This past weekend you turned 14 months old. We spent the Bank holiday at your grand-papa Stewart’s. He lives at the end of a very long driveway in a magical garden at the top of the highest hill in all of Hampshire. Your dad and I love it there and it seems you do too. It was so wonderful to be able to leave the doors wide open and let you wander in and out as you pleased, far from traffic and noise and pollution, without the worry of you eating cigarette butts or sticking your fingers in dog poo or cutting yourself on shards of glass or getting hit by a car. I can’t tell you how relaxing this was to the mother of a toddler.
We spent most of the weekend out-of-doors. You had your very first swim in a river on Friday. The water was glacial and took the breath out of your little lungs and the rocks beneath your feet rather shifty and sometimes sharp but you took it in your stride. You especially enjoyed watching dad and I dive under the water and float down the river. This, for some reason, you found to be hilarious.
On Saturday, we went for a four-hour walk. We thought at one point that we’d have to turn around because you neither wanted to walk nor be in the child carrier but then we veered off the farm path and into the woods and stumbled on horses and sheep and cows and for the rest of the journey, you sat quietly, taking in the sights. I can’t tell you how proud we are of you. You’re such a little trooper.
If I’m being honest though, we’ve had been a bit of a challenging week. Not only have you cut your first molar and are on your way to cutting a second (which means tsunamis of saliva), you also seem to have contracted hand, foot and mouth disease, which, although quite common is still pretty vial. You look like you have the plague, with blisters on your hands and feet and canker sores in your mouth and a foul mood to go with it (I can’t blame you, I’d be pissed off too). It’s been a looooong week of sleepless nights but yesterday, the fog lifted and you finally slept through. Mostly, that is. By 3am, your room had turned chilly (it’s an old house) and so I took you into our warm bed and you spent the next four hours windmilling between dad and I. Still, I’ll take that any day over the dozen times you’ve been waking up in tears over the past seven nights.
We have to talk about a couple of things. Firstly, the pram. You’ve suddenly taken a dislike to it. I’ve tried to reassure you that it’s not some whale that’s going to swallow you whole but I think, really, your annoyance coincides with learning to walk. These days, you’d much rather push the pram than to sit in it. Which is fine, often times. But sometimes we have places to be, my little crumpet, and we’d never get there at your albeit-rather-quick-for-such-small-legs pace.
Also, the biting and scratching. Not cool. Especially not cool? You laughing at me when I use my stern voice and say no about the biting and scratching. I do not find this funny at all. I’m at a loss. Part of me is grateful that you generally only bite and scratch me. But most of me wishes you didn’t do it at all. I’m starting to look like one of those zombies in the Walking Dead. I think it’s just a phase. It’s just a phase, right? You’re not going to turn into some psycho agro child, are you? Dear Lord, please let it be a phase.
You’ve added a few new words to your repertoire this past month. You can now say duddles (for bubbles) and dodage (for fromage) and duck (for duck). Essentially, all of your words start with a D and anything you don’t know how to say is dada or a variation of dada, much to your actual dada’s dismay. Dada for thank you. Dada for blueberries. Dada for mama. Everything else is “that”, including your bunny. I keep calling him Monsieur Lapin but you insist on calling him “that”. This is very confusing. You’ve also been practicing your T’s lately. Some days you walk around stuttering ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta for minutes on end.
You now say uh-oh whenever you drop something. You haven’t quite caught on that uh-oh is typically reserved for accidents, not for when you purposefully drop something. You also like to make a satisfied Hhhhaaaa! sound after drinking, like you’ve just taken a sip of an ice-cold beer at the end of a long day doing manual labour under a harsh sun.
You love to dance and not only to music, to sounds in general. You sway to the sound of a ticking clock and a growling lawn mower, equally. You love anything with a beat.
To say that you have a mild addiction to duddles is a gross understatement. I’m not sure whether it’s the bubbles themselves that you love or the taste of the soap on your fingers after you’ve popped them. Either way, there isn’t a day (read: hour) that goes by without you asking for duddles.
You’ve learned to sip through a straw and you’re obsessed with balls and you love to point at planes in the sky and play peekaboo with your books and you can identify the duck and the cat and the dog in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? You also bring our shoes when we ask for them, and even when we don’t, your not-so-subtle hint that you want to go play outside.
You’re now really weird about having things stuck on your hands and feet. Anytime there’s a strand of hair or a wet leaf or a blade of grass or a pebble you look at me, slightly worried and make this long whining sound until I’ve removed the offending object. I’ve taught you to wipe your hands together, which has brought some relief, but this whole thing is terribly perplexing to you. Again, dear Lord, please let this be a phase.
You are a daredevil, especially when we’re hanging out on the bed. You love to go right up to the edge, turn slightly towards me, give me a cheeky smile knowing that I’ll catch you (often by the pant leg) as you try to kamikaze off. I suffer at least one heart attack a day. You’re going to send me to an early grave with all these antics but I’d much rather you be adventurous and take risks, a veritable Pippi Longstocking, than be afraid of everything.
One of your favourite games is when we play hide and seek with bunny. You say “that?” and I say “Où est Mr. Lapin?” and you raise your shoulders to your ears and your hands to your shoulders in a gesture that means you haven’t a clue. And then we go around the house. Is bunny in the cupboard? Is he under daddy’s hat? Is he in my pocket? Is bunny in the rubbish bin? Is he under the sofa? Eventually, we find him right where we left him (usually on the floor). We then have a little giggle and you throw him back on the ground and we start all over again. And again. And again.
But my favourite favourite thing this month happened last week. Daddy came home after a spectacularly crap day and I said” “Tu veux donner un câlin à papa?” (translation: I think your daddy could use a hug), something I’d never said before. And you walked up to him, wrapped your arms around his legs, snuggled right into him and said “Awwwwww”. It was the sweetest thing, one of those many heart-warming moments that make being a parent worthwhile. The kind that makes you think “Ok, maybe I won’t put her up for adoption… yet.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You are pure magic. And this journey with you just keeps on getting better.
Thank you for being such a little comedian, for making us smile and laugh every single day.
Is it just me or is summer the only season that can make you feel like you’ve gone back in time, to a more innocent time? Thousands of diamonds sparkling on water, the sound of the ice cream truck, the smell of tomatoes on the vine and fields of clover, the way the wind plays with the clothes on the line, impromptu picnics in the park, grasshoppers and cicadas. Is there anything better than a midsummer’s day?
You guys! Something AMAZING has happened. No, we didn’t win the lottery. No, I haven’t landed my dream job yet. No, we haven’t sold our house and found the perfect home! None of those amazing things happened, but the next best thing happened, which is that I found old blog posts, posts that I thought I’d lost forever, posts that were eaten up by a nasty virus in 2007 only to be spit out by the Wayback Machine last week. It felt like stumbling across my very own flux capacitor. Wayback Machine, I love you! I knew I’d written all about my gypsy years on the old blog and having to write about them all over again (with way fewer brain cells and little time to go down memory lane) brought up all the bitterness I’d felt at losing them nearly ten years ago. And then suddenly, there they were. Like magic. Wayback magic.
I was going to simply copy and paste what I’d written at the time but… Oh! I don’t think I can do it, you guys. Anything that starts with “the adventures of Bohemian Girl and Pagan Pal continue” makes me cringe and kind of want to hide under a rock, any rock, any object large enough to shield me from my 32-year-old hippie self (not that there’s anything wrong with hippies, I love hippies, it’s my mediocre writing that I have a problem with).
So I kept the facts, got rid of the fluff (so. much. fluff.) and adapted the text for 2016. Here we go, part three of all the places I’ve ever lived. If you fancy playing catch-up, here’s part one and part two.
