Labour Day Weekend: reflections

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA(And yes, I can spell. It’s just that I follow a different tradition. Stubbornly, it seems.)

The dreaded weekend has come. The end of summer. A cacophony (strictly speaking a ‘murder’) of crows announced it this morning.

Oh, sure, we can assure ourselves that September can be the best of summer still, but that’s bravado, positive thinking gone rogue. Realistically, we know the light is failing. Vegetable gardens started telling us that weeks ago. Here at least, at 43.7° N. where the squash and cucumber vines have died back and the tomatoes are refusing to ripen. I can no longer count on light at 6 a.m. and the evening moves faster into night.

There were more swallows than ever sweeping across the sky two evenings ago, as they fatten up to cross the big lake and leave these shores. This evening, they may be gone. And it doesn’t help that I know they will come back to Capistrano on March 19th next year. It’s at 33° N and the swallows take another 40 days to get here.

Autumnal, that’s the word. ‘An early autumn walks the land/ And chills the breeze/And touches with her hand/The summer trees….’ etc. ( Courtesy Johnny Mercer) I would say it is all the more affecting because I am in the autumn of my life, but that would be false. The autumn of my life, I glimpse only in the rear view mirror. While I sometimes question how many more springs there are left, I never ask how many falls.

This weekend, the skies above are rent by low flying fighter jets, as the annual air show gets underway. While there are those who love the thrill of a group of jets roaring just above rooftop, I am not one of them, although I admit there is no need for coffee and the pumping adrenaline more than offsets the weary wintery-ness of age.

In the spirit of the occasion, let us consider Labour Day weekends past. Here in at 43.7° N., school begins on the Tuesday after Labour Day now as it did over 70 years ago when I started. My mother and I had planned that I would wear my sailor dress, light blue with a navy blue sailor’s collar and a narrow red stripe, and she would walk with me, holding my hand and teach me how to cross the street in our little town. The best laid plans and all that. Turned out my mother was far away in a maternity ward of the hospital that morning when I woke up. I was outraged. How could she? I was fed breakfast by my cousin next door and towed unwillingly to school by the grade 3-er across the street. Very early indeed, in case her friends saw her with my lowly grade 1-self, sailor dress or not.

The upside of this was that every Labour Day thereafter I got to celebrate my sister’s birthday. In addition, my mother’s betrayal led me to bond with Miss Graham, my teacher, to such an extent that I continued returning to school for the next 50 years, as student and teacher.

The year that I gave that up going back to school the day after Labour Day was so traumatic that I could deal with it only by setting out to drive across the continent to Los Angeles. Crossing the border in my heavy laden Tercel I was knocked sideways by the American border guard. (Metaphorically that is.) He was worried about whether I had green apples and where my ex-husband was at the moment. No and don’t know. He successfully banished all first-day-of-school nostalgia quite out of my head.

Driving across the continent by yourself takes a while, the sun streaming in through the driver’s side window, day after day. Mind boggled by the wide rivers and the deep canyons and the endless oppressive desert. Terrified of falling asleep at the wheel, of taking a wrong turn on a freeway. My expensive car phone without service most of the time. Then just so tired, I had to hole up and sleep in a well air-conditioned ‘better’ motel where the furniture wasn’t bolted to the floor. When I finally emerged and drove down off the Santa Monica Freeway to glimpse the Pacific, I had left my school self behind. But what did I discover in my daughter’s house? No not green apples! My ex-husband!  Just what the border guard feared. A reconstitution  of a family separated for 15 years for the purpose of defrauding the U.S. government. Somehow.

This year, I have other plans. My sister and I are going to return to the mountains of Quebec’s Eastern Townships where we were born. Her birthday treat. Not that there is family there any more. Well, maybe one. Eighty eight he’d be, if still extant. And the old house we loved isn’t tidy and white any more. The barn is just a heap, a mound of earth where the ramp to the haymow was. My grandfather’s fields, cleared with such killing effort, have been put back to trees. Unbelievably, actually planted with trees! You can barely see our slope-shouldered mountain for the woods. Nevertheless, we will drive the gravel roads and breathe the spruce air and feel our native earth beneath our feet.

