Reminded of this little corner of Baden

Memory is mysterious. The sight of a certain rounded table edge in a restaurant sends me back to when I followed my parents around our town’s nursing home to hand out holy communion on Sunday afternoons.

It was Christmastime and we were in Switzerland, out waking near the old town centre of Baden down by the riverbank. It was a nice day for waling, the sun was out and it was windless, but it still was December, and after a while walking we were thinking mostly about where to get the next warm beverage. Luckily (though I suppose we were in Switzerland), there was an elevator near the river’s edge that brought us up 300 feet to find a cobblestone courtyard and a café-restaurant just across the way.

Front the moment we stepped inside the double glass doors of the café my memory swept me out of charming Europe and back to the plain prairies of Alberta, specifically our town’s nursing home.

The café was full: it was Saturday morning and in that festive spirit of Christmas when families visit old relatives and go out for coffee and donuts together. Or at least that’s what would happen at home, and seemed to be no different here in Baden. To get space enough to sit, the five of us pulled together two small square tables, each with pale laminate surfaces and rounded off edges of faux wood. Their metal bases clanged together as we shuffled them around. One table tipped slightly and we off rolled the salt shaker, which one of those smooth, bullet-proof types, squat and indestructible. It bounced off the green-and-pink-flecked industrial grade carpet, not spilling much salt.

The café was hot (as seniors love it to be) and I took people’s coats to hang them up. To leave them on our chair back was impossible because the perfectly smoothed chair back gave them nothing to grip; they would have simply slid off onto the floor. Noticing this, I had to wonder if it all comes full circle: that furniture goes from baby-proof, to normal, to made even fashionable, before coming back to the same baby-proof rounded edges and dulled corners as if seniors’ tastes merged back with those of two-year-olds.

Finding the coat rack, I slid the already hung coats to once side to make space for ours. The coat hangers were burnished brass and in the classic two-part construction: hooks separate and held fast around the rail; hangers only attachable to one of these fastened hooks. It’s dependency by design and stops seniors from gathering up coat hangers while no one watches and then running home with them to feather their hall closets. I wondered if these people or the seniors at the nursing home ever resented the fact, or noticed the irony.

We ordered five hot chocolates, with crème on top, and the waitress directed us to a counter in an adjacent room if we fancied something to eat. This used the mode, a classic in nursing homes, of putting all their pastries and sandwiches behind glass and with large price tags. This glass-dome method may be meant to preserve the food past natural expiration and make choosing easier on the far-sighted than having a small print menu. Or it may not, I don’t know. But it was the way it was, both here and in that nursing home, and so I remembered it all.

After sipping down my hot chocolate and nibbling through a tiny cucumber sandwich and powdered donut, I got downright sleepy, tired in a way completely disproportionate to the effort I was exerting and despite the sugar quantities I was ingesting. Almost about to nod off, I realized it was a psychological trick of the room: the lighting throughout the café was dimmed and diffused, no light actually hitting me directly but all of it first bounced off the chalk and yellow wallpaper, the same way a plug-in night-light does. To save myself the embarrassment of public dozing which many octogenarians had done as we gave them communion all those years ago, I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.

Outside it was the cobblestone again, and the jingle of a old European town centre, and a swiftly flowing river below wending its way past old bridges and stone houses, all utterly different than the prairie scenery and full parking lot I might have expected. I silently hoped that someday, someone from this town and from this café would travel to a rural Alberta nursing home and be reminded of this little corner of Baden.

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Gravel road running

At the end of our block there was a gravel road that lead west out to the highway. For a few early summer months, I remember trying to wake up early before school to go running with Cheryl to the end of that road and back.

It always seemed so daunting. Early summer mornings were cool at best or downright cold. I wanted to get up to show Cheryl that I could manage just like she could, but those times of sitting in the landing, far too tired, trying to lace up my sneakers almost killed me. I didn’t last more than half-a-dozen outings.

We’d get our shoes on, and we’d creak open the back door, and head out onto the driveway in the early morning sunshine. At this point I’d think twice about doing anything more than this—why was I out here?

