Tiger for Dinner and Snakes at the Supper Table

When I was in Grade 4, my father was posted to the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.  Coming from Moscow and winters so cold our spitballs would freeze into deadly bullets, it was quite a shock to find ourselves in the tropics.  Gone were the roly poly Babushkas selling the freshest baked bread.  They were replaced by riots between races, blazing hot sun, and durian (fruit that smells like the Dead).  In Moscow, we lived in an apartment, and the closest we came to wild animals were the little tadpoles that my big sister brought home from a pond she explored on a school fieldtrip to the country.  The tadpoles grew up and the tiny baby frogs hopped out of the fish tank and disappeared, only to be discovered weeks later behind the couches; desiccated little mummies of despair.  In Malaysia, there was more animal life than we were prepared to handle.

The embassy gave us a lovely large home to live in, with a housekeeper (amah, who we always called Ayii) and a gardener.  Marble floors downstairs, wooden parquet upstairs.  The entire living room downstairs could open up onto our marble patio with sliding doors the length of the room.  Not that we ever did that. You see, there were snakes.  Not just any snakes; poisonous snakes.  Snakes that you see in horror movies — 6 foot cobras just taking strolls through our garden.  Our gardener was a very large Indian man named Gabon.  He was a giant, but he was gentle; so gentle that his religion forbade the killing of any living beings.  So these cobras would be throwing a party in the back yard, and my mom would call out, “Gabon!  Please kill the cobra over there! “And he would smile at her, nod his head, then pick up the cobra by the tail and fling it over the garden hedge.  For all I know, it could have been the same damn cobra coming back into our yard day after day, with Gabon throwing it over the hedge over and over again.

When Gabon was off, my mom would take matters into her own hands.  She’d be talking on the phone with my dad in the middle of the day, gazing out on the patio, see a snake slithering in the grass, say, “excuse me, Dave, I’ll be right back,” put down the phone, go upstairs and get my father’s gun that was hanging on the bedpost (we’ll talk about my dad later), come back downstairs, pick up the phone and say, “what were you saying?” while she took aim and shot at the snake.  It got to where I didn’t even look up from my book at the sound of gunfire.  Just another day at the Hess Residence. 

The snakes seemed to live on the philosophy that what was theirs was theirs, and what was ours was theirs too.  We would be eating dinner, hear a soft “plop” sound of something falling out of the honking big plants my mom insisted on displaying all over our house, someone would yell, “SNAKE” and we’d all jump on top of our huge round dining table, screaming for Ayii to come kill the snake with a broom. 

And it didn’t end with our house.  We lived about 30 minutes from our school, the International School of Kuala Lumpur.  It was 30 minutes if you walked on the road with the other civilized people.  Someone in my family came up with the Brilliant Plan to send my sisters and me through a local rubber tree plantation as a shortcut.  Yes, the walk would take only 15 minutes.  But those would be 15 minutes of weaving around smelly rubber trees with sticky sap oozing into grimy harvesting cups, slapping ourselves silly through swarms of malaria-ridden mosquitoes, and shuffling through underbrush SEETHING with poisonous snakes.  Forget about the modern worries of pedophiles and serial killers that could be lurking in jungles, lying in wait for 3 tasty little girls walking to school…that never crossed anyone’s mind in 1978. 

My sisters and I did our best to protest this dangerous idea: why couldn’t we ever be like other normal kids and have our parents drive us to school???  My father’s response was, “You are not normal, nor will you ever be.”  This sentence went on to forge the 3 of us girls into the absolute raving lunatics we are today.  My mom’s response was, “LOOK!  I found these perfect little snakebite kits.  They have a razorblade and a little rubber suction cup, and directions showing you how to slice open your snake bite and suck out the venom.  Also, here are 3 large wooden walking sticks.  Beat the bushes – that will scare away the snakes.”  Well, there you go.  Problem solved.

15 minutes of terror and dozens of mosquito bites every morning, followed by 15 minutes of terror and more mosquito bites in the afternoons.  The moments when we would burst out of the jungle onto our school soccer field felt like we had reached the Promised Land.  Going home, the jungle would spit us out onto a paved road, and we would silently say a prayer of thanks for one more journey survived.  We knew that the rest of the walk to the house would be safe.

