July 31, 2007



One evening, we drove into Small Town On Numbered Lake to buy some snacks for hiking and some cranberry juice, the official drink of romantic weekends. I was surprised to see cars parked along all the roads leading into town. Something big was going on, we figured. Fireworks perhaps.

We found a spot in the parking lot of a small church and walked to the little convenience store. The town has a public dock that stretches along an inlet and out into the lake, and I figured we would walk out onto the dock to watch the sunset. Dusk had fallen, and the lake and clouds were a misty blue. Near the playground, we saw that a huge white tent had been set up, the kind of tent people use for wedding receptions. And from the tent, we could hear, loud and clear, the music of a full orchestra.

The Snowstorm City Symphony had come to the mountains to perform a free public concert. Because it had been raining earlier, most people were crowded inside the tent on folding chairs, but as we strolled down the dock by ourselves, away from all the people, we could hear the music clearly. We sat on a bench, looking at the setting sun and listening to classical music and watching while a lone kayaker came paddling past, coming in for the night.

Mountain vacation

Front lawn of the inn

I've gone to the mountains on summer weekends my whole life, mostly to stay in a tent at campsites on mountain lakes. These are the mountains where my father spent his summers as a musician when he was a young man. I've come to the mountains as a child, a teenager, and an adult. And I've brought my own kids to the mountains on camping trips.

For the last five days, though, I stayed in the mountains with my husband, just the two of us. Our kids are old enough now to stay home by themselves, allowing us to vacation by ourselves. We stayed at an old inn on Large Ungulate With Antlers Lake, an inn with sixteen guest rooms, a restaurant on the first floor, a fireplace in the lobby, and three docks with canoes and a paddleboat.

When we sitting by the fire the first night at the inn, I told my husband the story about the famous 1906 murder that happened on the lake. A man killed his pregnant lover by taking her out in a rowboat, whacking her in the head, and leaving her to drown. The sensational case inspired Theodore Dreiser's book An American Tragedy.

My husband, who is not a strong swimmer, listened to the story, and said to me, "Okay, now I am afraid to go out in a boat with you."

Well, he did get over his fears and go out on the lake with me one evening at dusk. We also spent time hiking many of the trails in the area, sitting on the rocking chairs on the porch of the inn, walking along lake edges, and just talking. When it rained, we stayed in our cozy room where we had a view of the lake, spectacular even in a drenching rain. We could look east down the lake at a sunrise in the morning, and west to the other end for a sunset at night. The days went by fast. It was hard to come home.

View from our room

The top photo is the view from the front porch of the inn. The bottom photo is the view from our room. The long legs in the photo belong to my husband.

July 27, 2007

To the mountains

We're almost at the end of July. The spring flowers are gone, replaced by orange or yellow daylilies and black-eyed suzies. The lawn smells like dried grasses. We've had a couple of hot spells, with enough humidity to make my hair curly. It's time to go off to the mountains, time to hike shady trails, swim in a mountain lake, and paddle a canoe.

It will be just the two of us, for the next four days. My husband and I will be staying at an inn that was built in 1903, a sprawling structure with crooked floors and big windows that overlook a mountain lake. We'll sit in the wooden rocking chairs on the front porch, take out one of the canoes, or lie on the dock to listen to the water. We have plans to climb a mountain and to hike to a waterfall. We'll be back some time next week.

July 26, 2007

Adding colour

Painting clouds

After I came home from painting the mural with my daughter on Monday, I kept thinking of things we could have done differently. When I woke up the next morning, I could tell my daughter had been thinking about it too.

Daughter: Know what we should do?
Me: Buy a can of yellow paint.
Daughter: Exactly!
Me: That way, we could make green.
Daughter: And I want to add more clouds.
Me: Maybe we need red too.
Daughter: I could make kind of a pinkish glow around the clouds.
Me: And I could make purple.
Daughter: Purple?
Me: Remember those huge waterlily pond paintings we saw in Famous European City? If you looked close, the water had all kinds of colours in it.
Daughter: Well, we're definitely in the same category as Claude Monet.
Me: Well, we should at least have the whole palette.

As we drove to her apartment this morning, we discussed our plans for the second round of painting.

Me: I want to work on the water and the shoreline. Make it more interesting.
Daughter: Interesting? Do you mean weird?
Daughter: I don't want it to be weird.
Me: What's wrong with weird?
Daughter: It's a wall mural.

As we began to paint, someone in the apartment above turned on some loud music. Some song I didn't recognize, although my daughter did.

Daughter: Oh, that must be Guy Upstairs.
Me: Do you have his cell phone number?
Daughter: What?
Me: We could make a request. Like ... some kind of music that I would like.
Daughter: I don't know him that well.
Daughter: And I doubt he's got any Joni Mitchell.

Me: Hey, too bad we know nothing about perspective.
Daughter: Yeah, the footsteps on the beach are life-size.
Me: And the sailboat is like four inches high.
Daughter: What do you think I should do with the clouds?
Me: Well, I'd get rid of that long one. It's way too phallic.
Daughter: I'll cut it in half.
Me: I'm adding purple to the waves. And some white spray.
Daughter: What about this?
Me: Make the clouds overlap.

