The Repairman

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 | | 0 comments

“Dad, he’s here!”

I opened the door and saw him standing off to the right. He was wearing a blue jacket, unzipped, and carried a small toolbox.

“Hello!” I said. “Come on in.”

A clang followed by a hollow ringing as the small, empty propane tank rolled on its side across my front step.

“I knocked something over,” he said, pointing in the general direction of where he had stood.  

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t have to explain why I had small, empty propane tanks outside my front door. I didn't understand it myself. My dismissal seemed to satisfy him and he stepped inside. He slipped out of his light brown deck shoes and walked into my kitchen.

“Where is it?” he asked.

I pointed at the dishwasher.

“Do you have towels? Get them. For the water.”

He opened the toolbox, removed a cordless drill and quickly removed the screws that held the front plate beneath the dishwasher door. He put the plate aside and ran his fingers underneath the machine. He leaned on one knee and bent over to get a better look.  

“It has been leaking for a while,” he said. “You see the floor?”

He motioned for me to look under the machine. I complied, my face filled with mock horror as I straightened up.

“There is nothing you can do about these floors when they get like that,” he said. I wondered if he thought that was somehow helpful.

 “Your wife, she call me,” he said. “I tell her, I’m the only one in the phone book who repairs these machines. Those other companies, they say they repair, but they look and say ‘you need to throw this out.’  They don’t know, so they just say you can do nothing, yes?”

I nodded my head as though I knew all about those other companies. “Ah!” I said.

 “I charge $50 just for visit, but I am the only one who will not rob you.”

I learned later that he had scolded my wife in similar fashion when she called but, as he crouched in my kitchen, he apparently still felt the need to justify his practices.

“I take off coat,” he said, as he hung his jacket on the back of my kitchen chair. He smiled.

His cell phone rang and he answered in a language I didn’t understand. Arabic? He pulled the chair from the table and sat down, talking on his phone. As he finished his call I wandered into the next room.  

“Do you have flashlight?” he yelled to me. I thought he said “fresh light” and panicked, wondering how I would deliver better light than I had already provided.

“Flashlight,” he repeated when it was clear I hadn’t understood him.

“Oh yes, I’ve got one,” I said. I was greatly relieved but, as I went upstairs to find it, I was also concerned I was now providing him tools.

From the stairs I heard him talking to my son.

“What is your name?”


“Alex? How old are you, Alex?”


“Alex? Why you nine, Alex? Why you nine?”


“Alex? What grade at school, Alex?”

“Grade four.”

“Alex? Why you Grade four, Alex? Why you not Grade five?”

I walked downstairs. Alex was licking his lips, his face filled with intense puzzlement. Clearly, we had not prepared him for such a series of unanswerable questions.

“You be my helper, Alex,” he said.

“OK?” said Alex.

Alex looked at me and I nodded that it was all right. 

“You hold the flashlight, point it here,” he said.

The repairman worked away on my dishwasher, removing parts, leaving them on the floor, opening and closing the door, starting and stopping the wash cycle, never waiting quite long enough for the machine to reset.

“I am the only one in town who does dishwashers,” he said, again.

“So, you cover the whole region?“  I asked.

“Yes, sometimes I take jobs outside of town, but only if I know on the phone what is wrong. One customer, I tell him I can’t come to him because he is outside of town and the problem? It could be anything. He say, ‘Oh, you are choosy!’”

His voice was full of accusation when he said choosy, but I thought this was probably his word not the customer’s.

“But I tell him, I am not choosy, I can’t come because I don’t have a big truck with all parts. Even if I do, if I have to get parts because I don’t have them, I make no money, yes?”

“Well, you’ve got to make money,” I offered.

“Even the big companies, they don’t have all the parts on their truck, they have to order parts, so it is the same for them, yes?”

“I can see that,” I said, although I wondered, still, why he was sharing this with me.

 “Alex? Where is my helper, Alex?”

Alex raised the flashlight from his side and pointed it at the dishwasher. He looked at me. He was licking his lips again.

“Alex, you like school, Alex?”

“Mmm…sorta,” said Alex.

“You like school when holidays, Alex?"

Alex didn't know how to answer.

"I know you, Alex…” He smiled.

“Do you have more calls to make today?” I asked.

“No, I am going to Mississauga this afternoon to see my niece who is here from Jordan. I don’t want to work all the time,” he said, another huge smile on his face. “On weekends, I will sometimes work, sometimes not. It depends, yes?” he said.

I nodded. Yes.