The we’d start plodding down the street towards the end and towards the start of the gravel road. Why we never ran in town is now a mystery to me, though I never thought of it then. Fairview’s a small town; there was never any traffic. And with how early we got up in the morning, there wouldn’t have been any traffic anyways. The dusty gravel road and how it stretched out towards the horizon and away from anything comforting (houses, people, my bed and blankets) made it all the more daunting. Still we never ran any other way.

We’d turn that corner and start going, gravel crunching under our feet. The gravel could be thick in places and all my running effort would sink into the rocks. Or it might be washboard in other places, making if difficult to run across all the little ridges. Cars almost never came while we were running. When they did, though, it was dust clouds.

The road rose very slowly to just the slightest crest and all the while on this uphill section it felt like forever. Birds would chirp hollow song notes, wind would blow, and the entirety of the earth would otherwise be silent. I would feel that likely all else had ceased to exist since we left home. Maybe this was the edge of the world. This feeling explained why, that once Cheryl stopped her runs I never went on them on my own. It was far too eerie. I could’ve just turned right at the end of our block and ran back in amongst the neighbourhood streets.

After the crest was where you’d glimpse the railroad tracks and the highway beyond. Down we’d go until we reached those tracks and we’d hopped over the ties with a bit of care, from going fast down the slight decline and not wanting to trip into a face full of gravel. There was never a train crossing those tracks, at least not when we went. The tracks just stretched silently away from town and around the bend out to the end of the line some 40km away. These days the rail lines have all been torn up and sold as scrap.

After then it was the highway just a few steps further. We’d get to that bend in the highway and be grateful that somehow, after just a short journey but what felt like a long, lonely time, there was pavement again, a sign of people. Usually a car would whip past us on that curve on it’s way out to Hines Creek or back into town. We’d touch that pavement with our foot—a sure sign that we’d gone all the way, no cheating or short cuts—and turn around for the way back.

The way back is always shorter, as it was on this gravel road, but as it is in life as well. Scientists may have proven how this is (something about neural networks and the brain’s time-perception), but me I always knew why. On the way back, the rise part was shorter, and the downhill was longer. We could see the town of Fairview enlarge with every step, a kind of welcome home to say that we’re almost back and that the whole town missed us every minute that we were gone. We’d see the crescent of our neighbourhood from behind, and from this uncommon vantage point it always stuck out how odd and misshapen their fences and backyards were.

Then we’d reach that corner, the end of our street, and turn it right for a sprinter’s finish to our driveway. On that stretch I could run and run just knowing there was no more gravel to push and there was home ready for me.

Back at home, after high-fiving and kicking off our shoes, Cheryl and I would have that short moment that all people do of basking in the glow of exercise finished. Mom would hear us come in and ask, “Did you go running again?” as if there was any other place to go for us at six in the morning.

Mom was I suppose happy as all moms are that the kids were back in the house safe and sound. And Cheryl and I were happy from endorphins and knowing we kept up our running pledge for another day. But mainly I was happy to have braved that lonely stretch of dust and gravel and still made it safely back home.

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Ohio Buck-eye

The Ohio Buckeye tree planted in our front yard had pride of place out of proportion with its size or grandeur. It was a small, non-descript tree, tucked into the crook of our L-shaped hedge, which never grew to more than a height of a couple of meters. Given how we acted towards it, though, it could have been a tiny thousand year old bonsai or a huge rainforest mahogany.

Our dad planted it from seed. He and my Mom had finished their agricultural degrees at the UofA in Edmonton, and the first solid job offer they got was for my dad to be posted to Fairview College as a agriculture instructor. His degree had specialized in forestry, and so when they arrived and bought their first home, I’m sure he wanted to plant some special flora in our front yard.

