Don’t spill the coffee

During March and April it’s Roll Up the Rim to Win time and, as I watch local people going into Tim Horton’s and coming out with bright red cups in their hands, it takes me back to a time when I nearly wrote off a minivan—and my family—just for the sake of a cup of coffee.

Roll up the Rim to Win (1) Roll up the Rim to Win (2)

We were visiting family in Southport, near Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, in the spring of 1990.  Our three boys, Paul, James and Ryan, were six, five and three respectively.  My mom had come from Winnipeg to visit with the boys and Dan’s infant daughter, Katie.

Winter doesn’t hang on in southern Manitoba the way it does in northern Newfoundland, mainly because the prairies are flat and there’s really nowhere for the snow to collect.  So, once winter has blown herself out and the mercury has eased up above the zero mark the sun gains strength and the snow melts in record time.  Snow gives way to crocuses, breezes blow softly across the prairie sands, and fragile blades of grass begin to brighten the colourless landscape.

Coffee-drinking is in our family’s DNA.  I don’t know if it comes down through my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors or through the English ancestors on my dad’s side, but it is certainly well-established.  We also like tea, but coffee is the beverage of choice, especially if there’s a Tim Hortons nearby.

One Saturday morning we all piled into the van: Len, Mom, my brother Dan, Paul, James, Ryan, Katie, and me.  We drove from Southport to Portage La Prairie to do a little grocery shopping.  On the return trip we stopped at Tim Hortons to pick up a tray of three large coffees, a tea for Len, and a box of donuts, and I got behind the wheel to drive.  Dan got in the front passenger seat while Len and Mom sat in the back seat to keep an eye on the squiggly-wiggly children.  I carefully placed the tray of beverages on the console between the seats and buckled my seatbelt.

It takes about ten minutes to drive from Portage to Southport, and as we drove along we all chatted and laughed and looked out the windows at the farmland scrolling by on either side of the road.  As we approached Southport, row-on-row of military housing emerged from a mirage of heat waves.

One of the boys began to whine, “I have to pee.  I have to pee now!” and began kicking the back of the driver’s seat in desperation.  Simultaneously, a bumblebee drifted in through an open window and made for the back of the van, where the children began to scream and flail their arms and legs in panic.

And that’s when I made the decision that nearly cost us our lives.

With only a minute to go till we reached the house, I pressed down on the accelerator and sped up, thinking it would be quicker and safer to get home and get the kids out of the van rather than stop on the side of the road.  I thought surely the child in need of a potty could hold it for one more minute and surely the bumblebee couldn’t inflict that much damage in a matter of a few seconds.  Then I remembered that my brother Dan was dangerously allergic to bee stings.

Down went the gas pedal as the screams in the back grew louder.

I took the next turn a little fast—on two wheels I think—and the bright roll up the rim to win cups in the tray slid towards the floor.  I guess you could say everything tipped at that moment and, in a flash, I reached over and grabbed at the tray of coffee, hoping to save it.  Dan yelled, “Watch the ditch!”  I let go of the coffee tray and spun the wheel so that the van righted itself, barely staying on the road.  I lurched to a halt in the driveway, shut off the ignition, and drew in deep breaths.

Dan looked across at me, deadpan, and said, “You grabbed at the tray of coffee—willing to sacrifice a $20,000 minivan, your mother, your brother, your husband, your children, and my daughter—for four Tim Horton drinks?”

I suppose there is something to be said for the Newfoundland tradition of having tea at the kitchen table, even if you don’t win a prize.

It could save your life.

Of swimsuits and knitted socks

The difference between weather in eastern and western Canada was never more evident than in my choice of clothing for a weekend outing.  I pulled on long johns and tucked them into my homemade ‘Nan Tucker’ knitted socks, preparing for my first winter’s excursion on a snowmobile to cabin country.  I packed a knapsack with extra-warm clothes, first-aid kit, and a digital camera.

Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.
Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.

In March 1969, our church youth group chartered a bus to Cultus Lake, British Columbia.  I packed an overnight bag with a swimsuit and towel, transistor radio, hairbrush and a Brownie camera for a weekend at the beach.

