A visit from The Hag

October 24th, 2010 § 8 comments § permalink

My parents had not been married for very long when my mother decided they could no longer share a bed. It was unheard of at the time in holy catlick Ireland, where it was expected of a married woman that she lie down with her husband every night and be prepared to close her eyes and think of the Vatican, should he decide to take his pleasure of her. It was her married duty, no less.

I doubt if my mother had any intention of flouting the church. The problem was that my father physically acted out his dreams every night. Most mornings, she found bruises on her legs and arms and, on one memorable occasion, he actually gave her a black eye.

Usually, when we are in REM sleep and dreaming, the body is largely disconnected from the brain, leaving it paralyzed. It’s a mechanism designed to prevent us from harming ourselves or our bed partners. In my father’s case, for some reason, this did not happen and he would flail around all night, with my mother clinging to the edge of their bed, hoping he wouldn’t hurt her. Since my dad was fairly active, hunting, fishing, sailing and playing rugby in his spare time and then reliving them in his dreams, her nights were pretty fraught.

Eventually, she decided she’d had enough. The marriage bed was turfed and replaced by twin beds – greatly to the shock and horror of the old biddies in the neighbourhood, I might add. When word got out that they were sleeping separately, there was much tut-tutting and sucking of teeth, visits from the parish priest and predictions of trouble ahead. Since they stayed married for 50 years and produced five children, the neighbourhood prognostications were confounded. I suspect the old Playboy definition of Lovers’ Leap as the distance between twin beds was pretty much the order of the day, although they were eventually to sleep in separate rooms. But by then the neighbourhood had changed, most of the houses on the square where we lived had been transformed into apartments, and nobody gave a damn.

As a child, I suffered from the exact opposite of my father’s problem, and would frequently wake in the middle of nightmares, unable to move a muscle. If you have never had this happen to you, believe me – it is really terrifying. The wisps of the nightmare are still flitting around in your consciousness, but you’re fully awake and totally paralyzed. I don’t know whether it is part of the dream state, or the way sufferers interpret their own breathing, but invariably you’re convinced there is a malevolent presence in the room. You try desperately to scream for help, but it feels as though there is a boulder lying on your chest, and no sound comes out. The whole experience probably lasts mere seconds, but can feel like an eternity.

To the impressionable child that I was, my head chock full of the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, these episodes were truly frightening. As soon as the spell broke and I could move, I would fly out of my bed and take the stairs three at a time down to my parents’ room, where I would slip under the blankets at the foot of my mother’s bed and curl up until the panic had passed and I could fall asleep again. Even in my state of terror, I knew better than to risk life and limb with my father and, because I had these nightmares so often, my mother had stipulated that I was not to wake her.

As with my childhood nose bleeds, the REM paralysis episodes gradually disappeared as I grew up. But every so often, over the many years since, I have experienced them again and they are no less terrifying for all that I’m an adult now and understand the mechanics of the process.

I was reminded of such episodes by an article I found in the most recent edition of The Walrus, a lovely thought-provoking Canadian magazine. From Nightmare on George Street by Pasha Malla, I learned of the Newfoundland superstition about a witch they call the Hag, who comes a-visiting in the night and sits on her sleeping victim’s chests.

Although it’s been a few years since I was last hagged, if I never had a visit from the auld besom again, it would be too soon. I shall be placing my shoes to face the same way by my bed from now on, and I need no urging to avoid Kraft Singles.

How I spent my blaestivation

September 30th, 2010 § 8 comments § permalink

According to Wikipedia, aestivation (also known as summer sleep) is a state of dormancy, somewhat similar to hibernation, except that it takes place during the hot, dry days of summer.

On checking my blogroll, I note that I was not the only one to have succumbed to this state of torpor in recent months. So I have coined a new word for the condition: “blaestivation.” After all, if Stephen Fry can get away with Blessays, why not? However, be advised that, should this newly-minted word take off like wildfire through the blogosphere, I shall be claiming royalties. You have been warned.

This is how I spent my blaestivation this year: Sailing. Sailing. And more sailing.

