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Springtime… and Longer Days… on Lake Okanagan

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Jerry P. – grey mane a ruffled nest atop his head – rumbles by on his rollicking old red Massey Ferguson tractor and twinkles a toothy oversized wave hello.

Jerry’s getting older, maybe in his mid-70’s now, but his childlike gregariousness hasn’t dwindled a bushel or a peck over the years that he’s orcharded his peaches and apples on this spot in Summerland.

The Blossom Fruit Stand his long-gone Dad built, has been a stolid landmark on the graceful meandering highway towards Penticton for more than half a century.

The locals and tourists stop to buy fresh, juicy cherries from Jerry while oohing and aahing at the big floral display of scented roses encircling the parking area.

Jerry grew up here, schooled, partnered, procreated and toiled here. One day he’ll die here in this Okanagan Valley.

The sight and sound of Jerry rattling along these days is as much a sure sign of spring and incoming summer as thirsty chirpy robins at the bubbling pond, or darting calliope hummingbirds at the flowering almond in the backyard.

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Are you, like me, feeling like a child on Christmas morning with the days growing longer, like Donald Trump’s nose?… even the sun shines into our bedroom window at 5 am now, simultaneously both wonderful and irritating because who wants sun blazing in their eyes at the break of dawn? There are greater horrors I know… such as…

… the dark days of December and January.

Shortened winter days are a perennial struggle for me, a passage in a dusky, shadowed tunnel, constantly looking up and forward for the radiant glow that I know awaits… finding purpose in making the days pass productively in the headwinds of underlit hours and weeks.

Seasonally affected? You bet. It’s like (BEWARE: Gender Appropriation ahead!) patiently awaiting, then shedding the monthly feminine menses that afflict and inflict, to reluctantly tolerate the discomfort, but never blissfully embrace.

I was reminded this week – struck actually – while driving down the sloped hill on the winding, paved road from the Summerland Ornamental Gardens, of how my soul yearns for spring… the long, sunbathed days… the mild, garden-perfumed air.

My spirituality, my inner enthusiasm, lives and thrives in the burgeoning splendour of springtime.

The view of the Okanagan Valley and lake that spreads out when coming down from the Gardens is beyond my ability to decently describe, almost like my inability to recount my first sighting of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate overlooking the Incan treasure.

The Okanagan vista is a precious watercolour painting awash in royal blue water, white incisions of late snow, hunter green treescapes with slashes of raw umber rock and soil on the hillsides.

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The undulating hills that hug the lake are infused with 5 o’clock shadow-stubble of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir; a few scattered Western larch, sage and rabbit bush fill gaps like puzzle pieces in the landscape.

Lush greenery abounds in the vineyards and orchards holding ground close to the lake, the Spartan and Ambrosia apple blossoms filled with the busy humming of bees doing their perennial work before French-Canadian kids and Mexican temporary workers take over to finish the job through the season.

The vernal freshness and blueness of the water below sucks you in. The big lake, while fairly narrow, stretches like a towering basketball player 135 k. in both directions, from Penticton in the south to Vernon in the north of the valley.

The lake is incredibly… dangerously… high this year.

A huge collection of logs and tree stumps have washed down the creek, overflowing from melting snows, ferociously rinsing the creek beds of anything not solidly held in place. The flotsam and debris and logs have crashed into the lake like a messy pileup on a foggy highway.

For the next few weeks at least, it will seem like a thousand bumpy wooden Ogopogos (local version of the Loch Ness Monster) have come to the surface to feed on insects and larvae. Canada Geese will line their fluffed goslings up to rest on bobbing bannisters.

Soon… tender, melodious spring will fade into searing summer like blossoms blowing from the peach trees, and it’s a sweet lover that leaves me behind, a lover I’ll forgive and welcome back again and again.

Logs on Okanagan Lake

Spring is where an atheist like me encounters the greatest struggle – the redness of tulips and the sharp golden sunsets, the music in ecstatic, twitterpated birdsong – how is it that somehow, miraculously, a random beauty springs from ethereal blankness?

Yes, spring is here in the Okanagan.

Jerry is happily out and about on his tractor, and my heart soars with the Ospreys as they take wing, feathers tickling the azure sky.

Andrew Greeley writes:

Perhaps the worst thing which can happen to us humans, is to lose our wonder. The tragedy of closing your mind and heart to the wonders of Spring … the wonder of a new born baby … the wonder of love … the wonder of Christmas … Unless you learn to cherish the beauty of Spring, you will never be free from your poverty of aesthetic appreciation.”

