Your secrets are safe from your kids, until they compare notes

I nearly flipped right past the perfume ad in the magazine. I don’t wear perfume, and when those little samples explode I get a headache. If the Internet has been good for nothing else, it has saved migraine sufferers a lot of grief when they just want to read a feature about lifestyles of the rich and famous, or rich and saintly, or rich and hostile. But I stopped on this ad because of the list of ingredients.

Jasmine, rose and gillyflower. There really is such thing as a gillyflower.

My mom used to sing all the time. Whether she was dusting, cooking, baking or gardening — all the time. They were always songs from her childhood, which became the music of mine along with a little sprinkling of Dean Martin and Mario Lanza. She loved me a bushel and a peck; I was her sunshine; I was the apple of her eye. We had a piano, and my mom could play anything by ear using two hands. Her hands were light and graceful, her bracelet clinking against her watch like an added musical instrument. After a year of lessons I could manage a song about swans that I plodded through with movements that can only be described as goats wearing galoshes. In mud. The rest of us were not very musically inclined but her gentle singing was the backdrop of my youth.

I didn’t think about it much until the boys were born, and I found myself singing the same songs to them, minus Dean Martin and Mario Lanza. My less-than-dulcet tones were met with mixed reviews: I remember Christopher, at about age four, asking if I could not sing anymore. He said it gently, as if I was the toddler, but I got the message. Ari on the other hand, used to ask me to sing him “his” songs when he was tiny, but not too loud so nobody would know. I loved him a bushel and a peck; he was my sunshine; he was the apple of my eye. Christopher would have been but he turned out to be a music critic.

My mom played fast and loose with lyrics, improvising on the spot to personalize any song, sort of like a rapper in a tweed skirt with a roller set. My own special song was called You’re My Raineyflower. I have no idea how it went, only that it was my theme song. Then I overheard her singing You’re My Rozzyflower to my other sister, and in due time, You’re My Gillyflower. My sisters, Roz and Gilly, were listening to bastardized lyrics. I wasn’t sure how to let them know.

As a middle child and therefore the peacekeeper in the family, I used to just smile and nod when I heard my Mom singing the wrong lyrics. The world is a tough enough place without realizing that your mother might be lying to you about some things. I let it go, just another secret between her and her Raineyflower.

Until yesterday, when I saw the perfume ad. Gillyflower. I ran to the computer. There is no Raineyflower. There is no Rozzyflower. My mother’s name was Iris, so she could afford to be handing out flower names with little regard for veracity. I still have the gorgeous irises growing in my yard that Dad grew for her, and every spring I’m reminded of her gentle presence, her beauty that lasted a lifetime and her wanton disregard for the truth. I’m sure it could have been worse. For all I know she might have considered giving my Dad a personal song.


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The Brownie Pledge never included peeing on someone’s front step

I was a Brownie for one year. I was 7. I tell you this because the only time I remember is when I see a woman wearing a scarf that’s tied at the neck and I saw one last night. I recall two lasting memories of being a Brownie: how to tie that little knot on the scarf, and to remember not to pee on somebody’s front step.

I just looked up what Brownie’s get to wear today. T-shirt, cargo pants, a sash and a scarf. I had to wear a brown skirt, brown shirt, brown knee socks, a weird little brown elastic belt and that scarf, all topped by a little brown beret that made me look like an acorn. Today’s uniforms look darling; mine looked like tired dirt. But I will forever remember right over left and under, left over right and under. If you ever need someone to tie your scarf, call me. Perfect little square, every time.

I liked being a Brownie, though I would have preferred being a Boy Scout. I didn’t know why we had to wear skirts, and I was more into burning things than cleaning things. To this day my sister will tell you Mom lied to get me that housekeeping badge. She is mistaken. I did try to rack up the badges in record time, but housekeeping took me the longest. This is called “foreshadowing”.

I was already wearing clunky brown orthopedic shoes which matched the uniform perfectly, about the only thing in my life they did match. They were supposed to straighten out crooked feet that would ultimately require surgery the coming year, but they never did. Those shoes were ugly and they were expensive and I was bitter about them.

