Empress of the Garden

Very recently, I came upon some pictures of the neighbourhood where my parents purchased the last home they would ever own—a home where I spent the final ten years of my boyhood.  The pictures, old black-and-whites, had been taken before all the homes were built, and the streets were still dirt-tracks.  No one yet occupied any of the finished homes.  The cars and construction vehicles parked helter-skelter were like a virtual museum of 1950’s-era vehicles.

home

It wasn’t long, however, before we and our new neighbours were moving in—into freshly-painted homes, with tidy lots of newly-laid grass, driveways of impossibly-white gravel, and (for the most part) no trees.

But my family was singularly fortunate in that, along our side of the rear property line, a row of mature trees stood, there for years before the developer arrived, perhaps marking the boundary between some long-ago farmer’s fields.

Our house was set amidst them—tall, ancestral trees, most of them, old enough that they could have known our grandparents’ names, and their parents before them.  To my young eyes, they seemed to reach endlessly to the sky, then bow over, protectively, to shield us from the world.

In short order, my parents established a garden around and beneath those trees.  Some were big trees, with trunks wide enough to hide behind, others were smaller, with branches dipping low enough to allow us to climb.

trees 5

On the hottest of summer days, my siblings and I could return from playing in nearby parks to collapse in the cool, welcoming shade.  In the crispness of autumn afternoons, we could jump and hide in (and scatter) the piles of fallen leaves my father had spent hours raking together.  He never seemed to mind.

At dusk on a cold winter’s evening, we could stare through frosted windows at the skeleton branches, stark against the darkling sky.  And in the rebirthing spring, we could search out budding maple-keys, housing seeds, peel them back, and stick them on our noses.

They were of many kinds, our trees.  The maple, which we tried to tap one spring to make syrup, but unsuccessfully.  An oak, scattering acorns on the ground for us to collect, and which brought the squirrels.  A beautiful beech, with its lovely bark and spreading foliage.  And a large, gnarled weeping willow that we used to hide under, its branches trailing snakily along the ground.

The oldest and most important of all our trees, however, was an elm.  Standing firmly on a small rise at the back of the garden, she reigned over the other trees (in my mind’s eye, anyway).  Encircling her base was a large rockery, broken in one spot by a narrow walkway of flagstone steps leading from the lawn up to the base.  At the top sat an old bench, which we always referred to as our throne.

But we rarely played our games in or around the elm tree, as we did with all the others.  At various times, we had swings attached to sturdy branches of some, and knotted ropes hanging from others.  For a while, we had a treehouse roosting in one of our trees, complete with a crude ladder nailed to the trunk.  And, of course, we climbed in as many of them as we could, playing at being pirates, or Tarzan of the Apes, or Robin Hood’s merry men.

elm 4

But, we didn’t play in the elm tree.  Somehow, she seemed too stately to suffer our nonsense gladly.  She rose, tall and columnar, to a great height, before spreading her branches, fan-like, over the trees around her.  They looked to be paying homage to her, perhaps because she’d been there forever.  For us, she made the yard a wonderful and safe place to be.

The empress of our garden.

But then, one sad summer, her leaves turned brittle and brown, and began to fall before their time.  During the other trees’ glory of autumn-colour, she was already bare.  When the following spring arrived, she budded only partially as disease spread through her limbs, and in the ensuing summer she shed her leaves early again.  When next the spring came with its hope of new life, she was dead.

For us, so young, her death seemed incomprehensible.

She remained standing for another year, maybe two, a haunting, spectral reminder of what she had been.  When her rotting branches began to break and fall off with increasing frequency, she had to be taken down.  And then, all that remained of her former grandeur was a large, wide stump on top of the small rise.

I still remember, quite clearly, sitting on the ground one day beside that forlorn nubbin.  I was simply looking at our garden, when it suddenly struck me just how small it really was.  Our trees no longer seemed so grand without their empress, nor so inviting.

boy 3

It was about that time, I think, that I began to put away my childhood games.

Fore!

Upon retirement some twenty years ago, I moved with my wife to Florida for six months of the year.  Where once we had been intrepid winter-sportspeople, participating avidly in (and watching) hockey, curling, and skiing, we forsook them all for the warmer climes of the sunny south—and for year-round golf.

Nestled into a cozy villa in a golfing community, we took to the links as many as four or five times a week—foursomes with friends, club leagues, and even occasional tournaments.

My regular men’s foursome was with three friends, and playing with me was pretty much an act of charity on their parts.  Naturally enough, our conversations generally revolved around the state of our respective games.

foursome

These fellows had, for years, recorded better scores than I had.  I was never sure from week to week which single digit represented their handicaps, but I knew what my handicap was—a pronounced lack of ability to hit the ball where I wanted it to go.  Because of this, I had to put up with their wisecracks, clumsily disguised as advice.

