Rita Hartley

/Rita Hartley

About Rita Hartley

Rita Hartley is an author living in London, Ontario Canada. Read the About page on her website for her full biography.

My Mother Daughter

My thirtysomething daughter flew into town from BC, to celebrate her older sister’s momentous birthday, with no set date to fly back. Such a lovely long visit, but was it a mistake to leave her alone for a couple of nights at the cottage? I mean, what possible harm could she do?

Back in the day? Harm could be damage caused by a zillion of her closest friends dropping by, for drinks, a hot tub, a sleepover. The accumulation of empties could rival those of hungover pirates. Water rings could decorate table surfaces. Soggy towels could decorate floors.

Ah, but my kids are adulting now. Parties are not the thing; tasteful home decorating is. All three seem to have zipped past a minimalist chilled-out style and landed in what they refer to as “midcentury modern” (often called “MCM”). Design born post-WWII. Still simple in style, it often employs bright accent colours.

Basically? It’s the style of my youth. Or, more correctly, what should have been the style of my youth. This is where my mom and I begin, in a 1950s haze of zero decorating skills. Lack of money? Lack of inspiration?

My kids employ Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook Marketplace. Come on Reets, get with the program!

Where my mom failed in decorating savvy she more than made up for in cleanliness. Chores were constant and scrupulous: dusting, vacuuming, washing the kitchen floor on hands and knees. She taught me these valuable domestic skills. But I blame her (or a misguided youth) for not excelling at them. She had standards I could never meet; it was easier to do it herself.

It’s possible, even highly likely, she complained about her children’s slovenly ways. My daughter Randelle’s refresh of my cottage, though, had me considering a deeper motive for Mom’s whirlwind cleaning. Perhaps she liked it?

When my kids were younger, she babysat fairly regularly, always at our house. And every time she came? She cleaned and/or organized something. The utensil drawer. Windows. Floors. Mirrors.

This brought me great shame and embarrassment. I always wanted her to stop. Sit still for a minute. I mean, I could see the crumbs there, under the table, but who had the time – or energy? – to do anything about it? Apparently Mom did.

A medium told me once, channeling my dad, that he remarked on the “ambient sound of her”. While mediums have not always gotten my dead people correct, this comment rings so true.

Randelle called me from the cottage virtually out of breath with tasks accomplished. She’d found Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in a cupboard and magic-erased baseboards, walls, the stovetop even. Instantly, that familiar shame and embarrassment roiled the tummy. Surely I should have done this?

All those extra supplies cluttering up the kitchen cupboards? Moved to the nearby empty laundry cupboards. She went on and on, you get the picture, a place for everything and everything in its place. It’s not that I keep a messy house: I hire a cleaner, I clean out cupboards and closets from time to time. I think I lack a couple of qualities for the job, like passion and expertise.

Later that day, while perusing HomeSense for an item required because Randelle had helped me relocate a few furniture pieces at the house, I ran smack-dab into my other daughter Jetanne. She was shifty. Hiding things. She was heading to the cottage to see her sister that night.

We chatted about Randelle magic-erasering everything. “Have you ever had a desire to do such a thing?” I asked her.

“No.”

“Me neither.”

“But she’s so happy,” Jetanne said. And that’s when it hit me. It probably made Mom happy too. Shame, embarrassment not necessary.

By the time Randelle and I went back up to the cottage for the “Big Reveal”, I’d been warned that more than a few cupboard/closet items had been relocated. Even the grandkids, who’d been there the previous night, were worried I’d be upset about the changes. This probably helped temper my response.

But wow. When a person has a vision for design and a lust for cleanliness and that person has generously gifted it to your space? How can you not just revel in it?

There are new giant throw pillows in the living room in colours I would never pick, but they look great. Art is rearranged. Items from the green room are in the blue room and vice versa. Huh?! It looks amazing. My favourite thing? A pale grey-blue sheepskin rug tossed over an ottoman that never quite looked right. It does now!

My husband B, who agrees there should be a place for everything and everything should be in its place, also feels things should just stay in the place they were originally put in. You know, so he can find them. He’s not seen the cottage yet. As lacking as my homemaking skills may be, he likes how our homes feel. He says Randelle can help us with a refresh. But maybe just once every five years or so?

My Mother Daughter 2023-03-16T11:21:27-04:00

Telephone is Ringing

“Brrr-RING!!!” 

Remember that sound? My grandkids have never even heard that sound.

It was a demanding sound, insistent on a response. Especially before the invention of the answering machine and call display. 

Who could it be? What could they want?

As a teenager it was a thrilling sound. No matter where I was in our split-level home I could get to the kitchen by the third ring, easily beating out all four other family members to pluck that heavy beige handset from its cradle, take a deep breath, drawl, “Hello,” as though I wasn’t out of breath. “Oh Russ,” blush, giggle, twirl beige cord, “I’m good. Whatcha doin?” I pictured him in his white t-shirt and bad-boy dungarees, cigarette smoke emanating from him in an intoxicating way that I didn’t fully comprehend. We could talk for hours, but were we really saying anything? And that was, of course, limited by what the rest of the family would allow. Maybe they were waiting for a call? You could tell by the lingering, and questioning looks that became annoying looks as time went on. Oh, and remember the jingle “Saturday noon till Sunday at six”? If it was between those hours, Mom or Dad might want to make a discounted long-distance call to family, in Toronto, or “down home” on the east coast of Canada.

The best was when they were all busy elsewhere – Dad tinkering in the garage, Mom in the laundry room, older brother listening to hard rock in his basement bedroom, baby sister watching TV. I’d have the whole main floor to myself, to speak freely.

A ringing phone could also mean a babysitting job. Ka-ching! Add to the blue jean fund. Could be a girlfriend – Karen or Dianne – wanting to talk about the book report for L’Etranger, or what to wear to the pep rally, or how hot that guy in our French class was. I mean, he had to be 14 – we all were and he apparently hadn’t failed any grades – but he looked 20. Could barely fit in the desk!

As I’m sure you know, ringing phones could bring bad news too. One time, after I’d just emerged from the shower and had my hair wrapped in a towel, I watched my face grow pale, paler, palest through the ghostly steam on the mirror. Mom was down there on the phone saying, “Oh, no. No. Oh no!” Over and over.

