Last week, my husband ordered brakes for his truck (he does his own repairs). Since the specific brand he wanted isn’t available in Canada, he ordered them from a company in New York state. Their warehouse is located on Long Island, an 8½ hour drive (approximately) from where we live (in southern Ontario).
The total weight of the parts he ordered was a little over 55 pounds; the delivery charge was $70. Considering the rather short distance involved, I would have expected the package to be sent directly from New York to Ontario (with perhaps a short detour through a FedEx hub on the eastern seaboard), and that it would take maybe a day or two to arrive (allowing for customs clearance and a transfer from one type of truck to another for local delivery). Instead, here’s where it went:
- The order was picked up by FedEx in Bethpage, New York on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 26th. From there it travelled three- quarters of the way across the U.S.A. (approximately 2,500 miles westward) to Phoenix, Arizona (where it apparently sat for two days because of an issue of some sort with the customs paperwork).
- Once cleared, the box headed back east 535 miles to Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and then another 680 miles to Mt. Vernon, Missouri (arriving just after 8:00 pm on Friday, May 29th, when it was awarded a much-needed rest over the weekend).
- On Monday, June 1st, the package continued its eastward cross-country journey, landing in Perrysburg, Ohio (a distance of 700 miles from Mt. Vernon) at 7:20 in the evening; it was there that the paperwork necessary for the border crossing into Ontario was completed.
- On June 2nd, hubby’s brakes travelled across the border into Canada and along the highway that runs adjacent to the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario (practically past our front door) nearly 300 miles (still going east) to the FedEx depot in Mississauga (near Toronto).
- That evening, the box was put on another truck and sent westward once again 35 miles to Stoney Creek (passing back through our fair city), to the area distribution centre.
- Finally, this morning (Wednesday, June 3rd), the box was dropped off at my front door at 9:30 a.m. (the shortest part of the journey was this last 10 mile trip).
So, all in all, instead of a quick hop, skip and jump across the border from New York to southern Ontario (a driving distance of approximately 480 miles), a box of brake rotors and pads travelled nearly ten times that distance (a total of 4760 ‘road miles’) and was ‘in transit’ for over a week. Can anyone explain the logic or efficiency in that to me? Surely my bewilderment over this unnecessarily long journey isn’t just because I’m on … the other side of 55.
For the first ten years of my life, my family lived on the main floor of a large house my father had converted to a triplex a decade or so before I was born; his mother lived in one of the ‘overhead’ apartments and my mom’s mother and father (who died when I was 2½) lived in the other. From my mother’s perspective, having two grandmothers living in the same house had both its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, there was always someone around to babysit in an emergency; on the other, there was frequently a mother or mother-in-law turning up at the front door to ask why the baby (or other child) was crying. While no one had to worry about picking up or dropping off grandparents for special occasions, there were no celebrations (or even Sunday dinners) with ‘just us’ in attendance. And as they aged, keeping an eye on their health and well being was certainly easier for Mom, but with five children and two seniors under the same roof (separate apartments or not), she didn’t get much of a break from the role of care-giver.
I have fond memories of the years when my two ‘Grammys’ lived upstairs (we moved several blocks up the street when I was 10, but my parents held onto the ‘old house’ for three more years, renting out our former living space and allowing the grandmothers to remain in their respective apartments). My mother’s mom was the ‘fun’ grandmother. When my sister and I climbed the cedar tree in the back yard and scrambled onto the second-storey roof, she would let us in through her apartment window (despite repeated requests from my mother not to), then serve us milky tea and Digestive cookies and let us watch hockey (she was a die-hard Maple Leafs fan) or wrestling on TV (she even took my oldest brother to live wrestling matches when he was young); she had a unique sense of humour and a zest for life. Dad’s mom was more reserved; she didn’t entertain or molly coddle us, but she did teach me the proper way to iron a man’s shirt and a woman’s hemline, and she gave my sister and I several of her old dresses (with bustles on the back) and fur wraps to use for playing ‘dress up’. Mom’s mom lived a full and active life until she passed away in 1980 at the age of 94. Unfortunately, Dad’s mom suffered from dementia in her final few years and died in 1967 at 91. Each, in their own way, taught me something about the role of ‘Grandmother’.