Well, relatively safe.  There was a large Monitor lizard that lived in the coconut trees in the grassy area between our house and the main road.  When the herds of sacred cows were grazing there, he kept to the treetops.  Actually, when the sacred cows were there, we all had to steer clear.  We were forbidden to shoo them away.  We were forbidden to even talk to them disrespectfully – after all, any one of them could have been somebody’s grandma or grandpa, according to the Hindus.  They just wandered all around the city, pooping and eating wherever they pleased.  ANYWAY, the monitor lizard must have been resentful of his house arrest and one day came running towards my big sister like he wanted to eat her for dinner.  This thing was at least 5 feet long, big and green, and his mouth was open as he aimed for her.  Of course we all screamed (and when Hess Girls scream, we make a sonic boom), so he veered off course right before he hit her, and ran up another coconut tree.  The 3 of us shakily wobbled our way home, grateful for the opportunity to live to see another day.

The wildlife was out to get us, the heat and humidity were out to get us, and at times it seemed our own mother was out to get us.  She had some weird ideas.  First of all, the 3 of us girls came to that country with waist-length beautiful hair.  The first thing my mother does is sit us down, put bowls on our heads, and cut off all of it.  I kid you not.  And these were not just haircuts, they were butchering.  She kept muttering, “Oh, that’s crooked.”  Snip snip.  20 minutes later my hair was above my ears, and it was STILL crooked.  A truly awesome look for the first day of school as the fat new kid.  One night, she sat us all down at the dining table and said she had a surprise for dinner.  She told us we had to close our eyes and take a bite.  We were all wary of this.  My parents used to tell us to do that every time they wanted us to try things like sheep’s’ brains and pig intestines, “just try it first and THEN we will tell you what it is!” – With evil grins on their faces.  Anyway, we were gullible (still are) and took big bites and chewed.  And chewed.  Funky meat, tasting slightly ammonia-like…”what is this, Mom?” (even my dad didn’t know).  Her bright grin and the word, “TIGER!” shocked the hell out of us.  Apparently our amah’s family had hunted a tiger (yeah yeah, I know – illegal, horrible, etc) and had presented my mom with some of the meat.  It was a great honor.  However, as my big sister and my dad pointed out, it was also full of feline parasites so we should all “SPIT IT OUT SPIT IT OUT!”  That was another moment when I wondered, “Why can’t I just have a normal family?”

One night our house was robbed while we were sleeping.  The robbers left knives next to my little sister’s bed.  The very next day, while my dad rigged the house with an advanced alarm system, my mom went to the local SPCA and came home with 7 dogs.  SEVEN, yes SEVEN dogs.  Aw, cute, you say?  Guess whose job it was to be the family pooper scooper?  Sue Lin Freaking Hess.  And when I pointed out that I was in danger from snakes in the garden while I was doing my vile job, guess what my mommy did for me?  She came home with 5 full-grown geese.  Not just any geese.  Attack geese.  But did they attack snakes?  No, they attacked fat little girls with crooked haircuts.       

Malaysia was not all terror-filled and deadly.  Well, other than that time when there was a riot and people were chopping each other’s heads off with machetes and we were forbidden to leave our house for days…ummm, where was I?  Oh yes.  There were rambutans – a heavenly sweet juicy fruit that resembled furry lychee.  And there were gentle orangutans.  And ditches next to the roads that were filled with gloriously colored guppies – the kind of guppies that you would pay hundreds of dollars for from fancy breeders in pet stores in North America. We just scooped them up in our hands and ran all the way home to plop them into our fish tanks.  And there was Christmas in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore (the cleanest place on earth), and once a week there was Little House on the Prairie on our tiny little black and white television in our kitchen; commercial-free except for the 5 o’clock Muslim prayer that we would happily sing along to, having no clue as to the meaning of the words. 

For one hour a week, I could pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, living far far away from the poisonous snakes and the dreadful heat, living in the kind of wilderness where the only wild animals were bears and wolves and coyotes and HEEEYYYYYYY, I guess you can call me Laura, y’all.

