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BABY It’s Cold Outside…

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“This is my brother Larry, the BABY!!”
My baby pic

Most would cringe and cower at these words, thinking “Oh shit, here we go again…”, mortified.

Most would hear those as fighting words.

Most would shudder especially when they reach 20, 30, 40, 50 years of age. BABY?!

Not me…

I always blushed with humble pride, almost as if I had done something skillful and miraculous to attain such an honour.

“Yes, well, it was nothing really, anyone who put in the 10,000 hours of intense effort could be the baby too.

But no 10,000 hours of training or effort are required to be the “baby”, simply luck of the birth order lottery.

Birth order… I guess it just has to be all the talk of Christmas and swaddled babies that somehow has me thinking about our own non-virgin births (I don’t want to tattle on your Mom and Dad, but yup, they did the dirty!) and the glittering point on the constellation where we shine within our family galaxy.

Reading things into birth order is akin to being a tea leaf reader or apprenticing as a Zodiac or Chinese Horoscope disciple. There may be some tenuous and practical connections, but the level of hogwash skepticism and requirement for faith is higher than that of pure science. If nothing else, it’s fun and entertaining, yes?

birthorder

……….

1st child: When the first swallows a coin, you rush the child to the hospital and demand x-rays.

2nd child: When the second swallows a coin, you carefully watch for the coin to pass.

3rd child: When the third swallows a coin you deduct it from his allowance!!

……….

I was born the youngest i.e. the BABY… of 5.

Three or 4 years separated each of us, meaning that the range of eldest to youngest was about 15 years… 15 years and 13 days to be exact.

When you hit 60 years of age, the title “BABY” begins to feel ridiculous, almost an insult or joke on the bearer.

Even so, I’ve always kind of treasured my role, my spot as the youngest. Youngest has a cachet, a semblance of specialness and reverence.

To be introduced as the baby has been a high honour while at the same time one needing guarded vigilance and defence.

Vigilance because inevitably, introduction as the baby in the family also comes with a tag-on comment, “yeah, he has always gotten away with murder, he is so spoiled”. 

What the H…? My hockey-skilled pugnaciousness comes to the forefront when I’m described as “spoiled”.

Are you kidding me? Spoiled? Me? Spoiled? Screw you….

Spoiled?

I delivered newspapers and magazines door-to-door every day from the time I was enrolled in Mrs. Putns’ Grade 1 class all the way up til the day I got my first McJob at 15 … yeah, at McDonalds.

Spoiled?

I always felt left out and empty because my sibs could go see boobies and bums on the movie screen or sip Singapore Slings in the bar years before I could even attempt to sneak in.

Spoiled?!

I was never lavished with parental gifts of expensive bicycles or cars or lavish vacation trips to Mexico or Hawaii. My parents never paid a cent for my college education.

I’m sorry, do I sound defensive? Maybe just a tad?

OK, I’ll grant you that I coasted just a wee bit in elementary and high school when teachers recognized me as another “Green” kid.

Every one of my older siblings had skipped a grade in school, so it was naturally assumed I’d been bestowed with a heaping dollop of inherent intellect. No proof required. 2 + 2 = … 6?

Wrong!

Sometimes it took the whole school year for amiable Miss Taylor or Mr. French to realize that I had maggot brain and was the simpleton in the family group!

There’s even a 2007 study that shows a correlation between IQ and birth order: the more older siblings one has, the lower one’s IQ. Not my fault… Dummy’dom is my fate! Thanks Mom and Dad…

(ASIDE: A recent study at Brock University in Ontario noted: “… men may be more likely to be homosexual if they share their birth mother with older brothers. Each older brother increases a man’s odds of being homosexual by approximately 33%.”… so… dummy’dom but not gay’dom for me… life is like a 50/50 draw.)

IQ and birth order.gif

Now occasionally in school I was presented with Proof of Intelligence trials. Apparently, handing in one of my brother’s or sister’s previous year’s crumpled test sheets that they had aced wasn’t always accepted. WTF!?

One early testing trauma – my potential Waterloo – I encountered as the Baby was the Grade 6 Music Sight Reading Award. This was my opportunity to sink or swim in the family intellect pool.

Each of my 4 sibling elders had previously passed the challenging test of being capable of reading and singing music by sight from notation on the musical staff. The sight reading certificate was part of the Green family lore and pride.

