Toot Your Roots

I was told once upon a time by a spinster great-aunt who disapproved of my adolescent exuberance (and, perhaps, my apparent irreverence for traditions she held close) that in our vast family-tree, with its roots stretching back to highland-hills across the sea, I was surely the sap running through the branches.  The sap!

I probably smiled gamely, unsure about the implications of the comparison, although doubtless certain I’d been disparaged.  But, interestingly enough, her comment did prompt me to find out more about my family-tree.

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That lady and her sister, my grandmother, were first-generation Scots-Presbyterian, born into a family of nine to an austere, eastern-Ontario farmer and his wife—my maternal great-grandparents, dead long before I appeared as a bud on the tree.

Sometime in the early 1900’s, my grandmother married a Catholic suitor with a French name, whose family had emigrated to Canada from Ireland.  From the time I first learned to speak, I was told not to address him as Grandpa or Grandfather, not Poppa or Gramps (my preferred sobriquet now with my own grandchildren), but instead by his first name.  So, I did.

This worthy couple had five children, my mother being second in line.  She—in concert with my father, of course—eventually had five children of her own.  One of her siblings had one child only, the others none at all, so I and my sibs grew up with one first-cousin on the maternal side of the family-tree.

My paternal grandparents—he born in Canada to English émigrés, she born in Canada to parents of Irish descent—had three children, only one of whom, my father, had children.  Thus, I had no first-cousins on that branch of the tree.

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Interesting, at least to me, was the discovery that, after my grandfather had married my grandmother, his brother had wed her sister.  They also gave birth to three children, so my father and his two sisters grew up with three double-double-first-cousins—a somewhat unusual occurrence on a family-tree.

Long after my disapproving great-aunt had passed to greater glory, I married a young woman whose family had similar roots to mine—Irish, Scottish, and English.  My wife has three siblings, and two first-cousins.  Her sibs have produced five children who are first-cousins to our own two daughters.  Our girls also have ten first-cousins on my side of the family, the children of my sisters,  for a total of fifteen!

As I delved into the history of our family-tree, I learned about the nomenclature and relationship of cousins—considered complex by some, incomprehensible by others.  I think it’s straightforward, however, so let’s see if I can explain it simply.

cousinsThe children of my first-cousin are my first-cousins-once-removed, as are my children to her.  Her children are second-cousins to mine.  That pattern is repeated unto the third, fourth, and all subsequent generations of cousins.  Easy, no?

We are now at the stage in our extended family where second-cousins (great-nieces or -nephews to me) are just beginning to have children.  Eventually, I expect this will lead to multiple sets of third-cousins, most of whom (due to constraints of time and location) will probably never even meet one another.

Two generations on from me, two of my five grandchildren—each with her own maternal and paternal branches of a family-tree—have a total of five first-cousins from both sides of their family.  The other three of my grandchildren, likewise growing from two branches of a family-tree, have two first-cousins.  None of those cousins has, as yet, had children.

Years ago, a good friend of mine, an artist and out-of-the-box thinker, developed a prototype for what would today be marketed as a family-tree app, which he called Toot Your Roots.  It didn’t catch on, although the digitized world we live in now might make it a feasible product.  As I recall, it had spaces in which to enter surnames in flowing script as each new family-tree melded with the others.

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If I were to attempt entering those names today—back to the time of my great-grandparents, forward to my great-nieces and -nephews, including both my and my wife’s branches, and those of our daughters’ families, and the families of their cousins, and so forth—I confess I could not do it.  Not without a lot more research.

Even now, having benefited from the endeavours of like-minded extended-family members, I can list only twenty-five surnames.  Descending across the years, they are:  Burt, Thompson, Smythe, Duck, McKinnon, Roche, Colquhoun, Fife, Dunleavy, Eaton, Eckert, Cherry, Rowsell, Whittington, Wigglesworth, Lansi, Moss, Curtis, Sweezey, Tiller, Tucker, Dunn, Fiorino, Guthrie, and Grant.

