Pleasantville Choices and Exchange Rates

The impact of what I am planning really hit home this weekend. I am exchanging friends and family for strangers: known for unknown; English speaking familiar and sure for Spanish speaking confusion; a market where prices are stated, goods are standardized and legislated to be exactly as advertised for a market where haggling and negotiation is normal and uninspected goods are sold on street sidewalks and open air stalls. I am exchanging the purchase of government appraised meat for the flesh of guinea pigs slaughtered, skinned, and roasted on reused poles in open air road side fires: where a bowl of chicken soup may contain the chicken’s foot and who knows what else.

In exchange for a system where pedestrians have rights and drivers generally obey traffic lights I will have one in which I am told less than diligent pedestrians are targets and drivers behave like lunatics. The sidewalks I now trod are relatively smooth and flat and have handicapped curbs cut for ease of travel. In exchange I contemplate the cobbled stoned and tiled pathways of my future along with the declining function of my decaying knees. Instead of the relative freedom I presently enjoy walking alone at any time of day on public streets, I am warned my new habitat houses pickpockets and thieves ready to assist me in divesting myself of any of my remaining worldly goods – even in broad day light.

I am leaving my son’s grave site where the memory of picking glass out of his beautiful hair as he lay dead on the hospital gurney is as fresh as if it was today. I am leaving my grandchildren to grow into adults without having known them or they me in any substantial, nurturing way. I am selling all, or nearly all, my worldly goods to go to a country in which I know no one and no one knows me. Is this insanity? A dream world? …Or is it wakefulness?

Although I have a superior academic education, I have paltry little beyond the normal, acceptable and accepting living skills. I lack significant negotiation skill beyond those necessary to deal with clamouring children, a disgruntled spouse or a disinterested clerk at the returns desk of the local department store. My computer came equipped with a virus detector which eliminates threats and automatically scans for oddities while I peacefully sleep. My doctor schedules in my annual physical and my dentist timetables the regular inspection and cleaning of my teeth. I have spent my life accepting government regulated standards for education, shopping, health and safety without questioning those standards. I have lived in Pleasantville.

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Remembering a Wondrous Surprise

I went to bed February 23, 1981 expecting to have a restful sleep.  The night got cold and the fire burned so low the house chilled to 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit), about the temperature inside a refrigerator.  When I awoke, Walter was snoring, his head buried under the heavy covers. I reluctantly pushed myself out of bed into the otherwise quietness of the night.

Wrapping a nearby sweater around me I made my way to the wood stove: only a few dying embers remained. Coaxing the flame, I added some wood, and then straightened to get more when a sharp pain pierced my abdomen.  Once it eased off I gave it little thought.  I put another couple of pieces of wood into the stove and planned to go back to bed when a second more forceful pain made it clear I was in labour.

I shook Walter awake, but just as he was putting on his pants I realized we wouldn’t be making it to the hospital.  Still in a sleepy daze, one leg in and one leg out, he started to panic.  When a third contraction started the baby down the birth canal, I kept one of my legs on the floor and the knee of the other on the bed.  Walter hopped about wanted to know what to do: boil water, start the car, what???

The next contraction pushed the baby’s head out.  That got Walter’s attention!  He grasped the small head wanting to pull.  I ordered him to let go.  He fretted and fussed about how to get me to the hospital with this head sticking out.  I told him to calm down and make sure the baby didn’t fall onto the floor!  On the next contraction the baby slipped out without harm.  Walter, pale and limp, sagged onto the end of the bed in a heap.

I gathered up the baby, patted it gently until it cried, and then with the cord still attached wrapped it in a blanket.  By this time, Walter had recovered enough to get his pants on, and to ask about the sex of the baby.  Neither of us had paid any attention during the birth.  Unwrapping the blanket, I was overjoyed to finally have a daughter.

My next thought was: a daughter – what did I know about raising a girl?  Lord, help me! Holding His miraculous gift, I prayed to be worthy of her, to know how to love her and that she would grow to know she was abundantly cherished.

I had a custom of giving older siblings a present from a new addition, so Walter got the boys up to greet their new sister. They crowded around oohing and ahhing as I pulled a chocolate bar for each of them from beneath her blanket.  It was the first time she impressed them, but not the last.

After getting everyone dressed, we drove to the hospital.  The nurses checked the baby and deemed her a healthy girl: 9 pounds, 6 ounces.  Some days, times and events stick in your memory like a hot brand searing your brain, like a meteoric impact crashing into your heart:  the birth of our daughter that cold winter’s morning, February 24th, 1981, did that to me, and for me, and I’ve never been the same.

The Road Home

The road in from the highway was hilly, narrow and barely graveled.   Half rotted timbers from the original log road broke through the dirt in places and the ditches were overgrown with weeds. In spring, buried culverts swelled the road in mounds that looked like beached whales sunning in the middle of nowhere. These bulges remained until the frost completely left the ground then descended to almost level by midsummer only to be heaved up again in the winter.  The effectiveness of the culverts suffered as years without proper maintenance passed.

Travelling on the road in the summer produced a cloud of dust that followed a vehicle like the exhaust of a jet engine.   With care, two could pass, but it left occupants in a choking, dust cloud for several seconds. It also meant driving nearly blind until the dust settled.  Graders came down the road at least once a summer hauling weeds and dirt up from the ditches and spreading a lump of debris on the center of the road, including embedded rocks.  These rocks could be as high as 18 inches although it usually was more like14.  Passing a grader meant taking a chance driving over the hump and then clinging to the margin of road remaining.  Until the grader made its exiting pass the road was practically a one way street.

Soil on the sides of the road varied from sand to clay to black muck.  The corner where the concession road broke off to our side road was entirely black muck.  One summer a ditch clearing backhoe got sucked in by the muck.  In trying to make corrections the rear of the machine slipped sideways and got sucked in even deeper.  The hapless operator radioed for help before climbing out of his sinking machine.  By the time two large trucks arrived to assist, the rear of the trapped backhoe was barely visible and it had started to tip onto its side.  With little room for manoeuvring the men pondered logistics, situated their trucks as effectively as space allowed, and then attached chains from the backhoe to the trucks. 

Diesel engines strained unsuccessfully at the load, their exhaust crowding the air with spent fuel, their wheels digging into the logs beneath the surface of the road.  Visible tremors hammered the area shaking dead limbs off surrounding trees sending flocks of birds skyward.  The backhoe sank further into the muck.  The owner arrived and after some discussion he climbed through the muck, and got into the partially submerged cab.  The crew balked but the owner pressed them to pull as he revved the backhoe’s sinking engine.

The wheels of the large trucks sent clots of dirt, logs, and stone flying.  The owner, his determined face barely visible inside the cab, gunned the backhoe’s engine. Muck started spraying out from behind the submerged machine sinking it deeper.  It looked like the muck was about to swallow both machine and man when it suddenly released its hold.  The backhoe sprung to the road causing one of the rescue trucks to plunge into the edge of a diagonal ditch.  Its liberation was not nearly as dramatic, but the damage to the road during this whole operation was substantial.  Two loads of gravel made a cosmetic repair, but the road continued to sink over the remainder of the summer.

 Where and when was this road?  In a third world country?

No, it was Northern Ontario and it was the road that led to the path into our home in the late 1970’s.  That path led to our one room house where we lived with our children, a handful of animals, and a lifetime of memories.