There Was A Time

 

I grew up in Suburbia, middle child of a middle class family, living in the middle of nowhere. There were eight of us; my parents, myself, and my five siblings. It was an okay childhood, filled with family events, vacations, and I seem to remember feeling okay. We would take these long, family road trips to relatives spread out across Canada and the Northern Unites States, ranging from Winnipeg and Montreal up here, to New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington. We loaded ourselves into the old man’s Ford Country Squire, the one with the cool wood paneling, and headed off, at dawn, down the road to perdition, and all stops in between.

I spent the first two years of my life in the ice covered tundra of Sault Ste. Marie, nestled on the shores of Lake Superior, after it had eaten the Edmund Fitzgerald, with my ass firmly frozen to the metal rails of a crib. I have no idea what the hell we were doing up there, but I was informed that the old man had taken a job in the vast wilderness of Northern Ontario. According to my mother the family next door were drunken hillbillies, albeit Canadian hillbillies, with little hope for neighborly chit chat. Survival among the wild animals, and somewhat wilder neighbors began to take its toll and after two years, she had enough. We loaded up and high tailed off of the ice floe we had called home, settling in the big city. My mother often told the story of how she was sure that those filthy, drunken, ignorant people next door would, sooner or later, bring us to some kind of horrific end.

I was, as a child, somewhat accident prone and spent a great deal of time at doctor’s offices and hospitals, being treated for a myriad of  injuries that included hazel nut shells in an eye, gashes on my arms and face from running through a closed glass door, a spike protruding through my foot, and broken bones caused by falling off of the roof of the house. To be fair, I did not fall off of the roof. I was flying. I was 6 years old and simply miscalculated wind speed. In any event, I suffered scars to my eye, stitches to my arms, received a wagon load of tetanus shots, and wore a cast for a large part of those formative years. And so, as we traveled, I was under strict orders not to move. As a super hero however, I was bound by an oath to not sit idly by. I was sworn to take action whenever I was needed.

The Ford Country Squire had really cool seats in the back that faced backwards. I sat there a lot, usually with one of my brothers who didn’t really travel well. He would throw up regularly, shortly after complaining of being sick. He kept a stack of paper lunch bags with him in order not to infect the Country Squire. In order to ease his distress, we would regularly stop to allow him to get out of the car and walk around until he was feeling better. These designated puke stops slowed down our progress, and really drove the old man crazy, as they almost doubled our travel time. We would often have to spend the night in a motel, usually a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge with a restaurant attached. The old man liked Howard Johnson. We would eat, get 2 rooms, and settle in for the night, getting up early and departing first thing in the morning. With all of the complaining about how long the trip was taking, and the added expense of motel rooms and meals, I was never really sure why they didn’t leave him at home with my grandparents.

My all time favorite family road trips were the ones we took to Washington, well actually Silver Springs, Maryland, to see my great uncle Nathan and his family. Nathan was my grandfather’s youngest brother, and I looked forward to seeing him with wild abandon.  We would always tour around D.C., as I sat in the front between Nathan and his wife in his Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with a really cool glass roof about halfway back. My family followed behind in the Country Squire with a couple of his kids. I suppose Nathan was one of my all time favorite relatives. He encouraged the super hero that lived inside of me, and when I was 8, he got me a real cape to replace the towels I had been using. I really felt like a super hero then, standing tall with hands on my hips, cape blowing in the warm breeze, proudly displaying the t shirt I had made, emblazoned with the letter ‘G’, waiting to spring into action.

When I was 9 we took the Country Squire to Winnipeg. it took us three days to get there, as we overcame inordinate amounts of wrong turns and vomit. Uncle Sid, my other favorite relative, and aunt Francis were always fun to be around.  We attended events at the Pan Am games, and I went to my first CFL game, enjoying the blue and gold of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I have no idea who won as I was quite busy, scouting the stadium for crime. It seemed that there was no crime in Winnipeg. This was no place for a super hero crime fighter.

