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Summer Jaunts

My son writes from Chicago, describing the activities of his family on one of their first summer trips with their young sons. I read with relish about the foam pit, exploring museums of technology and science, the planetarium, doing selfies at the shiny bean in Millennial Park, boat cruises on the historic river cruise, Beethoven in the park( no doubt in that wonderful, Gehry structure that resembles kettle drums askew), an eyepopping Broadway production of Aladdin with a real flying carpet. Even a few lines in an email crunched after an exhausting day and random photos extend the enthusiasm and joy of the family. I feel their excitement.

I’m reminded of the forays we took with our kids and try to recall the first. Was it to Boston and Tangelwood , lounging on the grass, listening to the Boston pops, and was there a star performer? I reflect that it was likely the same time we confused Sturbridge and Stockbridge, our plan to visit the historical children’s village nearby. I ponder, Was that the same time we also spent happy hours engaged at the kids science museum in Boston? I have memories of an entrance all shiny and metallic. Funny how time clouds it all. 

As a girl in the summers in Toronto, I’ld volunteer at the day camp at my school, a loose tangle of kids with nothing much to do, the rich kids all ready away in Muskokoa, but at least a handful of us organized to keep us outside in the sun and away from our homes.But for two weeks or less, usually, mid or late July , my parents would take us out of the city, usually sweaty and breathless car jaunts that we could afford, more I believe for the sense of freedom my father felt as he drove the open road, the equal of all drivers on a quest. He searched for trains, science museums, antique cars- hardly of interest to me, but fascinating to him. No tripadvisor then, just paper maps, free from the gas station, used to consult for highway routes.

I was bored, trapped in the car with my sister who was occasionally carsick and puked. We stayed at Howard Johnsons then, believed to be pretty spiffy by my parents, my delight the magazine stand where sometimes we were allowed to purchase a chocolate bar and a book. For some unknown reason one summer, we drove to Florida, one unbearably hot summer, burning our skin and indulging in pink watermelon to cool us off, my father disapprovingly admonishing my mother, sister and me about sun exposure. My father never sat in the sun, always in the shade pouring over Popular Mechanics, Consumer Reports, never a real book. I wondered why as I devoured book after book, having discovered fanciful tales and interesting people therein.

 Several times a year, we also drove to Buffalo and purchased our Susan van Husan shirts for $2.98 and if we were really lucky- on to Batavia where the toy store of our dreams existed. These were memorable excursions for setting the tone for being together, extending our boundaries, learning new things and being educated in how different life was outside our own home. In spite of my thorough dislike of the backseat ride, there was, as well, a thrill about travel, packing up, crossing borders. My mother always cringed at the US’s custom’s inquiry, afraid her folded green paper documents that did not resemble our small plastic rectangles signifying we were born in Canada, might identify her as an imposter. She carried childhood memories from her entrance to Canada at Pier 19, Nova Scotia as a five year old. She would retell stories of lice- inspection in Holland with steel combs that deeply penetrated her tender scalp, the looming imposition inquisition of guards, her quaking fear.

Yet our forays from the summer heat, these brief excursions set the model for the trips I would take with my own children years later. I never really considered whether we would go , but where. Others might plant their children with relatives or at camp, preferring alone- time with a spouse, but never my husband and me. We were a unit , adults revealing the wonder of the world to our kids, becoming kids again ourselves as we shared in their new experiences. Fresh eyes provided new perspectives and unexpected revelations from the innocence of a child’s purview. Besides, loosened from home rules, there was a certain freedom being on the road, away from constricting boundaries. That was invigorating too.

What stands out in my mind is New York when I was a girl. I must have been incredibly bored on the long drive, every few minutes, driving my parents crazy with my interminable “ When we will get there?” Their response was always maddeningly the same” Look out the window, Pat, “punctuated by The Alphabet and I Spy Something with my little eye games. Still I remember the Oliver Cromwell hotel, really a little dump, not that I judged it that way back then, but my parents’ reactions to the drab brown interior, likely way too expensive, pervaded my sensibilities. We were treated and awed by the Hayden Planetarium and Radio City’s the Rockettes. Knowing New York as I do now, I have no idea how my father on crutches manipulated this trip, his car, or us. My mother, impressed with herself, often repeated how she as an 8 year old girl had been charged to take her brothers by subway alone to the World’s Fair so many years back. Never allowed to take buses or subways by myself at an early age, I could not imagine her immigrant parents letting her!