Daughter: Why are you painting over the sailboat?
Me: I have to make a new one. There's a wind now, and it needs to be heeled over.
Daughter: Why do you keep making those noises?
Me: It's the sound of waves crashing. To keep me in the mood.
Daughter: The sun is setting over here.
Me: Oh, I like the pink.
Daughter: What's the dark blob?
Me: It's a rock. I'm adding some rocks. Otherwise, it doesn't make sense that the waves are crashing.
Daughter: Hey, this is looking good.
Me: For our first mural, it's not bad at all.
Me: Maybe instead of going to grad school, you should go into business with me. We could be mural artists.
Daughter: And go around painting murals for college students?
Me: Yep. This is fun. I'll quit my job, and we can paint murals for a living.
Daughter: That sounds like a realistic plan.


Here's the mural, or at least, the left side of it. Unfortunately, when I uploaded the photo to Flickr, the colours on the mural ended up getting washed out, although the quilt and pillowcases stayed bright. Boy in Black looked at the photo and said, "It looks like an ad for bedsheets."

Like any great work of art, the mural really has to be seen in person.

July 25, 2007

Rhymes With Rudy Car Land

Game time

When my extended family gets together, we play card games or board games or any kind of game that can somehow involve small children, their grandparents, and everyone in between. Rainy days at camp, we play on the floor of a tent or at the wooden table in the cabin. At home, we are usually gathered around my mother's kitchen table. The card game we play most often is pitch, a game that my father used to play everyday when he was growing up. But we test out new games, too, the ones that come in and out of style.

I like the game that comes with cartoons that have no captions; we each have to write a caption. Someone reads all the captions aloud, and we not only vote on which is the funniest, but we also guess who wrote each caption. Sometimes it's easy to tell who wrote the caption, but the quiet members of the family often surprise everyone. Last time, for instance, we were all looking at a cartoon that showed a turtle and a rabbit in bed together, with the turtle pushing the rabbit away. The winning caption was: "Whoa there, hot stuff. Slow and steady wins the race." The caption was not written by one of the adults or the teenagers, but by my youngest son, With-a-Why. Clearly, he needs to spend more time with kids his own age.

The other game that we've been playing a lot this summer is a game that my new sister-in-law invented. To play, you cut up sheets of paper into dozens of little slips. Everyone begins filling the slips with the names of anyone famous they can think of: living, dead, or fictional. Each slip gets folded once and tossed into a big bowl, and when the bowl is full, we divide into teams. We turn over the egg timer, and a person on the first team picks a slip of paper and then describes the famous person until their team guesses the person. They see how many they can get before they run out of time.

The game gets tricky when you have members of several different generations playing the game. My father, faced with the slip of that said, "Shania Twain," just went for the part of the name he recognized. "Well, she could be the sister of the person who wrote Huckleberry Finn." With-a-Why kept putting in obscure figures from Norse mythology, and soon everyone was groaning at the sight of his handwriting. Sometimes the urgency of the game led to rather understated descriptions: "Bad guy. World War II." And sometimes, a player would change their mind about who they thought the person was: "He walked on the moon. No, wait, he played the trumpet."


My daughter, deep in thought.

July 24, 2007

Day at the beach


We did the project with limited resources: three cans of paint (white, brown, and blue), three butter knives, several worn paintbrushes, some sponges, a roller, three empty coffee cans donated by my mother, and a plastic dropcloth leftover from the last century. Before the end of the project, we had abandoned the sponges and brushes and were painting with random body parts.

Painting a mural was my daughter's idea. She and some friends are renting an apartment near campus for her senior year, and her bedroom was completely bare, with blank white walls. The quilt for her bed is bright pink and lime green, striped like a beach towel, so it followed logically that she paint a beach scene on the wall of her room. What wasn't as logical is that she would choose me as the person to help her. We have all kinds of artists in the family — people who actually hang their work in art shows and sell their art and talk about art in knowledgeable ways. I happen not to be one of them.

But of course, I agreed anyhow. The project sounded like fun. I love mixing paints, experimenting with textures, and smearing colour in big swatches. We arrived at her empty apartment yesterday morning and set to work right away.

Me: How come you didn't bring a screwdriver?
Daughter: A screwdriver?
Me: Yeah, to get the lids off.
Daughter: But you always use a butter knife.
Me: That's only when I can't find a screwdriver.
Daughter: Well, I brought butter knives. I thought that's what you used.

Me: Do you have anything drawn out?
Daughter: No.
Me: Do you have a plan?
Daughter: I figured we'd do a beach scene.
Me: That's it? That's the whole plan?
Daughter: Well, yeah.
Me: Shouldn't we have something on graph paper?
Daughter: Graph paper? (She rolled her eyes.)
Daughter: How hard could it be? A simple beach scene.
Me: Where do we start?
Daughter: I don't know. You have years more experience than me.
Me: Years of experience?
Daughter: At painting walls.
Me: You mean painting walls ONE COLOUR. Not quite the same. Not at all.
Daughter: Well, that's more experience than I have.
Me: Well, neither one of us is tall enough to reach the top of the wall, so we might as well start at the bottom.
Daughter: Okay, that's the sand.
Me: If it doesn't end up looking like a beach scene, we can make it into some kind of cool abstract painting.
Daughter: What do you mean? Of course it will look like a beach scene.

