Mirror Mirror

I Feel Bad About My Neck. When Nora Ephron, best known for her romantic comedy films like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, was approximately my age, she wrote a book with this title. For me, this sentiment has crept up as the skin under my neck has crept down. It walloped especially hard the other day when I made the mistake of using one of those magnifying mirrors.

Horror of horrors, those mirrors should all be smashed to smithereens, yes? I’ll take the risk on the bad luck.

Is it an angle thing? Tell me it’s an angle thing. I look in a normal mirror? I see me. Zoom? Me. iPhone selfies? Some much older gal, definitely not me!

I was at a gf’s condo in Toronto, getting ready to go out. I picked up that damned magnifying mirror to check for stray hairs – there’s always stray hairs where you don’t want them, but the place you want more hair, like on your head? It keeps falling and falling.

I gasped. I did not fling. I flipped it to the normal mirror side, felt a wee bit better. Flipped it back. Yikes! I prodded those pillowy hills and valleys – where the frig did they all come from?! – and sure enough, hairs of varying colours were lurking. White. Blonde. Black.

The gf who would own such a mirror is aging as meticulously as possible, armed with lotions and potions and gadgets galore. She has patiently explained to me about the retinol and collagen while I nod politely.

Looking in the mirror of horror I fear it may be too late for me. I should have been paying more attention, like her.

Her new thing? Infrared lights. You strap this gizmo onto your face – it looks cat-like – and it beams red lights that plump up your collagen, which is several layers under your skin. I think. Last time I visited, she showed me this electronic thing that I almost electrocuted myself on. You roll it up under your neck over and over, to tighten the skin, defy gravity.

Gravity is a powerful force.

The guys who wrote Younger Next Year – Chris Crowley & Henry S. Lodge, M.D. – admit that, while their program of exercise, diet and maintaining emotional connections will help you age in the best of all possible ways? It won’t do a GD thing about the wattles.

wattle: noun “a fleshy wrinkled and often brightly colored fold of skin hanging from the neck or throat of certain birds (chickens or turkeys) or lizards”.

When English men refer to women as “birds” it sounds flattering. There’s nothing flattering about being an old bird. Or lizard, which is precisely the texture of the skin I’m in as I age.

Should I stop wearing necklaces? Surely people prefer to study actual foothills as opposed to those formed of epidermis? Certainly I should stop wearing my black Swarovski bracelet that I just learned doubled as a choker as a choker? More scarves? A new hair style? A bob might do the trick?

Surgery? As Cher sang, “If I could turn back time . . .” Cher can afford to turn back time.

“If a person isn’t going to do the retinol,” my gf told me, “the next best thing is to work out regularly.”

I’m back to Younger Next Year with a side of wattles.

“Whatever happened to growing old gracefully?” my first mother-in-law once said when we were on the topic of celebrities getting work done. She was trying to show me how to do this, but sadly the big C got her before she got old.

My sister, who’s nine years younger than me, so pretty much wattle-less, says, “Well, I’m not looking in a mirror all day long. I’m not seeing what I look like, other people are. They can deal with it.”

The hard part is the memory of what was. Youth. Youth truly is wasted on the young.

I have an image of what I look like and it is NOT what stares back at me in one of those horrifying magnifying mirrors!

Perhaps I’ll go back to practising headstands, a lot, like when I was nine-years-old? Maybe if I do them long enough each day? By the time I’m 100, the gravitational pull on my neck will be reversed.

Mirror Mirror 2023-05-26T15:44:04-04:00

An Authentic Fraud

The necklace is real. The person wearing it? A fraud.

Fifteen sparkling diamond chips adorn the bridle of an 18-carat gold horse head, racing forever toward her heart when she puts it on.

Ah, she loved them, sure, the ponies. From a distance: a stable (pun intended) supporting cast member. She mucked stalls under close supervision. Learned the difference between hay (heavy, greenish, munchable) and straw (lighter, yellowish, a bedding product).