“Alex? Where is my helper, Alex?”

Alex shone the flashlight into the darkness.

“It is fixed,” he said. “No more water.”

He handed me his business card and told me how much I owed him. As I reached for my cheque book his cell phone rang again.

“Yes, hello? Yes…mmm hmm…how old is the machine?”

I heard the caller say he wasn’t sure, it was in the house when they bought it, ten years he guessed.

“I charge $50 to visit. What is your address?” He pulled another business card from his pocket and readied his pen.

The caller wanted to know if he could give him some idea on the phone if it would be worth fixing.

“It depends. I will know when I see it.”

The caller said he lived on Peachtree Court.


“No, t-r-e-e…court.”

“OK, I be there in 30 minutes.”

I wondered if he had any idea how to find Peachtree Court.

He shook my hand, closed up his toolbox and walked to my front door. He slipped on his shoes and walked out, leaving the door open behind him.

“Close it,” he said, as he walked away.   

A Place Called Beverly

Friday, January 30, 2015 | | 0 comments

I’m sitting in the last row of the Beverly Community Centre arena, beneath a long heater hung from the ceiling, at present producing no heat. This means of course that I’m in Beverly; except, as far as I know, no such place exists.

I think I’m actually in Rockton, which for most of you means I’ve now named two places you’ve never heard of. I know that Rockton exists because I’ve been there several times to attend their “World’s Fair” (why it’s called a World’s Fair I will never know, but I see no benefit in challenging their reach) and I know that the arena in which I now sit, getting colder by the second, is no more than a minute down the road from the fairgrounds which annually hold court to, ahem, the world.

I suppose it’s possible that there is a place called Beverly, but I just can’t imagine two places as small as Rockton and Beverly existing so close together. What purpose would that serve? Technically, if I am to believe the highway signs, I am in neither Rockton nor Beverly, but within the limits of the fine City of Hamilton. I am inclined however to discount this claim as I have noticed, as perhaps you have as well, if you are on the right roads, you can find a sign indicating that you have entered the City of Hamilton anywhere from Windsor to Parry Sound, making Hamilton a land mass roughly the size of Belgium.  
Searching for clues to where I am, I look around the arena, my eyeballs slow to move in their now frozen sockets. On the far wall I see a large sign: “Home of the Beverly Bandits.” Championship banners cover the wall to the left of the scoreboard, spilling over to the right, where a space has been made for future championships. The opposite end boasts just as many banners, my admiration for this hockey powerhouse, unnamed still, growing with each banner.

In the corner, high on the wall, there’s an old plastic clock, donated by the Lions Club of Rockton.  Beside it, a single banner announcing the “Rockton Rotten Shots”, a hockey club established in 1995, by now disbanded or royally unsuccessful, I cannot tell.

Between the penalty boxes, I notice the timekeeper’s booth. The brown, painted, steel support beam that runs up the wall, behind the booth, rises like a pipe from the booth, the two inhabitants seeming to sit inside a plexiglass woodstove. Beside the booth a collision repair facility from Waterdown advertises their services, a second sign for the same business on the boards. “Insist on us!” they implore, causing me to question not just their advertising budget but how many options there might be for body work in this area. The other businesses list Rockton, Hamilton, even Ancaster as their locations. Where the hell am I? My confusion grows.

And then I remember. I’m watching my son play hockey. I’m happy. It doesn’t matter where I am. And I’m cold. Really, really cold.

Of Mice and Me

Monday, October 6, 2014 | | 0 comments

I have mice in my house. There, I said it.

I hesitate to share any of this with you, because I’m embarrassed by the situation. Obviously, I’ve let my house become a shambles or why else would rodents want to live with me? How negligent have I been that I have not noticed the gaping unattended holes in my house that allowed the mice to easily move in in the first place and begin spreading  their germs, or whatever else mice do that makes them so undesirable? Well, perhaps the holes have not been gaping, the mice are quite small, but clearly I am lacking as a home owner as there must be some avenues into my house that I have overlooked, even if the mice quickly place a small bush over the opening each time they come and go, as I suspect they might. Maybe I’m wrong about all this, maybe they just come in when he children leave the door open, which is how the flies get in. The mice and the flies may even be in cahoots (I’ve never liked the flies and wouldn’t put this past them), but none of this changes the fact that I have mice in my house or varmints as you may call them if you have taken your judging of me to another level.  
It was a couple of weeks ago that we first heard a mouse in the wall and, like everyone who goes through it, we entered the first phase of mouse elimination: Hoping They Will Go Away On Their Own. This phase has never worked for anyone, but is a necessary step before proceeding to Phase 2: Population Estimation. In this phase you hope the mouse you heard in the wall (some people have the misfortune of seeing a mouse in Phase 1) is the only mouse you will have to worry about, but everyone knows this is absurd, because if you are aware of one mouse you are most likely to have 17, perhaps 400. Indeed, you soon realize there are three generations of mice now living in your house, regrouping and re-strategizing after one of them broke rank and alerted you to their presence through careless scratching or sprinting through your walls. 

