relationship stuff

it is late on a Sunday night and i’m beached on the couch, weary and bloated and wracked with mild – if transient – anxiety about the state of the world and my place in it. business as usual, with hormones.

Dave Skypes me from the other room, on the other side of the French doors. we are all about intimate and romantic forms of communication in this house.

he asks if i want to learn to play a new board game.

if there is a signal that human mammals employ to suggest receptiveness to the learning of new things – like lady baboons employing their swollen behinds – i am NOT giving off even the tiniest whiff of that signal. i am, rather, giving off the Jabba the Hut signal, the one that screams STAND BACK!!! FURTHER!!! AND MAKE NO MENTION OF NEW OR COMPETITIVE OR CONFUSING ENDEAVOURS!!!

Dave is undeterred. he is thinking about board games, not about me. he enters my lair.

i give him The Look. the raised eyebrow one, the one that suggests that actually, playing a board game would be far too much for my poor beleaguered soul to bear on this particular evening and LEARNING a NEW board game would be just beyond.

a fresh hell. an affront. a dangerous game.

he is oblivious: he has board game on the brain. he is a Labrador Retriever with a stick. board game? he smiles brightly. i glare at him.

board game?
we played the board game, in the end. i won. it was little consolation.

once Dave has set his fancy to something, there is little one can do to curb the hurtling missile of his enthusiasm. except wait. his attention span is short, but it is mighty. like a freight train. his is an addictive personality for the passing whim.

seven or eight years ago, he bought a domain name: he’d coined the word in a short story he’d written not long before, when short stories were his thing: the addictite is the person who is, more or less, addicted to the process of becoming addicted. to the new. to the fresh. to the unknown. an enthusiast writ large.

then he got a new idea and…yeh…forgot about the domain.

but last weekend he resurrected it. he’d mastered the last of the three culinary goals he’d set for himself when we moved back to Canada and things like ovens and BBQs came within our reach again: turkeys, roast beef, and ribs.

we had ribs on Saturday. back ribs, the fat ones, all lip-smackin’ and good. they were glorious: you could cut ’em with a butter knife. and now you can read about them at, and try ’em for yourselves.

and he can return to the recipe when the Next Big Thing comes along and makes him forget he ever met such a thing as pork.

The Next Big Thing, of course, never takes long.

today he wants a chainsaw. and i am afeared.

this is how it starts, people. this is yesterday, amidst the mosquitoes and overgrowth at our new cottage-land-to-be. you see that look on his face? the zoning in? the zealot’s focus? the wheels turning? yeh, that’s what it always looks like.

you can see Posey is beginning to look more like me every day. ;)

dear Internetz, this is your moment. while he still has toes. bring your chainsaws, and your protective Kevlar pants, and whatever other Village People costumes suit your fancy. or at least your advice. should a grown man with all his digits and an acre to clear buy his own chainsaw?

come quick. before he decides he needs a backhoe too.



i wake at three-something because i feel him leave the bed, and i wrest the earplugs from my ears. Posey. she has been waking regularly lately, a froth of nightmares of bats and cows. he comforts her. i am awake anyway, so i go in, pull quilts up around small chins.

we slip back into the warmth of bed. i wrap myself around his back, and try to convince my pingpong brain to ignore the fact that my biggest school presentation of the year is in a few short hours. or that i should still be reading.

we drift. i only realize i’ve fallen asleep when a child pads in an hour later and interrupts a dream. i am blurry, confused. Oscar. Oscar? strange. he crawls in beside me and i move to accommodate. his curly head fits under my chin, and sleep drags like a tugboat.

oblivi….oh shit.

he is retching, shielding his mouth with small hands.

the capacity of the parental body to go from 0 to 60 on the adrenalin-o-meter – even and especially from the desperate fog of sleep – is a blessing and a curse. it is the reason my own quilt is still vomit-free this fair morning. it is also the reason i can no longer sleep without earplugs, because my poor body has been conditioned to flood with cortisol at any bump in the night.

success. we clear the gauntlet of items-that-require-heavy-washing-or-dry-cleaning if spewed upon, and make it to the toilet. i send Dave back to bed, because when Father’s Day falls on the day before your partner’s biggest school presentation of the year and also is the first Father’s Day her father is without his father, well, you get to go bbq at your in-laws’ and that’s as fancy as your day gets.