If you’ve been following along with this here blog of mine, you’ll know that sailing would not be my first choice as a pastime, even if the only other options were picking fluff from my navel or watching Snooki* flash her ta-tas on TV. But it is The First Husband’s passion and, if I want to see anything of him during the months between May and October, I really have no choice but to tag along as he sails merrily around Lake Ontario.

And that is what I have done, for almost twenty years. For most of them, I have bitched, moaned and whined, in person and in print, lamenting the fact that, because I was too old to be deck fluff (sailor parlance for the optional blonde gracing the foredeck of most power boats) and too young to be ballast, I had to earn my keep as a winch wench, raising and lowering sails.

Along the way, almost against my will, I’ve picked up more than a smattering of sailing ability, to the point where, although I would not dream of operating our boat on my own, I’m quite competent on navigation, sail changes and operating the helm. In fact, because I’ve taken a few courses over the years and become certified, were we to charter a boat in the Caribbean, as we’ve thought of doing some winter, I would be the official Captain. The Master and Commander has never bothered actually learning how to sail, him being a natural and all.

That said, when we’re not actually in mortal peril, caught in thunderstorms or squalls, sailing bores the bejesus out of me. Once you’ve gone through the minor excitement of leaving dock, tidying up fenders and lines, and raising the sails, there’s bugger all else, until you repeat the process in reverse on coming into dock. For the hours in between, there’s just nothing to do, other than snooze, read, or gaze into the horizon.

This year, because we’ve pretty much exhausted the possibilities of the west end of Lake Ontario, we decided to move our boat from its usual berth in Hamilton Harbour east to Prince Edward County – three hours by road, three eight-hour days by sail. The idea was to make every weekend a long one, Thursday to Monday, spend lots of time relaxing in peaceful anchorages and explore The 1000 Islands.

This is our boat, Slán Abhaile:

She’s quite a pretty boat, with enough room to ensure that The First Husband and I don’t kill each other on a long sail – which, for us, would be a maximum of eight hours. We’re not keen on overnight trips and don’t see the point of spending all day on the lake, docking at a new marina or club, and then sailing off again the next day without a chance to explore.

Our new location, at Waupoos, has been wonderful.  There’s clear water for swimming, a gourmet English pub half a mile from the marina in one direction and a winery and cidery a mile or two in the other; artists and potters abound in the area and the town of Picton, just a few miles away by car, has plenty of good restaurants and a terrific coffee shop and bookstore.

In fact, it’s just a little too wonderful. As The First Husband likes to tell friends back home, we’ve been “waupoosed.” We have everything we need in Waupoos, so why bother going somewhere else? Although we spent a whole month on the boat, between July and August, we sailed to only one or two ports within a ten-mile radius of Waupoos and barely made it into the edge of  The 1000 Islands. All we’ve done is sail around Waupoos Island, anchor in one of the bays for lunch and a swim, and then sail back into the marina in time for a sundowner on the boat or a walk to the pub.

We’ve made a solemn promise to ourselves that next year will be different. We’ll circumnavigate the Lake, starting with The 1000 Islands, travelling along the US shore, east to west, and back to base along the Canadian shore, west to east. All we have to do is make sure we don’t get waupoosed first.

* If you followed the Snooki link and are, or hope to be, a published writer, I really hope you have not slit your wrists by this point.

Father’s Day memories

June 19th, 2010 § 11 comments § permalink

My father used to remark wryly to his friends that he knew no peace, because his house was infested with girl children. There were only four of us, but we were a fairly rambunctious lot. If we weren’t fighting with each other, we were fighting with our mother, who liked to pay tribute to her Italian heritage with a screaming match every now and again. During these skirmishes, my father would retire to his garage, where he would sit in the car and read his paper until the white flag was waved, and he could return to what Englishmen like to believe is their castle.

That said, in reality he was very much the king of this particular castle. His word was law and we were far more afraid of his disapproval than my mother’s rages. He never lifted a hand to any of us; instead we got the silent treatment, which was far worse. I remember my youngest sister muttering once that she wished he would just hit us and get it over with, rather than leave us trying to work out what the hell we’d done wrong this time.