Phase 3 is setting traps or putting out poison.  I was once told the problem with poison is that the hundreds of mice living in your house will all eat the poison simultaneously, a mouse Jonestown, then crawl into the walls to die, only to be discovered by a health inspector from a neighbouring village responding to the numerous reports of an unexplained odor which is causing people to be sick in the streets and the cancellation of schools. No, I’ve decided that I’m more comfortable with a spring loaded trap even when that trap’s primary function seems to be to snap my fingers each time I set it.  

So, last week I set out two traps in my basement, each one loaded with peanut butter rather than a piece of cheese which would have been my first choice had I been trying to rid myself of a cartoon mouse sometime in 1947. The next morning, immediately upon waking, I headed down the stairs and entered into Phase 4: Hoping I’d Killed A Mouse/But Really Not Wanting To See A Dead Mouse In A Trap/Really Really Not Wanting To Touch A Dead Mouse.

I checked the first trap. It had engaged, the peanut butter was gone, but there was no dead mouse in it. I checked the second trap and discovered my first dead mouse. I felt awful, but reminded myself that these rodents planned to overrun my house, kill me and my family, and assume our identities. It helped a little.  

The second morning I checked the traps and found both of them engaged, but in neither case had I caught myself a mouse. I was certain the loss of one of their comrades the day before would have made them desperate and apt to make a tactical error, but it seemed it only made them more aware of my devious plans, and had avoided the traps. I made a mental note to buy more peanut butter the next time I passed the grocery store.

The next morning, I again checked the traps.  The first was untouched, the second engaged, but no mouse! “Curses!” I shouted. “Foiled again!” I added, as I found it easier to go about my business if I adopted the personae of a villain, at least while I was in Phase 4. I thought about getting a cape, growing a wiry moustache, changing my laugh, but something distracted me from these thoughts.

There, on the floor, near the trap, was the mouse! He seemed frozen in place, his little eyes looking straight up at me. I wondered why he was not running away. Perhaps he was awed by his recent brush with death and was thinking how from this point forward he would live life to the fullest, but I don’t think mice are that deep. Maybe he was too full from peanut butter. Maybe all of his training had taught him not to be afraid of me, my villain exclamations having no effect on him. Regardless of the reason, he just stared at me and I stared back.

I wondered what to do. Maybe I could reset the trap, set it down next to him and say something like, “I noticed you didn’t get all the peanut butter – here you go…take your time,” before slowly leaving the room? Maybe I could scoop him up with something and take him outside, but realized that the something was likely going to be my hands and that taking him outside likely only inconvenienced him slightly by making him walk around the house to wherever their secret entrance was. I decided against both ideas. The only option I saw open to me at that moment was to grab something big and/or heavy and crush Mr. Mouse under it.

I thought about how that might change my day.  

Oh, it’s a funny story…this morning I was down in my basement, hadn’t even had my coffee, and I bludgeoned a mouse under a heavy book! You know, one of those ridiculously large dictionaries that doubles as an Encyclopedia? Yep, I just crushed him right under it. Boom! You should have seen the mess, nearly got it on me…hmm…anyways, how are you?

I couldn’t do it.

Out of options, I nodded to the mouse, turned around and went back upstairs.

I had entered Phase 5: Failure.

Maybe I’m not cut out for this mouse business.

Respect In Sport

Saturday, September 20, 2014 | | 0 comments

I hope you’ll indulge me in a bit of a rant.

We noticed on the website for my son’s hockey league that the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) requires all parents to complete a Respect In Sport Certification program before their child can be added to a team. The cost to take the online program is $12, it takes about an hour to complete, and needs to be taken only once, by at least one parent or guardian.  The deadline is November 1, baffling since the season, at that point, would be one month old, but that is not the root of my concern. A quick calculation of $12 multiplied by the number of players registered with the OMHA also makes me wonder if this program won’t be a profit centre for the association but, again, this is not the reason for my rant.