but the gift of sleep from 4:30 to 6am? a price above rubies, right?

he can’t say i never gave him nothin’.

and yet when i find myself curled on the futon in the guest room with my clammy son, a bucket beside us, him snoring away and occasionally retching; me reading a critique of Butler and Foucault’s failure to account for the materiality of discourse by nightlight and wondering if my own guts aren’t a little iffy, my mind wanders to Dave in the next room and i remember how the light of almost-dawn used to find us still awake under oh-so-different circumstances and i send up a tiny song of mourning for what will not come again, those easy days we took for granted. and i whisper at the wall, in his direction, hey you. i remember.

and i add, i hope you are sleeping. Happy Father’s Day.

and this afternoon i present my thesis project in draft. a three hour meeting. wish me luck. send coffee.


And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

– Dylan Thomas

hello, handsome.

no response. none expected.

i knelt near his feet, cradled bandaged limbs. one first responder pumped hard and breathless in the steady, rib-cracking rhythm of CPR. another held a bag of IV fluids high, over an arm that had clearly not given up its veins with any ease. he was tubed and bagged, and had a four-day shadow of silver growth on his chin, in some ways a far more painful signal of infirmity than all the unfolding drama. he was an old soldier. until these last months, no hint of a whisker had ever managed to wave its flag from his face without being immediately mowed down.

he did not move and i sighed deep and nodded. tender, i spoke. hard day, eh, old fella?

the paramedic’s head swiveled involuntary. i winked and smiled, but my smile was for my grandfather. i met the medic’s eye.

the younger attendant gently pulled me aside. medical history: i was the only family who happened to be there. an ‘end of life situation’, he called it: they would be calling the doctor presently. i nodded.

can i go to him? yes.

i am a partial witness. this is what i know.

he was born on a farm on the 19th of December, 1919. he had two younger brothers, both of whom predeceased him by decades, and a horse named Topsy who presumably did the same. his formal education culminated in a one-room schoolteacher who was barely older than he was. he had a finely attuned understanding of authority: Miss Flossie whacked him with the dictionary whenever he got out of line.

he served and was forged – like so many of his generation – in the crucible of the Second World War. unlike most of the rest, he could accept almost no acknowledgement of his service until fifty years after war’s end, when the spywork of British Security Coordination was declassified.

he had stories of Churchill and of Molotov, whom he drank beer with, though never cocktails. he had stories of the man called Intrepid, who was his boss, and of Ian Fleming, with whom he trained at the top-secret Camp X.

when Camp X closed in 1949, my grandfather was offered a position with the CIA. my grandmother wanted to go home instead. so they moved back to PEI, and he became a mechanic, a fire chief, a working-class suburban father. he fixed airplanes, cars, anything that moved. he went to work every day until he turned ninety.

she died twenty-three years ago. i don’t know that he ever stopped grieving her, but he had himself a second childhood when she went. he was a soul in need of other people, and so he found them. he connected. he made friends, kept busy, went dancing, stayed young. he had a wider social circle than i do.

when the heart attack last year cut off his ability to do, i feared for him. his identity was one based in activity, and i did not think he would brook the loss. yet he did. he made friends with his home care nurse, had her move in back in the winter when he was no longer okay spending the night alone. he made his own decisions, and in the end he spent his last days graciously in his chair, his throne. i would not have bet. i was glad, glad to be wrong.

he smoked cigars, so faithfully til near the end that i am tempted to give them out at the funeral. there was a pipe, too, once upon a time, but it faded away where the cigars remained. only in the last weeks did he leave them behind. when i put my head in his hair the last time, at the hospital with the winding sheet pulled to his chin, there was no smoky Old Spice redolence and my brain reeled and searched and recognized, for the first time, what it might mean to have him gone.

radio silence. unfathomable. he was too big for silence. he was a character.

when i went to DC last month for the first time, i asked him, hey, you ever been there? he nodded. nice city. i spent a week out of every four there for awhile, in the war. when he was stationed in New York, out of BSC’s Rockefeller Centre offices.

i cocked my head. doing what?

stuff, he replied, ever coy.

one time, i got on the train to go down and the door opened and Stettinius – he was the Secretary of State – walked in. sat down. big strapping fella. i’m all ready to get to work when he says, “let’s cut to the chase. whaddaya say we sort out the important things here? where are the good-looking WOMEN?”