Mentored by Sid and Goldie, my father’s sister and idolized brother in law , we were instructed into the educational possibilities of every trip, searching for the events and opportunities to extend our learning. My mother especially was in awe of their knowledge, names such as child psychologist gurus Piaget , Gesell, or even Dr. Spock, the lords of child- rearing. My cousin Jon was considered, in spite of the bragging rights of Goldi’s cousins, the infant terrible, the first born, the wunderkint, worthy of special schooling such as Dr. Blott’s school for the gifted, and obviously one reason for my aunt and uncle’s deep research into all books and things educative. Which obviously they must have communicated to my parents.

My other aunt, Marion ,considered herself the elite, the diva, particularly in all knowledge worth knowing. But her realm was theoretical, divorced from the practical and certainly the useful: wherein my parents actually excelled. And so we benefitted from all, although much of Marion’s insights were disregarded as high falutting fluff, worthless, but my mother’s talent in singing, her practicality, my father’s work in hi fidelity coupled with both his and Sid’s love for anything musical shaped our world. Unable to afford concerts, we were nonetheless surrounded by radio and records both classical and big band. Yet later, I found Marion a kindred soul, for her interest in the visual, for unlike the aurally- focused of my family, I could not discern the beauty of sound, discovering my solace in prints and pictures.

So we followed in the mould set out by my parents, taking our kids away for three months in Europe, staying in gites or homes, rather rentable cottages, that were close enough to castles or attractions I had pursued in Michelin, Fromer, travel,guides…Our children 10, 8 and 5 sprung from school for three months were exposed to art and churches, not the science my father had preferred because of my passion veering towards the visual and I wanted to share the stained glass, the sculpture of the medieval, the painting collections that had inspired me in the darkened rooms at university. As well, there were the hikes into mountains, the tasting of new foods and adventures we deemed specific to the children’s evolution as sentient beings. In Montebuono, we sweltered in the heat, but escaped to a nearby modern swimming pool where kids had to squeeze their heads into green Alia caps and after splashing wildly in the sanitized pool, munch pizza in the outdoor café; in Dordogne, Madame Bourret would bring us freshly baked pastries by her husband who strangely wandered the property in his underpants; in Brittany we shivered in a house recommended by Howard’s colleague where we drank cavaldos to warm ourselves in the drizzling rain in an unheated house ; in Paris, we needed two tiny rooms to house our group of five, Howard and Jordan sneaking out to ferret Chinese food, the girls and I watching those shows where people do outrageous things such as trying to grab balls the size of a house and swinging from obstacle to obstacle. I chortle to remember our son’s first tears upon having to leave his friends in Toronto brought full circle as he cried again to depart our European adventures.

Best of all was the kids’ exquisite use of language as they easily slipped into conversation with local people in France, we, the adults knowing to keep our garbled tongues to ourselves.I recall the look of the townspeople impressed by the confidence and ease with which all three communicated: the result of French immersion, that in spite of negatively impacting their Math skills, heightened their abilities to think and speak in a language different from their everyday one. In those days, with the father Trudeau, we conceived ourselves as both English and French, and a future for our children that might necessitate their knowledge of French should they travel far from our shores to pursue an international profession. There was a pride of having a dual citizenship of both founders of our country.

The years traveling with our children were some of the richest moments in my life. Surveying my life and examining it from the viewpoint of accumulated years, I can review the good – and of course the bad, the unintentional mishaps caused by stress, lack of information short sightedness, reacting too quickly, not listening properly: myriad reasons. However, we did hand down a daily pattern of living and vacationing, and a way of approaching life, gleaned from my own wise parents.

We eventually discover that one never has total freedom to choose and set their own path, yet we can set up small diversions, those family jaunts where alone and on the road, you see and hear and experience special relationships of warmth and wonder: that do endure a lifetime. At least ours have.


Road Trips, Habits and Such

Whenever I eat chocolate cake, I must wash it down with milk. Howard grimaces but recognizes with a guffaw that this is my habit: a pattern gleaned from my childhood. 