For the colder months, we could switch to brown leotards. I was now head to toe dirt brown, the only break that little knotted scarf. Like all good Brownies, we sold Girl Guide cookies door-to-door, Girl Guides who got to wear stylish blue uniforms I was too impatient to ever get to. I had never done a cookie campaign, but the fifteen cents we paid in dues each week was a drop in the bucket and the cookies were where the real dough was, so to speak.

An Owl (Brown, Snowy, or Tawny) would drive us around, her trunk full of cookies. We’d go in pairs, our tiny brown selves nervous but eager to do a good job. Everybody said weren’t we sweet and we’d smile shyly and they’d buy cookies. It was the easiest sales job I ever had, and years later I would wish I could use Brownies to sell everything.

An older lady answered the door at our final house of the day. As she went off to find her purse, we stood on her front step. I had to go to the bathroom, but thought I could make it until I got home, only two blocks away. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. By the time she got back, I’d piddled myself. I thought I was being quite stoic, smiling grimly as my brown leotards and orthopedic shoes took the brunt of the assault. “Oh my dear, you could have asked to use the bathroom,” she said, alarmed. So much for a graceful exit. I ran home. I still pass that house most days, and I’m sure it’s current owners have no knowledge of its dark past.

The lesson was never about tying the scarf. It was in knowing if I needed help, I could always just ask.

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Sometimes, you can go home again

Thomas Wolfe told me I can’t go home again, but I’m still where I started 50 years ago. I know what he meant; I’m not the same even if the house is, and too many of the people who formed the memories are now ghosts I catch in my peripheral vision if the light is just right.

I got an invitation the other night. Margot and I had been friends as children, and she was in town visiting her parents. Come for dinner, she said. Another friend, Jill, would also be there as her own family here pulled her from her Dutch home. I smiled, thinking of our eight-year-old selves, three little blond girls who could never have conceived of being 50 and yet now, still remembered being eight.

I’d last knocked on this door 40 years before. Lois Finstad welcomed me, then touched my arm and told me she loved reading my columns. I was caught off guard; what if my own Mom could be saying that? I brushed it off as selfish longing at the time, but after an evening with Lois and John Finstad and their extended family, I knew it wasn’t. It was simply a wish for something I couldn’t have yet felt intense gratitude that they could.

Grandkids bustled around setting the table as sons-in-law reached high shelves for Lois navigating her kitchen with the practice of thousands of family dinners. A call for more chairs sent John to the basement; I was concerned until I saw his snow white hair as he shoved a chair through the door, and asked how many more we needed. This was my Dad once, and this is Margot’s dad now, and I’m equally happy and envious.

Those three little blond girls sat together and laughed and remembered. The rest of the table smiled indulgently as we recalled detentions for passing notes, mean bus drivers, famous classmates, the dating, the marrying, the kids and our lives now. We’d been enrichment kids – the Nerd Herd according to my son. Fated to find each other based on IQ tests, but bonded over the things that really mattered.

“Hey, I was a cheerleader in high school,” said Jill. This surprised me, and my expression revealed that. “My sister was one, so I wanted to be one. It was terrible,” she finished, laughing. Her own kids are exceptional athletes; Margot’s family has followed a similar track, with John’s Norwegian homeland figuring prominently in the discussion.

“I was a cheerleader,” said Lois. We all turned to this beautiful lady, as calm in her manner as her husband was animated. She’s also an award-winning synchronized swimmer. I looked at my hands, knowing the sportiest thing I do is brush my teeth.

“Well, I watch a lot of Netflix,” I said, adding nothing to the conversation.

“Oh! Netflix!” exclaimed John. “We found the funniest thing ever on there! Lois, what was it called? The ski jumper one?” I watched as John proceeded to act out the show, laughing so hard he could barely get the words out. My own father used to do this, and we’d laugh at him laughing. You couldn’t not; how do you not find joy in someone willing to go to such lengths to share something they love?