And before I go any further, I want to be clear about something. We have a problem with the way too many parents behave at their children’s games, practices, and other events. I don’t know if a lack of “Respect” completely covers this enormous issue, but something does need to be done to curb or remove the inappropriate behavior that, for too many families, has ruined the game for our sons and daughters.

I just don’t know if this program, admittedly one I haven’t even looked at, will make a difference.

Here’s my problem. The overwhelming number of hockey parents, and I presume this is consistent across all other sports played in Ontario, already understand the reason we have our kids in sports. We already understand what is acceptable behavior (and what’s not) when we attend our children’s’ games. 

We understand that coaches are volunteers and, in almost all cases, are doing the best that they can to make the game fun and to teach the skills that our children need to improve. We know that referees are human beings, and they too are doing the best they can on any given night. If we’ve ever put on the striped shirt ourselves, we also know it’s a much tougher job than it appears to be from the stands. We know that our child might be great on the ice, they might be mediocre, they might really struggle, and we know that all of it is OK. We know that, for some of the kids, they enjoy their time on the ice just as much as they do throwing tape balls at each other in the dressing room. They enjoy backwards circles, carrying a puck, as much as chasing their coach around the ice, trying to squirt her with their water bottles. They get as much pleasure out of scoring a goal as they do getting the surprise birthday party invitation from the child they only know by a first name, and possibly their uniform number. We know that even after games that didn’t go how we wanted to, sometimes the only thing ours sons and daughters remember is sharing an order of fries with their mom or dad.   

We know that it’s never OK to scream at a child, or anyone else, and if our excitement gets the better of us, it should only be to tell them how much we enjoy watching them on the ice. We know that our child is doing the best that they can, on any given day and, for that reason, we have a reason to celebrate every single time they hit the ice.

Somehow I doubt that anything in this one-hour online program is going to teach me anything I don’t already know.  And here’s the worst part. The parents who don’t get it, the ones who ruin the game for everyone, there’s almost no chance that twelve bucks and one hour spent at their computer is ever going to change the way they behave.

And that’s a shame.

46 Norman Street

Thursday, May 29, 2014 | | 3 comments

Subject: Visit to grandma's house at 46 Norman St…could be the last time to visit her there
Grandma is seriously considering going into Anne Hathaway retirement residence to live permanently… would be by May 1...she had a wonderful experience there for the month of Feb…you might want to check your calendars and make time to visit her one last time in the house…it would be nice for her to share her memories and show you around…bring the kids along...

Several weeks ago, my mother sent this email to me and my siblings. In many ways, it was the type of point-form-separated-by-ellipses-stream-of-consciousness-and-haven’t-you-said-nearly-everything-in-your-subject-line-anyway? email that we were accustomed to receiving from my mother. The exception here though was that it was too easy to read between the lines. Without saying it, at least not clearly, my mother meant that our 92-year-old grandmother had decided to move out of the house she lived in for 53 years. And more than that, my mother wanted us to know that it was important - to my grandmother, to my mom, and for us - that we have one last visit with Grandma at her house before she moved.  

The weekend before my grandmother was scheduled to move, I took my kids to Stratford to see her. We stopped first at my parents’ place for lunch; a lovely chili, served on plate bowls. The chili was made by my sister, my mother told us, though it was unclear if she prepared it specifically for our visit, or even if she was aware we were now eating it. My kids can be picky eaters when presented with anything even slightly different from their usual food, but they devoured the chili and said nothing about the introduction of plate bowls into their lives, not even when the chili ran into the salad that accompanied our meal.

When we finished eating, my mother said, “Your grandmother might ask you if you’d like to take something from her house.” The comment seemed aimed at me, but she looked as much to my daughter as she said it.

My daughter looked at me, hoping I would jump in and tell her what she should take from Great Grandma’s house. I was of no help.  
“Maybe you’d like a teacup?” my mother said, now clearly speaking to my daughter.

My daughter’s mind raced. “Maybe?” was all that came out.  The matter settled we drove the short distance to my grandmother’s house.

As I drove, I became completely lost in thought. The car seemed to know when and where to turn without any input from me, leaving me to ponder my final visit to see Grandma at her house. The kids sang along to the radio and looked out their windows, lacking any signs that, for them, this visit was also bittersweet.

We reached her house, walked up the grey, painted, wooden porch steps, and pushed open the kitchen door. We never knocked at Grandma’s and the door was never locked.