Given this partial list, and aware there are many more surnames I do not know, I envisage my family-tree looking like one of these—this dragon-blood tree on the island of Socotra (left), or this large banyan tree in Florida (right), one tree at root, despite its many appendages.

 

The thing is, I’m not sure where to look for myself on either of them.  My family-tree is just too vast, its roots and canopy too extended.

But I do know one thing for sure.  I am not the sap!

Those Were the Days

Let me list some life-threatening things that have befallen us, my wife and me, along our way together through these many years—

  • a head-on collision that totalled our car, from which we walked away shaken, scathed, but alive;
  • a diabolical attempt on our lives by an unhinged assailant, foiled only by the most fortunate of circumstances;
  • a last-minute, lifesaving operation in the wee dawn hours by a dedicated surgeon who removed my colon before the disease ravaging it could snuff me forever;
  • the onset of cancer, that most insidious of diseases—once for me, twice for her—held successfully at bay, so far, by equally dedicated doctors;
  • a severe lacunar stroke that struck her without warning, treated as quickly as possible, from which she has recovered to the point of resuming her tennis and golf endeavours.

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It’s a grim list, to be sure, not one we enjoy recalling.  And yet, here we are, still alive, still able to remember each and every event.

Let me cite now another list, this one of life-altering blessings we have been allowed to experience together on our journey—

  • two amazing daughters and their loving husbands, who love and esteem us beyond what we deserve;
  • five loving grandchildren, only just awakening to the limitless possibilities dawning before them;
  • siblings, six in total now, whom we have known and loved for more years than seems possible;
  • fast and faithful friends, both new and old—as the children’s song says, the one silver, the other gold;
  • a beautiful home on a lake in Ontario, another on a freshwater pond in Florida, each a place of inspiration and respite;
  • a creative penchant that allows us the opportunity to craft things where there was nothing before—pottery and glass-sculpting for her, music and writing for me.

This is a much happier list than the first for so many reasons, the most important being that, where the first comprises things from our past—never to be revisited, we hope—the second embraces blessings we continue to enjoy.  And that enjoyment follows from a belief that, as Robert Browning wrote, …the best is yet to be.  Through the hardships, it is that belief that sustained us.

An old Russian folk-tune (for which English lyrics were composed several years ago) speaks to the reminiscences of people my age upon their vanished youth, and recalls their once-cherished romantic idealism—

Those were the days, my friend, / We thought they’d never end…

I’m happy to say that, so far, they haven’t.  We’re still singing and dancing.

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Five Cousins

Longer ago than I care to think, the final one of our five grandchildren made her entrance into the family.  She joined an older sister and brother, and two cousins, both girls.  Because the five of them live close to each other in the same town, they’ve spent a lot of time together and have grown quite close.

Ranging in age from seventeen to eleven, Ainsley, David, Alana, Naomi, and Abbey were the subjects of a book I published some years ago, a collection of poetry for and about them.  Titled Five Cousins, the book spun tales of their adventures at the various stages of life they had by then attained.

3 Cousins cover

Each of them received a copy from me one long-ago Christmas—signed, of course, with a suitable inscription.  At the time, the younger ones enjoyed having the poems read to them more than reading them themselves, but either way, their peals of laughter warmed the author’s heart.

Each of them had a section of the book, titled with their name, containing half-a-dozen or so poems with such titles as:  Ainsley Starting School; It’s David’s Day; Alana’s in Florida; Oh, Naomi, You’re the One; and Little Abbey’s Walking Now.

Over the years, these five cousins have seen a good deal of us, their Nana and Grandpa, often at our retirement home in Florida.  In one of life’s everlasting mysteries, they have grown older by leaps and bounds each year, while we elders have hardly aged at all!

[pause for muffled snickers of disbelief from amused grandchildren]

Regardless, it is a fact that three of them are now taller than we are; the eldest is off to university this fall; the second one will join her next year; the next two are halfway through high school; the youngest will soon enter junior high; and every one of them eats gobs more than we do!

As they have grown, their lives have gravitated less toward us and more to their friends; their interests have shifted away from us to their myriad interests and activities; the time we spend with them now is less than it used to be.  They face their futures now, rather than focusing back on what has been.