My 16-year-old brother was, at that very moment, in ICU in the hospital. I’d been to visit. Saw all the cords attached to him from all the machines keeping him alive. Was it over? Is my brother gone? Will I be the oldest kid in the family? NO!!!

No. Turned out another 16-year-old, the son of one of Dad’s co-workers, was hit by a car while walking on the side of the road the previous night. Gone. While I was tremendously sad for that family, I was tremendously relieved for mine.

You’d hold that phone to your ear and have a pleasant, physical experience, yes? A proper spot for your ear, your mouth. There was weight to it. It was made of strong enough plastic that if a caller made you mad you could slam it down with a satisfying THWANK! and (hopefully) not break the handset or the phone itself. 

I do recall Mom bashing Dad over the head with the handset once. Trust me, he deserved it. This was well into the era of the DDs, not to be confused with the DTs. The Drunken Dramas. Another day, another drama. I don’t recall what the drama du jour was. His poor head, having suffered many let’s say “tippling incidents”, certainly didn’t need more hits. But the handset survived and Mom got to blow off some pent-up steam.

And 7-digit phone numbers! Remember those?! Sure, people kept phone/address books – I still have Mom’s, it has cats on the front, she loved cats. But – please forgive me for bragging – I think I have a special aptitude for 7-digits. 471-1732. That was my home phone number in Kilworth Heights. 455-8235. That was my late husband Hugh’s family number before they changed the exchange. I could go on and on.

Now? 10-digit numbers?! Who has a friggin clue? I love my kids madly, but I couldn’t tell you their numbers. You lose your phone? You’re hooped.

When I left the work world in the mid-aughts, we’d just started texting and BlackBerrys were still a thing. I’d spent a few decades answering phones in the offices of roof truss manufacturing plants and guess what? You knew you were busy because . . . the phone was ringing off the hook! I’m curious. How do you know if you’re busy now? 

When I was about 18, my first job in the truss plant manufacturing office, besides making coffee, was to update the Rolodex. I updated phone numbers and addresses of all known customers, and also potential ones uncovered by stealth calls to every building department of every township office within a few-hundred kilometre radius. I had to print them all out neatly as there was no computer and accompanying printer to spit them out on nice little labels. Well, there was a clunky old typewriter, but there wasn’t enough Wite-Out to fix my mistakes.

Perhaps I show my age when I sometimes yearn for a return to a dumb old plastic thing that sits in a certain spot in one’s house and has a simple purpose: to make and receive calls. There’s been days when I’ve picked up my iPhone to make a call, then hours later I have to claw my way out of a rabbit hole of news, weather, memory pics, texts, email, Fitbit stats, the latest CBC Front Burner podcast, and a little Twitter for little scandalous titillation. Who was I calling?

Who calls anyone anymore anyway? No one wants to talk on the phone. No one picks up! We’re all on vibrate or do not disturb. Texting’s the ticket. And with emojis? You can emote what you wrote.

I have an urge to call my grandkids sometimes. They don’t have phones, of course. They’re old enough now, though, that they do have iPads, to play games and IM their friends. As long as they’re on Wi-Fi? We can text, emoji to our hearts’ content, even FaceTime. When we’re FaceTiming, they often distract me by turning themselves into cats, dogs, princesses and princes, a working man with a tie and briefcase even. Don’t ask me how they do it. I assume there’s an app for that?

I grew up watching Get Smart with his cool shoe phone. It was fun imagining what that would be like: a phone, with you at all times, in your shoe! Well, imagine no more, the future’s here, with a phone way more talented than the stinky thing Agent 86 plucked off his foot. There’s no going back, no “putting the genie back in the bottle” as “they” say.

There’s good and bad with every technological leap, right? The smart phone delivers the world right into the palm of our hand. It’s up to us how we use that power.

Telephone is Ringing 2023-02-17T12:33:26-05:00

Now and Then

The year of her birth. 1983. Our first child. Entering our lives. It’s her life now. And she’s turning 40. It’s probably affecting her. I know it’s affecting me.

I wish her father were here. We could chat about how it was a similar winter (until the recent snow/cold), with no snow, green grass. How hard we had to work to pay our mortgage payments. You think rates are bad now? Ours went from 11.75% to a whopping 18.75%.

We were so broke, so young, we couldn’t afford to engage in the “nesting” the kids do now. I avoided all stores but grocery stores. Hauled my growing body downtown each day in some cobbled-together outfit: borrowed maternity things from a sister-in-law and a lot of dresses that were not maternity per se, but shapeless. Trying to look sharp for the office. 

For sure I had bad hair. I didn’t know enough to leave it alone back then, was always cutting, perming, high-lighting, colouring. A series of unfortunate styles. And no clue that pregnancy would affect the hair. It was like the body and mind were separate parts back then, working independently, cut apart at the neck.

(Alexa, who I told to play songs “like Norah Jones”, just put on “Desperado”. It’s a version by Diana Krall, not the Eagles, but regardless, past-present-future are smashing together. Tearing my heart to bits.)

So, back to the downtown accounting office, I’d be trying to look busy, filing probably. Dad’s social worker called. (Mom and my younger sister were “down home” on the east coast.)

“Your father has no food to eat,” she said, accusingly.

I said, accusingly, “Well, he seems to have no problem getting booze to drink.”

It was a bad convo. While our era did come up with some cool language, like “far-out” and “man” and “groovy”, we didn’t say “convo”. We didn’t say “baby bump” either, and that’s what I was working on at the time.

I cleared my desk. Drove west. Entered the house through the laundry room, which perhaps afforded me a more vulnerable impression of my father. He was up, teetering, in the kitchen, at the top of a short flight of stairs. Might he fall? He was shaky, frail. Thin, but belly protruded. Disoriented. Below his shorts his skeletal legs worked overtime to hold him erect.

First thought? He’s Winston! From 1984. After Winston was broken, forced to look in a mirror by his overseer? He saw a “bowed, grey-coloured, skeleton-like thing”. And, like the proverbial nail in the coffin, this sentence in the last paragraph of the book confirms Winston’s utter brokenness while rendering the reader an emotional wreck: “Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose.”

I did not see tears trickling down Dad’s nose, but I was looking at a broken man. Subdued by booze. I could picture tears. Perhaps they trickled down when I wasn’t around? Unscented though. Vodka tears.