We began at the bottom and worked our way up, sand first, and then water, and then sky. We didn't have a ladder so we dragged a desk over so that we could reach the sky. We used sponges for the sand, then brushes and wet sponges to make the water wavy, then the roller for the sky. We wanted each element to be a different texture. The clouds were fluffy and white at first, but they looked too much like something out of a kids' book, too much like a sappy cliche, so we kept mixing white and blue and brown to make grey, and put in some storm clouds. The effect was much cooler, but it did make the beach scene more ominous than we had intended.

We got more ambitious as we went along.

Daughter: We need something on the beach.
Me: A sandcastle? Shells?
Daughter: I know! We could glue real shells to the wall!
Me: Your landlord freaked out about thumbtacks. I don't think he's going to want you to glue stuff to the wall.
Daughter: Yeah, I wonder how he's going to like the mural.
Me: You asked him, right?
Daughter: Yeah. Well, I said something about painting the wall sand-coloured. I don't think I quite explained the whole project.
Me: (smearing blue paint) Too late now.
Daughter: How about a surfer? Could we paint in a surfer?
Me: A whole person? No.
Daughter: Well, maybe just part.
Me: We could manage a hand. You know, sticking out of the surf.
Daughter: A drowning surfer?
Me: I guess that's bad taste.
Me: How about footprints? In the sand.
Daughter: I like that. Can you draw footprints?
Me: No.
Daughter: Me neither.
Me: Wait, we could just use a real foot. Dip it in paint and walk on the wall.
Daughter: Here, give me your foot.
Me: Shouldn't it be yours?
Daughter: Our feet are the same size. No one will know the difference.
Me: It can't just be all left feet. So paint the right one too.

So we added footprints – authentic footprints — down in the righthand corner where an artist would normally sign her work. We took a break to eat vegan burritos and sweet potato fries, then went right back to work. Buoyed by our success, we took turns smearing more paint on the wall and then standing back in the doorway to gaze critically at our masterpiece. The nice thing about my daughter is that she is easily pleased. And she has total confidence in my abilities.

Me: Maybe I should add a land mass in the distance.
Daughter: Yes! That would be great.
Me: See, I'm going for kind of a Robinson Crusoe look.
Daughter: Can you do a sailboat?
Me: Sure.
Daughter: And a lighthouse?
Me: Oh! A lighthouse! Great idea.

At some point, I noticed that my daughter was sitting comfortably on the bed, perfectly clean, watching while I was working away at the mural, my hands and feet and hair covered with paint.

"How does this always happen?" I asked. "You talk me into these projects, and then suddenly I notice you sitting back and watching while I do the work?"

She snickered. "Whitewashing the fence is fun."

July 23, 2007

Bonding with my daughter


Today's mother/daughter project left me too tired to write a blog post.

July 22, 2007

Sleeps tonight


The wedding reception for my brother and his new wife was held outside, in a courtyard that had been filled with round tables covered with white tablecloths. The band set up inside the gazebo, near a dance floor. Flamingos stood in the pond, separated by a railing and a curving garden of bright flowers. Amidst all the talking and dancing, guests kept wandering over to the big windows on the side of the building, peering inside, to watch a female lion who paced back and forth, sometimes standing on her hind legs to push her weight against the glass.

Yes, we were at the Snowstorm City Zoo.

Other than the unusual location, the wedding included all the elements a family wedding usually includes: food, talking, dancing. My brother's stepson, who took a weekend away from a Broadway play to be at the wedding, sang Look to the Rainbow at the ceremony. Drama Niece, as the "best man," donned a top hat and carried a cane as she gave her toast at the beginning of the reception. I've seen her on stage often enough to know that she'd do a terrific job speaking, but I was pleased that she did a great job writing the speech too: she included great details, a nice blend of humor and tenderness. Both my brother and Drama Niece took the microphone and sang during the reception. Drama Niece has such a great voice that she quite showed up the vocalist hired to perform, but the woman was gracious about it.

The dance floor was crowded very quickly with members of my family: my kids all danced, as did their cousins, crowded together in one big group. Even With-a-Why, who can be very shy when it comes to talking to strangers, was completely unself-conscious about dancing; he was sometimes the first one onto the floor, twirling and gyrating, his long hair swishing back and forth. As I danced with my husband, I saw Boy in Black dancing with his grandmother and Shaggy Hair Boy with his aunt.

Whenever the band took a break, we'd gather in clumps to talk, with all kinds of family photos being taken. I think someone on the bride's side had a video camera because some of the family photos seemed to include showtunes and fancy dance steps. The kids went over to play on the jungle gym, and as I approached with my camera, figuring I'd snap a few photos while it was still light out, I heard With-a-why whisper to his cousin, "Oh, no. It's the paparazzi!"

Some of the women of the family crowded into the bathroom to take a photo we've taken at other weddings: all of us looking into the mirror. As the afternoon turned to evening, white lights strung onto the trees came on, and big lamp posts shone onto the dance floor. People gathered near the dessert table and skewered fruit to hold underneath the chocolate fountain. Since my new sister-in-law is from Traintrack Village, I already knew some of her friends and family, although I kept getting introduced to yet another sibling. She's the youngest of twelve kids, but it seemed like more.

The party went on past 11 pm. We didn't leave until the band had stopped playing and were packing up their instruments. In the semi-dark lion's cage, the big female lion was still pacing, throwing her body against the window. We said our goodbyes in the dark parking lot, everyone heading to different cars, going home after a very full day.

Upside Down

Dandelion Niece, on the jungle gym, demonstrates why it's always a good idea to wear shorts under your party dress.