that was my grandfather, ever able to turn a story. he chortled. i held his hand and smiled at him. sly old coot, i said, because i knew he had told me nothing. he straightened, proud.

he was my living history book, from the time i was a child. but most of the real stories died with him, his oath of secrecy unbroken.

you don’t need me to tell you this. it is in the paper, on the CBC. TV cameras came to my house today. he is famous in death, “the spy from PEI,” and i smile, because i imagine him blushing, embarrassed but pleased. my ex-husband writes from across the country to tell me he heard it on national radio. i am amazed.

what is left for me to tell? my grandfather’s story was always bigger than me. he belonged to a hundred people, a born charismatic in his own faux-curmudgeonly way. he was fierce, and funny, tenacious and flawed. he was exceedingly human. he was loved.

perhaps we hundred will tell our parts of the tale, as the days and years unfold. one time, my friend Cliff… or i knew this fellowgod, he made me laugh. maybe. perhaps that is what he leaves, in the end…a hundred stories. a hundred friends, of all ages. in our words he will hammer through daisies.

we are what remains now, each of us with our piece.

this is mine.

can i go to him? yes.

i picked my way across the trauma scene and crouched and took his head in my hands, stroked the silky salt-and-pepper of his hair. i put my forehead to his, and whispered a stream of a dozen things, a hundred things, a lifetime of things into the void of his eyes, the colour of my own.

he could not see me by then, i do not think. but maybe he could hear.

there is no way to speak for the hundred, in the end. it was me. i did the best i could.

i love you. we all love you. thank you, for teaching me to waterski. for your kindness to my children. for the ice cream cake you brought that first Mother’s Day when we buried Finn’s ashes under the trees in the backyard. for being the only one to say to me, aloud, and angry, that it wasn’t fair.

thank you, for telling me i was pretty, when i was seventeen and no one ever had.

thank you, for teaching me all the words to Colonel Bogey. for teaching me that a person can remain a big kid to the end.

thank you, for being a friend, to so many. you did so good. you were good.

it is okay. don’t be afraid.

for a moment his heart jumped like a salmon in his bare chest and they hung up on the doctor who was declaring him gone; called a second ambulance. i moved out of the way, held the IV bag, watched warily.

i am only a partial witness; i did not get to be there for the rest. they took him out of his house for the last time. my hand snaked in to pet his hair as they rolled him to the ambulance.

goodbye, handsome.

his death notice says he died at home; he never made it to the hospital. it is a narrative choice, the one i think he would have wanted. it was him who taught me how to tell a story.
(here is the post-script: it does not feel finished.

a friend said to me this weekend, when the tall trees fall from the horizon, however expected, it’s disorienting.

i look to the horizon for a gesture, the upturned hand punctuating a story, the wry smile. i blink, bewildered.

he was my last grandparent, one of the tall trees of my life. i was lucky. i am grateful. )



there is no photo for this story. you make your own picture: your hands in the dirt.

where are you? what do you see? what spreads out from the frame to ground you in a particular place and time?

this story is a knot, a tangle of earth and weeds and ashes and roots. a rhizome, it has no beginning and a hundred beginnings. if you tug gently to pull it from the dirt, it slides loose: hanging naked and exposed, sometimes it will make you believe you have captured it once and for all.

don’t believe. there is more, always more, beneath the surface.

we bid on land last night.

not the 73 acres from a few months back, with the raccoon-infested cabin.

this is two small cottage lots, raw land, never built on. fallen birches white and rotting lay across the mossy, lumpy green of its old-growth floor. the place smells wild and salty, the sea air sharp over the green spring moss. the beach is littered with round hard rocks washed in from other shores. there are bunnies in the undergrowth of the old dune. one twitches his hindquarters at us. Posey is smitten, forever.

down a dirt track two or three minutes’ walk from the water, the lots themselves, loosely pinned. the corpses of the trees lay like porcupines, dead branches menacing at perpendicular angles. be careful! you could put an eye out! my hysteria comes mainly from lack of experience: what do i know of a place like this? i know only that small feet can trip: i grip the children as if they are greyhounds champing for release.

you could say it is him who hankers after land.

he longs for space, for a wide-open-ness i do not truly comprehend. i grew up in apartments. i am only, six years into house ownership, beginning to stop modulating my footsteps for the non-existent neighbours.