Create Your Own Joy

I wrote this in 2006, one year after my mom died:

The year passed so quickly. Since Mom died last year, our lives have all gone on as busy as before, if not busier. The kids were all in school, Markus worked more hours than he spent at home, finding himself drawing closer to someone else that was not me. No friends, no family, what do I do for me? I can’t remember when I stopped smiling. But I had. I hadn’t even realized the year had passed to the day, until Annie reminded me that Monday was the day Mom had died. How odd it crept up on me, when I had been thinking about Mom so much in the past few weeks. Those weeks had been filled with my feeling nervous, trying to be brave and beginning something new among strangers. I had joined the Waikoloa Canoe Club, hoping to find something that could make me feel happier, fulfilled. To cope with the possibility of being left alone by my husband, everyone’s advice always seemed to be, “don’t hope for someone else to make you happy – make yourself happy.”

What do I know about paddling? Nothing. I didn’t even have the proper equipment or clothing, just a scruffy t-shirt and some shorts. Hunting through my closet before my first practice, I found a pair of red beach shoes – the kind you wear to protect your feet from sharp coral. The tops had been cut to enlarge the opening. Eyes widening, I realized that they were Mom’s – she had worn them towards the end of her life, when her feet were too swollen from her chemotherapy and steroid treatments to fit into her other shoes. I immediately slipped them on and went to my first paddling practice. The club members promptly put me into a canoe, handed me a paddle, the Steersman yelled, “Paddles Up! Hooki!” and we were off, headed for the most blazing sunrise. No time to think, only to imitate the paddler in front of me, remembering to breathe while pulling the paddle through the water, tasting the splash of saltwater on my face. We stopped in what felt like the middle of the ocean, and I looked around for the first time – we were surrounded by crystal clear water – you could see straight to the bottom. And the canoe rocked gently, and nobody spoke to break the silence; we all just breathed. Then, we turned the canoe around and paddled back to shore.

Once on the shore, the spell was broken, and everyone else began chatting with each other, all close friends. Feeling very awkward and out of place, I could only look down at my shoes. My shoes. Mom’s shoes. I smiled, thinking how ironic it was that I had worn her shoes out to the ocean. Mom couldn’t even swim. She hated being out on a boat. My only memory of being on a boat with her was when I was a little girl. I think we were on a cruise and I had just chewed a piece of chocolate flavored gum, and went to kiss her goodnight, and she promptly ran away to vomit. I remember thinking she threw up because of my kiss – Mom and I were infamous for not getting along. Now that I am a mother of a teenager, I know Mom loved me the best way she could. I looked up, smiling with those thoughts, and found myself smiling directly at a very nice teacher from my children’s school. Eyes lighting in recognition, she pulled me into her circle of friends and introduced me to more people than I could possible remember the names of. They were all so warm and welcoming, happy that someone new could enjoy their sport.

The head coach gave some brief instructions, and we were off again, “Paddles up! Hooki!” This time, I had room in my head for thought. I thought about what Mom would have done if she had been given more time to live, if she had been given those 15 years to live life with good health instead of fighting her cancer. I thought, maybe she would have been brave and tried new things. Maybe she would have learned how to swim; gotten her driver’s license, even! Maybe she would have traveled to Hawaii and played in the ocean with her grandchildren. She spent so many years waiting to get better, and the next thing we knew, she didn’t get better. I could hear her, then, in my mind. She was whispering to me, “Don’t let your life pass you by. Try this new thing. Meet these new people. So you’re scared…when has that ever stopped a Hess? Did our dragging you all over this planet to countless new places not teach you anything, girl? Do you know how many strangers I have had to meet in my life? Don’t you remember how many scary things I have had to face? Do this. I’m with you. Look at your brave red shoes. Feel the air breathe into your two healthy lungs, be thankful. Feel your strong back and arms pull on that paddle, be thankful. Raise your face to the sky and feel the sun on your skin, be thankful.”

Those red shoes have been on my feet as I learned how to paddle, as I learned how to “Huli” (flip over, flip back, bail out, and keep going), and as I learned how to be brave on my own. One day, I heard, “Go, Mama, Go!” and looked up to see Markus and Simon cheering from the shore – my whole team laughed and I was so happy. One day I got into the canoe without any horrible bruising. One day my paddle finally entered the water without a splash. One day we were sitting in our canoes on a sea of glass, and a pod of whales swam by, spouting and breaching. And during every night practice, we would paddle into the sunset, and I would ask Mom silently, “What do you think of THAT? Can’t beat the Hawaiian sunset, eh?” All the while, I smiled.

