A tribute to my beautiful daughters on Mother’s Day

The author's daughters on a boardwalkThere was a time in our lives when Dave and I didn’t think we could have children.

Then Grace was born.

Followed four years later by another baby girl, Clare.

We always said we would be happy even if we weren’t blessed with children. I know this to be true, but I always thought of having kids like a kaleidoscope.

Without children, the wheel of life takes us on a journey of twists and turns, revealing an array of pretty patterns and colours. With them, the cylinder opens wide, to unfurl a mesmerizing display of brilliance and untold adventures. Children are not are whole lives, but they make our lives whole.

Today, on Mother’s Day, I want to pay tribute to the greatest gift in my life: the gift of being a Mom. Here is my love letter to my beautiful daughters.

Thank you Grace and Clare.

For making me laugh,
For hugging away my tears.
For making our family and table full,
For the endless hours skating on our beloved lake, and talking on our evening walks.

For filling our house with music
For infuriating me,
For doing your chores even when I don’t ask you to
For the highs and lows and all the in betweens

For your silly, stupid jokes,
For making me feel like a child again,
For telling me I’m beautiful when your beauty outshines us all
For being my friend.

It has been a pleasure and joy to watch you grow into the spirited, independent young women that you have become.

Be bold. Be strong. Be true to yourself. Live your dreams.

And know that I will always be here for you.
Love, Mom.

Girls in bathtub

Girls at a Santa Claus parade

Have a Zootastic experience

author at zoo entranceOn road trips, no matter how long the drive, we try to break up the trip by stopping somewhere interesting for a couple of hours. Recently, on our way home from South Carolina, we stopped at Zootastic Park near Lake Norman, north of Charlotte, North Carolina.

We love small zoos. You can get up close to the animals, the exhibits are closer together and you actually get to meet and talk to the zoo staff who are usually friendly and knowledgeable.

As soon as we arrived at Zootastic Park, we knew we had found a gem. As I was walking to the bathroom, one of the zoo staff passed me with a baby wolf in his arms. Next door, there was a birthday party in full swing with lemurs leaping around the room.

Parrots and peacocks greeted you at the entrance, and you could buy carrots and grains to feed the animals. Dave and I have been up close to giraffes in Africa, but we have never fed one before.

In the big cats area, I made a new enemy. Their lynx did not like me…one bit. Every time I talked to him he would growl and look at me menacingly with his luminous yellow eyes. It was very eerie. I’ve never seen an animal react like that at a zoo before, probably because you don’t get the opportunity to get so close to them.

Girl with parrot

The owner was an interesting guy. He had been in the animal trade for more than 30 years, worked on Wild Kingdom (google it kids), lived in South Africa, and was now making a go of this little zoo in North Carolina.

They even had an old fashioned carousel for the little ones. The owner told us he traded it for a camel, straight up.

Here are some of our favourite “little” zoos to visit this summer:

  • Jungle Cat World, in Orono, east of Toronto
  • The Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg (50% admission for Moms on Mother’s Day!)
  • Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington—free 364 days of the year
  • Shubenacadie Wildlife Park, 45 minutes outside of Halifax where you can say hi to Shubenacadie Sam, their resident groundhog. We’ve visited Wiarton Willie in Wiarton too–the only North American groundhog we haven’t paid a visit to yet is Punxsutawney Phil.

I haven’t been there, but my friend Mary Beth tells me the zoo in Syracuse is good too. I was sad to find out one of our favourites, Reptile World in Drumheller, Alberta closed. The owner there loved snakes but was terrified of cattle, which we found hilarious considering he lived in Alberta.

Girl feeding giraffe

Many zoos offer summer camp programs for kids—what an awesome summer experience.

This week’s #HappyAct is to have a zootastic experience with the whole family. Go ape for the apes, wild for the big cats and batty for the bats.

Girls on a carousel

Planes, trains and automobiles

jeep on safari

Adventures by automobile…on safari

Planes, trains or automobile–it doesn’t matter, for me, it’s as much about the journey as the destination itself.