He chose and Ohio Buckeye. I’m not sure exactly why. But the tree started growing, slowly at first, and slowly thereafter and always. It was fragile, never having thorns or rough bark to ward off young kids, but instead growing upwards in a leafy fashion, swaying always gently in the prairie breeze. My oldest sister, Cheryl, always seemed to be just a bit taller than the tree – the two of them in a growth race with her just an step ahead. This was all very much unlike the poplar tree in the back that shot up like a weed, continued growing like a tumor, and was now massive and overtaking everything in the back yard, a complete antithesis to the buckeye in the front yard.

I don’t think the buckeye was ever really suited to the cold, northern Alberta climate in which we lived. It might also not have been suited to neighbourhood kids running around it in their games of tag, brushing off its delicate leaves. Or to us playing soccer on the front lawn, or me and my dad throwing the football, though he was always quite safe about not calling me into a pattern that ran too close to the tree.

Today, I’m sure the tree is still there, still slightly taller than I am, still braving all those harsh Fairview winters. Perhaps it’s now prospering without children around to knock it about or hit it with soccer balls, but I might imagine it’s still growing along on its own timeline just as it ever has.

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College party at our place!

There was this college party at our house once. My parents had a bunch of students over, I think, and it got pretty rowdy. I was a young kid so I can’t piece together all of the memories perfectly. But three really stick out: our home stereo blasting at full volume, lots and lots of colourful icy boozy drinks, and a out-of-control wrestling match on our front lawn.

Our family stereo lived in the basement. Or at least I believe it did back then, though my memory might be seriously faulty. Anyway, that’s where it exists in this story. During this party, the stereo was cranked up to an unrelenting decibel level that filled the entire house. As a kid, I inevitably got curious—could the stereo really be playing music that loud? I’d never heard it that loud before. So I started creeping towards the basement—first to the kitchen, then to the landing, then step-by-step down the stairs. By the kitchen, the music was loud. By the landing it was unbearable. By the time I had started downstairs I was convinced this was the worst idea yet of my young life and that I would now be at least partially deaf for the rest of my life. But I kept going anyways, hands pressed down over both ears, tip-toeing one stair at a time almost as if worried the stereo might hear me. I suppose I was just so mystified that our little ol’ stereo which played quiet CBC radio on Sunday afternoons could pump out volume like this.

After another ten minutes of inching down the stairs I decided that enough was enough and that I would make a dash for it. I jumped down the remaining steps, ran across our basement floor, and pulled up just a few feet short of the stereo system. I was young and I was not strictly supposed to mess around with the stereo, certainly not when there was a party and many guests enjoying the music. So I slowed to a stop just before it, hands still pressed down firmly over my ears, eye-balls now bulging out from awe and disbelief that, yes, indeed, this was our same little old stereo: one of the college kids had not replaced it with a live rock band while I was on the toilet.

My trance was broken when one of these kids stumbled at full speed down the stairs and blundered up to me and the stereo. To my child mind he was obviously unwell: arms moving at odd angles and speeds, eyes near squeezed shut, mouth gaping so that his tongue waved about like a flag, hair far too long. He bumped into me, knocking my hand off my right ear—the shock of the sound nearly clobbered me, yet he still manage to yell above it all, “Waaaaahhhhhhooooo! Rock music, eh? Waaaahhhhhhooooo!” To which my response was to slap my hand back over my ear and sprint past him up the stairs, little elbows pumping vigorously all the way to the top.

I never want to be a college kid, I must have thought.

On to the icy drinks. In the kitchen were all our biggest containers chock-full of ice and made even more full with oddly shaped and coloured drinks the likes of which I’d never seen before as a kid. All of these containers were on display atop our beloved orange Ikea kids table—the big stainless steel bowl used only for Thanksgiving stuffing, all three of my Mom’s mixing bowls, the blue and white Coleman cooler, and the giant spaghetti pot used only on Sundays but now pressed into the sacrilege of being a beer receptacle.

The drinks in all their colour must have made the kids table look entirely welcoming the same way different construction paper and sparkles does to kindergarteners. But this welcome was meant for an entirely different audience. There were brown beer bottles with red labels, green beer bottles with silver labels, beer bottles with no labels at all, and beer cans of dozens of blue-silver-red colour combinations. There were all kinds of fizzy cooler drinks in colours like flamingos and peacocks, and there was enough bottles of pop to provide mix for the almost as numerous bottles of hard liquor.