My own mother first became a grandmother when she was only 42 years of age; she had twelve grandchildren in all (and, at the time of her death, 9 great-grandchildren). By the time my boys were born, she and my Dad had moved 120 miles away, but she still managed to involve herself in her grandchildren’s lives in the very best of ways – keeping track of their activities and milestones, celebrating birthdays, ‘spoiling’ them when they visited (I don’t remember being allowed to have strawberries and ice cream for breakfast when I was growing up!!!!!) She was an active, ‘hands on’ Grammy – when we visited she’d take the boys for walks, to the beach, to the shops, bake cookies with them, read to them. At the time I wished she lived closer (but not necessarily under the same roof!) so we could all spend more time together and she could ‘spoil’ the boys on an regular basis (my parents moved back this way in 2004, but by then the boys were pretty much grown and gone). When she died (in 2012, at nearly 94), the loss was deep and profound. But her legacy lives on, because I can now put everything she (and my own two grandmothers) taught me about being a ‘Grammy’ into practice.
This will be my first Mother’s Day as a Grandmother. Since the birth of my granddaughter in February (coincidentally – or not – on my mother’s birthday, the 14th), I have taken on the role (and title) of ‘Grammy’ in our little family. I held my new granddaughter in my arms when she was barely 30 hours old, I spend one afternoon a week with her (marvelling at the changes I see in her each time I visit) while her mother gets some much-deserved ‘quiet time’, and I plan on being an active and integral part of her life as she continues to grow (right now we live about an hour apart; when my husband retires, we plan on moving just a little closer to my son and his family). I certainly don’t want to miss out on any part of her growing up! I’ll do as my ‘Grammys’ did – encourage her to seek out adventure, master life skills, and play dress-up, as well as all the things my mother did with my boys – and more! I’ll be the very best ‘Grammy’ I can be. It’s a role I know I was born for! I think it’s what I’ve been waiting for ever since I reached … the other side of 55.
I have always been a firm believer in the child-rearing adage: ‘Give them roots and give them wings’. I suppose that comes from the era, and the environment, in which I was raised.
I grew up as one of five in a household where children weren’t molly-coddled, showered with (unearned) praise, inundated with extravagant gifts, or given handouts. We were expected to earn our meager allowance by doing regular chores around the house (setting and clearing the table, washing dishes, dusting and lemon-oil-polishing the dining room suite, ironing, raking the yard and mowing the lawn), and to work part time from a very young age (I was babysitting my oldest brother’s three boys when I was 11, and taking care of various children around the neighbourhood a year later. When I was 15, I actually put an ad in the local newspaper looking for summer employment – from which I got a job at a variety store in the north end of town). Growing up, we were taught the difference between a ‘want’ and a ‘need’, and we understood that ‘If you don’t have the money in the bank/your wallet, then you can’t afford it’ (a rule I still live by!)
My parents also believed that we should be out of the house and living on our own within six months of securing a full time job, or by the time we were 23, whichever came first. (And if it was the former, then as soon as you landed said job, you were expected to pay room and board – I clearly remember coming home with my first paycheck and my mother putting out her hand for her $15 [25% of my lofty $60 a week salary]). Once you had ‘left home’, you didn’t go back, either – you were expected to manage, no matter the circumstances. You were, after all, an adult!
As grownups, four out of the five of us – at one time or another – sought financial assistance from our parents, but the money provided was always a loan, not a gift; we were expected to pay it back (sometimes with interest). My parents enjoyed a moderate lifestyle because they consistently followed the rules they’d taught us about finances: be smart, be frugal, be practical, and don’t throw your money away on things you don’t need! (After he retired, Dad used to joke that they were ‘spending the kids’ inheritance’; I’d tell him to go right ahead – he’d earned the money, and he and Mom deserved to spend it any way they wanted!)
