My new favourite thing


Our success depends on complete silence.

We tip-toe down the hallway. Slowly now. Time is on our side.

Far away, in the family room, Erin, Henry and Alice play. The noise of this activity will be our shield. You and I continue our stealthy trip to our destination, which we now approach.

We stand silently outside the bathroom door. On the other side sits an unsuspecting Jane--her feet dangling, a Richard Scarry book perched on her lap. She's been looking for Goldbug for the last 20 minutes, and will continue to do so for another 20, if left alone.

If left alone....

My hand is suspended a fraction of a centimetre from the door handle. My next actions must be in perfect sync, or the project is doomed.

1, 2, 3..

I simultaneously yank the door open and yell at the top of my lungs:


Jane shrieks! The book leaps out of her hands. Her legs kick out as her bum jumps 10 centimetres from the toilet seat.


Her shrieking quickly morphs into giggling, which is drowned out by my own laughter. I will laugh heartily for the next 10 minutes.

Parenthood is fun.

The five move up a row

Something interesting happened at the wake following Grandma D's funeral. It happened during the big group photo of Grandma's descendants (who were in attendance). It was the usual photo of the type--one huge mass of the many cousins, uncles, aunts, grand kids, etc., with the senior generation seated in the front row of honour.


Grandma was our usual row of honour. We had to recalibrate. And that meant a new row of five chairs: one for each of Grandma's kids.

I think someone made a joke about the generational shift that just occurred. I don't want to make too big a deal about it, but how often does that happen? I think it's worth remarking on. Especially since the five don't tend to end up in the same photo very often.

My oldest sister got married Christmas week when I was 17. The whole lot of Atkinsons made it to the Leamington area for the week-long party it became. I don't know how the conversation started, but my cousin Katie and I got to talking to my dad and her mum about their childhood on the farm. They both agreed, their favourite memory of growing up was hoeing the tomato fields on Saturday afternoon.

This answer didn't jive well with Katie or me. She spent a few weeks the previous summer picking tomatoes with me on our farm. At 17 and 15, we couldn't imagine those sticky, sweaty, backbreaking hours spent with green-stained fingers being any more than wasted moments to be forgotten.

We started up a survey. We sought the rest of the five, and found one seated at the euchre table.

Katie: Aunt Marion: what's your favourite memory of growing up on the farm?

Marion: (thinking) I'd have to say... probably hoeing the tomatoes on Saturday afternoons.

This was maddening. We found the next sibling playing crokinole.

Me: Uncle Jim: what's your favourite memory of growing up on the farm?

Uncle Jim: (flicking a chip) Tough one. Probably hoeing the tomato fields on Saturday afternoons.

Impossible. Ruth Anne was our only hope. She was sitting at the kitchen table helping Grandma finish a pot of tea.

Ruth Anne: That's easy. Hoeing tomatoes on Saturday afternoons*.

That settled it. We came from a family of crazy people.

And yet.

I don't know exactly what went on during those Saturday afternoons. I do know my grandfather stood in the end of the rows with a sharpening stone, waiting for someone to finish a row so he could put a fresh edge on his or her hoe. As for the rest... it's not my story to tell.

I'm one of four siblings. Two of us have kids. Another will join us in parenthood within months. These years, when I think of my family, I think of Erin, Henry, Jane, and Alice. I have no less love for my siblings, parents, uncles, aunts, or cousins. I think it's part of a pretty natural progression.

I think the next step in that progression happened for my dad and his siblings the moment they became the front row. Five who started together, then scattered with their own families, then were thrust back together. The front row.

Again, I'm probably making too much of this. But it's just what I've been thinking about in the last few weeks.

*Note: my memory tells me they did their hoeing on Sunday afternoons. That's what I remember them saying, but this was a God-fearing family. I can't imagine them actually doing this on Sunday. I've switched it in this post to Saturday because I assume I'm remembering wrong. Please correct me in the comments.

That's kinda nice

The kids are asleep. Erin and I sit chatting on the couch, exhausted again, having the usual conversation.

Erin: You should go to bed.

Me: YOU should go to bed.

We hear the pitter-pat of feet in the hallway.

Me: Dog?

Erin: I'm pretty sure it's a kid.

Sure enough, a very sleepy Jane comes padding out to the living room.

Me: Well hello, Janey. You OK?

Erin: I don't think she's awake.

Her eyes are half closed. Her cheeks are puffy. She says not a word, but climbs on my lap, curling up like an infant. I melt.

Erin covers us in a blanket and turns down the light. We stay this way for a while before moving to bed.

Nooduphobia: the irrational fear of noodles

My boss is treating my coworkers and me this week to lunch at the Noodle House in Charlottetown. Our family has never eaten there before, and we were discussing it over supper (at our house).

Erin: If you like it, maybe we can all go sometime.

Me: Sure.

Henry didn't like the idea of eating there. Not one bit. We asked why.

Henry: I don't know. Something about all those noodles. (He shrugged) Kinda makes me nervous.

Raising Calvin

Henry is learning how to snowshoe.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch...

He's awkwardly plodding along in the deep snow in the field behind our house.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch...

He stops every now and again to look around and nibble a bit of the snow stuck to his mitt.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch...

I think of the first time I went snowshoeing, a few years ago, in the Cape Breton Highlands.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch...

I think of how suddenly free I felt. I could go anywhere. See anything.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch...

He walks back towards me.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Henry: Can I watch TV?

One little knife

Grandma D spent Christmas of 2005 with us at our house in Saint John, New Brunswick. We had not been home to Leamington for the holidays for five years, so it was great to have her and my folks with us.

Before this, Grandma had never been east of Montreal. I was excited by what she'd think of our chosen home, but was concerned by how uncomfortable she'd be on the long drive. She didn't complain. Of the trip, Grandma only said how taken she was with New Brunswick.