Judgment day grew near… I spent sleepless juvenile nights awaiting my fate, a fate I felt certain would finally expose and recognize me as the “dunce” of the family.

The dreaded moment descended and Mrs. Brewer watched closely, her eyes burning into my sweaty-browed face, listening as I diligently sight read and sang the music sheet set in front of me…

… my most joyous childhood day was when I proudly received the Sight Singing certificate.

Now I’ve read that some qualities of a last born include being manipulative, charming, blames others, attention seeker, tenacious, people person, natural salesperson, precocious, engaging, affectionate, and… loves surprises.

The surprise of passing my Sight Reading Test was much more than a minor moment of crossing a tricky obstacle, a youthful Tough Mudder challenge.

I’d arrived. I truly belonged in the family, here was the proof!

I still possess and proudly admire the certificate to this day.

……….

Baby it’s cold outside. Christmas grows nearer and I love watching some TV Christmas classics like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Isn’t it charming and captivating when Clarice tells young Rudolph that he’s cute ?

And on this bright mid-December morning, wouldn’t you agree that it’s equally charming when child and family therapist Meri Wallace, author of Birth Order Blues says:

“The youngest can be cute because of ‘forever being the baby.'”

I’m cute! I’m cuuuutttteeeee…

Last born

HOGWASH!

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Winter Wedding Bells …

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snowy night 2

The darkness is inky and suffocating.

Street lights are almost non-existent, a few stars shoehorn their way through the heavy cloud cover overhead and the moon hasn’t risen yet.

In November it was delightful and peaceful to see my breath in wispy frosted clouds and hear the soft swish of fresh snow beneath my boots. Fluffy, romantic snowflakes materialized magically out of the darkness, inviting me to open my mouth wide and feel the first cold flake on my tongue.

But now it’s early March and the lustre of the fresh chill has long gone; all that awaits now is anticipation, the teasing anticipation of longer days of daylight and the waitful suspense in tulip and daffodil bulbs forcing themselves through the half-frozen soil with spring’s promise.

The shouts of my pals Hugh and Jerome and Larry M. as we play street hockey are a great distraction to the seemingly endless snowdrifts and scarfs over my frozen cheeks.

But who am I kidding?

Those are my memories from living in southern Ontario and Yellowknife, NWT and BC’s William’s Lake where winter storms and frigid temperatures defy global warming now and show up as unruly revellers for the party, maybe just a bit less frequently than in years past.

Today I live in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley where winter usually graces the surrounding mountains, only rarely showing its true face in the valley bottom where most of my neighbours wonder if putting snow tires on their car, despite provincial laws commanding it, is really necessary.

I’ve flown in for my brother’s son’s wedding in southern Ontario this week. – a joyful family event that involves no caskets or urns or “Rock of Ages” hymns thank goodness.

It’s a nice change to put on a suit and tie with a lightness inside and stuffing kleenexes in my jacket pocket not to catch tears of sadness, but only those of gladness.

But winter, the icy, blizzardy winter that I had forgotten existed is still playing itself out in full force here in the populated heartland of the country.

Snowbanks are piled up to my waist all through the residential streets, fleece-lined parkas and down-filled jackets are zipped up to the chin and long lines of vehicles fill the highway air with great wispy clouds of vapour trails like jets passing high overhead.

I laugh inwardly when I ponder and reflect on how my ancestors who forged lives – difficult, harsh lives – in this frigid winter climate, would look at us today.

In great migratory hordes, we pack our bikinis and speedos into rolling closets and cram into airplanes every week by the thousands to join the birds who left in the late fall to fly south for soothing sunshine and balmy temperatures.

We fill white sandy beaches to overflowing with outsized beer bellies and screaming red-skinned shoulders for a respite, a week or two where we can forget our icy homeland.

Just 20, or 75, or 150 years ago, the great majority of us had grandparents or great-grandparents who crowded onto ships and trains looking to escape the challenges of their own homelands – famine, war, persecution, earthquakes, rape, floods – all manner of threats to life.

Harsh, inhospitable, often horrific lives were made livable and hopeful again when they landed on our shores. My own Irish ancestors left on big sailing ships from a land that refused to feed them or allow them to own land and prosper by the toil of their ingenuity and labours.

And here I am today, occasionally bitching about the cold weather outdoors. Woe is me. Oh puhleeeeease…. whine with that cheese anyone?!!!

