Confession: I never thought too much of Santa as a kid.
When my sister and I were very young, Dad would take us for a long enough winter sled walk on Christmas eve, as soon as it got dark out. My sister and I sat all bundled up in blankets on the wooden sled and Dad pulled us, through the snow, while telling us stories from his own childhood. I remember the snow creaking, the stars sparkling ever so bright up above, and my dad’s voice, like another warm blanket wrapped around us girls.
I bought four mugs at a thrift store yesterday. I am hardly the ‘I must have it if I see it’ type of person, but these were just right. The colour and shape and the way they felt when I picked one up. A mere $4.99 later, they came home with me and four of the ones we had for a while will go to a thrift store. Maybe they’ll become someone’s favourite mug, who knows.
One of the good things about an overcast morning is that should you decide to take the dog to the beach, you’ll have the place to yourselves for the most part.
Though we’re in a pandemic and many of us miss hanging out with friends and family the way we used to, solitude is good for us when we need to get away from all the noise of everyday life: news on COVID-19, more news on COVID-19, and the never-ending hail of information we don’t need but get anyway through social media on any given day.
As 2018 is ending, there is a funny thing happening: the resolution machinery is put to work. Open any big box store flyer and you’ll be reminded of resolutions, particularly the fitness ones. The distance between today’s you (somewhat heavier and poorer you after Christmas eating and shopping,) and the better you of tomorrow (possibly fitter but just as poor or worse if you give in to promises and buy promises shaped like fitness machines,) is ultimately yours to decide on.
Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday December 24, 2018.
It was 2am when the dog started growling in that way that means one thing: someone is too close to the house. Shortly after the growling, light beams started flickering through the bedroom curtains. We got up to look: someone was running through our backyard with a flashlight. Admittedly, that was strange. We live in a safe neighbourhood without too much rowdiness or crime. When the back alley light shone on the man’s back we realized he was part of the police force.
I once owned a mouse in Vancouver. She was actually a gerbil accused of unprovoked violence by her previous owners, cute and beady-eyed like any respectable rodent. She became the object of my compassion after I saw her gnaw at the metal bars of her cage with the desperation of the unfairly incarcerated. I said yes to host her for two weeks and then made her ours. A case of falling for a mouse.
I remember driving all the way to Surrey to get her a glass tank where she could play gerbil and hide in tunnels she could change the orientation of as she saw fit. I also looked far and wide for the proper bedding material.
Alas, that home was only her occasional residence. She found her way outside the tank one sunny afternoon and after that I figured we could have her as our free-range rodent as long as she would go in her quarters every now and then.
It worked, save for a few minor instances of mouse-wary friends screaming bloody murder as they saw her run across the kitchen floor. No need for a conversation starter as you can imagine.
She would come when I offered her food. Talk about bridging the species gap. We had good communication and, though she was a rodent (according to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Guide, a Mongolian jird, to be precise) I never associated her with… well, mice.
She had raised herself above the condition of a mere mouse by the virtue of responding when called upon and extending her little front paw to grab food as it was offered to her.
Fast-forward five years and I find myself owning mice again. Not by volition mind you, but by circumstance. We live in the shadows of two pine trees and near some wild tall grasses that hide small openings in the ground. Mice live there, little boy informed me one day. He found evidence to back up the occasional sightings: a mini skull, well preserved and interesting to look at.
Someone said ‘Be careful so they won’t come inside.’ I gave the thought some possibility but employed a plump supply of denial and optimism to get myself to ‘Nah!’ in no time. I stayed there in my cozy little denial corner until a gaze thrown lazily one morning into the cutlery drawer revealed the telltale signs of mouse invasion. The horror!
According to a charming book that used to be the boys’ favourite, ‘Little Mouse on the Prairie’ by Stephen Cosgrove, field mice resent the cold weather. Once you get past the cuteness of the big eyes (eye lashes included), you are presented with the reality of how much mice steer clear of the jolly season.
Yes, according to many sources, plus evidence at hand, field mice resent the cold weather and they try their best to escape it. A warm kitchen usually solves the chagrin. Ours in this case.
