Happy day-after-Mother’s-Day to all the not-my-mothers!

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Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Unless you’ve been in a coma since stores started advertising pink stuff (right after they marked the Easter chocolate down by 75%), you know that. Hopefully, you took the opportunity to show your mother that you appreciate her. If you are a mother, hopefully, you felt appreciated. Because being a mother can be a tough task (if you’re doing it right, anyway). Those little angels start by wrecking your body as they exit, and they spend years metaphorically drinking your blood, sweat and tears – and, at least for the first little while – they can’t say thank you. In fact, until they’re about four, they don’t give a damn about you and wouldn’t say thank you even if they could. As far as they’re concerned, you’re like the sun and the moon. Up all day and all night, shining for them – it never occurs to them that it could be any different. Bridget expressed utter shock, and a healthy amount of skepticism when she found out, at the age of four, that I actually sleep. And children are expensive! The amount of money I’ve spent on wine and anti-wrinkle creams since becoming a mother could have bought me a yacht by now, I swear.

For years, Ryan did the heavy lifting when it came to making me feel good about being a mother on Mother’s Day. He still gives me a beautifully worded card, and flowers or garden trinkets, makes food and does housework – and, of course, brings home a big ol’ bucket of fried chicken for dinner because nothing tells this Beth she is loved like disgustingly, deliciously greasy food. Now, though, my girls are old enough to treat me well on Mother’s Day – and they do. They gave me fancy bath junk and flavoured teas, two lovely cards and a collection of homemade coupons for everything from dishwasher emptying and lunch-making to a spa day. I had a nice chat with my mother and my mother-in-law. I scrolled my Facebook newsfeed (yes, I’m back) and marveled at just how much people had to say about mothers. Boy, do we ever love our mothers! (Well, on Mother’s Day on social media, we do, anyway.)

Yesterday had me thinking about a different category of women, too, ones that I didn’t say anything about because I didn’t want to take Mother’s Day away from all the deserving mothers out there. I owe my mother alot. More than I’ll ever be able to properly repay. But she isn’t the only woman who mothered me. Over the years, my aunts have spent hours listening to what I have to say. They’ve offered comfort and advice and encouragement. They’ve put me up in their homes and generously shared their fine cooking with me. They’ve celebrated my milestones with me. Likewise, the mothers of my good friends. I ran in and out of their houses, grabbing snacks and making messes and staying the night more times than I can count. They schlepped me to Brownies and piano lessons and figure skating and youth group events right along with their own kids. They took the time to listen to me in a way that showed me they really cared about me – they didn’t have to, and they already had their hands full with their own family, but they did. Even their grandmothers knew who I was and welcomed me at their table right along with everyone else if I happened to be there at dinnertime. Sweet ladies who gave me a hug and kiss just as if I were their granddaughter. My mother’s friends showed up without hesitation when I called them for help (which I did more than once). My mother did the same for my friends. Many of them called her “Mom Two”, and she still asks about them when we talk. I have no doubt that if any of them turned up at her house she’d be thrilled to let them open the fridge, grab a snack and slouch on her couch like they did all those years ago.

I had a series of long-suffering babysitters. My energetic, mischievous, saucy arse surely made them question how badly they needed the money my parents gave them. Yet, they made me feel like I was one of their own children whenever I was dropped off at their house. They’re still cheering for me today, from miles away, complimenting my photos and asking about my vacations and saying “I remember you when”.

I had wonderfully involved female teachers – strong role models, all. They didn’t put up with any bullshit, but they encouraged me to think critically and question what didn’t add up and proudly express myself.

Fiona and Bridget are now benefiting from the same thing – aunts who listen to them, teach them things, make crafts with them, and watch movies with them. Their Auntie Di is even letting them use their baby cousins as test dummies on which to sharpen their babysitting skills. Great-aunts who spoil them from a distance with a little gift for every occasion. Friends’ mothers who kindly open their home to them, offering gentle discipline and encouragement and endless granola bars and popsicles. Friends of mine who rarely show up at our house without a treat for the girls, chat with them with genuine interest in their thoughts and lives, send cards and letters at Christmas and Valentine’s Day and Easter and birthdays. I am certain these friends would be there for Fiona and Bridget without pause, if ever they are asked. They have had wonderful experiences with daycares of various types. The women (and, yes, they were mainly women) looking after them treated them with a tenderness and concern and emotional generosity that made it clear that Fiona and Bridget were more than just a job to them. Their teachers, from kindergarten all the way to today, have been more than just educators. They’ve been carers. Channelling Fiona’s exuberance into positive change for other students. Reaching through Bridget’s shyness to draw her out of her shell and show her how strong she really is. Taking the time to make sure neither girl is ever left behind in any subject. Finding the best in each of them, and helping them polish it to a high gleam.

Yesterday was a day for mothers, and rightly so. But today I celebrate others. Hallmark has yet to come out with cards for some of these people. I have a few suggestions:

Thank you, sixth-grade teacher, for putting an arm around my shoulder and telling me I was doing just fine in gym class when I hadn’t made a single basket in four weeks of learning basketball.