There are so many habits, customs, shtick, stories we bring from our pasts.

 On Mothers Day, Ariel was regaling my grandsons with stories from her own growing up days. As always, Erica the youngest, was the trickster. Ariel related how Erica in Montebuono, Italy would jump up and down on her bed screaming “Jolliflex, Jolliflex” and then dive beneath her covers at the approach of Howard’s or my footsteps on the stairs. Ariel reminded us of the demise of Pighead, a makeshift toy(?) made from a styrofoam cup that I finally threw out the window when Pighead had oinked one too many times and Erica raged for hours and hours grieving her “favourite” toy. We recalled her penchant to eat only chocolate and fries for almost three months during Howard’s sabbatical in Europe. We chuckled over the night secrecies of Jordan and Howard who scampered out at midnight to locate Chinese food in the narrow streets of Paris. In a tiny hotel on rue Dauphin, Ariel remembered the walls being so thin that she could overhear the conversations between the couple in the room next door :

“I’m so hot ( no air conditioning in Paris in the summer).”

“ So? Leave!”

 We reminisced about the numerous trips we shared with our children and their antics. Listening intently but convulsed with laughter, my seven year old grandson almost burst with merriment at the stories his aunt was weaving about the tricks and mischievous behaviours of her sibs. For me these tales were a reminder of our being together, often trapped in Citroens or Puegots for hours, discovering new gites, and castles.

 We, just a family, wandering on shady off –route highways through a carefully charted course: through a variety of areas in Paris, from Dordogne to Brittany, our path engineered around castles and the locations we had booked from pamphlets and brochures. There were castles and churches and art galleries and parks and tourist attractions. And for some crazy reason we had encouraged Jordan to jump the cordon in a castle where Leonardo da Vinci had slept ( apparently) so we could take his picture next to a Louis XIV bed, and the booming voice that shook the room, menacing, “De l’autre cote, si vous plait..”

 My son had an imaginary friends( Apple),and alter-egos ( Peter Ishnu, for one) and was a lovable, happy guy . He who cried bitterly to leave his friend in Toronto for the three month trip, weeped even harder to depart Europe. For me, the blazing glory of fields of swaying sunflowers in Arles as Van Gogh must seen them overwhelmed me. At Masion- Carree in Nimes, France built about 12BC and dedicated to Augustus Caesar’s adopted sons, Erica took to the temple’s stage to belt out her own rendition of “ Doctor, Doctor”. Bewildered watchers gathered to witness the irreverent sight.

 Our trip that year culminated in a stone farm house in Italy. Across the dusty road from us , Mrs. Joseph, the owner from New York lived or rather grandly and elegantly inhabited her space. She had brought an architect from Yale to build two houses, for herself and her son- who showed no interest at all so she rented his, the one where we were staying for a month .It was to be one  excruciating breathless summer, but obviously not worried about the extremities of the impact of heat on fragile perishables, the fabulous lady commissioned a huge cream cake for Ariel’s birthday. As well there was a cream-coloured crocheted top.

 I will never forget the scene of entering her house and witnessing a cache of people discussing Thomas Hardy to the whirr of humungous flies circling their heads, like miniature helicopters. To the barrage of scorpions that overwhelmed us that day, she calmly reminded us to make sure we shook out our shoes and socks every morning. Having addressed our query and enquiring if we would take tea or coffee, she continued her conversation on Hardy’s literary style and symbolism.

 The Red Brigade was rumoured to have their headquarters nearby in the mountains. We eagerly anticipated our suppers on Sundays in a castle, El Castillo, that offered the best and thinnest pizza ever. At the edge of Mrs. Joseph’s property, were horses that Erica liked to pet. She in particular was covered in bites so large that we might have been staying in some poverty-bound third world county. Lucia, Mrs. Joseph’s housekeeper, made us lasagna, but when we slammed the oven door so hard that the glass splintered on the ceramic floor ,we were without an oven for a week. In deed, it was so hot, (the Monsoon season, they demurred ) that summer that we were prostrate on the beds, fanning ourselves with books abandoned from former renters. When the water stopped running, we had to drive into Rome, for we did not comprehend Lucia’s impassioned explanation, “ Agua, adesso!”