he is the gardener, the weed-warrior, the one who tackles the tangle of our side yard season after season. he grows seedlings that swell into tomatoes and pumpkins. i half-heartedly pluck, water the pansies, the cucumbers. in the dry heat of August, i am the long-haul salvation of thirsty plants. but i am no saviour: i am a stop-gap measure. his is the real work and energy out-of-doors. the prospect of clearing stumps makes him giddy.

i try to understand.

i dug one hole, one time: six years ago yesterday, my first Mother’s Day. Finn’s ashes under the tree in the backyard in the rain. just the one time. like all the strength i could ever muster for digging and growing was buried in that hole. done, before i started.

but do not be mistaken. that thread of the story is only one root. i will not clear stumps, perhaps, but this land is not for him.

i can tell you that i fear the dirt, that i do not like the worms wriggling from the shovel. true, without doubt. but there are counter-stories. Oscar and i rescued two worms the other morning, from the drying-out puddle on the way into preschool. i picked mine up and dropped him because my fingers feared the line between firmness and squish. i tried again, my fingers better readied for the soft live earnestness of the wiggling body. look, i said to my son, as if i carted worms about daily, he’s okay, it doesn’t hurt him. i didn’t add, look! my fingers haven’t withered off from touching him! i am a paragon of wise judgement. also, in that moment, amazement.

if they say yes to the land bid, maybe there will be more worms.

i say this with hope. i say this with trepidation and horror.

i hanker after the land for what it might change in me. for what it might teach my children. for the stories it might tell. the smell of earth that has never been landscaped. the patience of meandering along a rocky beach, watching the tide line. stars, maybe. bonfires.

some lost, misplaced part of me is a flaneur at heart, a wanderer of city streets, a dilettante observer of the human urban bustle. drop me mapless in the middle of Paris or Saigon and i would thrill, and walk, and find my wayless way without worry.

drop me in the middle of the woods and i’d begin writing my own obituary in my head.

but i wonder, at the stories of rocks and trees, at the possibility that somewhere under the surface there is some tendril of connection between pacing cobblestones and treading moss. i wonder if the built world and the one that precedes us are so divided. i wonder if Walter Benjamin, trudging on foot over Nazi-occupied mountains to Spain and his own suicide, found it possible to be a flaneur of rocks and flowers, an aesthete of worms.

i hanker to know, and so i hanker after the land.

he asks me, are you sure? are you sure you want this?

i imagine walking, walking, with only the smell of salt spray to guide me. i hear Oscar sing, the world’s largest rock collection! Posey peers between briars at a bunny. for a moment, i see my hands in cool dirt, and i do not cringe. in the same flash, i see the work of boarding up a place in fall, and the dead flies and the septic system and the hauling in laundry to town and all those hundred Cinderella tasks.

i nod.

all stories are part of the truth, and part lie. they are roots, pulled bare from the earth and left to dangle out of context, white and quivering.

he knows. he sees all that i do not say, the tangle of answers that cannot be unknotted. he hands me the pen and i sign and we wait to see what the answer will be.

what do your hands in the earth mean to you?

if they say yes to this land, people, shine up your hammers. you’re in for a barn-raising.




cake? by o&poecormier
cake?, a photo by o&poecormier on Flickr.

last year, we made Oscar’s dragon cake together, the night before his birthday party, working late into the night over crumb coats and wine. it was fun. i had visions of doing it again this year.

but Posey started throwing up at 5 am the day before Oscar’s party. and that night, just as i set aside my term paper and Dave set aside his keynote address in order to cut into the bilious blue cake we’d baked that afternoon and try to fashion it into something adorably fierce for our dinosaur lover, a cry echoed down the stairs. distress. and more vomit.

there’s an unwritten rule that it’s bad form to mix vomit and birthday cakes, even if the birthday cakes are actually dyed rather garish and pukey shades. so he took the upstairs and i took the downstairs. he slept that night with a sick little two-year-old waking him hourly to stuff her Lovey Rabbit in his face.

i finished the cake, and about 2 am, the term paper, and slept on the couch.

and then we woke and started all over again.

when it works, it is mostly about work, this relationship stuff. but it is good, sometimes, to have someone to work with.

gaze by o&poecormier

from the minute they were born, they looked exactly like him.

all of them. even Finn, smallest of doppelgangers, his dark eyebrows and his tiny big toe carbon copies of his father’s.