That was three weeks ago. I have paddling practice 3 days a week. I can smile and chat with more than a few people on the team, and I feel strong and confident about this new skill. Sometimes Markus and the kids cheer from the shore, and sometimes I go alone – but I am not lonely when I go alone. I have purchased brand new clothing designed for being in a canoe and a wooden paddle of my very own. But my shoes remain the same. I still wear Mom’s old red beach shoes that are cut open on the top. They don’t match anything I wear to practice, but they are Mom, and she needs to come with me while I paddle out to sea. We have our first 10-mile race on May 13th. Go Mama, Go!

Rising Bread and Raising Memories

The aroma of freshly baked bread, crumbly crust breaking to reveal soft angel-puffs inside, turns me into a 5-year old in the blink of an eye.  My father was always a strict man, believing that children were essentially cabbages until they became old enough to hold an intelligent conversation.  Needless to say, my sisters and I don’t have a lot of the cozy memories others might have of childhood.  

When I was in Kindergarten, my father took a year of leave-without-pay from the Foreign Service, to earn his Masters Degree from Harvard.  All of a sudden, our young family of five had to rely on my mother’s painting lessons and small art gallery for our survival.  We lived in a big old wooden house with a haunted barn, in a neighborhood full of children, in a tiny town called Groveland.  My father took to baking from scratch.  It served two purposes: we saved money by only having to buy the flour, yeast, and sugar, instead of store-bought breads, and my father had an outlet for his frustrations when his studies were difficult.  As a middle child craving the attention of a distant father, these baking sessions were a chance for me to sneak into the kitchen to be close to the Dad I secretly adored.  Believing that he was instructing me in math, economics, and science, my father was happy to teach me his recipe inventions (dreamy breakfast breads with fresh apricots, heavenly cinnamon/brown sugar rolls, even light and fluffy bread made from potatoes).  He never noticed that my happiest times were when he broke off large lumps of whatever dough he was working on, and passed it to me, instructing me to invent a bread of my own.  I always ended up making a silly-faced head out of my ball of dough – googly-eyed with pokies sticking out of the top of its head, and he would bake it alongside his perfect loaves, giving it the same respect he gave to the food he made for our family.  My father only intended to be practical with his baking, but the lovely smells, the happy clatter, and the conversations that ended up coming out of that kitchen, stay in my heart to this day. 

Now that my sisters and I are adults with children of our own, and my mother has passed away, my father recalls those days of poverty with a note of regret in his voice, sometimes apologizing for putting the family through so much hardship.  But I remember that Christmas as the best Christmas I ever had.  We didn’t have a tree, just a very tall (taller than me!) bottle from Mexico that my mother managed to decorate so beautifully that we could not imagine a lovelier Christmas tree. My mother sewed enormous stockings for us to hang on the banisters of the stairs.  Only my parents knew, with dread, that there would be nothing for the three little girls under our “tree” in the morning.  The next morning the first things we saw were our stockings, filled with oranges and apples and nuts and candy canes.  As we were emptying them onto the floor, the doorbell rang.  We all ran to the door, and there was a cardboard box.  The kind of box a refrigerator is packed in.  We pulled it inside and found it filled to the top with toys.  All of our neighbors, whose children always played at our house and were fed by my father’s sweet baked goodies, knew that we weren’t going to have the same kind of Christmas they were going to have.  They all came together and shared with us these gifts from their homes.  My sisters and I didn’t understand why our parents silently hid their grateful tears in their coffee cups.  We were busy whooping and hollering with joy, opening boxes of baby dolls and cars, a slinky, a ball;  nothing labeled, just gifts from the heart that we would share together.  If I close my eyes, I am there again, the spicy smell of warm cinnamon bread, chewy and sweet, smothered in butter; the nutty smell of my parents’ coffee.  When I open my eyes, I see my Mom, eyes gazing at my father over her cup of coffee, lips murmuring, “I love you, Merry Christmas.” And my stern father, blinking quickly and hiding his gruffness in his moustache and beard, “try this funny little bread-head that your daughter made – not bad, not bad at all.” And I turn away with a huge smile, hiding my pride by burying my face in my new baby doll, the happiest 5-year old girl in the world.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Any night is apparently the night to partaaay in these here parts…and my new neighbors seem to live by this mantra. We lived 5 years in a little house in Hawaii, and then moved to Banff to live blissfully in a 100 year-old cabin in the woods for 3 years.  It has been quite the adjustment to live in an apartment with neighbors below our floor, now.  You either get lucky in the neighbor department, or you get crazy people.  I don’t recall ever having a neighbor in-between, and I’m not feeling so lucky here.

