Toys for Boys

     When we moved from our old townhouse to our country home to say we were a little short in the department of yard care tools would be a vast understatement. The expansion of our yard from a 6 foot by 10 foot plot to an actual acre, complete with hundred year old garden plots, vintage plants and grandfather trees, left us a little shell shocked. Our finances were a bit bumpy the first year with the demands of our lifestyle change so yard maintenance was a bit pitch in and/or patch. We borrowed what we could and were thankful for any donations.

     The grass was a big job and needed a big machine but the expense of a lawn tractor was out of the question. Tommy Twin Tower, one of “D”’s work friends, gave us an old push mower he wasn’t using anymore. It was a nasty beast that belched black smoke while oil leaked through the crumpled shop rag that had replaced the lost oil cap but it was free and it did the job. It got us through the first half of the summer when we purchased what we hoped would be at least a small improvement. We still could not afford a lawn tractor (“D” did not want to buy used as he always says it’s just buying someone elses’ problems) so we bought another push mower from, of all places, Canadian “Where Do You Go for Maintenance” Crappy Tire. It proved totally unsuitable for the job and would overheat after an hour and refuse to start up again for another three. It takes a healthy 15 year old around 5 to 6 hours to cut an acre of lawn with a push mower (it took me 3 days when I gave it a go) so there was a LOT of pitching in and patching.

     This year we were determined that there would be no repeat of the Lawn Mower Indy 500. When tax return time came around, we shuffled off to the Sears Warehouse to have a look at last year’s discounted models. Now I must mention here that “D” had his heart set on the bright green and yellow of a John Deere. He had been ogling the advertising flyers that came in the Pennysaver for months drooling over additional mulch kits and all the other things that make a masculine heart bleed. Common sense decided that we would buy something "reasonable" for now and in 2 or 3 years time, he could straddle the sweet green tractor of his dreams.

     We were able to find a Craftsman lawn tractor in our price range, paid the cash and brought it home. Having bought last year’s model, we didn’t expect it to be perfect but none the less we were a little disconcerted when we got it home to discover there were no keys for the ignition. Luckily, the keys from our neighbour’s John Deere were a perfect fit so we didn’t have to wait for the store to mail us out a pair. To “D”’s further delight he discover that the engine in his Craftsman was the exact same one that was in the neighbour’s John Deere…NOT just the same size but THE SAME ENGINE (something that will no longer be happening as John Deere has recently retained an exclusive contract for those engines). This little bon mot was able to shut up “D”’s coworkers at the factory who were ribbing him about not buying a John Deere.

     Last summer the Prodigal Son had several incidents with the push mowers involving tree stumps. He did not manage to bend a shaft but I am sure he came close no matter what he says. There was also an unfortunate occurrence with the new push mower and an oil tank but as I was flying co pilot on that one the only thing I will say is that engine compression cannot occur on a full stomach. Over the winter, there had been a great deal of discussion about past mishaps and the care and concern that was to be taken with our spring purchase and the Prodigal Son had endured all the infamy as he hovered about in the neighbour’s garage hoping to scam a beer. There were threats that all the stumps were to be marked out with bright spray paint so they might be avoided. Since the job had been such a monumental one, over the past summer a nominal fee had been paid for services rendered. The Prodigal was assured that no such salary would be forthcoming with the arrival of the new tool as it would be an embarrassment to accept money for such an easy task (the Prodigal responded with the assertion that he could never be that proud). He was informed that he could not take the girlfriend out on a date with it and that they had better not see him touring around downtown and that if he damaged it he would be paying for it out of his ass (whatever that means). The Prodigal bore it all, if not stoically, with the good grace of a boy allowed to hang with the men. Perhaps he had some knowledge of the way it all would be in the end.

     The Saturday dawned and it was time to put the lawn tractor to work. The Stepson was visiting for the weekend and he and the Prodigal set about cleaning up the winter ravaged yard. It proved a boring task and the boys decided to spice it up by taking turns riding in our neighbour’s trailer (we had borrowed it for the day). The Prodigal was driving and the Stepson was balanced on the side of the trailer when his weight tipped the whole thing up gouging a hole in the lawn and popping the spring that holds the trailer in place.