And these two one-upon-a-time teachers will take solace in an excellent hotel on Lake Massawippi where the furniture is definitely not bolted to the floor.

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Septuagenarians in the Wilderness: part 3

Everything changes.

The cast of characters first. The young family exits. Errant parent is waiting in the parking lot of the hibachi restaurant to carry partner and children off. The next day, the twenty somethings rush back to their busy lives. On the holiday Monday, two more leave with the dog, so for one night, Georgia and I have the cottage to ourselves, while my niece retreats to the cabin. No dog, no kids! Not even any trains hooting at the crossing!

On Tuesday the cast begins to swell again as two of Georgia’s friends arrive. On Wednesday, I sit by the phone waiting for my brother to fly in from Europe. His first call on landing assures me he had lost his luggage. On the next call, he has found his bag, but his rental car has no GPS. On the third call, he is on the road, ignoring my route instructions and on a highway I don’t even know. Here is a man who can fill all dog/kid/train deficits. (See post I dream of Etherica.)

And the season changes.

What had been high summer abruptly becomes early autumn. The temperature plummets overnight and it begins to rain. It hasn’t rained for nearly 3 months. It is so dry there is a fire ban and holiday fireworks are cancelled. It is so dry that some trees have already turned orange in early August. Now it rains steadily. One could say relentlessly.

This doesn’t stop the daily production of gourmet meals nor even shut down the barbecue on the deck. Rob grills teriyaki salmon while someone holds an umbrella over him. Nor does it stop great conversation. He hasn’t come home for 3 years, so we have a lot to catch up on. And it doesn’t stop reading. I finish an early Lynley mystery by Elizabeth George in record time. There is even some canoeing, which involves much tipping, drenching and subsequent recovery. But it puts an end to beach sitting. The canopy and umbrella -wearing an improvised neck brace- look sad and wet. No high flying sallies!

Even the birds seem too wet to fly. I come upon a covey of quail feeding on the edge of the woods, softly mewing to each other, utterly unafraid of me. It’s their woods.

Driving back from the village I drift to a stop: there is a deer standing in the middle of the narrow dirt road, calmly gazing at me. By the time I have found my iPhone, she has quietly vanished into the trees.

I stop before I go up the steps to the cottage and enjoy the trees, tall, slim, steadfast in spite of human intrusion, breathing peacefully, exhaling something healing.

Then it is Friday, time to go. Time to pack the cooler, the suitcase, the duffle bag and the dozen or so bags of groceries, pills, books. And that’s just my list. There are 4 cars to load. The fridge has to be sorted. My niece sits in front of the open door and Rob holds a garbage bag. If food is still edible, it goes back to whoever brought it. Some of it is unidentifiable and that goes into the big garbage bag. When they need someone to break a tie, they appeal to me.

When the fridge is empty, Rob and I suit up for a rainy run to the dump. When we arrive we study the sign detailing hours of operation. The landfill site is open 6 days a week. Can you guess which day it is closed? We decide not to tell Georgia. When I talk to Rob on the phone next day, and ask what he has done with the garbage, he replies he’s just going to leave it where it is and return it with the rental. As usual, I believe him for a split second.

Meanwhile Georgia and my niece have been cleaning the bamboo floors and making the beds with clean sheets. The beds are no problem, but carrying that mess of bags out to the cars involves a good deal of wiping up footprints. By now we don’t notice how wet we are, but an idea is blossoming in our minds: for the price Georgia paid, she shouldn’t have to play char as well.

We are ready to go, standing in the rain, realizing we don’t want to head off in three different directions yet. We decide to eat lunch together. We form a caravan, Rob in the middle, Georgia in the lead, to look for a restaurant up Parry Sound way. As soon as we hit the highway, Georgia jack-rabbits off so fast that Rob can barely keep up with her and he’s a European. I squint through the rain to keep them in view and we race up hill and down dale on rain-slick roads. So much for the stereotype  of doddery, slow old drivers! It goes on and on. I’m getting hungry. We pass a closed restaurant. We pass a boat dealership in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, a sign tells us we have arrived at Highway 400. We pull onto the shoulder. Georgia and I get out and converge on Rob’s open window. We cancel lunch. Anything to stop the rain pouring down inside our collars.