Thanks, friends’ parents, for not throwing me out of your car on the side of the highway when I led the whole backseat in yowling “There’s a Hole in my Bucket” all the way from Robert’s Arm to Springdale and back.

Sorry for my sass. You didn’t get paid enough to listen to that.

Sorry I broke your stuff even though I didn’t live in your home, and won’t take care of you in your old age.

Thanks, Auntie, for picking up the phone every time, knowing you were going to listen to God-knows-what for God-knows-how-long.

And on and on. Maybe this is more of a Thanksgiving post, but my thank-yous were already long overdue – they couldn’t wait til October. Happy day-after-Mother’s-Day, not-my-mothers!

Lament for the Robert’s Arm Public Library

As I’ve mentioned before, I had the good (and bad) luck to grow up in small-town Newfoundland. I don’t know anyone whose childhood was more rural than mine. We had no hospital – one doctor served five different communities and wasn’t always in town. We had no police station. When a cop (always some poor sucker serving time in an isolation posting) would appear anywhere near Robert’s Arm, people would call and warn each other: “cops are down today, don’t do anything stupid”.  The nearest book store was an hour down the highway. We only went there when my mechanic-moonlighter father needed to pick up a car part he’d ordered or when one of us needed to visit the dentist or optometrist. I was a voracious reader. I went through at least two books per week. Even if there was a book store in town, my allowance wouldn’t have covered my reading habit. Enter the public library.

Our library wasn’t big or architecturally arresting, but there was a nice variety of books. Everything from sleazy romances to historical fictions to classics to encyclopedias. I did homework there. I met project groups there. (It was during one of those group sessions that I first had my bra strap snapped by a boy – but that’s not necessarily a tender and glowing recollection.) I went there every couple of weeks to pick through the offerings. I pounced on new books like a starving lion on a lame gazelle. Sometimes, the librarian would save a book for me if she thought I’d like it. I always went to the section for people a few years older than me, and that was ok by the librarian. There was a limit of six borrowed books per visit, but the librarian was always lenient if I just couldn’t leave one of my precious finds behind. Every summer, my family went on a big-ass road trip – my father was a teacher, so we could disappear for up to two months in our motorhome. One of the last things I’d do before leaving town was visit the library for a stack of books to carry me across the continent. The librarian would gently remind me of the six-book limit, and then allow me to borrow a dozen books or more. I loved that place.

I don’t know what it’s like there now, but when I was a child Robert’s Arm wasn’t exactly encouraging when it came to education. In some ways, it was downright discouraging. I got teased for my obsessive reading. I got teased for using big words. (I didn’t know how to pronounce those words, having learned them from books. So I pronounced the P in “psychology”, and pronounced “akin” with emphasis on the A, and pronounced “midget” as two separate syllables. But the seed was planted, however haphazardly.) I got teased for writing poetry. I got teased for achieving good grades, and for being interested in science. I was the kind of kid who chafed at the word limits set by my beleaguered English teachers, and got docked marks a time or two for being unable to resist adding that last paragraph or two. This is one reason I love the concept of blogging. I can write thousands of words and nobody can do a thing about it. I found out, years later, that I suffered mightily from big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome, and I’m not as bright as I thought I was – but even my level of academia was an object of envy to be snickered over and snuffed out.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Robert’s Arm Public Library, beloved childhood landmark of mine, was a refuge for me when I was young, and had a hefty hand in shaping who I am today. Which is why I’m heartbroken to hear that it’s closing – along with about half of the public libraries on the Rock. I have not been as much of a library user in recent years. And I know that the ubiquitous internet makes knowledge more available to people, and that we’ve got e-books now. But, even in the age of the digital superhighway, I relied on libraries when my children were little. I brought Fiona and Bridget to our local library once per week to choose books to supplement their own voracious reading appetites, and we attended readings, information sessions and a weekly playgroup the local library. They still love the library today, and so does Ryan.

Incidentally, the city of Ottawa has just made a decision about how it’s going to use a stretch of land called LeBreton Flats. Ideas included green space, an urban beach, a Canadensis walk (not sure what that is, but it sounds interesting), a public library, a YMCA, a beer museum and an aquarium – and a quirky-but-possibly-charming offering, an automobile museum. But we’re getting a giant arena, some condos and a whole lot of shopping opportunities – because that’s the bid that city hall likes best. Because we don’t have enough arenas, condos or stores in Ottawa, right? Because we need a new venue where people can make money hand-over-fist on overpriced beer, reheated junk food and NHL merch while fans pay exorbitant prices to see millionaires chase a chunk of black rubber up and down the ice. Bread and circuses have won again. But what shall we feed our minds and hearts?

Hide-and-seek in the park shouldn’t require a threat-and-risk assessment.