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An Okanagan Christmas Story

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Summerland lights

It was an unusual year in that there was snow on the ground.

Not just a skiff of the white, but enough fluffy ivory to strap on the cross-country skis and glide quietly between the rows of trees in the apple orchard. Just a muffled swoosh swoosh swoosh and the occasional chirp of a tiny pine siskin perched in the tall evergreens at the edge of the field.

The sky was a dull-grey and the unseasonally chill air froze my eyelashes with a frosty glaze. No more than 15 minutes, I figured. A good hard ski to get the blood flow running and then back into the warmth in front of the woodstove, ablaze with the fragrant chunks of fir I’d cut last spring.

The morning’s light had surfaced only an hour earlier as the moments grew close to the winter solstice.

I got dressed in my day clothes after the combination of muscle heat and fire warmth had penetrated sufficiently. Then popping on my Sorel boots at the back door, I headed out into the cold once again.

My retirement “job” this morning was to spend a few hours at One-to-One reading with some grade schoolers at Trout Creek Elementary – kids who were struggling with their reading ability and could benefit from some one-on-one coaching.

I slipped through the fence gate into the school’s playground. It was fun to see and encounter the little tykes as they chatted excitedly about their families and friends as if we were old buddies. The experience was all the more heartwarming because in the back halls of my mind were the memories of the days I spent here on the same playground and classrooms in my childhood.

A snowy day like this in the Okanagan Valley was confirmation that Christmas day and Santa’s arrival would come about with certainty.

The morning passed. I saw four youngsters in half hour segments.

We sat next to each other in short chairs at a small shiny amber veneer-top table in the small library across from the computer room next to the school’s front entry door.

First, little Tyler, a 7 year-old who wanted to be a drummer-musician like his uncle Teddy and knew with robust confidence the life histories of each of the Beatles, as well as their song catalogue. When he was able to refrain from wiggling, his reading skills were not too bad – clearly he could read the words – although when asked a question about the story, understanding the words read was a totally different matter.

Next up to practice her reading was 9 year-old Melissa, a dark-haired princess with baby-blue-painted fingernails  – she might have been confused for a little Ariana Grande in a dimmed room. Melissa was very socially aware and would eye each student entering the library as if she were a talent scout seeking America’s Next Great Model. “Did you see the belt on that Grade 5 girl’s skirt, it’s the wrong colour. I’d choose something red for her.

Reading wasn’t a problem for little adult Melissa, she could likely pick up and understand words beyond my comprehension if she was able to focus on the page rather than on the social scene passing by.

Next. Joseph. Not Joe. Joseph. Taking his biblical name to heart, this Grade 1 youngster was timid but made it clear that the books he wanted to read were stories from the Bible. Public schools in this province don’t carry a selection of biblical material, so I convinced him that story books filled with characters of strong moral values, like Mortimer Moose, could be seen through a context of the Bible. He bought into this and we were on our way. Amen.

Finally, a skinny log of a kid with tousled blond hair and red red cheeks post snowy-recess, stood, looking in through the library door. “Are you Peter?“, I asked.

He nodded shyly and moved forward a step and stopped. “Come in and have a chair, Peter. I’m Mr. Green. You’re my last reading buddy before Christmas break.”

Peter nudged forward and plunked himself on the seat, arms flat at his sides. He looked down at the table and said nothing. No smile. No movement.

Never having read with Peter before, I glanced silently through the brief notes left in a manila folder given to me by his teacher Mrs. Jermyn.

Hmmmm. “Peter Briskman. 8 years-old. Grade 3. Moved to Summerland one year ago with his father, Jacob Briskman. Mother Carla, died from cancer 2 years ago in Calgary. Quiet boy – advanced for age in most academic areas.” Such a sad story, I thought to myself.

Thinking I’d break the ice first before we settled into reading, I asked, “I like snow days like today. Is one of the snowmen I saw in the playground yours?

Keeping his face pointed downwards, he spoke reluctantly in a quiet voice.

I used to build snowmen when I was little and lived in Calgary. But not anymore. Now I make Mountain Goats.

– Really? Mountain goats? That’s kind of unusual. Why mountain goats and not snowmen? Is there a Disney movie about mountain goats that I missed?