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Happily for us, they visited us in Florida this year—perhaps for the last time all together, as their lives will increasingly take them along paths diverging from ours.

That is natural, of course, and as it should be.  But their inexorable journey to their own destiny has me thinking I must write another collection of poems about them, and for them, before they leave the sanctuary of childhood for the last time.

I could do it for each of them separately, beginning with the eldest, and follow up for each succeeding one as they reach the age she is now.  Or I could do it as I did the first time, with poems about all of them, suitable to the stage each finds her- or himself at right now.

I think I favour the second option, given my own age.  Time, I increasingly find, is not to be taken for granted.

Anyway, here are five short pieces I have already written about them, collectively rather than individually, in haiku form.  The poems attempt to express my love for these five cousins, my hopes for them, and my unabashed pride in them.

smiling photographs

on the refrigerator—

loving grandchildren

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

grandchildren, our hope

for the future—as we were

once upon a time

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

free your grandchildren,

hug them close, then let them go—

they’ll e’er be with you

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

more yesterdays now

than tomorrows, but it’s the

tomorrows that count

grandchildren

Five Cousins e-book – http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept

So Late, So Soon

There is a song from a popular musical production that I’ve always liked.  Its opening lines run something like this:

Where is the little girl I carried?

Where is the little boy at play?

I don’t remember growing older,

When did they?

When I first heard the song as a young father, before ever seeing the play, it struck me as something to be sung by people much older than I, parents whose children had grown into adulthood.  Knowing now how quickly time can pass, however, I’m not so sure of that.

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This past year, one of my sisters welcomed her first great-grandchild into the family.  During that same period, a friend of my daughter’s sent her eldest child off to university for the first time.  Almost twenty years separates these two children from each other.

It seems to me, looking on from a vantage point somewhere between these two milestones, that the difference from one to the other is not so great at all.  Only yesterday, my own five grandchildren were infants; tomorrow, they’ll be heading out into the great, wide world.  And when that happens, the intervening years will have passed in the blink of an eye.

I find it fascinating to talk with my sister and my friend about their respective hopes and ambitions for these two children.  Although they’re speaking from different perspectives, their feelings are remarkably the same.

Whether still at home as a babe in arms, or off to school in a faraway town (as a babe in the woods?), each of these children is the object of a good deal of love and concern.  Each is seen by their families as being at the beginning of a long, exciting journey.  Everyone hopes the kids will be healthy and safe, happy and secure, and successful as they grow through the next few years.

Hart House 2012 (phot by James Marsh).

Both families pray the children will make the best use of what their parents are able to give them.  They hope the children will be guided by a strong set of values.  And they definitely want to keep open the lines of communication with their young.

Their most similar characteristic, though, is their tendency to care about and fuss over the children.  It matters not whether the kids are with them still, or out in the brave, new world—they worry.

In a way, I find that reassuring.

Of course, there are differences, too, in how these folks look upon their situations.  With my daughter’s friend, the mother of the university child, I detect a hint of resignation in her outlook, which is not apparent in my sister’s perspective.  It stems, I suppose, from the knowledge that she no longer exercises as much control over what her child is doing, or what might be done to him.  More and more, she can only look on as her son finds his own way.

mother and son

She appears to be at peace with this, however; she evinces a belief that most of what she will ever be able to do for her son has already been done.  Or not.  She doesn’t see her job as a parent as finished—perhaps it never is—but she doesn’t view it as the major focus it once was in her life.

She summed it up quite nicely on a recent visit.  Speaking almost wonderingly, she said, “There was so much more we wanted to teach him before he went off and left us.  But it got so late, so soon!”

In her comment, I hear an echo of that song I like.  My daughter’s friend doesn’t remember growing older, so when did her son?  It’s a song many of my friends are singing now, as their grandchildren continue to grow and strike out on their own.  It’s a song I, too, will soon be singing.

