My Dad, Our Church

Jun 22

My dad loved to sing and, thankfully, was good at it.¬† Church provided the stage upon which he could boast his vocal talents.¬† Every Sunday he crooned to hymns – the smooth lilt in his voice caressing every note. ¬†I remember one particularly cold Sunday morning, he belted out each song with such force as to drown out the other dutiful voices that floated above the packed pews.¬† I squirmed with embarrassment as curious eyes turned toward us and fought the overwhelming urge to cover my ears (he was so loud.)¬† I was sure the couple seated beside us had wished they’d brought ear muffs.¬† My father was completely oblivious to the reactions around him – so caught up in the glory of his song.

He had just recovered from major surgery that left him without a bladder and had been preceded by bouts of radiation and chemotherapy.¬† He had good reason for his jubilation – the cancer was gone and he was healthy.¬† I was twenty-one and still too self-conscious to appreciate my father’s need – no, right – to celebrate his second chance at life in the place he felt most secure.¬† I just wanted him to quiet down and let me blend in.

Church was my father’s second home and he made certain it was his children’s, too.¬† ¬†Against the dappled light of stained glass windows, the anxieties of¬†providing for a family of five would slip away and, despite what current strife filled our household, we bonded together in our faith.¬† Forced together by a wooden pew.¬†

Mom had always been the disciplinarian at church.¬† My four siblings and I knew that one icy glare from her meant we’d better get on our knees and pray or face wrath when we got home (where my father would often be assigned the task.)¬† We always sat close to the altar where my dad could proudly display his large family and parishioners could nudge their neighbour to whisper admiringly, “Such a lovely family.¬† How do they do it?”¬† They didn’t hear the fight that would inevitably erupt in the five minute car ride home (one hour of quiet togetherness being our limit.)

We never missed a Sunday.¬† If my father had any doubts about his Catholic faith, he hid it well.¬† He had been a devoted altar boy throughout his childhood and spent his high school career at Vancouver College where he was taught by the Christian Brothers of Ireland (he’d earned an academic scholarship to attend.)¬† After graduation he spent seven years as a seminarian in Arnprior. ¬†Priesthood had seemed a natural fit until at the age of 27, he ducked out a few months shy of ordination.¬† Perhaps, he’d realized, it wasn’t his true calling after all. Years later, amid the din of a house full of children (and later, teenagers), I don’t doubt he’d had moments when he imagined priesthood would have been easier.

Getting to know my father was not easy.¬† He was a private man who censored much of what he told us about his life – carefully selecting those fables that painted a grand self portrait (some of them more fiction than fact.)¬† I actually believed he had memorized the dictionary by the age of five – until I was twelve years old.¬† He was, in fact, a complex man whose great wit and intelligence were matched by moodiness and bouts of silence.¬† As a child I resented these aspects of personality.¬† But now that I have three young children of my own, I can understand why he so coveted his privacy and struggled with his moods.¬† Parenthood, after all, doesn’t ask us to make sacrifices – it forces us.¬† We struggle to keep certain pieces of our being (however small) separate… our own.¬† Church enabled my dad to balance his commanding public persona with the privacy he craved.¬† A place where he could admit his weaknesses, seek forgiveness, vow to be a better person, and not tell a soul.

Although I grumbled along with my brothers and sisters about having to pile into the station wagon every week and sit through an hour of readings and prayers, I cherish my memories in the pew.  When we were children, my youngest brother would stumble across the altar steps as the priest sermonized.  He would do his best to ignore the red-haired monster tugging at his robe, but how could he complain?  My pious mother was too deep in prayer to pay either him or her toddler any notice. 

As a teenager, I fought boredom by actually listening to the words that descended from the pulpit.¬† I was reminded of my duty to act selflessly and love my enemies – no matter how much I hated her.¬† By Sunday of the following week I’d need another gentle reminder that gossiping was not, in fact, the best way to deal with conflict and that that it really didn’t matter if I wore polo shirts with the collar up or down. ¬†The church habit continued less frequently during my university years, but it tugged at me, not letting me stray too far.

¬†My dad never again sang so gloriously after that one cold Sunday morning.¬† The cancer returned and a few months later, he died.¬† The day of his funeral, twelve years ago, was the last time we attended church with him.¬† He lay in his casket while we sat, fatherless now, along the front pew, our eyes soaked and voices trembling.¬† I’m not sure any of us sang that day.¬† In fact, I don’t remember much about that day at all.¬† Instead, I remember the day he sang his heart out in the home he cherished with the family he loved.

I still attend church every Sunday, despite my misgivings about my Catholic faith.¬† Although our internal struggles differ, like my father, I use that one hour every seven days to unravel the complexities that creep into my life and seek the answers to those questions that perplex my soul.¬† I shush my children and turn a blind eye when they crawl under the seats.¬† And sometimes, when I feel the spirit of my Dad, I’ll belt out a hymn so loud that the parishioners stare.

