"Someday's gonna be a busy day..."

Friday, 30 May 2014

Adventures in Lawn Tractoring…again

Spring has sprung with a vengeance at Someday. The weather's been alternating between torrential rain and gorgeous sunshine, which means our lawn has gone from crappy to shaggy to tropical rainforest-y in a matter of days. And once again, I'm on deck to keep the grassy expanses looking civilized.

I tend to yell a lot while on the lawn tractor. I yell when I run over something that makes a horrible noise (tree stumps, branches, the kids' toys), I yell when I get a cobweb in the face. I yell when I'm on a steep hill and I yell when I get stuck. The zero turn and I don't get along at the best of times, and today it seemed like it was truly out to get me.

Mowing the lawn for the first time each year means I have to shake the dust out of my winter-addled brain and remember the intricacies of lawn tractor operation (pump up the crappy front tire, check the oil, growl at the empty gas tank, drive to my mother-in-law's to steal gas, etc.) Once all the prep work is complete, it's time for my annual exercise in humiliation: I can never turn the knob to lower the deck. Every spring I want to write a venomous letter to the creators of the JD Zero Turn, stating that I don't know how they do things in America, but in Bruce County, it's mostly women who drive the lawn tractors, so stop making the deck dial tighter than Sarah Palin's smile.

With a giant sigh of defeat, I called D. He actually answered.

"Yeah Kimmy?"

"I just want to make sure I'm lowering the deck right."

"Are you on the lawn tractor?"

"No, I'm on the couch eating bonbons. Of course I'm on the tractor! The stupid dial won't turn. Do I have to have the brake off or something?"

"It's just hard to turn. You might need some help." Here, my beloved husband paused, and I could practically feel his smirk radiating through the phone. "You might have to call my dad…"

"I AM NOT CALLING A MAN TO COME AND TURN A KNOB," I yelled into the phone. D made an inappropriate but not entirely unexpected joke about knob pulling and I hung up. I grabbed the knob with all my might, yelled "TURN YOU STUPID FREAKING THING!" and twisted. The deck lowered. I fist-pumped the air and yelled "TAKE THAT!" to no one in particular and every man in general.

The problem with a wet spring is that squishy lawns and zero turns do not mix. It didn't occur to me to check the gully before driving the lumbering beast onto it. I screamed as the zero turn slid slowly and inexorably down the gully towards the wheat field and promptly got stuck in two feet of mud. After my heart stopped racing, I managed to get the tractor unstuck, and also managed to turn a large chunk of our lawn into a motocross track. This: plus this: = This: Oh yeah. I rock.

The afternoon continued to be full of small disasters. Not only was I mowing down precious bees by the dozen, I ran over two frogs. I screamed various things like MOVE! LOOK OUT! INCOMING! but they were either deafened by the mower or resigned to their fate and I assume they all became lawn mowing casualties. (I couldn't tell you for sure because I had my eyes closed.) After that, I stopped the mower every five minutes to hop out and peer into the grass to see if a tiny movement indicated a living creature, which resulted in the rescue of two toads and a frog from my giant John Deere cuisinart. Hopefully mother nature will hold off on smiting me for a while yet.

After nearly strangling myself in the kids' swing set, I decided I'd had enough of lawn mowing for one day. As I sat on the back steps, picking grass out of my hair and bra, I said a silent prayer for rain and wondered which of D's cousins I could blame for driving their ATVs so recklessly through our wet gully.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Beneath the Trellis

**This essay was originally published in 1999 in WholeLife Magazine.**

Every Mother's Day, I wake up and I wait. I spend the entire day waiting, in fact. I go about my morning, gulping hot coffee, chatting with my husband, disciplining my wayward dog. I make the expected and not unpleasant visits to my grandmothers and mother-in-law. I call my friends who have children. I smile and do the things one does on Mother's Day, and all the while I observe myself. I watch from within, and I wait.

It's been nearly six years since my mother died, and I have accepted the fact that Mother's Day will come and go and I won't be torn apart by grief. I won't become a slobbering mess, I won't lash out at my current maternal figures for their crime of simply being alive. I won't drape myself across my mother's grave asking the heavens "WHY?"

Since her death, I've done nothing outwardly to indicate I'm still grieving her loss, and I try to feel ashamed of myself. Aren't good daughters supposed to mourn their mothers for the rest of their lives and on Mother's Day in particular? The more I analyze this idea, the more I've come to realize that grief doesn't necessarily come blasting out like shrapnel. Grief is neither art nor science. Like joy, it cannot be scripted to fit a certain scenario. The best thing - and possibly the worst thing - about grief is that it fades like an ebbing tide.

I've struggled with my worry that I'm never really supposed to recover from the impact of my mother's death. I don't know if grief can ever disappear completely, but I do know that emotional wounds like the death of a parent it can heal cleanly, if you let them. For some people, grief is healed by time or acceptance. In my case, it was healed by something as simple and fleeting as a dream. . . a dream of rebirth that broke death's hold over me before it was ever able to tighten its grip and leave a jagged scar.

