Monday, October 28, 2019

Learning To Drive, Country Style

You can't do this in East Toronto: City girl driving the tractor! 
When I first moved here to rural Nova Scotia, Dwayne tried to teach me to drive his big blue Chev truck. It wasn't a new truck; I think it was a 94 or 95, so he considered it delicate, and didn't want it broken. New or old, he still would have freaked out about my handling it.
As in, lurching all over the place and stalling the truck. I think I got two attempts at driving it, before he hauled me out of the driver's seat and said I was going to "break" his truck.


I've been bugging him about the tractor, wanting to learn to drive it and use the loader. After all, this is how country-raised kids learn to drive: They hop up on tractors when they're seven or eight and listen and watch, then they get to help with some task, and from there it's quick steps to driving the tractor by themselves by the time they're 12 years old.
Driving my friend's brother's TransAm through Pugwash at the age of 15 doesn't really count (see Field Notes for the whole story...) so I'm determined to be able to work the tractor, to haul dirt and gravel and plow snow, as soon as possible. Part of this determination comes from my innate practicality: Dwayne had a stroke. He's recovered but it's a reminder that anything can happen at any moment.

As if any of us needs a reminder.

I've found resistance to change, and reality, creates more problems than it prevents, so I want to be able to do as much of the work around this property as possible JUST IN CASE. Because you never know what could happen on a normal Sunday evening while you're watching a "Big Bang Theory" rerun.

What's hilarious about my learning to drive the tractor is I have my ex-husband to thank for the success of yesterday's lesson.
Many, many years ago, when I had first moved to Vancouver, my car was stolen and his truck was a standard. So early on a Sunday morning, we went out to a huge, empty parking lot at UBC to practice. I'd barely warmed the driver seat and lurched forward when a car came. It was miles away, there was no way I'd come close to it, but my then-husband shouted, "Stop!" anyway. 
I jammed my foot on the brake. The truck stalled.
He got mad and that was the end of my lesson. I never learned to drive his truck, and a few weeks later, the police found my car.

But this is what I learned: CLUTCH, BRAKE. If you want an automatic driver to stop when they are driving a standard, you need to shout "Clutch! Brake!" at them.
Now, I knew this when trying to learn to drive the big blue Chev but you change gears A LOT in a truck and I couldn't coordinate my feet and my hands and my brain. There was simply too much clutching, and when you're learning, you do everything slowly and after thinking it through.
Husband driving teachers have no patience with that.
The tractor, on the other hand, is a different story. I don't need to go very fast so there are no gears to change, expect from Forward, Neutral and Reverse. And it turns out, I don't even need to use the brake very much.

I've got this, you guys! I know how to drive the tractor. I can back up! I can go forward!
I still lurch, however, but hopefully that will smooth itself out as I get the feel for the clutch, and grow my left leg about four inches. It would be nice not to slide off the tractor seat every time I let the clutch out.
The trick is to drive the tractor as much as possible so I remember how. So expect to see me puttering up and down the driveway, backing up, lurching forward every day.

Until the first snowfall... then the loader lessons begin...

Tractor selfie! Then Dwayne took my phone away. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

My Life As An Indoor Cat

Lining the cats up for a photograph - Remi, Millie and Leonard
When the cats leave me alone in the night, when Millie doesn't jump up and mush her solid body against mine, when Remi isn't lying at me feet or Leonard walking over my head, I know they have found a mouse.
The growling at the bottom of the stairs leading to the attached garage this morning as I snapped on the kettle told me my assumption was correct.
Millie had the mouse in her mouth so I assumed it was dead and let the cats chase themselves back into the basement. But as I was coming back into the house after feeding the wild birds, I bumped into a cat and wondered why Leonard and Remi were looking under the hall seat.
I moved some shoes and there was the mouse! Or at least, a mouse. It was dazed but alive. All I had to do was crack open the door and guide it towards freedom, and viola! I saved another mouse today.

I'd make a terrible cat. Who has written a book about a cat that saves mice and birds, instead of stalking and killing them? 

I'm doing the indoor cat thing these days, sitting at my keyboard for hours, basking in the sun from the end of the couch, and watching the squirrels through the windows. Work has me missing out on these gorgeous, absolutely perfect autumn days. I have almost four hours of interviews to transcribe, plus other work to keep up with, so it's butt-in-chair this week as I push hard to get the transcriptions completed.
I can glance out my windows and see the blue sky and sunshine but last week's wind and rain stripped the maple and birch trees of their yellow and orange leaves so the light is bright; being away, I missed the last of the lovely leaf-dappled light that fills my writing space in the fall.

I love this time of year. The smell of wood in the basement. The visiting mice. The sparkling sun on the river. The bare trees and the dried-brush colour of the field. As the natural world is dying off, curling up for the cold, burrowing in as winter looms, I come alive. My creative energy, my optimism, my persistence swirls around like those last leaves skittering across the lawn in a cool breeze off the strait. Hard to catch but I know to follow.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Up Close and Personal With Family History

Mother and I in front of the house her grandfather built.
When I invited my mother to come along on my trip to Ontario to interview a couple of funeral directors who worked for my father (as if I could keep her from coming! ), she announced she wanted to head into Scarborough to visit her cousin John who now lives in an assisted living facility.
I figured if we were going to be in Scarborough, where my mother was born and raised, and where I was born, we also would visit all those places from my childhood I'd been investigating with Google.