When my boys were growing up, I admit to ‘spoiling’ them just a little :); like many of my generation, I wanted them to enjoy the things I hadn’t had during my own youth, and I had the financial resources to provide them. We lived in a big house with an over-sized yard and a pool in the back, went on family vacations every year, bought too many toys for birthdays and Christmas, and while I didn’t give them a regular allowance, I rarely said ‘No’ to a request for money to go to the show or the bowling alley or the mini-golf course. At the same time, they had regular chores they were required to do around the house (including their own laundry by the time they were 12), they babysat for the neighbours, volunteered at the local animal shelter, and had part time jobs by the time they were 16 (and half of all the money they earned was required to be put into a savings account for the future!) I like to think they appreciated everything they had growing up, and that they also learned the basic rules of finance (money doesn’t grow on trees – you have to earn it; you have to have it before you can spend it; you should always have a ‘little something’ set aside for a rainy day).
The boys are, of course, both grown up and have been out on their own (and doing pretty well) for many years. But the time has finally come for them to ‘put down roots’ of their own and that has brought me to something of a decision-making crossroads – how much do I ‘help’ them in their quest to find a permanent home and establish a comfortable long term lifestyle?
I’m not one of those people who believes parents ‘owe’ their kids anything. Beyond giving them a safe, loving home (including food and shelter and the other basic necessities of life), a wholesome upbringing (including teaching them the value of honesty, courtesy, morality, and good manners), a proper education (through one post secondary degree or diploma), and common-sense advice and guidance (on everything else), I believe that once they reach adulthood, they should manage on their own. That’s not to say I’m not there to help them over the odd rough patch, or am unwilling to provide counsel or assistance when they ask, but the ‘give them wings’ part of parenting (in my opinion) means they can’t come running home every time the going gets tough, or ask for money because they’ve foolishly misspent their wages (or quit their job without having another one to go to), or expect me to buy them a car, or pay their rent, or spring for groceries because the cupboard is bare. (It’s important to say here that my boys have never done any of these things; however, I’ve watched as family and friends have repeatedly paid for multiple college degrees, trips to Europe, exotic vacations, cars, rent, the down payment on a house, general and sundry bills, expensive weddings, etc. for their offspring – oftentimes putting their own financial futures in jeopardy in order to ‘bail out’ their grown children.)
So, as one son starts the process of searching for a house to buy for his growing family, and the other plans a wedding (with house hunting a few years down the road, but anticipated), and my husband and I look forward to his retirement (in two years time), I find myself in a quandary as to how and where to allocate the funds I’ve spent the last several decades accumulating (I’m hardly rich, but I’ve managed my money well and according to the ‘rules’ my parents instilled in me, and I’m in reasonably good shape). I definitely plan to (as Dad used to say), ‘spend the kids’ inheritance’, but I also want to be able to give them a ‘leg up’ in this tight job and housing market. The question is – by how much and on what terms?
According to a recent Canadian bank’s ‘Home Buying Report’, 40% of first time buyers said they couldn’t afford a home without financial help from their parents (or other relatives). In order to meet the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s ‘20% down’ requirement (if you don’t want to pay a significant additional fee for ‘mortgage insurance’), my son will need nearly $60,000 in order to purchase an ‘average’ (3 bedroom) home in his preferred area (house prices in other areas of southern Ontario are similar, or higher – in my neighbourhood, for example, a basic three bedroom bungalow sells for $700,000 or more). How many young couples can save sixty grand when they’re earning (on average) $50,000 – $60,000 a year and paying $1,500 a month for rent? It certainly seems like the ‘Bank of Mom and/or Dad’ is their only option if they want to get into the housing market.
