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I didn’t see my daughter this week. I wasn’t working long hours or in some distant city that made getting home impossible. Instead I got off work on time, traffic wasn’t awful, I was home at a reasonable hour, and I still missed her by minutes – every single day. My heart sank each time I opened the front door to the silence of her asleep in her bed, or the faint chorus of my wife’s lullabies, as she lay on the floor beside our daughter, singing her to sleep.

Not seeing her, even for a day, hurts. But there is something special about it too. It reminds me of my parents and how lucky I am. In the mid-1970s my dad was a student minister in Bluevale, a tiny village in rural Ontario, hundreds of miles away from Toronto. Every Sunday night, dad drove to the city for a week of classes, and long nights of studying. Every Friday night he came back to Bluevale for a joyous reunion with his family before the chaos of the weekend began. Two young boys full of energy, a wife who’d born the burden of being a single mom all week, and the demands of his calling as a minister – two services in two rural churches. The physical and emotional toil of leading those congregations on Sunday mornings must have been overwhelming, knowing that come Sunday night he’d be driving back to Toronto, to do it all over again. Four years of that. Four years of not seeing his boys every night.

I have nothing but great memories of those years. My mom was ever present, caring for my brother and I, taking us to the general store where a glass bottle of Coke cost a dime and a bag of chips was twenty-five cents. She played with us, and planted gardens with us and was always there for us. In my memories my dad was ever present too. I don’t remember the weeklong absences. Instead I think of all the things we did together. Baseball, fishing, walks by the old mill near our home. It was idyllic.

As an adult, and a dad, I have a greater appreciation of the challenges my parents must have faced. My father’s sadness at not seeing his boys for such long stretches. The strains and stresses my mother must have endured all alone with two boys, the wife of a minister in a small town with all eyes upon her. To this day my mom speaks about Bluevale often, the friendships she formed, and the way the community supported her. But it could not have been easy for her.

Although I have lived in British Columbia for over ten years, Ontario still feels like home. It still is home. I miss small town Ontario. The brick buildings, main streets, century old homes, and farmers’ fields which surround every town. Bluevale was the epitome of rural Ontario and it became a part of me which I will never shake.

In late spring 2014 I went home again. The timing was perfect. A long relationship had just ended. I needed my family. And although we had talked about returning to Bluevale for years, we’d never made the trip. It took us a couple of hours to drive there along straight country roads. We visited both churches. The front door of the first we visited was open. We wandered around and found my dad’s picture hanging in the basement, forty years after he’d preached there.

Dad in the Belmore church

Visiting the second church was sadder. It wasn’t a church anymore. Instead the church had closed, the building sold and that sacred place had been turned into a home. It made the 1970s seem a long time ago, perhaps the last decade when a village of a few hundred people could sustain a church of its own.

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The closed church did not ruin our day. Far from it. Happiness and wonderful memories abounded. Walks around the old mill and through the quiet cemetery near our home we had once walked through regularly. And our old home was still there – “the manse” in church parlance. The center of my childhood years. When I was the same age as my daughter is now.

Bluevale Manse

I had a full day with my daughter yesterday. We picked blackberries along the side of the road revelling in a “secret spot” we had found. Then to our favourite coffee shop where buying her a treat is always a highlight of my week. Perhaps the most special moment was at the library, where they’d set out toys and masks for kids to play with. And one of the librarians had a Polaroid. A Polaroid! Who knew they existed anymore? My daughter, who talks to Siri and asks for shows on Netflix, knows nothing of Polaroids. So for her it was magic, real magic, when the librarian took a picture, and out of the camera slid a white piece of paper. Which Molly shook, and watched as it transformed into a picture of her and her dad. A Polaroid. It was like we’d been transported back into the 1970s. To a small town in rural Ontario. Home.

Polaroid

 

Pictures Never Imagined

For much of my thirties I lived on a one hundred acre farm in Ontario. The property was magical. Endless fields, tracts of forest, a century old red barn, and the original brick farmhouse. Suburban development encroached all around, but this farm retained the beauty and charm of its origins.

I was a guest on that property because of the relationship I was in. We lived in a newer house which had been built to look old, fashioned out of reclaimed timber and recovered windows. This isn’t the place for the story of how I came to live there, why we left it, and the ultimate dissolution of that relationship. Only half of that story is mine to tell anyway.

But I lived on that property for a few years. I became a little part of it and it became a little part of me — my time there, a mere fraction of the years and memories of the family who owned it. A family that lived there for over fifty years, raised five children, rode horses, milked cows, skated on the pond, sewed crops, grew Christmas trees, and lived with the rhythms of the seasons.

That family moved away too. The timing theirs. The choice theirs. And the land changed. Development was unavoidable. The house where I once lived was demolished. Dozens of homes replaced it, packed cheek to jowl on the front lawn I once mowed, and the back lawn where my niece and nephew once played. The barn came down too. A structure that witnessed birth and death, hard labour and joyful play. An Ontario barn, an iconic building, synonymous with rural Ontario. A barn that is no more.

There’s a playground there now. Which is wonderful. Because hundreds of families can walk out their doors and be there within minutes. So it’s still a special place, just for different reasons.

The original farmhouse still stands, a designated heritage home now owned by a town that doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. So it sits abandoned. Boarded up. Surrounded by a fence.

I live on the other side of the country now. My trips to Ontario are infrequent. My time precious, maximizing every moment I can with family and friends. There’s little time for visiting places. So it was last October. My wife, my daughter and I were driving from the Toronto area to the Niagara Region. Our travels took us through the town I once lived. Although it was no longer a town. Many farms had been swallowed up. Many big box stores had moved in. It was now one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

We had no plans to stop. Until a full diaper intervened. And then we had to stop quickly. We were close to the old farm. Just minutes away. I knew there was a park there.   So we stopped. And changed a diaper. And walked around. And played. And I tried to remember where things were. Where exactly was the barn? The shed? The home I had once lived in? Landmarks like trees and berms had been knocked over by bulldozers. The land scraped flat.