Of the four of us, my youngest sister was obviously his favourite. The tomboy of the family, she shared his fondness for shooting and fishing. Every Sunday, from the time she was about ten years of age, they and a couple of gun dogs would head out to their game preserves in the Dublin Mountains, along with a rackety gang of gunmen who made up my father’s “game association” aka shooting and drinking club. After a few hours and, with luck, a couple of pheasants, they’d all retire to a pub called the Blue Gardenia, and get plastered, with the exception of my sister, at least for the first few years.

One night they returned home from one of these expeditions, both highly amused. My sister, who was about 13 by this time, had been pestering Dad to order her a glass of Guinness, instead of her usual orangeade. As he refused her for the third time, one of the gunmen remarked “You should let him have it, Jack, or you’ll make a sissy of the boy.” My mother, as I recall, was not at all amused, while Dad thought it was a hoot, and my sister was proud as Punch that someone who’d been shooting with her for two years thought she was a boy.

As to the rest of us: I have the feeling that my father was endlessly amused by the shenanigans of my older sister, the She Devil, as she moved into her teenaged, boy-magnet years. And he remarked to me once, in a letter, that he could sit in a room with my other sister, the Redhead, for hours and wrack his brains to think of something he might say to her. And me? Well I’ve no idea what he thought of me.

He never had any problem finding something to talk about with me; we shared a love of reading, an interest in politics and current affairs and, above all, a quirky sense of humour. (One day, he picked up bath salts I’d received for my birthday, which the label compared to a walk in the woods. “Hmph,” he said. “If any boy tries burying his nuts, I hope you’ll give him a root in the arse.” I was 13, but I got the joke. As he knew I would.)

But there was always the sense that I disappointed him in some way. And he was terribly unforgiving anytime I erred. When we were children, his punishment of choice was to cut off our pocket-money and I got used to poverty from an early age. If I back-chatted my mother, my pocket money was stopped. If I yelled at one of my younger sisters or even looked sideways at them, it was stopped. It seemed to me that I could do nothing right, even when I was trying very hard to be a model daughter. Which, in hindsight, was not all that often.

I left home when I was 19, lived in Germany for a year, and then in England for another five years. When I wanted to go back to Ireland, I wrote to my father and asked if I could stay at home, while I looked around for a job and somewhere to live. He wrote back to say that I was welcome, but to remember that they had been getting along just fine without me while I was away. “We likes us as we is,” he wrote. In the end, I stayed there three years, not moving out into an apartment until the relationship between my mother and me reached the stage of open warfare.

When I told him I was pregnant, a few years later, he enquired whether I knew who the father was. For the first time I realised that, for all that he and I rubbed along quite amiably, he really had no clue who I was, or how I lived my life. I felt like Elizabeth Bennett.

Probably the most nakedly emotional thing he ever said to me was on the day I left Ireland for Canada. Most of the family came out to the airport to see me and the boy on our way. Hurried hugs all round as our flight was called, and then I came to my father, who had been hanging back. He hugged the child, then held me by the shoulders and said “I don’t agree with what you’re doing. But I admire your courage.”

Three years later, I had a call from the Redhead to say my father had had a stroke, after a Sunday of shooting (and drinking) with the gunmen. He was in hospital,  in a coma, and I should come as soon as I could. My aunt, his sister, met me at Dublin airport and drove me to the hospital. She dropped me at the main door, while she went to park the car, and a nurse told me where his room was. I sat beside him for a minute of two, before leaning forward to kiss him on the forehead. That was when I realised he was dead, and I had arrived too late.

When I got to my parents’ house, my youngest sister came out to meet me. “I never knew if he loved me,” she cried. That night, as I lay in my old bedroom, above his, I thought about what she had said. It saddened me to think how much he had missed, and I cherished the fact that my son would never say those words about me.  That much I had learned from my father.