The trip took us an hour east of Vancouver towards Chilliwack.  Along the Trans Canada highway we passed dairy farms with cattle standing along the fence-lines swishing their tails and chewing their cuds.  Raspberry and strawberry farms with their gridline-pattern rows ran as far as the eye could see, holding out the promise of a harvest of fresh fruit.  Mennonite farmers waved as they stood in the middle of fields of glorious yellow daffodils.  Gradually the farmland gave way to fir-covered hills, and then the hills slid into the background and the mountains reared up, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as we followed the highway to our destination.

At the lake, sun gleamed off the water as we scrambled off the bus and changed into swimsuits.  The soft spring air and the clear, cold water were thrilling.  We picnicked by the campfire and sang songs and imagined the legendary ‘Bigfoot’ coming down from the mountains to the campsite.  Cabins, framed by a brilliant riot of daffodils and tulips, stood back from the beach, while playgrounds on lush green lawns were alive with the shouts of children.

Cultus Lake was no stranger to visitors, and fishermen came from afar to fish for Rainbow Trout and Sockeye Salmon.  The Cultus Lake sockeye salmon is an anadromous fish—that is, a fish that lives part of its life in fresh water before migrating to the sea.  That day, I watched fisherman casting their lines, waiting for fish to bite.  I listened to their laughter floating across the water as they traded fish tales.


Now, forty years later, the Newfoundland landscape lay concealed beneath a heavy blanket of snow as a shower of snowflakes fell like eider-duck feathers from the sky.  I followed Route 430 west and found the rendezvous site on the side of the road.  Within minutes I was pulling a heavy helmet over my head and hoisted myself onto the back of a snowmobile, hanging on for dear life and bouncing over the barrens; amazed that there were traffic signs on the trails in the middle of the wilderness.

At Stock Pond, we pulled up to ‘Da Tilt’, a cabin owned by Carl and Millicent Tucker, in the center of a magical wood of moss-hung trees and snow-laden branches.   As he got off the snowmobile, Carl asserted, “I think it’s time for tea!”  Millicent greeted us at the door and, as we took off helmets, mittens, scarves, caps, coats and boots, put a kettle on the cast-iron stove to boil.  In the kitchen, we drank scalding tea and nibbled on buttered buns, watching a grey jay tilt his head and peer through the window, begging for morsels of bread.

After tea, Millicent brought forth a platter of fisherman’s brewis and, while we ate, Carl told stories of fish and fishermen, dog teams, seals on ice, and life on the Northern Peninsula when he was a young man.

After lunch we piled onto snowmobiles and headed to Pistolet Bay to go smelting.  Alyssa, Carl and Millicent’s granddaughter, and Len, lowered their hooks into the icy water.  Alyssa pulled up smelt after smelt, while Len only managed one rock cod, which came up with jaws flapping.  “You can’t have that one, Len,” advised Carl, pulling out the hook and forcing the foot-long cod back down through the ice.  A group of snowmobilers dropped by and one feller in a space-age helmet, noticing Len’s lack of success, insisted on showing Len the way it’s done by hauling in three smelts in the space of a minute.

Back at the cabin, we warmed our toes by the wood stove as other cabin-dwellers and snowmobilers dropped by to visit.

Looking back, I’d say that whether we pack an overnight bag with swimsuit and towel, or long johns and worsted socks, there is something in all of us that yearns to get back to the land; back to simpler ways.

Batten down the hatches, a nor’easter is coming

I’m hoping the people at NorPen Waste Management in St. Anthony don’t think we’re intentionally littering the landscape with non-biodegradable products, because we’re not.  It’s just that my husband, for all his knowledge about the wind, can’t seem to keep his snow blower covered longer than a week or two.

Here in Newfoundland the direction and velocity of the wind can generate some interesting discussions, but where I grew up, surrounded most of my life by tall buildings, there was no need to understand the weather at all.  There, the most damage the wind ever did was whip my hair into disarray or turn a lawn chair upside down.

Len grew up hearing about the wind on a daily basis; his family relied on the weather for their livelihood.  So, when we moved to Ship Cove a few years ago, he’d say things like, “The wind is westerly today; that means cold, clear weather.”  On another day he’d say, “Batten down the hatches, a nor’easter is coming.”  Wind from the east would likely bring a storm, and a southerly wind would bring mild, wet weather.  No sooner were the words out of his mouth than I had forgotten them; after all, what did the wind have to do with me?