But do I just hand over the money (as a ‘gift’ and/or ‘advance on their inheritance’)? Do I attach some sort of stipulation to it (e.g., pay off your credit card debt first)? Or do I offer it as a loan (with or without interest; with or without a specified term)? Do I make them sit through a ‘lecture’ about finances before I hand over the cheque (whether they want to hear it or not)? Do I ask for some sort of assurance that they actually, honestly, without-a-doubt appreciate what it took for me to earn (and save) that amount of money, and understand its true value (in the long term)? Do I give it to them even if they might not be entirely appreciative of my ‘involvement’ in the process of buying their first home (I know I wanted to do it entirely on my own, as proof that I was a grown up and could take that major step without my parents’ involvement/advice)? And how do I make it clear that this is a ‘one time only’ offer – that the ‘Bank of Mom’ isn’t going to keep handing over money if they make poor choices about future expenditures, or decide they want to ‘move up’ and can’t afford it (or the supposed housing ‘bubble’ bursts or interest rates rise and they’re overextended)? How, ultimately, do I ‘do the right thing’ without feeling like I’m going against the very tenets of financial planning (and security) my father drilled into me so effectively?
I suppose, in the end, it will come down to what the boys are ultimately ‘comfortable’ with – whether they want to ‘go it alone’ or accept my help (and money) or some combination of the two. In the meantime, I’ll just keep trying to keep up with the never ending changes that are happening all around me here on … the other side of 55.
Its seems these days I’m always waiting for something – the kettle to boil, the toast to pop up, the cat to lie down in front of the monitor so I can see what I’ve just typed. I wait in line at the grocery story, the post office, the gas station. I wait for the mail to arrive, the garbage to be picked up, the car to warm up. I wait for emails or phone calls or visits from ‘the kids’. I wait at traffic lights, railway crossings, and behind school buses. I wait for the snow to stop falling, the sun to shine, the temperature to inch upwards. Waiting, waiting, waiting …
According to various online sources, the average person spends nearly an hour a day (or about 4% of their time) waiting. That’s a lot of ‘wasted’ time, but it’s probably (mostly) unavoidable. However, since I’m not a particularly patient person (just ask my husband :) ), I generally HATE waiting.
I waited nearly nine years (after getting married the first time) before I had my first child (partly because I married very young – that was one of the things I DIDN’T wait to do!) And then the baby decided he was going to keep me waiting even longer for his arrival. When I’d gone a full week past my due date, the doctor sent me (on a Friday afternoon) to an obstetrician who, after a brief examination, told me, “This baby will be here before the weekend is over. If not, give me call on Monday.” On Monday, I was calling her office to report, “No baby yet.” She had me admitted to the hospital later that day and labour was induced mid-afternoon; twelve hours later the contractions stopped. They let me sleep for a few hours, but at 7:30 the next morning, things were started up again. Another twelve hours passed and – despite the best efforts of my own doctor, a now-different obstetrician, and various other members of the labour and delivery staff – the baby had still not presented himself to the world. It took two more hours and an emergency c-section for him to finally arrive (it turns out he’d gotten himself sort of jammed sideways in the birth canal). Fortunately – even though he had some breathing issues because of the length of time the whole process took, and had to spend the first few days of his life in an incubator – everything turned out okay.
Fast forward 33 years. On my son’s birthday last July, after the presents were opened but before we went out to dinner, he handed me a ‘greeting card’ style envelope. Curious about why I was getting a card on HIS birthday (but thinking maybe it was some sort of expression of appreciation for having brought him into the world all those years ago) I opened it and read, “One of life’s happiest secrets is just how much family our hearts can hold”. My first thought was that he and his long time girlfriend were getting married; then I opened the card and saw the words, “’You have a new little someone in the family! There’s a new leaf on your family tree – a new addition to your circle of love.” Clipped to the other side of the card was a fuzzy black and white photo. It took a few minutes for it to sink in. My eyes moved down to my son’s handwriting at the bottom of the card – and I saw the words I suppose I’d been waiting for years to see/hear: “You’re going to be grandparents”.