As Jack Kornfield, an American writer and Buddhist practitioner, has written—The trouble is, you think you have time.

time

So, I don’t complain that I’m too tired when my grandchildren still want to come visit me.  And I don’t say I’m too busy when one or the other wants to tell me all about their latest exploits.

For I know, as my daughter’s friend says, that too soon, it will be too late.

A Panhandler’s Christmas

[first posted December 2016]

After we retired to Florida some years ago, we discovered that Christmas there is as jolly a season as any we enjoyed up north, enveloped by snow.  It was especially joyous when our grandchildren came to visit.

Merry_Christmas_on_the_Beach

One evening during our last Christmas season in the sunny south, we all went out to dinner—my wife, our daughter and her husband, and three of our grandchildren.  We’d spent the afternoon shopping at a large, regional mall, and were looking forward to enjoying the cheer of the season and the pleasure of each other’s company.

During dinner, we talked of our plans for their holiday with us.  Unlike the north, where tobogganing, skating, snowball fights, and warm fires were the order of the day, in Florida the beach, the pool, and the golf course were all on the agenda.  We were looking forward to an old-fashioned holiday with lots of singing, plenty of fresh air and exercise, good food, and family to enjoy being around the tree with.

By the time we finished dinner, sharing our happy plans, we were all feeling very fine—warm, full, comfortable.  We left the restaurant, chatting amiably, and began the walk back to the parking lot where we had left the car.

As we waited to cross the intersection, guided by flashing green and red traffic lights that added to the festive Christmas air, we were accosted by a stranger.  He meant us no harm, but his sudden approach startled us out of our contented state.

He was tall and quite thin, and his face jutted out from under a worn cap.  His beard was unkempt, his eyes red and rheumy.  He wore faded jeans, tattered and patched, and an old, plaid shirt with the collar turned up.  The children huddled behind their parents, afraid of being so close to such an apparition.

panhandler

When he spoke to me, I could hardly hear him in the hum of the passing traffic.  He mumbled through that scraggly beard, through missing teeth, his words coming in disjointed phrases.

“Hey, can you….you got anything….any change?  A bus ticket, maybe….got any…?”

He was clutching a sign on a scrap of corrugated cardboard that read:

Out of work   Homeless   Anything helps   Thank you

“No, sorry,” I muttered, watching for the green light that would allow us to escape.  And we walked away, slightly embarrassed, but relieved to leave him behind.

“Who was that guy, Daddy?” one of the kids asked.

“Did he wanna hurt us?” another chimed in.

Their parents reassured them that he had meant no harm.  He was just a man asking for money.

“Is he sick, Mummy?  Will he be alright?”

None of us could really answer.

When we reached the car, we clambered in silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  The kids soon put the episode behind them, immersing themselves in their gaming devices.  As I drove back through the intersection, heading home, the stranger was still on the corner, huddling around himself, approaching passers-by.  He looked pathetic, and utterly alone.  I hoped he didn’t see me staring at him.

xmas panhandler

Later that night, after everyone was in bed, I thought of him again.  At first, I chastised myself for not giving him something to help him out.  From somewhere, the scrap of a Bible verse teased a corner of my mind—Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do also to me—something close to that, I think.

But then I rationalized that a token from me would not likely have helped him anyway.  He was obviously past the point where a solitary handout was going to make much of a difference in his life.  He’d probably have wasted whatever we might have given him on booze or drugs, I told myself self-righteously.  At one point, I got angry that he had put me in such an uncomfortable position.

Still, underneath it all, I felt a nagging guilt.  ‘Tis the season to care for one’s fellow-creatures; yet we, so full of the Christmas spirit, had kept on walking.  Because we were fearful, because we hadn’t known how to respond…or because we didn’t care.

Was it best to have ignored him and walked on, I wondered?  Or would it have been better to have given him something, in the spirit of Christmas and with the hope that it would have helped him?  I didn’t know.

As I think about it even now, almost a year later—sitting warm and safe at home at the onset of another Christmas season, surrounded by people who love me—I wonder where that stranger is and whether he’s okay.

And I wish I knew what I should have done.

