A Trip Down Memory Lane

June 1, 2015 § 3 Comments

Desk 1I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few weeks, but the timing is best now.

Tuesday would have been my father’s 93rd birthday. He’s been gone for 26 years but a surprise reminder occurred when my older brother, Bob Jr., delivered our dad’s rolltop desk from Canmore, Alberta, recently.

The old piece of furniture has endured a tough life. When I first grew up, it remained at the old farmhouse where my father was raised in North Rolla, B.C. It was moved into Dawson Creek, thankfully, before vandals burned down all the buildings at the farm.

Once at our house, the desk, probably more than 100 years old, proved to be a landing spot for my father’s paperwork. I think I inherited my lack of filing prowess from him.

My father willed the desk to Bob and I snapped up the opportunity to take it when my brother began downsizing.

I remember always being fascinated with the desk – its many cubby holes, the deep drawers, the handiwork behind the rolltop, and the solid oak structure.

The arrival of the desk was an opportunity to connect with Bob, my sister-in-law, Louise, and their son, Logan. I hadn’t seen my nephew in a few years and memories of my dad rushed back into my head.

I’ve been without my father almost as long as I had him – I was 28 when he passed away.

The desk is a reminder of my father, beyond its physical presence. It is strong. It has character. Its dark stain makes it appear stoic. My father had an enduring quality, though he passed away much too young at age 66.

Although it needs some tender loving care, the desk is reminiscent of my dad’s relentless drive to excel as a highways foreman, a position in which he rarely missed a day’s work, even when seriously ill.

Dad might have been called a workaholic though that term wasn’t used widely in his generation.

I believe we share a lot of the same qualities – caring, compassion, generosity, a sense of fairness and justice, and a wry sense of humour. He was shy until he got to know people. I am the same, though my career choice has found me coming to grips with public speaking and schmoozing upon occasion.

He preferred talking one-on-one to people, often workmates about a project. Through practice, I have learned to be comfortable in crowds, though I like smaller groups, talking about shared interests like sports or music.

I gained my work ethic from Dad but also learned the value of playing hard, something he was just figuring out how to do when he passed away.

Ironically, he died on the way home after watching his first NHL hockey game in person. I have been to many professional sporting events live along with going to numerous concerts, another love of mine.

Dad’s idea of going on vacation was to get from points A to B as fast as possible. I enjoy compiling hordes of information and then plotting out a general plan, with room to be spontaneous.

I’m thrilled the arrival of the desk provided a new opportunity to think about my father.

Happy Birthday, Dad. We’ll take good care of your desk and continue thinking of you often.

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Putting The I In Christmas

December 12, 2011 § 3 Comments

Christmas tree icon

Image via Wikipedia

It’s that time of year again – the season that begins with festive décor emerging in the stores early in the fall and ends with many people making pledges they won’t keep.

Christmas time means something different to everyone. I’m not going to rant about the over-commercialization and out-of-control spending of the season. That becomes obvious in January when the credit card bills arrive.

Although I was raised in the Church where they celebrate “true meaning of Christmas” tradition, I’m also not the person to write on that topic. Still others in society don’t celebrate the season at all for religious reasons.

Kathleen Smith, a friend in Edmonton, provided food for thought in a recent Facebook status update. It helped underline that Christmas is really an individual thing.

Kathleen wrote: “Let hope fill our hearts. Shine a light through the dark. All around the world and everywhere, this is my Christmas prayer.

“Yes, I know I’m a self-proclaimed Atheist, but it’s CHRISTMAS for heaven’s sake! ;-).”

Although I consider myself a small ‘c’ Christian, Kathleen’s remarks resonated with me, so here was my response:

“Then that is what your season is about: giving thanks, spreading joy and hope, using the holidays to spend much-deserved time with family and friends.”

“Thank you, David 😉 That’s exactly what it is for me,” Kathleen responded.

“Although I was raised in the Church, the season is all about family and friends and taking me time. I can’t stand all the commercialism,” I replied.

Kathleen responded with: “This is the one time a year I allow my crusty, hard old broad exterior to crumble. I believe in Christmas; its message of peace and love and family. Christmas reconnects me with humanity, disconnects me from being jaded and bitter.”

I remember very few individual gifts but have many special memories of the holiday season. You will notice a trend amongst my highlights.

There was 1984 when my car was out of commission, having been hit just a few days before Christmas. My friends Darrell and Kathy Skidnuk, who were travelling to Edmonton to visit family, gave me a ride so I could spend the holidays with Joyce.

We whiled away the time rockin’ out to tunes with me in the backseat using the snow brush as an air guitar.

For Christmas 1985 (a green Christmas … yayyyy), Howard Elliott, publisher of the Daily Herald-Tribune, and his wife Pearl, hosted all the orphans from the paper (those who had no family in town and were not travelling for the holidays). The following year, Joyce and I did the honours at our apartment.

Joyce and I were reminiscing about that holiday celebration just the other day, particularly the food involved. One of the guests prepared a most memorable crab bisque.

For Christmas 1987, our first in Sault Ste. Marie, the best thing was that Joyce arrived just in time to join me for the Big Day. We’d had to live apart about a month as we made the transition from Alberta to Ontario.

Christmas 1989 was our first with Peter. We didn’t put up a tree that year with a toddler just beginning to roam. Between him and Sammi, our first dog, we thought the ornaments would be in jeopardy.

We used a poinsettia on the coffee table as a tree.

Christmases between 1991 and 2006 were shared with our friends Jeni and Jim Rice and their daughters, Erin and Mackenzie. Neither couple had family in the community so we became the next best thing, taking turns hosting each year. A couple of times, Jeni’s parents joined in from Pennsylvania. Jim’s mom came up a few times from Toronto. Once, my brother Dennis visited from Edmonton.

Our first Christmas with the Rices illustrated why we were as good as family. Jeni underestimated the time to cook the huge bird she’d purchased and dinner was delayed until about 8 p.m. No worries, we had plenty of snacks and wine.

Speaking of making spirits bright, Jeni’s dad, Bill, poured the best glass of scotch! It was always a highlight guessing what fruit combination Jim would come up with for his sumptuous pie.

This year, we will be visiting Peter in Edmonton, getting down to the provincial capital a couple of days ahead of the World Junior Hockey Championship. We have tickets to five games.

Notice how none of these memories involve gifts wrapped with care under the tree? I also didn’t insist we put the ‘Christ’ in Christmas. All my favourite festive thoughts revolve around family, friend and food.

While Kathleen is an atheist and I am a believer, we both agree that this time of year is about celebrating the good things in life, remembering family and friends near and far, looking after the less fortunate, and looking forward with hopes the world will be a better place.

I think that is what Christ would want.

Regardless of how you feel about the season, I wish you all the best for a safe and joyous season.  All the best for a healthy and prosperous 2012.

The Blended Family

August 29, 2011 § 9 Comments

As of 2001, there were more than half a million stepfamilies in Canada*. If you ever would’ve told me I’d find myself as part of one, I never would’ve believed you. I had a mom, a dad and a brother. For all intents and purposes, our family seemed like every other. We ate dinner together, spent family holidays travelling between one set of grandparents or another, my mom or dad would drive us to our various sporting events and activities. Nobody fought (except for Wayne and I, but it’s what siblings are supposed to do!) No one seemed unhappy.

I remember driving home for Thanksgiving in my second year of university with my mom. On the way home she said she had something to tell me. “Your father and I are separated,” she disclosed. “But he’ll be there for Thanksgiving dinner.” Separated? The word rung loudly in my ears the rest of the way home. What? Why? How?

To find myself, at 19, facing parents who were separated, who might potentially get a divorce, seemed ludicrous. My brother and I were no longer at home, which meant they’d already made it through the hard stuff, right?

I won’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of a marriage, I’ve never been in one after all. Nor will I attempt to dissect the various elements that may or may not have led to their separation. That’s not my role in this story. Nono, my role is the one of the daughter. The one who lost her only brother seven some odd years ago and somewhere along the line found herself with six stepbrothers and stepsisters. Yes, six! Let’s not forget the four stepnieces and one stepnephew. A little overwhelming perhaps? Potentially.

Not long after my parents split up, I remember heading to a party with Wayne. On the way there, he turned to me and asked:

“Did Mom and Dad splitting up surprise you?”

“No,” I replied, “I kind of saw it coming.”

“It sure surprised me.”

That’s the only bit of conversation him and I ever had on the subject. Wayne was about 4 years ahead of me in school, you see. And so he hadn’t been at home in the end. Not that anything bad had happened during that time, but after a bit of reflection, it was obvious to me that my parents had drifted apart long ago. Wayne wasn’t home for that part.  No wonder it caught him by surprise.

Fast forward to 2004, I’m pretty sure both of my parents had started dating their current partners by then. Neither of their partners got to meet Wayne, which is unfortunate. It’s an opportunity I wish everyone could’ve had. Though sometimes bull-headed, and frankly, a bit of a jerk at times, I think all of y’all would’ve really enjoyed him. Damn was he funny. But, this post isn’t about him, no, in this post he’s merely a part of a larger story.

It’s hard to put into words the turmoil of emotions I felt from that point and into the coming years. The relationships each of my parents were in continued to evolve. I met the children of each partner. I played along, met the new stepsiblings and hung out with them on special occasions, like Christmas. They were nice. But it’s hard to get to know new siblings as a young adult. Especially when I couldn’t help but feel like I’d be forgetting my real sibling if I let the others in too much.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve bonded with my stepsister and one of my stepbrothers on my mom’s side. My stepbrother has even come house boating with my cousins and I the last couple of summers. He’s also doing a decent job of stepping up as a big brother, complete with the harassment I’ve been missing! My two “wicked” stepsisters on my dad’s side, well, they’re both married with kids and in a phase of life I’m still not in. It’s a bit harder to relate to them. But they’re a fun pair and it’s difficult not to enjoy myself around them.

Throughout it all, I’ve felt like the only person not quite ready to move on. My family had been split apart and I had lost the only person who would’ve possibly known what it was all like. The only one who would’ve still been with me in the other family, the one that fell apart. For a long time, I felt like I didn’t have a place. I was on the outskirts of both sides, but not a true member of either. My best friend and her family, and my cousins back in Saskatchewan became the consistencies I clung to for stability while the rest of my world shifted and tilted around me. For even a grown up child needs stability somewhere in her life when what she’s always known is in a gargantuan state of flux.

A few weeks ago, my dad and my stepmom made things official by tying the knot. At the wedding, I stood up for my dad and my stepmom’s two girls stood up for her. If you were watching me closely during the ceremony, you’d have seen a great many tears in my eyes. But they were a mixture of emotion. Emotion in memory of the sibling that was missing, the one that was a stranger to this new family, but also a strong sense of belonging. There was a new family being formed, and just like my two stepsisters, I’ve got an equal part to play.

After the wedding, one of my stepsisters came over and said that one of my stepnieces had whispered to her as she looked carefully around the room: “Mommy, I know who my new Auntie is… it’s Wendy.” Nieces and nephews? I never thought I’d have any. Now there are five of them. And one of them already thought to call me Auntie. It’s a weird feeling… yet a wonderful one.

My dad’s speech at the wedding was short. He may have uttered 3 or 4 words more than this, but in essence, he said, “Thank you for making this easy.” I think the fact that it was a very gradual transition, that they’d both raised some pretty wonderful kids (am I right?), and that him and my stepmom are just so gosh darned happy are what made it easy.

As the days have ticked past since the wedding, it’s been settling in on me just how permanent this new family is. It’s legal. It’s binding. My signature is on the marriage license as a witness to prove it. I experienced the creation of a new family, my new family. That might just mean it’s okay to open my heart and my life to these new people. It’s okay to move past the family and the brother that were, because it and him are still a part of me. And now, there are that many more people to love me, and me them.

*From Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

Reconnecting

November 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

Nodal Relationship

Image via Wikipedia

I grew up in a dysfunctional family where I was disconnected with many uncles, aunts, cousins and second cousins. That was, in addition, to the internal strife.

Since becoming an adult, I’ve always found that my better friends became closer than family. I never really made an effort to reconnect with any relatives, located mostly in B.C. and Alberta and the Western United States.

However, about five years ago, I made an exception to my rule. I followed my curiosity and, this summer, brought my sleuthing on an impromptu family search to a happy conclusion. No sweat for a former newspaper reporter. Ironically, it is Joyce who is the genealogist in the family.

It all started when I Googled myself. I do this every once in a while to see how articles or information containing my name appear on the World Wide Web since I am routinely quoted in the media. Also, there is a David Olinger at the Denver Post. I have never connected with him, but since he’s a journalist, I like to follow the trail of the scribe with the same name.

As I was scrolling down through the entries on this one occasion, I came across the name Kelley Olinger in Victoria, B.C. I was intrigued by this name since there are many Olingers in Southern B.C., particularly the Okanagan. However I couldn’t remember seeing the name Kelley.

So, I dug a little deeper and discovered that Kelley is a real estate agent in Victoria. I sent a note via email just to see if she could be part of my extended clan, particularly in Kelowna.

Sure enough, she is Peter Olinger’s daughter.

Kelley and I emailed back and forth several times and later connected via Facebook. Then when Joyce, Peter (our son) and I moved to Grande Prairie in 2007, there was always a greater chance we would get to the West Coast in the not-too-distant future. Kelley long ago suggested that if we ever got over to the Island, we should look her up.

So, when we knew would be going to Vancouver Island in August, we followed up on that invitation. We met for a lovely lunch in Victoria.

It was during that encounter that Kelley reminded me that she had located her father’s birth mother through Facebook a couple of years ago.

As a result, Kelley facilitated a reunion in Edmonton and the families continue to correspond. It also closed chapters for both mother and son. As well, Kelley now has more family background for medical purposes.

It was a terrific story that would never have been possible without technology. In fact, my connection with Kelley would likely not have occurred without Google and my curiosity about my own name.

I have no idea what prompted me to reach out and enquire specifically as to Kelley’s connection with me. God knows, there are closer relatives than a second cousin I could have tracked down. Family dysfunction does that to you. Someone has to make the first move.

It just seemed right at the time. I am glad I did. Kelley is, too. After our visit, she offered to be our tour guide if we returned to Vancouver via Victoria. With balmy conditions in Parksville, however, we stayed extra time there and returned to the mainland via Nanaimo.

Next time, Second Cuz!

Making connections with long-lost family is a tricky business. Certainly, it was a lot more challenging for Kelley to connect her father with his birth mother. There is always the fear that they don’t care to be reunited. In my case, Kelley had never heard of me until consulting with her parents when I first contacted her. I could have been some wacko.

Having gone through the experience and hearing the story of Kelley’s family, I would certainly encourage anyone with the urge to reconnect to long-lost relatives to do so. Sure, you might get turned away. But looking at the cup half-full, you are more likely to be opening up a whole new world to yourself.

Go ahead, hop on the phone or get typing!

How Big Is Your Change?

January 11, 2010 § 2 Comments

It’s early January and many people are trying to follow through on New Year’s resolutions. Some have vowed they’ll stop smoking. Others have begun an exercise regime.  Many of these pledges will fail. Numerous people have already thrown in the towel by now.

Not all significant lifestyle changes occur as a result of a promise to one’s self on Dec. 31. Sometimes people just realize that it is time.

However personal improvement occurs, it is most heartening to see that people really can overcome major obstacles, whether hurdles life has thrown at them or their problems were self-inflicted.

I was inspired about a year ago as I was contemplating my entry into the writing competition being held by the Grande Prairie Public Library. The theme was Winning and Losing.

The angle of my story was the reverse … losing and winning.

I told readers how a friend’s daughter lost everything – her children, her job, her house – through drug abuse, becoming addicted to crack at age 30.

Interviewing the subject of the story and writing it, gave me a picture I had never seen so up close and personal. I had never experienced the depths people will go to feed and addiction. It brought tears to my own eyes to see the story turn into one of her winning her family back, regaining employment and having the opportunity to buy a home again.

So, while we are considering whether we can make life-altering changes to improve, the answer is … yes we can. Just ask Marcie:

Marcie Wins Back Family, Loses Drugs

My idea of winning and losing has always been pretty simple – did my Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Blue Jays win last night? . . . Or how am I doing in the hockey pool?

Occasionally, the competitive juices would boil if I was vying for a coveted job and, hey, who likes to come out on the short end in an argument?!

But catching up with my friend, Theresa, and her, daughter, Marcie, recently gave me a whole new perspective on winning and losing.

Not since I experienced the birth of my son and death of my father, both in 1989, have I faced such a pronounced rollercoaster of emotions when hearing those two words together.

Theirs is story of a mother and daughter basking in the glow of a renewed life together thanks to Marcie overcoming drug abuse – a five-year addiction to crack cocaine.

Marcie’s definition of winning includes her ability to hold a job now. Being reunited with her two children, now 20 and 12, is another win. Probably the most important victory is the respect she’s earned from her children.

“They know they just have to call me and I will be there.”

For her to regain that connection, Marcie had to be completely open about the ordeal she’d put herself and her family through.

“I also know the tell-tale signs of drug abuse now and have that awareness. I feel more responsibility and more pressure. It is me that stops me from going back,” she says.

For her to achieve these wins, Marcie had to lose her home, place her sons in her mother’s care, and give up much more.

“You lose yourself and your goals,” she says of her addiction. “You lose track of what’s important, your values, your self esteem, and then you hit rock bottom.”

It becomes a vicious circle. The crack makes things feel better, but only for so long. Then reality sinks in. Marcie is fortunate she didn’t spiral into further despair or sink deeper into the world of drug abuse.

“When you start hating the way you feel and the way your life is going, turning to drugs is a way to cope because when you are high, you don’t feel,” Marcie explains.

“When you are living a life of chaos, your focus is on getting and using drugs. You are always on the go, people are always around you partying, and people want to be your friends without judgement. The excitement was the feeling of being important and on top of the game.  People needing drugs will make you feel like you are important and they respect you when, in fact, all they want is your drugs.

“The winning side of this is that once you are in rehabilitation, you can learn to deal with your feelings of despair and learn how to cope with the guilt of choosing drugs over your children. You then become able to focus on what is important like family, and getting healthy, both mentally and physically.”

Marcie knew it was time to check into detoxification when she was sitting in a camper, with nowhere to go. It was 11 p.m. on her 34th birthday.

“I had nowhere to celebrate my birthday. I gave myself a present. I knew if I made a bad decision at that point, I would go even lower. If I stopped, I would be able to get help. I called my mom and said, ‘Please come and get me. What have I become?’”

Theresa recalls that moment, too. Was it real this time? Would she ever have her daughter back?

For four long years her grandmother, her mother and father, her sister and her children were forced by this awful drug to live in fear of never having Marcie back.

“She called to say she was done and could no longer face the horrible life she had now and wanted me to pick her up and take her to detox,” recalls Theresa.

The anger welled up in her because she’d heard Marcie’s promises to reform before, only to be disappointed.

“She never followed through and I was getting tired of the let down every time. This time, though, there was something in her voice that was different, and because I love my daughter with all my heart, I went to pick her up.”

Theresa had a lump in her throat when she met Marcie. She couldn’t believe what she saw.

“I found this skinny, dirty, hollow-faced stranger standing under a streetlight,” Theresa recalls. “She was the most pitiful thing I have ever seen.  I drove her to detox, walked her into the first set of sliding doors where she met with someone from AADAC.

“I wished her a happy birthday, told her I loved her no matter she has done, kissed her on the cheek and walked away.”

But she didn’t get far.

“I sat in my car in that parking lot for two hours, sobbing and praying that this nightmare would finally be over.”

Marcie would be in detoxification for five days in Grande Prairie. She then went to rehabilitation for three months in Edmonton where she spent a year getting counselling. She also became a member of Narcotics Anonymous.

Although she was no stranger to alcohol and had smoked pot, Marcie didn’t begin using crack until her 30th birthday, at the invitation of her then boyfriend and that started her downward spiral.

“It was fun. It was exciting, but when the money was gone, I was left with an addiction. That is what I remember and I think of how far I’ve come.”

She thinks back to how things fell apart. She had a house and a car and would be the safe place for her friends to do drugs.

“Every penny went to keeping up the drug habit. Then the car broke down and I was out of a house,” she says.

“I spent every pay cheque and child tax cheque, borrowed money from family, friends, and acquaintances. I’d estimate that I spent $1,000 a month minimum . There were the parties that went on for days and everyone would bring drugs and do them until they were gone.”

Marcie has seen herself at her worst and knows there is a long way to go on her journey, but there are also more wins on the way. She has had some setbacks, but has learned to deal with them without going back to crack. It’s been two years without it.

“It’s not a nightmare now. Everything I have been through has made me a better person. I feel better now than before I started on drugs. I have a wonderful career now. I have a great relationship with my children, my sister and the rest of my family.”

Theresa is overjoyed to be on the good side of the winning-losing equation now. There were times she was ready to give up on her daughter. But she never did. Theresa always found strength in remembering Marcie before her addiction.

“She was my first born and the apple of my eye, and as she got older – my best friend.  She grew up to be a person of integrity, honesty, and had a heart of gold.  She was always helping out friends, even when she had little money for herself or her children,” says Theresa.

“I often remarked that her kindness was being abused by some of her friends and her reply was, ‘if they need it more than I do, I will help wherever I can.’”

Theresa says with that big heart, Marcie would get into relationships with men who seemed to always need something.

“She would always say, ‘I can change them. I will help them to become better people.’  The unfortunate part was she couldn’t and ended up hurt and in financial trouble.  After three bad relationships and the loss of her home, she became upset with the way her life was going and, I think now, she gave up. Marcie said once that she was a failure as a wife and a failure as a mother.”

Theresa realizes now that she, like many parents of drug abusers, was in denial.

“I didn’t realize at the time how bad off she was,” Theresa says.

However, Theresa was faced with that reality when she had to pick up her two grandsons from school in January 2004 and then didn’t hear from her daughter for almost five months.

“My life changed dramatically as I then had to become legal guardian to both children,” she says.

“I was angry, scared, mad, confused, hurt and every emotion imaginable. This is something that a mother should never have to go through – not knowing if your child is hurt, scared, cold, hungry or has a warm place to sleep or, if someone has hurt her, or even worse yet killed her.

“I worried about the lifestyle she was in – the dark side of life – and I couldn’t even find her to bring her home.”

Added to this, Theresa had plenty of advice telling her to let go.

“I had many friends who said that “tough love” was the way to go but until you have to go through something like this, you will never know how hard that is,” she says.

Theresa did have to take some action for Marcie’s own good and the safety of the family.

“I eventually had to do and say things to her when she did get in contact with us.  I had to cut off all access to money; I had to tell my own flesh and blood that she was no longer welcome to come home to have Christmas dinner with her family because of drugs.”

Buying Marcie gifts became pointless because Theresa knew they would just be sold for drug money.

“My daughter went from a beautiful, healthy, loving human being to a thin, dirty shell of a person with no goals, no hope and no laughter in her heart.  Crack turned her into someone else. There were times that I almost wished she was dead so that at least I knew she was finally safe and out of pain.”

Theresa smiles when she thinks of her daughter now and is thankful she never, deep down ever threw in the towel on Marcie.

“I am very proud of my daughter as she has worked her way back to not only being the way she was, but I believe even a better person than before because of what she had to go through to get here,” Theresa says.

“I never, never, ever gave up on my daughter and truly believe that all addictions are a disease and the only way back from the bowels of hell called addiction is to have someone on the other side – waiting and supporting them in any way they can.”

Marcie agrees. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my mom. Some people have nowhere to go after they get out of rehab. I was lucky she would take me back. I wasn’t a perfect person, but she hadn’t grown to hate me.”

Marcie, now 37, was also motivated by the opportunity to have her family reunited after being separated for the better part of four years.

“I wanted to get myself back, but I wanted to get us back as a family.”

Her big dream is to once again own a home.

“I want a place for my grandbabies to visit.”

Winning and losing really is more important than last night’s sports scores. A whole lot more.

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