This Canadian chapter of my story carried a rather different tune from the previous six years of sweet South American exile. Recession continued to linger over the Maple Leaf's wallet, sneaking its frisky hand into family budgets. As a consequence, people sought any avenue to generate household savings, cherishing every spare penny and slashing expenses. Many discount stores began to come out of the woodwork hoping to make a profit from hard economic times. The Bickfords were obliged to take a hiatus from frequent globetrotting due to this global downturn, but also because of losing our perks as expats. Our reach was reduced primarily to Ontario, yours to discover, specifically along the famous strip of the 401 highway. Our radius was now somewhat limited to communities surrounding the national capital area, close enough for day trips in our Plymouth Voyager. We discovered magnificent places suitable for family picnics, berry picking, sugar bushes and much more. We familiarized ourselves with heritage sights such as Morrisburg’s Upper Canada Village, picturesque towns such as of Wakefield, Quebec, the locks along the Rideau River, seizing opportunities to put some distance between us and the hustle and bustle of everyday city life.
|The Old Man And The Fish|
Having our long distance movement restricted to the ground level, having had our wings clipped also meant we could not spend time with my Maman's family. This was certainly a major challenge that took a toll on my personal relationship with my Mémé, but also my cousins, my Aunt Annie and Uncle Fernando. Three years was way too long without seeing them. Our annual visits were cancelled as international travel for a family of four was simply unaffordable. I began to have a feeling I would never have a chance to see them again so each night I prayed for them and cherished the memories. On the other hand, we were now in an ideal situation to strengthen our bond with the Ontario Bickfords as geography was on our side – mind you, the distances between one city and another continued to be significant, especially as an impatient pre-teen sitting in a car without much to do. We had traveled up and down highway 401, sufficiently enough to memorize strategic exits and rest stops, should the need to take a breather arise. I had identified this revamping of our lifestyle with a popular song hitting the radio waves at that time, Life Is A Highway interpreted by Tom Cochrane. These regular pilgrimages were packed with enthusiasm, as it was my chance to reunite with my family and share that distinctive, special ambience that these instances produce. It was moreover a temporary immersion in an English speaking environment for a change and to polish up my proficiencies in the language. The English component of the Claudel curriculum was not demanding.
Having Amherstview two hours south of Ottawa encouraged us to regularly visit Grandad - at least once a month. As soon as I crossed the front door and kicked off my shoes, he stood above the staircase smiling and waiting for us to come and I rushed, hoping to be the first to give him a hug. He usually proceeded to show Brian and I some demonstrations of Aikido self-defense tricks. He then giggled away and complemented us mentioning that we were beginning to "look as handsome as your grandfather." He was a true entertainer, even when he was not trying to make anyone laugh. Granny was no longer there bringing cohesion to his every day life but he had become very set in his ways. The best example to share was lunch. It had to be at 12:00. If the clocked turned to 12:01pm and there was no meal in sight, he begun to portray a more nervous persona fueled by a voracious hunger. He was in better shape than most of us, not a heavy man, but he was set in his ways. His meal preparation skills are a story entirely all on its own. He treated us once to some wild ducks a friend had gifted him, a potential delicacy if cooked with love and patience. At the stroke of 11:00am, he bolted from his favourite living room chair headed to the kitchen, ready to cook those poor ducks. He was convinced they would be ready by lunch time. As we sat down to enjoy our meal at exactly noon, he cautioned us to mind our teeth as the animals still likely had buckshot in them. Duck n' Bullets: Grandad's special. The meat was pretty much raw and as he noticed this, he ordered that we carve off some chunks and cook them in a frying pan. This was perhaps not one of the best meals we had enjoyed as a family, but it is still a hilarious and priceless memory. I just wished he had his own cooking show on TV.
He was also the man of many gadgets. With some of his valuable down time spent in the comfort of his television room, he must have been bombarded by infomercials selling a myriad of weird appliances and accessories. He purchased an exercise machine which he probably did not use more than once, and it was also the oddest most uncomfortable gadget I had ever seen. He showed it off as if he had invented the thing himself. The most interesting purchase of his, though, merits a short mention. Before his series of strokes, he had developed a strong affection to coffee, so dark it looked like crude oil. I remember tasting some once and turned green for a few months. Due to his love for strong java, he bought an espresso coffee machine in hopes of making that ultimate cup of joe. He explained that it had several safety devices in order for the machine to cook the beans with some incredible amount of pressure. Regardless of these user friendly features, he still managed to make it blow up, only God knows how. Luckily, he was nowhere near the mushroom cloud as the explosion unfolded. From the day of that incident to the day we cleaned out his house knowing he would never return to live there again, there was a huge stain on the ceiling of the kitchen reminding us of that incident. He had returned the coffee maker after this life threatening disaster and the clerk could hardly believe he had been able to almost blow himself up using it. He always had that adventurous element in his personality, but his follow through was poor in form. It was admirable and hilarious at the same time. Our own Mr. Magoo. He refused to have his mug shot placed next to the definition of old fart in the dictionary, and I believe he passed that test with flying colours.