I’m writing this blog today on the train, my fingers skimming over the keys as the coach lurches back and forth. By the time it posts, I’ll have flown thousands of miles return to Salt Lake City, and spent two days in the car driving back from vacation from South Carolina with Dave and the kids.

Planes are still magical to me, now matter how many times Air Canada loses my luggage, how bad the food is, or how long I have to wait at the airport. As soon as the plane lifts into the air, I marvel at watching the clouds, the magnificent land formations and patterns below and the sun rise and set over the wings.

Trains take me back to my youth. I grew up beside train tracks. The trains were so close to our house, my bedroom windows rattled when the commuter and freight trains sped through our station. The train was our escape from suburbia to downtown Toronto.

I still love taking the train. You can work, gaze out the windows, chat with your neighbour, or have a coffee or glass of wine. On today’s trip, I saw a deer grazing in the sodden fields and swans gliding gracefully in an estuary near the Trent River .

And then there is the automobile. The love affair of North Americans with the automobile is well documented. For me, cars have always been more of a practical need, a way to get from point A to point B. That all changes on a road trip when you never know what adventure lies beyond the next bend and what new vista there is to explore.

This week’s #HappyAct is to channel your inner John Candy and Steve Martin and embark on a journey by plane, train or automobile—don’t worry about the destination, just have fun getting there.

It’s not a dress rehearsal

man and girl dressed up

Clare and David at our friends’ Jill and Gary’s wedding

I’ve always been grateful for the wonderfully different people in my life and how they’ve all taught me something or influenced me in some way.

I have one friend, David who lives in Australia that I’ve known for years, since he’s the brother of one of my closest friends.

David is one of a kind. Flamboyant, funny, thoughtful, witty and a sparkling conversationalist, one of his favourite sayings is, “It’s not a dress rehearsal, baby.”

Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. We only get one run on or off Broadway, and there’s no script or encore performance.

This week’s #HappyAct is to seize centre stage and live each day to the fullest. Take advantage of opportunities when they come around because they might not come around again. Enjoy the show.

Tap into liquid gold

Clare tapping a maple treePing. Ping. Ping.

As the days get longer and the late winter sun grows stronger, families and farms in eastern Canada turn to a time-worn tradition: tapping trees.

Since moving to Eastern Ontario twenty years ago, I have spent many a March in the sugar bush.

In the early years, it was tapping trees and boiling sap in the sugar shack at my best friend’s farm in Parham. For the past four or five years, we’ve tapped a half a dozen maple trees on our property– something fun to make the endless month of March pass by quickly and to teach the kids about being sustainable.

Unless you’ve made maple syrup before, you can’t truly appreciate the work and effort that goes into making that precious one litre of liquid gold.

I remember one year, when the kids were just babies, Leslie and I wading through thigh-high snow, dragging the kids bundled up in snowsuits and scarves behind us on the toboggan to tap trees. We didn’t even make it halfway to the sugar shack before giving up because the snow was so deep.

Then there is the lugging of the buckets. On our property, the maple trees are down at the lake. We store the sap and boil off outside the barn. That means lugging heavy buckets full of sap daily up our big hill. I swear by the end of the season, my arms are about two inches longer than they were at the start of the season.

Finally, the hours and hours of boiling until you hit that critical moment when the sap thickens into syrup and you can sugar off. Most people don’t realize how critical the timing is. Wait too long, and you have crystallized candy on your hands. Sugar off too soon and you’ve wasted hours of boiling to create runny syrup.

Luckily, we learned how to determine the perfect consistency and exact time to sugar off from the very best—Audrey Tarasick, Leslie’s mother. Audrey would stand over the evaporator with her silver ladle, testing every five minutes how thick the sap was by seeing if the liquid formed a half moon drop on the end of the ladle. If it did, the sap was ready to sugar off.

For us, I’ve calculated it costs us about $80 in propane to get our 4 litres of maple syrup. Sure, we could buy it cheaper, but the fun and memories it’s given us over the years are priceless.

This week’s #HappyAct is to tap into some liquid gold this month. Little Cataraqui Conservation Authority’s Maple Madness runs this year from March 11 to 19 (March Break), and on the weekends of March 25 and 26 and April 1 and 2. One litre of syrup will run you $26.25.