No one else will, so I pinch and remind myself.

I remind myself of how fortunate I happen to be, living in a 21st century world where colourful, flavourful food from every corner of the world is at my fingertips …

… I awake in a home that comes to a cozy, comfortable temperature at the flick of a switch on the wall …

…. War is something I pay money to see in a theatre, a bag of hot buttered popcorn in my hand …

… Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods? I only visit these on the 10 o’clock TV news …

… Sure, ravaging viral and bacterial plagues are worrisome but tiny in number to those of even a hundred years ago.

It’s so important that I remember that I’m living a king’s life only because countless other of my relatives – and yours – struggled and survived and used ingenuity and intelligence and perseverence.

So when I sit next to my siblings and nieces and nephews, smiling proud, watching my nephew recite his vows of love, honour and betrothal to his lovely bride, I’ll open my eyes and take a moment to look outside at the late winter snows and frigid winds.

And instead of grimacing and lamenting how nasty and cruel the forces of nature are, I’ll take a deep breath in … Namaste!! – and appreciate the incredible dream of a world I’ve inherited.

It’s through the trials and labours of my grandparents, great-grandparents and their grandparents, that I’m typing a blog post on a computer that wirelessly connects me to anyone in the world in an amazingly comfortable, warm chair in a hotel room …. while just 5 feet away through a wall … a late winter freeze blasts away and I’m practically oblivious.

Why would I buy a lottery ticket? I’ve already won the jackpot!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Lived as CinderFella …

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This is how Jean's kitchen really looked...

The pristine look of my Step-Mom Jean’s kitchen in reality…

 

It was a nasty thing to do but I was feeling a bit ill-natured. What can I say, I was a teenage boy.

I inclined my face to just the right angle so I could see the reflected light from the overhead fixture, then slowly dragged my finger across the brown metallic finish of the kitchen stove hood, squiggling my name in the light greasy coating on its surface.

This is how she thought it looked after I fingered my name in grease on the stove hood....

This is how she thought it looked after I fingered my name in grease on the stove hood….

 

A Scrooge-like pleasure pulsed through my body.

It was the passive-aggressive approach of a hormonal, acne-stricken 16 year-old adolescent to a fresh, unwelcome presence in the house.

My house. Not her’s.

My retired Dad’s new wife Jean – he married her just over a year after my Mom died from a heart attack – was a clean freak, and I had found a chink in her hygienic armour.

Jean cleaned everything top to bottom three times daily. The house was cleaned more frequently than the air exchanged. How had she missed cleaning this surface?

When my mother was alive just 18 months earlier, the discovery of a light film of animal fat on any kitchen surface would have been commonplace.

She wasn’t a slob by any means, but Mom didn’t give her life over to the deity of Mr. Clean.

I know this because my job on most Saturday mornings before or after my Peewee hockey game, was to go about the house, joyfully spraying over-generous wafts of Lemon Pledge aren’t those spray cans single-use only? –  on any wooden furniture surface and buffing it to a wonderfully citrus-scented sheen. There was always a light layer of dust anywhere I went with my cloth.

“Larry, you only need a very light spray to remove the dust and make it shine”, Mom would say.

Yup“, I ignored her, as I continued on my merry aerosol-aplenty way. I loved how the Pledge hit the wood surface and magically bubbled up into a white foam like painful hydrogen peroxide on a nasty, gritty wound.

Lemon pledge

Many of us at some time in our lives find the need to adapt to a new face sitting across the dinner table in place of our Mom or Dad.

It might be through divorce or separation, or as in my case, the death of a parent.

I imagine sometimes this is easy, but in most cases, it’s difficult to transition a Mom or Dad.

These are the people who changed our diapers, walked us to school on fog-soupy days, held our hand when we jittered nervously, waiting in the dental office.

Our lifelong security blanket has been taken away forcibly and suddenly, and tossed into the trash. We realize how Linus feels when Lucy steals his blanket, except it’s not as funny as in the Peanuts comics.

In its place a shiny new substitute has been handed to us. And it doesn’t really matter how nice or beautiful or competent or loving the substitute is. We know it’s not the original that we bonded with from our moment of birth, the familiar smell, the sound of her/his voice will never be the same.

