Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Take two and see me in three days"

My folks were tough.  When the three of us children were growing up, we weren't allowed to complain.  Illness and injury received scant sympathy, unless we were in agonizing pain or on our death bed with a serious ailment -- for which eggnog was the typical prescribed remedy.  Injuries were met with "tape it up" and illnesses "just wait 'til the fever subsides." Everything had three-day waiting period before actual medical attention was considered.  Until she was in treatment for lung cancer, my mother never spent a day in bed with a complaint, and no affliction ever kept Dad from his duties until a case of shingles in his seventies.

As parents, Stephen and I tried to be more reasonable; we listened to our children's health concerns, tried to validate and reassure them, and treated them with whatever attention the condition required, whether minor or life threatening.

Our daughter Kathryn has her own special family medical file, however.  An often silent observer and companion to Olivia's frequent hospitalizations, ambulance trips, emergency room visits, and complicated procedures, she became knowledgeable about medical protocol and diagnosis. She developed a kind of hypochondria, announcing the onset of a terminal case of a variety of diseases, requiring immediate attention by a specialist.  We'd insist on the family "three day waiting period," during which a recovery would miraculously occur.

When she left home and took one of her first apartments in the big city, she showed she had a flair for decorating and furnishing tastefully on a limited budget.  When we first visited, we saw her bookshelves neatly filled with both classic and contemporary authors, and DVD sleeves tidily set to one side. Handmade pottery and artwork was displayed with throw pillows, adding a cozy touch to the couch along one wall.  We took note of a neatly arranged fan of colorful printed materials on the living room floor, just as one would arrange a pile of magazines on a coffee table.

It was a pleasure for us to see our daughter so self-assured and happy in her new home, beginning her venture into independent adulthood. We imagined her lying on her floor perusing her magazines full of fashion, home decor, celebrity gossip, and so on. But when we looked closer, we realized they weren’t even magazines at all. Each one was a booklet or glossy pamphlet that represented a different disease:  Diabetes and YOU; Understanding your Pituitary; Advances in Glaucoma Treatment; Handling your Headaches; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: CTS; Controlling Irritable Bowel Symptoms; How to deal with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at Work, and more. Free from our dismissive health care approach, she was finally able to explore her many dormant but deadly conditions.

Several years ago, Stephen experienced an acute case of hiccups.  It was during a long road trip from New England to Nebraska, on a side trip to Niagara Falls.  We'd been driving for most of the day and arrived at the parking area at nearly midnight.  We'd hoped to see the dramatic falls at night, since our only previous visit years earlier had been during the day.  Unfortunately, the nighttime fog was especially thick, and thoroughly obliterated any view of the waterfalls.  Disappointed, we crept along a side road hoping to catch a glimpse of any lights on the water, but the fog was as unrelenting as Stephen's frustrating case of hiccups, which after two hours was making him nauseated.

The fog was so thick we couldn’t see any road signs or even the lines on the road. Stephen inched forward, craning over the steering wheel trying to see anything at all, while hiccuping painfully and noisily. Eager to relieve him from his distress, I suddenly burst out shrieking, "STOP!!!!"

And he did!  He slammed on the brakes in complete panic, we lurched forward against our seat belts.  The tires screeched as he desperately scanned the foggy road for whatever danger we had just avoided, certain we'd narrowly escaped cascading over the actual waterway, running over an unseen tourist, or worse.

"Jesus Christ, WHAT?  What was it??" Stephen asked, intensely alarmed. I brightly replied, "Oh nothing, I just wanted to help you stop hiccuping! And look, it worked!"

It did work.  But he was mad for three days.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

O Tannenbaum

For me, the holidays are times for creating happy memories, maintaining family traditions, and gathering loved ones around the hearth and table, often sharing good food, music, and exchanging special gifts. Since we've settled into Cleveland Place, I've enjoyed decking the halls – stringing up delicate heirloom Christmas ornaments, arranging centerpieces for the big meals, and setting candles on the windowsills to create a warm welcoming light for visitors or passersby.  Nearly every bedizening ornament has some kind of sentiment, keepsake value, or story.  I treat each one with care, and when I’m standing high on a ladder to reach the eaves to hang one, I think of the person or event that connects it to our family tree.

Sadly, this year starts with the loss of a family member by a fall from a ladder.  Given the time of year, I assume she was taking down her own special holiday decorations. She too may have been remembering loved ones, happy times, and special people.  I’d like to think she was full of happy thoughts of her own extended family; but now a sadly broken branch on a family tree.

For many years, our growing family lived far away from our origins, so we created some new traditions. If you’ve read in other blog entries about our Solstice events and not-so-traditional American Thanksgiving, then you know that gathering, eating, and laughing are integral elements to me for a successful get-together no matter the occasion.