when Oscar was a newborn in the NICU, the nurses used to joke that they couldn’t tell him apart from Dave except for size. every time Josephine smiles, her father gazes out at me, shrunken and in pigtails.

high school science class taught me that what i see when i gaze upon the faces of my children is genetics in action.

i accept that i lost that bargain, in terms of passing on anything visibly recognizable as my own. it’s not a bad thing: i have a fondness for Dave’s visage, particularly as it’s manifested in the faces of small cute people. plus they missed out on the crossed eyes and colourblindness that ought by rights have landed somewhere in their paths, legacy of my glorious gene pool. i’ll take that luck of the draw.

i need a tshirt that relieves commenters of the obligation to note the kids’ lack of resemblance to me. YES, THEY LOOK THEIR FATHER, it would proclaim. underneath, with a nice vintage salvation show wagon, See Bonnie, the Circus Geek, the Scientific Marvel: a Seething Mass of Recessive Genes!

i never believed that genes mattered much. i grew up on Anne of Green Gables, on stories of orphans and foundlings. i was raised in part by a woman whose blood relationship to me was distant, who passed on not one of her genes in this world. but she and i were kin at the heart. she loved me and taught me.

and yet sometimes i wonder about blood.

the thing Dave likes least about me, i think, is my capacity for wounded outrage. deep inside me a she-donkey lurks, eyes turned out to the world. the donkey is not suspicious; it looks for friends. it is not needy, particularly; it can live with being ignored, can live even – though not best – with hurt and conflict. it is earnest; will always seek engagement, a happy ending from all encounters. what it cannot endure is dismissal, smugness, perceived cruelty, any authoritarian refusal to engage its warm human donkey-ness. it is not jealous, and it can be equivocal about being cheated. but it is outraged by being slighted. and being subject to the indifferent whims of dehumanizing power? makes it wild and destructive and rather silly, a tempest of hooves in what looks from the outside to be a teapot.

the donkey is not especially easy to live with, i will admit. with renewed humility, as it is becoming painfully – and loudly – clear that Oscar has his own rather potent little donkey. or a herd. though he has never once – okay once, ONCE, people – seen my donkey go off, and even then in restrained-ish form.

i DO see myself in my children. not in their looks, but in their senses of themselves, their relationships to the world. their alignments, for lack of a better word, to power, to limits, to what they perceive as unfair. and i puzzle.

perhaps they learned these things from me, i intone to myself gravely. nurture. my job is nurture. and i try to tie my donkey tighter, because it is indubitably part albatross.

but i visited my grandfather last week at the hospital. he’s home again now, recovering from a mild heart attack, his much younger homecare nurse happily ensconced in the house with him in an arrangement that is neither romantic nor conventional but seems to work for them. none of my business, is my opinion. we should all have someone good to us at 91.

but last week he’d been three nights in the hospital, and there had been a night nurse on duty, an older nurse who had upset him. he alluded. i asked, pressed a little. his hands shook in punctuation and he would not meet my eyes. he knew the story was not dramatic; he tried to play it down. she put up all the rails in my bed, he said, shrugging at first. i told her i have the same bed at home, that four was dangerous. any two would be okay with me. i asked her if she’d ever seen pictures of a fire in a nursing home. he spit the words. that’s how old people die.

he is not wrong: he was a fire chief for years. she had dismissed him, threatened to tie him down. he won, and slept with only two rails up. she’d told him not to blame her if he fell and killed himself. she left.

she was not NICE, he said. that’s not right. there were tears in his eyes, and they were tears of outrage. they did not fall. his donkey is more experienced than mine.

i did not spend a lot of my childhood with my grandfather. i have never, in almost forty years of knowing him, seen him express that kind of wounded anger. but there it was, and it was like looking in a mirror.

i put my hand on his cheek and looked into his eyes, and said you’re right. that wasn’t kind. that wasn’t her place. that was MEAN.

you just need to look the hooves in the eye and accord them their dignity.

i got the head nurse’s number before i left, but he was released the next day. he squeezed my hand and i walked away, stunned at seeing what i’ve always considered this ridiculous secret part of myself on display in him. as i’d seen it in Oscar, only a day or two before. perhaps it is in all of us? or perhaps a strain that runs somewhere through my invisible, unassertive genes. i don’t know. i shook my head as i walked through the hospital, marvelling at the mysteries of us humans, of biology and nurture and blood, the unanswerable puzzle.