With evidence staring me in the face (yes, it did, from the jar lids drawer), denial withered and made room for panic and disgust. Lots of room, that is. Except that though we had a few rough murine encounters in our previous abode, compassion gets the best of me and once again I found myself searching for ‘humane removal of mice.’
Peppermint essential oil garnered a lot of support. Twelve dollars later, every drawer and surface in the kitchen smelled like a candy cane. ‘Tis the season indeed.
For two nights and days, order was restored and humans reigned supreme in their own kitchen, touching surfaces without any mousey afterthought and thinking ‘How amazing!’
Then, everything came to a halt in a most atrocious manner. I discovered a mouse in a bottle that once had maple syrup. An artsy glass contraption that little boy liked and made it his. Until a particularly curious mouse met its untimely end in the very bottle. This is our second mouse mummy. With Halloween approaching I could see some practical applications, given the nature of the specimen, but that is not of importance now.
We parted with the bottle in sheer disgust but considered the incident a sign from above. Bottles, humane trapping, happy ending without suffering… Right. Well, I am here to inform you that no bottle did it anymore. The sheer mechanics of their escape from the bottle is mind-boggling.
Mouse Olympics or not, our mice are badass when it comes to jumping out of bottles: tall, short, wide or narrow opening-bottles, nothing prevents them from getting the bait and jumping out like the victors that they are.
More peppermint, more minty whiffs as I open the drawers and navigate through the kitchen. No, I do not particularly like candy cane and I have the feeling that mint tea will take the way of the dodo. The mouse accents are just too strong.
I bathed the house in essential oils, peppermint and tea tree. But more is not always better. The mouse (mice) must’ve found a way. Once again, back to the drawing board. This time, murine compassion was left at the door like a wet umbrella. Really, what do you do when negotiations fail miserably? I am one step away from hearing chewing sounds around the house. Wait, I am already there. Never mind.
We used Balderson’s for bait. It worked. We might just win. We have, after all, not only home advantage but also a big supply of cheese and peanut butter. We will not be defeated. Or have our cutlery stepped on again.
In retrospect, I really wanted this to be peaceful. I do not believe in violence. Then again, how much peppermint can you drop around the house without getting dizzy? Half a bottle’s worth will do nothing. The mice will poop on it. Literally. This is no Hollywood. Happy ending in this case is where man and beast part ways. Garbage day is on Monday. Farewell.
I still have the card. I open it on my birthday every year; a ritual of some sort that brings it all back for a bit. It has a photo of snowdrops and crocuses. Inside, my dad’s neat narrow letters, tilted just so… I always loved his handwriting. My mom’s written words followed his. They would write letters and cards together, each bringing their own thoughts as gifts.
My mom’s round letters remind me of her hands. I loved watching her cook and iron and I wanted my hands to be the same; they seemed to know so much of life. They were always warm.
The card, the last birthday card they ever sent brings it all back. Truth is, nothing really goes away. The pain of missing is like an old lifeless tree still standing by the side of road after life left its every branch but with roots still anchoring it to the ground. You want it there but it hurts every time you see it.
The pain of missing the ones who leave us clings to us. You cannot rush it. You let it sink in, and it reveals colours you think are too harsh to use, only to realize that those are the colours you can use to paint your world alive from now on, the only real ones you have. They help you know who you are and they trace the roots of who will become.
I did not look back for the longest time. Out of fear of pain, I didn’t. You’re never ready for that. You miss so much of what could never come back.
My birthdays at home, the smell of my parents’ kitchen with coffee and cake and warmth… I don’t remember the cakes or the presents, but the flavor of mornings I’d wake up knowing them there. My parents, both present, eyes happy to see me. I belonged to them and my birthday did too. This year is the first without them both.
One time my dad brought me a white cyclamen in a green pot. I was turning 12. I kept it in my room on the desk by the window, right next’ to my sister’s red one. Bright as the snow outside, it whispered happy birthday every time I’d look at it.
The next year I got a bouquet of freesia and the fragrance became mine forever. It is the smell of my birthday. I miss that. The smell of those snowy mornings, cold air and afternoon freesia. That’s when my dad would come back from work and we’d have cake.
