Happy to Be Home

Having just returned from a wonderful trip to South Africa, I am struck, as ever, by how good it feels to be home again.

Our journey through that wonderful country constituted the trip of a lifetime, a celebration of our golden anniversary.  Readers of this blog have already shared in some of our adventures, although my scribblings are no substitute for being there.

Over the years, my family has always loved to go on trips.  Be it winter for skiing, or summer for camping, we really enjoyed going away.

camping

My wife and I worked in the school system, so our holidays tended to come in regularly-spaced chunks, which was especially nice when our daughters still attended elementary school.  We were able to get away several times during the year, usually for short spans of four or five days.  That made us more fortunate than many folks, and we appreciated that—one reason, perhaps, why we enjoyed the opportunities so much.

Due a combination of lack of interest and financial realities, I suppose, we didn’t make elaborate journeys to glamorous vacation spots.  Our most expensive holidays were of the weekend-at-a-ski-lodge variety.  Mostly, we just visited with family members who lived out of town, stayed with friends at their summer cottages, or set up our own digs at one of the myriad provincial campgrounds.

Vagabond vacationers—that’s what we were.

In spite of our love for going away, however, and regardless of the type of trip we’d been on, there was one element common to all our family meanderings.  We loved to come home.  No matter how long we’d been gone, it was a real joy to come in the door, drop our gear, and explore through the house.

This lovely memory of bygone days washed over my wife and me once more, upon our most recent return.

Each of us seemed to have one special thing we liked to do when we arrived back, a self-appointed task that served to herald our homecoming.  Among the several necessary jobs—turning up the temperature in the water heater, plugging in the water-softener, or opening windows to dispel the stuffiness—our special tasks stood out in their importance to each of us, respectively, as our way of saying, I’m home!

My wife would spend fifteen or twenty minutes visiting her plants, watering them, talking to them, grooming them lovingly.  My youngest daughter would head to her bedroom to check on whether everything was just as she left it (though, sometimes, given the disarray, I wasn’t sure how she could tell).  My older daughter would take Cinnamon, our dog, on an inspection tour of the house, the sunroom, and the back yard, generally in that order.

For all of them, it was a renewing of acquaintance with home.

My task was to wind the five clocks.  The time on each face had to be adjusted, the chimes and gongs checked to be sure they were synchronized, and the pendulums re-started.  It wasn’t a difficult job, or a lengthy one, but it could be stretched into a half-hour of time alone, savouring the feeling of being back home again.  And, when the next full hour rolled around, and the clocks began to sound, everything seemed normal once more.

clock2

Perhaps you share my sentiment that, when I’m not in the place I love, I love the place I’m in.  My family certainly looked forward to every succeeding trip or vacation spot we planned to visit, and always seemed to enjoy ourselves wherever we happened to be.  But, when it came time to head for home, we were never unhappy with that prospect, either.

Our daughters have been gone for several years, of course, off raising families of their own.  But they’ve continued the tradition of holidays together as often as possible.

For my wife and me, however, holidays are different now—more sedate, more pampered, and to more exotic destinations than in our earlier years—places like South Africa.  Although we miss the girls, we still love to get away.

Way back when, we had a nice little routine we’d go through as each journey neared its end.  One of us would start by remarking on the terrific time we’d all had, how much fun it was to be on holiday.  Someone else would comment on the wonderful weather, or the exciting activities we had shared.  Another might mention some of the memorable highlights of the trip now ending.

“Yeah, it was a great holiday,” somebody would eventually conclude, “but it sure is nice to be coming home.”

Later, perhaps at the supper table, or maybe when the girls were getting off to bed, one of us would look up and re-affirm it.

“Y’know, it’s good to be home!”

home

So, most recently, when all the plants were tended to, and all the clocks were wound, my wife and I settled in with a glass of wine.  No words were spoken, yet we understood how each other was feeling.  And by the time the clocks chimed ten, we were both fast asleep, exhilarated and exhausted by our wonderful adventures.

And most of all, happy to be home.