“Y’know, you’re usually standing too close to the ball,” Charlie would chortle.  “After you’ve hit it!”

“Maybe it’s how you’re gripping the club,” John would join in.  “Have you tried playing left-handed?”

“Actually,” Bob would blurt, unable to contain himself, “you’re not really playing golf.  The game you’re playing should be called, If Only…!

Mind you, the ball always went where I hit it—although rarely where I intended to hit it.

To tell the truth, I knew my friends were a lot better than I at the game.  But the gap seemed to be widening with each passing year, and I finally had to acknowledge I was the guy who always had the highest scores.

a-golf-scorecard-and-tee-picture_csp0481297

What really bothered me were their claims that they played golf to relax, to shake off the everyday cares that accompany getting older.  When we’d finish a round, they’d be happy, serene, and ready for a self-satisfied nap.

Not so with me!  I generally came in after eighteen holes feeling frustrated with my score, angry about the balls I had lost in several of the ponds, and despondent over my lack of improvement.  My friends would laughingly console me by saying, “Relax already.  You’re not good enough to get mad!”

So, in desperation, I decided to take a lesson from the local pro at our club, who watched me hit a few balls on the practice range.

“Hmmm,” she offered, after witnessing my futile flaying of the club, “I think you need to take a couple of weeks off, get away from it for awhile.”

“Really?” I replied.  “That’s it?”

“Yup.  Then, you should consider giving up the game!”

Undeterred by her flippant attitude (and figuring she’d probably been put up to it by my friends), I decided to persevere—but, I have to say, only after making several minor modifications to the rules.

rules

On one day, for example, I would decide on the score I wanted to shoot before I began each round.  When I reached that number, regardless of which hole I was on, I would simply stop counting my strokes.  And guess what?  I began to feel quite pleased with myself—although, I was a tad concerned about how my friends seemed to feel.

“Seventy-five?” they’d chorus disbelievingly.  “Really?”

On a different day, I’d resort to another of my modifications, this one having to do with visualization.  Because I knew what constituted a good golf shot, even if I had trouble executing it, I’d conjure a mental image of what I wanted each shot to look like.  Then, Zen-like, I’d slash at the ball.  If I liked the result, if it matched my visual image, I’d count the stroke; if not, I didn’t.  And just like magic, my scores improved.

As did my mood.

A third minor change, one I particularly liked, allowed me to stick almost exactly to the rules.  I would play every stroke by the book, not trying to finagle the score on any hole—I’d tee off, hit crisply from the fairway, putt every stroke (no gimmies), and I’d count every penalty stroke (if there were any).  The only deviation from the rules of golf was that I used an imaginary ball, rather than a real one.

For a long time, I really believed this new game of ‘air-golf’ could catch on, and I wouldn’t have to bend over on every hole to retrieve a ball from the cup.

Looking back, there were a host of changes I made to my rules—

  • there was no such thing as a lost ball because the missing ball was on or near the course and would eventually be found and claimed by someone else, thereby making it a stolen ball;
  • when my ball was sliced or hooked into the rough, it could be lifted and placed on the fairway at a point equal to the distance it had carried or rolled into the rough with no penalty, because I should not be penalized for tall grass which grounds-keepers had failed to mow;
  • if my putt passed over a hole without dropping, it would be deemed to have dropped because the Law of Gravity should always supersede the Rules of Golf; and
  • if any of my putts stopped close enough to the cup that they could be blown in, I could blow them in without penalty; this would not apply to balls more than three inches from the hole, however, because I didn’t want to make a mockery of the game.

putt

With these changes in place, my scores began to match those of my friends in short order.  And I can’t say they were pleased about it.  In fact, so petulant did they become that, after only a week, I had to abandon these rule modifications altogether.

It was either that, or I’d have found myself playing alone!

Mind you—not that I want to lose my friends—I do shoot my best scores when I’m playing alone.

Just sayin’!

 

Something I Said?

It happens sometimes at a restaurant where three or four couples are dining together.  I look up from my soup to find myself alone at our table, the others at the salad bar or in the washroom, perhaps.

alone

Or it could be at a dance, nine or ten of us sharing a table, and I’m suddenly sitting by myself while the others are up dancing, or maybe table-hopping.

The tiresome jokes flow at these moments, naturally.  Some wise guy will ask in a loud voice if I’m dining tonight with all my friends.  Or some other wit will wonder if I did something to offend everyone in my party.

I laugh, of course, perfunctorily—but somewhat puzzled, too—for it is curious that this crops up with me so frequently.  Was it something I said?

It may happen to others, too, I suppose, but hardly ever when I’m around.  And although the jokes are stale from repetition, they do take my mind away from a somewhat more sombre realization—that someday, we know not when, one of us in our gang will, indeed, be left alone.