Top photo: Four cousins posing for the blog – Schoolteacher Niece, Red-haired Niece, Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, and Boy in Black.



My new sister-in-law. Or rather, the back of her head. You are only allowed to marry into my family if you've got great hair.

July 21, 2007

The bells are going to chime

My brother is getting married today. It's a second wedding for both him and his fiance. They've both been widowed. Years ago, they went to elementary school together, to the same Big Stone Church School that my kids went to, and they started dating two years ago after seeing each other at their 25-year high school reunion.

They've invited just family, mostly, but family is a whole lot of people. In addition to my sisters and all of the grandchildren on my side of the family, my brother has his daughter, Drama Niece, and four grown-up stepkids from his first marriage who have traveled here with their spouses. And his fiance has eleven siblings. Yes, that's right. Eleven siblings.

Out-of-town family have been arriving. Red-haired Niece arrived in Traintrack Village Thursday, which means that Blonde Sister has all three of her daughters home. Red-haired Sister came Thursday night with her husband and kids. With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew, happily reunited, played together all day and went over to my mother's house for lunch, while Blonde Niece and Drama Niece, my daughter reported, were doing some kind of beauty ritual before the big day. Dandelion Niece spent the day hanging out at my house with Neighbor Girl. Tie-Dye Brother-in-law went out to the drugstore to get allergy medicine (he's allergic to cats, and I have seven of them), and earned all kinds of points with the women in the household by bringing back dark chocolate. Urban Sophisticate Sister called last night to say that her plane had landed, and she was in town.

My daughter made the boys try on their clothes last night to be sure everyone has dress clothes that fit. (She's remembering this incident.) It should be no surprise to anyone that Boy in Black is wearing black pants, a black dress shirt, and a black tie. The long hair and sunglasses are a nice finishing touch to the outfit. Shaggy Hair Boy, who gets his hand-me-downs, will look much the same, although he will at least pull his hair back neatly into a ponytail. With-a-Why will be wearing his concert clothes, dark pants with a white shirt, while Suburban Nephew, who is just a bit smaller, will wear With-a-Why's concert clothes from last year. My daughter and Blonde Niece are wearing summer dresses that are quite similar, and Red-haired Niece reports that the dress she brought is very much like my mother's. Dandelion Niece brought not one, but two fancy dresses with her. It's always nice to have a back-up in case of spills.

The event has caused a flurry of phone calls and text messages, and much running back and forth between the homes of those who live here, but soon we will be gathered for the ceremony and the reception, all in one place, where we will be eating, dancing, and talking in person.

Game time

Dandelion Niece and Neighbor Girl playing a game on the floor of my living room. I think the cat is winning.

July 20, 2007

At the grocery store

The rain was just ending as I pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store yesterday. I skirted puddles as I hurried inside, dumping my purse and a pile of cloth bags into the cart. I hadn't even made it past the display of watermelons and blueberries when I realized I had left my grocery list in the car. Since Boy in Black had taken the time to make the list out for me (checking the cupboards and refrigerator to see what we needed), I figured I ought to go get it. I turned and wheeled the cart out of the store, hurrying across the pavement towards my car.

I almost bumped into a man about my father's age. He looked familiar, and I gave him a friendly hello. When you go to the same grocery store all your life, about half the people in the store know your name or at least your family.

He paused, and I went through a mental list, trying to determine who he was. The parent of someone I went to school with? A friend of my father's? Someone who worked at the school? Someone I'd seen at church? I waited, figuring he would say something to give me a clue who he was.

Instead he looked at my cart. "Were they expensive?"

I looked at him, startled. "Uh, what?"

"The invisible groceries," he waved his hand at the empty cart. "Were they expensive?"

July 19, 2007


We'd get postcards from all over the world: photos of crowded beaches, or people dancing in native costumes, or a narrow street of tilted old buildings and window boxes of bright flowers. Even the stamps on the postcards looked curious and exotic, colorful stamps we'd never seen before.

When I was little, Aunt Seashell and my grandmother took many wonderful trips, and they never failed to send postcards and bring back gifts. I still remember the castanets, and the little leather purses that folded shut in a clever way, and the dolls with colorful costumes. We treasured those trinkets, played with them and brought them to school, and kept the postcards in a drawer in my mother's desk.

Every trip Aunt Seashell took was followed by a slideshow. We'd all gather in the living room, with the grown-ups on the couch and the kids crowded together on the floor, and watch while the screen filled with images. Aunt Seashell and my grandmother would tell stories about the places they'd stayed, and the people they'd met. I loved these glimpses into the whole big world outside of Traintrack Village.

I've not kept the tradition. I don't send postcards or buy gifts when I travel: the best I do is put a photo on my blog when I can manage it. But Red-haired Sister, when she lived in Big City Like No Other, used to always bring home things for my kids and their cousins: exotic dress-up clothes, cool toys from Chinatown, and trinkets that can be bought only in a big urban area. Sometimes her suitcase would be so filled with gifts that she wouldn't have room for clothes and would just borrow clothes from her sisters during her visit. Perhaps it's not coincidence that the oldest two of her nieces, Red-haired Niece and Schoolteacher Niece, went to live in Big City Like No Other for grad school, and the next niece in line, my daughter, is thinking of doing the same.