“Hello!” we called. My grandmother was sitting at her kitchen table, facing the door, reading a hard cover book. Pushing herself away from the table, she reached for her walker and met us a few steps from her chair.  

“Hello Lauren, hello Alex, hello Rick,” she said.

“Hi Grandma”, “Hi Great Grandma,” we answered.

The kids hugged her, Alex seeming afraid of squeezing too hard. I put my arms around her and kissed her on the cheek.

“Great to see you, Grandma,” I said. “Were you reading a book?” I didn’t know why I’d asked the question, but she smiled and confirmed the obvious.

In some of my earliest memories of Grandma’s house, I’m younger than my kids are now, and I’m in this kitchen. Every Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa hosted the big family dinner. The adults ate in the dining room, while my siblings, my cousins, and I sat around this kitchen table – the kids’ table – mesmerized by what we heard from the other room.

There was an energy created by the adults - their voices, their jokes, their laughs, the buzz of food being served, cutlery clanking on plates. It filled the room, and drifted into ours, reminding us throughout dinner that theirs was the better party. When we were old enough, we left the kitchen, everyone crowding around the dining room table, sharing in the jokes and the buzz, adding to the energy. 

It was here, too, in this kitchen, that one our family’s finest traditions took place – Monday lunches at Grandma’s. The tradition began when my oldest cousin started high school, a few years before me, and he was invited to have lunch at Grandma’s every Monday. As each of the six grandchildren, who lived in Stratford, went to high school (at different times, we all went to the same school, two blocks down the hill from Grandma’s house) we were all invited to have our Monday lunches at Grandma’s.

My grandparents called their noontime meal dinner and dinners were grand affairs. Grandma served us a roast, or a turkey, with potatoes, and gravy, and a vegetable of some sort, sometimes two. There was usually a small plate of sweet pickles on the table, and sometimes a plate of beets. The beets, my grandfather told us, came from our Aunt Ruth’s garden. Aunt Ruth is Grandma’s sister, making her, technically, our great aunt, but if she was going to provide beets, she could go by any name she wished. For reasons I never understood, Grandpa referred to Aunt Ruth’s offering as “beet pickles” and the kids insisted that “pickled beets” made more sense. It was one of the few debates my grandfather allowed us to win, realizing perhaps that life was too short to worry about the proper naming of beets, or pickles.

We had white bread with butter, the white bread tasting so much better than the brown or whole wheat bread we had at home. Sometimes we’d put the leftover gravy on an extra slice of bread and enjoy an open faced, white bread, gravy sandwich.  Grandma always had a dessert for us, usually Jell-o or some sort of pie. When we were finished eating we enjoyed a hot cup of tea.

During lunch, my grandfather asked us about school, sports, and any other activities of ours that he was aware of.  He was keenly interested in all that we did and liked to give us advice. His lessons usually focused on: the value of hard work, the importance of family and good friends, and standing up for ourselves.  His thoughts on conflict resolution always went too far and following his suggestions literally seemed guaranteed to result in school suspensions, or possibly worse. So, we nodded and smiled, but silently disregarded what he suggested we do in these cases.   

Grandpa turned on the old radio that sat at the end of the table so we could listen to the news.  He commented on every story, sometimes before the announcer finished, easily angered by anything he felt was “what’s wrong with the world today.” On rare occasions, he would fly into a rage over something he heard and it seemed he might throw the radio through the window. He never did, of course, but Grandma had to calm him down, saying, “Oh, Bill,” laughing at his temper. I don’t think anything ever calmed my Grandpa down faster than my Grandma and these two words.

We knew to be quiet when the obituaries were read, my grandparents listening carefully for names they recognized. The radio announcers mispronounced names with great regularity and we had to look down at our plates to keep from laughing, which would have upset Grandpa. Some attempts by the announcers were so hopeless that laughing was simply unavoidable. Even Grandpa laughed at those, shaking his head, and muttering something about “the poor bugger,” possibly referring equally to the announcer and the deceased.

We sipped our tea, and Grandma poured us a second cup. Paul Harvey told us The Rest of the Story like a Sunday sermon.  Grandpa smiled and let the surprise sink in, relishing the twist.  Sometimes, he’d snap out of his silence and say, “How ‘bout that?” We knew he really enjoyed those ones.  

Grandma slipped in and out of the kitchen throughout the lunch hour - and it was a full hour - bringing food to the table, clearing plates, serving dessert, and boiling the water for our tea. No one ever helped Grandma with these meals, it likely never occurred to any of us to do so.

