Bliss

As summer rolls to a close and I’m starting to think warm and cozy thoughts about sweaters and mohair throws on the chesterfield, I also started thinking about how summer feels different in this fourth quarter of my life.

When I was a kid, summer was all about the cottage, swimming and playing Red Rover on the beach.  It was about riding bikes down the winding gravel road to McKenzie’s for an ice cream cone (and a couple of hours’ peace and quiet for my mother).  It was about fishing on the weekends with my father so that we could have fresh-caught bass, fried in butter, served with hash browns and scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and about a loaf of bread, toasted and slathered in peanut butter.  It was about catching frogs and trying to catch lightning bugs.  It was about lazy hot afternoons lying in the shade of the birch tree reading “A Boys Own” that once belonged to my father.  It was about endless games of “May I” and Sorry, and trying to avoid playing Monopoly with my capitalist brothers.  It was about finding a snake in my underwear drawer, a bat in our sleeping cabin, and the dog discovering skunks are not great playmates.  It was about roasting wienies and marshmallows until burnt and then promptly burning the roof of your mouth, on each one!  It was about being blissful, even if you didn’t know what bliss was then.

I didn’t really have a summer last year, or not much of one any way, so I had looked forward to this one quite a bit.  In many ways, it didn’t disappoint – we spent several weekends at the lake and to my joy, Jeff caught a very large bass which we shared with family for breakfast one morning.  And I did the summer things I used to do with my mother – strawberry jam in June, pickles in August, with mustard relish and chili sauce to come this week.  But it all felt… different.

For one thing, there’s the matter of “other things to do”.  We had to re-arrange schedules a little bit for one weekend visit.  Nieces and nephews are busy with jobs and not at the lake all the time.  Nor are my two brothers and sisters-in-law, and even my aunt & uncle have moved into ‘town’ from the lakeside.

For another, instead of the utter peace and calm of almost every day and evening of my childhood – other than the noise of children playing and fighting and doing other non-mechanized childish things – our summer visits this year were filled with noises of motors and fireworks and raucous, drunken laughter into the early morning hours.

I’m not turning into a cantankerous old lady (I hope!) when I say this but there is much to be cherished about the unfrenzied, unplanned, mostly unplugged summers of my childhood.  I think it’s rather sad to see today that there are so few long, lazy days of summer for children.  Or adults for that matter.  I think we would all do well out of having many more long bike rides down winding gravel roads for maple walnut ice cream cones, putting a few fireflies in a jar, roasting a few marshmallows on pointy sticks around a small bonfire, watching the sun set.

We could all do with a little more bliss.

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Here’s The Thing We’re Not Prepared For…

We’re prepared for a lot of things as we roll through middle age.

Thanks to Madison Avenue, we have our wrinkle creams, our hair dyes, our botox injections, our medicines for things that can’t get up and things that won’t go down.  We take longer vacations to Florida or Arizona in the winter and spend more time in the summer at the cottage.  We don’t camp in tents anymore, but we love to have the grandchildren or great-nephews in pup tents in the backyard.  We go to 35th high school reunions and 40th university reunions and remark on how great everyone looks!  We gather for the weddings of our best friends’ children and send christening gifts when we become honourary grandparents, kidding our friends about being “Grandma and Papa” now.

And  yes, we think about our mortality a little, just enough to do some estate planning maybe, certainly write a will, definitely think about how long those retirement dollars will last.  But what we’re really not prepared for is other people dying.

It’s the natural order of things that our parents die before we do – at least, that’s what parents want, to go before their kids.  Of course we know that that’s what’s going to happen.  But when it does, we’re still shell-shocked.  And then, slowly but surely it’s not just our parents, but our godfather and our uncle and our cousins who are dying, and suddenly that close, expansive, joyful world of family and friends-who-might-as-well-be-family is smaller, tighter, sadder because people are dying.

And it’s not just that we’re aging: our children and nieces & nephews are growing up and bringing new partners into the circle and it’s not what it was.  It’s not who we are any more… it’s who we were.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot through the winter.  My cousin Jeff died just over a year ago, my dear father-in-law died late last fall, and just a couple of months later, my cousin, my father’s much-loved cousin, Janet Stewart Prince, died from the complications of Parkinson’s.  Ross would have been the first one to mourn her, after her children, Judith & Stewart, of course.  They were buddies all their lives and I know she felt his loss deeply when he died 11 some years ago.

 

Uncle Walter & Aunt Janet with my father, Ross

Uncle Walter & Aunt Janet with my father, Ross

 

Aunt Janet, as we called her, and Uncle Walter are woven into the fabric of my life.  They dominate memories of my childhood at the cottage in Oliphant, along with Uncle Walter’s brother’s family (Uncle Jack & Aunt Elaine and their boys, including my first ‘fiancee’, Cam), Aunt Janet’s sister, another cousin, Aunt Margery & Uncle Jack and their boys, and the Bennett families (Uncle Cam & Aunt Mary and their children, Uncle Jim & Aunt Patsy and their children), and in later years, we were thrilled to also welcome to every day life at Oliphant my Uncle Bruce (Dad’s ‘baby’ brother) and Aunt Patty.  When I think of beaches and swimming and fishing and sailing and boating and water-skiing and softball and picnics in the dunes behind the cottage, I think of these people and the Dixon boys and Dougal Robertson (another cousin!).  Eating wieners on a stick and burnt marshmallows and I think of them.  Playing games of Red Rover and British Bulldog and I think of them.  Biking down to the general store for ice cream cones and I think of them.

Just as a little aside, I have story Aunt Janet used to tell on herself which I never fail to think of when baking.  She didn’t. Bake, that is, but some occasion called for her to do so, probably a tea, or maybe a funeral.  In any case, she bought a box mix for brownies, thinking that these had to be easy to do.  And they were!  She followed the instructions for pre-heating the oven and prepping the baking pan, and then adding eggs and oil to the brownie mix.  Then she got to the next part.  Which she read twice and said, “Oh well….” and went to roll up her sleeves and wash her hands thoroughly because the instructions said: MIX BY HAND.  It took her a sticky, chocolatey moment or two to realize that perhaps they meant stir, WITH A SPOON, by hand and not a mixer.

They were all of a kind, these adults who filled my childhood.  They worked hard and contributed much.  They raised pretty large and fairly happy families for the most part, they loved good martinis & Oliphant just about equally, and they asked for very little back except to enjoy a good life.  I think most of them got it, most of the time, and if things didn’t always turn out the way they might have hoped when they were children and teenagers, I hope with all my heart that they know that the one thing that did turn out was giving us the very best of childhoods.

There will be a memorial service for Aunt Janet on Saturday, the day before Stewart celebrates his birthday, the day before what would have been my father’s 82nd birthday!  My joyful heart is aching that I cannot be there — sad to miss the people I love, happy to share in heart and mind so many, many wonderful memories.

Dear Judith & Ross, Dear Stewart & Mary… I hope your hearts and those of  your children are also joyful this weekend especially, even as they ache.

in the front, Aunt Janet, Aunt Elaine, my mother Joy (being squeezed by Uncle Jack P); second row Uncle Jack C, Uncle Jim, my father Ross, Aunt Patsy; back row Aunt Margery (partially hidden), Aunt Patty, Uncle Bruce. Uncle Walter is the photographer.

in the front, Aunt Janet, Aunt Elaine, my mother Joy (being squeezed by Uncle Jack P); second row Uncle Jack C, Uncle Jim, my father Ross, Aunt Patsy; back row Aunt Margery (partially hidden), Aunt Patty, Uncle Bruce. Uncle Walter is the photographer.