I took him to the nearest grocery store where he put carton after carton of skim milk in the cart. Like skim milk could save him. I don’t recall what else he bought. Potatoes perhaps? He was from New Brunswick, after all. Fruit of the earth.

I believe I was driving the old Charger. White then, but we had it painted red because people always pulled out in front of me. It was two-door, not child-friendly. Sporty. Another dream of my late husband’s, he had so many.

I was so angry with Dad. So disappointed. Humpty-Dumpty could not be put back together. I was coming to terms with this. We were splitting, he and I. I would soon have a child to care for; I could not continue to care for him.

I left him with his groceries, drove the hour home, to my life, my husband, child-to-be.

(Guess what Alexa is playing now? “Daughters” by John Mayer: “Fathers be good to your daughters, Daughters will love like you do, Girls become lovers who turn into mothers, So mothers be good to your daughters too” Sometimes she’s so spot-on! I think, as I shed more latte-flavoured tears.)

It occurs to me, I lost my father, who was so good to his daughter for so long, because I gained a daughter. And because he could not fix what was broken. 

And my daughter, who will be 40, lost her father so long ago, in 2004, well before she had her three children. Her sister and brother lost him too, of course. He was anything but a broken man. A man in his prime. A good father to his daughters and son. 

How sad is that? Two generations in a row not able to know their maternal grandfather. 

I text my son, about how this is breaking my heart. 

It’s a weird thing you project about when you have your kids. I recall us talking about her turning 40. 2023. Where will we be then?

My son texts back. He and his gf chat about this too. 

Where will we be in 2050 etc. Crazy to think one of us could not make it to that year!

I text: 

Time – it’s both friend and foe

Now and Then 2023-02-01T14:29:36-05:00

The Great Beyond

It was an ordinary Monday night. Although I suppose, not really. More people were probably watching ESPN football that Monday night for a couple of reasons: 1) unlike weekend football, it’s the only game in town and 2) it’s late in the season when teams are vying madly for playoff spots.

Consequently, an estimated 23 million sets of eyes witnessed Buffalo Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin’s shocking collapse in real time. He makes a routine tackle, rises, seems to adjust his helmet, then falls flat onto his back. It takes like two seconds. (I read somewhere once, probably in Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now, that “now” is roughly defined as three seconds. So, less than now.)

My set of eyes were alternately on purple and white granny squares – I was making a balaclava for one of my granddaughters – and the World Juniors’ Canada vs Slovakia quarter final. We were outshooting them like crazy; their goalie blocked the net like a friggin athletic titanium pretzel. Thankfully, Canadian phenom Connor Bedard deked him out in OT for the 4-3 win and we went on to win gold against Czechia. (This name was approved in 2016, but until watching the World Juniors this year, I still thought we still called it Czech Republic.)

After the game, the sportscasters on TSN mentioned the seriousness of the Damar Hamlin incident, that he’d gone into cardiac arrest, so I went on Twitter and saw the footage. I also saw many tweets about vaccines being to blame. And a few by parents saying this is exactly why they don’t let their kids play football.

We humans want reasons, don’t we? BLANK happened because of BLANK. We feel an overwhelming need to know why. It’s in our nature. I recently spent several hours with my three grandkids, ages 10, 9 and 6, and trust me. They never stop asking why.

While curiosity is a great trait, leading to incredible human achievement, there is also something to be said for accepting the fact that we’re just never gonna know it all.

“As a Buddhist practice,” says insightmeditationcenter.org, “not-knowing leads to more than an intimacy and open mind. It can be used as a sword to cut through all the ways that the mind clings. If we can wield this sword until the mind lets go of itself and finally knows ultimate freedom, then not-knowing has served its ultimate purpose.”

It’s true that football is hard on the body. The CBC Front Burner podcast had Washington Post sports columnist Jerry Brewer on and he pointed out that football isn’t a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. While changes in rules and equipment have helped guard against serious injuries like concussions, they’re still prevalent.

Personally, I find it amusing that a perceived increase in sudden unexplained deaths is due to Covid vaccines. Perhaps there was a time I might have even bought into it, but once you’ve been introduced to the harsh reality of sudden unexplained death? Well, suddenly it’s not so rare anymore and you hear about it all the time.

Almost two decades ago, well before Covid, it was an ordinary Monday night. Although, not really. On Monday night football, Green Bay Packers defeated St. Louis Rams 45-17. My husband Hugh wasn’t watching because he was ordering dinner at a steak house in Edmonton with business colleagues. He liked Green Bay, bet on them to win, but he died that night so the payout went to his son.

I watched Hamlin go down and my first thought was: OMG! This is how it happened! This is how Hugh died. He was ok, sipping beer, joking, ordering food, then two seconds later? He was down. 

Hugh did not get hit in the chest. No. So, it was not this commotio cordis (sudden arrhythmia caused by a low/mild chest wall impact) that has been mentioned as a possibility in Hamlin’s case. I have searched the web, high and low, for years trying to find a cause. Asking why, over and over. The best I’ve come up with is Brugada syndrome, “a rare but serious condition that affects the way electrical signals pass through the heart”.

Different cause, but same result: cardiac arrest. Abnormal heart rhythm. Boom. It’s so swift – less than now! – I credit witnesses to such events with keeping their heads on straight and taking action. In Hugh’s case, a first responder jumped on his chest with compressions and a nearby AED.

In Hamlin’s case, an unidentified man says on a recording, “I don’t like how he went down.” Says npr.org, “Many people are praising the medical personnel who treated him in the moments after he collapsed.” It seems their quick response, which kept blood flowing throughout Hamlin’s body, including the brain and lungs, has worked.

Reports are that he is “neurologically intact”. It would seem so, because his first question upon waking – in writing because at that time he had a breathing tube in – was, “Did we win?” His doctor responded, “Yes, Damar, you won. You’ve won the game of life.”

(It occurs to me, Hugh’s first question, had he returned from the great beyond, might have been, “Did Green Bay win?” Or, maybe, “Who ate my steak?”)

And the next day, via FaceTime after the breathing tube was removed, Hamlin told his team, “Love you boys.” They stood, clapped. Wow. Amazing.

If there was ever a good advertisement for knowing CPR? This is it.