It had been almost a year since we’d graduated from uni and we were those students. The fresh-out-of-uni-jobless-twenty-somethings coming to grips with the fact that maybe their chosen degree wasn’t synonymous with a career in their chosen field and therefore facing the inevitable question — Fuuuuuuck! What do I do now? — that comes with that realisation. Graduating from university is a bit like being in a dark room for days on end and then coming out into a bright sunny day, blinded and a bit disoriented. I’d been a student for so long, I felt disillusioned by the real world.
My ex-boss offered me an office job and Kevin went back to work for Pfizer. We figured we’d make a bit of money then mosey on down to the next destination.We lived at his parent’s place while we figured it out, because we didn’t have a place to live or a pot to piss in. A while turned into a year, which was about nine months too long. Don’t get me wrong, Kevin’s parents were the sweetest, most generous people I know but we mostly lived in his bedroom in the basement and it was so dark and cold down there that I actually had a hard time physically opening my eyes in the morning. The TV was always on, the air conditioning too. The lights were always off. Perhaps I was depressed. Was this the bright future I’d been waiting for?
We had to do something. We couldn’t live in that basement forever. So we started to scour the Ornithological Newsletter for internships, a last-ditch attempt at doing work that was related to our degrees. We figured it would be a stepping stone in the right direction.We found a scientist that was looking for two interns in Jamaica and we applied as a couple.
Cockpit Country, Jamaica
Soundtrack: Bob Marley (of course) – Three Little Birds
I found this poem the other day, in my archives, on the old silver hard drive that threatens to die every time I boot it up. I wrote this poem in 2002, while living in Nelson, BC. I was stoned a lot and taking Creative Writing at the Kootenay School of the Arts and I nearly shit myself every Tuesday night when I had to read my assignment out loud, in front of the entire class.
I lived this poem in the spring of 1998, while volunteering as an Avian Field Biologist for the Wildlife Preservation Trust. Kevin and I spent three months roughing it in Cockpit Country, often regarded as Jamaica’s most inhospitable region, where we studied Yellow-Billed and Black-Billed Parrots. It was the first time I experienced being a minority and it is also where I became an expert at spotting, identifying and removing ticks in places one should never have to find and remove ticks, ever. I came out of it humbled and grateful for things we all take for granted, such as running water and electricity and not having to worry about a finding a giant centipede in your backpack.
This poem is not a staggering work of genius, far from it. But it’s the closest thing I have to describe the three months I spent in Jamaica, all those years ago.
I drive inland behind a small taxi
cramped with ten passengers
some hanging out of the windows,
past lobster huts and ice markets
where men lift frozen blocks
with picks like beaks of hawks.
I turn left at the last electrical pole
where shoeless children,
bare feet powdered with silt,
walk miles from school to home;
they wave and chase me down
narrow winding roads.
Past the local bar,
a rainbow painted shack
with a hot tin roof and Red Stripe on tap.
Blue smoke sways over dreadlocks,
over the woman with buttery cheeks
who tells jokes with a spirited belly laugh
while Leroy, red eyes stained with yellow veins,
rolls a fat reefer using a brown paper bag.
I cross the stone bridge over the river
where women scrub laundry
upstream from the neighbour’s rotting cow
until their fingers are raw,
until nothing is left but white.
Parrots fly overhead
whistling apple green wings
past ashen houses and burnt cane fields
where black stakes stand
and men carry sugar sticks on bare backs.
Two donkeys saunter
down the middle of the road.
they pick up speed but stay
in the middle of the road.
boys climb coconut trees,
cattle egrets perch on brown cows,
Miss Rose, the English man’s maid
chases roosters and chickens
in a mustard-coloured year.
Sun burns into earth,
the blue tint of night swallows the jungle,
a thousand bats spill out of the wide mouth
of the cave up the hill
beetles fly with eyes lit like headlights,
the sky looks like a highway
a traffic jam of miniature cars.
Brown lizards flaunt egg yolk throats,
the ruby eyes of pottoo birds float
above fence posts.
Toads surface by the hundred,
fat and flat,
they cover the entire road.
They all lead me home.
Rue Fredmir, Pierrefonds, Québec
Soundtrack: Jewel – Foolish Games
When we came back from Jamaica, we lived at my in-laws* again, partially to look after Kevin’s mom while she recovered from an operation, but also because: no pot to piss in. We also realised that sitting under a tree in the jungle for eight hours, waiting for a parrot to fly in and out of its nest perhaps wasn’t the career we’d imagined for ourselves. Maybe I didn’t want to be the next Jane Goodall after all (nobody can be the next Jane Goodall, there’s only one Jane Goodall). Fuuuuuuck! What do I do now?
The previous year, when I’d returned from my Hawaiian internship and we’d taken a month-long road trip across Canada, we stopped in Calgary and ate a steak at Earl’s Kitchen. We hadn’t seen each other for months, we were fresh out of uni and high on life and the steak was so damn good and the wine too and we were chatting with the waitress who was telling us we should move to Calgary, the booming land of opportunity, a city built on oil and agriculture and internet technology, where yuppies and cowboys mingle at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. And that’s when a seed was planted. The seed stayed dormant for a year and then started to grow during the summer of 1998. By fall, the branches were overgrown and heavy with fruit, ripe for the picking. Kevin’s brother knew a couple of people just outside of Calgary who offered us a place to stay and that settled it. We packed what we could into Kevin’s car and headed west.
A trailer just outside of the Rockies, Alberta
Soundtrack: Jann Arden – Good Mother
We spent the autumn of 1998 in Bob and Brenda’s Jayco trailer on their land at the outskirts of the city. We helped in the greenhouse, planting and harvesting lettuce and basil, while we searched for a job. We spent a lot of time in their Jacuzzi, watching the sun set behind the mountains, smoking cigars (as one does) and drinking fine wines. The wonderful thing about having older friends is that they usually have refined taste and they introduce you to so much amazing shit! It is in that very hot tub that I fell in love with whiskey. It’s a love that will last a lifetime. We made homemade ravioli, went for hikes in Kananaskis, fed their pig, ate a lot of fresh lettuce and basil, walked their dog and met their niece Andrea and her husband Jeff (this serendipitous encounter will ultimately lead us to our next move).
I eventually got a job as a receptionist for an internet company in downtown Calgary, where I dressed the part (read: stupidly uncomfortable shoes) and spent my days repeating “Good morning/afternoon, Net Shepherd, how may I direct your call?” and drank way too many hazelnut-flavoured coffees. I worked with redneck Bills and Dicks who were quick to tell a woman where her place was but I learned to stand my ground in this land of macho, macho men. Kev waited tables and made fancy martinis in an upscale restaurant.
Eventually, winter set in and it got mighty cold in the camper van. It was time to leave our tin house and find a proper apartment.
16th Avenue SW, Calgary, Alberta
Soundtrack: Ani Difranco – Your Next Bold Move
Our apartment in Kensington Village was sparse. We didn’t own a single item of furniture. All we had was what we’d packed in the car. We borrowed one bright yellow couch for the living room, a pullout couch for our bedroom, a kitchen table and two chairs. Besides that, there was nothing. No art on the walls, nada. We may have had a TV that sat on a milk crate. The details are fuzzy. It was a long time ago. Christ, it was in the NINETIES!
We both walked to work every day, just across the Bow River, right in the city centre. We spent many nights at the Kensington Pub down the street, watched indie movies at the Plaza Theatre (I saw Life is Beautiful with a girl from work; it was the first time I’d ever watched a foreign movie), bought a shitload of used CDs, jogged along the river at 6am, did Tai-Bo (remember that?) at Heavens Fitness, ate breakfast at the Galaxie Diner most Saturday mornings and enjoyed about a thousand Kitchen Sink muffins from the Good Earth Cafe at the Eau Claire Market. Calgary, for us, was about making money and spending it. We made money, ate amazing food and made more money to eat more amazing food. We didn’t even bother to buy any furniture for our apartment because we were hardly ever there (might have had something to do with our crazy downstairs neighbour who banged on her ceiling every time I so much as farted in my sleep).