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Family Road Trip 101

Feb 05

My childhood is packed with memories of driving to Florida with my parents and four siblings.¬† Back then, we’d squeeze into the station wagon, luggage roped atop, with books, games, and music to keep ourselves amused.¬† Perhaps it’s because of my fond memories of sitting in the backseat of the wagon that I’ve continued the tradition of driving to Florida with my husband and three young boys.¬†

This past spring we drove there for the third time in three years.¬† When we tell our friends and neighbours that we’re driving south, their response is typically an incredulous “You’re driving?¬† With three kids? How do you do it?”¬† Well, it’s really not that hard, thanks in part to electronic gadgets, rooftop carriers, and Map Quest. ¬†Over the years, my husband and I have¬†learned a few¬†things about how to survive a lengthy car ride with young kids – without losing our marbles.¬† Here’s the skinny on what works for us:¬†

  • Electronic gadgets – Throw your nostalgia for the good ol’ days aside and purchase a portable DVD player (hand-held electronic games, such as the Leapster, are also a worthy addition to the car entertainment arsenal).¬† Face it – if a grown up needs to watch a full-length feature film during a three-hour flight, shouldn’t some antsy kids be allowed to watch a few Sponge Bob flicks over a 22-hour drive?
  • If ever there’s a time to break the healthy eating rules, it’s now.¬† Carrots and rice crackers just won’t suffice.¬† I hate buying junk food, but nothing stops a chorus of backseat whiners like a pack of dunkaroos.
  • A good throw – the immobility of children fastened into car seats requires an accurate toss to ensure that granola bar (I don’t only buy junk food!) lands on their lap, not in the no-man’s-land between the front and back seat of a mini-van.
  • Hit the road before the sun rises – not because the kids will sleep for the first four hours (they won’t) – so you can squeeze in as much of the drive as possible during the first day, and more importantly, before they start asking “Are we there yet?”
  • Expect the unexpected.¬† During our first road trip to Florida, we discovered our three-year-old had car sickness.¬† Between Pennsylvania and Georgia, he’d vomited six times (sans barf bag.)¬† A poor sense of smell comes in handy too.
  • Keep on driving – don’t “spoil” them with a plane ticket.¬† Our kids have grown so accustomed to long road trips that they barely require our attention anymore.¬† And, as long as they stay naively unaware of the convenience and comfort of an airplane, we don’t have to answer the question: “Why can’t we just fly there?”

A version of this article was published in the National Post in 2007.

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How Green is Your Family?

Jan 28

Here’s a great calculator developed by National Geographic that measures the “greeness” of your family’s lifestyle.¬† Once you find out your “greendex” you can compare it to scores calculated for 14 countries around the world.¬† My family fared quite badly with a calculation of “49.”¬† About equal to Canada’s total score.¬† The things I need to most improve upon are my reliance on a fuel-guzzling minivan and my tendency to eat imported foods rather than locally produced products.¬† While I rely almost completely on Ontario fruits and vegetables in the summer (including a small garden for tomatoes, strawberries, cucumber, apples and raspberries), the winter means bananas from Costa Rica, oranges from California… you get the point.¬†

I don’t plan to purchase a new vehicle any time soon (budget does not allow.)¬† But I will try to walk or ride my bike more often (snow days excepted) and look for the Ontario Produce logo in the grocery aisles.

Give it a try and see how well you fare.

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/greendex/calculator.html

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Table Talk

Oct 02

Below is the first of many personal anecdotes I will be compiling that celebrate the joys, trials, and lessons learned while eating at the family dinner table.  As this age-old custom deteriorates in our fast-paced, hyper-parenting, over-worked society, these written pieces will hopefully re-ignite the desire among families to slow down and enjoy the comaraderie of eating together. 

Eat Your Soup

My body stiffened, and pressing my head against the back of my chair I peered down at the bowl of swamp that had just been set before me.  As pungent steam curled around my nostrils, I clutched my mouth with my right hand and fought the gag reflex.  Locking eyes with one of my sisters, we silently acknowledged this would be a tough one.  A cauliflower could “accidently” fall to the floor, a slice of roast beef fold neatly inside a napkin.  But soup?  There was no faking it.

Mom and Dad sat at their places at either end of the table and began “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…”  Our cue to say grace.  We reluctantly mumbled the words we knew by heart.  I, however, could not summon a single thought of gratitude.  Dad scooped the first spoonful into his mouth.  He closed his eyes for a moment as a smile formed on his green soaked lips, and we knew this was not the last of his homemade pea soup.  He dove his spoon back in, alternating it between his mouth and bowl like it was a vanilla fudge sundae stirred to just the right consistency.  He didn’t stop until his spoon clattered in the Corningware bowl. 