Urban Sophisticate Sister, too, has continued the tradition. We crowded around her laptop recently to see photos from her trip to Country With an Active Volcano and Nice Beaches. Here's a picture of Blonde Niece trying on a necklace her aunt brought her from that country.


July 18, 2007



Blonde Niece and Drama Niece live about 90 miles apart, but through text messages, phone calls, and instant messenger, they manage to communicate on what seems like an hourly basis. Up at camp, they seem to be together all the time: going off in a canoe, taking long swims in the icy cold river water, talking together at the firepit, braiding each other's hair, playing card games, or hanging out in the hammock in the shade of the oak trees. At my house, they will sit together on the couch, talking and giggling about all kinds of things. This weekend, Drama Niece will be coming to town for a special occasion; her father will be getting married on Saturday. Drama Niece will be sitting at the head table, of course, and she'll be giving a toast, since she has been designated the "best man." Blonde Niece will be sitting right next to her the whole time.

Life jackets

Putting on their life jackets before heading off into deeper waters.

July 17, 2007

Along the lake

Summer evening

With a nice wind blowing and temperatures in the 70s, last night was a perfect night for a walk. My friend Long Beautiful Hair and I decided to meet out at the park that stretches along Polluted Sacred Lake. We talked for a couple of hours, walking most of the time along the two paved paths that run along the shore, and sometimes stopping to sit at the edge of a pier or on a bench under a tree.

The park was filled with activity. Bicycles zoomed past, and people on rollerblades. Some runners went by alone, wearing music, while others travelled in packs, shouting encouragement to each other. Parents pushed strollers and held the hands of toddlers. The skateboard park was filled with teenagers, their skateboards slamming hard against the cement as they came down off ramps or rails. The grassy edges of the park were crowded with geese, who waddled along in groups.

Perhaps because of an earlier storm, the marina was quiet, with most of the boats tied up to docks, sails covered and hatches closed. We walked amongst the sailboats and talked about all kinds of things: our marriages, our friendships, our brothers, our childhoods. Always, it's wonderful to confide in a friend who knows you well, who knows how to listen sympathetically, challenge you gently, and laugh with you at how crazy life can be.

Eventually, we both got hungry and walked over to a place that served burgers, salt potatoes, and sweet potato fries. Salt potatoes are a regional specialty: new little potatoes boiled in salt water and served with a cup of melted butter. The cold lemonade tasted good after the long walk: we sat in plastic chairs on a wooden deck, enjoying the evening air. The sun was setting by the time we parted reluctantly, each to return to a busy household.

July 16, 2007


We had designated Sunday as a family day, and so the day began as those days usually do: everyone arguing about what we would do together. My husband came up with the idea of driving to a museum that has glass-making demonstrations. I thought maybe we could all go for a hike, even though it was raining out. My daughter said she didn't care what we did so long as we ate first because she was hungry. Boy in Black, because he's obsessed, said we should all play Ultimate Frisbee.

I argued that playing Ultimate hardly counted as a special family activity, since the kids play it every single day, and it would naturally involve more people than just our family. We play it in the field right across from the house, so it would hardly seem like some kind of special trip. Shaggy Hair Boy said my reasons were ridiculous.

We were nowhere near consensus and dangerously close to spending the whole day arguing about what to do. And my daughter was hungry. So we decided we would take a vote.

I abandoned my hike idea and threw my support behind the glass museum adventure, since I've been wanting to take With-a-Why there. I figured if my husband and I were a united front, we could sway the crowd. I gave a glowing description of the museum.

Boy in Black, lying half-asleep on the floor, said only four words: "I want to play frisbee."

It's easy to see who has the biggest influence in the family. We played Ultimate, of course.

Spending an afternoon playing Ultimate Frisbee with a bunch of teenagers is healthy, fun, and a great way to make a forty-something body feel completely out of shape. The game involves a whole lot of running. The rain stopped and the sun came out, which would have been a good thing if we'd gone to the beach. Running up and down the field in the humidity became a dreadfully warm exercise.

Still, I admit that I enjoyed listening to the chatter of the game and watching the dramatic moments. Boy in Black is tall and skinny, and on the frisbee field, he seems to be everywhere at once, a long arm reaching to grab the disk no matter where it is. Shaggy Hair Boy, who will soon be as tall as Boy in Black, can throw the frisbee so hard that when I see it coming, I have a tendency to duck, which could explain why he never passes it to me. We were joined by extras and neighbor kids, everyone intent on the game, running full-out the whole time. We kept changing the teams every time a new person joined us, which I found confusing. It's hard to feel trimphant about a good throw when you realize you've just passed the frisbee to someone on the wrong team.

We had any number of time-outs. Skater Boy got stung by a bee, a neighbor dog joined the game, two of the kids got called home for supper. I was so tired after a couple of hours of playing that I began looking forward to kids getting injured because it meant I could sit in the shade for a few minutes. We'd all retreat to the shady corner of the field and flop down on the grass, drinking water out of plastic jugs. Boy in Black would check his cell phone to see if any new players were on their way. My husband and I would listen hopefully to these conversations, figuring we could sneak into the house and take a nap when new players arrived.

It wasn't the kind of day I would have planned, but Shaggy Hair pointed out that the day met my criteria: we were outside, we were together, and we were doing something healthy. And on top of it all, I learned how to throw a flick.


Shaggy Hair Boy taking a break.