The farmhouse was still there. We walked up to it. I remembered many things. Meals and people, many good times, and a few quite sad. Infinitely small memories in the history of that farm and that land.

I took pictures. Pictures I never thought I would take. Of my wife and my daughter on those grounds. My family – a family I didn’t know I would have when I lived on that farm. A family I could not have imagined. A mother and daughter playing in a park. A little girl prancing on a lawn. A beautiful autumn day.

Not long after we returned home, I lost the phone I’d used to take those pictures. I thought it fell down a storm sewer during a fierce storm, slipping out of my open jacket pocket while I bent over to put my daughter in her car seat. I had never downloaded those photos. I was sure they were gone forever.

A few weeks ago my wife found the phone. It was in our car all along. Jammed in the crevice of a seat.

I never imagined I’d see those photos again. I’m glad to have them back.

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Your Own Blue Rodeo

I don’t have the words to convey how much Blue Rodeo’s music means to me.

But I’ll try.

I fell in love with Blue Rodeo while I was falling in love. My ex-wife was a huge fan.   Blue Rodeo’s masterpiece “Five Days in July” was released the same year we met, the same year we got engaged, the same year we went to our first concert together. The same year Jim Cuddy sang, “Find the face you’ve seen a thousand times.”

The face you’ve seen a thousand times.

You expect to see that face forever.

When our marriage ended almost a decade later, I went months without listening to Blue Rodeo. I didn’t know if I ever would again. The link between the music and our relationship was so strong that every song was bound to hurt. We’d played “Lost Together” at our wedding.

Instead Blue Rodeo helped me heal. Often on long runs, cradling my Sony Discman, listening to their latest CD.

Time passed. I moved – to a new relationship and a new city – small town Ontario colliding with expanding suburbia. My long runs got longer and longer. Hour after hour, slow and steady along busy country roads with commuting cars speeding past. So sometimes I just stepped out my front door and ran lap after lap around my new home, a 100 acre farm. Peace, solitude, and endless repetitions of songs that left me feeling like Cuddy and Greg Keelor had crawled inside my head and torn their lyrics from my life.

Years passed. Apple conquered the world. Music accompanied all of us everywhere. Blue Rodeo moved with me across the country. A new province, a new job. The same relationship. Another face I saw a thousand times. Until I didn’t.

A break-up that surprised neither of us. Warning signs appeared at a Jim Cuddy concert in Victoria. I was so excited to be there. An intimate venue, a new album, old favorites. She was sad. A death in the family that day. Someone who lived far away. My sympathy was real but perfunctory.  Selfish.  The concert trumped all. I was angry when she didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Or I wanted her to. A great concert. A bad night.

The next day Cuddy’s band was in Vancouver. I didn’t have tickets or any plans to be there. Instead, on a cold January morning, I strapped our Christmas tree to the roof of the car and drove it to a local school. Trees chipped for charity. One of the chippers was a friend. It was early afternoon. Six or seven hours until the concert would begin. Still no plans to be there. I mentioned it to my friend, almost jokingly, “hey do you want to go?” He did. His wife said he could. I raced home, booked tickets, a helicopter ride, and a hotel. Sped back to his house to pick him up. We flew to Vancouver. I saw the Jim Cuddy Band for the second night in a row. Totally spontaneous. A good night.

A memorable weekend. Capped off with an 8k road race back on Vancouver Island on Sunday morning. Hung over, tired and catching the first float plane of the morning back to Victoria just to get to the start on time. A weekend that showed the importance of Blue Rodeo, and running in my life.

The band and running intersected again just weeks later. Early spring, not long before I was scheduled to run the Boston Marathon. A bucket list race, and an iconic experience for marathoners around the world.

Training was going well. I felt as strong and healthy as ever. Including regular one hour early morning runs along the oceanfront in Victoria. A 6 mile run that I always did listening to Blue Rodeo’s album, “The Days in Between.” There’s a song on that album that gives a glimpse of Blue Rodeo’s brilliance. The song is called “Truscott.” I did not expect to like it. The song title itself got my back up. Steven Truscott was a teenager when he was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl named Lynne Harper in the 1950s in Ontario. He was sentenced to be hanged. The federal government commuted his sentence to life in prison. Decades later his conviction was overturned.

I didn’t expect to like the song. As cops go, I’m pretty liberal. Maybe very liberal. But Lynne Harper was the ultimate victim. She deserved a tribute. Her once convicted killer didn’t. But then I listened and heard a song about perseverance, strength and love:

When the fever was breaking,

I was sweat soaked and frail,

I dreamed I was Steven Truscott,

A child in jail.

 

And when I awoke,

And I felt your cool breeze,

I wept like an ocean,

Sweet tears of relief.

 

Subtle. Simple. Beautiful.

 

Blue Rodeo has remained with me into the next stage of my life. A wonderful woman, a lovely daughter. Cool breezes.

My love for the band is as strong as ever. I listen to them daily. I see them in concert annually. They are so talented, their set list so deep, that after a three hour concert, dozens of their best songs still haven’t been played. They are that good.

They are more than a band. More than a collection of songs. They are a part of my life.

If you don’t know them, I hope you’ll listen.

If you already love them, you know what I’m talking about.

And if neither is the case, then I hope you have your own Blue Rodeo. Something special accompanying you through your life.