It’s a bit funny in my case because I kind of welcomed the entrance of someone – anyone – into our lives. My Dad and I had lived as solitary bachelors for a year (technically my brother Gord lived at home still, but with a fiance in his life, he was seldom seen) and it was an uncomfortable co-existence.

Really, it would have made a great sit-com if there was any humour to be mined. Two guys, one bald and retired in his late 60’s, the other a long-haired 70’s-era kid. Think of the fun possibilities! I can hear the laugh track rollicking over our stunted, confused conversations. Think Jack Nicholson living with Justin Bieber. Who wouldn’t bust a gut over those conversations?

Somehow the sit-com scenario played out more like a dull, lonely drama in real life. So what did we say to each other? Not much.

There was a lot of silence and conversations kept to the required minimum of “Will you be home for supper?“, or “I’d like you to cut the lawn today“, or more threatening, “You need to get your hair cut.” That last one was a constant thorny itch to make a moody teenager’s blood boil.

Get a haircut

Then when Jean, an old family church friend entered the picture, it was a good thing.

My Dad needed companionship that a 16 year-old son had no ability or intent of providing. Jean was a talkative, cheery presence that filled a major gap left in an eerily quiet home after Mom’s sudden departure.

She was just what the doctor ordered to make an older, lonely fellow’s life something whole once again, and he too filled a chasm that existed in Jean’s world after her husband died a few years earlier from emphysema. It was a win-win for them both.

I just didn’t see it that way from a younger son perspective. She was perfect for my Dad, but not for me.

I was living in a perceived hell I hadn’t asked for.

I missed my Mom terribly.

I’d never had anything resembling a close relationship with my Dad. I wanted an escape but had no clue how anything could possibly change.

And then, like a Disney wand had swept through with its magic, it happened.

My older sister, Betty, who had lived and worked in B.C. for a few years, decided to move back to Ontario early that summer to be closer to our family. In a moment of weakness, and probably, with her social sciences background, feeling great pity for me, she suggested that I move into an apartment with her, and, well, the rest is history.

By the end of summer and the start of my Grade 13 school year (Ontario was the only Canadian province that held onto that tradition), my Dad and Jean were happily living alone in their love nest, while I shared a small nearby apartment with my saviour, my sister.

I completed my Grade 13, then studied at college for a couple of years until I was a certified Medical Laboratory Technologist winging off to my first professional job in Yellowknife, NWT.

In looking back, I never really disliked Jean. She was a bit like a stray puppy with a waggly tail that pushes its way through your back door one day unexpectedly. She wasn’t perfect. But I wasn’t perfect either.

puppy on doorstep

And fortunately, when she discovered my little scrawled trail of grease on her presumed pristine stove hood, instead of unleashing a burst of anger at me, she laughed and laughed at the humour of it all.

She continued to talk and laugh about it for the next few years of companionship she offered to my Dad in his declining years.

Bringing a new woman into our home wasn’t the easiest, smoothest move my Dad ever made. There were difficult, tense moments.

Oily, slippery, dirty moments come about in all our lives. We need to hang on tenuously by our fingernails sometimes and remind ourselves that eventually, this too shall pass.

I may have harboured some bitter, resentful feelings towards my Dad for “replacing” my Mom. But I got over that simmering emotion years ago. Now I can smile knowing my Dad’s last years were happier and more contented with Jean around, even if the stove hood was a bit greasy.

I’m A Time Traveller …

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time-travel

You can shoot yourself REGRETTING the things you could have done differently.

Learn and move forward. Just hush the evil inner voices, kiss that fool’s regret goodnight, and go back to sleep.

The only regrets I have are for those things that I have no control over.

For example, I ofttimes regret that I wasn’t ever able to meet, much less know, my grandparents.

Do you ever find your head filled with imagined visions and voices of the people who came before you? If not for them and countless other forebears, you would have never sucked in this absurdly brief breath of time on earth.

It’s a wildly unlikely, miraculous 49 billion to 1 winning lotto ticket that you and I are here.

Occasionally in my daydreams, I transport myself back in time and place. Like a fly on the wall, I find myself in the cozy wood cookstove-heated kitchen of my Mom’s rural childhood farmhouse in the little Ontario town of Hillsburgh.