When she wasn’t serving us, Grandma took her place at the table, nearest the kitchen, opposite Grandpa. She asked each of us how we were doing and told us that what we were doing was wonderful, no matter the update.

Grandma made sure our plates were always filled with food. Though we spent our mornings sitting at desks, Grandma fed us like we had been doing hard labour in the fields since sunup.  By the end of lunch, our pants were tight and the tea gave us a gentle sweat. We pushed back our chairs and wondered how we might make it those two short blocks to school, even with the benefit of a downhill walk. Our classmates waited for us to return, anxious to ask what “Grandma” had made us for lunch. The answers, though similar week-to-week, brought astonishment just the same.

The memories swam in my head. I was once again standing in this kitchen, now hearing my grandmother say “We can go into the living room?”  

We followed her past the refrigerator, on which was featured several years of our wallet-sized school photographs. They looked back at us with fake smiles, from behind fridge magnets made to look like picture frames.  We walked past the oven, past the wooden cupboards that held the teacups and the impossibly small drinking glasses, in which we drank our apple or tomato juice each Christmas. We walked single file like a slow moving parade.

We stopped at the dining room table, bare except for some white envelopes - birthday cards for her grandchildren and great grandchildren – and a jigsaw puzzle, one-quarter complete. I never got used to the sight of empty chairs in this room, to the sound of silence. I remembered the energy created in this room that reached me all the way in the kitchen. It was strange to feel no sign of it during the daytime.

“We can go into the living room, she repeated. “I don’t have much to offer you…I could make some tea?” We didn’t need anything, but I wondered if, for Grandma, not being able to serve us a big meal, or even have any food prepared for our visit, might be the toughest part about aging.

We heard the kitchen door open and my parents walk in. “Hello?” my father said. It was part greeting, part, Anybody home?

Grandma eased herself into her chair, pushing away her walker. I took the seat closest to her so she could hear me. We talked about her shows, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. She asked me about my job, and how Lauren and Alex were making out with all of their activities. The kids grew bored and snuck back to the kitchen to raid Grandma’s peppermint jar.

This room had changed so little in my lifetime. There were chairs in all four corners, and a couch in front of the big window. A small wooden table that my grandfather won at a dance, many years ago, sat in front of the couch.  On the end wall was a fireplace. Above it, on the mantle, were 40-year-old pictures of my cousins and a wooden carving, done by my aunt’s brother and given as a gift to my grandfather, of an antique car driving down the road. Grandpa loved old cars and he loved this wood carving.

The chair in the corner, closest to the fireplace, had been Grandpa’s.  On the table next to his chair he kept stacks of crossword puzzle books, a bag of peanuts and a magnifying glass he used to read fine print. From his chair he could look out the window and see cars going up and down the hills, on both Norman and St. Vincent Streets. He could watch his grandchildren walk up the hill each Monday.  Grandma told us how much he used to enjoy doing that. He last looked out that window in 1999, his one regret, he told me, was that he wouldn’t get to see the start of another century. I haven’t been in this room since without looking at the empty chair in the corner and missing him terribly.

Years ago, the TV set was replaced after everyone noticed that the colour was off. Way off. Everyone, that is, except Grandma and Grandpa, who somehow hadn’t noticed that hockey rinks had turned blue, baseball players had turned green, and Lawrence Welk looked like he was part Martian. I have to believe that the change had been subtle.

There were framed family pictures on the wall, taken at my grandparents’ 50th wedding celebration. One in particular, that includes 17-year-old me, is hilarious to my children, who point at me and laugh uproariously each time they see it. According to my mother, at least one of my nieces has an identical reaction to my picture. All of these children will be surprised when their laughter is repaid in some fashion, perhaps years down the road, at their weddings.

My grandmother turned to Lauren and asked her if she’d like something from her house. We had been waiting for this question, but Lauren still didn’t know what to say. “I’ll be back in a minute,” Grandma said, and she walked into her bedroom. She returned with a small, heart-shaped, glass box, with pink trim and flowers painted on the top. She lifted the lid to reveal half a dozen brooches inside. “Here you go, dear,” she said.  

Before my grandmother could sit back down, my mother said, “Lauren, are you going to get a teacup?” loud enough for my grandmother to hear and quite likely her neighbours, too. 

A teacup was arranged and my grandmother asked Alex what he would like. He said he might like one of Grandma’s stuffed bears and quickly it was given. It felt a bit like the end of a garage sale and Grandma was happy to give away anything left on the table -anything that hadn’t sold.