My mother became a grandmother when she was 42 years old (only 2 years after she became a mother for the fifth [and last] time; there was a significant age difference between my eldest brother and my younger one). When she was my age, she had 7 grandchildren (she had 5 more, plus 9 great-grandchildren by the time she passed away in 2012); when I was in my 40s she would often remind me, “When I was your age, I’d been a grandmother for years” (even though my boys were only in their late teens/early 20s). I would reassure her that I most certainly hoped to be a grandmother ‘someday’ – and I absolutely, positively meant it!
And now that dream was going to be a reality. Only I was going to have to wait another six and a half months!
During that time, it often felt like the whole process was taking far too long; at other times, it felt like time was flying past. I could see the changes in my daughter-in-law’s body (despite the fact that she and my son have never ‘formalized’ their partnership with a ceremony and a piece of paper, I think of her that way) each time she and my son visited (they live about an hour’s drive away), and I got periodic updates on ultrasounds and comments from the midwife about the baby’s progress. At Christmas there were several teeny-tiny outfits and blankets and other precious little things under the tree, and the talk inevitably turned to babies and the wonders of the whole child bearing (and rearing) process. The waiting was almost over.
The baby’s official due date was February 3. The last week of January was tense. Every time the phone rang, I jumped. Email updates were exchanged as we all waited. But, like her father (multiple ultrasounds had confirmed it was a girl), the baby simply refused to arrive on time, or quickly. And so we waited. Ten days past her due date, my daughter-in-law went into the hospital to be induced. Nearly eighteen (sleepless) hours later, the obstetrician suggested a c-section and it was decided that that was the best course of action. As it turned out, the baby had positioned herself in the birth canal in much the same way her father had 33 ½ years earlier! Like father, like daughter! Happily, however, she showed no ill effects from her the length of time it took for her to make her grand entrance into the world, and I’m thrilled to announce that my granddaughter, Madeleine Scarlett Kathleen, arrived at 6:25 a.m. on February 14, 2015 (‘Kathleen’ was added to her name when my son realized what day it was – Valentine’s Day was also my mother’s birthday; her name was Kathleen. We all agree that she was watching over things that morning!)
It takes only a few minutes for the kettle to boil, the toast to pop, the car to warm up, the line up in the store to slowly inch forward. It can take hours for the mail to arrive or the doctor to ‘see you now’. I suspect it will be days or weeks before the snow subsides and the temperature rises. It took nine months (after years of waiting) for my first grandchild to arrive. But it was definitely worth the wait. In fact, it’s the most rewarding experience I’ve had yet here on … the other side of 55.
*NOT the ones in the Despicable Me movies
A minion is defined as: a loyal servant of another, usually more powerful, being (Wikipedia) or: a person who is not important and who has to do what another person of higher rank orders them to do (Cambridge Dictionary Online). Synonyms include: underling, henchman, flunky, lackey, hanger-on, dogsbody, follower, hireling, vassal, stooge, toady, sycophant.
In books and movies, it’s usually the villain who has minions. They carry out their boss’s orders and do their dirty work for them. Minions ask no questions, follow directives to the letter, and do not whine about the heinous acts they are required to perform (oftentimes they don’t speak at all). Minions are neither servants nor slaves (in the strictest sense of those terms); they have a specific purpose (to get the job done at any cost). They are totally dispensable; more tools than sentient beings. Minions (if you can believe what you see in the movies) appear to be fairly easy to come by (perhaps you simply order them from ‘Minions ‘R Us’), totally submissive, lacking in empathy and morals, and always eager to please their master, regardless of the task assigned (although no one ever seems to explain what’s in it for them – a place to sleep and three square meals a day, perhaps?) Some villains have a single minion (Hook had Smee; Goldfinger had Oddjob); others have whole armies of them (the Borg Queen had her collective; Darth Vader had his Imperial Storm Troopers).