But these stories – Hamlin’s, and Hugh’s as well – call to mind the Latin phrase “memento mori”. “Remember that you must die.” There seems no finer line between life and death than cardiac arrest. Two seconds.

One of my daughters gifted each of our family members – to bind us and remind us of the fleeting nature of life – with a beautiful gold pendant this Christmas. “Memento mori” is on the front, along with a skull, which may seem gruesome, but truly, we each have a skeletal system supporting us, yes? And on the back of the pendant? “You could leave life right now”. 

Better to spend your precious time living as opposed to pointing the finger and/or asking why over and over.

The Great Beyond 2023-01-10T13:50:36-05:00

In The Hood

I love my neighbourhood. It’s well-established, with incredibly wise trees and eclectic house designs. I say hi to the people I meet; I mostly know them by their dogs. 

There’s the guy who had one well-behaved red long-haired dog (he told me it was a Retriever and I was confused, being more familiar with short-haired Labs, but we’re talking Golden here) pre-pandemic, then decided to add another. The other? He’s a puller. It’s been two years, as you know, and that poor guy is now out-of-breath and dishevelled by “the other”, who seems incapable of mastering leash etiquette. 

It’s always a good day when I see Baxter the Boston Terrier. He reminds me so much of my adopted (from my daughter) Boston Terrier Boris, gone several years now. I pet Baxter, inquire about his health (which is up and down, they’re finicky little ones) and am comforted by his aloof temperament, which also matches Boris’s.

Then there’s Archie, the peppy wee white Scottish Terrier across the road, who is the complete opposite in size and temperament to my daughter’s dog, a doodle, of the same name.

There are people without dogs, of course, and I chat with some of them too. Walking to fitness class one recent morning, I finally discovered where this family I’ve been crossing paths with for a long time, originate from. They emerged from the grand entrance of the stately brown brick house on the corner. The mother, well-dressed and beautiful, has long dark hair which flows gracefully as she saunters along with her three children, presumably heading to the elementary school up the street. We nodded, said hi. For the last couple of years, she and I have had to choose our routes carefully as there’s been major watermain work in the neighbourhood. Some days, the sidewalks and streets were being peeled up in front of our feet.

Kev, a retired media (radio) guy who I know through my husband B, lives near this family. He’d just started up a car for his wife for work that day. I say “a car” because they never had children, so they spend their money on vehicles; there were four parked in the laneway that day. He threw his hands in the air, said, “I don’t know, but the battery died on Shelley’s hybrid and I can’t get into it. I’ve got the shop coming. Thank goodness we have a gasser that started right up.”

“I had a Mercedes that would lock up like Fort Knox when the battery died,” I told him. “Had to keep it on a trickle charger.”

I carried on, picking my way through the muddy construction zone. And I could see Dan up there, coming from his morning male confab at Tim Hortons, walking along in his black toque, black winter coat. (I was wearing a black toque, black winter coat. Neighbourhood uniform?) I wondered what he’d have to say.

I’ve been running into Dan a lot lately. The first time? He was like, “Oh, so-and-so, you know, that big guy? He’s still there at Tims. You should go say hi.”

I didn’t know “so-and-so” and I’d already told Dan I was heading to class at the Jewish Centre. The next time? When we were done talking, he squeezed my arm, said, “Why don’t you come to my place for coffee?” Wink, nudge.

A little backstory. Dan is also a retired media (newspaper) guy I know from B. Because the big venue B was swooping in from the US to run 20-plus years ago was a controversial project for the city, some people in the media were hellbent on finding fault with it. B and Dan had numerous “discussions” and Dan didn’t always paint B’s building in the best light. The building became a success and Dan got busy with other topics; the animosity fell away.

So much so that when B and I made the risky decision to go out to a pub in the hood on Friday, March 13, 2020, when Covid was rapidly shutting the world down, we sat at the bar with Dan and his girlfriend, chatting away like old friends. 

It’s a shame-inducing memory for a couple of reasons. One: Covid. B had been dealing with shut-down related issues at work for the previous couple of days. Recall that Wednesday night? Sure, there was the shocking suspension of travel between the US and Europe for 30 days, but I found it more shocking that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had IT. Then? The NBA shut down. The NBA!

B came home that Friday, we looked at each other, shrugged. I said, “Well, there’s no cases in London.” B said, “Then let’s go out for dins.”

By Monday, when it felt like the entire planet was closed, I did feel unnecessarily exposed for having sat in that crowded bar for a couple of hours.

Reason two: Gossip. It’s so fun, isn’t it? But, it’s also wrong! (Although B shrugs, says he knows people probably talk about him, what can he do about it, it doesn’t bother him. He’s pretty darn comfortable in his skin. I don’t like to think what people say about me behind my back. Say it to my face. And make it not hurt.) We chatted away with Dan and his girlfriend, smushed in there at the bar. A couple that we knew in the hood had recently split. Dan had the goods.

“She switched teams,” he told us.

Such salacious news! It felt outrageous, but why? Did it even matter? Did we think this particular person just wouldn’t be gay, or bisexual? Why do we often have these preconceived notions about others? Why do we care? (When I thought longer on it I was somewhat relieved as this woman had reached out to B for lunches, seeking work advice, so perhaps I needn’t worry she was seeking more than work advice?)

But, hopefully you can cut us a little slack, because B and I are from a generation that did not discuss sexual orientation while grappling with the act of sex itself. And a topic like gender fluidity? Back in the day? Never heard of it. Luckily, we have younger people in our midst who educate us on all of this. A few years ago, when B’s kid said one of their roommates was non-binary? We were like, say what? There was some shy laughter. The explanation was: male, female, they don’t identify. Oh. And my kids say, well, I’m paraphrasing here, but if a person is happy, is not hurting anyone, then straight, gay, bi, male, female? Who cares? Welcome to the 21st century huh?

As we sat at the bar, eating, sipping, chatting, on that pandemic eve, the woman in question walked in with her new partner and we moved on to other topics.

Back to meeting Dan on the sidewalk at the entrance to the Jewish Centre, we chatted amicably for a bit, then he squeezed my arm, again, and this time said, “When are you and I going out for dinner?” Wink, nudge.

He must have read shock on my face because he followed that up with, “Well, you can bring your husband along.”