The conversation moved on, three little blond girls giggling still, grandchildren slipping away to their own pursuits. I left in a whirl of hugs and thanks for a jewel of an evening.

Two days later, I got an email from the Finstads with the name of the show.

Thank you, Lois and John.

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Nobody wants to end their life: they want to end the pain

Since telling you 5 years ago that I live with bipolar disorder, I’ve said little else about it. I’m noisy and public, but Motherlode is about my life and being bipolar is merely one facet of it.

In the days following the suicide of Robin Williams, I started receiving notes. People were asking me if I was okay, if I was I going to write about it, would I please write about it.

“But he had everything to live for,” some say. No, he had everything we’re told you should live for, if fame and family and fortune were truly everybody’s goal. He was reportedly facing other major health issues, but by 63, most of us are. I made the mistake of believing he had outrun something I know in my heart can’t be outrun; it merely sits in the shadows waiting to re-emerge.

Robin Williams was open about his struggles with depression and addiction. His stand-up comedy used his damage as material and laughing at him – and with him – made it possible to laugh at my own demons. His loss has not just saddened me, it’s scared me. There was vindication in hearing your thoughts and fears coming from another.

Loving someone whose broken mind leads them down dark paths wears you the hell out. You can exhaust yourself looking for reasons, answers and ways to help. The sad truth is you can’t prevent someone from taking their own life using guilt, fear, anger, or love. Knowing those things becomes not a reason to stay alive, but yet another burden. It’s a desperate, reflexive answer – if you kill yourself, you will break my heart – yet when you can’t bear your own despair, being responsible for someone else’s is crushing, and ultimately impossible.

Robin Williams’ death has rocked a lot of people already perched on an emotional ledge. It felt personal because he seemed like such a decent human being, as a friend of mine put it. His dark side was his literal dark side, which he shared in his humour as well as his more reflective roles. He exposed his own melancholy, a word both beautiful and barren. He gave us pieces of himself we used to light our own way while he disappeared into the dark.

I rage against the language that swirls around mental health, around suicide. It is not weakness, nor cowardice, nor selfishness. It is a desperate bid to not be those very things. It is being a foot soldier in a war so overwhelming those trained to fight it can barely define it.

With the tragic passing of Robin Williams we’ll say, again, that now is the time to talk about it. And we’ll let it slide back to the shadows, because we’ll go on pretending we don‘t need to find answers if we can keep believing those we lose are weak, are cowards. I’ll never be cured of my disorder; I manage it with good days and bad, but I will challenge anyone who says I don’t live it with all the strength and dignity I possibly can.

So, here is my proposal to you. Look inside your own heart and your own family. Recognize that depression and other mental health issues thread their tendrils deep into family trees. Shake out the family secrets; shed the cloak of things we just don’t talk about. Grandparents, turn a light backwards through the decades, and reveal histories that could help your children and grandchildren be safe. Imagine the power of a teenager being told a grandparent understands. Have mental health discussions openly and often; make avenues of help available even if they preclude confiding in you; prioritize reaching out for help over keeping secrets.

We need early, correct diagnosis. We need a medical community dedicated to working in tandem to supply treatment, and we need patients and families who commit to working that treatment. We need workplaces openly supporting their employees. Don’t let this conversation slip away, and let the loss of my favourite sad clown remind us to be vigilant, to be kind and to be open.

Ultimately, I can’t stop anyone from killing themselves. But I can let them know that many of us are often holding on for morning. You aren’t alone.

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What have you done with my Special K?

They changed my Special K.

When I’m not at home, I have what I consider to be an adventurous enough palate. When I travel, I look for local specialties, even when it’s a raw scallop, cooked reindeer or something called Aquavit, a traditional drink in Sweden that tastes like paint thinner. I know how to live on the epicurean edge.

At home, my culinary wanderlust stays in my carry on. Food is fuel and if it weren’t for the kids, I’d probably never cook again. I’ve been known to eat cereal around the clock, which is how I made this most recent discovery.