We live close to the shore on the west side of Sacred Bay.  Across the bay lies L’Anse aux Meadows with its great, towering headland and a sand bar jutting into the ocean called Colbourne’s Point.  Len’s sister Eliza and husband, Winston, live on Colbourne’s Point.  One day Len looked at our flag rippling straight out from the pole and said, “The wind is westerly today.”  He put a bag of garbage on the side of the road and went off to work.  An hour later, I found a bag full of Styrofoam in the basement and put it beside the other bag on the side of the road.   A minute later I looked and it was gone.  I looked up the road, I looked down the road, I scoured the beach, and I searched the fields and ditches alongside our property.  Gone!

Winston found the bag of Styrofoam a day later on Colbourne’s  Point.  It had tumbled across the open water to the other side of the bay!

But that’s nothing, sure, compared to what happened to our tarp last winter.  Len parked our snow blower alongside the house when there was a particularly strong westerly wind.  It was Sunday, just after dinner, and the sun was shining and glinting off the pack-ice on the bay.  Len looked out the window and spotted the same sun shining and glinting off our black-and-silver snow blower tarp as it bounced over the ice like a giant bat, headed for Harbour Island.  With an exclamation he picked up the phone and dialled Guy Hurley, who lived just down the road, and in a matter of minutes Len and Guy were on a snowmobile in hot pursuit of the runaway tarp.  A group of Sunday snowmobilers on top of Graveyard Hill spotted the drama and joined the chase.  Amy and I watched from the shoreline while they snaked across the ice but the ski-doos were no match for the pack-ice, or the tarp which tumbled merrily ahead of them, zigzagging between Cape Bauld and Little Sacred Island as if it couldn’t quite make up its mind where to go.  Guy and Len returned without the tarp.

“The way I see it,” said Len, “there’s a harp seal out there using my tarp as a shelter.”

I can’t say how many times this past year have I heard him mutter, “Some harp has my tarp,” while he looked out at Cape Bauld.

Len ordered a new glossy black tarp this year from Sears and tied it on, but it only lasted a week.  At the first big storm, he untied it, folded it, and laid it down on the bridge while he cleared the driveway.  The nor’ east wind swept in and snatched it away.  When he came into the house it was still blowing a gale and the night was awhirl with snow.  He couldn’t even look me in the eye.  “My tarp’s gone,” he said.

Luckily, a Good Samaritan found the tarp and brought it back a week later, but it leaves me wondering—if you can take the boy out of the outport, can you take the outport out of the boy?  I’m beginning to think it’s entirely possible.

Winter descends on a frigid landscape

Winter 2009 has come in with a vengeance.  Outside, I hear the whine and growl of snowmobiles, see the snow swept along by the wind or falling like feathers to the ground; I smell wood smoke as it curls from chimneys, feel the chill in my bones as the wind freshens and the mercury spikes and then plummets like a gannet.  The White Hills are laden with snow and trees along the highways are bending under its weight.  Moose stand silent at the perimeter of the woods; snowmobiles snake through trees pulling sleds behind; finishing touches are put on smelting shacks as ponds and bays harden and the promise of ice fishing looms.  Snowploughs roar by, shedding snow along the roadsides in giant arcs.

Just a few evenings ago my daughter and I were out driving.  She begged to be allowed to drive, but I have not had the courage yet to relinquish the wheel on these snow-covered roads.  To be sure, her eyesight is superior, and her enthusiasm out-distances mine by a long shot, but as the Grey Power commercial says, those over 50 have experience, and in my opinion that has to count for something and, sure enough, it did.

Night had fallen and snow lay like a white quilt over roads and ditches as we drove along.  Out of nowhere two white bunnies zigzagged helter-skelter across the road in front of the car, testing my driving skills to the limit. Not once, not twice, but three times I swerved and braked to miss them, but they were determined to die.  Add to that scene a 16 year-old passenger shrieking, “You are going to kill the bunnies!  Stop!” and you have a pretty good idea why she is not driving at night on snow-covered roads.  I do not know how the rabbits managed to avoid the wheels of the car, but they did, and they are still out there waiting to test someone else’s driving skills.  Consider yourself warned.

I grew up in south-western British Columbia, just east of Vancouver.  One winter we moved out to the country and what made that winter so memorable was that it snowed, and we had our first brush with a mountain lion, or cougar.  For anyone born and raised in that area of B.C., snow was as unexpected as a Sasquatch in Newfoundland.  A west-coaster knows very well how to cope with a deluge of rain, but has no frame of reference to deal with snow.  Nor did the province possess any real snow-removal equipment, so when the big snow arrived in the winter of 1968-1969, everything came to a standstill.