i think the idea of blood as thicker than water is a learned thing, one that runs through culture and often causes more hurt than good. i do not believe genes make families, not at all.

and yet i see Dave’s face on those two little creatures we shepherd through the world for a few years yet, and wonder what it is of us that our genes carry, what of ourselves runs between the generations, written in blood and bone.

the sure thing a video by o&poecormier on Flickr.

when i was a kid, i wanted to plant a time capsule in the backyard.

i never did, which is just as well as we lived in a series of apartments and it’d be awkward to go tearing up somebody else’s lawn with a shovel just to reclaim one’s remembrances of things past.

but not all capsules are buried in the ground. some lurk in the vaults of recent obsolescence, captured on that disappeared technology our kids will never know: tape.

Dave came across this last night, courtesy of an old friend of ours from our expat days. the dress rehearsal of a one-act play called The Sure Thing, filmed in a long-gone bar that served as home and communal living room for the motley expat population of Busan, South Korea that year.

in the play, our characters were two people and two hundred: all the permutations of possibility that occur when one human encounters another in a coffee shop. every time the bell rang, we switched, landing in a different story, trying each other on for size. in the end, the characters finally fumble their way through the mystery of connection. happy ending. curtain.

like all good romantic leads, Dave & i began sleeping together during rehearsals.

he was younger, and had terrible hair. i was blonder. the video quality is bad. my acting’s worse.

the night after this video was shot, we performed the play at a poetry reading/arts extravaganza. we stayed up all night that night. he drove me to the airport at dawn, and i flew to Amsterdam.

i’d booked my ticket months before. i was only six months out of a marriage. i had oats to sow. i had no business being with Dave and i knew it: i had known him five years. we were too much alike, and oil and water at the same time. our histories were too intertwined. there were a hundred reasons, and we both agreed. nothing so trite as a happy ending.

he stood in the early morning with the sky pink behind him and he held my eyes as i walked away to the plane.

i tried hard to find a different trajectory that summer, to ring the bell and land in a different character, a different story. i kissed an American girl in Amsterdam, and a Flemish mountain climber outside a hostel in Belgium. (then i told mountain boy about how my friend Dave had been to the same hostel four years before, had sent me there with a note for Fifi the cook. i heard the words trip from my mouth and i began to realize i was in trouble). i fled to Ireland, had a hairdresser shave off all the blond fuzz of my hair until i looked like Sinead O’Connor. i kissed an Irishman in Galway: he purred in my ear that i could come sleep at his mam’s. i declined.

after six weeks, i gave up. i flew back to Korea two weeks early.

i told him in an email the first time, that summer.

i love you.

living is hard on love. when i watch the tape, i laugh and cringe and want to squeeze his cheeks. i know what comes after the curtain, when real life begins. i look at those two kids who felt so old and serious and reckless nearly ten years ago and i think, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, darlins. life is not only in those moments of the mystery of connection, no matter how we tried to keep it so. joy, tragedy, drudgery. more of each than i could have imagined. but still the bell has not rung on us.

i’m not sure what you’re supposed to feel when you dig up your time capsule. wistfulness, maybe? wonder?

this tape is my time capsule. what i feel is snorting laughter. and gratitude.

kisses by o&poecormier
kisses a photo by o&poecormier on Flickr.

he leaves again today. i’ll take him to the airport.

i may even go in, buy myself a diner coffee from the little restaurant, kiss him goodbye. i like airports, even tiny ones with single gates for Arrivals and Departures.

i like the idea that i could be going anywhere. the idea beats the actual flight. sometimes it beats the trip.

the kids and i will pick him up together Wednesday evening. we will join the throng at the single Arrivals gate, and inevitably run into someone we know and chat while the passengers stream in from the cold on the tarmac. he will see us, and hug us, and maybe we will take Oscar’s picture on the giant plastic cow that greets all flights to PEI. i don’t know if we quite trust Posey on the cow yet. maybe we do.

and we will go home and small arms will cling around his neck and a chorus of two small loud voices will vie rabidly for his ears. but it will be no big deal.

in their world, it’s not the leaving that matters, it’s the coming home.

i am learning from them.
when i was a kid, the airport was the saddest place i ever went.