I shook my head, went to class. A couple of days later, when B got home from work, I said, “Oh that buddy of yours.” I was starting to dread running into Dan again. Perhaps I’d have to leave the house earlier? Reduce the chances? Or drive to class? I told B about the dinner invite. There was some guilt. Had I been behaving in a way that made Dan think I was available?

B said, “Does he even know I’m your husband? Maybe he forgot?”

Hmmm. I thought about that. I mean, I know perfectly well who I am, but I’ve run into other people and either not been able to place them . . . or! This has happened a couple times. Maybe for you too? They’ve got a doppelgänger! You think they’re someone else that you know, you ask dumb questions that out you. Tres embarrassing.

“But he has a girlfriend, doesn’t he?”

“She was from Toronto,” B said. “And that was over two years ago.”

I poured wine for dinner. And B said, “You know. You should be flattered. He goes for younger, really beautiful women.”

And that was when I remembered. Oh yeah! B and I have a mature relationship. We’ve talked about this. We’ve said to each other, hey, you get bored, you’re looking for something different, just say so. No need to cheat.

I sat down at the island to eat feeling pretty darn good about the skin I’m in. And the hood I’m in.

Website photo: A recent sunrise in the hood, no filter.

In The Hood 2022-12-19T15:17:08-05:00

Rinse and Repeat

Pre-Covid, I attended a weekly writers’ group. We’d take turns sharing our stories and being critiqued. One night, a fellow shared a fiction piece about a male protagonist. The scene felt cloying to me: a distraught grieving widower talking at length to his wife in the cemetery.

“That’s not what it’s like,” I insisted, when it was my turn to offer advice. “I lost my husband. I should know. I sure as hell don’t hang out at his tombstone having long chats with him.”

“Really?” the fellow said, eyes smarting, obviously stung. “I read this to my wife and she cried.”

Hmmm, I thought at the time. One can fantasize all one wants. I used to do it too. Until you’ve lost a spouse? You haven’t the foggiest notion how you’ll respond.

Well, I suppose I owe this guy an apology. I think he’s moved west, so I doubt I’ll get the chance.

Since then? I’ve watched many well-done examples of this type of scene on TV. I mean, unless you’re doing a voiceover, how else is the audience supposed hear what’s going on inside the griever’s head? True, the above example is on paper; the writer could just do the omniscient thing, right?

But, who am I, who was I, to think that just because I lost a spouse I have/had the monopoly on responses to it? Eighteen years ago? Had my husband died anywhere in the vicinity of myself? In the loosey-goosey (a term he loved; he’d get on a bent with words that felt good coming from his mouth – “alacrity” is another one – and he’d use them over and over and over) way he died? I’d have been suspect numero uno.

My response to his sudden passing? Blank. Nothing. Nada.

Perhaps it was the way in which I was told. His mom said, “He didn’t make it.” The brain loves a riddle, yes? For the rest of the night my brain tried, in vain, to work this out. Didn’t make what? What didn’t he make? 

This repeated, as I called our oldest to tell her her father was gone. Because he didn’t make something. As I watched our youngest, a son, just 17, still living at home, slouched forward in his bed, long arms, fingers, extending toward heaven. “You’re telling me my father died?” No. He just didn’t make this thing. As I tracked down our middle child to figure out how to get her home. She’d just returned to Whistler, where she was living at the time, from the Vancouver airport, having picked up her boyfriend who’d been home to London, Ontario, for the funeral of a friend killed in a car accident. It was the end of November; icy snow made it a treacherous drive.

There was this: how is it possible that her boyfriend just attended a funeral and her dad, seemingly healthy, just dropped dead? These two things can’t be true. And: how can she get herself safely back to the airport? And: how can she ride in a plane, alone, knowing her father didn’t make it? Didn’t make it.

The family members gathered overnight in my kitchen, watching me make coffee like a coffee-making expert – we’ve all gotta be good at something, right? – saw what probably seemed like a normal human and not a fresh widow. No screeching. No tears, even. No tearing out of hair. Rending of clothing. Definitely not a Hollywood-worthy response. So disappointing.

I feel tremendous guilt when I watch impressive scenes of loss. Now that right there: the catch in the voice, the pained squeal, the wet eyes. Rita! Could you not have offered up something?

He didn’t make it.

This time of year rolls around again and even after almost two decades the shock of that night returns. Maybe if there’d been a warning of impending doom the response would have been different? More outwardly expressive? Proper?

I go to the cemetery. This year I go alone, which is unusual. It looks like his sister has planted new tea roses and his still has one bloom, dried and pale pink. And also? I find a sweet bud. New life. Trying to come, so hopeful, despite winter’s approach.

I pull crispy maple leaves from around the tea roses in front of his tombstone, his parents’, his nephew’s. An omniscient eye watches tears fall. The eye must have ears too because it hears this, over and over and over, “I really miss you guys.” Sometimes the “really” is emphasized. Really.

Walking over to discard the bucket of dead leaves a humongous shiny black tombstone catches my eye. You can put pictures on tombstones now. Did you know that? There’s two pictures on this one, of a cousin of Hugh’s, in a tux, and also, driving a Standardbred horse. Wow. I check the dates. Phew. There’s only one. His DOB. He’s still alive.

I go back to hang with my late husband’s tombstone for a bit. Regard the beautifully engraved horse heads on either side, at the top. Regard the four letters below “beloved husband of”: R-I-T-A. No middle name, no DOB, as though in denial that half of her ashes – her life was split in two after all – will reside here someday. With the remains of a man who loved and helped define her so long ago, with horses, with children, with all the “Heart, Spirit and Inspiration” his name could offer up.

The omniscient eye with the ears hears this: “Why?!” Over and over and over. It does not hear an answer.

Rinse and Repeat 2022-11-30T16:00:05-05:00

The Past Lurking

The older I get, the more the cheap spiral-bound notebooks pile up. They fill one and a half shelves of a book case and could suffocate me. From the year 2000, I have solid proof of The Past: a (mostly) daily journal. 

Of course, it’s not a full accounting of what took place. But it’s enough of a taste. When I reread it, or transcribe it into a word document as I’m currently doing so readers unschooled in cursive might understand it, I come back to the present altered. Like I’ve time-travelled. And not always in a good way.