We missed a month of school because we lived six kilometers off the main highway and buses could not make it up the steep hills.  My brother Peter set up his telescope in the middle of the road each morning to spy out the bus situation; his reports were more accurate than any radio announcement and far more interesting.  The paper girl delivered the newspaper by horse and sleigh, which was quite a sight.  When the imported snow removal equipment finally came down our road, the snow was well above the height of any vehicle. When the road was finally opened, we lay on top of the snow banks and looked down at the cars and trucks passing on the road beneath us.

That winter, the cougars came.  We were out walking along a back country road, and our mom was explaining that it was a hard year for wildlife because of deep snow.  My Siamese kitten strained ahead on a leash when suddenly she stopped; the hairs on her back and her tail stood straight up.  Mom whispered, “Cougar tracks,” and pointed.  Each paw print was the size of a saucer.  I tell you, nobody needed to tell us to start walking in reverse.  A cougar is a big cat, and you might be interested to know that it is capable of killing a 270 kg (600 lb) moose.  Even the big cats were having a hard winter, prowling around the farms looking for a quick meal.

So, whenever I hear the whine and growl of snow machines here on the Northern Peninsula I consider that, even though we live in a world of light and power and noise, there is another silent world that exists right on the perimeter of our lives.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t really take the city out of the girl.

Think about the acts of kindness

When I was five, Christmas was the most magical time of the year.  There was the thrill and anticipation of Santa and his reindeer, the Christmas concert at school, the Christmas pageant at church, and the Christmas tree which never went up until the night before Christmas.  Then, there were plenty of visitors, the turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and Japanese mandarin oranges which came wrapped in tissue and packed in crates.  I guarantee we were always giddy with excitement and anticipation.

Christmas morning we couldn’t wait to get dressed in the chill bedrooms, giggling and hurrying in our haste to see the gifts under the tree downstairs.  Presents never appeared until Christmas morning.  There were six of us kids then, ranging in age from three to twelve.  My mom always got up and made coffee and my dad always reached under the tree and brought out the gifts, handing them out so that each child had a gift to open.  Then, while we played with the toys, Mom would be out in the kitchen basting the turkey, which usually weighed 20-25 pounds, filling the house with a wonderful smell.  We’d eat breakfast, our eyes still fastened on our gifts, then we’d go to church and there would be a Christmas Day service with Baby Jesus in His manger.  We’d sing Christmas carols and exchange greetings with people after the service, and there were always plenty of other children to talk to and to play with.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon, we’d have Christmas dinner.  There would be heaps of mashed potatoes, homemade dressing, cranberry sauce, plates of turkey, mashed turnip or carrots, and lashings of gravy.  We might have friends or relatives to dinner, which always was a challenge because the table was never quite big enough, but everybody managed to squeeze in.

Recently, my husband and I visited St. John’s.  I think, in future, I will always think of St. John’s as the city where A River Runs Through It, because there were literally rivers of water flowing across roadways and waterfalls cascading down the Southside Hills.  But, the amazing thing is, it didn’t dampen the ardor of the Christmas shoppers at the Avalon Mall.  The parking lot was full, even though shoppers were forced to leap across streams of water to get into the mall.  As I sat at the food court with Len, we watched the shoppers go by in droves–and a stream of water falling from the ceiling to a bucket on the floor–and I pondered the meaning of Christmas just as I do every year.

What is the meaning of Christmas?  Is it the presents, the school concerts, the story of the birth of Jesus, the snow, or the tree all aglitter with ornaments and lights?  Or does the spirit of Christmas reside only in the hearts of children?

If we were to take away the gifts and the tree, would Christmas still be Christmas?

While we were in St. John’s we phoned our son James in Winnipeg and while he and I were talking he had to put down the phone to answer the door.  When he returned to the phone he told me a cadet had come to the door selling chocolate bars.  “I bought the whole box,” he laughed.  James was remembering a time almost fifteen years before when he was a child selling chocolate bars, and it had not been an easy task trudging through the snow selling chocolate bars in a city where doors were often closed in his face.  But that day, at the end of the block he knocked on a door and a man answered.  When James asked him if he’d like to buy a bar to support the school, the man bought the whole box, and I’ll never forget the joy on James’s face when he came home with an empty box and a handful of money.  He never forgot that man’s kindness.