July 14, 2007

In the marsh

Pads and petals

Paddling a canoe through a marsh means gliding over floating mats of weeds and through masses of green lily pads. The white water lilies will disappear under the canoe and then pop up again, unharmed. If I peer into the water, I see mostly dark brown – layers and layers of decayed organic material. If I stop paddling and drift along, I can hear the call of the osprey, the indignant chirping of the red-wing blackbird, and the plopping splash of a turtle dropping from a sunny clump of cattails into the water, disappearing at my approach. We have some snapping turtles, but mostly they are painted turtles, the dark turtles that have bits of red and yellow on their heads, as if they'd been painting a mural of wildflowers and dripped bits of paint onto themselves.

When I stick my paddle down to see how deep the water is, the wooden tip stirs all kinds of muck to the surface, that rich marsh smell. We have common water snakes in the marsh, who swim along the surface but hide under the murky water when they don't want to be seen. They are harmless – well, to humans, at least. I've sat on the dock and watched a water snake eat a small frog, striking quick to grab it and then pulling it inside its own body in an awkward gulping motion that always reminds me of a teenage boy learning how to dance. It's only when they are eating that I've glimpsed that moment of awkwardness; mostly the snakes are graceful as they swim, that long body curling and uncurling, slipping through reflections of sky.

Sometimes in the evening, I'll see a beaver or a muskrat, especially if I paddle near the fork in the creek where the beaver lodge is. These kind of creatures make swimming look so fun and easy as they dive under and disappear into the mucky water. Great blue herons build nests at the edge of the marsh; with their long legs and big wings, they look like they've flown out of a Steven Spielberg movie. Yes, this marsh has great special effects.

When I get near our dock, Blond Dog will swim out eagerly to greet me. Almost always, I can find creatures of the human sort hanging out near the dock. My father is often in his boat, making little changes to the rigging, bailing out a little water, or just relaxing. Family members come to the end of dock to wash their hair. My mother will bring her chair down to sit at the edge and read a book. When Urban Sophisticate, who is often training for a marathon, returns from a long run along sunny country roads, her tradition is to leap right into the water, splashing in amongst the water lilies and weeds until she's cooled off.


July 13, 2007

The pipes are calling

She died this week. The funeral was this morning.

I knew Strong Quiet Woman from all the events you attend when you marry into a family that lives in town: weddings, baby showers, birthdays, funerals, and holiday get-togethers. I'd talked to her at baptisms, First Communions, and Confirmation parties. Hundreds of times, we've chatted while balancing plates of food on our laps or pouring punch into paper cups. She was the mother of Peppermint, my husband's brother's wife.

My sister-in-law Peppermint was especially close to her mother. Her father died young, and Peppermint was the only daughter. After graduating from nursing school, she married my husband's brother and stayed in Traintrack Village, not far from her mother's home. I can remember visiting my sister-in-law when her first son was born, 23 years ago, and noticing the look in her mother's eyes as she gazed at her daughter and her newborn. Motherhood became another bond between the two, and Strong Quiet Woman spent all kinds of time with my three nephews as they grew up.

The death was not unexpected. Cancer gives all kinds of warnings, and Peppermint is a nurse. She knew exactly what to expect when they moved her mother into a hospice facility a few months ago. She had time to talk to her mother about her death, time to reminisce and talk about the future and even plan the funeral. She knew death was coming, no doubt, and yet still, I am sure it was difficult. I don't think anyone is ever ready to lose their Mom.

The funeral was brief, just as Strong Quiet Woman had planned. No calling hours, just a quiet Mass with her children, their spouses, her grandchildren, and some old friends. The altar was decorated with flowers, and the priest put a cream coloured cloth over the coffin. A woman sang Eidelweiss, that Austrian folk song that everyone knows from The Sound of Music. The priest walked about the casket, shaking big puffs of incense into the air.

My sister-in-law's three sons are all athletetic, and even in their dress shirts and dark pants, they looked like basketball players as they stood around their mother, a solid shield hiding her from view. The altar is directly under a big skylight, and sunlight flickered across the sanctuary, coming and going behind big clouds, as the priest spoke and the congregation gave the familiar responses. As we walked out of the church, following the casket, the woman at the microphone sang the words to Danny Boy, her voice following us as we stepped out into the sunshine.

And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me
I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.



Beneath the oak trees

Stretched in the shade of two ancient oak trees, the hammock is cool on even the sunniest day. Behind the hammock rises rock covered with bushes, and in front of it, small oaks and wild blueberry bushes crowd a downward slope. At the bottom of the little hill lie acres and acres of cattails, and the shallow water of the bay, filled with weeds and water lilies. Past the bay is the river, of course, with big lakers that sound their fog horns on rainy mornings.

The hammock is a bit removed from all the talking and laughter of family members who are building fires or preparing meals or playing bocce. For introverted members of the family, it's a favourite spot for napping or reading a book, or just spending some quiet time away from the rest of the noisy group. My husband always says you haven't properly enjoyed camp unless you've had the "hammock experience."

Of course, like everything else at camp, the hammock is sometimes shared or fought over. I'll often find Drama Niece and Blonde Niece both in the hammock, giggling and talking. One year my kids started playing a game that involved putting a person in the hammock and then swinging it hard to flip that person out. It's a fine game if you like getting slammed against the ground while your fingers and feet are twined in rope.