She helped at the races, sometimes even washing them down after, and walking them so they could “make their water”. But she never put equipment on them on her own, never drove them. To be completely honest? Their sheer size and power frightened the hell out of her.

And that was what he surely embraced. Size. Power.

And possibility!

“Mark my words,” he’d say, reaching for the calendar. (No smart phones then; always a calendar on the wall. A sentimental gal, she tended to pick Norman Rockwell.) “This horse will be the one to pay the mortgage.” And he would write it there, to give solidity to the dream.

When that horse didn’t – because of course “you can’t measure the size of their heart” he’d acknowledge, running a gentle hand along a yearling’s back, over its rump, down its tender legs at the fall sales – surely the next one would.

“You look, you buy, you bugger,” his father would say, concerned about precarious cash flows on the son’s behalf. But what true horse lover could stay away from the excitement of the fall sales? There was the preparation: studying catalogues, pedigrees. And the electric buzz in the air at the sale itself, the auctioneer’s encouraging prattle a constant soundtrack.

Her accounting and office managerial skills prepared her well for secretarial duties in this regard. While he chatted with grooms and poked and prodded, she took copious notes for him to study back at the hotel. 

She’d learned to do this at the races too, while observing other good supporting cast members early in her horse career. Every race in the program was marked: who got away first, who got boxed in, all quarter-mile times and order of finish duly noted.

She did such a good job she even wrote about the ponies, interviewing people in the industry for various trade journals and pumping out press releases for the Ontario Sires Stakes program one season. (If she wasn’t sure what someone meant when they said something, she had a horse expert at home to clarify.)

He’d bought her fine jewellery over the years. You must understand. He was a salesman himself, trained by traditional salespeople of the Mad Men era. How did you show the world you were doing well? A fine car. Luxury goods for the wife. A fur. Pearls perhaps.

They were at their favourite standardbred horse race. The Little Brown Jug, Delaware, Ohio. There are bigger races with bigger purses. Ah, but this one, to them, was the creme de la creme. Known as the “fastest half-mile track in the world”, it has a small-town feel that the other jewels in the Triple Crown lack. They’d cruise down with friends and family, make bets, drink too much. She even wore a press pass for a couple of years, interviewed their heroes. (And there’s a fictional thriller that revolves around this horse race collecting dust in a drawer somewhere in her house.)

He purchased it at one of the fine jewellers trackside. It was a tad embarrassing, being gifted this tremendously expensive-looking piece while coated in that fine Delaware dirt, people looking on.

But she was the type who always wanted to look like she belonged. She wore the t-shirts of her kids’ various teams, bought horsey things – boots, belts, t-shirts – herself.

There was no way to know it would be the last jewellery purchase. No way to know that “mark my words” would be muted forever a couple of months later when his sudden death became the cataclysmic thing that paid the mortgage.

It was a home prone to break-ins. A couple of years after he died, thieves came while she was out for a quick lunch on a snowy day and left the gate open. Hilariously, she noted that the rock that got thrown through the front window to gain entry was the very same one that covered the house key – still sitting there – on the front window sill.

So many pieces he’d given her over the years – pearls, a Raymond Weil watch, the dolphin-wrapped black pearl from Tahiti – gone. The horse? Remains. 

His expensive hobby is her expensive necklace. Solidity to a dream. Reminding her that although the failure of his own Texas-sized heart ended his dream of a big-hearted racehorse, it was the chasing of the dream that mattered.

An Authentic Fraud 2023-05-05T09:01:07-04:00

One Piece at a Time

Can you experience grief on behalf of someone who’s been dead for almost two decades?

I got word of a friend’s ill health the other day. He was a childhood friend of my late husband Hugh – their parents were close, the kids all hung out, played in family yards together.