In Hawaii, I had a balanced mixture.  To the left of my house, a lovely little family of 4 lived, with a gentle-voiced, traditionally raised Japanese-American Mom, a laid-back Dad, and 2 precious girls.  The first day we moved in, Sweet Lady was on my doorstep with a freshly-made plate of mochi to welcome us to the neighborhood.  Of course my family, being the circus act we are, let 2 year-old Simon open the front door.  Buck naked.  It was hot; we’d just moved there from the cooler central coast of California, AND he was potty training.  Needless to say, we nearly lost that plate of mochi, but caught it just in time.  It didn’t help matters when Sweet Lady later invited my kids over to play.  I looked out my window to see Sweet Lady and her husband frantically hosing down the mattress of a queen-sized bed in their back yard.  Then naked boy appears out of nowhere and buries his face in my lap.  Turns out, naked boy was caught standing on Sweet Lady’s bed, PEEING.  Not the best way to make a good impression, but we are now 8 years into our friendship and still going strong.

On the other side of the house, lived the Scary Family. Let me start by saying Mom is a Hot Mess, Dad is tired out Mr. Italiano Americano chef guy, and children are absolutely wacked out beyond belief.  I’m not saying Mom is a Hot Mess just because I was jealous…while we were house-hunting in the area, before buying the house, we drove by her on 3 separate occasions, jogging in her black bra and tight shorts, tanned skin gleaming, long blond ponytail swinging. Stunning from behind. Shocking to find you’ve moved into the house next to hers.  Yes, I would like my husband to say, “Wow” if he ever saw me jogging 6 blocks ahead of his car.  However, up close and personal, the tanned skin was actually saddle leather, and the blonde 5 o’clock shadow on her chin and the low voice when she began to speak, startled us a bit.  Turns out, Hot Mess is a former bodybuilder, and I don’t think steroids completely leave your system—even decades after taking them.  Or maybe she was still taking them.  Anyway, Mr. Italiano Americano may have worn the pants in the family, but Hot Mess definitely wore the jock strap.

I am a Live and Let Live kind of a person.  You could live next door to me and make love to monkeys, for all I care.  As long as the monkeys seemed happy, I would let you go about your business and I would tootle away in my garden.  The problem with living next to Hot Mess was that her part time job at the hotel (yes, she worked for my furry guy, which ended badly and then she had more reason to hate me) gave her much time to get into my business.  I wanted to dig in my garden, read my books, and enjoy the peace and quiet.  Every single time I stepped into my back yard, I heard the slam of her patio door, and then her manly voice would call out, “SUSAN.  SUSAN!  I need to tawk to you!”  I lost count of how many times I had to tell her, “My name is Sue.  Just Sue.  My parents were lazy and maybe the name should have been Susan, but it isn’t.  It’s just Sue.” To no avail – I gave up after 2 years.  After calling me over, she would proceed to lecture me on whatever was her topic for the day.  My family has a little tradition of saying “I Love you” and kissing each other goodbye every morning.  Then whoever is waving goodbye has to wave until the others can’t see you anymore.  We’re just too wild and crazy, I know.  Well, Hot Mess told me one day, after the family had driven off to work and school, “You need to stop telling him you love him.  You’re a freaking doormat.  Men want a little mystery.  I don’t tell my husband I love him all the time.  In fact, I hardly tell him. Ya gotta keep ‘em guessing.  He’s gotta know that THIS fine package could walk away at any time so he’d betta treasure me.  Ya know?”  God, I wish I could say she smoked cigarettes, because everything about her was so loathsome to me that it would have been absolutely perfect if she had been taking giant drags off of her menthol cigarette and squinting her eyes through the smoke while she was bitching at me.