Let me back up a little. When we were kids, we weren’t allowed to have the sugar laden cereals that made childhood worthwhile. We could have shredded wheat, Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes. Once a year, Mom would spring for Winnie the Pooh cereal (yes, that was a thing) or Cocoa Puffs. We would spoon the sugar into our mouths and imagine this was how some children lived every day because their parents loved them.

Now I am in charge, I buy Shreddies, Rice Krispies and Special K. Our cereal tastes like sad feels. We mix things up sometimes with granola, and Pammy has been known to toss in some Raisin Bran when she does the shopping. Raisins are the devil’s minions, and she’s the only one who considers that a treat.

So, late one night, I was scrounging for something to eat. I pulled a box of Special K down, and opened it. It wasn’t until they landed in the bowl that I realized something was amiss. These were not my tiny flakes of blah. These flakes were big, and frilly, and…different. I looked at the box. It said they were a new recipe. I didn’t want a new recipe. If I wanted a new recipe, I would have jumped into a volcano and bought Frosted Flakes.

Sighing, I hit them with some milk and went along with the unwanted, unexpected experiment. They felt wrong. My palate has been trained to appreciate small soggy bits, and these new ones were endeavouring to stay crispier, longer. I could tell their goal without even reading about it. And every time a cereal proclaims that it will stay crunchy, even in milk, I can only think of the movie Christmas Vacation when Clark Griswold creates something called cereal varnish. The manufacturers would never call it that, but that is precisely what they wish they could do.

I don’t expect my Special K to stay crispy. If you want cereal that does that, you buy granola that tastes like small pebbles and twigs. You could leave that stuff overnight and it wouldn’t soften up. Things like Corn Flakes drown in a few seconds, and offer up their limp cardboard bodies to taste buds that have trained for decades to expect little from cereal, and therefore can never be disappointed. Like mine.

When the new recipe was released last year in the U.K., hundreds of people headed to Facebook to sound off about their breakfast being destroyed and others started hoarding the “old” recipe. I must have been distracted by headlines about Syria, the Ukraine, Russia and the Middle East, because I missed the outcry against such an appalling development.

The new version tastes sweeter and looks like a Corn Flake wearing frilly underpants. Our world is lousy enough without me having to look for reasons to be upset, though I would ask Kellogg’s one thing: don’t you remember New Coke?

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Why every nursing home should have frozen yogurt

“Did you know we can’t stay in the same nursing home together?”

Christopher, 22, and his girlfriend Pammy, also 22, were having a discussion in the living room as I worked in the kitchen. I heard her say this, and paused to eavesdrop.

“It’s true,” she continued. “They don’t let you stay together even if you’re old and married, so I’m telling you now, you better treat me well because we might only have the next 50 years together. But don’t worry; I’ll visit you.” Oh, how I love this girl.

While the only marathon she will ever run will be through a shopping mall, she hauls both of my sons out to play catch most evenings. She bought her first baseball glove a few weeks back (“it’s so cute, it’s blue!”) and her tiny meals look as if they were prepared by a chef at a high-end spa. They’ve been together for 4 years, and every time I think she will soon tire of our lazy ways, she comes up with new ways for Christopher to live forever.

The favourite treat this summer has been frozen yogurt. There is a chain called Froyo, and about once a week they grab Ari, 19, and whoever else is around and make a yogurt run. This has apparently inspired Pammy’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“We’re going to go into business,” she tells me. She means her and Christopher. “That is an excellent way to break up,” I respond. I know these things. I’m divorced.

“No, we have an excellent idea. We are going to open a company called Fro- Yo to Go- Go. Get it? We’ll deliver it! We’ll drive around and sell it, so you don’t even have to leave your house!” I smile, because we’ve just finished discussing her plans to work on her Master’s degree next year, and it is definitely not a degree in frozen yogurt.

“I think that name’s been taken,” I note.

“No, we added the ‘go go’. It’s totally different.” They are laughing and I decide a discussion on patent law would be boring and wreck the moment. “We will get one of those ice cream truck things, and drive around and bring people their frozen yogurt. It will be awesome.”