What I don’t get is why it’s only ‘the bad guys’ who get to have minions. Why can’t a nice, middle class, law abiding citizen (like me) have one (or two)? I certainly have quite a bit of ‘dirty work’ that needs to be taken care of on a regular basis. I bet there are minions out there who’d like to serve as an underling to someone who’s a little less ‘evil’ than their current boss, someone who assigns tasks that don’t involve a whole lot of blood, guts and gore. Is there a job-matching site where a ‘person of higher rank’ can find a good, reliable minion? If so, sign me up!
Or – wouldn’t it be great if you could have a spell cast on someone who’s preternaturally evil themselves (say, some narcissist or sociopath who’s ‘done you wrong’ in the past) and turn them into a minion? I can think of several people right now (including a couple of family members) who’d make great flunkies. Once turned into minions, they could lurk in a corner somewhere (behind the curtains, perhaps) or stand silently in a small closet until called upon to (for example) empty the kitty litter, take out the trash, clear the snow from the driveway, weed the garden, dust and vacuum the house, clean the bathrooms, etc. As minions, they’d have to do it all willingly, efficiently, and without a single sneer of resentment or animosity. I could even get them hats that identify them as minions (from zazzle.com). How great would that be?!?!?!
Some might suggest that technological minions are already among us or on the horizon. We’ve already got autonomous ‘robots’ that can vacuum floors, mow lawns, assemble cars, and pick up rocks on Mars. Humanoid robots are being tested in home care situations (if you haven’t seen the movie, ‘Robot & Frank’ , I strongly recommend it; it’s a fun and touching story about how one man [in the near future] adapts his ‘companion’ robot for his own purposes), and Google is apparently very close to launching a driverless car. But I just can’t see myself getting the same satisfaction out of commanding a programmable robot to wash the kitchen floor as I would a flesh and blood minion who has pledged themselves to me (where’s the ‘power’ in a relationship when one half of it is constructed of steel and circuits and software?)
I definitely think I’m on to something here. After all, if I had my own minion(s), my life would be a thousand times better, because I could spend way more time doing the things I want to do vs. things I have to do, now that I’m on … the other side of 55.
When I was young, having fun was a given. It was almost impossible not to have fun when you were skipping rope, roller skating, playing hopscotch, riding your bike, bouncing a rubber ball against the wall at the school, ice skating, swinging as high as could on the schoolyard swings or hanging upside down on the monkey bars, going to the store for a Popsicle, riding the Tilt-a-Whirl or merry-go-round at the carnival, enjoying Saturday movie matinees, giggling with your girlfriends at sleepovers, taking part in five-pin bowling marathons, climbing trees in the backyard, skipping stones at the lake, building sandcastles on the beach, playing ‘dress up’, or making up silly jokes.
Even as a young woman, fun was plentiful. There were parties, dances, evenings at the pub with friends, holiday adventures (near and far), ping pong and pool ‘tournaments’, concerts, all night movie marathons, weddings, dancercise classes, after work coffee klatches, and all night gossip sessions with girlfriends.
During the ‘married with children’ phase there were excursions to the park, wet and wild days around the pool, outings to the Library and the movie theatre and the ice cream store, day trips to Canada’s Wonderland, Niagara Falls, and the CNE, regular forays to visit the grandparents and spend time at the beach in the town where they lived, annual trips to Disney World (and other exotic vacation spots), family birthday parties, and lots and lots of giggling, imaginative, active playtime.
But after reading a (short) article about the importance of keeping ‘fun’ in your life, I realized (shockingly) that fun is a lot harder to come by on the other side of 55. I tried to think of the last time I could honestly say I had ‘fun’. It took a few minutes but I determined that it was an unseasonably warm and sunny day in late October last year, when my daughter-in-law invited me out for lunch. I left my car at their apartment and we walked the half dozen blocks to the shopping ‘district’, sat outside and talked while waiting for a table in the restaurant she’d chosen, then popped in and out of several shops on the way back, just to ‘window shop’. It had started to rain while we’d been eating and neither of us had thought to bring an umbrella, so we were soaked by the time we got back to the apartment, but we didn’t care. We’d talked and laughed and enjoyed one another’s company. We’d had fun!