That was then …

June 6th, 2010 § 15 comments § permalink

He came for a visit when our son was two and a half. The last time they’d met, the boy was ten months old. It was also the first time they’d met, and we’d gone there to visit him.

On this visit, we’d agreed to settle where we would go from here. We both knew things could not continue as they were – three thousand miles between us, and a relationship based on late night telephone conversations, with me woken from sleep and him staying late in his office, both of us tired after long days at work.

The boy behaved badly throughout his stay. Normally a sweet-natured, talkative child, he alternated between sulking and demanding my attention, referring to his father as “him,” refusing to address him directly and pushing between us at every opportunity. Months before, his father had sent us a talking camera and the boy believed it was his voice telling us we needed more light and to check distance. He enjoyed talking to the Dad in the camera, but the reality was too much for him.

During the two weeks he was with us, the future was never mentioned, until the night before he was due to fly back home, when I pressed him to make a decision. He told me he had tried very hard to convince himself he didn’t love his wife, but he did, and now he needed to go home and make things work between them.

We drove him to the airport the next morning. My instinct was to drop him off at Departures and drive away, but I gave in to the need to snatch even one more hour together, and we stayed through check-in, waiting with him for his boarding call. When it came, he kissed us both goodbye and started to walk towards the security gate. I was struggling to find the right words of farewell, when the boy raised his voice and trilled “Bye-bye, Daddy!” He stopped dead and turned back to look at us, with his face working. Then he turned away and walked through the gate, passing from view.

Six months later, on the boy’s birthday, we came home to find a bouquet of red roses waiting on the stairs to our apartment. Even before I read the card, I knew they were from him. “Happy birthday, from Dad. Love to you both” was the message.

I’ve done my grieving and moved on, I told myself. Actions speak louder than roses. And, screw him. But I put the flowers in water anyway, although I wanted to throw them in the bin.

The roses eventually withered and my friends assured me I had done the right thing in ignoring them and him. But still, in the back of my mind, I fought the urge to call him, just to see how he was doing, if he was missing us at all.

Late one night, almost a month later, I called him on his private line at work. He won’t be there at this hour, I told myself. If he is, I’ll put the phone down. I just want to hear his voice. But the phone was picked up on the first ring and his voice said “I’ve been hoping you would call! You got my roses?”

“What if I’d ignored them? What if I’d moved away, left no forwarding number or address? What then?” I retorted. And then “How are you?”

Within minutes, we were back on the old, easy footing that had gotten us into this affair in the first place. Before we rang off, promising to call each other again soon, I asked him how things were now, between him and his wife. He told me they were no better, although, when he’d gone back all those months before, they’d sat down and talked things over. “We shared our dreams,” he said, “agreed we wanted more family and would like to buy a boat.”

“A boat? What the hell has a boat got to do with anything?” I asked.

Fast forward fifteen years. We’re in our boat, during a storm on Lake Ontario. I’m hanging on for dear life, while he beams in delight at the 10ft waves creaming over the bow.

How the hell did I get here? I wonder.


May 9th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

Happy Mother’s Day to everyone who is, has or had a Mom!

Dirty talk in the classroom

May 2nd, 2010 § 6 comments § permalink

There has been a hot and heavy sex education “debate” taking place in Ontario in recent weeks. I use quotation marks around the word because, although that’s how the media describe it, what’s been going on here doesn’t fit my definition of debate.

The way I learned to debate in school, the parties throw up opposing concepts, they discuss the pros and cons in a civilized manner and then, they either agree to disagree, or one party admits they’ve been convinced by the other’s arguments. Debate over. That was not the case here.

After a year of consultation, beginning in 2007, with educators and representatives of health and parent groups – all individuals who might be expected to know a thing or two about children and curricula – the Ontario government decided it was time to revise the sex education curriculum, which dates back to 1997. Proposed new guidelines for teachers were drafted and underwent another year of public consultation and revisions, receiving more than 3,000 inputs from parents and educators. The final draft, which was to launch in the classroom on September 1 this year, was posted on the government’s website last January, without any fanfare.