Mom cautioned us to eat before it got cold, but her tone betrayed what she really meant –eat your soup, or else.  Having experienced the “or else,” no one dared utter a word of dissent.  The spoon dangled between my thumb and forefinger as it skimmed across the surface of the soup.  Blinking back tears that threatened to flood the cesspool below, I slurped the broth through my lips.  Holding my breath, it actually didn’t taste quite as bad as I’d expected.   Unfortunately for Brian who was, at four, my youngest brother, the pressure overwhelmed him and he cried shamelessly.  The rest of us rolled our eyes and snickered, distracting us from the soup and igniting an explosion of chatter about the day’s affairs.   Elizabeth received an A in her math test while Allison (suspiciously) had not received a mark in weeks.  Kevin had finally dissembled the family’s radio (and could not figure out how to put it together again), while Dad threatened to halt Brian’s wailing with “a good wallop.”  I quietly slurped my liquefied peas.

It must have been my long sigh of relief that caught Mom’s attention.  “Someone’s ready for dessert,” she announced, retrieving the bowl that I held aloft.  A blanket of quiet rested over the table.  They reluctantly returned to eating soup while I received my dessert of canned pears.  Although it did not seem a fair reward for my efforts, I’d learned one of many valuable lessons that were dispensed at our family dinner table – that the desserts in life were earned.  And many years later, as I faced challenges far beyond the warm comfort of our kitchen table, I would fight my desire to run away by remembering my parents’ guiding words – Eat your soup (or else.) 

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Marriage a Conservative Vote

Sep 26

As married folk, we know well the chasm that separates our lifestyle with that of the swinging single. We’ve been there.  Done that. That gives us license (says ‘us’) to complain that they have it easy, that they can’t appreciate the challenges of married life – much less the self-sacrifice of raising a family. We disdain their freewheeling ways (and admittedly, envy them occasionally) as we carry our burden of familial responsibility with pride and tenacity. It should come as no surprise, then, that these differences appear on election day in our voting preferences. According to the results of a large-scale exit poll from Canada’s 2006 election, married persons are almost twice as likely as single persons to vote Conservative; whereas, singles split their votes equally among all the parties.

Do married people become Conservative supporters after their vows or are Conservatives simply more likely to get married in the first place? No one can say for sure, but it is likely a combination of the two. If suburban living and diaper changes led to Conservative votes, then those couples living together without wedding bands would also show a propensity toward . However, according to the research, their voting preferences mirror that of the single population with 26% Conservative, 21% Liberal, 24% NDP, and 21% .

In today’s accepting climate of alternative families, those couples who actually choose to tie the knot are, in fact, advocating their support for traditional marriage and rejecting less conventional partnerships. With 43% of their vote going to the Conservative party they are clearly supporting policies that protect the institution and that are sympathetic to their lifestyle needs (think $1,200-a-year per child payments.) While a national daycare program, as promised by the NDP and Liberal party, is a boon to single parents, it is of little allure to more traditional families that are more likely to have a stay-at-home parent or a combined income high enough to afford the daycare they want for their child.

Divorce changes a person’s priorities however, and the Conservative vote dips to just 30% upon dissolution of a marriage, with the NDP gaining the Conservatives’ loss. Strangely, the Liberal support hovers at about 26% regardless of any change in marital status.

The Prime Minister seems to be paying attention to the trends. Last election, Harper was like the awkward guy at the bar who couldn’t get the ladies to look his way. Now, according to an article in Maclean’s Magazine by John Geddes and Aaron Wherry, he’s the new chic magnet in Parliament – stealing female votes from not-so-suave Stephane Dion. And now that he’s the new stud in town, he’s hoping to seduce more Liberal voters by moving his party’s reputation toward the center – a hipper, more forward-thinking party. In Maclean’s Magazine’s Special Campaign Edition, Paul Wells portrays a Prime Minister who is intent on transforming the Progressive Conservatives into the nation’s “natural governing party.”

“You do that in two ways,” says Harper, “One thing you do is you have to pull Conservatives, to pull the party, to the centre of the political spectrum. But what you also have to do, if you’re really serious about making transformation, is you have to pull the centre of the political spectrum toward conservatism.”

If Harper wins a majority on October 14, he can credit himself for convincing the population that his right-wing agenda isn’t as scary as the Liberals would have Canadians believe. But if he hopes to affect long-term electoral success for his party, he’s got a long way to go. While married couples (his bread and butter voters) make up 68.6% of Canada’s population, they are on the decline. Based on 2006 census data, common-law and lone-parent families are on the rise, each making up 16% of the population. For the first time in census history, Canada has more unmarried people (51.5%) than legally married people (48.5%).

As more people toss convention out the bedroom window, Harper will face an ever-threatening wave of left-leaning voters. And unless he’s got a shipload of incentives to calm that storm, a tsunami just might pull him under, along with his ship of Tories.

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