Dad signals the end of his nap with an announcement. “I’ll have a cup of tea,” he says. He doesn’t trouble to open his eyes for this request, and so his womenfolk tease him like Pegeen Mikes.
It’s hard not to delight in my parents’ delight in being on holiday, which is based on walks, treats, naps, and wine. Eleven o’clock is latte time. There are no Starbucks in Limerick yet, but there’s one at the end of my sister’s block in the Glebe, and they love it.
By going to the same place at the same time every day we deal with our most pronounced family trait: indecision. At least until we get there. Starbucks is hard for us, with its made-up sizes and milk varietals. Though Mum has taught generations of Senior Infants to sort big-bigger-biggest, she has trouble with tall-grande-venti, let alone misto-mocha-macchiato, or dry foam. We all do. We mill around the register, getting in the way, then blurting half-formed choices before our shared fear of the service industry drives us out. While the baristas quiz us, we squabble about who gets to pay. The pleasure of the coffee is always tinged by someone’s regret that they didn’t order what they really wanted. Today, we swap what we have to match coffees with hopes. _Tomorrow,_ we’ll know exactly what to ask for…
The Glebe is full of babies and children. On weekday mornings the jog-strollers are lined up outside Starbucks, their big off-road tires signalling some kind of pediatric biker gang. These babas were born to a millennium that gives them the run of the place.
My sister’s new house is a glass-walled beauty, all Corian and cheekbones. Though it sits back discreetly from the red-brickery of the Glebe, it has caught the attention of the neighbors in the year or so it’s been going up. They stare frankly. They want to know how much it cost. They tot the price of the stained oak and brushed steel that gets carried in. They want to know what “he” does.
We know this because “he”–my sister’s guy–works alongside the contractors hired and led by his brother-in-law, George. As Glen steadies bricks or carries sheets of glass he hears and fuels the speculation. One day he’s Head of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. The next he’s a retired hockey player from the Russian leagues. Later, he claims that it’s bought with an advance on my sister’s trust fund; a rumor that makes my schoolteacher parents beam. Mortgages are so dull, and Ottawa needs glamour.
Over the back wall lives a shirtless crank who keeps a broken-down school bus, an oven, a badly-crashed car, and a mound of tires in his yard. He scowls and sunbathes, facing the oven as if for extra spring warmth. Every six months, Glen says, he puts his heart and soul into starting that school bus. By driving it up the block and back in front of the city inspectors, he wins the right to keep it as a “working vehicle.”
A doleful, cat-sized creature paces Claire’s tiny yard, seemingly puzzled by the fence. It has a flat nose, and a band of flattened fur around its middle suggests it’s been run over by a bicycle. It peers at the fence, confused as a sleepwalker, then shuffles to another spot to peer some more. What we know of North American animals we learned from Chuck Jones cartoons, and this one we haven’t seen. Gopher? Possum? Prairie dog? We rule out porcupine, armadillo, and coyote before Glen’s father tells us it’s a groundhog, shedding its winter coat. “I thought they’d be smaller,” Dad says, “Hamster-sized.” After that, we notice groundhogs everywhere, curled up on the verges like Moscow hats discarded for the spring.
Every day we walk the length of the Rideau Canal. My parents stride ahead, discussing whether to move to the Senior Living apartment complex in the Glebe, while Claire and I trot behind as if we were still short-legged kids. I’ve never met anyone whould could match their walking pace, and now that they’re outfitted with new sneakers and windbreakers from the local running shop, there’s no catching them. We survive only because a canal march has to include “a cheeky little beer,” or another “milky coffee,” or a beaver tail. Usually all three.
In the Black Tomato café, the receipts itemize “Dalton’s Tax”–for Dalton McGinty, the Ontario premier-and “Stephen’s Tax”–Harper, the new prime minister. Mum wants to go to a Tim Horton’s, but Claire steers her away, which is a shame. You can’t understand Canada until TimBits float in your blood. I might even have taught her to ask for fifteen TimBits, just to see what would happen. Rumor has it that in certain outlets, that gets you a bag of weed with your donut holes–more Canadian a combination than poutine and Red River Cereal.
The Ottawa spring is undecided. On alternate days it tries out gray bluster, then marrow-warming sunshine. The natives are hedging–fleeces on top, and bare, pedicured toes. Even at 70 degrees, snow is still stacked along the tow-path, and Claire describes winter nights when bar buddies confiscated ice-skates from friends too drunk to glide home. Drug tests. Skate-commuting seems magical to me. I think it would make me feel like a pink-cheeked Jesus to slide down that canal.
Mum is affronted that the tulips haven’t bloomed yet. The Netherlands sends thousands of bulbs every year to thank Canada for liberating the Dutch at the end of the Second World War. Their royal family had taken refuge in Ottawa, and when Queen Margarethe was born the delivery ward was designated temporary Dutch territory so that she would be a full citizen. In the War Museum, there’s a wall-sized photo of Canadian veterans parading in Amsterdam fifty years after their first visit. They look amazed at the young girls who offer them tulips.
It’s two and a half years since I lived in Canada. Two quick April visits–to Vancouver and Ottawa–have made me miss it more, though I still can’t bear Leah McLaren, and I’ve never been able to finish an article on their parliamentary politics. Before I headed back to San Francisco, Claire handed me a bag of papers I’d left in her basement. It’s my laborious application for Canadian residency, almost complete. There are letters from the local sergeant in Patrickswell, from the FBI, and from the Metropolitan Police in London, attesting that no record of my criminal tendencies can be found. There are letter-headed notes from people who admit to having employed me. My college transcripts prove I have unsaleable skills in medieval literature. A certificate from Montreal grades my French as intermediate-advanced. (And for a slow-witted seven-year-old, maybe it is.) I’d filled out a family tree, and accounted for my whereabouts every month of my adult life.
My parents don’t much care for the idea of California, with its earthquakes, SUVs, and fool of a president. They’re pro-Canada. They think it would be a good place for me. As they ask, delicately, what I might like to do with that visa application, I think how hard it must be to go from ordaining how many peas a kid has to eat to earn dessert, to wondering how to suggest that a whole other country might suit that grown kid better. I’m grateful for their grace.