“Wait. Do you know how much gas is? You’re going to have to sell 10 yogurts to each house on a street to make it worthwhile,” I tell them.

“No,” she tells me patiently. “We will go to rich people’s neighbourhoods and sell it to them for $20. It’ll totally work out.” She is giggling, and Ari comes in to see what’s going on.

“Fro- Yo to Go- Go, Ari,” she tells him. “You can get a truck too!” She is expanding already.

“Why I don’t just ride one of those bicycle cooler things?” Ari jokes. Pammy considers this, and she is not joking.

“No I think trucks will be better.”

I think about the past winter, and ask what they’ll do in the off season. Their words are still tumbling around the kitchen, three kids jousting with possibilities in a conversation that is swinging wildly from frozen treats that will last a season to relationships that might last a lifetime. I shut up and smile.

“And, the best part,” says Pammy with a glint in her eye, “is that there are tons of those ice cream trucks all over the place. We’ll have no problem buying them!”

“You know they’re all over because people gave up, right?” says Ari.

“But we won’t,” she says.

Never do, my sweet girl.

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The gift that costs nothing can be handed down and lasts forever

An unseen neighbour was in his yard yesterday, doing gardening things, I assume. Our yards and houses are surrounded by thick, high hedges, and I could tell you many details of the families who live behind them but I wouldn’t recognize the people if we passed on the street.

“Kids!” my invisible gardener yelled. “Kids, get out here.”

My dad used to do this all the time. He didn’t come in the house and look for us. He’d stand where he was and shout until somebody heard him. My mother taught us you never did that, you went to find whom you wanted, but Dad did things his way and we instinctively knew to respect him but to copy her.

The younger we were, the faster we’d go to see what the fuss was about. It might be a tiny toad cradled in his calloused, stained hand; it might be a bird’s nest perched in some unimaginable crevice; it might be a baseball glove left outside in the rain, and we were in trouble. It didn’t matter, though. If he called, we went.

He’d call us if he was watching one of his animal shows to see the alligators; he’d call and tell us we should be helping Mom cook; he’d call us into the basement to hold a wrench while he tightened something.

He’d call me outside and give me one perfect rose to take to Mom; he’d call us to help him turn the giant, stinky compost heap that burped like a witch’s cauldron; he’d call us to deliver tomatoes and cucumbers to neighbours.

He’d call us outside after an afternoon rain and point out the rainbow at the end of the court. I’d take off after it, because it looked like it was ending in my friend Kathy McBride’s yard and I wanted to share this revelation with her. I’d ride my bike across one street, and then one more, but I wasn’t allowed to cross Guelph Line, so I never found out where the rainbows ended. To this day, when I see one I think of Kathy McBride.

If he was chopping wood, he’d call me out back to stack it. I’d watch the muscles across his broad back ripple as he swung the axe, and I’d think there was surely nobody stronger than my dad. The split wood would fly from the blade, and wearing my safety gear — a fishing hat with sunflowers on it and flip-flops — I’d dart in and grab it. He didn’t really need one of us to stack it, but before I was old enough to realize it, I felt useful, I felt needed. My dad gave me that.

Most of his gifts to me were like this. The gift of letting something take longer, but letting your child help. “Can I try, Daddy?,” I must have said 1,000 times growing up. Sometimes the answer was a growly ‘no,’ if things weren’t going well. But more often than not, it was ‘yes,’ and he’d shape my hands around the handle of whatever tool he was using, and I’d learn things that look easy aren’t and if I did it wrong and he yelled at me it wasn’t because he didn’t love me it’s because I might get hurt.

I was good at digging up dandelions. He had an ancient long-handled tool and when I asked what it was called, he said it was a dandelion digger. I used it until a few years ago when it finally broke, and I cried.

If your dad calls you outside, you should go.

