The Compass & the Mule
The Canadian border, Buffalo, NY:
Agent: Where are you headed?
Me: Canada? Oh right, first Toronto to a hotel downtown for a couple days and then Buckhorn where we’ve rented a cabin on a river
Agent: Any pets, food, plants, animal products, firearms, alcohol or tobacco?
Me: A bottle of wine saved for a meaningful occasion, probably around a campfire at 6pm on Saturday & a baggie of baby carrots my daughter, Astrid, rejected because they look weird. Also, her cheddar popcorn
Agent: How long is your visit?
Me: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday
Agent: Reason for your visit?
Me: Because there’s certain knowledge you can gain at home and other knowledge you must leave home to acquire
The last time I visited Toronto was in 1998. I went for a high school marching band competition. No, I have no musical skill. I was a flag and rifle twirler. I remember the CN Tower, feigning fearlessness as I squinted through the glass floor to the street 1,000’ below. I rode on The Maid of the Mist in a clear blue-tinted poncho. The last time my husband, Sean, was in Toronto was three years ago. I figure the statute of limitations on our “Never Go Back” rule is roughly 10-15 years. Sean cares less about rules than I do. Thus, last week we hit the road for Canada.
Determined to improve upon our last vacation, because what’s the point of doing anything if not for personal betterment, I planned a more varied experience with hopefully something for everyone - a little bit city, a little bit wilderness. In preparation for the trip I’d made a list of vacation lessons learned, replaced our windshield, gotten an oil change. Lessons learned include: don’t let Sean drive until we’ve reached our destination, bring bug spray, end each day swimming, eat out no more than two meals a day. That an itinerary should be designed to optimize the experience - cultural immersion, sight seeing, food preferences, entertainment, physical activity, rest, and each family members’ personal enjoyment and without busting the budget went without saying - even if we deviated from the plan it was there as our safety net. How many times have we stopped on a random street corner, Sean looking at me expectantly, “Where to?”? With that I was eager to see what it was that Canada would teach us. I had a few expectations. Namely to understand are we (a) big city people, (b) wilderness people, (c) small town people - the kind who live in Chardon longer than two years? Also God, if you’re not too busy, could you please send me inspiration and courage to write the book I’m meant to write (assumptions abound)? Amen.
Sean and I are very different. This is mostly advantageous. For example, when outdoors if shade is limited I sit in the sun. I’m always cold and he hates to be hot. I’m gifted at planning, Sean at executing plans. Sean walks fast and has a good sense of direction. Thus, he sets the pace and navigates. He’s the compass. I walk at a normal speed and bring up the rear. Our three children walk next to or between us. Usually this means I have Astrid’s hand in my left and Gus’s hand in my right. Ingrid grows more Sean-like every day. I have broad shoulders and carry a leather backpack. I’m the mule. My pack is loaded down with everything we’ll need to prevent frustration, meltdown, boredom or worst of all, a dead cellphone battery. My backpack is one of my most prized possessions, with us since before the Airstream adventure, and acts somewhat like Hermoine’s bag from Harry Potter - somewhat. It’s contents are as follows: my phone, planner, book (paperback), yellow legal pad and pens (for when inspiration arrives), hand sanitizer, tissues, Excedrin Migraine, eye drops, 3 kids iPads encased in rubber, 3 headphones, battery charger (3lbs), Sean’s lightweight jacket, 3 kids sunglasses, Astrid’s LOL doll and accessories in a baggie formerly occupied by baby carrots, Sean’s sunglasses case, my sunglasses case and typically at least 2 kids sweatshirts dangling from the arm straps. We estimated 25lbs. Though my shoulders ached I felt the smugness of being prepared and of burning calories at a rate far superior to Sean. This is how I justified eating an entire dark chocolate toffee almond bar while Sean savored a single chocolate the shape and size of a woman’s nipple (I’m talking regular nipple, not pregnancy nipple). When Sean eats healthy I carb-load. On this subject I wish we would get on the same page so I could despise him less.
In Toronto, a city slightly larger than Chardon (2.7m people compared to 5.1k), Astrid and Gus display signs of a very sheltered life. More than once an ambulance sped past with sirens blaring sending the kids skyward and turning their grip on my hands white-knuckled. At a stop light a truck released its air brakes and Astrid was nearly in my arms. This wasn’t all bad. I noticed something as we walked: when my hand slackened in hers she had the habit of using her free hand to curl first my thumb and then my remaining four fingers tightly around her hand again. This happened about a hundred times; I assume subconsciously. I tried not to abuse my new found power. Forget the city sights; this was a revelation. If not growing myself on this trip, this trip was teaching me how our kids are growing. Here’s what I learned:
Astrid’s in a phase where she longs to shock me with statements she thinks provocative, e.g. Mom, girls can marry girls and boys can marry boys, you know. I get it. She’s trying to figure out society, roles, rules. When we visited the St. Lawrence Market we needed to get to the lower level and proceeded down the first set of stairs we could find until Sean remarked, “Oh, these stairs say ‘Employees Only’.” “Why boys only?” Astrid asked. “Not boys only,” I corrected, “Employees only.” “What’s an employee?” She wants to know all.