Even though my mother and I didn't have an ideal relationship (and we were certainly never "friends"), we loved each other. I harboured a lack of respect for her that co-existed awkwardly beside my awe and fear of her. Her maddeningly unchangeable opinions and penchant for bluntly stating them hurt me repeatedly, yet her unflappable generosity and the genuine concern she showed for her family, friends and students still humble me. Mom was a woman of sophisticated contradictions. When it came to preparing gloriously rich meals, toasting life with the best Russian vodka, or travelling around the world, she participated wholeheartedly. When it came to keeping fit, taking care of herself and her health, she would shrug, sigh and remind me that tomorrow was a new day, which usually meant starting a new diet that would last approximately 48 hours.

When my mother was feeling well, she was a firecracker, bursting with energy and ideas. When she got sick, she disintegrated at an alarming rate into a pale, sad creature who said little but articulated miserable volumes out of her green eyes.

She started feeling ill around October, and I remembering feeling annoyed with her for not taking better care of her health. She drinks too much, I thought. She never exercises. No wonder she feels like shit. My self-righteousness rapidly turned to terror as the disease took hold of her body. The cancer was quick and relentless, like a flame that consumed whatever it touched, as though my mother's insides were made of dry paper. The day I understood my mother was going to die, the moment that a wave of knowing washed over me, I was slumped in a bony hospital chair at her bedside.

It was still in the fairly early stages of her diagnosis, but that night she was struggling to breathe. My mother, the victor of countless battles throughout her life, lying inches away from me, fighting the one war she couldn't hope to win. My mother! Ultimate champion of forceful opinions, the woman my friends feared yet always sought to please, fierce polka dancer, sophisticated entertainer, yahtzee queen, Giorgio perfume addict, graceful gatherer of roadside flowers, beloved teacher, thwarted wife, devoted disciple of laughter and pleasure. . . dying, dying before my eyes.

The truth flooded me and all I had were two selfish thoughts: my mother would never be at my wedding. She would never hold her grandchild. I wasn't even engaged then, nor was I interested in babies, but those were the first devastating thoughts of many. I could hardly tear my eyes away from her all night after that. I began to notice things: how she had grey hair coming in at the roots when I'd never seen her without her hair coloured and coiffed. Her real nails looked pale and wan without their tangerine coloured polish. The lines on her face were etched deeper by pain, lines originally traced by determination and laughter. She looked so small, so powerless in her hospital gown, stripped of her signature dresses and high heels.

Before she'd gotten sick, I'd never kissed my mother's forehead, or climbed into her bed to comfort her. She had always been the one to comfort and nurture. I wouldn't have dreamed of ever doing such things, of attempting to reverse roles she had taken great pains to set firmly in place. The quiet despair of the truth made me change from the one who had always been cared for to the caregiver. In that instant, I lost all fear of my mother, all anxiety about ever having disappointed her with my choices, all worry over whether I'd ever be able to truly please her. None of that mattered. I couldn't cure her, or undo the past, but I could lie beside her and provide what comfort I could in the horrible present.

She lived another few weeks, in and out of consciousness, her poor arms and fingers swollen, her face pinched in an unceasing grimace of pain. I wanted her to die so we could both move on from the horrible place we were both trapped in, but whenever I left the mind-numbing confines of the ICU for the day, I grappled with my greatest fear: she would die, and I would never know where she had gone.

Mom was a self-proclaimed atheist who, for some reason, always sent my sister and I to the Lutheran church across the street to attend Sunday school. I think she just liked having Sunday mornings to herself. To this day, I don't understand why she insisted on us being baptized in our teens (humiliating) and then in later years scorned my embrace of Christianity. Our most pitched battles were always based on my decision to join a non-denominational church and run with a Christian crowd, or my "cult" as she called it. How could this woman go anywhere good in the afterlife after mocking gods of all kinds and mine in particular?

When she finally did die, a few weeks before Mother's Day, I was strong outwardly. I wanted to be stalwart, supportive to my family and mom's many friends and not crumble under anyone's pity. Alone in my bed at night (my crazily high three-quarter bed that Mom had discovered on a triumphant antique excursion), I mourned my mother with a depth of emotion that frightened me. For weeks I wept and writhed and clenched my body in agony. Where was she now? What was she now? I made myself sick at heart thinking about heaven and hell. Christians weep, but they also rejoice when one of their own is "called back to God," or any other euphemism used to describe the death of a believer, but I'd never been taught by my church how to mourn someone who didn't share my beliefs. I was too scared of the answers to ask God any questions.