Uncle Sid took us horseback riding one afternoon. I watched as my eldest brother mounted his horse, and disappeared at full gallop through the brush and the trees, screaming for the horse to stop. Finally, someone in need of help! I sprang into action, and tried to ride after him, too afraid to fly after the mishap from my parents’ roof years before. Several other people were able to corral the horse, whose name by the way was Daisy, and save my brother from impending doom. I fell in love with horseback riding that day, and realized that I could be a horseback riding, crime fighting hero. All I needed was a sword, and a black mask, and I could follow in the footsteps of Zorro. My brother has never been near a horse since then, and breaks out in  cold sweats whenever he gets near a bouquet of flowers.

The family road trips stopped by the time I was 12 or 13. We were all getting older, and my parents had taken to leaving us with my grandparents while they went away on their own. The Ford Country Squire was long gone, replaced by a Buick LeSabre.  I suppose that was the end of my super hero crime fighting, although over the years I have continued to visit various emergency rooms across the city for assorted accidents and injuries, most of which required stitches, tetanus shots and xrays. Uncle Nathan passed away when I was still a kid, as did the relatives in Cleveland and Chicago. The cousins in Montreal moved to Houston, Texas, and Uncle Sid, well he has been living here for 50 years or so, and I try to visit with him whenever possible. Many of the details have faded now, but I still have some clear memories of those family vacations. To this day I can’t look at a station wagon without detecting a subtle scent of vomit.

 

 

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Passed Over

 

The celebration of a holiday steeped in tradition and family was pre-empted this year due to several family crises. My wife suggested that we do it in a week or so. “We can do it then, right?”, she asked.

“I don’t think we can.”, I informed her.

“Why not?”, she asked.

“I think that a Passover Seder must be held on Passover.”, I answered.

“Who says?”, she queried.

“Well”, I replied, “6000 years of history and tradition, and several bus loads of Orthodox Rabbis en route to a Hassidic convention in Monsey, New York.”

“Are you sure?”, she inquired.

“Pretty sure.”, I told her.

“Well”, she said, “that sucks.”

“Indeed.”, I agreed.

So, with all of the preparation, the cooking and cleaning, the purchasing of seder specific foods, and the table being set, one of my sons, the chef, called to let his mother know that he could not attend as there was an emergency at work. I had no idea what a kitchen emergency could be, short of a fire, but he was clear that was not the case. I suspect that either the sous chef burnt the beef wellington, or some one screwed up the marinara sauce, so he had to go and rectify the problem. “Well”, my wife said, “everyone else will be here, so it will still be okay.”

We headed out to the store to pick up a few final items for my vegetarian/vegan son, and had to visit 3 different supermarkets to obtain the specific foods he would eat. With the morning gone, we began the final organization of food, seating, and Passover paraphernalia. There was another call, this time from my vegetarian son, stating that he was in the E.R. at a local hospital. It seems that he was experiences chest pains through the night, and had been transported by ambulance to the hospital. I went down to check out what was going on, being asked to bring him an orange juice and a chocolate chip muffin, and upon my arrival I found him in a room, not hooked up to any piece of equipment whatsoever. ‘What the hell is going on?”, I asked him.

“I don’t know.”, he said. “I was having chest pains, and my arm felt kind of weird, so I called 911.”

“What did the doctor say?”, I asked.

“Nothing really.”, he replied. “They took blood, and did a chest x-ray. We’re waiting for the results.” He asked if I could go to his place and pick up his boots and socks, as he arrived only with his slippers. I suggested that he get his wife to bring his stuff over, as I was not delivering his shoes.

When the doctor arrived, he was very sure that it was a cardiac event, but more than likely anxiety, or perhaps a pulled muscle. He was discharged, and I gave him money for a cab home, and I headed home myself. At home, I informed my wife that neither he, nor his wife would be attending the seder, as he was going to sleep as he had been up all night. I was told that while I was at the hospital with my son, one of my daughters called and, since neither of her brothers were attending, she didn’t think it was worthwhile coming down, and with my wife’s assistance, put a plan in place to conduct the seder within the next few weeks.