My husband and I certainly enjoy one another’s company and we do a lot of ‘pleasurable’ things together, but few of them are what I could call outright ‘fun’. We enjoy the same kinds of movies, but unless we go to the theatre and watch them on the ‘big screen’, and perhaps have a nice dinner afterwards, I don’t think of watching TV or movies together as ‘fun’. We go out on the motorcycle nearly every weekend in the summer, but unless we take a route we’ve not travelled before (or, better yet, get lost), it’s enjoyable, but not really ‘fun’. I’ve taken several ‘alone’ vacations (all within driving distance of home) but while I benefited from the experience, and enjoyed it, it’s the few trips we’ve taken together that have been ‘fun’.
In the past, ‘fun’ was derived from a combination of adventure and activity and friends. Now it seems more connected to the concept of doing something out of the ordinary, trying something new, switching things up and deviating from ‘routine’. And it also appears that, while I take great pleasure in exploring new places, meeting new people, and participating in new activities on my own, I don’t really ‘have fun’ unless someone I care about is with me. It’s in the sharing that simple enjoyment or entertainment turns to ‘fun’.
I don’t like the idea of making New Year’s Resolutions. but I do believe it’s important to set goals every now and again. My goal for 2015 is to have more fun – to share life and all its glories with my family and close friends; to do new things and share the rush of joy that results with them. Because, let’s face it, life is too short to stop having fun!
NOTE: Yes, I’ve been away from blogging for awhile! But now I’m back – and with a brand new series: “Life’s Too Short”. Posts will be less frequent than in the past (i.e., I won’t be maintaining a regular weekly schedule) and the focus will be on insights and epiphanies (‘ah ha’ moments) I’ve experienced since I’ve reached ‘the other side of 55’. This post is the first in the series.
I have always been an avid reader. My earliest memories of books and reading were ‘Little Golden Books’ with titles like Little Cottontail, Bambi, and Snow White. I also had a favourite book about an accident-prone cocker spaniel named Amber, and one with three animal-themed stories in it (featuring Buffin Bear, Squiffy the Squirrel, and Roly and Poly the racoon twins). In the early 60s I read every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery I could get my hands on. When I was eleven or twelve, a friend of my mother’s gave her several dozen ‘medical romance’ paperbacks, but since mom didn’t read that sort of thing, my sister and I took the boxes downstairs and read (and re-read) every single one of them (NOTE: they were very chaste stories – nothing like the widely varied [and sometimes rather explicit] romance novels published today).
One of my clearest memories is of going on a Grade 8 school field trip (on Wednesday, May 17, 1966, according to my old school newsletter) to the public library and getting my first library card. That was a truly momentous occasion. I was officially a member of the ‘adult’ library, with access to more books than I could ever read. (A year later, the original town library was closed and a brand new one – several blocks further west, but still within walking distance of my house – was built to celebrate Canada’s Centennial; it was much larger and brighter, and held hundreds more books. I spent a LOT of time there.)
In the summer of 1968, I got my first (non-babysitting) job at a variety store in the north end of town. When things were quiet (which was most of the time), I’d pick a paperback off the shelf and start reading. When my shift was over, I’d make a note of the page where I’d left off, return the book to the shelf, and go home. I don’t recall any of those books EVER being sold, so I managed to finish every single one I started. That fall, I got a job at another variety-type store (closer to home), where I continued to while away the hours reading (I ‘worked’ after school most days – when there was sporadic traffic in and out of the store, as well as the closing shift every Friday and on alternate Saturdays, when it was rare to have more than half a dozen customers between 7 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.). Basically, I was getting paid $1.25 an hour to read. I loved it!