     “D” and the neighbour had been replacing a coolant pipe on the Sunfire and they were practically prostrate with laughter as 240lbs of teenage boy rolled on the ground cradling his bruised knees and the Prodigal struggled to put the trailer to rights. It took a woman’s touch to fix the spring and the boys took off again towing at lawn tractor lightspeed. Finally it was time to mow the yard and “D” wanted to try the tractor before the boys “wrecked it”.

     He pushed the throttle all the way up to "bunny rabbit" and careened off, slowing down only for the grass over the septic tank, as anyone who has seen it can tell you, that stuff really grows. Just “trying it” turned into him cutting the front lawn and then the back as well. The boys got tired of waiting for him to finish his "turn" and went in to play Xbox. I watched “D” whip across the lawn, squeeze through the garden paths and just about get his block knocked off as he raced under the branches of the pines at the back without ducking down far enough. That was a month and a half ago, the lawn has been cut four times, and the boys have yet to have used the lawn tractor for its original purpose.

     Even though we still have to use the push mower to mow the driveway (it’s not paved) and cut in around the garden beds and trees the yard now takes around 1 ½ hours to do instead of 5. If a back gets sore it is not from pushing but from sitting for too long. “D” loves his tractor …if they get a chance, maybe someday the Prodigal and the Stepson will too.

Fireworks

This past span of three days marked the holiday long weekend known as the Victoria Day Weekend or May Two-Four here in Canada. Traditionally honouring Queen Victoria’s birthday or more recently Queen Elizabeth’s (the actual date of which I have no idea) this holiday, celebrated on the Monday of or before the 24th of May, is the unofficial beginning of the summer season up here in the Great White North. The term May "two-four" weekend has been coined most recently in reference to the association of drinking (a case of beer having 24 or “two-four” bottles enclosed) rather than the actually date of occurrence which changes from year to year.

     Regardless the May 2-4 weekend can usually be counted on for alcohol, fireworks and, if you are a “fashionista” here in Canada, the all clear for wearing white shoes and white pants from now until Labour Day. This particular holiday weekend is also known for cold and/or rainy weather and this past weekend did not disappoint. The wind was wild and chilly, the sun was intermittent and the only thing lacking was the usual downpour. The post-holiday tradition also continues as the weather forecast following the holiday weekend (that must now be enjoyed from inside the workweek office) is summer warm.

     Locally the holiday was marked by a guided tour of the Spicer Trail. The tour heralds a new movement to encourage tourism and historic enrichment in the area. (Next weekend promises to be even busier with a live history weekend at the Backus/Page House presented by the local dramatic society and the T.H.S and the commencement of a number of shunpikers to get everyone out and about.) Spreading out from the nucleus that forms the base of my hamlet, various Optimist and Kinsmen clubs offered the promise of firework delights that, due to the high winds, had to be delayed until the climate was agreeable. Not to worry though, despite the uncooperative weather, there is still a pageant on display. As the season changes from spring to summer, the yard presents its own fireworks.  

     The first blooms of the year are flaming out in brilliant shades, brief flashes of colour across the expanse of the yard. They will in turn be followed by even greater displays of light and colour until the final climax of fall’s glamorous golden and rusted flares. Here every explosion, every bloom, is appreciated and exclaimed over, an intricate part of the beautiful whole.

     The meadowlark, a shocking yellow, is a curious cat that peers a lopsided one eye through the window screen, watching us watching him. The humming bird, mouse grey and lavender, hovers on invisible wings above bunches of saffron blooms until the wind rings the chimes and sends him off in search of a quieter meal. Everywhere the air tastes like lilac, apple blossom and lily of the valley. All this is here now and with the promise of the long summer days just on the horizon and the magic of fall too far off yet to imagine…Really, I think fireworks might actually pale in comparison.

 

      

 

 

Storm Spell

 

The firmament divides somewhere overhead. The eastern sky is a cherub’s blue, tonsured in cumulus white. The western sky is a mutinous grey, fallen wings cast out from above. The house sits below the split. The facing windows hang out over the precipice, both in front of and then inside the quickening storm.  