In the meantime, there was a fridge and freezer filled with food. The pantry was bursting with items to be served along side the main courses. There was chicken and brisket, roast potatoes, candied carrots, soup, fricassee and meatballs, gefilte fish, and a host of Moroccan dishes that my wife had grown up with. “What are we going to do with all of this food?”, I asked as I surveyed the abundance of food that had been systematically organized and arranged in the kitchen.

“We’re going to eat it.”, my wife said. “And what we can’t eat, we’re going to freeze.”

It was a very disappointing evening for me. At this time of year, my thoughts dive headlong into the memories of childhood Passovers spent at my parents home. Being with family, the traditions, the food, and the hockey playoff games that inevitably were on at the same time of year, and how my brothers and I, feigning a need to use the bathroom, headed downstairs to catch just a few minutes of the game and to at least check on the score. And upon returning to the table, my father would inevitably ask “What’s the score?”. That too had become our family tradition. And when the seder was done, satiated with food and the story of the emancipation from bondage, we headed to bed, taking comfort in the Leafs’ victory over the Bruins.

This year, however, there was no family. There was no tradition. And as I get older, they both seem to carry increased importance to me. “We’ll have our own seder.”, I told my wife. “There’s you and me, and the two girls. It’ll be fine.”

“The girls won’t be here.”, she informed me. “When they heard no one was coming, they made plans to go out with friends.”

“I see.”, I replied. I didn’t really. I was quite dejected, wallowing in the disappointment of childhood memories that seemed gone forever.

“We can do it together.”, she said. “Just the two of us.”

“Its okay.”, I told her. “I just don’t know why its so hard for everyone to get together twice a year. They’re always too busy. How come we’re never too busy? They’re going to forget everything we taught them. But we should eat. At least I won’t have to put pants on.”  We sat at the table, and before we could begin to eat, my wife looked over at me.

“You are a good father.”, she told me. “We’ll be fine, and they’ll be fine. No matter what they forget, they will never forget what’s important. We did a good job with those kids.”

I felt better. She always made me feel better. “I don’t think I want to do this next year.”, I told her. “I think one of the kids should hold the seder at their place. And maybe, we should have a crisis and have to cancel.”

“If that’s what you want to do”, she said, “we’ll do it. It sounds like fun. Its about time we screwed them around.” At that precise moment in time I realized that this was exactly where I was always supposed to be.

 

 

 

 

Lock, Stock & Over The Falls Without A Barrel

 

Niagara Falls has always held a special place in my family’s collective heart. Just over an hour drive away, it had always been the go to destination for family outings, and weekend getaways.

The other night, all of my kids and their significant others were over for dinner. As the conversation turned to our family trips to Niagara Falls, the day trips and the weekends, my wife asked if I remembered the first time that I took her there. There are many things that my aging memory has lost somewhere in that time and space that seems to swallow up my keys and eye glasses, but that first weekend in The Falls, is forever tattooed in my brain, and on my right forearm.

We were still dating then, in that place between let’s live together and what the hell is going on with you? We went for a weekend, and now my wife was questioning my ability to remember that trip.

“Well”, I said, “Let’s just go back a lifetime or two. Pay attention boys and girls, this will both shock and amaze you.”

“Its not going to be about sex again, is it?”, one of them asked.

“No.”, I said, “Its been so long, I don’t remember any of that stuff.”

“You’re such an ass.”, my wife said, as she hit me in the arm.

I began my tale of the most expensive weekend in Niagara Falls history. “We left on Friday afternoon and, before heading out on a mere one hour drive, we stopped and had a late lunch, as your mother was hungry. Back on the road, after her cheeseburger and fries, I took her to Niagara-On-The-Lake. We parked and walked down the main street, filled with artisan boutiques and shops. Your mother had ice cream. We dove on to The Falls, and checked into our Hotel, a quaint little establishment complete with a heart shaped Jacuzzi, and water bed, nestled between a Wedding Chapel, and a liquor store. To this day, I am still not sure if the trip to the liquor store is to be made before or after the stop at the Wedding Chapel.