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You can live a lie, but you can’t outrun the truth

When I bought bunk beds for the cottage 20 years ago, I found some made with fat metal tubing that I reasoned would be strong enough for energetic boys yet streamlined enough to fit in small rooms. All was fine until a few years back when I was sleeping in a bottom bunk and noticed some of the bars above my head were bowed a little. Puzzled, I gave a small tug on them, but nothing happened. I surmised what any other thinking person would: my kids were now too big for top bunks and somebody was going to crash down and kill someone else any second.

Fearing imminent death but needing the sleeping room, I resorted to putting the smallest kids up top. My definition of “small” became ridiculous as herds of 6 footers crammed into the rooms with duffle bags. A couple of weeks ago I once again found myself on a bottom bunk (I really need to talk to my travel agent), and was reminded of our hazardous sleeping situation.

“I need to look at new, stronger bunks,” I said to nobody.

“Why? They’re fine,” said Ari, 19.

“No, they’re not. Some of those bars are bending from you guys being too big, and it’s making me nervous.”

“No, they’re bent because we used to swing on them.” Somehow, Mom living a panicked lie was better than anyone bothering to tell me the truth.

I started to ask how they could have possibly done that without me knowing, and then I stopped. When I was tiny and my parents would fight, I would crawl under their bed and hide. I would scoot towards the middle, waiting for the yelling to stop, hoping they wouldn’t come in the bedroom and find me or worse, not find me.

I would lie there for what seemed like hours, straining to hear what I didn’t want to see. One day I found a small hole in the mesh beneath the boxspring, and curiously used my finger to stretch it a little. Just a little. As time passed, that hole became larger with each passing fight. One day I wiggled under and realized over time, I’d made a 2 foot tear. We weren’t allowed to wreck things. Never disciplined for accidents, but willful destruction was another thing entirely.

I reasoned there was only one smaller person in the house; my little sister, and she didn’t know about the hiding spot. I decided this would be a secret I could keep forever. When you’re 6 years old, forever is, well, 6 years.

Years did go by. I stopped hiding when my parents fought, and I forgot about that little girl who faced things by hiding from them. My forever timing was looking like a safe bet, until we got a cat a few years later. During his getting-to-know-us period, he bolted into my parent’s room and hid. My Mom wasn’t a fan to start with, and demanded we find him and turf him out.

Yup. The cat had crawled up into the torn lining and taken up residence in my parent’s bed. As I watched my father pull the mattress off, my heart sank. I was about to blame the cat, but realized my mother would probably never let him back in the house. I owned up to the tear, a 6-year-old’s shame flooding my 14-year-old self. My parents shrugged – they were replacing the bed anyway – and I learned a good lesson about perspective as well as responsibility.

I suppose I should be glad my kids didn’t try to blame the cat.

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Taking stock of a wayward dock

Our dock keeps running away from home.

We’ve needed a new dock at the cottage for several years. Wood deteriorates, and wood being mangled in the thick ice that heralds winter in cottage country is facing a lofty foe.

We – Roz, Gilly and I – own the cottage our parents purchased 42 years ago. That sounds like they made a decision to jump into the holiday home market. They didn’t; my Dad said he was going to check out a cottage. My mother gave him a look I soon learned said far more than words. That night he came home and we owned a cottage. I remember yips of joy from girls with no clue how much work was about to happen, and a look of thunder from a woman who did.

Gilly was up first last year, and called to say the dock was gone. Gone? How does a dock be gone? She called again to say they’d found it at the other end of the lake and had hauled it home with canoes and ropes. She and her husband managed to get it back on its crib, but she warned us it was a little precarious. The main source of security was a rope tied to the pump house. We started pricing building another dock and left it tied with a rope to the pump house.

A few days before I was taking up my crew this year, I popped in during a work jaunt. It’s called “checking on the mouse situation”. Every spring, you open the door nervously, wondering how many small intruders have left behind their caraway seed calling cards. Not bad, I noted. Less work than usual would be required.

Until I went to the lake, and stared at the naked shoreline. No dock, no rope. I called back home to let the others know. Roz said somebody probably stole the rope.