Late afternoon, when everyone has come back from swimming and are crowding around the picnic tables, devouring fruit or chips or pretty much any food available, I'll join my husband in the hammock so that we can have a private moment to talk without the kids chiming in. The gently swaying hammock in its shady spot above the cattails is a peaceful place to be.

July 12, 2007

Raindrops on nylon

Raindrops on nylon

My tent isn't very big. When I sit up, my head brushes against the slanted walls, and there's just room for two people to sleep comfortably. The small size of the tent is the best thing about it, actually, because it keeps everyone but my husband out. If the kids want to play cards on a rainy day at camp, they will go to their own big tent, which holds any number of teenage bodies, or the small wooden cabin where there is a table and chairs.

Although I am extrovert and love being part of a big, noisy, talkative family, I also need quiet time. Having a little tent nestled out beneath the pine trees means I can slip away from the crowd to retreat into my own space – to read a book, write in my journal, take a nap, or cuddle with my husband. On a rainy day, I love to snuggle under an old quilt and listen to the rain hitting the nylon wall of the tent. Often after a dramatic thunderstorm, the sun will come out, and I can watch the play of shadows and sun against the raindrops on the wall of the tent inches from my face.

July 11, 2007

Come to the river to wash

Hair washing

When we get a sunny day at camp, we spend much of the day in the water. The river is filled with islands, mostly big chunks of rock, with perhaps an old pine tree or two for shade, and many of the islands are uninhabited. So we'll pick an island and all meet there for a swim. Some of us will go by sailboat, some by canoe, and some by motorboat, bringing with us towels and sunscreen and sometimes food.

Even when the weather isn't sunny and warm, but cool and threatening to storm, like it was most of last week, we still make time every day for a swim. Most of my family have gorgeous long hair, but it's hair that gets oily and needs to be washed pretty often. Blonde Sister, after years of experience, has perfected a method of washing her hair with just a bucket of water, a feat that includes her sticking her whole head into the bucket, but for those of us who have never trained to be in a circus, washing our hair means taking a swim in the river, no matter how cold.

And the river, because it's so deep and wide, is still icy cold this time of year, which is appealing on hot days and less so on cold, rainy days. Of course, neither of my parents will ever admit that the water temperature is cold. My mother will dive into the water and come up with a startled expression as her body registers the shock, but even with icicles forming in her long hair, she'll turn over to do the backstroke and yell out some incredible understatement like, "Oh, it's refreshing." The word "refreshing" in this context means "get out quick before you lose all feeling in your limbs."

Blond Brother-in-law will leap into the water without hesitation no matter what the temperature, and Drama Niece and Blonde Niece will spend hours in the water even when the ice has just melted, but some of us need encouragement to plunge ourselves into the cold current. My method is to lean over from the rock and swish my long hair in the water. Then I stand up and work shampoo into my hair, with cold water trickling down my neck, suds falling onto my back and shoulders. Pretty soon my whole body will be dripping with suds and then, well, then I have no choice but to jump into the cold river and rinse off.

That's Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter in the photo.

July 10, 2007

What colour is your bandana?


One night at camp when I joined the group at the fire, everyone in the family was discussing a riddle that only Boy in Black and With-a-Why knew how to solve. Boy in Black had learned it from his friend MathKid, who claimed that students at his college of Most Impressive Technology had made it up, although some of us suspect it's one of those brain teasers that's been around for a while and resurfaces in different forms.

Here's the riddle: An Evil Ruler has 100 gnomes. She lines them up in a straight line on a hill, so that each gnome can see all the gnomes ahead of him, but none of the gnomes behind him. She has 100 blue hats and 100 red hats. She puts a hat on each of the gnomes. A gnome cannot see his own hat -- or any of the hats behind him -- but he can see the hats of the gnomes ahead of him. He can hear what is happening behind him, but he cannot turn back and look.

Starting with the very last gnome in line, the Evil Ruler asks, "What colour is your hat?" The gnome is allowed to say one word, either "blue" or "red." If the prisoner answers correctly, he is allowed to live. If he says the wrong answer, he is killed. Then the Evil Ruler goes onto the next gnome.

The gnomes are given time to make a plan before this fun game begins. The Evil Ruler can hear them talking so it's not a secret plan. They cannot change any of the rules. Once the game begins, they cannot talk, except to answer the evil ruler. Each gnome must answer the Evil Ruler with one of two words, red or blue, and they may not signal anything with gestures or voice inflection.

Using logic, they come up with a plan that will save at least 99 of the 100 gnomes. What is the plan?

We all kept discussing this riddle at the fire, everyone talking at once and jumping in with ideas and arguing about the plan. Some family members got bored and went off to play cards or go to sleep, while others were obsessed with figuring out the answer. We quickly dropped the number of gnomes from 100 to ten, figuring that any plan that worked for ten would work for 100. I got playing cards, ten of them, some red and some black, and laid them on the bench to try to figure out the answer, a strategy which perhaps would have helped had it been light enough to see the cards.

Shaggy Hair Boy was the first to come up with an answer. He disappeared into the darkness with Boy in Black, and they returned to the fire, with Boy in Black saying, "Yep, he's got it," and Shaggy Hair smiling smugly. Naturally, he did not tell any of us the answer.

It wasn't until I'd left the campfire and was lying in the quiet darkness of the small tent I share with my husband that I came up with the answer to the riddle. I pushed my husband aside, threw off the old quilt we use as a blanket, put my clothes and sneakers back on, unzipped the tent, and went racing off across the field to the big tent where all the kids sleep so that I could make Boy in Black come out and hear my answer.