I got all my wisdom teeth pulled that year — I have a picture somewhere of me looking miserable, sat at our kitchen table, doing a puzzle, face puffy like a chipmunk storing nuts for the winter.
By April of 1999, we were done with Calgary (just like that) so we quit our jobs, packed up the car again and escaped. We drove down the west coast of the states, tasted wine in Sonoma, walked amongst giants in the Redwood National Park and felt equally small walking along Rodeo Drive, spent five bucks in Las Vegas, ate spicy burritos in New Mexico, hiked down the Grand Canyon… and headed on to our next destination (via another quick pit stop at the in-laws).
Our next destination, of all places, was Hamilton a.k.a. The Hammer, Ontario. During the summer of ’99, we visited Jeff and Andrea, who had moved from Calgary to Hamilton and we thought “Hey, this looks like a nice place to live.” I must have been desperate for change to think that Hamilton looked like a nice place to live. Don’t get me wrong, it has its charms, but I might have thought otherwise had I driven past this prior to moving there: steel town. Explains why we found black suet on your windowsills most mornings and why I suddenly developed a mild case of asthma (which I’d never had before living there and which has since left). Having said that, I do like to believe that things happen for a reason and although The Hammer wasn’t paradise, it was the Universe’s chosen location for some serendipitous encounters, friends I still cherish to this day.
Hamilton was the hub of our yuppie years. I was a Coordinator for the Planned Giving department at McMaster University (read: drinking lots of tea and asking elderly alumni if they’d like to leave a little something for McMaster in their wills). Kevin was a fitness consultant at Curzon’s Fitness, making an insane amount of cash doing next to nothing.
We lived on the second floor of a house and the downstairs tenant was none other than our landlady. She was a small, wiry, Greek lady. She must have been in her 70s but had the energy of a 30-year-old. She’d walk on her heels, bang, bang, bang, from one end of her apartment to the other, bang, bang, bang, like a drill sergeant, and her bedroom was right beneath ours so we had the pleasure of hearing her clear her throat every night just as we were getting ready for bed, as if to say “In case you feel like having sex, just know that I’m right under you and I can hear you.” I can assure you nothing kills the mood more than knowing that a 70-year old lady is listening to your every move.
We did enjoy some things in Hamilton. Like going to the Locke Street Bakery on Saturday mornings for fresh bagels and meeting up with Jeff and Andrea on Thursday nights to share a couple of pitchers and way too many spicy 10-cent chicken wings at the Gown & Gavel Pub.
I joined a triathlon group. I trained like a mofo, running, swimming, spinning, several times a week with the ultimate goal of participating in the Around the Bay 30km Road Race, which I completed in March of 2001.
On the weekends, after training, we’d smoke weed in the attic so that our landlady wouldn’t catch a whiff and evict us. I went to my first rave while living in Hamilton. My life was a dichotomy.
We were making more money than we’d ever made (and ever would for the next decade) but we felt empty. I was 25 years old, attending conferences, preparing financial illustrations, giving seminars about bequests and working 60 hour weeks. I felt like Edward Norton in Fight Club. You know the scene where he’s lying on his couch floating in a world of IKEA furniture? That was us. Our IKEA nesting instinct had taken over and we felt psychologically castrated by our jobs.
“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple of years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.”
I was Jack’s raging bile duct and I needed to get the hell out. So in the spring of 2001, we did what we do best. We packed all of our IKEA possessions, stored them and hit the road. We had loose plans. We thought we’d end up in Vancouver where there was a potential job waiting for me, but on the day of my 26th birthday, we crossed a bright orange bridge and entered a town called Nelson, nestled in the mountains. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that it had just finished raining and the end of a bright rainbow pointed right there, in the lake under the bridge and I, naturally, saw it as a sign. We stopped in Nelson and didn’t go any further.
Within a couple of months I went from wearing high-heeled shoes and corporate suits to living a simple back-to-the-land barefooted hippie life, volunteering on an organic farm and adopting a dog named Dylan. Next up: the Nelson years.
*Note: The term “in-law” is used loosely in Québec, whether you’ve been dating a guy for six months or you’re married to him, his parents pretty much become your in-laws the moment you meet them.
Last week you turned 13 months. I used to think that this whole month-by-month thing was a bit silly, that surely a parent could simply say “she’s a bit over one” or “nearly two”, but I now realise why we count age in months rather than years with babies. It’s because SO MUCH happens to them in the span of a month, a lifetime of new experiences that we can’t even comprehend as adults.
The big news this month is that YOU ARE WALKING. Properly walking. One wobbly foot in front of the other, all on your own, like an orangutan being led by your belly, hands up in the air. A bona fide biped. And you’re damn proud of it too, as you should be. The other day we met your friend Arlo in the park. I plonked you down at one end of the park and you clocked him at the other end and you squealed with a delight that I’d never witnessed before and proceeded to stagger towards him as if to say “Look, I can do it tooooo!”
We bought your first pair of shoes at the weekend, which was probably more momentous for us than it was for you. You’re not really keen on having your feet confined. I get it, I’m a barefoot kind of gal. But I’m sorry to stay that until you’re more sure-footed, or at least, until you know how to avoid dog poo and broken glass and all the other obstacles that one comes across on city sidewalks, shoes must be worn.
You’ve become mama’s little helper this month. Whenever you spot a mess (which you spot easily because you are generally the one to have made the mess in the first place), you grab an item of clothing from the clothes basket or a kitchen towel off the hook and you clean it up. And then you put the item of clothing or the kitchen towel back in its place. It’s ridiculously cute.
You’re devouring cherry tomatoes and grapes by the kilo this month, though your love for cheese is unparalleled. You’re also getting quite proficient at using a fork. I give you a fork for everything now. Even toast. Because I know that within minutes of sitting down, you’ll want to steal mine.
This month, you went to the circus for the first time. I thought perhaps you might be too young to appreciate it but you loved it. You actually managed to hardly fidget for an entire hour. I’m still in shock. Other firsts include: strawberry picking, attending a Boden press release and swimming in the paddling pool at the nearby park.
We celebrated dad’s 38th birthday last month. He took the day off and we went out for lunch and visited the Switch House, where you tried to propel yourself over the edge of the viewing platform. I can see now why parents buy leashes for their kids. You also spent quite a bit of time crawling (before you could walk) in the wide open space of the Tate Turbine Hall, attracting dozens and dozens and DOZENS of people around you. Do you have some sort of magnet concealed under your skin? What is this spell you cast on everyone?
You have become insanely bossy. You grab our hands with vice-grip force to lead us wherever you want to go. And you screech like a T. Rex when you want something. This is very unbecoming. I wonder when you’ll be able to say: “Mummy, please may I have another piece of banana?” in a civilised manner. I think maybe your speech is a bit delayed because we speak to you in English and French. You seem to be stuck on da and that and dog. But maybe that’s normal. Still, I can tell that you’re starting to get frustrated when we don’t understand you so I’m trying to teach you sign language. My hope is that there will be less screeching and more signing in our near future.
You are completely addicted to the record player. First thing in the morning, you walk up to it, point at it and say “dat, dat, dat, dat, dat, dat” until I turn it on. And the very moment the needle comes off the record, you demand for it to be played again.You’re particularly fond of Vivaldi. I’m quite pleased that you love music as much as I do and I’m looking forward to expanding your musical horizons by taking you to the used record shop later this month.