 

The wind is a dog that shakes the trees, throttling the tops, jerking them back and forth. Across the fields the lightning flares, silent at first but then it kisses the ground. Burnt air flinches back and the music of the universe spills out of the light. The thunder is a work calloused hand that scrapes and rasps across the skin. A drop slaps hard on the windowsill, and then a second, and then a third. Petals fall from the apple trees chasing the storm to the ground. The rain is an airborne river and the small windows of mesh that pattern the screens fill up and hide the garden and the yard.

 

A door slams shut overhead and the sudden realization that the bedroom windows are open sends us running up the stairs. We hurry from room to room, forcing down the sashes, wiping the windowsills, laying towels down on the wet carpets, grumbling and laughing a little. Laughing not because it was funny, but because the wind was so strong, the lightning was so wild and the gunshot cracks and black rumble that sang accompaniment as it split the air had held us frozen and made us forget that we were safe inside.  The sky flickers with diamond fire. An alto chord tears free to grind along the spine and we shiver within the embrace of the windows and the roof and the walls.

 

The tulip heads are bent and heavy with the remnants of rain. The wind has died down and the sun has returned to warm the air. The green bite of the garden after the rain comes in through the newly opened windows. The back end of the storm hangs in the eastern sky, a clear line drawn across the horizon. It sends back a parting roll of thunder that fades into the drip, drip, drip of sodden trees.

 

Spring Mourning

 

     The day before was warm, the earth waking and stretching, languid in the bright sunlight. Lying on the grass, I could hear things growing, pushing up towards the sun. Dog by my side, just in the shade of the crabapple tree, and the pages of my abandoned book slowly turning in the breeze I halfheartedly promised myself I would go in and start supper, in just a minute. I was also going to look up the term nematologist and search for a picture so I could see if there really was a type of woodpecker practically extinct in the woods of Georgia (neither was really central to the book’s story line but I like to know what there is to know), in just a minute. That minute hung indefinitely in the spring air like the smell of apple blossoms and the golden pine pollen floating on that lazy breeze.

     I watched Kera turn her fuzzy head back and forth following the dive pattern of the birds as they swooped across the yard. Graceful and precise they did not seem like birds at all but more like bird shaped projectiles sliding along invisible guylines. The sky was an impossible blue that only belongs to the spring and the whole world seemed optimistic and full of possibilities. The tomorrow that was to follow was anything but.

     I live in a farming community and I understand that the bottom line of farming is business so there really is no blame to be assigned. When my neighbours sold their acreage to an absentee farmer I knew there was a chance that things might change. That change came just past the dawn that followed that perfect spring afternoon, heralded by the sound of diesel and gasoline. It was time to say good-bye to the apple trees in the old orchard behind my house.

     The orchard was years too old to be productive but it was a place of strange beauty. There were odd unexplained lights there at night. The soft soil would often be marked with the comings and goings of deer, fox and raccoon. The gnarled trees were aged like the hands of old men, grace embodied and made beautiful by the skill and toil of a full life. Even on the stillest day, the trees would shiver as if in memory of all the winds, bitter or sweet, they had known in seasons past. It is no crime but a shame none that less as the world now finds itself just a bit less beautiful in the ever powerful name of commerce.

     The morning was just as bright as the day before but instead of the accompanying chorus of birdsong, the morning, that mourning, was heralded by the sound of chainsaws and bulldozers. It is incongruous really, and almost obscene, to hear the sound of those falling limbs while the smell of apple blossoms fill the air. In winter, it might have been bearable. The trees would have been oblivious, dormant in the cold. They would have fallen asleep in the fall and simply never awakened…a kinder fate I think than this spring massacre.

  

     The limbs of my apple trees are alive with birds and bumblebees. The voices of the birds mix with the murmur of nonsense that all bees whisper as they go about their business.  Masses of delicate blooms, pearly through the day with the sheen of early morning dew, breathe out the ether of heaven. The blackcap and wild raspberry canes that grace my acre are gloved in bright green shoots while just a glance away the orchard canes lie crushed and broken, salting the ground that gave them root and nourishment.  Garlands of spring blossoms lie scattered and broken on the empty field. Where the orchard once was there is only the scar of broken soil, a spring mourning, glaring black and bare amidst the liquid waves of wind caressed winter wheat.