We have a negative bias, us humans, right? We’ve talked about this before; it’s there to save us in times of threat. It’s possible my negative bias runs on overdrive?

In my zoom art class the other day, we discussed keeping a journal. One of the ladies shared how she recorded swaths of her kids’ lives when they were young, with a focus on the positive. I try to record my kids’ and grandkids’ lives too, but a positive focus? I wish! Suffice it to say much of my journal is complaintive (just made that word up and spellcheck is NOT impressed) as opposed to contemplative. Whah-whah-whah. I come away wondering if I’ve always been this first-class Biotch, that one right there, staring back at me, in blue, or black, or pink ink – whatever coloured pen that happened to work. I go through them. Let me tell you, pens do NOT last like they used to!

With writing, I’m a student of many great writers, and lately the teacher has been Matthew Dicks. He wrote Storyworthy. My husband B heard him interviewed on a podcast and promptly ordered his book. The second B finished it and set it down, I promptly stole it and it now sits on my book case, above The Past. The subtitle is “Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life though the Power of Storytelling”.

Dicks has numerous tips and tricks for great storytelling and one of my favourites is a thing called “Homework for Life” in which you pay attention on all of your days and find one little snippet each day that is storyworthy. 

Usually these are moments that just happen inside your head. Like the other day, my 10-year-old granddaughter and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder and head-to-head on the front porch watching a YouTube video of a newborn giraffe learning to stand. We giggled at its awkwardness. As I glowed in the feeling of being so physically close to my granddaughter, I did the math in my head. I realized that I’m older, by three years, than my maternal grandmother was when I was 10. I never sat shoulder-to-shoulder and head-to-head with her. She seemed so old to me. Because she lived on the east coast and me in Ontario, I only saw her once a year, in the summer. She had a harsh accent (it’s from Newfoundland, I found it endearing in later life); I couldn’t always understand her. Old people seemed older back then, didn’t they? In dress and demeanour? As a kid, the people I spent most of my time with were all my parents’ ages or younger. It’s a terrible shame, but people I deemed old? They scared me.

Well, I could go on and on here, dredging up how my paternal grandmother would literally “whoop” it up in a back bedroom after being gently “medicated” with drink, or the time my cousin’s grandma with dementia got lost in the smallest of bathrooms and couldn’t find her way out. You get the picture; there’s definitely a story to uncover. But what I’m trying to get at is that Dicks and his sweet wife Elysha, on their podcast, insist that keeping track of The Past is a gift to your future self. A gift? Sometimes I find it a curse.

Perhaps I’m too ruled by emotion? The days I plan to transcribe my journals I have to steel myself, give myself a good talking to, say, “Rita, you’re going on a journey. Take the emotion out of it. You’re not that woman any longer. You’re an older, wiser version. You’ve learned from your mistakes.” 

I’m also a realist. I can reread my journal from yesterday, note all the mistakes I made. Did I learn from them? Am I a better human today? Hmmm.

I’m a slow learner. The first time I tried to write a story using Dicks’ suggestions? Of contrast, surprise, ending opposite to the beginning? Oh man, I was so excited. I could not wait to read it to B, have him pat me on the back, say, “Wow. Way to go. Nailed it!”

We were sitting at the island. With wine; it was date night. Candles lit. Some wonderful culinary sensation B had created was tingling our nostrils, awakening the hunger in our bellies. 

But when I finished reading? B just shook his head in disappointment. “No. That’s not it.”

We argued about it. B won.

I put it on the blog anyway and you guys liked it, so …

Dicks has some great suggestions and they’ve been helpful. Unfortunately, every time I come up with a story idea? I discover it’s a big ol’ circle. I end up right back where I started from. With The Past, lurking. All those words in all those cheap spiral-bound notebooks crushing those shelves with the musings of a gal that was, is, and always will be little ol’ imperfect me: aiming for wiser, mostly missing the mark.

The Past Lurking 2022-11-10T14:46:05-05:00

Pierced and Tatted

“Stop,” Hugh said, quietly, into my ear. I must have been gaping.

“But I can see – ” He shushed me, accepted the popcorn and we headed toward our movie theatre.

“I could see the popcorn machine through his ears!” I said, once we were out of earshot. 

He shrugged. Said, “Yeah, well.”

This was late 90s/early aughts. My late husband and I had left the seclusion of our country home for a date night in the big city. Rainbow Cinemas. While I’m certain there’s no LGBTQ+ connection to the name? I was oblivious to rainbow symbolism then, even though I now know it originated in 1978.

What I was not oblivious to? The colourful and radical sights of the young humans in the city. It started with the ticket crew downstairs. Spiked and wildly dyed hair, in shades of purple, pink and green. Tattoos on necks, arms. Piercings everywhere! Nose, lips, tongues. And then those crazy plugs on the guy running the snack counter. They open up the earlobes, like I’d seen in pictures of African Masai warriors in National Geographic as a kid. This is how young people are expressing themselves now?!

I thought back to when Hugh came to pick me up for our first date. I pulled my mom aside, said sternly, “Not one word about his hair.” That was the mid-70s. He just so happened to have extremely frizzy hair and Afros just so happened to be in style. He’d managed to grow his into an envious – for many of his male friends – foot in diameter. His super power at the time? Diving into a swimming pool, resurfacing, shaking his head and having that ‘fro bounce right back, completely dry, into its pre-dive round shape.

As teenagers, we were insistent on our Levis (although mine were Lees, could never seem to pull the budget together for Levis). And also platform shoes. Hugh’s had daisies on the toes. These personal statements – of hair, clothing – were not permanent though. Hair can (usually) grow back. Clothing is not even attached. You stretch out those earlobes? You can’t return them to that pre-stretched shape!

Shortly after the movie date, my two teenage girls started asking, “When can I get my belly button pierced?” At the time, they had conventional piercings – a wee one in each ear – which I’d happily taken them to get years prior.

As a parent, sometimes you need to take strong stances on things. “You can get anything pierced,” I told them, doling out some hope. I continued, “Go ahead. Get a bunch of tattoos too. As soon as you move out.”

Did they think I didn’t know? Hadn’t seen the staff at Rainbow Cinemas? Hadn’t heard the tale of my younger daughter’s friend, a beautiful and intelligent girl, who’d surprised (and seriously upset her parents) when she came home with a tongue piercing? A tongue piercing?!