We started going to the library recently. I thought it would be a good idea since you love books so much. But it turns out that you love to fling books off the shelves more than you like to read them. So I spend my entire time putting books back on the shelf while you run off towards the next shelf. You are a hurricane, a tsunami, an earthquake. Nothing is safe when you are around. How can something so small cause so much damage is such a short amount of time?
We’ve entered a “I want to do it myself” phase, which is fine until you no longer want to do it yourself and then I have to use my powers of telepathy to figure out that you need help and I better do it quickly before you revert back to wanting to do it yourself. I think it must be really confusing to be a one-year-old. I thought I had a tall to-do list, but at least mine doesn’t include: learn how to walk like a biped and how to say banana.
When you were ten months old, a friend of ours gave you a very pink and very loud piggy bank with plastic coins. The idea is that if you press on his nose, the pig talks “Ouch, that’s my nose” or sings a jingle “Counting’s fun… one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten”. The kind of jingle that stays stuck in your head ALL DAY LONG (thanks C, we love you :)) You’ve been opening and closing the piggy bank’s door for months and then last week, you suddenly got it. You figured out how to put the coins in the slot. Just like that! And this seems to be how you reach all of your milestones. You appear to be just bumbling along, but you’re not. You’re constantly observing, always practicing in your head and then, BOOM! Check out what I can do, bitches! Except that you don’t say bitches. And you want be saying it for a loooong time, ya hear?
We went to the beach for the first time last month. It was a super hot day (in English terms) and dad was away for the weekend so I thought, hey, let’s go on an adventure. We took the train all the way to Margate and back. A two-hour journey both ways. I spent most of the time walking you up and down the aisle and entertaining you. I was exhausted before we even arrived. And then, malheur!, buggies don’t budge in sand so we left our pram by the stairs and I carried you, and all our stuff, to the water. We’ve already discovered that you don’t like sand pits (hate sand pits) and here you were in the biggest sand pit you’d ever seen in your entire life but I thought that your love of water would override your dislike of the sand. It did not. And then a wave crashed into us and whatever curiosity you had about the water soon turned to disinterest. And then I tried to change your nappy on a towel in the sand, which was a ridiculous idea because the thing about sand is that it gets EVERYWHERE, in every nook, in every cranny, in little bums and fannies. I might as well have dipped you in water and rolled you around in the sand.
To make up for my complete failure, I had the brilliant idea of buying you an ice cream cone. Your very first gelato. But you’d never had refined sugar before and giving it to you for the very first time, minutes before embarking on our return journey, was the mother of all bad ideas. OH! MY! GOD! There’s a reason why sugar and toddlers don’t mix. That shit is like crack. You went MENTAL. Like Ellen-Burstyn-frantically-hoovering-in-Requiem-for-a-Dream mental. Up and down and up and down and up and down the aisle we went, you alternating between whining and laughing like a maniac. Thank God for the fairy godmother with the unicorn phone cover who distracted you for twenty minutes. We were completely spent by the time we got home. The next morning, I woke up with a stomach bug. And the following morning, you woke up in a puddle of your own vomit. We went to Margate and all we got was a stupid stomach bug*. You didn’t even get a beach ball out of it because the one that I bought for you rolled down the aisle when I wasn’t looking and got picked up by a young boy and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was yours.
I learned quite a few things on that trip. One: always have more snacks than you think you’ll need. Two: bring a couple of toys (duh). Three, and most important: take a wingman with you. Four: A cocktail at the end of the day makes everything better.
Lately, eating out has lost its appeal. Gone are the days when you sat quietly while I enjoyed a meal, or at least a coffee, with a friend. Now each bite is punctuated by me running after you or having to pick up something you dropped (read: flung) or having to figure out how to distract you when you’re having a mini fit, which generally happens when you don’t get what you want (to be fair, that doesn’t happen all the time). However, I’ve discovered that a piece of croissant buys me five minutes of peace. This is my new currency. I thought the terrible twos started at two, but apparently it can start anytime after 12 months and evidently it has. We have entered… the toddler years. Dun, dun, dunnnn! I get it, you can’t communicate, which must be totes frustrating. And I do try to be as patient as I possibly can but scratching my face and yanking my glasses off, the glasses I need to see and make sense of the world around me… well, it’s enough to drive a mom insane. This is why we finally hired a nanny for two mornings a week. I now have a few uninterrupted hours to actually get stuff done, to look for work, to answer emails, to get organised. It make all the difference. And you’re so good, Wren. You’ve taken to her with such ease and I’m so proud of how adaptable you are.
Sometimes I forget that I’m your mom. I feel like I’m the babysitter and then I catch a glimpse of you and I’m reminded that you’re ours and I just marvel at every little inch of you. The nose is mine. Those ocean blue-green eyes, your dad’s. Your outgoing and sociable personality, all his. Your impatience, I’m afraid, comes from me, but we are working on that together. It’s your sense of humour, however, that I love the most about you. You’re such a joker! You actually tried to force out a fart the other day to make me laugh. No word of a lie.
For all my petty moans, I wouldn’t trade you for a thing, kiddo. You and your bruised shins and the dirt in the small creases of your feet and your orangutan walk and your fine hair that blows all over the place. Every single person who meets you comments about what a happy girl you are. You have a strong personality, there’s no doubt about it, but you also have this smile that’s like a disco ball, reflecting light in a thousand directions and everyone is touched by it. That magnetic field of yours has such a strong pull on my heart. And when I step away from my to-do list and when I stop for a while and when we sit on the couch and read a book and you snuggle into the pit of my arm and you point at something (usually a dog, or a duck, or a fly) and you look up at me with eyes so curious and all the wonder in the world, I forget everything and those are the best moments of my day.
Thank you for choosing me to be your mom. Thank you for teaching me every day how to be a better mom, a better person.
*Don’t let my moans deter you from going to Margate. I loved the place, just not the circumstances. Before the beach “incident” we had the most amazing time at my friend’s Bus Cafe, a must-see if ever you are that way. And the Turner Gallery is also gorgeous. And the beach is awesome, unless you’re a one-year-old who doesn’t like sand, then the beach is like a torture chamber.
My apartment in St-Hyacinthe was my very first apartment, which I rented with my very first boyfriend. We moved there to be close to the vet school that I was planning to apply to after college, and I was so confident that I’d get in that I jumped the gun, moved out of mom and pop’s house and done gone and rented me an apartment.
It was a small one-bedroom apartment, hot with the heat of a thousand suns in the summer time. The only place to get a breeze was on the fire escape outside our bedroom window. I painted the bathroom Pepto-Bismol pink, the colour of Canada winter mints, the kind you find on most grand-mas’ kitchen tables in heavy-set candy jars. I was really into old-fashioned pink at the time and I was going for that dusty rose look, very Marie-Antoinette, but I missed the mark and I never painted anything pink ever again.
We adopted a cat named Stella. Stella was more fur than cat and she used to suck on her right paw while massaging my thigh with her left paw. I’d sometimes take her out on a leash to the park across the street. She was one of those indoor cats that wanted to be outside until you took her outside and then she wanted nothing more than to retreat into the apartment again. Stella often struggled between her wild self and her domestic self. She was very bipolar that way.
I worked part time at a clothing store in the old town with older ladies, selling clothes that were boutique-y. I was the youngest employee. My manager, Diane, was well into her 50s and the other woman, Holly (which sounded like Olay when French people addressed her, which was 99% of the population of Saint-Hyacinthe), was forty-something. They both had dyed hair – Diane’s was orange, Olay’s was beetroot red — both typical hair colours for Québécois women. When we weren’t busy folding or ironing or selling clothes, we were busy scratching lotto tickets behind the counter, to the point where it became a bit of an obsession. “Shall we do another?” Olay would ask. “Envoye donc, un petit dernier.” We were all scratch-card pushers and addicts, which was a lethal combination. I’m pretty sure ten percent of my earnings that year went towards lotto tickets.
