Sunday, 24 February 2008

Skating away on the thin ice of a new day

In the mid-nineties, someone named Fiona Zanatta was writing columns for The Vancouver Sun. (The Resident Fan Boy and I couldn't bear The Victoria Times-Colonist, so we subscribed to The Sun. Now, they pretty much all suck...) Anyway, I really liked her columns and clipped a couple, soaked them in milk of magnesia and club soda, then pasted them into my scrapbook with snaps of my preschool elder daughter.

I don't know what became of Fiona Zanatta; her name doesn't even show up on Google. Anyway, she wrote about the fact that we are rarely aware of the last time things happen; our scrapbooks and diaries will note the first time, but it's only in hindsight that we realize things are gone for good, and more often than not, we don't remember when something ceased to be. Concluding with a story of her six-year-old son climbing into bed with his parents, she said:
It may turn out to be the last time my son will crawl into bed with me and ask me to make the world perfect. But I was paying attention this time. I saw it coming and stayed up to watch it pass. This time I got to say goodbye.

Yesterday was the annual Perfect Canal Day. There's usually only one day when the canal is frozen enough for good skating, yet the temperatures are warm enough that your feet don't freeze before you get your skates on. (There's a bitter wind that rips up the Rideau Canal from the Ottawa River, even on the warmer winter days.) My husband, the weather junkie, obssessively checked with Environment Canada and the evening before, we began preparations by browbeating elder daughter into joining us.

The next morning, we worked on convincing younger daughter that this was a great idea. "It'll take too long!" she protested, fearful that she would lose out on valuable DVD-viewing time. Then we fetched the skates up from the basement and discovered that it's true, you shouldn't store skates in the blade guards, so I scrubbed off what rust I could and we hastily scheduled a visit to Home Hardware for skate sharpening en route. Younger daughter was still not enthused, and was even less so by the stops and delays. By the time we were waiting yet again at a bus stop after retrieving elder daughter from clarinet lesson, I was pondering on the wisdom of the whole enterprise, even more so as we trekked all the way through the Rideau Centre, over the McKenzie-King bridge, finally arriving and struggling to help younger daughter into brand-new skates.

I had brought my skates, but elected not to don them. (The Resident Fan Boy is a determined non-skater.) I cajoled elder daughter into skating with younger daughter, but before long E.D. was complaining that the slow skating required for escorting Y.D. was tiring her out and making her leg ache. I passed the cloth bags containing boots, skate guards, elder daughter's clarinet and music to the RFB, took younger daughter's hand and picked my way carefully along the ice in my boots, watching elder daughter vanish into the crowd of skaters under the next bridge. (Cue Jethro Tull.)Younger daughter hollered and clutched at me each time she came close to losing her balance. This continued for the next kilometre. I stopped to get a snap of younger daughter with the Chateau Laurier rising capitalistically in the distance, but when she glanced over her shoulder, she noticed, for the first time, that other skaters were bearing down on her and she panicked.

Part of the bargain for subjecting our children to enforced family fun had been a promise of lunch at the Elgin Street Diner, so at the Waverley Street steps we made a beeline for one of the scarce benches. This one was partially occupied by a chic young couple in matching alpaca hats who were leisurely getting ready, with plenty of pauses to sit back and watch, while chic woman blew her nose. We worked around them the best we could, juggling bags, struggling to wipe blades without a towel and ease on the skate guards. Chic couple was oblivious and eventually got up and skated south, leaving the snotty tissue on the bench. The garbage can was a whole ten feet away. Charming. Fearful of the tissue being attributed to us, I put on my gloves and disposed of the thing.

"So," we enquired of our daughters, "how was it?"
"Fine," said younger daughter, heading for the stairs.
Elder daughter said her leg ached when she was still and she got tired when she wasn't.
Inwardly I was euphoric due to pulling the thing off at all.

The Elgin Street Diner was packed of course, probably mostly with Canal traffic, but we ordered enormous lunches, and younger daughter, revived with a vanilla milkshake, glowed prettily. I handed her my camera and invited her take some pictures. Holding the camera lopsidedly, she peered through the viewfinder with both big brown eyes wide open. Within moments she was calling our names and asking us to smile. Soon she was chattering away easily on a variety of topics. The pictures she took weren't bad, either. Maybe we need to get her a camera...

That night, the Resident Fan Boy and I watched a DVD of Away From Her, a very Canadian film despite featuring the talents of Julie Christie (up for an Oscar tonight), Olympia Dukakis, and an almost unrecognisable and largely wordless Michael Murphy. The rest of the actors are Canadian and this was adapted and directed by the frighteningly talented Sarah Polley. The whole thing is based on "The Bear Went Over the Mountain", a short story by Alice Munro, which I'm sure I've read, but only faintly remember.

There's a lot of last times in this film, as a bright and practical woman fades away into Alzheimer's.
Here, again, is the uncertainty of when the last time is:
"I'm not gone," she tells her devasted husband (the remarkable Gordon Pinsent) on the way to the nursing home, "I'm going."

Yesterday was, I think, a last time. Elder daughter is fifteen, sixteen in two months, and heading to Europe on a class trip. She's increasingly reluctant to come out to Victoria in the summer; her ties are now to Ottawa. Family excursions with the four of us are increasingly rare. Yesterday may well have been the last time. So, I'll say goodbye.

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