Anyway, for some inexplicable reason, she hated Sweet Lady.  It was odd, because her Psycho Son was known to do really fun things like locking Sweet Lady’s girls in garden sheds and torturing small animals with the knife collection that Mr. Italiano Americano supplied (“My BOY.  My boy is a MAN and real men have GUNS and KNIVES”).  If anything, Sweet Lady should have hated her.  No worries, though, that ended up happening soon enough.

Hot Mess was very much into her Chardonnay.  So much so that she had a rendezvous with an entire bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay every single evening.  It HAD to be Kendall Jackson – she was sooo proud that she could call herself a wine snob.  For Kendall Jackson, no less…go figure.  On some days, depending on how Psycho Boy was acting out, her evenings began at 3pm.  The neighborhood kids would play outside on the cul-de-sac, and she would sit on her back patio and sunbathe.  And drink.  And drink some more.  Psycho Boy had a little sister who had the misfortune of sporting a little black moustache.  Moustache Girl was Hot Mess’ PRECIOUS and God help you if you scorned her mustachioed Precious.  Moustache Girl liked to drive her battery-powered hot-pink Barbie Jeep all over the neighborhood, doing her best to run over every child she could, screaming and cackling.  Sweet Lady’s girls and my younger daughter Hanna (who later earned the nickname Assassin, but that is another story) would ride their bikes around the neighborhood and do their best to avoid becoming Barbie Jeep road kill.  One evening around 5, when Hot Mess must have been down to the bottom of her bottle of  oo-la-la Kendall Jackson Chardy, Moustache Girl went running to her mommy to scream that all the girls were SO MEAN cuz they wouldn’t play with her.  Sweet Lady and I are standing in my driveway chatting, watching the kids play, and Hot Mess comes tearing out of her house, resplendent in her animal print bikini, boobies bulging, her diaphanous genie-pants billowing, and her words slurring spectacularly.  She heads straight for the girls, yanks them off of their bicycles, and starts screaming, “YOU little girlz are bitchezzz.  BISHHHEZZZ!  You are NOT allowed to play with each other ever again – ever!  How can you be so mean to my baby?  She juz wanz to drive her car for Chrissssesake!”  You should have seen Sweet Lady morph into Protecto Mom in 2 seconds flat.  She runs over, plants herself between our girls and Hot Mess, stands up straight and tall and starts shaking her finger in Hot Mess’ face.  All I knew was that I was too scared to put myself between those two women, for fear that Sweet Lady would scratch out my eyes and Hot Mess would punch me in the face.  But I used my words, convinced Hot Mess to return to her bottle, and hugged Sweet Lady until her adrenaline rush had calmed down.  Desperate Housewives had NUTHIN’ on us, let me tell ya.  It was like I lived for 5 years with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  The scale finally tipped when Hot Mess was so horrible at work that my husband had to ask her husband to find a way to convince her to quit before she got fired.  Then venturing into my backyard got so unpleasant that I had to buy 2 dozen poplar trees to plant along the fence line so we could enjoy our time out there without the acidic looks and snide comments floating over to us.

Wait.  I started out by complaining about my current neighbors.  They are CAKE compared to Hot Mess.  Now I just need to shut up and calm down about their cigarette smoke coming up through the heating vents, their complaints that my children talk in the morning on their way to school…yeah, children talking – outrageous, right?  I need to be thankful that we live above them, not below them.  I need to be thankful that I can look out my windows at an unobstructed view of Lake Mildred and the Rocky Mountains.  I have no mochi and I have no Sweet Lady, but I also don’t have to hear, “SUSAN.  SUSAN!!!!! I need to tawk to you!”  And Kendall Jackson Chardonnay?  You have been replaced by Blasted Church Hatfield’s Fuse.  Cheers!

Welcome to Jasper

My furry man had just been promoted as general manager of a beautiful resort in a tiny little town nestled in Canada’s largest national park.  He trudges off to work there a month before we move, while the kids finish the semester and I organize the movers.  A few days later, one of the biggest cabins on his hotel property burns to the ground.  In the past, it was used as the General Manager’s house…and I wondered, “Is that a little message from the universe?  Naaaahh….”