College was amazing; I could set my own schedule and choose electives like Philosophy and French Poetry and nobody knew me so I could be whoever I wanted to be, which was impossible in a small village of 1,500 people where I was either known as Yvon’s daughter or one of the English girls. The anonymity of college gave me the space to figure out who I was, not who everyone else thought I was.
On Friday nights, I drank beer with my friends Isa and Véro and danced in a dark basement bar that played a lot of Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I wore black jeans and crop tops and a velvet choker necklace. I was a grunge wannabe.
In the end, I didn’t get into vet school by a 0.01 margin on my R score, a statistical method that classifies college students’ academic performances in Quebec. The year that I applied, the R score was in the range of 32,675 and mine was 32,662. Perhaps those Friday nights weren’t such a good idea after all.*
So I went ahead with Plan B. I applied to the Animal Sciences program at McGill and got in with a scholarship. After a year of living in our flat with the peppermint pink bathroom, me and Mario and Stella moved west of Montreal.
* Much, much later in life, I would work in a vet clinic and end up being so grateful for that rejection letter. Life is funny that way. It always works out in the end.
We moved into a basement apartment in Ile-Perrot on the first of July 1994. I know this because that is when most people move in the province of Québec. Every Canada Day, Montreal goes into a state of moving madness, a seemingly perfectly orchestrated frenzy of moving trucks, people coming, people going, pizza being delivered late into the night and dépanneurs selling out of 2-4s.
I got a job taking orders at Domino’s Pizza. The phone would ring off the hook on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; my manager was a moody man who once punched a hole through the wall and most of the delivery guys were chauvinists. But it was within walking distance of home and I got a good discount on pizzas. I know what you’re really thinking, though. Did I ever make myself a pizza with every single ingredient on it? Does a bear shit in the woods?
My boyfriend, Mario, was like a picky toddler when it came to food. He liked fondue, chocolate Swiss Rolls with milk, pizza-ghetti combos, club sandwiches and Pogos. That, and Cocoa Puffs for breakfast. So, needless to say, we ate a lot of pizza in that apartment and take-out from the Casse-Croûte around the corner.
This junk-food phase may have been the catalyst to my workout phase. I became completely obsessed with Cindy Crawford’s Shape Your Body workout on VHS. Oh! The 90s. Back when every single supermodel put out a workout video, wearing nothing but a bathing suit or high-cut thong leotard over leggings. I watched that video so many times that I nearly wore the oxide coating off the tape. I remember the tape getting stuck in the VHS machine once and I had to do a little reel-to-reel tape repair job. Eventually, I replaced her first workout video with her second one: The Next Challenge. And I probably wore that one out too.
I can’t remember whether Mario and I broke up shortly before we moved to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue or shortly after. I do, however, remember why we broke up. I’d changed so much since high school and he was still bagging groceries at the local Metro. I was coming out of my shell and into myself and I don’t think he had the ambition to go any further in life. Or maybe he did, but just not in the same direction as me. He was a nice guy, he really was. We just didn’t fit together anymore. But I like to believe that every single person we meet on this life path is here to support us or challenge us or teach us something. I wonder if I would have ever had the guts to leave my small town on my own? I wonder if I’d be who I am today without those four years with him? I think probably not, and so, I’m grateful for that chapter of my life.
Rue Lamarche, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec
Soundtrack: Prodigy – Voodoo People; Nine Inch Nails – Closer; TLC – Waterfalls; Fugees – Killing me Softly With his Song; Tragically Hip – Locked in the Trunk of a Car; Sade – No Ordinary Love
When I found this little apartment on Lamarche, the same street name as the house I lived in from the ages of 13 to 17, I wanted it straight away. It was on the second floor of a duplex and it had a porch that overlooked a complex that housed mainly college and university students. The landlady lived next door and a guy named Chad lived downstairs. Chad was cool and he had cool friends named Mickey and Sean and Matt. I liked Matt instantly. He smelled good. I think he wore Polo Sport. And he had a great beard. He’d come around, we’d hang out and then smoke our post “hang-out” cigarettes, cuddled outside on the couch on the porch, watching the world go by. There’s so much time to watch the world go by in your 20s. And the worries you think you have are nothing compared with the worries you will have, which is why it’s so easy to be carefree. There’s so much time to start over again if you take the wrong path.
My sister Michelle moved in for a bit and she helped to pay the rent. She worked at Cinnabon and the apartment smelled of cinnamon buns whenever she finished her shifts. We painted the kitchen a light lemon and the living room a pale blue. The paint chip read something ridiculous like Spirit River. My sense of interior design back then was appalling. Or maybe it was just the 90s. There were a lot of pastels in the 90s. That, and heavily outlined lips.
For a while, I worked in the same mall as my sister, at a boutique called Strauss. The dangerous part of working in a mall is that you are constantly lead into temptation. I racked up $500 on my credit card while working at that boutique, mainly on Clinique products (including aforementioned dark lip liner) and nice knickers. Who was that girl? To this day, I have an aversion to shopping malls and my make-up bag currently consists of lip balm, eye liner and mascara that I seldom use.
I hated my job at Strauss. My manager Marie-Claire, Marie-Pierre, Marie-Claude, Marie-something pushed hard sales. One day, she told me to go up to a customer. I said, “I’ve already gone up to them, Marie-something.” And she said, “Go again.” I gave her attitude. I had a lot of attitude to give in my 20s. She took me to the back room to have “a chat” and she didn’t even have time to fire me because I quit that J-O-B on the spot.
Shortly after, I applied for a work-study job on campus and ended up working at the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition for a fabulous woman named Francine. God I loved that woman. Pure Québécoise, fun-loving, full of life. I worked there part time during my studies and full time during the summer. And in the following years, Francine often took me back, like a stray cat, when I’d return from one of my “failed” moves, landing temporarily in Montreal before moving onto my next destination.
I won custody of Stella in the break-up and I decided to get her a brother, Forrest. Forrest, like Stella, had a bit of a sucking fetish but unlike Stella who sucked her paws, Forrest preferred to suck the tip of his tail. In the winter, when it got cold (and it did get cold because I sometimes chose to spend my money on beer instead of heating the place), his tail would get pointy and stick out like an icicle.
Within my first year at uni, I lost the weight I’d gained on my Domino’s Pizza diet. I started smoking, I lived on coffee and beer and ten-cent chicken wings at Annie’s on Wednesday nights and whatever I could afford on my meagre student loan. I sometimes ate corn right out of the can. Honestly, if it weren’t for my friend Camille inviting me over for dinner, I would have wasted to nothing.
This is also about the time that I started smoking pot. Dad must have been shocked when he got the phone call. “Yeah, um, dad, so I was wondering, if I wanted to, um, you know, buy pot off someone, how would I know if I’m getting good stuff.” This was my cheeky and roundabout way of asking, “Dad, can I have some of your pot, please?” I knew there was no way dad would ever want me to smoke some second-rate shite from the street. In his mind, if his daughter was going to smoke pot, she might as well smoke the best and back in the day, dad’s was the best.
I pulled a lot of all-nighters in that apartment on Lamarche, cramming before exams, drinking Diet Coke by the litre and way more filter coffee than any human being should ever consume and smoking mountains of fags with my friend Camille (all things that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole today). I watched Hackers and Threesome and Pulp Fiction at least half a dozen times (and when I wasn’t watching the films, I had the soundtracks on repeat). I hosted a couple of pub-crawls during Frosh Week (I’m pretty sure someone once vomited in my bathtub and to this day, I don’t know how that traffic sign landed in my living room) and a few good men and one or two regrets.
Over the year, the music maybe got a little loud and maybe there were too many people coming and going, which, when your landlord lives next door, perhaps isn’t ideal. I went from being shy and quiet to giving lip and acting mightier than thou. I wasn’t evicted, per se, but I wasn’t invited to stay another year.