A particular Christmastime in Alma Village with a group of friends and family remains a vivid memory of happy chaos.  It started out as a casual gathering for dinner, holiday glühwein, and some festive merrymaking with friends and family, featuring (among others):

  • Wolfgang:  While vacationing from his home country of Germany to the Fundy area, Wolfie fell in love with our small fishing village and its rural lifestyle, and soon after moved to Alma.  Retired as concertmaster from the German Army, he sought out fellow musicians in our small community and quickly found a circle of friends who, like him, were “from away.”  He became acquainted with my dad, Wallace (alone after my mother's sudden and unexpected death after almost fifty years together), who welcomed the distraction of friends and activities to keep him busy.  When at Cleveland Place, Wolfgang would sit at our parlor grand piano and practice his exercises, running complicated scales up and down the antique keyboard.  The piano, made in Berlin many years ago, has a rich bass and beautiful tone.  A true musician, Wolfie enjoyed playing it to its full capacity.  After thirty minutes of warm-up, he would stand, stretch (a large, tall, imposing man), prop up the piano’s lid, and then really play music.  We’d open our front door facing Main Street, and as summertime tourists strolled the village streets, they'd slow down or stop to listen, and admire the grand music flowing from our home. 
  • Kirstin:  Our hostess at this gathering and long-time true family friend. Originally from Germany, she relocated in Alma via Ontario many years ago.  Amber Brook, her B&B, was Wolfgang's respite “weir spreken deutch” when he was touring the Fundy area.  Fluently bilingual, she also helped Wolfie adjust to the provincial and village culture. A leader in every capacity, Kirstin is assertive but friendly, often taking firm but polite command of situations.
  • Linda:  Kirstin's housemate, and another good family friend.  A retired librarian, Linda is mild-mannered, soft spoken, well-read, and unfailingly gracious as co-hostess, keeping conversation flowing with her extensive knowledge of current topics and historical or literary references.
  •  Gerry:  Readers of The Jugular Vein blog have already met Gerry, a talented musician and friend, in “Share it If You Got It.”  Always eager for the company of friends and holiday socializing, Gerry rarely missed an invitation to share food, song, or companionship. He lived alone in a remote farmhouse outside the village limits, where unrelenting Fundy fog often compounded loneliness.  An expert jack of all trades, Gerry always made do for entertainment, fun, and practicality, and – like my mother – wore Dollarama brand readers to save the expense of optometrist and prescription glasses.
  •  Dad (Wallace): Happy to have someone else hosting the evening, and keen to relax with the company of friends, he always enjoys a gathering. Usually an active participant or initiator of an evening’s entertainment, Dad was more an observer on this night.

After we finished our meal, the lively conversation around the table quieted as the dishes were cleared away and the cleanup began.  Since it was the holidays, someone suggested we sing traditional Christmas carols.  Regrettably, Gerry didn't have his guitar and there were no musical instruments at Kirstin's house – except for one.

A small children's electronic keyboard toy with one octave of keys, and dead batteries.  Kirstin quickly found and installed new batteries while we half-heartedly hummed and vaguely tried to recall lyrics from familiar carols.  Once the keyboard had power, Wolfgang stood and suddenly took command of the toy, running his large fingers over the keys to assess the sound.  One key wasn't working, which sorely disappointed him.  I was highly amused at the sight of this respected conductor’s serious efforts to generate music from a cheap toy, dwarfed by his big hands that were more accustomed to producing grand classical works from our parlour.

Gerry reached up and took it from him, and used a small pocket knife to unscrew the back and reveal the electronic chips and connectors.  He found a loose component and tried to bend it back into place, but it snapped and completely lost its connection. Kirstin, who’d been hovering over his shoulder, gave a “tsk!” at the realization that Gerry had ruined the evening's opportunity for music.  

Undaunted, Gerry took out his second pair of Dollarama readers, and put them on over the first pair he was already wearing. He exclaimed, “Well, now I can see the problem!” and asked Kirstin to get a soldering iron.  

Impatient to begin the music, Wolfgang stood up and raised is arms in full orchestra conductor mode, commanding attention by announcing in his strong German accent, “I vill make ze tone!” and started humming a mid-scale note for us all to follow.

I looked at Dad who sat back in his chair with a contented smile, enjoying the scenario as Kirstin repeatedly spanked Gerry's hand away from the electronics to prevent him from causing any more damage.  With each spank Gerry shrank back and resumed fiddling with the parts, both reassuring and teasing Kirstin that he could repair it.  The scene would have been the same had they been 10 and 12 year old brother and sister competing for the fix.

Kirstin eventually came up with a wood burning tool, and plugged it in. Gerry, wearing his two pairs of glasses, bent over the small panel to melt and fuse the broken connection, while Wolfie tried to organize a small chorus of dinner guests to give a rousing rendition of the German-English favourite “O Christmas Tree.” 

Though distracted by Kirstin and Gerry's activities at the head of the table, Linda, Dad, a few other guests and I vainly tried to attend to Wolfgang's directions, as he sternly insisted we follow his lead.  But with the noise of Linda clearing the dinner dishes, the smell of melting plastic and metal from the soldering project, the increasing tempo of the scolding/slapping/teasing between Gerry and Kirstin, and Wolfgang’s voice rising over all, demanding the attention and performance of reluctant carolers, repeating sternly, “Listen!  Follow! I vill make ze tone!” the scene was one of complete and uproarious chaos. When Gerry finally presented the repaired toy to a relieved Wolfgang, we managed a warbled rendition of “O Christmas Tree” in English and German. But when he found the formerly silent key now made a low crackling buzz instead, he set it down again with disgust, to our great amusement.

By now dessert was ready, and we'd fulfilled the promise of music, the camaraderie of an evening, a memorable holiday celebration.  Though I have no delicate ornament to serve as a memento of that evening, I have a genuinely happy memory of friends who have become family; extensions of my small family tree. 

How lovely are thy branches.