 

 

  

 “Whenever a tree is felled, I think of a thousand blankets ripped into sparks, or that stillness has been found and tor n open with bare hands.”

Corduroy Road

~Rita Dove

 

Secret Garden

The bitter green, solitary shaded, brings a whisper of pathless glens home to golden manes, Kitten sleepy, content to loll under a gentle caress, lapping up the sun. The wet green depths house moss embraced granite and Soft peat weeps to drown the delicate step. Natal Wings, feathered fingers, unfurl to greet the dawn and the delicate blush of white is a mute trumpet hidden from the new sky.

 

A Foreign Language

    

 

      I grew up in a predominately female household. My mother, my sister and I lived on one side of the gender fence while my brother resided on the other. Even with a ratio of three to one, I don’t remember the household being particular frilly but it must have been somewhat feminine through the interests of the majority. My mother was married a number of times but none of them really took for one reason or another and through default my brother almost always sat in the King of the Castle’s empty throne. As titular male head of the household, though, he had no actual parental permission or political power which my sister and I were sure to remind him of on a regular basis.

     In the house of my childhood, growing up a boy meant that it was your job to cut the lawn, take out the garbage, do any heavy lifting and make sure you didn’t knock your head on the kitchen cupboard doors regularly left open by the shorter females you lived with. It did not release you from the regular girly stuff like doing dishes, covering your bed or cooking meals which we all took a crack at while our mother was at work. The one thing my brother didn’t have to help with was canning. He came with us to pick the apples, strawberries, cherries and whatever else. He would get as sick as the rest of us as (at our mother’s urging) we filled up in the field because whatever we took home was going into jars. But by the time he was old enough to be any real use in the kitchen his man hands were much too large to pack cucumbers for pickles and he could never get the hang of jam making. He was excused from the steaming hot kitchen to do what ever he wanted while we sweated it out over sterilized jars, pitted gallons of cherries using bobby pins and peeled and blanched enough peaches and tomatoes to build a skyscraper.

     For a while he had an old Chevelle that he worked on out in the driveway and he liked to lift weights down in the basement. After my mother had given up drinking for good he’d moved all his stuff down there and made it into a bedroom. There were mirrors on the wall behind the old bar that she’d never taken out and he used to watch himself as he ran through his routine lifting the bars and counting out the reps. My sister and I would laugh at him thinking that he was stuck on himself with his mirrors and his Charles Atlas and Arnold Schwarzenegger books but of course he wasn’t. He had an old pair of Tacks skates (when they used to be brown) and I think he could skate okay. There wasn’t any money for hockey but he went to Boy Scouts for years and he had an old canteen and a pair of snow goggles he’d made out of two spoons, some felt and an old piece of elastic binding. There was no hockey night in Canada at my house, no male banter, no baseball bats by the door and as our family went their separate ways comparatively early there were no whisker filled sinks and no clouds of Old Spice to fill the air.

     Today my household couldn’t be more different. For one thing the ratio has changed and I find myself for the most part in the minority. I’m not a weak woman and I get my way somewhat about the larger decorating choices but I do have to make small concessions to the sports enthusiasts in my life. Laminated newspaper headings of the Blue Jays World Series wins share space with pen and ink drawings of various garden blooms. The Boston Bruins logo is prominently displayed in my bedroom but it is picked out in a counter cross stitch that sits on a miniature easel atop the wardrobe beside china plates commemorating the Huddersfield Town AFC (1908-1998) and the Miami Dolphins Dan Marino. An autographed picture of the captain of Canada’s 2000 Gold Cup winning soccer team is margined by acrylic folk art sketches in the west bedroom and the themes of fishing and hockey fight it out on the walls of the east bedroom. The bookshelves are liberally sprinkled with books bearing the names of such sports greats as Muhammad Ali and Wayne Gretzky while decades old Sports Illustrateds sit stored in cardboard boxes slowly inching their way toward antique status. Those aren’t the biggest changes though.