I see heavy snow drifting onto the outer windowsill above the kitchen sink, split-rail wood fences lining the field in the distance. I listen to the sounds of darned socks excitedly scuffing across wood floors. I feel myself sitting at the oak table fashioned by the hands of my great-grandfather James in the big old barn out back. I inhale some slices of steaming hot bread brought by my Grandma Maggie to the dining room fresh from the oven, slathered with butter. Butter that was hand-churned the day before by my Aunt Mabel in the parlour overlooking the front verandah where the family sits on sultry summer evenings.

Sharing breakfast with my grandmother Maggie, Grandpa Will, my aunts and uncles, and my tomboy Mom-to-be Lila, is magical in this imagined memory.

My grandparents Margaret (Maggie) and William (Will) on their wedding day

My grandparents Margaret (Maggie) and William (Will) on their wedding day June 8, 1898.

For me, it is all imagined because my grandparents were long gone when I arrived on the scene. My grandpa William died unexpectedly after a week long illness in the winter of 1935. In a letter written to my mother 12 days after his death, my grandmother Maggie writes,

Still we can’t help but notice the vacant chair. It seems so quiet.”

Only 8 years later, Maggie was found by my cousin Margie returning from school, resting pale and peaceful on the living room couch, taken by a heart attack.

At that time, I was wandering the streets of Hamilton as a lovelorn sperm and an egg, patiently waiting for a serendipitous meeting years later.

Today, the memories I hold of my grandparents are found only in photographs and in the written letters and stories left behind by my parents and older cousins.

I have questions.

Was my Grandma Maggie able to bake Wellington County’s best apple pie with tart Northern Spy apples growing by the back gate? Did she have a soprano lilt to her voice? Was my Grandpa Will a funny man, a witty story teller, or did he sometimes show a darker side, was he perhaps even a bit curmudgeonly? I don’t think so. His obituary states he:

was held in high esteem by all those with whom he came in contact. His kindly disposition gave him a wide circle of friends and neighbours…”

 

Yes, I’m full of questions that will never be answered, it’s just too late. And this is where I’m going to push you from behind. Before the sun sets on your chance, I want you to capture your dear family memories for your children and children’s children. No regrets, right?

Fourteen years ago, I gathered my clan’s stories into a book for a family reunion.

IMG_4983

My parents 1940 Wedding Photo next to my family stories book …

I collected written memories and stories from my brothers, sisters, and still-living aunts and cousins. Some are humorous, some are bittersweet, some are just fact-based. But they are about real people. Real people that loved others, felt anger, experienced disappointment, people that laughed and cried and worked and played.

Piecing these memories together along with scanned letters, marriage and death certificates, newspaper clippings and photographs, I gave birth to a hardcover book of more than 100 pages.

Inside the front and back covers I lined the pages with what family tree information I had or could find. There’s my Dad’s Green family lineage inside the front cover, my Mom’s Miller family heritage inside the back cover.

The treasure trove of small, personal anecdotes, fond and sorrowful recollections contained between the covers is even more priceless than a Mastercard commercial.

Granted, it took some time to put together. Yet it was worth every minute, especially considering that three key voices – my 96 year-old Aunt Lilian, my sister Marion, and sister-in-law Lois – are now lost forever, their words and memories immortalized.

Their thoughts can be read and shared for generations to come. These are people who will continue to exist because they contributed a few, modest reminiscences of their lives. Look and listen. A misty haze of the ephemeral human soul resides in their words between the covers.

Lacking their tales, their narratives, in a few short years they would remain only as tombstone dates and a photo or two; not real, blood-pumping, personality-rich individuals that meant so much to me and their loved ones and friends.

Genealogy without stories and personality is a pulseless corpse of time passed.

Will your children remember the young lady that was their grandmother when she was out dancing with her girlfriends past curfew and her father drove the streets all night looking for her? Will they know about Uncle John’s miserable night spent in jail after a barfight where he defended your Aunt Judy’s honour?

It’s weirdly fascinating to think that whiffs of my immortal DNA dust will roam the memory halls of the bloodstreams and heads of future generations. We’ll all be someone’s long passed brother, sister, great-aunt or -uncle, grandma or grandpa one day.

Now …

Right now is the time and chance to make your family song immortal, and maybe, just maybe, tell your side of that hilariously misunderstood story before that fateful bus runs, hurtling breathlessly out of control down Main Street like a flash of lightning, sending you into the hallowed halls of history.

No regrets, eh?

Hit by a bus