Rue Ste-Anne, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec
Soundtrack: Our Lady Peace – Superman’s Dead; Deee-lite – Groove is in the Heart; Enya – Caribbean Blue; Sarah McLachlan – Possession; Alanis Morrissette – All I Really Want
So I moved on down the street and into one of the best apartments, in my opinion, in town. It was in an old building, with hardwood floors, original radiators, a massive porch and tons of natural light pouring in through east-facing windows in the morning. It had three bedrooms; I needed two roommates. I put an ad out on campus and soon found MF and Natalka. MF and Nat couldn’t have been more dissimilar to each other. MF was a carnivorous accountant and Natalka a vegan studying Plant Science or Horticulture. MF had an older boyfriend who was a bit of a meathead. The sex was really loud and I don’t remember us liking him very much. Nat used to make a lot of healthy smoothies before the days when everyone drank smoothies. And I had met a boy so, although it was one of the nicest apartments I’d ever lived in, I rarely spent any time there. But more on that later.
I lived a bit of a double life in university — one night I might be sat at a fancy gala, an exemplar student receiving a scholarship from the Dean, and the next night I might be at the Ceilidh, our campus bar, getting completely wasted and acting a bit like, well, a hussy, for lack of a better word. Something happened when I broke up with Mario. My shorts got shorter, my tops got tighter. I’d spent so many years being “a good girl” and now that I’d broken free, I was completely out of control, like a lion out of a cage. I danced on chairs, I made a complete fool of myself, I was loud and obnoxious. I was in my early twenties and I had the know-it-all attitude of most people in their early twenties. In hindsight, I think I was experiencing a bit of a delayed adolescence. Now that I’m twice that age (what?), I’m kind of in awe of that smug girl (who and where is she?) but I also want to pull her aside and say, “Oh honey, you’re just a child. Life isn’t so black and white. Stop being such a dick.”
My university years were some of the best years of my life. Although my plan was to re-apply to vet school after a year of studying Animal Sciences, a few visits to the school farm gave me a clear idea of what kind of work would be involved in a large animal practice and I realised that artificial insemination, among other things, wasn’t for me. Plus, I loved McGill’s agricultural campus and didn’t really fancy leaving. I switched my major from Animal Sciences to Applied Zoology and loved every minute of my three-year program. I studied animal behaviour and went bird-watching at the crack of dawn and could identify most plants and trees in a forest. Christ, I even learned about the World Wide Web in university. At the time, the Internet was the next big thing, but to me it was just this strange thing that made all sorts of beeping and crackling noises beeeeepshhhhkrrrrrrchhhh and took about 15 minutes to load a page.
I met some interesting people on campus. I occasionally hung out with this girl whose name I can’t remember but she once told me that she had a pet house spider and she ate it and got really ill so we didn’t hang out very much after that. I also got stoned with my friend JF in a Parasitology lab, which I really wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Have you ever seen a flagellate protozoan through a microscope on weeeeed? I went canoe camping with my pal Winston. I spent many weekends at Camille’s cottage on a lake up North in the summer time and usually drank red wine and ate pretzels with my roomies once a week. And then there was Kevin.
I met Kevin halfway through my uni years and he soon became my everything. I stopped smoking, started going to the gym and spent a lot less time with friends and a lot more time at his place, which was his parent’s place. His mom used to cook muffins and veggie lasagna. And there was always an unlimited supply of bagels and almond butter. I made up for two years of eating canned corn and put on ten pounds in the space of a month. I stopped partying so much. I settled down again and started thinking about my future. Graduation was around the corner and I hadn’t a clue what to do.
A few days before my graduation, I boarded a plane and flew 4,851 miles to Hawaii. This was the first time I had ever flown (if you don’t count that time when I was one) and I was doing it on my own. It was a 17-hour flight, with an overnight stay in Honolulu, each mile pulling me farther away from home, Kevin and everything that I’d ever known. My parents had been saving up their spare change for years and they gave it to me as a graduation present to help pay for my flight. I was going to spend the entire summer studying the Palila, a critically endangered honeycreeper, on Mauna Kea, at about 8,000 ft above sea level.
Weekdays were spent mist netting and radio tracking birds, covering long distances over rugged, uneven lava fields and sleeping in a tent by night. Some nights, alone in my tent, I could hear the nearby military base dropping test bombs.
At the weekend, we had the luxury of a house near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, about an hour outside of Hilo. In the back of the house was a shack, an old tool shed with a tin roof. My southern friend Alison and I used to sit back there smoking fags (I obviously unquit for the summer) and drinking beer and usually gossiping about a couple of the girls on the team. It was SO Big Brother. I still remember to this day the name of every single intern and lead scientists on our team. Something intense happens when you’re stuck in a remote location with seven other people and your personal space consists of a tiny tent, and you all share an outdoor loo with a sign that reads “do not disturb”. You go stir crazy after a while, and before you know it you’re having spaghetti fights while washing the dishes.
Each weekend, we embarked on adventures around the island in our sand-coloured Ford Bronco or the house’s station wagon. We sun-tanned on black-sand beaches, swam with sea turtles, explored lava tubes, shopped at the food market in Hilo, hiked along rainforest paths and on the edge of smoking craters, watched Kilauea Volcano spew red-hot lava into the ocean, ate lunch at Broke da Mouth, learned how to play hanafuda, and occasionally went to the cinema. I watched Men in Black in a cinema in Hilo. What I remember most of that movie was coming out of the dark cinema and into the blinding Hawaiian sun and how everything smelled of Plumeria.
What a great experience, right? I mean, how awesome is that? And it was truly amazing, but if you only knew how many hours I spent pining for Kevin that summer. So much of that opportunity was wasted on missing a boy. Sigh. Little did I know that I’d be spending the next decade with that man, so those three months apart were but a blip in the timeline of our relationship.
This post is the second in a series of posts about all the 32 places I’ve ever lived. You can read about the early years, here. Next up: the gypsy years.
Happy Monday, friends! Just popping in and playing catch up because I realise that I’ve skipped a blog post (or three) since my promise. On the plus side, you guys, I’ve already crossed three items off my list of 41 things to do before I turn 42. I know it’s nothing to write home about but I’m a mom, remember, which means that I have about 15% of the time and 20% of the energy that most people have.
Inspired by the lovely Astrid, one of my goals this year is to shoot a roll of film a month. It feels so good to lug around my old Pentax again. That thing is a tank. A rusty old tank with lots of buttons and settings and a bona fide light meter and a clunky click that lets everyone within a mile radius know that I’ve just taken a picture. Bear with me while I get used to her again. It’s a whole new/old world, playing with depths of field and apertures and different film. I love Instagram, I really do, but sometimes it feels like I’m taking pictures for other people rather than for myself. I hesitate, I fret over whether or not the photo is good enough, fits in with the rest of my grid, is too yellow, too red, too boring. I’m full of instacurities. The struggle is real (and a bit pathetic) and these days I’m feeling the need to slow it right down. There’s something refreshing about having to wait to see the results, even if the results aren’t always what you’d hoped for. And there aren’t a thousand filters to choose from. The film is the filter, take it or leave it. Case in point, this Fuji C200 roll came out quite red and there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it. I mean, I could Photoshop it but then I might as well go digital.
Here are just some of my favourite shots from mid-June to early July. Strawberry picking and fresh sheets on the line and birthday celebrations and BBQs and tomatoes off the vine and paddling pools. All the best that summer has to offer.
Do you shoot film? If so, I’d love to know why. Which camera do you use and what’s your favourite film?
