his games.

Footnote: My son told me today that he remembered two things about that baseball summer with his Grandpa.  He hit a home run out of the park.  And his grandpa called him safe at home when he was obviously out.  I love that The Old Man couldn’t be impartial when it came to his Grandson. I think he was that way when it came to me as well.