We’re at an age where many of the things we used to take for granted are likely not in the cards for us anymore.  How many of us will purchase a new house, for example, with a twenty-year mortgage?  Do we really care if the 2040 Olympic Games are held in this city or that?  Are hair transplants or facelifts really such an attractive option now?  How many more new cars will we buy?

how-to-get-a-discount-on-new-car_orig

We’re not yet at the stage where we won’t buy green bananas (another old joke) or make plans for some holiday cruise two years from now.  But those days are coming.

Aging is a simple, yet so mysterious a process.  Simple, because it creeps up on us without any conscious intent on our parts.  We start school, we graduate, we marry and become parents.  We raise our children, sadly (or not) bid them adieu when they embark upon the world, and exult in the joys of grandparenthood when they begin their own families.  Eventually, we retire and reach out for new and exciting pastimes.

Granted, it took years for me to do all this, and the work was palpable while I was doing it.  But when it finally hit, my seventy-fifth birthday seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.  Getting there was a simple matter of waiting.

But aging is mysterious, too, because so many odd things transpire.  For instance, although I feel like the same person I always was, my friends are obviously getting older.  Occasionally, when I happen to spy one of them unexpectedly, I see first an old man or woman—only to realize belatedly it’s my friend.  I suspect the same thing might be true in reverse when they have a chance encounter with me.  We’re all too polite to tell each other that, though.

A lyric from the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, seems to capture it:  I don’t remember growing older, when did they?

fiddler

A few years ago, I underwent some serious surgeries, not necessarily age-related, and spent several months in follow-up visits with the medical people who treated me.  When reading my files one day, I was quite surprised to discover a letter from a referring physician to a specialist who had treated me.  After the usual introductory paragraph, the letter stated, “This elderly gentleman presents with symptoms congruent with…”

My attention was riveted on those first three words.  I thought I had opened someone else’s file!  Elderly?  Surely not I!  And yet, at the tender age of sixty-four, it was true—at least from the perspective of those young professionals.

And so, here we are, I and all my friends, firmly ensconced in our senior years.  None of us talks morbidly about the inevitable end of our lives; more likely, we’re comparing our golf scores, sharing the latest stock market activity, or showing off pictures of our grandchildren.  We’re a pretty happy lot, all told.

One of us, a retired funeral director, jokes that he used to sign his letters Yours eventually.  “They’re gonna get us in the end,” he says with a wink.

hearse2

I do think about the end-stages of life, however.  Like finding oneself left alone at the table in the restaurant, or at the dance.  A close friend from boyhood never got to experience that aloneness, dying before his time just over a year ago, surrounded by family and embraced in the thoughts of his many friends.

My parents, on the other hand, lived well into their nineties—not a guarantee of longevity for me, I grant you, but a pretty good genetic gift.  At the end of her life, my mother had outlived her husband, all her siblings, and all her friends.  Despite the visits from children and grandchildren, I know her final years were painfully lonely.

We cannot know the hour or manner of our own passing, so it’s futile to fret about it.  Yet I occasionally ponder whether it would be best to go first, before everyone else has passed, or be the last one standing (or sitting, or lying down…whatever).  So much of the joy of life comes from those around us, family and friends, and so much would be missing without them.

I’m unable to decide with any certainty which option I’d prefer.  I waver from one to the other, depending on my mood.  Vacillation can be a comfort.  Truth be told, there is no definitive answer to be found; what will be, will be.

old man dying

But honestly?  I don’t think I want to be the last one at the table, wondering in vain if it was something I said.

Mayday! Mayday!

Another pagan festival is almost upon us, the celebration of Mayday, which I dread with every ounce of my being.  It rolls around on the first of May, of course, and is observed in several countries around the world.

In its most malign form, it features a display of armed forces by autocratic nations eager to boast of their military might.  More benignly, it involves an innocent dance around a maypole by young lasses and lads, joyously welcoming the spring.

maypole-on-the-country-vector

But honestly, for me, the second is worse than the first.

Almost seventy years ago, when I was in grade one, I was one of those youngsters conscripted as a maypole dancer.  All the rosy-cheeked girls wore frocks and crinolines, and bright bows in their hair.  I and the other boys, all involuntary participants, wore jodhpur-type pants, shirts and ties, and sickly smiles.

We had been relentlessly rehearsed in the dance by our teacher, a lovely lady most of the time, but a tenacious taskmaster on this occasion.  Our mothers and grandmothers were gathered in the schoolyard to marvel at their darlings (this was in the day when everybody’s fathers went off to work, while mothers stayed home), and the children in the older grades were brought outside to watch, too.