All of this was just sitting there for the taking. I chose a Sprite.

Then I heard commotion loud enough to conquer the stereo system and coming from somewhere in the direction of the front lawn. I gulped two big swigs of my Sprite, set it back down carefully in the spaghetti pot, and ran out of the kitchen, through the living room and out the front door.

At the center of the lawn and at the center of my little kid universe were two college students, on the ground, wrapped in what I could have though to be a loving embrace except for the fact I was young and lived in Fairview and therefore knew nothing about homosexuality. Instead, it looked like a gladiatorial brawl to the death. Our lawn had a slight rise at its center and there they were, at the top of this grassy knoll, tumbling over and over, trying to achieve God-knows-what. Around them, back near the lawn’s edge for safety’s purpose, stood the rest of the party, drinks in hand, enjoying the still strong evening summer sun as much as the display of wrestling prowess in front of them.

Me, being young and perhaps up to that point sheltered from pure barbarity such as this, wheeled about looking for the help of a block parent to break things up. College kids, though maniacal and dangerous behind the wheel, resemble parents more or less to a 5-year-old. But even if they did notice me, they seemed to have zero urgency to intervene. I cowered back between the hedge and the Ohio buck-eye for safety from the melee, and looked back towards the front door hoping an authority figure would emerge to save the day.

No such figure did emerge, but the wrestling duo had already come close to burning up the bulk of their energy and had tumbled to a stop near the juniper bushes. It was then, when the threat had past, that my father and mother emerged from the front door, surveyed the scene and let out jolly laughs of goodwill and munificence, then descended the steps to dust off the two tumblers and ensure the party continued its merriment. I for one stood agape as the two men, mortal enemies only seconds before bent on each other’s ultimate destruction, high-fived, and walked arm-over-shoulder together to find two beer cans waiting for them at the edge of the driveway.

At this point everything fades black and the scene ends with me knowing that somehow the world, though somewhat larger and louder than I knew it, would be alright. Mostly because my parents were still on the scene, but also because in the long evening sunshine of Fairview summers stories only ever had happy endings.

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Backyard apple gathering

Each year, the apple tree in our backyard would blossom bright white in the spring, become bushy and full through the summer months, and by autumn be laden with hundreds of small crab apples. When these apples started falling from the tree Mom would send us out in the evenings as she cooked dinner to gather them up in old four-liter ice cream pails.

We waited until the apples fell because that meant they were ripe. You could pick them right off the tree to avoid bruises or blemishes but then you’d often get apples that were sour or tart. You’d also pick at least a few before they were fully grown. By gathering them once they fell you avoided these problems. And since all of them would become apple pie, or apple crumble, or apple cobbler their looks matter much less than their taste.

On any given evening, Mom would call me into the kitchen. She dig me out a couple ice cream pails from the corner cupboard where the lazy Susan used to be before we renovated in ’92. Hopefully one of my sisters, maybe Carolyn, would come with me because gathering apples was a chore and, even though it was a fun chore, chores are still best done with others. Together we’d hop down to the landing, slip on the oversized shoes of Mom or Dad, and exit out the backdoor to find the apple tree.

If it was still early in autumn and it had been a good year for apples there would be plenty of them on the ground every evening for weeks. Plenty. The crab apples weren’t very big but they made up for this with sheer numbers. It’s wasn’t a big tree either. But somehow every single spring apple blossom developed into an apple without fail. So each evening we had our work cut out for us.

The ground under the tree was never grassy. It had some grass, sure, but mostly it was bare dirt because it never got enough sunshine. When we got down under the tree we had to be careful: if I muddied up the knees of my pants while getting apples I wouldn’t be doing my Mom any favours—I would just be making more dirty laundry. “I just washed that!” she might say, and the cosmic karma debit of going to get the apples would be nullified by my carelessness. Knowing this, Carolyn and I never crawled about on our hands and knees but instead we’d squat down into a crab-walk position, knees fully bent, legs swinging around and forward to move about.