I have been trying to make peace with it all. Not having them around. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. On my birthday it doesn’t. On the boys’ birthdays it doesn’t either. There is an emptiness that just sits there not sure what to do with itself, and I am not wise enough to say ‘now you go, there’s nothing for you to do here…’
‘Do you think she would’ve liked us, mama?’ Yes. Little boy never got to meet my mom. His brother did, yet all he has are bits of memory. They knows stories and miss her because I do. They see photos and try to paint their grandparents alive but that never works. They called it unfair a few times, the loss and the emptiness of my world and theirs, the smiles of times that could’ve been. There must be a better answer than shrugging…
The last chat I had with my mom… I remember it because I held onto that phone bill for a few years. I would stare at the date of that last chat, a line among many; like eavesdropping on the past, I could hear our laughter and silliness amidst the most serious things that life was throwing our way, her words ‘You take care of yourself, and of the boys…’ Like she knew, but she didn’t. In my darkest moments the pain of the most punishing thought there is ‘if I wouldn’t have hung up, she wouldn’t have gone to sleep and… ‘ grows so strong it’s unbearable.
I’d touch the date with the tip of my index finger, as if to take some memory dust and make that time mine again. Try again, do it better. It never works like that. It’s a one-time deal. Then came the realization that that piece of paper was heavier than the heaviest anchor and was tethering me to a place of pain that had no beginning or end. It was humbling and revealing. Two years ago I parted with the paper that was telling of a time that did not exist anymore, knowing that the door that opened just for my mom to leave could not have me knock on it to bring her back. Such doors are not for knocking.
Soon after, my dad’s long suffering came to an end and he too, opened the door and walked away. He had it rough and I knew he’d go. Still, the world without him was so much poorer and sadder. So much sunniness missing, memories of him returning in strong waves and trying me in new ways. My boys’ world without him and them both was turning grayer and all I could do was shrug, fighting back tears and knowing that I could not make this one right for them. Feeling powerless in the face of life becomes real in ways you cannot anticipate and you write the script of crawling out of that deep dark pit as you go; you see yourself slip downwards but keep on trying because of your children.
Mourning happens in waves. It comes and goes, it hurts, it stops; it transforms you. You grow into a better, braver version of yourself and then every now and then you wake up crying, dwarfed by pain and the missing of that place you grew so used to as a kid, the place where everything was good and safe and warm; inside your parents’ heart. Home.
Life seems cruel in how it peels layers off of us, leaving raw and hurting patches, yet the story is as it should be. How else would the inner layers show? We never are just who we are in this moment. We are who we become from what we once were, sheltered in our parents’ hearts until we learn how to make ours a shelter for our own children.
Yet, we’re never ready. We’re children playing house and giggling away, seeing the bright light shining through the branches of the tree we’re sheltered by, never minding the shadows, so spoiled in the comfort that grows with every time we touch the time-kissed bark.
We carve our names in it, blissfully unaware of the times to come when reading the very names in the bark of the tree that is no longer alive will bring around a sound we’ve never heard before. Mourning.
We honour pain the best we can, remembering that pain is only part of the song we will now sing to our children. Songs of people we loved so much, our parents, stories of times, of loss, of petals peeled away suddenly and buds revealed too soon but what choice is there anyway?…
Time rolls and drags you along, incomplete and prematurely exposed to suns too bright and winds too strong. But you grow, you grow kind and mindful of time, knowing that even the longest summer day will at some point become night and the darkness holds no threats of being lost from brightness, but the promise of at least one more day.
So you make the most of the one you have. And you help your children understand that though never the same, life without the ones who leave is not poorer, but that much richer because they were once in it. And you say the name you once carved with little child hands in the bark of the trees you love, you say it out loud, and the sound becomes a song.
You see the contours of every letter, you remember, and you become more. You ask your kids to close their eyes and you guide their fingers to feel your name, and in doing so they’ll discover that some are now in their names too. You help them belong and know that they are not fragments of worlds lost but pieces of the one that cannot be complete without them.
They’re safe from shrugging and emptiness now, and you are too for having learned that night comes with the promise of yet another new day; at least one more, which you will make the most of…