     Along with the dominant presence of males in my life have come the trappings of their male activity. Any time of the year, day or night, my mudroom and the backdoor of my house play host to any number of objects meant to be used in physical and decidedly sweaty ways. There are golf balls, golf clubs, Frisbees, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, baseball bats, softballs, soccer balls and footballs… ad nauseum. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg for these are only the tools of each particular trade. The meat of the matter, of all the matters, resides a little further below ground in the back room of the basement. It is here in this subterranean grotto that the flotsam of the years of masculine existence has come to rest. The hopes and fears, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (to quote the old ABCs Wide World of Sports) or just the smell of de’ feet, de’ soccer shoes, de’ hockey bag and de’ athletic supporters.

     It’s a strange sort of alchemy, a laboratory filled with mysteries and formulas. It is a territory that I’ve come to somewhat late in my life and though I’ve purchased, washed, repaired and even used a number of the objects shelved in this room they still speak a foreign language. It’s the language of boys and men. It is a language that rolls out in terms of competition, not just first place or second place, win or lose but the value of a person rated through skill and agility, bravado and blood, endurance and the downright stubborn stupidity that makes old men smile.

     The baseball gloves must be stored wrapped around balls so they don’t lose their shape. Skates must be totally dried, the blades wrapped in old hockey socks or laid on wood to protect the edges. There’s toe black on the shelves along with 4 different kinds of tape and paraffin to wax blades. There are helmets and air pumps and buckets of pucks, weighted and regular. There are balls of all shapes and sizes, shin pads, cleats, nets and gloves. All of it is different but all of it is the same. The shape and the heft, the stink and the sweat sheened stiffness, the dirt and the tears speak the language of boys and men.

     The shelves are turned out regularly with the seasons and often I’m the one left to gather it all together before the cat decides that the stinky pile of general mess and mayhem is his new litter box. I complain a bit but it always falls short to ears deafened by the sounds of TSNs Top 10 Plays of The Day or the discussion concerning Maggie the Macaque monkey and her bottom scratching ways. I have seen all these things in use by more then one of the “men” in my family but separated from their users they take on a life of their own. I’m a stranger here amongst all the testosterone memories.

    It really is a mystery to me how anyone would want to wear an item of padding that was so sweat and dirt entrenched that it had taken on a permanent “corn chip” aroma. Yet I’ve seen these same items bring smiles of delight and hours of enjoyment to the masculine members of my family. It is the mechanics of their essence, lessons learned on the field, the ice, the floor that they’ve taken into themselves to become the very breath they breathe. Like a knight with his armor these bits of plastic and padding embody and strengthen these men. They create a world of black and white, of good and evil, of us and them and like the Paladins of old these men, these boys, have found a wholeness and a clarity, a nobility that is otherwise lacking in an everyday life.

     So these are the things of men and boys, the things that I don’t remember from my childhood. But perhaps they were there and I did not know enough to recognize them back then. It is a wonder to me how a ball or a stick, a helmet or a pair of gloves, a poster or a jersey can alter the nature of a person making them more or less then their everyday self. There is no use questioning it, one must simply accept the reality of it. To me these are the things of men that add to the attraction and mystery of them.

     Now there are whiskers in my sink, Old Spice in the air and dirty socks on my living room coffee table and I find myself bemused by the state of things but not totally displeased. I could do without the Blue Jays and soccer posters but it’s a small price to pay. I may not understand the language of men but I like to sit and let it wash over me. Like a tourist in a new place I’m drawn by the arguably bizarre, the unknown and the beauty of a foreign land.

 

Native Son

     John Kenneth Galbraith died on Saturday April 29th. He was 97 years old. I had no idea who Galbraith was until I moved to my current residence approximately 17 months ago. That he was a person of some importance was made eminently clear to me as the closest library was christened in his honor (one of my favourite places to frequent by the by). Galbraith even had his own monument up the Buttermilk Bog way. Granted it is on a lonely dirt road backed by acres and acres of farm land but it is well kept and there’s a bench if you’d like to sit and relax in the shadow of that dedicated statuary.