The first apples we’d pick were the ones nearest the trunk. These were in plain view and had few bruises as they had fell into what little grass there was. Next we’d pick the ones just a bit further out, still easy to spot, but now a bit more muddied and perhaps bruised because of falling on dirt not grass. Last, always last, were the apples that fell into, or fell and rolled into, the hedge. The apple tree was very close to the house and to the sidewalk that led up to the back door; there was a small hedge that separated the sidewalk from the tree. The apples would roll down by the base of this hedge into little nooks and root-holes, and into the grass out-of-reach by the lawnmower.

So we’d scuttle around the hedge looking for apples, crab-walking and scavenging like beachcombers. Carolyn might find a nice one and announce it to me (“hooray!”) and next I might put my hand into a root-hole and find an apple that should have been collected a week ago (“gross!”). Because the apples that ended up in the hedge were often bruised, insects would find them a lot earlier. If an apple fell in the morning by the time we were out in the evening it had had a whole day to be picked at by worms and ants and beetles. If I found an apple like this I should have scooped it up and put it in the garbage, but more times than not I left it to compost in situ or to be found by one of my more responsible sisters.

But even worse than this were the spiders. You might pick up an apple only to have a spider crawl up your hand or you might reach for an apple only to trap your hand in an unseen spider web. The response was instinctive and the same in every case: apple immediately forgotten, hands shaken frantically, body leap back and away from certain death by spider poison. It happened at least once a season which was just often enough to terrify everyone until next year.

If both buckets filled before we finished we’d pop back inside to ask for another, calling to Mom from the landing to drop anything she may have been doing to bring us another bucket. Once all the apples were gathered we’d carry them up triumphantly to Mom. She’d fill the buckets with water and set them down beside the sink to mark that our job was now complete, and thank us for doing our small part in the annual autumn apple harvest. Until tomorrow.

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Inside the cold storage room

When my Mom was busy in the kitchen there were times she’d call out to one of us to fetch her something from the cold storage room. This happened often on Sunday mornings if she was preparing after church brunch and realized the chili sauce had run out—she made this delicious homemade chili sauce full of peppers, and onions, and tomatoes. She usually call for the child who was offering the least help to breakfast at that moment: “Graham? Can you go and bring up a jar of chili sauce from the basement?”

The basement was a euphemism for the cold storage room. Strictly speaking, there were two cold storage rooms, rooms in the basement built without insulation or carpet. We knew them apart by what they stored: one was for food, the other one was for boxed-up Christmas decorations, ski boots, camping gear, and the like.

The cold storage room was a small rectangular room, the door at one end and the rest stretching away from there. On the left was the big storage shelf, on the right was just enough space to move along and search for what you wanted. Chili sauce was kept near the middle at eye-level, a clear signal of its importance. It came in tall mason jars and short mason jars. Either each of the jars came labeled with dates I never read or looked at, or my Mom didn’t both as she knew they would be eaten up long before they could go bad. Looking into a jar of chili sauce you saw thick, crushed tomatoes and the peppers and onions all poking out at random.

Stored to the right of the chili sauce were the pickles, and pickles only came in tall jars. Of all the canned foods, pickles were the most interesting because when any jar could be swirled up and observed like a snow globe. If the jar was packed just right there would be a bit of extra space and a bit of extra brine and given a shake the pickles would slowly swim through the jar like whales at an underwater aquarium. There were the big, long pickles and the short, bendy pickles; old dark green ones, and bright green young ones; pickles completely smooth and others with bumps like barnacles. There were the dill stems too, long and thin with their pods bursting open at one end like a solitary firework. At the bottom of the jar you might catch sight of a lurking garlic pod, small and greyish-white and always along the bottom edge. And then there were all the little bits and bobs floating throughout, like the little fish that dart in and out amongst the much bigger sharks and whales in nature documentaries.