I recall slugging my way through massive tomes like Hotel and Airport by Arthur Hailey, Tai Pan (and later Shogun and Nobel House) by James Clavell, andValley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann; gothic romances from authors like Mary Stewart and Phyllis Whitney; historic romances by Catherine Cookson and Georgette Heyer; family sagas like Penmarric by Susan Howatch; and dozens and dozens of ‘contemporary romances’ published by Harlequin (at the time they primarily reprinted and distributed medical romances from Mills and Boon in England; they were priced at 25 cents each). NOTE: as I was writing this, I realized that the majority of ‘popular fiction’ sold in Canada during the 60s and 70s was written by British authors – fascinating.
By the time I was finished with school and holding down a full time job, reading had become my favourite form of ‘recreation’ (at one point I actually declared that I was going to work my way from A to Z in the fiction section of the library, choosing books that appealed to me based on the ‘blurb’ on the back/inside cover – be they mystery, suspense, romance, or sweeping family saga; I think I got to the Es before that idea fizzled out).
In 1972 I recall the ‘buzz’ around the publication of a scandalous ‘bodice ripper’ called The Flame and the Flower by Katherine Woodiwiss (now considered THE book that launched the current multi-billion dollar romance industry), and the ‘immoral’ pro-feminist novel, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. I read them both (and many others of their ilk, all equally ‘shocking’ at the time, but enlightening in oh, so many ways). Some time in the early 1980s, I discovered a ‘western romance’ series (The Calder Series) by a former Harlequin author, Janet Dailey (the very first – and for a long time, ONLY – American author to write for Harlequin; her Americana series for them featured a story set in each of the 50 states of the U.S.A.). I continued to read her books, enjoying her style so much that I decided to ‘someday’ write romance novels for a living, too (a goal I’m actively pursuing now that I’m retired!)
In the past 50+ years, I’ve read hundreds of books by dozens of authors in a wide variety of genres. Sometimes I select them based on recommendations from friends; at other times I simply browse the shelves of my local bookstore or library and pick up books that ‘sound like something I’d like’. I’m fond of trolling garage sales, used bookstores, and second-hand shops for new authors (I LOVE a bargain – our local animal shelter occasionally sells paperbacks in their ‘gently used’ store for 10 cents each!) At one point (not that long ago), I had over 350 books in my private ‘library’. I have since purged those I know I won’t read again (setting them aside for the neighbourhood ‘Garage Sale for the Cure’ or ‘blue boxing’ those that are too worn to pass on); any that I know I will revisit have been moved to a bookcase downstairs (leaving two bookcases in the spare bedroom jammed with novels just waiting to be cracked open and enjoyed).
The big difference between my reading habits of years ago (i.e., up to about 2010) and now, however, is that in the past I would always – ALWAYS – finish a book I started, no matter how tough the going got (i.e., poorly constructed plots, lame dialogue, or unbelievable circumstances got a mild expletive of annoyance and a shrug as I turned the page and kept slogging through). Now, when I lose patience with a book because the heroine isn’t sympathetic, the hero is a jerk, things that are supposed to be funny are actually just tasteless or crude, the author worked a weak romance into a book about how to train dogs, put out forest fires, run a wedding business or refurbish an inn, or there’s a subplot about a giraffe running amok in a major metropolitan city but only two people ever actually see it, I simply put it down (or toss it across the room while muttering, ‘How the h*** does that kind of crap get published?’), and pull something else off the shelf.
NOTE: I suspect a significant part of my recent discontent with poorly written books is the result of having spent the better part of the last four years studying and learning the craft of writing. It seems that the more I know about the techniques of writing a ‘bestseller’, the quicker I identify (and become annoyed with) problems related to plot and structure, characterization, dialogue, setting, narrative, etc. Where ‘before’ I knew there was something ‘not quite right’ with a story, now I can pinpoint the issues specifically and I can’t move past them. I suppose this is one of the ‘downsides’ of becoming a ‘skilled’ writer – you see the flaws you used to be able to ignore.
I was raised to ‘finish what you start’ and for most of my life I’ve followed this ‘rule’ without questioning it. But I’ve come to realize in the last few years that there are hundreds of thousands of ‘good’ books out there that I haven’t yet read – and life’s just far too short to waste my time reading poorly written ones.