 

Learning the Game

As young parents so many years ago, my wife and I loved to watch our daughters play soccer with their local house-league teammates.  It was their first involvement with team sports of any sort, except for pickup-games at school, and we hoped they’d like it because the concepts of teamwork and sportsmanship are so important in later life.

Now, all this time later, it’s our grandchildren we get to watch—wondering how on earth the time passed so quickly.  Soccer and volleyball are their sports of choice, and they’ve embraced the team approach essential to both.

Having been involved with children’s sports in the past—not just as parents, but as teachers and coaches—my wife and I are still keen to see the atmosphere in which they play.  How competitive is it?  How do their coaches approach the playing of the sport—as games to win at all costs, or as opportunities for the kids to learn the skills of the games?  How encouraging or critical are the parents (and grandparents) on the sidelines?

Well, as it turns out, we’ve had no cause for worry.  The kids are playing for coaches who believe it’s as important to treat opponents with respect as it is to show them how to kick the ball accurately with either foot.  It’s just as important to teach them to shake hands with opposing players at the end of a match as it is to spike a ball past them.  For that we’re very grateful.

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However, we were witnesses recently to two situations that point out the difference between how it should be, and how it all-too-often is.

After a soccer game on an adjoining pitch, two parents were walking their son, perhaps seven years old, toward the parking lot.  The father was particularly vocal as he verbally assailed the boy, and we, watching our granddaughters play, couldn’t help but overhear him.

“What’re you supposed to do when the whistle blows, eh?” was the first question.

The boy’s reply was delivered with head down, inaudible to us.

“You know?” the father said next.  “You know?  Well, it sure didn’t look like you know.  You’re supposed to stop when the whistle blows!”

The boy plodded on, chin on his chest.

“And why were you chasing the ball all over the field, anyway?  What is it about staying in position that you don’t get?  You ever heard of passing the ball?”

By then, they were adjacent to the field where the girls were playing.

“Look!” the father directed his son.  “Look there.  These kids know what to do when the ball goes out of play.  They don’t need their coaches yelling at them to get in position.  And they’re only girls!”

The boy didn’t look, of course.  He just kept going—trailed by his irate father and embarrassed mother—head down, a picture of dejection and simmering shame.

No-Bad-Kids

A number of us on the sidelines glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, silently shaking our heads.

On another occasion, by way of contrast, a friend of our daughter—out to watch her seven-year-old play volleyball—was shocked to see him refuse to shake hands at the end of a losing effort.  Rather than lining up at the net, he stomped to the bench, sulking at the score, and refused to mingle.  Despite her chagrin, she refrained from forcing him into the line-up, and she didn’t chastise him in front of the other boys.  But, as she later told our daughter, she spoke to him about his behaviour after they arrived home.

She asked him a number of questions, including, “How do you think the other kids felt when you wouldn’t shake hands with them?  How would you feel if they didn’t congratulate you if your team won?”

He resisted at first, naturally enough.  But she encouraged him, helping him to place himself in their shoes, a difficult task for a youngster that age.  He eventually acknowledged that being a good sport was important, whether his team won or lost the game.

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Together, they agreed—he somewhat more reluctantly than she, as she reflected later with a rueful smile—that if he couldn’t lose gracefully, he shouldn’t be playing at all.  Next, she had him talk to his coach on the phone, to tell him he must miss the upcoming game because of what he’d done.  The coach commended him for owning up to his mistake.

When that next game was played, the boy was sitting in uniform with his parents on the bleachers, watching and learning.  He didn’t play, but at game’s end, he joined his teammates in the line at the net.  Since then, there’s been no problem with his attitude, and he’s played in every game.  He’s often first in line now, I’m told, to shake hands with the other side, win or lose.

When I think about these two episodes, there seems no doubt as to which boy learned the most—the one who was accosted out of anger and frustration, or the one who was encouraged to talk about, and face, the consequences of his actions.  The one who was humiliated, or the one who was left with his dignity intact.

What was it that each boy learned from the exchanges?  And which boy has the best chance to grow into a mature, respectful young man?  A devoted husband?  A nurturing father?