Ari and his friends, Ben and Pat, are all cottage veterans. We went up a day ahead of the others, and I’d warned them there was no dock. I’d also told them they’d have to find it; you can’t leave a dock floating around loose. I checked my rear-view mirror and saw 3 Tom Sawyers looking back at me.

In record time, they had the truck unloaded and were digging out paddles and life jackets. I heard whooping from the lake as they tossed a canoe into the water, and headed out like Viking warriors, if Viking warriors liked rap music, nachos and cushioned flip flops.

Not half an hour later, I saw Ari and Pat struggling to paddle the canoe, the waterlogged dock trailing behind them. And Ben, all 6’6” of him, standing on the dock waving to me.

“Hey, Swim Team,” I called, “why aren’t you at least kicking?”

“It’s too shallow.”

“So get off it and push.”

“The bottom is all mushy.” The two paddlers yelled unkind things to him.

When two more sets of shoulders got there, we managed to push it almost back into place though with a few inches of water covering most of it. Hunting for a rope, I found a thick cable with huge hooks on each end. Our cottage shed is a testament to the way my father faced the world: thick chains, violent scythes and about a dozen axes. We cabled the dock to a huge tree and pounded back some stray nails.

A new dock will be lovely. But I had 6 kids last week who couldn’t have cared less, and I was reminded we sometimes spend too much time worrying about the wrong things.

After all, they got to be Vikings.

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Maybe being successful really is just child’s play

When I moved back into this house, a small boy directly across the street was nearly bursting with excitement. “They have a kid my age!” His mother told me this, years later, as we watched that little boy and his younger sister become so tightly knit with my two that they still call each other siblings. Christopher, 22, was just 4 when we moved in; Ari, 19, was not yet 2.

They’re all grown up now, of course. Sarah just turned 20, as Ari will next month. Michael has a couple of years on Christer, but it’s never mattered. The four of them have moved through their young lives together, even when they’ve been apart in school, even when circles and cycles of friends have come and gone.

Our photo albums are littered with their history. They’ve all appeared in this column, seamlessly moving from one life stage to the next. They’ve argued and they’ve bickered and they’ve rolled their eyes. They’ve gone away to school and come back, picking up where they left off without a stumble. The age differences have evaporated, and they’ve discovered the best plans are no plans at all. They don’t phone, they just flow between houses as they always have, these awesome kids I’ve watched wrestle each other and ignore each other yet always stand united to the rest of the world.

This summer feels different. Maybe they can sense the onset of real adulthood in the offing; school is over for one, and maybe that is all it’s taken to change the timbre of their interaction. Most nights, they are out front tossing a football or a softball, just like they did when they were small. But so much has changed: if cars need to be moved, they move them. There are often a few beers sitting carefully on the curb as they play. I’m still not sure who owns which football, and Christer finally found his baseball glove in Michael’s basement.

Christopher’s girlfriend Pammy has fit right in, and I see Sarah happy for another girl to offset her many brothers. The other evening, the granddaughter of a neighbour joined them as they threw a softball back and forth. This tiny 7-year-old ran around laughing, no doubt excited that the big kids were letting her play. I watched her and the calendar flew back 15 years, and I was glad those big kids could remember how important it was to be included. I suddenly remembered this girl’s grandparents watching me and my sister grow up here, and I was reminded the evolution of a neighbourhood is about the people and not the houses.

My neighbour and I sat on the step the other night, listening to the banter of these adults we still see as our children. It seems like last week we watched them in the twilight against a backdrop of cicadas signalling summer’s end, twirling and twirling, arms outstretched, as they giggled and flopped down on the grass and yelled that they were drunk. Over and over, revelling in play, simply play. I hope they keep room for play in their lives; we often lose it. Maybe the four of them can keep it lit like a pilot light for each other, their mere presence in each other’s lives enough to transport them.

They’re still too young, I think, to understand how strong they’ve made each other. No matter where they all branch off, these childhood roots will hold them in good stead. They’ve made room for one another while finding their own ways – and it’s a gift they’ve given me as well as themselves.

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