And then I had a dream. I know, it sounds trite and cliche. It wasn't. Dreaming of the dead is heartbreaking because part of you knows it isn't real, and the other part of you just wants your consciousness to shut up and stay in the dream forever. The dream is still clear to me, even now; all I have to do is shut my eyes and I can see her: my mother, as the person she was before she became my mother, walking with serene purpose through a field of flowing green. Her long red hair is twined through with a wreath of white daisies and she wears a white dress that is open at the throat and flows around her legs like water. She walks toward a trellis covered with more daisies and stoops slightly to pass beneath it, as though uncertain as to whether she'll fit. And then she keeps on walking.

There's nothing exceptional on the other side of the trellis, no mysterious supernatural kingdom, no trumpets or angels. Just more flowing green grass and sunshine. My mother never acknowledged me in the dream, but I woke up the next morning a different person than the woman who had wept herself to sleep the night before.

I've carried this dream quietly with me for almost six years. I didn't want the sense of peace it brought me to fade or be replaced by guilt or any of the other emotions attributed to faithful daughters of departed mothers. I was afraid that by telling the dream, it would make it feel false or dissolve it from my memory. As I prepare to lay down my pen, I realize that the dream is mine, for now and for always.

This Mother's Day, I will wake up and stop waiting.

Saturday, 3 May 2014


Collecting sap every day for two weeks from sixty-plus maple trees is an exercise in humility. Sure, there's the nature-loving, granola girl aspect that I so enjoy, what with the fresh air and hearty exercise and accidental tree hugging (the woods are damn slippery in the spring). But mostly I was just humbled by our feeble attempts to harness nature's sappy goodness. Oh, and did I mention the sap collection business is FREAKING EXHAUSTING?

At least I didn't have to do all the work myself. After the trees were tapped, it was up to me and trusty brother-in-law Carman to trudge out to each tree, collect the sap, pour it in buckets, haul it back to the main tank and figure out how much we'd collected.

The thing about Carman is that he never treats me differently than he'd treat his brothers, which means he lets me shoulder my share of the work. While he may raise an eyebrow if I appear to be taking on more than my tiny muscles can possibly bear, he doesn't try to rescue me unless I squeal for help. Usually, I like and respect being treated as an equal, but after lugging endless 5 gallon buckets of sap over slippery trails day after day, I started to wonder whether acting like a damsel in distress would be all that bad. My pride prevented me from trying to find out.

Have you ever collected sap before? I hadn't. First, you have to load the aforementioned empty 5 gallon buckets onto a sled. Then you pull the a sled through various muddy snowbanks, chuck it and the buckets over fences and petrified cow pats until you get to the tree line. The kids were not amused when I made off with their favourite sled.

Then comes the collecting. It's fraught with various hazards, such as treacherous snowbanks that gave way without warning, branches that claw at your eyes like angry dryads, steep hills and big holes.. And don't get me started on deer and bunny shit. Those critters are poo machines and they seem to enjoy making their deposits right underneath the sap pails.

Most of the days were mild and clear. All the trudging and lifting and pouring and pulling would make Carman and I sweat like we were running a marathon. "At least we're getting our exercise," I'd pant. "Outta shape, Kimmy?" Carm would respond. Overcome with thirst one day, I hid behind a tree and swigged ice cold sap right out of the pail. It was like drinking some magic potion. As the cool liquid spilled down my throat, I felt instantly refreshed. Later I caught Carman had been doing the same thing.

Our usual habit was to park the sleds on one side of the barbed wire fence in the pasture and empty each small pail of sap into the bigger buckets. Then we'd haul the buckets, sloshing and ungainly, back to the fence, mash them through and load them back onto the sled. Although as a kid I'd been no stranger to hopping various fences - electric and barbed included - the forty-something me was sadly out of practice. I always made sure Carm's back was turned before I attempted to squeeze through to avoid any extra humiliation. If I'd been getting any money for my labour, I would have asked for hazard pay.

As winter reluctantly loosened its grasp and allowed spring to finally unfurl herself, the snow gave way to mountains of mud and the crisp, fresh air turned damp and pungent. We abandoned our sled in favour of the kids' little red wagon. Carman and I made trip after trip across the fields, hauling gallons of sap in the wagon. "There HAS GOT to be a better way," I would gasp every time, feeling like an abused mule. The boys forbid me to drive a tractor on the tender fields for fear of wrecking the soil, but I was sure that even Pa Ingalls wouldn't have worked THIS hard. Finally Carman took pity on me and hooked the wagon up to...the lawn tractor. Embarrassing yes, but not nearly as exhausting. And I did not allow photos.

Tromping around in the woods gives you the chance to experience moments of exquisite beauty: a pure blue sky with a slice of moon floating in it; velvet mosses clinging to tree trunks; the creak and song of tree limbs moving in the wind. There's also the unique sensation of being slapped in the face repeatedly by branches, falling knee-down in cold mud and putting your hand into a pile of raccoon poop. That's what I love about nature; it's a study in contrasts. Sometimes you just have to take a moment and savour the experience, even when it's smelly.

This is me, up in a tree, savouring the moment.

Next up: how to make syrup and burn your eyebrows off.