After settling in, we headed out to wander around the falls. As we walked along Ferry Street, she spotted a Taqueria, and decided that she was in the mood for a snack. Two tacos and a white wine later, we were off to see The Falls. We walked along the pedestrian pathway that edged the gorge, and marveled at the international tourists  who ‘ooohed’ and ‘aaahed’ at the wonder of it all. By now, it was rapidly approaching feeding time, and when she spotted the sign in front of The Love Boat advertising Prime Rib, our dinner plans were secured. Your mother had the prime rib, complete with a baked potato, and some green vegetable thing. I had mussels in garlic and wine sauce. We left the restaurant, satiated, and headed back to the room. As we neared our hotel, your mother spotted a 7-11, and determining that we should have emergency rations in the event of a sudden global shortage of prefabricated junk food, stopped to purchase a bag of potato chips, a bottle of ginger ale, several chocolate bars, and a pack of beef jerky.”

“And you had to pay for all of that?”, one of my daughters asked.

“Oh,”, I said. “In her defense, she always offered to pay. I wouldn’t let her. I figured that she was bound to make herself sick long before I ran out of money.I was however, wrong. I had to make several trips to the ATM just to keep her fed. I mean, she only weighed 100 pounds. How much food could she eat?

Anyway, we spent the night in the room where she finished off the chocolate bars, half a bag of potato chips, some ginger ale, and most of the beef jerky. I was starting to feel sick just watching her eat.”

“You should have dumped her, right there.”, one of them blurted out.

“I thought about.”, I said, “but she was so damn cute. The next morning, we went to Perkins for breakfast. Your mother had an order of pancakes, an order of bacon, and order of sausages, toast and coffee. I kept asking myself where all of this food was going, and hoped that it wasn’t some sort of gastrointestinal parasite. We spent the morning horseback riding along a secluded spot on the shores of Lake Erie. On our way back to Niagara Falls, we stopped at a farmer’s roadside pie stand, and purchased a fresh, home made apple pie, although I have no idea how it was made fresh in the back of his pick up truck. On the way back to the hotel, we had to stop at the 7-11 because, as it was explained to me in the car, no one should have to eat apple pie without ice cream!

Lunch was McDonald’s, and there was fudge from a dessert shop that was being saved for later. After visiting several tourist attractions, and The Harley-Davidson store, I took her across the border to one of the best Italian Restaurants known to man, Como’s in Niagara Falls, New York. We both had veal parmigiana, served with pasta, salad, and a basket of bread big enough to feed a small orchestra. After dinner, there was fudge at the hotel.

Sunday came, and it began with breakfast at a local greasy spoon, after which we checked out of the hotel, and headed back to Niagara-On-The-Lake, to wander through Fort George. We left Niagara, and headed back to the big city. We spent the afternoon at my place, and went out to Swiss Chalet for lunch. It was time to call it a weekend, and I was taking her home, when we passed The Towne & Country Buffet.”

“I think you’re making a lot of this up.”, my wife said.

“Really?’, I asked. “You don’t remember going back 3 times for the prime rib? You also had apple cobbler with chocolate ice cream for desert. Remember now?”

“No.”, she said. “I do not!”

“Well, that’s pretty much how it was, give or take a few meals and snacks. After dropping you off, I went straight to the hospital to donate a kidney. I needed the money for the rent, and a car payment or two.”

“That’s a lie.”, she exclaimed.

“Yes”, I said, “that’s a lie.

“I can’t believe you went out with her again.”, one of them stated. I looked at my wife, and saw in her eyes what I had seen so many years ago.

“She’s was worth it.”, I told them. “Still is. But now you know why I can’t afford to retire. I’m still paying off a restaurant tab from 1995.”