     It is a little confusing to me, that monument, as there is an aspect that I find hard to reconcile to a six foot eight inch tall Scot’s descent farm boy done good. The monument that marks the location of the childhood home of one of the greatest economists of the past century is an Inukshuk. Although he was a great collector of (East) Indian art, to my knowledge Galbraith was in no way associated with the native peoples of Canada… but as my maritime relatives like to say “go figure”.

     There were some hard feelings out this way in the sixties when Galbraith published his scandalous 1964 memoir “The Scotch”. Some of it still lingers on but for the most part they’ve let bygones be bygones. You can bet that his virtues, grown exponentially with his passing, will rate more than a mention in the local paper that comes out every Friday. Apparently Galbraith still held the small place that engendered him in some regard and here, under the never changing sky that still blankets the old back ways, amongst all the others that remain (over the earth and under it as well) they held him dear as well. Although he had occasionally visited it has been decades since he walked the dirt roads and looked over the fields that refuse to let him go. I wonder if he knew that in the end, no matter how far he traveled, this place would always claim him as its son.

      I didn’t know much about the man but I can tell you that "The Scotch" he wrote about are still out and about (if you’re Canadian you know that’s supposed to rhyme) and going on with their business in the old township. They and others keep his memory alive and even I, as a new immigrant to the soils that birthed his world genius, have (obliquely, tongue in cheek and admittedly on a coat tail) deigned to poke a toe in his shadow. I wish him a good journey wherever he’s headed off to while myself and all the rest of us regular folk wait it out here in a place that still remembers his voice and the sight of him heading down the old dirt road to supper and home.

 So with respect to the barefoot boy, a re-post with an allusion to your memory… to many people you walk here still. Travel well.

 

 

Here Amongst The Scotch

(Originally posted July 21st 2005)

 

The day dawns clear with a bright sun in a cloudless sky. There is a light breeze skipping amongst the garden blooms and the humidity of the past week is history. To some it might seem the perfect day for a picnic but, for myself, it seems the perfect day to hang the wash out on the line. 

As I live here, amongst "the Scotch" (to quote John Kenneth Galbraith), there is no guarantee that the skies will stay clear so one must make hay while the sun shines. A common saying in this part of the country states that if you don’t like the weather…wait 5 minutes. During the past several rainy days the laundry pile has been multiplying in girth exponentially on the basement floor so I decide to take the chance.

A perfect laundry day as I have said; the sun is warm and the breeze is steady but not strong. There’s nothing worse than a wind that sends you 2 concessions over looking for your potholders. Today even the towels are dry in an hour. All is well and fine, until I get to the white load. Herein lies my weakness, my hypocrisy. Today the white load is my Waterloo.

I’ve never had the least bit of trouble hanging out my "tidy whities" (at least not the romantic ones) but the husband is consumed by the thought that the neighbours must have an all-encompassing interest in his delicates. He insists that his unmentionables must be hung in the basement away from the mysterious league of underwear inspectors that wander the rural backyards seeking out the jockey shorts of the local men. It is a subject that I’ve never failed to exploit for some small bit of humour at his expense placing an emphasis on the fact that no one is interested in our laundry. Imagine my chagrin when my laundry hang up came to light.

I take some pride in my whites and I am constantly carping at the prodigal son to stop walking around outside in his white socks with no shoes on. Of course a brick wall responds with more interest than the prodigal son. Frustrated, I finally tell him that I am ashamed to hang his socks out on the line lest the neighbours see my whites aren’t the whitest and judge my merit as a woman /domestic goddess/ member of the human race … Oops, I should never had said that in front of the husband.

One underwear joke too many apparently makes one a little touchy on the subject of neighbourly laundry inspections. I’m not quite sure when I will hear the end of it and I "guess" I deserve it (but it was fun while it lasted).

Here amongst "the Scotch" my laundry hangs on the line sans jockey shorts and the prodigal son’s not so white socks even though I know the neighbours aren’t interested in either. Personally, I think the less said about the secret league of laundry inspectors the better. Your personal hang-ups are just that…personal and people should respect them.

I think I’ll buy some 20 Mule Borax tomorrow…just in case.