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hanger-on-er

While heading out in the Kubota over the rolling hills of Big Valley with Uncle Ed, we notice the cows are out and into Auntie Connie’s garden. Nora jumps out of the box and I leap out of the passenger’s seat and we run a gentle arc around the side of the hill and herd them back towards the fence where Uncle Ed shuffles, patiently, waiting. One little black and white calf bolts the other direction at the last minute, trying to duck under a fence and my little one and that little one have a battle of wills. Nora wins, loping across the field with her long legs and ringlets bouncing, proud to have been useful. As we pile back into the Kubota to head over to John’s to go horseback riding, I notice I have cow shit all over my nice mint green Fluevog shoes. Nora shouts through the glass between the box and the cab. “Mom, I have cow poo all over my new runners!”IMG_1533

Uncle Ed chuckles. He is so darn pleased whenever he gets a city girl all grubby. He says to me, “Cia, when your Mom used to bring you over to the farm as a toddler, she’d dress you all in white. All perfectly clean. And I’d take you with me out to the fields that had just been turned and I’d say “dig Cia, dig!” And you would. So happy. Digging in the dirt like a puppy. And then I’d give you back to your mother, all black. And she learned. She learned not to dress you in white anymore.” He chuckles in the only way Uncle Eds can chuckle as he loops the barbed wire fence and walks – like one might scale logs across a river – gently over the cattle rail.

It’s his birthday and on my way to the Vertigo theatre gig, I have an opportunity to swing by the farm and celebrate with the family I just don’t see enough of: the Whitesides. When I was a girl we’d drive out every weekend to the farm. The best days of my youth were there: collecting eggs, feeding cattle, trying to run over gophers while on the back of motorbikes, playing kiss and tag on the hay bales with the Thomas’s, double solitaire with Gramma, and those huge family meals where the kids got to sit at the card table and Grampa would call out “bring on the pie”.

Uncle Ed is a great big tall handsome man who would never say so. One of my favourite pictures of him is a trip to HawaII: newly arrived, he’s standing on his hotel balcony in his long underwear and his cowboy hat. He’s been a farmer all his life, one of thirteen kids. He’s traveled the world. He’s run for politics. And he’s also a registered massage therapist. He has a portable massage table he puts in the back of his truck and drives out to the Hutterite colonies where he has a long list of faithful patients who adore him.

I bake peach pies and arrive for his birthday dinner with two of his sisters and a bunch of his kids and grandkids around the table. He picks up the latest addition to the family, two month old Chance, and coos. Babies love him and fall instantly asleep in the crook of his big gentle arm. I am once again the visiting relative, the hanger-on-er.  On route to stay with my sister and her family – hanging on to them for a few weeks.

As I head down the hall at the end of a wonderful night I notice the high school graduation pictures Aunt Connie has lovingly hung on the wall. There is a portrait of their eldest son, Danny, their second son, Jamie, their daughter, Amber and their youngest, Andrew, at the end. And in the middle…I am surprised and very moved to see a portrait of my sister, my brother and me, snuggled up in the middle of their big beautiful family…grinning on the wall…right there…the weekend siblings…not a hanger-on-er, but right there, in the centre of my Aunt Connie’s heart.IMG_1527

Who would I be today without a few years of having straw in my hair and dirt up my nose and cousins to write Christmas pageants for? Who would I be without that big cowboy Dad at the end of the table mumbling incoherent but sincere grace? How would my Mom have gotten through without those weekends with her sister and mother canning peaches and digging potatoes and giggling over witticisms during canasta?

We leave the farm and head into Calgary. Nora and I get to stay two whole weeks with my sister and brother-in-law’s and their two kids. And instead of worrying that I am in their way I remember the importance of family and how these years will be some of the best years of Nora’s life.

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