My mother asked me if I wanted to take something from Grandma’s house. Again, she was yelling. My grandmother looked on, ready to give me the shingles off the roof if that was what I wanted, but I didn’t need anything, certainly not a teacup, or a teddy bear. 

What I needed was a chance to sit in Grandma’s kitchen and her living room one last time, to talk to her about the same old things. I needed to know that my grandmother would be okay with her upcoming move. I needed a final glance at the empty corner. I needed my kids to raid the peppermint jar and hope that, when they’re my age, they might remember this day, this house.

I needed an hour or so to let a lifetime of memories completely soak in. I needed my grandmother to know that we all loved her and that everything she had ever done for us, in this house, and elsewhere, meant everything to us. No, there wasn’t anything else that I needed, Grandma. You’ve given me more than enough. 

My thoughts on the Newtown tragedy

Friday, December 14, 2012 | | 2 comments

Today, like millions of people around the world, I was devastated by the news that 28 people, including 20 small children, were killed in Newtown, Connecticut when a gunman opened fire at a school.

Early reports are that the children killed were between five and 10 years old. As a parent, this is the kind of thing my mind just can’t comprehend. I’m shaken, confused and heartbroken. It’s undoubtedly pointless to try to make sense of this, but I’ve done just that, asking questions that can’t be answered, getting nowhere except to feel an even deeper sadness for the families of those affected.
The youngest of these victims, the five-year-olds, those who died and those who survived - still victims in my eyes – were or are just beginning their childhoods, their memories of meaningful experiences or events just starting to dance in their heads.  
I was five years old a very long time ago, but I still have vivid memories of what I had experienced, what my life was like at that time. Perhaps to help me put this in some perspective, to try to understand who we lost today and who will forever be affected, I thought back to who I was at that age.  
I woke up each morning before anyone else and crept down the stairs to the TV room, stopping at the door, terrified to reach inside the darkened room to turn on the lights, certain that one day someone or something would grab me. I’d have only a test pattern to watch on the black and white set, until eventually the national anthem would play, followed by a show like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.
I’d walk to school alone, covering a distance that seemed normal then, but is laughable today and would surely have me taking a bus. I dawdled every step of the way, turning each trip into an hour long adventure, making me forever late and exasperating my parents.
I once accidentally painted a girl’s hair green.
Our teacher, Mrs. Schneider, taught us odd and even numbers by having Stephen and Moninder stand at the front of the class and count to ten, Stephen saying his numbers in a normal voice, Moninder whispering hers, Moninder seeming unsure of the exercise and her role the entire time.
We read Mr. Muggs.
I wore a shirt with Charlie Brown patterns on it for my school picture day, my unbrushed hair standing straight up on end.
There was a girl who waited for me after school every day, so she could walk across the road, never speaking to me, seeming just to watch me, years before I knew that this odd behaviour was called “stalking.”
At night, we played at Redford Park, unsupervised, and rode our bicycles with Charlie’s Angels trading cards stuck in the spokes so we sounded like motorcycles.
We walked to the Cambria Quick Stop, about halfway to the school, to spend our parents’ money on Lucky Elephant Pink Candy Popcorn and other treats.
I watched The Six Million Dollar Man on TV once a week, thinking the episodes that featured Bigfoot – a most ridiculous plot twist and quite obviously a man in an ape costume - pure television magic.
I had sleepovers at my friend Tommy’s house, one evening getting to run to his house after an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, in a snowstorm, a freedom I’d never felt before.
On hot sunny days, when my grandfather would come to visit, I’d sit on the back of his pickup truck and stare at the rocks that lined my driveway, once falling and cracking open my forehead and blacking out.
Sometimes we’d get together on someone’s lawn and throw our Tonka Trucks as high into the air as we could, then watch them as they crashed to the ground. A Tonka Truck mishap resulted in another busted scalp, blackout, and a trip to the hospital.
At Christmas, my dad shook his gift and joked that it might be a hockey stick, an umbrella, maybe a car, before I yelled, “It’s a tie!” which made everyone laugh, though I didn’t understand the reason for the laughter.
I was terrified of the snow plow that cleared the sidewalk, seeming to sneak up on me each time from around the corner, filling me with adrenaline and sending me scurrying to the nearest driveway to safety.
I have no idea how similar or different these memories were or are from the Newtown kids, but this is what I know of 5-years-old, what I remember. This is who we lost.
I’ve done so much living since this time that it’s impossible for me to fathom, again as a parent, the knowledge that your child may only have had these experiences, these memories. So too is it impossible to think of the life of the child who now must also carry the burden of this terrible day, knowing tragedy that no 5-year-old should ever know.
I sincerely hope that after today, countries everywhere, including my own, will look more closely at gun control and do whatever needs to be done to make these tragedies less likely. We also need to ask if we’re doing all we can do to help people with mental illnesses.
If this doesn’t get people to act, I’m not sure what will. 