I imagine if I asked James what gift he was given for Christmas fifteen years ago, he’d be hard-pressed to remember, but James had no trouble remembering a random act of kindness, and fifteen years later, he was able to return that kindness to a child in the same situation.

So, perhaps Christmas is more about small acts of kindness and mercy, rather than the glittering gifts under the tree.  Perhaps the meaning of Christmas is wrapped up in relationships, and fastened with memories of a simpler, kinder time.

Baby program an effective method of birth control

“Don’t expect any grandchildren from me!” yelled my 16 year-old daughter.

We were parked on the side of the road, wind blowing, rain pelting on the roof, rush-hour traffic whizzing by on route 430.  Amy had the back door of the car open and she was trying to wrestle the baby out of the car seat with no luck, and the baby had just reached the screaming stage.

I think it is safe to say that, at that moment, I really didn’t want a grandchild anyway.

“It’s not scanning!” cried my daughter, waving her hand over the baby and getting no results.  I wasn’t sure what the results were supposed to be, but judging from the look on her face, they weren’t happening.

Never, in all my child-rearing years, had I ever waved my hand over a baby and expected it to stop crying.

“I can’t get the baby out!” she yelled.  “This is going to be a ‘missed care’ and I’m going to fail!”  I elbowed her aside and unfastened the seatbelt and the harness.  The baby’s cries were pitiful, but they were as nothing compared to what would happen next.  I took hold of the baby and lifted it out, handing it to my daughter.  It began to scream and, I must confess, so did she.  “You didn’t support its head!” she yelled.  “Its neck is probably broken!”

Talk about trauma.

The Tories have come up with a plan to encourage Newfoundlanders to have more children.  They are paying $1000 per baby and a parental leave subsidy of $100 per month added to EI insurance to sweeten the deal.  It sounds good, but I’m about to let you in on a little secret; the government’s bid to increase the population may never fly, owing to the Baby Think It Over Program introduced into Newfoundland high schools.  If my daughter’s weekend experience is any indicator, the RealCare Baby II—a realistic infant simulator—is at sixes and sevens with the Tory’s aim to encourage more births.

The Baby Think It Over program was implemented to help students make educated decisions about child rearing.  It works to a point, but only to a point.  For instance, when I first heard the baby cry, all the old nurturing instincts flooded back, until I took the baby in my arms.  That’s when the reality hit; this ‘baby’ was no more than an intractable doll.  A real baby is soft and flexible and nestles its downy head into the crook of a parent’s shoulder; a real baby interacts with the caregiver; cooing, smiling, and making eye contact.  Amy found this baby to be all drudgery with few rewards.  “It’s just a machine,” she protested, although I’m willing to bet it might have mollified her somewhat if she had received a government cheque in the amount of $1000.   

The baby’s cries were very real; when she arrived there were plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from friends and relatives.  Even the cat was interested; she tried to help the baby by lying down beside it and purring and flexing her claws while it had its bottle, and to be fair,  it sounded exactly like a nursing infant; when it was rocked, it murmured and cooed, reminding us of the sounds our own children made.  We even gave her a name, Annabel Lee, after the poem by Edgar Allan Poe.  “It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea, that a maiden there lived whom you may know by the name of Annabel Lee; and this maiden she lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.”

Wherever we went, we took Annabel Lee with us, but never was she more colicky than on Thanksgiving Sunday when we took her to turkey dinner at her uncle and aunt’s.  She wasn’t about to let Amy enjoy the meal.  She cried for her bottle; she cried for a burp; she cried for a diaper change, she cried to be rocked, and, as we were going out the door, she cried even more lustily, forcing Amy’s uncle to remark, “That’s one cross youngster!”  Interestingly enough, though, the baby barely squawked at the church service that followed.

Danny Williams has been heard to protest, “We can’t be in a situation where our population is shrinking,” but I’m thinking Mr. Williams hasn’t heard about this Program; otherwise, he might have consigned Baby Think It Over to the same sad fate as Poe’s Annabel Lee.

As sure as you’re born, this program is probably the most effective form of birth control in Newfoundland today.