The Unwelcome Guest

For many years, my wife and I lived in a beautiful home on a lake.  We enjoyed having friends visit us, and always bent every effort to make them feel welcome and appreciated.  It seemed only right, given our previous experiences.

welcome

You see, during the years before we owned our place, we had become perpetual guests, enjoying the vacation cottages owned by many of those very same friends.  We reveled in extended visits during the summer—always by invitation, of course.  But strangely, we were never invited to holiday at the same place twice.

And that was ever a mystery to me.  All our friends absolutely adore my wife, and appreciated that she brought food, drinks, bed-linen and towels, and an appropriate hospitality gift to thank our hosts for their graciousness.  As a person of some sensitivity and breeding, equally eager to be welcomed, I always tried to conduct myself as a valued guest, too.

That wasn’t as easy as it sounds, though, because it’s difficult to define what makes one welcome.  I tended to rely upon the timeworn standards; namely, go only when invited, make suitable noises of appreciation while there, and leave before being asked to.

On one visit, my host confided in me that, “Remember, guests are like fish.  After three days, they stink!”  On another occasion, a friend (out of earshot of his wife and mine) handed me a roll of toilet tissue, saying, “This is yours.  When it’s gone, so are you!”  I laughed heartily, sure he was being funny.  He wasn’t.

So over time, I came to realize that the things one host might require of me were not the same as that expected by another.  Consequently, my relief was immense when I came across a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ for people planning to visit friends at their cottage.  Some twenty-odd items long, the list was chock-full of wonderful suggestions.  I spent a good deal of time studying these, and made plans for putting them into practice.  My wife merely shook her head; she is prescient, that woman.

Tragically, I came to learn I had wasted my endeavours.  On most of our visits, nothing worked as it was supposed to.  And because I put forth my utmost efforts, I can only conclude that the list of suggestions was faulty.

Take, for instance, the one that said, “Don’t ask if you can bring some friends.”  That made sense to me, so I didn’t ask.  I just invited a few people on my own, figuring they’d all get along once they got to know each other.  Not so much, as it turned out.

Another suggestion advised, “If there is one bathroom, limit your time in it.”  I did.  I made a point of rising each morning before anyone else, so I’d be in and out of the bathroom in under half an hour.

One recommendation puzzled me at first, until I realized the limitations of septic tanks.  It said, “Do not flush the toilet after every use.”  Since everyone seemed comfortable with that, despite the obvious (and odious) disadvantages, I went along with it.  I found it necessary, ‘though, to flush each time before I used it.

I was very good, too, about offering to “help with a few of the never-ending chores around the cottage.”  I was quick to clean up the wood-stain I spilled; I helped to re-install the screen door I accidentally walked through (the new netting had to be back-ordered); I accompanied my host in his boat to fetch a canoe that drifted away after I forgot to tie it to the dock.  The rocky shore it had washed up on scratched its painted finish, but it still floated (thankfully, since I was tasked with paddling it back).

canoe

My most heroic effort was when I dove down a number of times, unsuccessfully, trying to retrieve the small outboard motor I inadvertently dropped into the lake.  (Damn thing was heavy!)  I only stopped because I didn’t like swimming in the gasoline slick that appeared on the surface of the water—although I thought the colours were amazing!  The last I heard, the motor was finally located, recovered, and junked.

Ever determined to pointedly follow the advice from my list of ‘do’s and don’ts’, I was hurt when my hosts would decline my offer to “help with barbecuing and barbecuing duties.”  I was stunned when they would tell me not to bother to “fill the gas tanks after boating.”  And I was positively shocked when they would literally scream at me to “exercise caution when using power tools.”   They actually relieved me of the chainsaw I had fired up to cut kindling for the campfire I was planning.

The most hurtful moment came after lunch, on what turned out to be the final day of one such visit.  My hosts showed me a piece of cottage etiquette not covered by my list.  It said, “If we get to drinking on Sunday afternoon, and start insisting that you stay over until Tuesday, please remember that we don’t mean it!”

unwelcome2

Being a person of some sensitivity, as I have said, I eventually came to realize that my efforts to please my hosts were neither understood nor appreciated.  Which explains why my wife is still invited to these cottage-getaways—but for what are called girls’ weekends now—while I languish at home.

I really believe someone should revise that misbegotten list!