Standing in line at Starbucks

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 | | 2 comments

I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable in line at Starbucks. Well, I suppose I was comfortable enough the first time, roughly twelve years ago, but that’s exactly when a lot of these problems began.

I was attending a business conference in Orlando, Florida and – my memory is a bit cloudy on the details – I was between meetings, likely the company financial update and the meeting where we were told we had just been named the single greatest concern in the history of business. There may have been a plaque, but as I said, my memory is not perfect on this point.
“I could really go for a coffee,” I said to one of my colleagues.
“Look! There’s a Starbucks right over there!” they said.
I had heard of Starbucks, but before it magically appeared that day in the hotel, I had never been a customer. Excitedly, I approached the counter. My excitement quickly disappeared though when I glanced at the menu and became confused beyond description. What I wanted was a coffee, “a normal, regular coffee,” I may have added, but nowhere did I see anything that matched this description. Not even close.
Behind the counter was what appeared to be a woman, but I later learned this was not a woman at all, but a barista. It is almost impossible to tell the difference, but these distinctions are part of the Starbucks charm and must be recognized.  Like all good baristas, she could sense that I was confused by the menu and offered to help me make my choice. I was thrilled that she spoke English, but remember I was new to the whole barista thing.  I told her that I really wanted a normal, regular coffee, and she impressed me by asking four or five qualifying questions that no one at my local coffee shop had ever taken the time to ask. I made a mental note to scold them when I returned home for their total disregard of my true coffee needs, relative to the Starbucks experience unfolding before me.
Having established exactly the type of normal, regular coffee that suited me perfectly, we moved onto the matter of size. Again, I was unable to quickly grasp the unique names of the different cups and resorted to demonstrating the size I wanted by holding my hands apart as a fisherman might do when describing the size of a largemouth bass, realizing only too late that pointing to the cups was a superior option.   Undaunted, I waited for my perfect coffee, served in the perfect cup, prepared by a barista -- which is practically like having an angel serve you. Really, it’s nearly the same thing.  
Little did I know, I was about to be surprised -- very surprised. The barista returned with my order, but it didn’t look at all like I was expecting. Instead, she presented what appeared to be a hot chocolate with cinnamon sprinkles, whipped cream, chocolate flakes and quite possibly a breadstick. There is no doubt that I should have realized something was going horribly wrong when my drink took seven minutes to create and required a blender, but I had been under an angel trance and missed all of it.
That was a long time ago and I’ve learned enough to never repeat the disaster of Orlando, but it’s hardly stress free to stand in line today. I’ve learned that normal, regular coffee is a Pike Place Roast, but as I stand in line, I practice saying “I’ll have a Pike Place Roast, please,” which is possibly the hardest thing I ever have to say. Even in my head it often comes out “I’ll have a Pike Pace Roast, Peese” or sometimes “a Plike Plake Roast, Peese,” the word “Roast” somehow always coming out as intended.
I’ve learned the sizes too: Short, Tall, Grande and Venti. I don’t practice saying Grande and Venti because I’m entirely unsure of the proper way to say them so it makes little difference if I say Grand-ay or Grand-ee, Vent-ee, Vent-ay or Vant-ay, so I simply blurt out whatever version comes out that day, fully expecting baristas to gather after work and imitate me to their families and friends. Nowhere else is my inability to speak Italian such a problem and when what comes next is “I’ll have a Pleak Paced Roast, Plike Please,” really, what difference does it make?
One of the things I genuinely enjoy about Starbucks is enjoying my coffee on one of the comfortable couches or chairs. At my last visit however, I looked around and saw that the only available seats were the less comfortable wooden seats, unless I wanted to share a small couch with a woman who seemed even less likely than me to enjoy the idea.
Just then, a group started to get up to leave and I thought I’d found my comfy seat! But before I could get there, a woman who had left her friends in line to hover near the comfortable seats claimed them all.  They were working in teams – a brilliant tactic! I hadn’t seen it coming, but really, what chance did I have?
I guess that’s just one more thing to worry about.