|Brian and I feeding Canada geese|
Through his many friendships as a greater Cataraqui community leader, he had befriended all sorts of fine people. One of his Aikido students introduced him to the world of computers and gaming. His friend worked in Future Shop - the equivalent of a Best Buy or other large electronic retail store - and imparted his expert knowledge on high performing computers, popular games for his grandkids, and obtained generous discounts on his purchases. This was when Grandad introduced my brother and I to such computer games such as Duke Nukem, set in a post-apocalyptic world where the task was to blow up the bad guys. I remember him laughing away and telling us to use pipe bombs. Once he came to our house and enthusiastically installed “Stacker Three” to increase the memory of our computer. We were all very excited until the computer crashed. He then (like a small boy) announced he had to go home now. A little knowledge can be dangerous. This mishap seemed to go hand in hand with important deadlines for my mom, such as translations she had saved on the computer. To her misfortune, she usually had to redo the entire translation due to collateral damage caused by Stacker and its many versions afterwards. I think Grandad's visits made Maman want to hide the computer or put it on lock down somewhere in the house.
Quite a unique man. He had an alter ego as well, known to a selected crowd as Reverend Bill Bickford. He put aside his sensei apparel and replaced it with a clerical collar. We attended his Sunday services when we visited where he proudly pointed out on each occasion to the congregation that his family was sitting amongst the flock. After mass, many of them approached us to meet and greet. This was when we met local tycoon and arcade magnate, Bob Joseph. He was a generous man and offered his cottage in Varty Lake, a cozy cabin in the wilderness, to the Reverend and his family for a couple of weeks. All of us found a great deal of enjoyment there. My grandfather taught me how to fish, using proper bait and releasing the fish back into the water. The cottage was equipped with a barbecue where Brian and I grilled some burgers – perhaps so Grandad would not try his hand at cooking. The beach welcomed flocks of geese looking for a bite to eat in the evenings, and we made the mistake of feeding them. They kept returning only to soil all over the backyard. There was a pontoon boat, our traditional summer opening ceremony vehicle which everyone young and old piled on board. Every year regardless of who was at the helm, the self-proclaimed captain gunned the engine full speed and the front sank into the lake. As the engine was brought to a halt, it would rebalance and everyone reacted in amazement, every single time. After seeing our hearts pop out of our mouths and relocate itself back to its familiar dwelling, we resumed the annual tour of the lake at a slower, more floatable speed.
|On the pontoon boat touring the lake|
Varty Lake was a wonderful place to spend quiet summers, in pure Zen relaxation. We had satellite television for evening distractions as mosquito activity consumed the outside world. Those pesky little flies overpowered any repellant for sale legally in the market, so as soon as the sun went down for a snooze, everyone took refuge in the comfortable, mosquito-free indoors. The closest village to the cottage was Moscow (yes, Ontario) with a convenience store and three houses making up the whole urban area. The population living in this mega city was anywhere from 4 to 10 inhabitants. The convenience store had videos for rent and the clerk's system was extremely elaborate. First, the customer picked out the movie to rent. Second step in the process was to carry it to the counter. Third, the clerk asked for the customer's first name: in my father’s case, David. Four, complete transaction in Canadian dollars. The following day as we walked in to return the rental at the store, he greeted us with a “Hello, David!” Guess he had great rapport with his varied and diverse clientele. At the cottage, Grandad positioned himself during the peaceful evenings to fish. Every summer, he kept catching a bigger fish than the year before. He was on his way of becoming a sport fisherman in his mind. Many of us presumed he continuously caught the same large mouth bass year after year. A relevant hint was that by the third summer, the large mouth bass seemed to be missing most of his lips. My Grandfather was not a man who paid much attention to detail, including lips, as he put the new beast into a bucket to happily and proudly display his accomplishment to everyone. We humoured him, although my Dad reflected on the moment saying: "That must be the dumbest fish in the lake."