 

The Games

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will soon be upon us, that quadrennial gathering of the world’s best athletes.  But we are hearing from so many of them that they plan not to attend, citing a host of reasons—their health, fear of terrorist activity, unfair competition because of doping, or the unpreparedness of the host country.

I remember a different set of games, played by girls and boys in the schoolyards we frequented.  No one was obliged to take part but nearly everyone did, in one fashion or another, because it was fun.

There weren’t a lot of specific rules involved because the games varied tremendously from one day to the next.  There were always a few standard guidelines that everyone was familiar with, but usually nobody bothered much with them—unless, of course, someone violated the sense of fair play that was commonly shared.  Whenever that happened, which wasn’t too often, arguments would flare up, each side would proclaim its case, and finally—perhaps so as not to waste too much of the playing time—a consensus would emerge and the games would continue.

Winners predominated, but only because the games allowed more opportunity to win than to lose.  And since nobody made any effort to keep track of scores and points once the contests ended, every kid in the schoolyard could be a winner in retrospect, a champion in classroom reverie.  Every participant could find some measure of satisfaction in the play, some joy in the sport of it.

kids-playing

After a while, though, those games changed.  Some of the adults in the schoolyard, for the purest of reasons, decided to contribute their time and energy to help the kids organize.  They offered the advice and assistance that comes with experience; and out of the chaos the adults thought they observed in the schoolyard, they brought order.

The vague and tenuous rules that previously governed the games were sharpened and recorded.  And all the girls and boys were made to learn them.  No disagreements were tolerated, and some of the adults volunteered to serve as game officials to ensure fair play.  Many of the games—those that didn’t lend themselves easily to such organization—were dropped in favour of those that did.

A lot of the kids were dropped, too, because there were no longer as many opportunities to compete for those whose game-playing abilities were not as fully developed.  These children were kept in the schoolyard, but off to the side where they could watch and cheer the others at play.  They became onlookers, hero-worshippers, only able to enjoy the experience vicariously.  And gradually, the games became The Games.

The Games, remember?  They were played by the very best girls and boys in every schoolyard.  But because there weren’t enough top-calibre kids in any one yard to sufficiently challenge their skills, the adults arranged for them to play against girls and boys from other schoolyards.

They played hard.  They did themselves proud.  In their various sweaters and uniforms, decked out in colours unique to their own schools, they vied with one another to see who was truly the best.  The purpose was not just to compete, but to win.  Records became increasingly important, first to establish and then to shatter.  And over a period of time some schools gained reputations as powerhouses in the competitions.

Winner, Winning Stairs, Olympic Games, Silver Medal

In order to attain such heights, or to remain on top once there, some schoolyard teams resorted to additional measures.  They enticed the best of the younger children to attend the big-name schools; they lobbied for changes to the rules of the contests to favour their own talents and skills; and they began to heap criticism on other schools who engaged in the same sort of tactics.

Eventually, one schoolyard team had had enough.  Perhaps because of an inability to compete at the highest level, or a sense of futility when playing the better school teams, a decision was taken to stop competing in The Games.  The other schools protested loudly, but to no avail; the boycott held.  And then more of the smaller, less successful schools made their decision to drop out, too.  In just a short time, The Games were reduced to a shadow of their former glory.

The kids, of course, were rather confused by it all.  After being told by the officious adults to work and train and practise, and just as they were beginning to take their exalted status for granted, they discovered that it had all been in vain.  There would be no more competition.  The Games were finished.

So they returned to their respective schoolyards, disheartened, disillusioned, downcast.  And there, to their surprise, they found that no one else in the schoolyard cared.  All the other girls and boys had long since lost interest in what the more skilful of their peers were doing in their more highly-organized competitions.

Back in the schoolyard, the other kids, the ones  left behind, had begun to play on their own again.  Free of the interference and regulation of the over-zealous adults, they had rediscovered their games.  There weren’t a lot of specific rules involved because the games varied tremendously from one day to the next.  There were always a few standard guidelines that everyone was familiar with, but usually nobody bothered much with them.  They just played to the best of their abilities, and enjoyed the freedom and the exhilaration of being included.

The games.  Nobody was obliged to take part but nearly everyone did.

Because it was fun.