"It's one postcard after another."

As several of us crammed into the kitchen to prepare Christmas dinner, Grandma--who never liked the idea of sitting idle--asked if she could help.

"There has to be something I can do."

"Do you want to peel potatoes?" I asked.


She rummaged for a few moment through our cutlery drawer.

"I can't find your paring knife."

I reached in, grabbed a short serrated knife with a black handle and handed it to her. She looked at it.

"That's not a paring knife."

I was so embarrassed. All this fancy kitchen stuff, and not a paring knife to be found. The simplest of tools. (I'm referring to me)

I scrounged back through the drawer and came up with a peeler.

"How's this?"

She took it, holding it as if it were a foreign object.

"I never did figure out how to use one of these."

It was soon clear this wasn't the tool for Grandma. Luckily, Dad was there with his pocket knife. In a few minutes, Grandma had the entire bag of potatoes peeled.

Always assume Erin is listening. By the middle of the next day, a paring knife with a white plastic handle found a home in our drawer.

I think of this story every time I grab for that knife. I love the feel of it in my hand. I love the way it slips under the skin of a potato as I roll the spud around and around until there's nothing left but a pile of scraps and white ball of starchy flesh.

I'm thinking we can pencil something in, maybe Thursday-ish?

In the car. Pulling into our driveway.

Henry: Can I play hockey?

Me: You need your bath, Cornbread. We've put it off too long.

Henry: I've cancelled my bath today.

Someone tell me I'm not fat

Jane, Erin, and I are slumped on the couch at the end of a long, grumpy day. Jane pokes me in the gut.

Jane: Why do you have such a fat tummy?

Me: Ouch.

Erin: People don't really like it when you call them fat, Janey.

Jane: I didn't call him fat. I asked why he had such a fat tummy.

Husband in training

Erin wrapped up a minor lecture for some act of insubordination by Henry.

Erin:, please, don't do it again.

Henry: OK. (pause) Mum, you look really great.

Maybe it's noodly pasta?

In the kitchen, shortly before supper. A pot of water bubbles on the stove. Jane listlessly rolls her back against the cupboard doors.

Jane: Muuuum. What's for supper?

Erin: Pasta.

Jane: Pasta? Yum!

She runs around the house yelling, "Pasta! Pasta! Pasta!"

A few minutes later, the food is on the table. Jane looks into her bowl.

Jane: (disgusted) Noodles? You said we was having pasta.

Life, death, and stories

The day before we jumped on the train bound for home this Christmas, we found out my grandmother died. Grandma D was wonderful in every way a grandmother can be wonderful. I miss her every day.

Grandma's funeral was a tribute of stories. Her life was told by one of my aunties, Grandma's daughter. Then, we were invited to tell stories of our own. Cousin Carolyn approached the front, turned to face us all, and said:

"You have never been washed, until you've been washed by Auntie Doris."

That one sentence made my eyes sting from the memory of Ivory soap dripping down my forehead after being scrubbed into my scalp. The entire room, who had all apparently been bathed at one time or another by Grandma, nodded smiling in agreement.

Our kids only met Grandma a handful of times, but her quiet way made an impression on them. Jane's understanding of her death grew in the days and weeks after learning the news.

On the train traveling home.

Friendly Woman: So, are you visiting your grandmas and grandpas?

Jane: Yes. My grandma is dead.

Woman: Oh, sweetie. That's very sad.

Jane: (bewildered by the sympathy) I still have two more.

At the funeral home.

Jane insisted that she see Grandma D before the funeral. I held her hand and walked slowly with her through the crowd, pausing occasionally to say hello to family and friends. As we neared the coffin, I starting thinking about what Jane was about to experience. I wondered if she would be scared. Mostly, I worried if I would somehow screw up this important moment.

Me: Here she is, Janey. You OK?

Jane: (nodding bravely) Yes.

We stood quietly for a few moments looking at my beautiful grandmother. I don't know what went through Jane's head, but I thought about plastic bowls filled with corn syrup for dessert. I thought about games of Scrabble played on the green-carpeted floor of Grandma's living room. I thought about hands so strong only she could open the jars of tomatoes she'd sealed (I carried a jar around for years that I never could open).

Me: Are you sad?

Jane: Yes.

Me: Me, too.

Next day.

Me: Hurry up, Jane. We need to get our coats on to go see Grandma A's choir sing for the Olympic torch.

Jane: (pulling on her hat) How can she sing if she's dead?

Me: You're thinking of Grandma D. This is Grandma A we're going to see.

Jane: (thinking) Will I ever see Grandma A dead in a box?

Me: .....probably. But not for a while.

Today. At home.

Jane: Will I ever get old?

Me: Yes. In many, many years.

Jane: Will I ever get dead?

Me: Yes. Everyone dies.

Jane: Like Grandma D?

Me: Yes. Like Grandma D.

Her eyes well up.

Jane: How did Grandma D get dead?

Me: Grandma D's body worked very hard her whole life. She was a baby, like Alice. Then her body grew and grew and grew and became a big girl, like you. Then it grew and grew and grew and became a woman, like Mummy. Then her body made five babies. Those babies grew and grew and grew and became adults, and they had babies. And all those babies grew and grew and grew, and some of them had babies. And all that time, Grandma D's body worked hard to take care of her, and of all the babies. After all that time, some of the parts of her body had a hard time doing the job they were supposed to. And one night, those things stopped working, and Grandma D died.

She thinks for a moment.

Jane: Am I one of the babies?

Me: You are. And so am I. And so is Grandpa A. And so are a whole lot of people.

Thinking again.

Jane: Can you tell me a story about when I was a baby?

Me: Of course I can...