Girl with sap bucket

One of our first years tapping on our property

tapped-trees

Have something to look forward to

 

Swinton family in front of waterfall

On our vacation last year in Grand Falls, New Brunswick

A couple of years ago, I was watching Barbara Walters year-end special on the Most Fascinating People of 2015. She asked comedian Kevin Hart to complete the sentence “Happiness is…” and he replied, “Happiness is having something to look forward to.”

I thought it was an unusual but honest and insightful answer. The daily rhythm of life can become tedious. Most of us work to live, and the reality is in North America, the balance of working and living is out of whack. We work too much, and don’t take time to enjoy life.

That’s when you need to have something to look forward to. I find this longing grows even more in the winter months. By mid-February, Dave and I begin to yearn for our next adventure. We start pouring over calendars and road atlases and looking up vacation rentals on vrbo.com and airbnb.com. Where will the winds take us? What will our next adventure be?

My brother Don is the king of having something to look forward to. He takes about four or five trips a year. As soon as he unpacks his bags from his last vacation, he is planning his next trip. I think he would shrivel up into a hole if he didn’t have something planned. And as it happens, Don is a pretty happy guy.

This week’s #HappyAct is plan your next vacation, a weekend away, a special night with friends. While away a snowy Sunday making plans and dreaming of your next adventure, big or small.

Hit the buffet

mandarin buffetEach year we have a “last in the lake” contest. The last in the lake gets to choose dinner at their restaurant of choice. Clare has won it the last two years in a row (the date was October 30th for the record) so we made the trek on Friday night to what’s becoming an annual tradition to the Mandarin restaurant.

The Mandarin is the penultimate, king of buffets. Dave and I are skeptics when it comes to buffets—usually “buffet” means mediocre food at best served at room temperature. The Mandarin is the exception to the rule. They know how to do buffet right.

We arrived and were greeted by our hostess who showed us to our seats in the F room. It’s important to remember your room number, because it is easy to get lost (Dave and I both entered the wrong rooms that night after filling up our plates).

The Mandarin isn’t just a food experience. It’s eye candy if you like people watching. You never know who you will bump into or what you’ll see. Grace ran into a high school friend. I saw my co-worker Shelli and took the opportunity to ask her what she thought of their new practice of putting the number of calories on the glass above each dish. We both decided we didn’t like it.

It’s particularly fun to see the different strategies for the buffet. Some prefer a traditional approach, starting with soup or salad, then hit the mains while others go off the board for 200 and mix it up. Some people get small dainty plates of like-minded dishes. Others pile food on their plate in a magnificent mound while you watch in admiration and fear as they wind their way back to their seat from the busy dining room.

I especially like watching kids eat. Grace was a classic example. She started with the hot, traditional Chinese food fare, filled up on a plate of waffles and French fries for her second course, went back for salmon and ice cream and finished with a plate of ribs, green tea jello (which she didn’t eat), chocolate cake and a chocolate dipped strawberry. Nothing short of inspired.

Mid-way through your dinner, as the blood rushes to your stomach to digest the copious quantities of food, your mind starts to wander.

  • How many items are in their buffet? 150
  • What’s the most anyone has eaten? I suggested to the waitress they should have a contest. Give contestants a two-hour window and have designated calorie counters track their every calorie. It would be an amazing marketing campaign for the restaurant.
  • How much food do they go through in one day?
  • The kids wanted to know what happens to the leftovers—do they get donated to shelters?
  • What’s the profit margin on each meal? Our waitress told us it’s just $1 for lunch and a bit higher for dinner—we found that hard to believe but then thought maybe they make profits on the drinks
  • How many people do they serve each day? The room we were in held 64 people for example, and gets turned over 3-4 times during dinner. Our restaurant had six rooms—you do the math
  • When Clare started to slump over in her chair after her fourth plate of dessert, we asked our waitress if anyone has ever fallen asleep at the table before? The answer was yes.

My only regret on Friday night was I didn’t have my phone to take any pictures, well and maybe that fourth plate of dessert.

This week’s #HappyAct is to hit the buffet at the Mandarin. But give up on the calorie counting—it’s just not worth it!