Across on the other side of the chili sauce was the Saskatoon berries. Dark and purple small little spheres. If you spun the jar about each berry would begin its own tiny spin like a small suspended marbles so that you could tell that they were moving even though they always ended up looking the same. Knowing how good they tasted was reason enough to watch them spin and spin until you entered a kind of food-expectant trance. If it happened to be a special occasion (maybe visitors were over) and Mom was making pancakes or waffles as well, she would also ask one of us to bring up a jar of Saskatoons berries.

In later years, when Dad had begun his cottage wine industry, the cold storage room became the de facto wine cellar. There would be bottles of cabernet-sauvignon and shiraz and merlot all laid flat on top of a semi-sticky fishnet foam so that they wouldn’t roll about knocking into each other or off onto the floor. Dad made enough varieties for me to imagine myself the part of a snooty connoisseur whenever I was sent to fetch a bottle: “How now, shall we dine this evening with the warm and fruity bouquet of the shiraz, or the dark, smoky tannins of the merlot?”

If all of these foodstuffs were stored in the upstairs pantry, or in the other cold storage room in amongst the sleeping bags and tent pegs, I might not remember them with such adventurous descriptions. But, tucked away together in the darkest, coldest, recess of the house, I came to see these almost everyday items with having their own extraordinary characteristics.

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My street hockey stick

We played street hockey in the evenings. Ever single evening from the time the snow stuck down on the road in icy permanence to the time when spring thaw was enough to reveal gravel and asphalt again.
My Dad had bought me a hockey net as contribution to the street hockey games. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. It was shiny aluminum and sturdy mesh though it wasn’t as deep as a regulation net. Then again we weren’t really playing regulation hockey either.
I kept the net tucked away around the side of the garage. So when the game was on and I had suited up in all my gear I would trudge out the door, open the swinging gate, and walk across the driveway to the far side of the garage door to lift the net out of the snowbank I had tucked it into after the end of our last game.
My hockey stick I didn’t treat quite so well. It wasn’t a mortal sin, though, as again this wasn’t quite official refereed hockey we played—a proper hockey player wouldn’t get away with similar treatment. I kept my stick on top of the hockey net. So if it was icy out, the stick got icy. If it snowed, the stick was covered in snow. It was like a fixture of the landscape but one that happened to have extra usefulness not present in a stick or a rock.
My hockey stick changed over the years because at some point it just got worn out. Between throwing my stick to stop a break away by the other team, or knocking icicles off the eaves trough to have as popsicles at a break in the game, or just hacking and scraping across snow and ice and asphalt, my sticks took a beating.
At all times growing up my stick was always my Dad’s old stick. Not once did I scrape together enough allowance to buy my own. My Dad played in a weekly hockey league where a good stick was an important thing. When his stick got too beat up and wasn’t up for many more good slapshots, he’d retire it down to me. And so at semi-regular intervals I would get a new hand-me-down stick at which point I would discard the old one permanently into a snowbank, and get down to the important process of beating the crap out of it.
Sometimes, however, the stick was worn out before its time. Maybe we played when there was too much asphalt showing through the snow. Or maybe we decided sticks were better at being swords for battles atop the snowpile the grader left at the end of the street. No matter how it happened, there were a few unlucky times when the blade of my stick would break. Officially, I always blamed my overly powerful slapshot. At some such break, I would trudge back inside, take off my suit, and show my Dad. The solution was always the same: a plastic blade replacement.
These blade replacements weren’t all that expensive at the local hardware store. And they’d last forever too – you couldn’t break them without the help of mechanized equipment. That was how they made them. So you might think that having a plastic blade would be a good idea then, that everyone would want one. Not really. The blades were good, are durable, and reasonably priced and for all those reasons they were universally disliked and ridiculed. As soon as my blade broke and my Dad fixed a bright green plastic replacement on the end that marked the start of my anxious waiting for him to retire a new hand-me-down stick to me.
I’m sure it was the same for all of my other friends that played. The bunch of us with our dads’ old sticks, the unfortunate few with neon plastic blades on the end, hacking up and down the roadway in the hours between dinnertime and bedtime.

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