 What did my children learn from these forays, what new habits did they form? Certainly Erica’s palette did not expand, nor did Jordan ever forgive my penchant to pinch those annoying me in the backseat or take action against “Pighead”. Nor did he develop a thirst to admire the stained glass of churches in lieu of the crack of a bat. Yet the sweetness of the Mrs. Joseph’s birthday cake has hovered in Ariel’s mouth forever, I believe. Did they develop a predilection for travel, secretly embracing new habits or developing new patterns? 

How can I know? We, as parents happily returned home, because “ home is the place…”, yet desirous for more adventures, again packing up our kids and hoping they would imbibe our passion, and into the new generation share their own special adventures with their own children




Phase Three

We are in toasty San Diego and I am pleading. “This will be our Phase Three”. At least I’m hoping that as I try to ease my husband into less work. He has all ready admonished me that he will never retire and even when he is ready, he will still work 6 months a year. So there. Maybe the Whole Food Smoothie of acai, spinach and mango isn’t quite working its breakfast magic. He makes a face and says it makes him feel sick-even sitting on a glorious sun- dappled patio.

But here we stand, researching condos in a place that is warm, and within 10 minutes, we can stroll along the beach at Torrey Pines, gawking at body surfers, and small children running to the edge of the waves, dipping their toes and quickly retreating to the safety of the shores. Above us the cliffs loom .I can imagine the children’s delighted laughter as it bounces off the cliffs.

That was Phase two for us: the kids: their growing up, their schooling, their move towards independence and their own families. Those years stretching for a very long time. Those were the years where all our energies focused on their needs.

Our first sabbatical in Europe was three months long so we could introduce them to art galleries, foods (even though the youngest ate only French fries and chocolate bars),castles and culture, so that they might use their French immersion skills nicely gleaned at Allenby. I remember how smoothly they launched into their second language, and how haughtily the French shook their heads at us, the parents, when we dropped our cool and decided to interject into the conversation.. Better to smile than to speak. And I recall our son miserably leaving his friends In Toronto, pitifully weeping; and how he cried again- bitterly- when he had to leave Paris and return home.

When one of our girls plunged into drama and the other to opera, our eyes were refreshed and we were allowed to see again as children. Saturdays we dragged ourselves from warm beds to wander St. Lawrence Market while the eldest took classes at Young People’s Theatre. No surprise she became a writer. For the younger, still hooked on fries, it was chaperoning trips to Salt Spring Island for CCOC productions of the Snow Queen. As I write this, it is as if I am looking through the wrong end of a telescope as I observe my now grownup children as once small tikes in sunhats, sandals , consuming rijstoffle in Amsterdam, pizza in Montbuono, and freshly baked chocolate croissants in the Loire Valley. Those years feel so distant now.

Later there was focus on which universities, which grad schools, which flowers for which weddings: white lilies or green orchids? Satin or lace? McGill or Queens? U. Penn or London? Decisions, letting go, providing advice (most often ignored), being supportive, reflecting …

Phase Three, as I call it, resembles Phase One a bit: when we first started out together, more than 40 years ago when we were young, perky, flirty, full of dreams for a life together, brazen and bold, daring, dipping our toes, retreating, going forward, unabashed.

With only $75 in the bank but a promise of a new job, we bought our first house. We flew at new adventures, never believing that one day we would move into this phase. As the Baby Boomer generation, we scoffed at old age. I would wear my hair in braids that swung down to my love beads; and he would continually wistfully tap his pipe and engage in thought-provoking discourses as he charted a better world. There were new journeys and we embraced it all, sailing away from the world we dismissed as being manageable and controllable.

And in Phase Three, it is somewhat similar, but now, the pace is slower, more contemplative: our aches more, our optimism less strident, for life and its burdens could not help but weigh us down; our once fierce optimism tempered by the eventualities of life’s numerous struggles and politics; becoming wise at the cost of painful realizations, comprehending the ways of the world, sadly.

And now we stand here at the threshold of being refocused, of being able to re-invent ourselves, gather the sunshine lost during an oppressive winter. Maybe this is where old hippies come- not quite to Berkley, but to California dreaming of what it was like to be young.

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