I returned to the tent, carefully zipping the nylon door behind me and tossing off the sneakers now wet from running across the dewy field. "I got it!" I exclaimed triumphantly to my husband.

"No, you aren't obsessive at all," he muttered.

The next day at breakfast, family members who hadn't been at the fire had to hear the riddle. You could tell which ones were determined to figure it out. They were the ones drawing little diagrams on paper plates, or staring at ten cards spread out on the ground, muttering under their breath. I could tell when Blonde Niece figured out the answer, just from the look on her face. Schoolteacher Niece jumped up and down when she got it.

Later that morning, we attempted to act out the riddle, using black and red bandanas put randomly on ten family members. With-a-Why posed as the Evil Ruler.


The gnomes include my mother, my brother, my oldest sister, my youngest sister, three of my kids, and three of my nieces. Ignore the crazy gestures in the top photo. Hand signals are not allowed. The group kept breaking into the song YMCA, even though that was not part of the riddle at all.

July 09, 2007

Burning bright


At my parents' camp, we've piled a big circle of stones near the two picnic tables that stand in the sheltered spot behind my parents' tiny cabin. Even in the middle of the day, when no fire is burning, you can find family members gathered around the firepit. Mid-morning on a sunny day, they'll sit near the rocks to fight over sections of the newspaper that Blond Brother-in-law will bring back from town. My nieces will be on the bench, braiding each other's hair, and my father and brother will pull lawn chairs up to play clarinet and guitar. Since the firepit is located in the deep shade of the oak trees, the fair-skinned members of the family will stop there to apply sunscreen to every part of their bodies before venturing out into the sunlight for a swim or sail.

Of course, on a cold rainy day or in the evening after dark, the warmth and light of a crackling fire draws the whole family, who push and shove each other's chairs until the circle at the fire becomes big enough to hold everyone. We seem always to have more people than lawn chairs, and certain family members can be pretty territorial about their chairs. The folding chairs are the preferred seating, of course, while the wooden picnic table bench ends up accommodating the overflow crowd.

The traditional games around the fire include Twenty Questions and the music game in which one person yells out a word, and each team has to sing at least eight words of a song that includes that word. More often than not, though, the games dissolve into lazy conversations. The crackling, snapping sound of the fire fills the spaces between words while flames light the face of anyone who leans forward to make a point or ask a question. As the night gets late, family members drift away from the fire to get snacks or put on long pants or brush their teeth, returning and then leaving again, the crowd eventually getting smaller as tired bodies slip into tents or cabins for the night.

For a family who likes to camp, we are not a well-equipped bunch, and we usually have one flashlight for twenty or so people. Most of the time, we just walk around in the dark, relying on night vision and moonlight to guide our steps. But none of the kids – well, few of the adults either – want to venture into the dark outhouse without a flashlight so just before bedtime, there's always a search for flashlights that leads inevitably to someone begging a flashlight off the one person who can be relied upon to have one – my mother.

It is easy to find your way around at night without a flashlight if it's a place you know well; the worst spot to walk through is the area right near the firepit, because the brightness of the fire makes everything around it disappear into darkness. This year, my parents piled some old stumps near the fire, to be burned or used as seats. The problem is that everyone kept forgetting the stumps and would stride confidently across what used to be an open space, only to come crashing down when their shins hit the stumps. In the morning, we'd sit at the campfire and compare bruises. When we began burning the stumps, it felt a bit like revenge.

Late night fire

July 08, 2007

View from a canoe

Sky Blue Sky

Although my parents' camp is located on a river so big that it serves as a border between our country and the country to the north, their peninsula of oak trees is tucked into a bay filled with acres and acres of cattails. Their end of the bay is shallow, with layers of muck that support weeds that grow rapidly in warm weather and float to the surface in golden green clumps. The big powerboats and jet skis prefer the deep water of the river, so most of the time we have the bay to ourselves.

From my parents' dock, we can canoe along the eastern edge of the bay, past big grey rocks and summer camps, and then cross over to deeper water, working out way out to the opening between islands that will bring us to the deep current of the river. But my favourite path is southwest, over the thick weeds and lily pads, through creeks that wind through the marsh. Traveling by canoe means being eye level with turtles and snakes, feeling surrounded by cattails.

One day this week I paddled up into the creek with With-a-Why, following my parents, who were in another canoe. We fought the wind the whole way, but then coming back, we simply put our paddles in the boat and drifted peacefully, looking at water lilies as we floated by. Another day, I went canoeing with my brother and got caught by some rain. When the rain ended, the clouds began moving across the sky, a shifting pattern of blue light. Out on the water, it's impossible not to notice the sky, the most dramatic part of the landscape.

With so many members of my extended family at camp, it's easy to find someone who wants to go canoeing, but sometimes I like to slip out by myself, in the early morning, usually, or sometimes in the evening when the light is just right. I put a big rock in the bow of the canoe to balance me off (a small child or dog can work just as well, although a rock has the advantage that it does not squirm or bark). I'll paddle up close to water lilies, always following the edge of the cattails, or put my paddle up across the thwart and just drift peacefully.

Canoe trip

My parents are in the green canoe, and that's With-a-Why in the bow of the orange canoe.