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Hide-and-seek and me, we go way back …. Like using my fork, brushing my teeth or singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, I don’t remember learning the game – it was always just there.  It was a favourite of every kid I knew. One memorable game could have ended in tragedy when my little brother hid in the dryer, and I turned it on. André was small and trusting, and I was still smarting from having been displaced by his arrival. All the people who love him are still grateful that I turned the dryer off and opened the door after only a few seconds of thumping and wailing. He came tumbling out, blubbering about how hot it was in there. It should be noted that he was playing hide-and-seek with me again just a few minutes later. That’s how awesome the game is. Or, possibly, how scared he was when I told him I’d put him back in the dryer if he didn’t play another round with me.

Now that I’m all grown up, I still play hide-and-seek occasionally – it’s a favourite of Fiona’s and Bridget’s. In fact, our whole family played it just a few days ago. We had walked to the park in the rain, in search of puddles to slop around in. Then, Fiona suggested the game. Ryan and I became big kids for a while. It was fun to cling breathlessly to a big tree, listening to the confused seeker traipsing back and forth, peeking occasionally and muffling my giggles. The best part was when it seemed like the seeker was looking right at me, but he or she couldn’t see me. Then, bursting out of my hiding place with a whoop, hearing peals of laughter and “let’s do it again, this time I’ll count” …. Ryan seems to be the most skillful hider, followed by Bridget. Fiona just loves to make noise, and can’t seem to stay hidden long enough for anyone to find her. I can’t help laughing, and I don’t time my peeks very well.

As fun as it was, I couldn’t relax completely. There were many moments when I couldn’t see Fiona or Bridget – or both – because, you know, hide-and-seek. The ghost of the fear I used to feel whenever they disappeared from view when they were tiny came back to haunt me. Fiona used to have a habit of hiding in the racks of clothing at Walmart. The logical part of me knew what she was doing, but my heart would leap into my throat anyway – instinct, I guess. Then, there was the time when Bridget got lost in a Chapters store. I don’t know how she slipped away, but I still remember the rising, nauseating, screaming panic I felt in the two or three minutes it took to locate her. I can still feel her hot, tearstreaked little cheek pressed against mine when I scooped her up, wanting to yell at her and not being able to because I was hugging her so hard. The terror of not being able to see your child trumps the calming narrative that plays inside your head. “It’s ok, I saw her just ten seconds ago, she can’t have gotten far but-I-can’t-see-her-she’s-gone-my-baby-is-gone-somebody-anybody-help-us!

I didn’t say anything about it at the park. I didn’t want to give voice to my inner crazy – I didn’t want to transfer my worry to the rest of the family. But later, when the girls were tucked in and Ryan and I were hanging out on the couch with a bottle of wine, he asked me if I had felt nervous about letting them out of our sight, sometimes for several minutes straight, in the park. I admitted that I had, and he said he had, too. I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only scaredy-cat, and angry that this was a thing at all.

Really, this high level of anxiety doesn’t make sense. Crime against children is at an all-time low – at least, in our part of the world. Abductions are very rare, and usually happen at the hands of someone with whom the child is familiar. A child simply vanishing from a park in broad daylight is even more uncommon. However, that’s not the story told by the media, which splashes our nightmares as far and wide as it can, and milks every possible drop of drama out of every one. That’s not the story told by books or movies – because, as we all know, happy endings don’t sell like sensation. The influence of the media and entertainment, though, is only part of the problem. There is also the culture of fear-mongering and risk aversion in which our society has been stewing for years now. Any food could lead to anaphylactic shock, and even common medications have unexplored side-effects. Our homes are festooned with baby gates and child-proof locks and padded corners. Little Prince George is on his first world tour, and the biggest story so far is that his car seat isn’t up to the snuff-of-the-moment (car seat regulations being similar to the weather in recent years). From the big things like cancer and terrorist attacks to the little things like sunburns and food poisoning, today’s parents are, in general, the most frightened creatures in the history of the human race.

When I was a kid, I played for hours outside. Unsupervised. I could have drowned in the harbour. I could have flipped my bike and knocked myself out with only other youngsters to help me. I could have got into a van on an offer of candy, because that’s always how it was in the commercials. I could have fallen out of a tree and broken my neck. I could have been attacked by a hungry bear (we had alot of them around our town, particularly on garbage day). I could have crashed my snowmobile or fallen through the ice while skating. But I don’t remember any grown-ups shadowing us, or listing all the things that could go wrong as we dashed out the door, or making us stay inside because we were safe there. And I survived to raise the next crop – along with everyone else with whom I roamed, free-range.

Don’t get me wrong, stranger danger is real (and food danger and medicine danger and animal danger and-and-and). Kids should learn street smarts and assertiveness and common sense in general, and parents should be vigilant. But we also need to accept that there is a certain level of risk in everything – even if we never leave our child-proof homes. And not being able to play hide-and-seek in the park without that gut-gnawing dread tagging along is another tiny piece of paradise lost. I want to start taking it back. Maybe the first step is another game of hide-and-seek in the park …. Care to join us?