Ingrid’s eleven and now has her own opinions. “Edward’s dumb,” Sean teased. Ingrid is reading Twilight. “You wanna go, Dad?!” she threatened. She appreciated Toronto’s diverse shops and cuisine but hated the crowds, litter and cigarette smoke. Certain things are empirically right or wrong in her eyes and littering is wrong. In Chardon she walks through town with a grocery bag picking up trash on the way to church or the Square. Sean would die if she picked up trash in Toronto. I’m ready with sanitizer. Dead things should be buried. While in Buckhorn Ingrid buried a dead minnow she found floating belly-up in the river. At home a dead bird she found on the sidewalk was given a proper backyard burial. Ingrid’s interests are slowly changing. Instead of spending her pocket money on a toy she bought a graphic novel and a calligraphy pen from a bookshop and neighboring stationery store. She’s more like me every day.
Gus is fiercely loyal, easy-going, sensitive, a peace maker. He told me, “Mom, you’re the best mom a boy like me could ask for.” “Thank you, Gus. I’m curious why you said ‘a boy like me’,” I replied. “I don’t want to make other moms sad.” At our hotel one evening Sean turned on a Canadian detective drama which everyone half watched, the kids only because there was a dog in the episode. The show starred a young male detective with spiked blond hair and his german shepard sidekick. In the episode someone does something illegal and the detective tries to get to the bottom of it before something really bad happens. I was reading but stopped when Gus said, “It’s the redhead coffee shop owner that’s the bad guy.” This was the woman who flirted with the detective but who the german shepard refused to be petted by. “Why?” Ingrid asked. “Because redheads are evil and dogs are always right.” Ingrid quickly followed, “But Mom used to dye her hair red. That’s rude.” “Only real red heads are evil,” Gus corrected. What a man.
Two of my favorite moments from the trip were deviations from the plan but for which I was prepared. The first occured at a brewery in the Distillery District where we took a mid-afternoon break. Astrid was overtired from walking and because, being the smallest, we’d assumed she’d be able to sleep in a lounge chair with the ottoman pulled up close 5 people 2 beds. A new lesson - from now on we’ll need adjoining hotel rooms so all the kids can have beds. She couldn’t sleep in the chair. She didn’t fit. At the brewery she faced me on my lap, her head on my chest, us soaking up the sun Sean in shade while I drank cold white wine and read her Hemingway for an hour. Ingrid, Gus and Sean were happily entertained courtesy of Apple and the 3lb battery charger and beers - root and craft.
The second moment followed. We wanted dinner and Sean being in healthy-eating-mode decided we should try a Spanish tapas place instead of burgers and fries at the brewery. The restaurant was Madrina; lovely modern interiors, ivory on white with gold accents, high brick walls. The walls were adorned with backlit panels featuring line drawings of bulls and of the female bust as noted by Astrid. Our kids have grown pretty accustomed to adventurous eating over the years. Still, this was taking it to a new level and I was nervous. I ordered a blanco sangria. Astrid dipped her finger in whenever Sean was distracted. This is what we ate: foie gras sesame macaroons dusted with cocoa powder, grilled monkfish on white bean cream, grilled octopus with curry chickbean hummus presented at the table under a glass dome filled with smoke, oxtail with pickled cucumber, and worst of all baby calamari in squid ink served cold. Even I abandoned that effort. Sean loved it.
Back at customs heading into NY I asked Sean if I should declare the bottle of wine we never drank. No. When we arrived home I put it back up in the cabinet to save for a meaningful occasion.
Remember the questions I’d hoped the trip would answer? I didn’t get the answers at least what I think are the answers until the day after we returned home.
PS. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.
- Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
PPS. Reading stories, real or imagined, set in a location I’m about to visit adds tremendously to my experience of that place. While A Moveable Feast centers on Hemingway’s years in Paris he did once live and work in Toronto, a fact worth several mentions in the book. I also recommend Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin - a modern twist on Pride and Prejudice set in Toronto and The River by Peter Heller - suspense - two young men canoeing Canadian rivers, man vs. nature…and man! A little bit city, a little bit wilderness.