I'd get up close and personal with my early childhood.

We returned home last night and as I get my bearings in rural Nova Scotia again, I have to say it was an amazing trip.
First of all, how amazing is it that all the places I know from stories -- the church where my parents were married, the funeral home where my father worked, the fish and chips shop where we ate supper on Friday nights, and the house I lived in for the first three years of my life -- are still there.
I could visit every single place, and see them AS THEY WERE THEN.

Surely this is a sign that I'm on the right track with the focus of this book.

We visited Hope United Church first and as we walked through an archway, Mother said, "These are the doors your father and I came through after we were married," and I recognized them from photos in their wedding album.
How much better to be inside the church where they met, married, and baptized me -- especially since I've always heard the story of how I cried all through my baptism and didn't stop until we stepped outside again.
The pipe organ takes up one end of the sanctuary and the minister, who just happened to be a music major, sat at the organ and played it on FULL for us. It explained why my father loved organ music. Going from his country church to that big city sound would have made a big impression.

The funeral home was renovated four years ago after a fire tore through the upstairs apartments, but Mother says the layout of the funeral home is the same as when we walked in -- up the two steps inside the front door -- to wait for my father to put his coat on in the early 1970's.

Secondly, how amazing is it that Mother and I ate at Len Duckworth's Fish and Chips? I was two and three when we went there so likely I only ate a fry or two. But eating a meal wasn't as significant as the fact is still there; it celebrated 90 years in business at that location this year. The decor has changed but the booths are the same. That's pretty remarkable.

I'm not as little as I was in 1972 and 73!
The best part of this, of course, was doing it with my mother. How much more meaningful to visit each place with her, rather than on my own. To see her stand at those doors of the church... 
I'm profoundly aware of how lucky I am -- to be able to write this book about my father the funeral director, to afford to be able to do that research trip to Ontario, AND to be able to share it with the woman who is responsible for going on a date with my father in 1964 after they met at a choir party!

My mother is 78 years old, and while she's in pretty good shape, I told her she has to exercise more so she can be in pretty good shape in a few years when we head out on another road trip to promote the book. I'm feeling more optimistic about this book's chances now. I may be writing about my father, but I'm doing all of this with my mother. Both are special experiences for which I'm grateful.

It was a good trip, exploring old memories and making new ones. It was a productive trip, with the book gelling in my mind. And it was a successful trip for these two city girls who now live in the country; we spent an afternoon driving and parking around East Toronto -- and survived!

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Family History

Like the journey of Granny's chest, I'm on a journey I never anticipated.

I wrote about the journey of Granny's chest in an essay by the same name in my book, Field Notes. In it, I talked about discovering that the old chest my sister and I had played in as kids actually came all the way from Liverpool, England, with our ancestors. Granny was my mother's great-grandmother -- not to be confused with her Gran, who lived in the house pictured above.

That house on Linden Avenue in Scarborough, Ontario, was built by MY great-grandfather (Gran's husband) in 1926. Granny's chest was in the attic of this house -- it was her son, Henry (my maternal great-grandfather), who built the house.
In the essay, I figured it out: John Everest and his wife, Sarah Ringer, immigrated to Toronto, Canada, from England. Their son, Henry, married Mary Latham, known as Gran. Henry and Mary were my mother's grandparents.
Gran lived in this house until she died.
After she died in 1947, my mother and her sister and their father (my mother's mother died in 1945), moved into this house on Linden Avenue in Scarborough. The chest -- which the family started calling Granny's chest -- was in the attic of the house. We have no idea if the chest belonged to John (Banny) and Sarah (Granny) Everest but it's a safe assumption since the chest had Liverpool painted on it, and they came from England.

The whole point in telling you this is: I lived in this house on Linden Avenue, too. I lived here from about four months of age until I was three. My parents sold the house and used their share of the proceeds to buy a funeral home in Cobourg. Until this week, I hadn't paid any more attention to this house on Linden Avenue than what I've seen in photos of the first three years of my life. The house disappeared from our family history, and from my life, in 1973, and I've never thought of it since or even asked to drive by it whenever we were in Scarborough.

But now that I'm working on a book about my dad, I'm returning to Scarborough and my early years -- thanks to Google maps -- and for someone who has moved around a lot in her life, I'm shocked by how much of my childhood landmarks STILL EXIST. The funeral home where my father worked, the fish and chips shop where we ate on Friday nights, the house my parents lived in when they were first married (and where they brought me home to from the hospital), and this: the house my great-grandfather built.

On the outside, nothing has changed. Those front windows represent what my mother remembers as the sunroom and the music room (two separate rooms I bet are now all one room with the living room because that's what I'd do). The living room windows were on the left side where the "front" door was, off the driveway. That room on the second floor overlooking the street? My room.

My room. It's still there. It won't look the same as my photos from the early 1970's. But in a world where so much has changed and is changing, in a city where people tear down the little houses to build lot-filling "monster" homes, the brick house my great-grandfather built 93 years ago still stands, looking exactly like it did when I wandered that street, with our dog alongside me, and stole the bread cooling on the window ledge at our neighbours' house next door.

My mother and I sitting in front of the living room windows.