One by one, we head south on the freeway. Slowly I am remembering that there are no exits with services for many miles and I am down to 2 bars on my gas gauge and starving. Half an hour later, I see an exit offering gas and food. It’s the exit to the railway town we left an hour ago. CANNOT go back there.

I assure myself that I still have a quarter of a tank and surely it can’t be that far to the next gas station. It is. I do see an exit to the Wahta Mohawk cranberry barn, a source of cranberry muffins perhaps but not gas. I sail past. It’s no use, music doesn’t distract me. Anxiety is creeping up on me in spite of self-talk. I can’t talk me down. Well, it’s 2 p.m., me answers back. You haven’t fed me. What do you expect?

Much later. Much much later, a gas sign and a fork and knife sign – the bed sign is irrelevant – and I swing off the highway into Port Severn. Which way to go now? Something tells me left. Yes, following a curving street, I come upon a marina advertising the Driftwood Cafe. Me first, car second.

The Driftwood Cafe has a screened porch for a diningroom. Very chilly. But look, I am being ushered onto a side porch with closed windows and heater. Oh, bliss! I am looking out on the marina basin where a fountain of water is rising in graceful curves and falling back to its source. A mist hangs over the boats. Here the Trent-Severn Waterway ends its 400 kilometre journey from Lake Ontario, in Georgian Bay across the highway.  I am in a watery world.

While I wait for my hot Tom turkey sandwich on ciabatta, I register my dismay at being on my own so suddenly.

When I was 2 years-old, I lived in an old farm house with 3 generations of my family, the only child. I liked it. When I fell head over heels downstairs, my great uncle caught me in midair. When my mother got sulky, my great grandmother helped me set my doll’s table. When we moved into our own house, I used to build domino towers with a level for each set of grandparents. My mother hated the idea.

Perhaps we have lost the knack if we ever actually had it. I noticed that someone turned the toilet paper roll the other way around every time I put it on. Correctly of course! Or was that just paranoia? I did catch someone rewashing the sink I had not only just washed but announced as well. How do the sister-wives manage?

So I await my lunch as the rain does its pathetic fallacy thing and mirrors my mood.

I will no doubt see Rob several times before he flies back. I will talk to Georgia several times a week as usual. I will go back to the tai chi club, which is family in its way. I will have Blake for dinner. I may even go sailing with him, but just for now, melancholy settles in.

In the kitchen 6 young people, the cook and wait staff, are drawing straws for some unpleasant job and shrieking with laughter. They’ve got plans for the late night hours after closing time.

Oh, give it up my friend. There will be warmer, dryer days. There will be other summers. There will be other burning chef’s hats. We’re a good way yet from closing time.

Septuagenarians on the Road: part 2

Checking in is simple when the room has been paid for since January. Now to find it. We are not on the fourth floor where the rest of our family is. We are on the ground floor in a wing that runs out to the back. Okay, down the stairs, whoa! seems like a dead end, turn right, turn left, ah, a corridor with rooms on either side. But a pattern has been established: for the entire weekend we will feel as if we are caught in a giant maze. Figuring out how to get to the right parking lot so that we can bring our bags in through the patio door takes all three of us, scouts and outriders.

And what have we bought for $200 a night? Let’s see. No terry cloth robe as Georgia hoped. No minibar fridge. No queen-sized beds but, yes, there is a ‘cot’ standing on end like an escaped Murphy bed and when it is wheeled over to the window and let down to horizontal, it proves to be at least as comfortable as the beds, if not more. Georgia pulls down the covers on it and discovers she can see the mattress through the sheet. She and I stare in wonder. I pull down the covers on my bed. Same diff, as we used to say. Well, at least the mattress looks clean and works fine. The three of us collapse as one. What a pleasure to feel circulation in our feet.

There is a certain amount of uncertainty, of the sort I would experience if I were at a house party in one of the great English houses. Where to go, what to do? There is no library to hang out in on the chance of meeting others, but there is a lobby and the breakfast tables there. Feeling a little rested, I go back up the byzantine route and find my daughter has arrived, having flown across the continent. General rejoicing. But she is to have dinner with the groom and his father’s family. So back to the room. My son had called in to ask us to eat with him and his girl. Blake has said we aren’t hungry yet.