Next to caring teachers and coaches, good parents are every child’s best friends.  Good parents lift their children high, hug them close, then let them go.

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Of course, I have to add that wise grandparents are pretty awesome, too!

On Etiquette

A decade or so ago, after almost forty years of marriage, my wife left me.  Oh, it was nothing permanent, thank goodness—just a weekend excursion she took with one of our daughters, who was visiting us in Florida with her two girls.  They left me to look after our grandchildren.

I was delighted, of course, not only because I love the girls, but because I knew it would give me an opportunity to put into practice all those theories about dealing with children that I’m forever espousing to my wife.

 Hah!  So much for that plan!

It wasn’t that my theories were without merit.  They were based on an assumption that children—and adults, for that matter—are responsible for their own behaviour, and should be held accountable for the consequences of that behaviour.  Pretty simple, really.  Our world might well be a better place if more people subscribed to that thinking.

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Now, before I go any further, please don’t get the impression that I ever told my wife how to raise our own two daughters.  Far from it!  She always brought her own common-sense approach into play during the many hours she spent with them.

But I couldn’t resist the opportunity—after I’d been away from fatherhood for so long—to put my theories into practice, dispassionately and all-knowingly, with my granddaughters.

However, I didn’t reckon on the fact that my daughter had learned the lessons of effective parenting only-too-well from my wife.  And the extent to which she’d been successful was brought home to me that weekend.

Right from the get-go, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any fault with my grandchildren.  On both mornings, they got up and made their beds, got themselves washed and dressed, and then wakened me.  Gently, with a kiss.

After breakfast, which they helped me make, they cleaned off the table without being reminded.  Then off they went, outside to play until it was time to walk to the pool—their favourite pastime.  The closest we got to a confrontation was when they asked if they could go barefoot.  I told them about fire-ants, and they readily dropped the subject.

pool

It was quite frustrating, because I wasn’t getting any opportunities to practice my pet theories.  Finally, however, I figured my chance had come.  We went out for dinner that first night, to a local place offering bbq ribs as the house specialty, and that’s what we ordered.  It was the perfect moment to direct the girls in the proper etiquette for dining out.

I tried to begin when the salads arrived, but I wasn’t fast enough.

“Use the small fork for your salad, Gramps,” offered the youngest before I could tell her the same thing.  I nodded obediently.

When I tried to say something else a few moments later, the oldest said, “Gramps, you shouldn’t talk with food in your mouth, remember?”  I nodded again, in guilty agreement.

Then, a minute or so later, while I was still watching for some breach of etiquette from them, the youngest piped up again.  “Please don’t let the fork scrape against your teeth, Gramps.  And your napkin should be on your lap in case you drop something.”  I hastily complied.

When the platter of ribs arrived, I received more advice from the oldest—even before I had done anything wrong.  “It’s okay to pick up the ribs in your hands, Gramps, but don’t lick your fingers.  Just wipe them on your napkin.”

ribs

“Gramps, don’t eat so fast,” said the youngest a few minutes later, “or you’ll get a tummy-ache.”

This went on through the entire meal.  I was lectured to, scolded, and encouraged, all at the same time, by my own grandchildren.  Worst of all, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Probably because, eating so fast, my mouth was always full.

But then, at long last, I found a way to seize the upper hand.  It was time to pay the bill, and I was the only one with money!  Confidently, I marched with the kids up to the cashier, flashing a broad smile at her as I pulled out my wallet with a flourish.  Rather than returning my smile, she merely looked at me—somewhat curiously, I thought.

Nevertheless, I paid the bill masterfully, adding just the right amount for a gratuity.  As we left, I bestowed one final, beaming smile on the cashier.  And again, she didn’t return it.

After we climbed back into our car, I turned to the two girls.

“There!” I said.  “That’s how you settle up after a good meal.”  I just knew they’d be impressed, and I smiled condescendingly at the two of them.

Ewww, Gramps!” they chorused in unison.  “You’ve got a big piece of meat stuck between your front teeth!”

Alas, being a grandpa isn’t always easy!

food 4