Under the new curriculum, Grade 1 students would be taught body parts, including the correct names for genitalia, which experts claim can help prevent sexual abuse. Gr 3 students would learn about sexual orientation; in Gr 6, masturbation; and, in Gr 7, discussion of anal and oral sex were part of the lesson plan. The new curriculum was designed to counter the hideous stew of (mis)information to be found on the Internet, and to help kids who are floundering in our hyper-sexualized society.

So far, so good. But then the head of a so-called “family values” group got wind of the revised curriculum, and all hell broke loose. At first, the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, our self-styled “education Premier,” stood pat and faced down the critics. But then some of the more conservative elements of religious and immigrant groups began to come forward, saying that the proposed guidelines were antithetical to their way of life. At that point, McGuinty caved, because you don’t piss off the various multicultural lobbies in Ontario if you want your party to stay in power. In fact, from what I’ve read, both online and in the newspapers, the new guidelines are copacetic with most of the ethnic communities. But, as always, a few very loud dissidents dominated the headlines and sound bites, and it was game over. Guidelines that had been exhaustively discussed and revised, with input over two years from all the experts in the field and full agreement on the final draft by all the parties, were tossed.

The Toronto Star letters page provides a pretty good sampling of public reaction to the furor, with a number of fairly nuanced responses, on the one hand, balanced by a large helping of “pig-ignorant-and-proud-of-it” on the other.

As an empty nester, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, so I was alternately amused by the uproar and outraged by the media’s handling of it, while not at all surprised by McGuinty’s pusillanimous response. And I have to confess to feeling more than a little smug, reflecting on my own track record as a parent in the area of sex education. I remembered #1 Son coming home from school, when he was about 10 years old, and announcing that they’d had a sex education class that day. When I asked him if he’d learnt anything new, he answered “Not really, although I did discover that Always has wings!”

I was shocked, some years ago, when my cousin confessed that she had never spoken about sex to her then-16 year old daughter. I couldn’t understand how it was possible not to discuss sex, in one way or another, given the amount of it that was being bandied about in the media. I could think of so many times, when something was said on the television news or the radio, #1 Son would ask me what it was about, and we’d have a lengthy discussion on the topic.

One incident that sticks out in my memory was the day, when he was about 7, that he heard the word ‘flagellate’ on the car radio and asked what it meant. Much hilarity ensued, as I told him about flagellation, in all its religious, fetishist and sexual permutations. (On reflection, I may have gone a bit overboard on such occasions. He has since been heard complaining to a pal that it was near-impossible to ask his Mom the time, without getting a swift rundown of the history of the Swiss watch industry from the Middle Ages to the present.)

As a parent, sex education in school was not something that bothered me one way or another. So far as I was concerned, I had already covered all the bases, and I had low to no interest in the topic at the time. But, when I stop to think about it now, I can’t really say, with my hand on my heart, that we ever had the “Talk” about sex. “Where do babies come from?” never came up, for example. Not much point, really. When #1 Son began toddling around and pulling books out of bookcases, his favourite was the Lennart Nilsson book, A Child is Born. I suspect he thought it was his baby album.

He’ll be visiting for Mother’s Day next week. Maybe it’s not too late for me to rectify the situation. I’m sure he’ll be really pleased when I take him aside and give him the long-awaited “Talk.”

Nary a cross word

April 25th, 2010 § 8 comments § permalink

Two events were to bring home to me the fact that I had finally grown up in the eyes of my parents.

The first was a cri de couer from my mother: she needed my advice on arranging a dinner party for the family’s first meeting with my youngest sister’s prospective mother-in-law, who was a formidable old bat. You have to understand that my mother, although by no means an intellectual (to put it in the kindest way possible!), was the smartest cookie on the block when it came to throwing a party, what to wear on certain occasions, table manners, etiquette and the like. So, to have her ask me, her least favourite daughter, how she should handle a potentially sticky social situation, was HUGE.