I got to know him – let’s call him Wes – in high school, when Hugh and I started dating. Oh, there was a feeling you’d get when you skipped school, huh? What is there in this world, in life, that can ever hope to recreate that feeling of pure bliss? Freedom? Wild abandon? Wes’s folks were somewhere, Florida maybe? Who cared, they weren’t there. We’d have a drink, a toke, listen to our albums: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. We were hangin’ with our friends, man. Nothing else mattered.

Wes is a kind and gentle soul with a goofy kind of laugh. The kind of guy who calls you up then you have to do all the talking. His brother recently said something to the effect of him not being blessed with an overabundance of energy. (Without Jazzercise in my life? I fear my siblings might say the same about me.)

After high school, like several of our male friends, Wes followed the sage and historic advice of New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” Of course, it was a different time, a different country even, but there’s oil out there and dammit these young men planned to benefit financially from proximity to it. As I recall, just like the others, Wes returned a year or two later, richer in experience but not wealth, and sorely in need of several decent nights’ sleep. Even the sweet ride he went out with – a new Jeep? – looked exhausted coming home. That is, if it even made it back to Ontario.

We’re not known for oil around here, but there’s plenty of gravel in them there farm fields. Wes’s family farm was surrounded by pits and Wes took a decent-paying job with a big gravel company. He eventually owned a cute little house in the north end of the city where he held an infamous “toga” party. I’d never been to one. It’s a simple premise, you just find a sheet and wear it. And wear what you want – or not! – underneath. I believe it was around this time that Wes came close to finding the love of his life, but she moved on for some reason and Wes continued being a bachelor.

He did things for me after Hugh died, like changing the oil in my motorcycle and warning me I needed new tires. He had me and a close gf of mine over for dinner one night. He was living in a wee house beside his parents’ homestead then. He cooked us a fine meal and showed us the various projects he had going on, like a vegetable garden and canning and beverage-making.

Apparently he had a lot of projects going on when he moved way north in Ontario several years later to be with family. There was no rush. Another friend tells me he’d load up his trailer and drive up there, come back, and do it all again. Over and over. It reminds me of the old Johnny Cash tune “One Piece at a Time”. It’s about a guy working at an auto plant in Detroit, sneaking out the parts for a fine Cadillac, one piece at at time, in his lunchbox. “I’d get it one piece at a time and it wouldn’t cost me a dime, You’ll know it’s me when I come through your town, I’m gonna ride around in style, I’m gonna drive everybody wild, ‘Cause I’ll have the only one there is around.”

Wes was working on an old pick-up truck. And planning to do a lot of fishing.

Wes has been in a hospital in the north since January. One of his legs had to be removed above the knee due to an infection. And he had a recent operation due to the discovery of cancer.

I chatted with a few friends about it. Wes has understandably been pretty down in the dumps and family is requesting we send things to cheer him up. After hanging up the phone, I thought about Wes’s life, and how his old buddy Hugh, gone so very long now, is seemingly oblivious to our sufferings down here. I pictured the pair of them, young boys, running around with their stick guns playing cowboys and Indians (sorry, that’s what we called it), their futures crammed with the promise of more adventures than a Western movie. I saw them so clearly: sweet innocent faces, tousled hair, dirty dungarees. The image was so powerful, I could even smell the outdoors on them.

The ache I felt in my chest at that moment threatened to fell me.

I’d just been to the cemetery the night before. I had these garden ornaments that glow in the dark – a blue peace sign for Hugh, a pink flower for his parents, a colourful bug for a nephew – and the ground had softened enough, I figured I could stick them in. I’m a cemetery talker now, so I told Hugh, as I wandered to his cold stone on that godforsaken windy, frigid hill, “Well, our daughter’s 40 now. You missed it.” And at that very moment? The threatening clouds parted and the sun burst through. As if to say, “No. I did not.”

And so it goes. The heart shatters, then, when there’s no rush and you just keep on living? The passage of time smooths the shards, over and over again, like pebbles on a beach. One piece at a time.

One Piece at a Time 2023-04-04T12:39:05-04:00

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.


“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


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, “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, “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