The light these days and the way it slowly yawns across the bedroom in the morning reminds me of when we moved into this house a little over a year ago, when we were in newborn territory and the dawns were early and the evenings were late but the light made everything better. And now, the days have turned long again, and we’re getting ready to put the house on the market, the house that we literally built from squat, the house that saw Wren roll over and sit up and crawl and walk. I don’t know when we’re moving out, exactly, but it will be sometime in the next six months, and I have no clue where we’re going next, except in England somewhere, within a couple of hours of London.
I’ve moved house 32 times in the past 33 years, if you include a couple of pit stops. This next move will be my 33rd, which means that I’ve moved on average once a year since the age of eight. I’ve lived in four countries, half the provinces in Canada, five different time zones. I’ve lived in tents on mountaintops and cabins by the sea and flats in fancy mews. I’ve lived in big cities and small towns and shacks in the woods; owned and rented and shared housing. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere (as an adult) is two years. No one can say that I’ve been sedentary, that’s for sure. Thirty-two times. Three times ten plus two. Thirty-two. That is a lot of moving, a lot of packing and unpacking of boxes, wrapping of glasses in newspaper, cleaning out of refrigerators.
They say moving is one of the top five stressors in life, right up there with divorce, the death of a loved one, major illnesses and losing a job. How is it that I’m still standing? I don’t have anyone to blame, really. The moves I did, I did all by myself. They were conscious decisions, some rash, some calculated, but for the most part, I made those choices. I suppose I was a bit of a rolling stone in my 20s but let me tell you, my forty-year-old self is ready to gather some motherfucking moss and set some roots, y’all. I’m officially, unequivocally tired of moving.
So much is uncertain about this impending move and I don’t do well with uncertainty so needless to say, I’ve kind of been freaking out lately. However, in an effort to rein it in and freak out a little less about the when, the where and the how, I thought I’d take a cathartic walk down memory lane and write about all the places I’ve lived. Don’t worry; I won’t blast you with all 32 places at once. Are you crazy? We’d collapse into a collective heap of exhaustion by the time we reached my university years. Instead, I’ve decided to write a five-or-six-part series: the early years, the college years, the gypsy years (part 1 and 2), the single/Montreal years and the married/London years. And because music is my gateway to memory, I’ve included the one song (and sometimes many songs) that defined that time in my life. The kind of song that brings me right back to that address, like a dropped pin.
So, without further ado, the early years.
Rue Tremblay, St-Barthélemy, Québec
Soundtrack: Jon & Vangelis – The Friends of Mr Cairo
You can’t even do a street view of this place on Google maps, it’s so far up in the sticks. Dans le fin fond de nowhere, as we say en bon Québécois. I must have been between five and eight when we lived there and so I have just enough actual memories of this time to be able to write about it.
We lived in a house in the woods; my dad spent an entire summer installing vinyl siding on that house and building the front porch. The siding was yellow, like butter. The porch was brown, the kind of brown you would expect of a porch. The house sat on a cinder block foundation and daddy longlegs used to gather there, on its cool surface. One time, my cousins came over and we spent hours plucking the legs off the daddy longlegs, putting each round abdomen into one jar and the long legs in another. My adult self is ashamed of my sadistic child self and I hope Wren never ever harms another creature.
I celebrated my First Communion in that house. I’m surprised God even let me take communion after my daddy-longleg sins. I don’t remember much about my First Communion but I do remember the pistachio ice cream cake my mom made for me, which was the colour of the Luna Moth we found on our screen door one morning.
We had two kittens, Misty and Midnight; one of them got attacked and eaten by the vicious dog that lived across the street. I feel like I hardly ever saw the dog, I just knew of his presence in the dark hole of his doghouse. And I don’t remember if anything happened to the dog after he ate our cat. I just know that we didn’t have cats for a very long time after that.
The black flies up there in the woods were bloodthirsty suckers. I’d sometimes play ballon poire on my own in the back yard and look down to see hundreds of little vampires crawling up my pant legs. Our school bus was a cross between Ferris Bueller and Twilight. Cliques of weird kids sitting on orange benches and small blood smears on the windows where black flies had been squished after sucking us dry.
Those were the years when I had chronic earaches and I’d wake up in the middle of the night in pain and mom would take me to the window and we’d watch the fireflies until I felt sleepy again. Back when mom used to bake the best chocolate chip cookies and make her own pizza dough and sew our Halloween costumes from scratch and make strawberry jam. Do you know how many margarine bowls of wild strawberries it takes to make a jar of jam? Let me tell you, we picked a ton of strawberries when we were kids. And raspberries under the electrical towers that sounded like giant cicadas.
We lived a few minutes from a lake, which is where we spent most of our summer days. Swimming and catching frogs and playing in the jewelweed that popped when you touched its seedpods. I am directly responsible for the propagation of jewelweed in that area.
My grand-ma lived near the lake. She had a dog named Sunshine. She hardly spoke a word of English and couldn’t pronounce his name properly so she called him Someshine. She should have called him Noshine. That damn dog didn’t shine at all. Someshine spent most of his life curled up on my grand-ma’s lap. He was a poodle and he had an under bite that, to my young eyes, made him look even scarier than he really was. In grand-ma’s basement, there were great big vats of caramel. My cousin Denis and I used to pretend to play down there but really, we were dipping our fingers in caramel, repeatedly. One day, we got caught and my aunt Carol forced us to open our mouths so she could smell the incriminating caramel on our breath, Someshine‘s beady eyes glaring at us from grand-ma’s lap. We were never allowed in the basement again.
Dad was a construction worker but he had a passion for photography so he’d sometimes set up a little studio in the house or we’d go out back into the woods when the trilliums were in bloom and he’d take photos while we picked wild garlic. In this day and age, when you can take a thousand photos a day, it’s hard to imagine not having a photographic and video record of your life, but back then things weren’t as easy and immediate and I’m so grateful that dad took the time. He bought the film, he loaded it, he framed the shots, he took gorgeous photos, he got them developed or developed them himself in his darkroom, and we now have direct access to years of memories thanks to him, albums we still sift through as adults and cherish.
I don’t remember why we moved but we did. One day, we were in a yellow house in the woods, and the next we were in an apartment building a few towns over.
Rue Saint Dominique, Berthierville, Québec
Soundtrack: Terrence Trent D’Arby – Wishing Well; Dire Straits – Money for Nothing; Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror; Depeche Mode – Personal Jesus; Corey Hart – Sunglasses at Night; Samantha Fox – Touch Me
We moved to Berthierville the summer before I started fourth grade. Having never been to a proper city before, this felt like a CITY, which of course it wasn’t. It was a small town. Population 3,000. We lived on the top floor of a three-storey apartment building, a five-minute walk from school and the pool and the park. It had a small porch. I used to stand on it when it rained and sing “Rain, rain go away, little Jeanine wants to play”. Or maybe I only did that once, with my cousins, and we took it in turns to say our names, truly believing that the Gods would hear our pleas and grant us a spot of sunshine.
When I think of my childhood, I don’t remember much about winter but I do remember my summers on Saint Dominique. During berry season, I spent most mornings picking strawberries. I earned a buck twenty-five a basket. Not to toot my own horn (toot toot), but I was one of the fastest pickers so I’d usually go home with about $15-$20 in my pocket, if it was a sunny day and the picking was good. After a hard morning’s work, shins itchy from kneeling on hay, I’d go to the Tabagie and buy myself a 75-cent Drumstick and one hundred sour patch kids for a dollar (back when you could count your own penny candy). Then I’d grab my book — usually a detective novel, Agatha Christie or Arsène Lupin — head to the pool with a bag of sunflower seeds, which I’d eat until the salt turned my mouth numb, and I’d spend the afternoon under the sun, reading, eating a ridiculous amount of sugar and swimming. When we were done swimming, we’d tie our towels to the monkey bars in the park, and sit in them, like hammocks.