My second symbolic rite of passage into adulthood was a phone call from my father, wondering if I might have the solution to a clue in the Irish Times cryptic crossword that had stumped him. My Dad was an out and out genius with crosswords. When he lived in London during the Blitz, he would begin and finish The Times crossword on the 10-minute bus ride between his digs and the Imperial College of Technology, where he was studying for a post-graduate diploma in aeronautical engineering. And he did it while holding up his end in a lively conversation with the friend who told me this little gem at his funeral.

I adored my father, and yearned for his approval. But, somehow, I just never seemed to be able to meet his expectations. I was supposed to be the smart one in the family, the kid everybody expected to breeze through school and on to university, where I would excel and graduate at the top of my class. But the reality was very different. Although my school work was a doddle, I was also a lazy sod, who would go to any lengths rather than study. And even if I did come home from school proudly brandishing a second place in some test or other, my Dad would frown and wonder aloud why first place seemed to be beyond my grasp.

I think he was trying to goad me on to greater effort, in his own extremely undemonstrative way. But it had the opposite effect; there didn’t seem to be any point in trying, since I could never measure up. At least that was how I justified skiving off from classes at every opportunity, hopping the wall of my very expensive private school to meet boys from a nearby school and snog with them in the back row of the cinema. This kind of escapade led to me failing my exams miserably, and prompted the nuns to recommend transfer to boarding school – their polite way of expelling me.

That didn’t work either, and I continued on my merry way, flouting school rules, blowing through my allowance on novels and sweets, failing to pass exams or to matriculate to university. Then I crowned it all by getting myself expelled from the secretarial college where I’d been sent to learn typing and Pitman’s shorthand. This had been my mother’s solution, when my exasperated parents were at a loss as to what they should do with me. (There was no point in hoping I might marry young; when I was only 12 years old, my father told me I would die a spinster, because no man would tolerate such a smart-arse.) Mother felt that a secretarial course would give me skills that would always be useful. (Which indeed they were, thirty years later, when I finally made it through university. I took verbatim lecture notes in Pitman’s, which I would later type up as a memory exercise. I remember that the shorthand intrigued the hell out of one rather dim young woman – who really should have been in typing school rather than university. She leaned over my shoulder in class one day, and asked me why I was taking notes in Arabic!)

As it happened, when Dad called to ask about that crossword clue, I was working as PA to the CEO of a public company. So I guess my mother was proved right, although I ended up there by a circuitous route, through au pair in Germany, shop assistant, barmaid and receptionist in Britain, and a series of dead end temp jobs back in Ireland. And she was proved right yet again, when I emigrated to Canada two decades later. The only job I could find at first was clerical, and my shorthand and typing speeds blew the socks off everyone.

But I digress. You probably lost the thread long ago, but, believe it or not, the topic of this post was supposed to be crosswords. A few months ago, I tweeted something about a cryptic crossword, and a friend of #1 Son responded that, although she considered herself an intelligent person, she just could not do cryptic crosswords. I tweeted her back, something to the effect that all she needed was a wide vocabulary, a mind full of useless information and a slightly twisted perspective on things.

It was just one more brief meeting at the public crossroads that is Twitter, but it struck a chord with me. Although I do a couple of cryptic crosswords every day, and several on weekends, I used to be like my Twitter friend @snosk – at a loss to understand why, although I was widely-read and had a large vocabulary, I just could not do cryptic crosswords. Then, one day, I decided that, although the cryptics were beyond me, I could still enjoy the Simplex crossword, and to hell with the cryptic smart-arses. And guess what? That eejit, Malcolm Gladwell, was right – practice really does make perfect. I’m not sure if I put in 10,000 hours at the Simplex crossword (although it felt like it – secretarial work can be very boring!) but eventually I began to sneak a look above the fold to the cryptic and I discovered I could solve four or five of the clues. That, of course, whetted my appetite and I began to spend more time poring over the cryptic and ignoring the Simplex, until finally, I solved an entire cryptic crossword. I was so proud of myself. And, for the first time in my life, I got the impression that my Dad was proud of me too.


April 12th, 2010 § 6 comments § permalink

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