The dance itself was not meant to be overly-complicated.  We stood in a circle around the pole, each of the boys facing a girl, whose back was to the next boy.  We all held one end of our own long, bright ribbon in our hands; mine was red.  The other ends were affixed to the top of the maypole—in this case, a steel volleyball stanchion.  When the music started, the idea was for the boys to shuffle counter-clockwise around the pole, while the girls went clockwise, bobbing and weaving around each other, first inside, then outside, thereby layering the maypole with cascading colours of ribbon from top to bottom.

We had to sing a song while we cavorted, an old tune that none of us liked—While strolling through the park one day/ In the merry, merry month of May,/ I was taken by surprise/ By a pair of roguish eyes,/ I was scared but I didn’t run away.

Believe me, every one of the boys wanted to run away, but we were too scared of our teacher to bolt.

teacher4

Anyway, right after the first or second turn around the maypole, singing that stupid song, the top end of my ribbon came off the pole, fluttering pathetically to the ground.  Thunderstruck by the disaster, I stopped dead in my tracks, which immediately caused a bumping and crashing among all the other dancers.  The singing died away, unlamented by the singers.

Had I not been too young to know the international distress call, I would probably have screeched, “Mayday!  Mayday!”

Quick as a flash, my teacher grabbed my hand and pulled me to one side, my ribbon trailing me, then got the others going again.  The synchronicity was ruined, of course, because the odd number of boys couldn’t zig correctly around an even number of zagging girls.

Every boy in that circle was probably wishing he was me, safely out of it, but I was mortified.  I couldn’t look at my mother and grandmother, so ashamed was I of my faux pas.  The only consoling thing was my teacher’s hand, softly stroking the back of my head.  I still love that woman.

Afterwards, everyone adjourned to the gym for tea and cookies (milk for the kids).  My mother and grandmother tried to reassure me, saying how much they had enjoyed the show, but all I could see were the faces of the other kids, some of them smiling smugly because they hadn’t been the one to mess up.

At some point, my grandmother took the ribbon from my hand and went off somewhere.  I scarcely noticed.  But after a few minutes, back she came with it, now gloriously fashioned into a large bow, with loops and knots galore.  It was beautiful, but I was too caught up in my internal anguish to acknowledge it.  A few moments later, my grandmother disappeared again.

After a while, we all went outside so some of the mothers could take pictures of the maypole.  I had to be convinced by my mother to revisit the scene of my shame, but imagine my surprise when I got there, only to see a big, bright red bow adorning the pole.  My bow!

big-bow-clipart-10

Those with cameras—little black boxes they peered into from above, shading the viewfinder from the sun with their hands—took picture after picture of all the dancers clustered in front of the maypole.

“Bradley’s bow!  Bradley’s bow!” the kids chanted, faces alight.

And at last a smile broke through on my face, too.  I may have been a klutz during the dance, but the pole was a smashing success because of me and my bow.  Or, perhaps more accurately, because of my grandmother and her love.

But regardless, Mayday has never since been my favourite of festivals.

Those black-and-white snapshots inside their scalloped frames are long gone now, of course.  Yet I still remember my teacher’s kindness, my mother’s proud smile, and my glorious bow.  And I have never forgotten my grandmother’s love for me.

I have, however, never danced around another maypole!

April

Geoffrey Chaucer, in the late 1300’s, wrote about April in his Canterbury Tales, praising its rains and warm winds for the restoration of life and fertility after the endless winter—

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

But T. S. Eliot, another British poet, took quite a different view in 1922, in The Waste Land, where he savaged the month—

April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain…

The same month, two opposing points of view, left to the reader to determine which is the most apt.

My own outlook varies from time to time, depending, I suppose, upon my mood, the weather, and the company I keep.  I have often longed for the coming of April with its showers sweet, its promise of spring, only to be disappointed by its refusal to let go of winter.

Poetry is one means I employ to give voice to my feelings, sometimes optimistic, full of hope, and other times doubtful and despairing.  I find the Japanese haiku form especially appropriate—three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively—to convey my conflicted state of mind.

By way of example, here are five haiku I have written dealing with April, each with a picture in harmony with my outlook.  I, too, leave it to you, the reader, to decide which of my moods is being conveyed by each—

peekaboo

sun plays peekaboo,
dancing ‘cross the wint’ry lake—
heralding the spring

peekaboo

teasing

april is cruel—
so the poet says—teasing
us falsely with spring

springtime

spring

joining in our walk,
tentatively, yet warmly—
sweet spring has returned

pring walk2

april fool

april can’t fool me,
that false harbinger of spring—
may is the gateway

rainy april

in the rain

dancing in the rain,
neither of us wet or cold—
warmly wrapped in love

in the rain

May the spring blossom anew for you…..in April, or whenever it arrives!