my mother and i did not fly. my father flew. in and out, once a year, from the far-away Arctic. i waited the whole calendar round for him. i had no stepfather, no surrogate relationship even with my grandfather until i was much older and he was a widower.

my parents’ divorce was simply a fact of my life. my father’s absence, though, was a hole. i needed him, or someone to be him.

he drove a motorcycle. one spring, when i was about nine, i saw a man on a bike blast past me on my walk home from school. and i thought, i KNOW that bike, that back, that leather jacket! i was sure, entirely sure, that my father had come home three months early. to surprise me. i told my mother i had seen him.

when he did not show, she was gentle with me. i was shamed, to have been seen so naked in my wanting.

but most Julys, he came. wife and children in tow, and he would show up on the bike and my mother would let him strap the helmet to my head and we would go, to a cottage or campground, sometimes for days at a time.

and then they would leave. and at the airport would come the unravelling.

had Tennessee Williams written parts for dour fifty-something women who never quite got over the fact of their eldest sons’ having buggered off on a wife and child, my grandmother Hilda would’ve been an elegant casting choice.

she wrinkled young, and i remember her mouth being mostly turned down. she was not a demonstrative person, though never unkind. i loved her, even if it does not sound it. words were hard for her, and they are hard to find to talk about her. the last years we all went to the airport together, she and my grandfather and i, she was fighting the battle that took her life the year i was 16.

but the crying started long before the cancer.

every year, we drove them to the airport. it was an Event, a car trip with my grandparents, anything with my father, six or seven of us piled into two tons of Detroit steel on a summer evening. i always forgot to be sad until we got there.

and then we would linger around the boarding gate, the gaggle of us, until my grandmother began sobbing.

i’ve never liked to let anyone cry alone. my lip would quiver and the idea of eleven and a half months without my father would stretch out ahead of me and i would feel small and abandoned and frightened he’d never come back.

maybe she did too. or maybe she felt her failure, somehow, every time he flew as far as he could get and still be in the same country. maybe she had some history of goodbyes i never knew about. but this was a woman who’d married my grandfather at eighteen, in the middle of the second World War. he was a spy. she sent him off over and over again, to untold risk. i asked him once, a couple of years ago, if she cried when he left. he said no.

i didn’t dare ask about my father and the airport, then.

she’d have died to have been caught giggling in church, and yet there we’d huddle, in the middle of that tiny airport where you always know somebody, our small domestic tragedies laid open on the tile floor.

it must’ve been a comical scene, in a way. she would resolutely discuss the weather – the summer window they’d had on the island and the Arctic winter ahead of them; cold, she would testify, imaginatively – until the very last moment. and then when it came time to hug them and let them board, some dam would loose and the weeping would overtake her and then me until we stood in the middle of the airport, she and i crying the ugly cry, my father crushed between us, probably mortified.

we are all so goddam vulnerable to the stories we end up in.

i did not know until i was older and spent more time in airports that public scenes of inconsolable devastation are more rare than my family experience led me to expect.

i did not know until i had my own children that it is okay and normal and healthy to love and need and trust fully that someone will come home to you.

that it is not the leaving that matters.

when i stand at the airport today, i will look around for the ghost of us, those ten or twelve or fourteen summer leavetakings of my childhood. i will smile kindly at my grandmother, in her tears and her sadness and her incapacity. at my younger father in his abdication and his absence.

then i will whisper fuck you, Hilda. i leave this behind.

and i will wave goodbye to Dave and look forward to him coming home.

we nearly bought land yesterday.

late Saturday night and we play the what-if game of MLS, of possible worlds. our dreams are tame, these days.

he wants land, insurance against a food supply falsely propped up. i want water, the tracks of sandy feet on summer grass.

seventy-three acres, near a picturesque harbour. twenty-five minutes from our house, just off the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. old trees. in the photos, the cottage takes my breath away. a loft, panelled in wood. tongue-in-groove. a wood stove.

we send a midnight message to the real estate agent. too good to be true, i whisper as we fall asleep.

the agent writes back Sunday morning. you can walk in, he explains. it’s been abandoned, vandalized. the owners live far away. they don’t want to fix it.

for that cottage, on that much land, in that location, the only way we’ll ever lay our hands on it.

snow to our waists as we hike in. there is an apple tree off the wraparound deck. abandoned three years, maybe four, it is no more than ten years old.