No. Mountain goats live on steep hillsides where it’s dangerous and they eat the little bits of grass that grow between the stones. It’s very hard for them to live, but they find a way, even if it’s -50 outside. And, even if they’re injured they protect their babies against cougars and eagles. Have you seen one before?

I had seen the white shaggy goats many times, clambering along the rocky screed hillsides overlooking Okanagan Lake north of Summerland. Often, I would see groups of 3, sometimes 5 or 6 way up high in the distance of the steep rises above the highway. But I didn’t want to stop Peter from talking since we were just establishing some rapport so I said, “No, never.

– I can show you one I made on the back field today. I started it before the bell rang at the beginning of classes and then finished it at recess. Would you like to see it? We don’t have to go outside, I can show it to you through the window.

– Sure.

Peter ran ahead, leading me past a few scattered little tables to the window in the corner of the library.

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He stopped and pointed towards the area in front of the tetherball court in the centre of the playground. There was a lot of white out there; it took a moment for my eyes to adjust and take note of the large snow animal in the yard. It was an amazing likeness of the real thing. Even the sharp tapered white horns appeared genuine.

How had one little boy created such a sculpture? Had his Dad helped him build it before school began for the day? It was striking that it stood almost as big as the real animal; then, something unusual caught my eye.

– You’ve done an incredible job there Peter, but did you see that one of the goat’s legs is missing? Do you think maybe the snow wasn’t packed tightly and it crumbled?

The mountain goat had only 3 legs, a gap existed where the front right leg should be.

– Nope, that looks just like the one I see at home. I see it when I wake up and look out my bedroom window in the morning. It stands there and nudges its nose on my window. It gets the glass all steamy and gooey. Then it wont leave until I go and make it a cup of green tea and set it on the ledge outside the window. After it licks the tea all up, it turns and runs off into the trees behind our house.

I was about to respond when a man’s voice called out from behind.

– Peter? I’m sorry to interrupt, I’m Peter’s Dad, Jacob… I need to steal Peter away from you. I told Mrs. Jermyn I’d be here at a quarter to eleven to take him for his therapy session. I’m sorry if my timing is bad.

Peter turned and ran up to his father, “Hey Dad. Just gotta grab my backpack and coat and I’ll be set. See you in the new year Mr. Green.” 

I reached forward to shake Peter’s father’s hand.

Hi Mr. Briskman, I’m Mr. Green. Peter and I were going to do a reading one-to-one session but we never actually got started. It’s funny, but we got caught up talking about the snow creation he made outside. He’s an amazing little artist, such incredible talent for a youngster.

– Thank you. Yeah, Peter seems to have acquired some artistic skills from his mother, not me. I can’t draw a stick man that’s recognizable. But his mother, she could draw or make anything. She would sit around for hours – actually, she died a couple of years ago – but before she became sick, she’d be in her back art room drinking green tea, making charcoal sketches and working with clay, making sculptures of animals. Her animals looked so true-to-life that when people visited and saw her deer and mountain goat sculptures in the yard, they thought the beasts were real. We laughed so many times when visitors came to our door and mentioned the creatures standing in our yard. I guess Peter picked up her creative gene.

Mr. Briskman turned and began moving toward the library door. It was a moment of confusion for me listening to his words and the similarities with Peter’s story. I mulled the ideas about in my mind, trying to discern what was real and what was imagined; before he left the room, I asked,

 – I’m so sorry about your wife, Mr. Briskman. It must be very difficult for you and Peter coping with her loss. What was the cause of your wife’s death?

He paused momentarily at the door, and with a haunted look of longing for days gone by and a love that had left far too early, he replied,

She had an aggressive osteosarcoma in her right leg.

His eyes grew dewy and I could see a slight quiver at the corner of his mouth. He hesitated a few seconds before continuing.

– They eventually amputated her leg when the chemo couldn’t stop the tumour from growing. It was just too late to save her.

Shaking his head, he snapped back to the moment, regaining his composure.

– I’ve got to run now. Peter needs to get to his counselling appointment. He’s had a really hard time finding ways to deal with his Mom’s death. 

He paused.

– Mr. Green? Thanks for helping Peter … and … Have a Merry Christmas.

We shook hands once more; Mr. Briskman disappeared and I too paused in thought.

Then as I began to gather my things to leave, I turned to look out the window once more at the noble snow sculpture standing proud in the schoolyard and wondered if young Peter had somehow, already, in his own way, begun to work through the loss of a mother’s love and nurturing.

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