We moved to Jasper in the dead of winter.  In our last job, we were spoiled rotten with a humongous log cabin on the hotel grounds that we were given to play in for 3 years.  Here, we lived in the hotel with our 2 giant dogs, hedgehog, snake, and children, while we waited for rental properties to open up in town.  Surprise surprise, landlords don’t take too kindly to the magical combination of dogs/hedgehogs/snakes.  Why, I have no idea, as I know that my 2 children could do much more damage to a house than all my pets put together.  As a result, we lived in the hotel for 4 months, changing rooms and moving to different cabins  every couple of weeks.

It seemed like every day brought something new and horrible into our lives.  And with each new event, some snarky local would say, “Welcome to Jasper” AFTER delivering crappy news or saying something rude.  A sentence beginning with, “welcome to” should be a positive thing.  You BEGIN by welcoming someone, right?  But my new tactless friends either had wicked senses of humor, or maybe they were just plain stupid.  So on our first day of school,  I ask the sourpuss office lady in the elementary school where I should meet my son for lunch, and she replies, “everybody walks home for  lunch in Jasper. “  Our “home” was 3 miles away in the hotel and she KNEW it.  “You can pay me a dollar a day and he can eat in a classroom with the few kids who have to stay at school, or you can go to a restaurant for lunch with them.  Welcome to Jasper.” She didn’t crack a smile for the entire length of the conversation, while my cheeks were cramping from my eager attempts to be friendly.

Another day, Housekeeping left the door open in our cabin and my little boy helplessly watched his dogs run away into the forest where a pack of coyotes stood waiting for them.  Then he had to watch his mommy run into that same forest to look for the dogs, and he thought he would never see any of us ever again.  So Hotel Security strolls up to me (as I’m hollering for the dogs in my t-shirt and jeans in the snow) and tells me they’ll start searching as well, and by the way, “Welcome to Jasper!”

We finally secured a home on the hotel property, squishing 2 little apartments together  to house our small zoo.   They tell us our new appliances have arrived and to prepare for the installation.  As they stand in the kitchen watching me, I empty out our entire freezer/fridge and place the items on the kitchen table.  2 hours later, the engineers amble up to me and say, “okay, we’re ready to go; we’re done.  You have to wait for the plumber to install the dishwasher.” When? “I dunno.  I dunno if the plumber is even here today – not sure if he can do it before the weekend.” And where is the new fridge? There is no fridge!  “Oh, that’s on back-order. Prolly won’t see that for another few weeks, but who knows.  Welcome to Jasper.”  When the plumber finally installed the dishwasher, the water line blew at 2 in the morning, flooding the apartment below ours.  Instead of knocking on our door, the neighbors call Hotel Security to complain.  When the plumber finally gets around to fixing the line, he mumbles, “well I never.  I never seen such a modern dishwasher that used so much water pressure.  Heck.  Kind of a funny way to welcome you to Jasper, EH?”

It’s gotten to the point that when something ridiculous happens, like watching the town sprinklers shoot out tons of water  every morning during a week of pouring rain, my kids just turn to me and drawl, “welcome to Jasper.”

We had that one cabin burn down, then there was a fire in town at another hotel, then just a couple of months ago, our main lodge roof caught on fire.  My son remarked, “tourists must be like, ‘oh no!  fires on the left, fires on the right!  What kind of place IS this?!’…..welcome to Jasper!”

Even the wildlife wants to get in on it.  We have wild animals around every corner here.  Wolves, bears, elk, cougar, bighorn sheep…you name it, we got it.  The coyotes love to trot down the middle of the road, forcing me to slow down, following their swishing tails as they giggle amongst themselves.  And there are suicidal squirrels.  They dash across the road in front of your car. And if one car doesn’t hit them, they dash back again hoping another car will.  And do not get me started on the damn elk.  They own the hotel property.  We even have to put up signs that warn the tourists about them.  Think: Horses With Attitude.  They are that big, and the girls are bitches.  Truly.  One night, while I was out-of-town, my honey gives me a call while he’s out walking the dogs.  In the middle of the conversation, he suddenly sounds out of breath and starts exclaiming, “Oh, OH OKAY – I’m going I’m going, shoo SHOO—AAAHHH! I’ll call you back!” and hangs up.  He called back after a harrowing 5 minutes, to tell me that a she-elk had chased him all the way up our front steps into our doorway.  He had to slam the front door in her face.  Welcome to Jasper.