it was somebody’s dream cottage. left unboarded, the door has blown in and snow sweeps across the hardwood floor. the bay window is green with mold, its wood frame sagging. insulation is scattered across the floor. someone has tagged a wall in periwinkle paint. an animal – perhaps a human animal – has taken a dump on the floor of the upstairs bathroom.

i stand in the loft, under a ceiling of perfect pine planks, watching warily for raccoons, and i realize. MY dream cottage.

but not to beggar ourselves for. too much pig in a poke. the land a strip too hard to parcel and sell, under restrictions for eleven years. it does not make sense, and i know it.

too good to be true. but i am tongue-tied to explain what it is that makes me so terribly sad.
we go home and he builds a snow fort in the yard, with tunnels for the kids. we have supper outside. he makes stew, roasts the coffee beans himself. in the fading winter light, with a mouth full of turnip, he is sweaty and laughing, as happy as i have seen him in years.

this is not how we live, not really. he takes tiny steps towards self-sufficiency. i watch, appreciative but disbelieving. because tomorrow we will wake up and grind our way out the door leaving dishes for the dishwasher. we will be low on butter and catfood. the parking violation will need to be paid. these will be my jobs, and they swallow all the hope i have of a truly different life.

i complain about the STUFF, all the goddam stuff we accumulate in spite of ourselves. if we had a summer cottage, it would be more grass to mow, another fridge to clean.
late Sunday night and we watch the old Fahrenheit 451 – the one from the 60s, with Julie Christie – and the end comes and i am in tears.

not for the books, not because either world portrayed is the one i want to live in. not even because the story seems so prescient in these crazy, angry times and i wonder where our satirists are and if there is hope yet for this fractured culture that seems to have dissolved into a shouting match.

i cry because at the end of the movie the Book People – the ones who have fled – huddle in railcars on the fringes of society, and i realize i have no vision anymore of that kind of escape from the rules of property and propriety that govern us.

i cry for the waste of the little cottage, hand-built, all that wood left to rot.

we could not fix it ourselves. we would be fools, by the rules of the game as it is played. it is not a Good Investment.

but it sits there abandoned when twenty hands together could make it livable. a different kind of life. that gap between me and imagination of real difference is where the tears come from.

we live in a world where property is sacred. where dreams are bourgeois and tame. i have grown tame. i no longer know my way out of the lab rat maze that is my culture, my role as mother, daughter.

we were far more suited to be hippies together, he and i, than domesticated middle-class partners. i rail at him to shut the cupboards while he dreams of planting vegetables, building with his hands.

he might survive, in a squat in the woods, in a snowfort, in some different vision of our lives. i am the one who split from the program.

but when i sit there late at night staring into the void between my choices and my sense of what makes sense, he takes my hand.

and i am less lonely, and a little less tamed.

Valentine’s Day embarrasses me.

it’d be too much to say that i hate it. i don’t hate it. i like chocolate too much to expend any energy actually hating prefabricated holidays. but it makes me blush and freeze up, confused.

i avert my eyes. me? nah, you can’t be talking to ME. just toss the chocolate on over the fence and be off.

for me, Valentine’s is like a door-to-door religious proselytizer, calling me out to love Jesus. i mean, Jesus is a perfectly good guy. we could hang. but whatever he’s got to do with that nasty eternal damnation scene they’re selling in their handy magazine escapes me: i do not accept the premises. i could talk faith, hope and charity all night long but a fundamental philosophical black hole would still gape across the doorstep because – at the core – we do not speak the same language, and they do not know how to call my name.

Valentine’s is the same goddam thing. it stands there, smiles perky, looks me up and down. instead of being blindly judged as a sinner, i feel like i’m being nudged to go trim the hedge, already, write a sonnet, and then frock up in some weird drag parody cross of June Cleaver and a Playboy Bunny. sex? obligatory, says the spectre of culture parked on my threshhold. never mind that there’s absolutely nothing more sexless than obligatory sex. you will Like It. didn’t you get roses, after all?

i’d like to put V-Day over my knee and pull its hair. let me tell you how you got love wrong, i’d say, and the words would come.

now take those poor wilting flowers and get out of here. come back when you can surprise me. leave the chocolate.

these are the words i think i’d steal, for the occasion. for Dave. who calls my name.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Edna St. Vincent Millay – 1931

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