The stalemate on this with my daughters lasted a year or so. A sister-in-law told me one day how she and her friends had gotten belly piercings, for their 40th birthdays. She showed me. It looked really pretty, really cool. Hmmm.

I thought, well, maybe I could change my stance on this? I know! I’ll surprise the girls one day, make appointments and we’ll have a girls’ day out.

A short while later, my oldest daughter came into the kitchen one weekend morning as I made breakfast. She reached up, to hang her jacket on the hook by the door. And there, gleaming in the rising sun? Above her jeans and below her T-shirt? A belly piercing!

“You bum!” I said.

“What?” she said, all wide-eyed innocence.

I had a better look at it. We have a history of bad skin in the family. Eczema, etc. It was a tad red at the upper site. Studying it, I realized it had to go through so much skin, I could never go for it. Besides, I still had some (still do!) baby-carrying fat to shed.

She didn’t get the chewing out I’m sure she expected, but I did let her feel bad that we didn’t have a girls’ day out.

In the years before they flew from the nest, the girls tried some other piercings – lip, nose – and my son pierced his ears. I overheard them talk about friends and acquaintances with ear plugs, how “cool” they looked. But they never tried it. 

Tattoos? I don’t know if they were ever on the wish list, but after their father died we discussed creating a memorial tattoo. We decided this was the most permanent way we could honour him and be united in our grief. What would it look like?

Since he’d loved horses, had owned, worked with and driven Standardbreds for years, we settled on a Pegasus. We put his initials on the wings. A design was drawn up that we all agreed on and my older daughter had the first appointment.

It did cross my mind, well, if it turns out bad I could bail. But, it was beautiful. I had mine etched onto the inside of my leg, just above my left ankle, below my heart.

Piercings and tattoos have only grown in popularity over the last couple of decades. My husband B and I chatted with a work colleague of his the other night and I did not even gape at his ear plugs. My son-in-law has numerous tattoos on his chest and arms. They tell a story; have much meaning for him. The body as canvas.

Like our homes, our bodies carry the dents and scratches of a life well-lived, don’t they? Heading into old age – B prefers to call it “eldership” – I have scars from stitches, pierced ears with holes slightly sagging, a tattoo, eczema fingers, abundant skin wrinkles, neck wattles and a belly that proves I once carried three babies to term.

Every generation finds a way to shock their elders, prove they’re unique, make a statement, leave an imprint. And while it may seem permanent? In the end? Well, I planned to say nothing is permanent, but guess what? I just discovered that, according to the Laws of Conservation of Mass and Energy,  science proves neither matter nor energy are created or destroyed. They’re merely transformed.

Pierced and Tatted 2022-09-30T11:06:09-04:00

Murder Your Thirst

Traveled lately? Paid for it? I’ve talked to many who have.

My husband B and I were still blissfully unaware of the cost, thank goodness, as he drove us back through the lush rolling hills of upstate New York. (We’d joked about Herschel Walker’s anti-tree gaffe on the way down. “Herschel’s right! There are enough trees!”) We were full to bursting with friendship, joy and music after attending a 3-day outdoor music festival on Martha’s Vineyard, where all our favourite bands had played. At a stop in Syracuse, we scarfed down the “godfather” pizza – caramelized onions, sausage and mildly spicy peppers – and listened to a young girl with an acoustic guitar. Her voice echoed Jewel-like in the new warehouse-style space. She even sang a Jason Isbell song, one he’d just sung to us, “Cover Me Up”:

So girl, leave your boots by the bed
We ain’t leaving this room
Til someone needs medical help
Or the magnolias bloom

Okay, assuming these are relatively healthy people and it’s not early spring? Is this not just about the sexiest thing ever written?!

B was in a slapdash hurry to get back to our room at the A-Loft, but not for the above reasons. And to be clear, I’d be leaving sandals by the bed, not boots. He filed his work report, due the following morning, and crawled into bed to sleep. I watched Serena win the first of her US Open singles matches.

The next day? B was clearing his throat, clearing his throat. But the sure sign something was amiss? He asked me to drive. He eased the seat back, slept. Of course, all the time he’d driven the weather had been clear, while for me? Buckets of rain gushed from the heavens, hindering visibility and frazzling my nerves.

As soon as we got home, B had the test kit out. It took the full 15 minutes, but there it was, the faint second line confirming he had Covid. I tested myself. Negative. I was tired; I put it off to traveling.

The next morning my throat was full to bursting with razor blades. I did another test. Negative. No matter. I was unwell.

After two and a half years of a raging pandemic, one can get complacent. Feel a tad superior, perhaps? I’d see headlines about it. Haven’t had Covid yet? We want to study you! I thought B and I were special somehow. We work out a lot, eat well, take immune-supporting supplements. But as it turns out, we’re just mere mortals, like everyone else on the planet, and completely vulnerable to the whims of this weird illness.

And I’ve talked to others about this too. The best position from which to endure Covid? Flat on one’s back, a super-comfy pillow under the head and a throw pulled up under the chin. That is: not moving.

What can you accomplish in this position? 

Doomscroll! My Twitter friends told me: Agent Orange still free, talking, blah-blah-blah. Dark Brandon still getting sh*t done. War in Ukraine still on (but, as you know, they are now kicking some serious Russian assets). The doomsday glacier still hanging on by fingertips I did not know it had.

Binge Netflix, AppleTV, Prime! I prefer nature docs when I’m feeling down, so I watched David Attenborough’s Prehistoric Planet. Did you know dinosaur birds walked around on elbows and feet? Did you know sauropods may have had bizarre inflatable sacs that popped out on their long necks for mating? I watched The Elephant Queen, because elephants are just so darn cute. Dung beetles too, if you can get over the fact that what they’re rolling into that perfect ball is, well, dung. At least you can’t smell it through the TV.

The days went by and the shows piled up: I recommend Wild Wild Country and The Last Days, but the “something for laughs” I started, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is pretty darn silly.

I had to admit, it was efficient that B and I were both sick at the same time. He’s a great person to be sick with because he doesn’t complain and he remembers to smile from time to time, which I forget when I’m feeling miserable.