“I’m starving,” I object. So we go to Applebys next door where my son said they were going. Can’t see him. Have to wait for half an hour in the bar. Finally get our table. Once we have ordered, look over at the people across the aisle who are inexplicably waving. It is them.

Georgia has in fact brought her own terry robe and pjs although she hates them, out of deference and modesty. Blake’s nightwear are his black skivvies, the size of a speedo. Fortunately, his body looks as lean and muscular as it did at 18. He does not notice her eyebrows disappear into her hairline.

Blake has cautioned us so often about how often he gets up in the night that we give him the bed next to the bathroom. Blake sleeps like a log, never stirring all night long. So does Georgia. I do not. After one trip with my tiny flashlight, I lie listening to them. Blake has worked up a snore that sounds on the out breath as if he is being murdered, a desperate cry from a cut throat. I listen to ten such expostulations. Enough!

“Blake, turn over,” I command, sotto voce. He stops. He stirs. He opens his eyes.

“Why,” he asks.

In the morning, we find each other in the lobby and consider the continental breakfast. My son and his wife partake and then take off on their bicycles. The rest of us go into town for real food. And we tour the Emily Dickinson house (see “A Poem a Day Keeps Blues Away”) Then my daughter hands me her iPhone which she has programed to lead us to Shutesbury and her son’s home that afternoon.

But first, we three septuagenarians (one only in training mind you) need to have a time out. The room looks pretty much as it had when we left. One bed is tucked in. The other two not so much. There is another blanket as I requested and extra bath towels, but all of the hand towels have vanished. The ice bucket needs to be refilled if we are to keep the chardonney cool and the desk, dresser and night tables need a bit of a tidy. I set about that chore, devising a sort of kitchen spot around the coffee maker. Georgia choses to believe housekeeping staff had been overwhelmed.

After a delicious lunch of rice crackers and peanut butter, we are on the road again. By now we have established a pattern. I give Blake more warning when he has to turn and he inevitably misses it. On the way back from the town centre, we had a tour of the country after we turned the wrong way on 116, but I take no credit for that since I was silently sulking. That turns out to be a good thing because the wedding is going to be out there.

So I pull out my daughter’s iPhone. No problem, this time.

There are apparently three basic ways to get from the Russel St Ho Jo’s to Shutesbury, two of the involve going back to the centre of Amherst. We go that way. Then something happens. Instead of seeing the map and hearing directions, I see only a green blip moving along a street. As I stare in wonder, all unaware, we pass our turn. I try in vain to enter a new search. It is the same phone as mine. Why can’t I get it to work. The others seem unconcerned. The scenery is green and beautiful, woods, rolling hills, fields. Leverett Rd turns into Cooleyville Rd. The green blip that is us bops along. Then somehow we are on Prescott Rd. I phone the groom. No answer. Their house is in a dead zone cell-tower-wise. They line up their cell phones on one window ledge to try to get a signal. I try again. No answer. I phone the land line.

“You’re where? he asks disbelieving. And well he might. It was a 20 minute trip and we had been on the road 45 minutes. “When you come down a steep hill to a T intersection turn right.”

But there are dozens of steep hills.

I recall Dickinson’s poem, “Because I could not stop for death”:  “We passed the school where children strove/At recess in a ring/We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain/We passed the setting sun.”  It has been over an hour. In my desperation, I imagine realizing that “The Horses’ Heads” really are turned toward eternity. And then, magically, we are there.

Slouching out of the car, and more or less ignoring a warm welcome, we fall into mutual recrimination. Georgia assumes all future navigational duties none of which will, according to her, involve technology. I am happy to retire.

She gets us back to the hotel with hand written instructions. Rehearsal dinner is just up the road, although I would have headed in the wrong direction. The wedding site, we have already found.