Our apartment complex backed onto a soccer field. This is where I mastered my skills as a four-leafed-clover finder. I spent hours in that field, sat in the grass, training my eye, obsessively searching for four-leaved clovers. I don’t know how or why the obsession began but to this day, I can walk down the street and spot a four-leaved clover on the go. It’s hard to believe that I haven’t won the lotto yet.
In the fall, we built leaf forts, in the winter, snow forts. In December, they turned part of the soccer field into a skating rink. I used to go there on my own, when the sun went down and the lights came on and I’d skate to Johnny Come Home by the Fine Young Cannibals and Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat and I felt like Jayne Torvill.
This was about the age when I really got into music. I had a cassette tape player and would spend hours listening to CHOM and Mix 96, waiting for my favourite song to come on so I could record it on my Maxell tape, over the previous week’s Top 40. Imagine having to wait hours for your favourite song to come on. The anticipation! Life was so much slower back then. This was also about the time we got a Commodore 64, which happened to be our family safe word should anyone try to abduct us. I still remember it to this day.
We had a washing machine in that apartment that went absolutely berserk on the spin cycle. So my sisters and I would take it in turns to sit on it, like it was some kind of bucking bronco that needed to be tamed lest it spin its way down the hall and right out of the flat.
Those years on Saint Dominique were both good and bad years. The man next door used to beat up his wife. We’d hear him shout at her and the wall would shake when he pushed her against it. I sometimes worried that she’d come flying right through the wall and into our living room. I avoided walking near their front door and took the other set of stairs instead.
When I was in sixth grade, I suddenly became obsessed with bathing and washing my hair every single night. My teacher had made a comment about hygiene and he happened to be standing next to me when he said it and I’d got caught in a downpour on my way to school that morning so I naturally assumed the comment was directed at me because I was “poor” and therefore, probably unhygienic. I have a lot to say about the power of teachers on young, impressionable minds, but I’ll save that for another day.
My best friend at the time was Hélène. She lived down the street, on Crémazie. She was a tough girl and my dad thought maybe she was a bad influence on me. Dad was generally a good judge of character. I went from being a grade A student to smoking the occasional cigarette and drinking the odd beer from her dad’s stash and maybe stealing a few things from the local K-Mart, but otherwise we were pretty harmless. I was essentially becoming a teenager and testing boundaries and breaking the rules like most teenagers do. I can see, however, how that would have worried dad. For all his fuck-ups, the last thing he wanted was for us to end up like him.
Dad had a great job and was making great money but then he lost his good job, and left a note on the table and went away for a while. The electricity was cut off for a night and our aunts came over with brown paper bags filled with food (which was terribly exciting because they brought stuff mom and dad never bought like Cocoa Puffs instead of Puffed Wheat), and then dad suddenly came back and it was all a bit confusing.
Not too long after – a week, a month, who knows, chronology is fuzzy when you’re a kid – he left again, this time to go to rehab. I know this because we visited him there. Although I didn’t quite understand why he was there and what drugs were, my worries quickly vanished when he gave us coins for the vending machine and told us we could buy WHATEVER WE WANTED. I hesitated to write about this because I didn’t want to paint dad in a bad light. But life isn’t always sunny and we’ve all got dark shadows and shit in our closets and besides, it was the 80s, wasn’t everyone and their grand-mother doing coke? It’s not an excuse and, as a parent, it’s not the kind of thing I would ever want to expose Wren to, but I’ve long forgiven dad for his shortcomings, just as I’ve learned to be grateful for all the wonderful parts of him, of which there were many.
We left Saint Dominique shortly after. I lost touch with Hélène. I also lost all of my grand-parent’s letters in that move. Grand-pa wrote in ALL CAPS and grand-ma wrote in perfect cursive on dotted lines. It’s the one thing in the world I still wish I had. That, and my dad.
We moved to Rue Lamarche the year I turned 13. The house on Lamarche was known as the castle in the village because, as the name implies, it looked like a castle. Several days a week, after supper in the summertime, I’d walk around the block with mom. We called it a block because it was the shape of a block – four straight sides and four right angles – but it wasn’t your standard city block; it was a good hour-long walk. I did it partly to spend time with mom but mainly because I hoped to catch a glimpse of Michel Désy (sorry mom). Michel Désy was the son of a farmer and he had hay-coloured hair and tanned arms and I had a massive crush on him. BIG crush. I really did think at one point in my life that I would become a farmer’s wife. Sometimes I’d see him heading to the barn in his wellies, or out on the tractor in the field and if he did happen to be out and if he did happen to strike up a conversation, I would let my mom do most of the talking. Because: BIG crush.
Summers on Lamarche were spent reading all of Stephen King’s novels on our front porch and watching the locals play baseball and practicing for the annual lip-synching contest, which we rocked because, being the only English kids in a French town, we were the only ones who actually knew the words to the songs. Something about those contests brought out the extrovert in me and they are some of my favourite childhood memories.
Most of my time, however, was spent biking up to my friend Isabelle’s house on Saint-Joachim. Every summer, her mom would pay us $200 to do a massive spring cleaning/painting/fixing of the house. We’d spend hours working, then hours sitting by the pool, working on our tan and talking about boys. And then, at the start of the school year, we’d take our $200 and go on a massive shopping spree at the mall half an hour away.
The summer of ’89, I got into a fistfight with a girl named Julie, the village bully. I say fist fight, but what really happened was that I provoked her with a minor insult on the bus in the morning so I knew I had it coming when we got off the bus that afternoon because she said “You just wait until we get off the bus this afternoon.” I was, naturally, scared shitless, though I’d never admit it, so instead I said, “I’m not going to hit you Julie, I am a pacifist.” to which she replied with a bitch slap that left my entire cheek numb. And before I knew it my sister, the ninja, jumped on Julie’s back and yanked on her hair like a rabid monkey. Both my sisters were, and still are, tough as nails. From that moment on, I became tough too. Nobody ever bullied me again.
Dad got into a road accident one year and totalled the car. I think it was the only new car we’d ever had. I remember the late-night knock on the door, like something out of the movies. He broke one of his ribs, which stuck out for the rest of his life, like a third elbow. And I don’t think his sense of smell ever came back again. That was one of his lives. There were at least another eight after that. He was a true cat, my dad.
There was a field of tall grasses behind our house, behind our long vegetable patch, which lead to the ball park, and which was bordered by a row of lilac trees to the North. I’d spend hours lying in the tall grasses, reading, watching the clouds go by and daydreaming about living in another time. I was obsessed with the end of the 19th century for a while (probably because of a television show called Les Filles de Caleb) and then with the 60s — the clothes, the music, the peace and love.
When I turned 16, I got a job at the plastic recycling plant in Berthierville. Dad would drop me off in whatever lemon we owned at the time and then pick me up at the end of the day. That was the year I met my first proper boyfriend. He was my manager, the son of the owner. He had a car, a Ford Festiva, and his own apartment. He was a bit of a goon, but I loved him. Okay, he was a lot of a goon. Everyone thought so but nobody said so (he once bought a toy roulette wheel and spent hours drinking milk and eating an entire box of Roulé Suisse and jotting down the odds in a notebook; this went on for days). I think, maybe, he was trying to strike it rich like his dad. I think, maybe, he was my ticket out of that small town.
When I left Rue Lamarche, it was to leave the nest. I was 17. Moving out of that small town was the start of me finding my place in the world, and what a big world it has been.
PS. I can’t believe how long it took me to write this post (I was meant to post it on Sunday). The thing about taking a walk down memory lane is that it’s not a lane at all. There are so many junctions and forks and speed bumps that before you know it, you are miles away from where you started. Memories popping up like dandelions. They just kept coming and they still are. But I have to stop somewhere and so there you go, those were my early years. Back next week with the college years.