As you probably know from reading my blogs, B is the cook, but because we were both feeling lousy, we took turns. It went like this: B made chicken soup from scratch. I heated up a frozen pizza. B cooked a whole chicken. I slapped some peanut butter on bread. But, I did make the bread!

After the excruciating headache cleared I was able to read from that comforting supine position. Looking for Jane is an incredible debut novel by Heather Marshall. Set in Toronto, it’s an important and timely discussion about abortion rights. From Russia with Blood by Heidi Blake is a work of nonfiction which expertly delves into the “Kremlin’s ruthless assassination program” and reads like in a spy thriller.

After a few days, B and I took a walk around the smallest block. We came back so spaced out we had to sit and recuperate with hot lemon ginger tea with honey. After our first fully upright day? We spent a couple of days slothing around again.

I’d been warned the first 48 hours are the worst and that was true. I’d been warned it lingers and that was true.

And now, a couple of weeks post-Covid, I feel immense gratitude. That we didn’t get IT until this year, that we’ve had the opportunity for vaccines and a booster, that we have a mighty fine home in which to be sick, that the nearby grocery store delivers.

I’d feel grateful about getting the illness over with, but dang, you can get IT more than once. So, travel safely. Keep your boosters up to date. And if your throat is ever full to bursting with razor blades, murder that thirst with hot tea, cold ginger ale, or perhaps some cool Liquid Death as in the website photo. The organizers of Beach Road Weekend, the music festival we attended, served water in aluminum cans, not plastic. Not only does it feel badass to drink your water this way – it’s like drinking a tallboy – it’s the most ecological choice. Did you know that about 75% of all the aluminum ever made is still in use today?

Murder Your Thirst 2022-09-16T10:41:53-04:00

The Drop In

If her place wasn’t on my way home, or going somewhere, well it was just around the country corner. Why not drop in? I was always welcome. Greeted with a smile, fuchsia pink if her lipstick was on. The scents were earthy and homegrown: potatoes, juicy fat tomatoes, Dove soap.

If it was morning? She’d pour coffee, old style. Percolated. Black. Cream and sugar? No way. A woman did not need those extra calories. If I hadn’t eaten? I’d get breakfast too. Traditional: eggs, bacon, home fries, toast.

If it was late afternoon? She’d pour a rye and ginger. Perhaps dinner if I had no plans: a fresh salad from the garden, roasted meat and veg, boiled potatoes. With so many people always dropping by the farm, food was abundant in that house.

As was conversation. If it was just the two of us? She’d prod, want to know. What is going on?

Oh gee, I said. This guy at work is driving me nuts.

Well why?

Well the horse races are heating up, I told her. There’s more races than ever now. I’m having trouble keeping up. It’s hard. Getting all those details down, the press releases out in time.

Hmmm, she said. Sipped her coffee. You know, Rita. Here she looked me in the eye, to see my truth. You can do it. You’re a good writer. You can do better.

Hmmm, I thought. She’s right.

I went to work that day and did better. Because she believed in me, which made me believe in me. I have a tendency to overthink things, make them more complicated than necessary. And I sometimes, well oftentimes, bring too much emotion to situations. Our coffee talk helped me focus, simplify.

She was always teaching me. I thought she was teaching me to become the person she was. For my kids, their spouses, their kids. I mean, I had a big enough house, over there. Three kids, just like her. Who’s to say they won’t be dropping in on me one day, just like this, for coffee talk?

Things don’t always turn out the way you expect, though. First, her youngest son, my husband, died mid-sentence, mid-laugh, mid-life. Then, she was diagnosed with cancer. That disease attacked her quickly, without mercy. And being the person she was? She showed no weakness, to me anyway. Was strong, stoic. Kept as busy as she could, crocheting skeins of wool into afghans so fast it’s a wonder she didn’t set the house on fire.

Always teaching. Before the diagnosis? How to be a lady. I know I’m more than capable of opening my own car door, she once told me. But, if a man wants to do it for me? That feels so good, so special. Why not let him?

On a discussion about celebrities getting face lifts, tummy tucks, etc. What ever happened to growing old gracefully? she asked.

While she was graceful in aging, unfortunately she didn’t get to grow that old. Her final teachings to me: how to accept a grave diagnosis. How to die. Gracefully.

And the teachings expanded from her to him, her husband, who I’d always fiercely respected, but saw as more assertive than gentle. It’s an image that won’t go. A man, married 50 years to a woman, who was fading before us like a frail bird. There, there, he said, as he tenderly placed orange slices, plump and succulent, into her mouth.

For years after, he became the one I dropped in on. He poured me coffee from a Thermos in the warm room at the barn. We sat on over-turned plastic buckets, lamenting our losses. I don’t see any way around it, he told me. You’re just going to have to go on. I watched him; I tried it. Eventually got the hang of it.

After he left us, I sold the house, the big one, over there. Two of my three kids moved west. I met and married a man way more interested in spending time in the kitchen than me.

The other day, I dropped in at my daughter’s place around noon. Am I in time for lunch? I joked as their giant golden doodle, Archie, tried to knock me over at the front door. He loves when I visit. My daughter’s son, six, was smiling like a Cheshire cat over a set of kids’ golf clubs his dad had gotten from a co-worker. The girls, 10 and eight now, had just come inside from playing and were sprawled in the TV room watching a kids’ show on Netflix.

I sat at their huge island and my daughter made me a latte. (With the growth of coffee culture, I’ve discovered it tastes pretty yummy to froth up the coffee from time to time.) After filling plates for her kids she made us a salad and toasted bagels. We yakked away, about the Elvis movie (loved it!), the remarkable images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the price of cherries (her younger daughter explained it’s due to the pandemic and inflation), family gossip.

Driving home, with a full belly-heart-mind, it hit me. Perhaps the drop in skipped a generation! She’s it now. My daughter is the drop in!

Memories of that warm farmhouse and cool barn prevail. There are times, still, when I picture all of us – my late husband’s family and friends – sitting out in the family room on a Friday night with drinks and Tony’s pizza, yakking and laughing away. The images are so vivid sometimes, I feel that it’s a place I could actually get back to, drop in on again. But time, like us, must go on. The page turns. People and scenes get shuffled around, new memories get plunked atop the old.

The Drop In 2022-08-09T14:47:29-04:00