The return trip just means reversing the route we took to get there, so I have no role. As we near Buffalo, I begin to worry. How to get through the city to the bridge? I say nothing. Blake has driven and sailed everywhere and anywhere and never got lost. (Maybe confused as Davy Crockett would say, but not for 3 days.) Blake has an intuitive sense of direction. Let him be. Then we are off the highway onto city streets. Arrrrgh! I think, but I stay silent. Blake drives without comment, and drives and then, there it is the high ramp up onto the Peace Bridge.

Just one more slight snag – we head off the Queen Elizabeth Way following a sign to the Keg, a steakhouse of note. Can it be this far from the highway? A ship moves slowly through the Welland Canal blocking our path. Blake drives on. Fifteen minutes later, the Keg appears, a Canadian idea of a highway restaurant.

Septuagenarians On the Road: part 1

We had been on the road together at least once, fifty years ago, lithe, limber and quick. That time we had a five month old baby in tow and we slept in a tent. Now here we were  my ex-husband, Blake, my sister, Georgia and me, septuagenarians on the road again – to the wedding of that baby’s son.

Georgia insists she is not a septuagenarian and will not be until September (at which time she will no doubt celebrate her achievement). Well,okay kid, two septuagenarians and a sexagenarian, does that sound better?

First off, let me say, that we are active old codgers. Every day, Georgia swims, Blake hikes with his dog and I practise tai chi. So physically, we felt we were up to it.

Whether it was wise for the three of us to share a room was another question, but there was little room at the inn, it being graduation day in Amherst, and prices had risen accordingly. Two hundred dollars a night seemed sufficient. Two rooms at that price, a bit steep. I reasoned there would be two queen sized beds and ordered a cot, but I confess when I talked about it to non-participants, I implied there just weren’t two rooms available.

Georgia and I had, fairly recently, driven from Toronto to the Quebec/Vermont border, where we were born and that had gone well. We took turns driving her Corolla. Mostly, I remembered the way although I experienced the usual confusion getting through Montreal.

Blake and I had made many trips when we were married, to the east coast in the summer, to Myrtle Beach on spring break, through the Rockies to Vancouver and for two summers through England, France, Italy and Greece. Blake had always been a fearless driver even on the right- that is to say the wrong- side of the road. Plus he had with an unerring sense of direction.

And I had driven myself from Toronto to Los Angeles, a drive that surely qualified me for this day trip.

We made good time Friday morning, arriving at the Fort Erie border by 11 a.m. and clearing it twenty minutes later. Now we needed to stop for several reasons, some of them typically septuagenarian. Fortunately, the New York State Thruway had a service centre a few miles farther on and we piled out to stretch. It was hard for some of us to stand up when we got out of the car, but we soon shook that off. There was an Arby’s restaurant, but it was still before noon, so why not wait until the next service centre. We were back in the car twenty minutes later, armed with caffeine and rarin’ to go.

The next service centre sported a Mcdonalds. Okay, some of us were food snobs, but also starving, so I gathered my courage and ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. Later when asked how it was, I replied that chicken had not led a happy life.

This pattern repeated itself. We passed centres with Starbucks, for example, but when we needed sustenance, the nearest centre was sure to have only Mcdonalds. What changed was that, at every stop, it took longer for some of us to straighten up when we got out of the car.  We spent the first few seconds more or less doubled over as if we were searching the tarmac for a lost treasure.

It was a beautiful drive, through wooded flat land beside the Erie Canal and then through low hills. Suddenly, two roads diverged. “Go right”, I said, consulting  Google’s convoluted directions. Blake went left. Either I had to be quicker or he did.

That he even consulted me as navigator surprised me. What had happened to Blake the intuitive navigator? That he didn’t react to instruction faster amazed me. What was this lag time about? It hadn’t been there 35 years ago.

The directions the toll guy gave us were more confusing than Google’s but after 15 minutes and Blake repeatedly assuring us that east is east and the I-90 goes east, he proved to be right. Never trust a computer program to know a continuous route if its name changes.

By the time we arrived at Ho Jo’s at 6 p.m., I had decided that I’d rather drive than navigate and if I never sat down again, it would be too soon.

And there in the parking lot was my son whom I hadn’t seen for six months, unloading his baggage. “Legs, don’t fail me now,” I whispered and launched my bent-over body out of the car.