Lest you think I have only complaints, bear with me.  I grew up moving every 2 years of my life as we followed my father’s Foreign Service assignments all over the globe.  He specialized in communist and socialist countries, so you can imagine the scenic spots of tranquility in which we lived.  Russia, China, Malaysia…places where you only drank the water if you wanted to die a terrible poop-filled death, and where a walk to school meant possible encounters with cobras so our mother gave us walking sticks with which to beat the bushes along the way.  To me, Canada is Paradise.  The people are gentle and kind, polite and modest.  The animals might kill you and eat you, but a grizzly bear just doesn’t seem as sneaky and evil as a poisonous snake.  You give the bears their space and respect, and they usually mind their own business and leave you to yours.  Give me a thousand ocean sunsets and I will still hold out for one perfect sunrise in the mountains.  The air is crisp and clean and the sky is big and blue.  In the woods next to our new house in Jasper, the whole Circle of Life takes place.  Out of our kitchen window, we watch Mama elk give birth to precious spotted brown calves with wobbly legs.  Mama grizzly bears come along to kill and eat the calves to feed to their cubs.  Coyotes tag along to pick up the scraps.  All the while, the loons on the lake behind our house croon a soundtrack to our new life.  It’s terrible, it’s heartbreaking, it’s beautiful, and it’s now all ours.  Most importantly, wherever we go and whatever we do, we do as a family, and that makes this Home.  Welcome to Jasper.

Bra Burning

Hello, my name is Sue and I am a Blog Virgin.  Jumping on the blog bandwagon at age 44 puts me at a slight disadvantage, but I will drag my cavegirl self into the modern world one widget at a time.  And what the hell is a widget, anyway?

I feel horribly awkward posting my thoughts for strangers, but I’m hoping for mercy.  Blogging feels something like walking around in public without a bra.  I feel all dangly and awkward, thinking all eyes are on me and strangers are thinking “Disgusting!” “What the hell was she thinking!” When the reality probably is that only one or two people will notice, and they might think, “hmm, she needs support” but will go about their business.

Just the process of contemplating a blog was so exhausting, that I almost gave up before I began.  The simply free way of just signing up on wordpress.com was waaay too easy for me.  I thought, “what if I love it and get good at it and my career just takes off?!” so I went all out and hired this hosting service called outstandingsetup.com.  Nervously signed up, paid through the nose, and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  24 hours later, I receive an email from “Arthur” my very enthusiastic setter-upper-man (he likes exclamation marks).  He asks me what my domain name should be, and would I please choose from 100 templates for a page theme?  Domain name?  I haven’t mentioned that I don’t enjoy being overwhelmed with too many choices, have I?  Butter gives me a hard time in the dairy section of the grocery store.  Butter is butter, right?  Wrong.  There’s salted or unsalted.  And wouldn’t you know, there are several dairy farms that offer both varieties.  Prices are the same, so how to choose?  And don’t get me started on MILK.  So domain names?!  Many of my friends call me Suzy Cream Cheese, but that name was taken.  I know Hess.com was taken by the Hess oil company because my stinking little sister bought the domain decades ago and sold it to them for $50k after they threatened to sue for it.  Mama Bear?  taken.  Screw it, I decided to go wild and crazy and use my actual full name.  I know, contain your excitement, I’m an animal.

The collection of themes they offered me were so boring that I decided to read other people’s blogs while the list was loading.  And that’s when I came across flipping WordPress.com and the hundreds of great FREE choices for page themes.  After all that trouble, I felt compelled to sign up for a free account, and here I am.  Now I just have to email Arthur and break up with him.  I hope he doesn’t cry.

I think I will remain faceless for a few days, see if my voice can give you a better picture of me than my skin can.  Having survived the whole Blog Birthing Process, I need a moment to rest now.  Brace yourselves, though.  I shall return!

%d bloggers like this: