Saturday, September 5, 2015

Over half of my life...

I was 3 months shy of my 18th birthday when I left the sleepy prairie town of Killarney, Manitoba to come to the University of Ottawa. I stuffed everything that I owned - which at the time consisted of clothing, my c.d. collection (made up mostly of REM, the Tragically Hip and Pearl Jam), and 17 volumes of my adolescent diary - into the back seat of an already-crammed 1980-something Ford Mustang. Already crammed because my friend Harley, the owner of said mustang, was coming with me to Ottawa to attend Carleton University (where the K stands for Kwality, as we UofO'ers like to say).

The night before we left, a tornado ripped through Harley's family's farm, knocking down trees and whipping bails of hay around like ping-pong balls. But that little mustang survived unscathed, and we pulled out of town on the eve of September long weekend, 1994 with not a c.d. or diary out of place. Perhaps this was an early sign that Ottawa was my destiny. Even though I didn't know it then.

Frankly, I didn't know much then. I was, after all, only 17 years old. I was a small-town girl. I had a high-school sweetheart. The school from which I had just graduated had 700 students from kindergarten to grade 12. The town's population hovered around 2,000 people - 1,996 of whom were white-Anglo Saxon protestant (the Chinese restaurant was owned by a Vietnamese family). There was nothing by way of cultural diversity. There was nothing remotely metropolitan. There was nothing to prepare me for a move halfway across the country to a campus that I would share with 40,000 or so other students from every corner of the world.

I was scared shitless.

Those first few weeks were difficult. I missed my boyfriend. I missed my high school friends. I missed my parents. I missed my dog. I even missed my pain-in-the-ass siblings. I missed looking up at night and seeing a million stars. I missed wide-open spaces and big prairie skies. I missed the sound of silence. I missed dry heat and dryer cold. I felt like a complete stranger everywhere that I went. I kept getting lost on campus because I couldn't (and still can't) read maps. I was no longer one of the smartest kids in any of my classes. Everything was just so different. I was just so different. And I felt alone.

But that loneliness didn't last. Ever the extrovert, it didn't take long for me to start reaching out to the people around me. In the process, I met some wonderful people who introduced me to new cultures, taught me how to play euchre, got me into a lot of trouble, and nursed me through heartaches. Block by block, I explored the city of Ottawa and discovered its many treasures: the locks of the Rideau Canal, Parliament Hill, green spaces like Strathcona Park, the nightlife of the Byward Market, unique neighbourhoods, the hiking trails in nearby Gatineau Park. I voted in my first election. I became an adult. I got my first real job as soon as I graduated, and rented my first apartment all to myself, becoming an independent, contributing member of society. Eventually, I joined the public service. Not long after that, I met Hubby. We bought our first house together in Little Italy. I went back to school at St. Paul University for a Masters degree. Hubby and I got married. We adopted our pets. I chose the REDBLACKS over the Blue Bombers.

I don't remember the exact moment that I decided to make my life here in Ottawa. (Although I suspect that meeting Hubby tipped the scales heavily in that favour). But at some point I just knew that this is where I was meant to stay. I still miss the dry cold and the stars and the wheat fields and the skyline of the Prairies. I still miss my family fiercely. But I can't imagine a life that would take me away from this city. The place where I truly discovered myself.

Twenty-one years ago, on the eve of September long weekend, a girl climbed into the passenger seat of a crammed 1980-something Mustang to drive halfway across the country. Little did she know that this Mustang was taking her home.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

All grown up

Dear M,

I remember the first day that I met you. You were 3 weeks old. You had these really long, skinny legs and long, skinny arms. Your hair was so blond that you looked bald. You either slept or cried. Frankly, you weren't that much to look at.

But my god, did I ever fall in love with you. From the very first moment that your mother laid you in my arms, I knew that I would love you fiercely.

I loved you when you made me watch Teletubbies a thousand times, and then made me dance around the living room while you sang, "Tubbies, auntie! Tubbies!"

I loved you when we had our very first sleepover, and you told me that we had to sleep in your mom and dad's bed because "Your butt is too big for my bed, auntie."

I loved you when you were so excited to be a flower girl in your parent's wedding.

I loved you when you yelled at me for cutting off my hair.

I loved you when your little brother came into this world, and I watched as you enthusiastically embraced the role of big sister.

I loved you when, before you met Hubby for the first time, you asked if he was as tall as your dad, and when I said, "No," you asked if he was a midget. Because everybody shorter than your 6'3" father was tiny in your daddy's-little-girl eyes.

I loved you as I watched you goaltend in hockey, goalkeep in soccer, and tear it up on the basketball court. (That was me squealing when you got Female Athlete of the Year at your graduation, by the way.)

I loved you so much when you stood beside me as one of my bridesmaid's on my wedding day, when I got to see for the first time what you would look like when you became a woman. You took my breath away.

And now, you are a woman. Eighteen years old, graduated from high school, and about to embark on the adventure that is university. Over the past 18 years I have watched you grow from a kind, generous, intelligent, curious, and strong girl to a kind, generous, intelligent, curious and strong woman. When did it happen?

In the blink of an eye. A very teary eye...

M, being an aunt - being your aunt - has been one of the best roles that I have had in this life. And not just because I got to give you back to your parents when you were screaming for a diaper change. Or when you were throwing a tantrum. Or when you and your brother were fighting. But because there is a truly special relationship that develops between a niece and an aunt, especially from this point forward. I am no longer just another adult looking over your shoulder. I hope to be your friend, your confidant, someone that you can just have a drink with and talk about life. This is what I now have with my aunties. And it is a special bond unlike any other.

And so, from one friend to another, let me leave you with a few tips as you begin to write the next chapter in your life:

- Wear sunscreen on your face and your hands every day. Even in the winter. You don't think about it now because you are young and beautiful. But I promise you that when you are knocking on 40s door, and counting the spots on the back of your hands and the wrinkles around your eyes, you are going to wish like hell that you had bathed in SPF every single day.

- President's Choice white cheddar macaroni and cheese kicks Kraft Dinner's ass every time.

- It's okay if you skip a class every now and then. Just don't skip so many that you end up with an "incomplete" on your transcript, which will dog you for the rest of your undergrad.

- Make new friends. In university, you will meet people from so many diverse and unique backgrounds. They will enrich your life in ways that you never knew were possible.

- Keep old friends. They remind you of who you are and where you come from.

- Sometimes, after your heart has been broken or you bombed an assignment, you just need a really good cry.

- Create a playlist of breakup songs. Because when you break up with someone, I promise you that you will want nothing more than to listen to breakup songs on repeat. Bonnie Raitt's I Can't Make You Love Me got me through more than one broken heart.

- Surround yourself with people who make you laugh until your cheeks hurt and until you have tears streaming down your cheeks.

- If you ever use a friend's I.D. to get into a bar (in a province where you aren't of legal drinking age), make sure that said friend doesn't work at said bar... THAT will get you into a lot of trouble.

- Form and voice your own opinions. Engage in debate. Exchange ideas. Defend your point of view. Be passionate about all of the things that you believe in. Even if you're wrong.

- Learn new things outside of the classroom. Like how to play euchre and pool.

- Learn to like beer, because it is always the cheapest drink in the campus bar. And at the liquor store. Which will start to matter when money runs low. It's an acquired taste, but you will learn to love it if you practice enough.

- Find balance. Take a study break to grab a drink with a friend, or to go for a run, or to read a silly novel.

- All-nighters are always better with coffee, snacks, and a good friend to share your procrastination pain.

- Love fiercely, even if it hurts. There truly is no other way to love.

I love you to all the way to Ottawa and back.

Auntie Jay.