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When the grandchildren come to visit, you can hardly make a better investment than the purchase of a hammock.  For those of us raised in countries settled by Europeans, the hammock is exotic.  It seems insubstantial and a little scary. How can you trust such a thing to hold you up?  But there is the allure of comfort and the gentle swaying motion that take us back to the womb, or back to the days when we lived in trees.  In a hammock, you can relax with green leaves overhead, the gentle brush of a breeze on the skin.  Mosquitoes.

Our long summer in Nova Scotia this year allowed my son’s family the opportunity to squeeze in a visit.  Their two children are four and one now, so the trip from Portland, Oregon would have been trying, even without the missed connection in Toronto.  After a very long day, they rolled into the Halifax airport at 10 PM, sans luggage or car seats.  Fortunately, the airport is quite prepared for such eventualities.  They brought out a couple of car seats and we were on our way.  The luggage arrived at our house the following morning, before the family was awake.

For someone who takes more interest in documentaries and non-fiction books to cartoons and story books, Lucas has a lively imagination.  Long before we hit the hammock, we had introduced me to some of the stick hippos to be found in our field.  They were numerous, and some of them seemed to be thirsty.  So, we wandered down to the stream that borders our property to let them drink.

His little sister is less interested in hippos than the prospect of missing out on some activity her brother has taken on. Zooey’s language is limited, but she has an infectious smile and a refreshing, big “yes” in her vocabulary.  Like the clever little face recognition function built into my camera, Zooey’s neurons light up when her favorite people come into focus.

As the week progressed, the pattern of our visit sorted itself out.  Eating and running around, bath time and sleeping.  I joined their family for a visit to a private zoo on what used to be a farm.  After that adventure, I retired from the daily outings to concentrate on cooking.  Even with our full size Volvo, three adults and two car seats make for a tight squeeze.

A highlight of their visit was a trip to Ross farm, a “living history” farm where one can learn about blacksmithing, oak barrel construction and milking a cow.  The cow captivated young Lucas like nothing else on the trip.  If he had to do it every day as a chore, I suspect the magic would wear off fast, but squeezing hot milk from a large bovine animal made his day.

At one time, there were twelve boys and one girl growing up in the Stewart House.  The twelve boys slept in the very room were I am typing these words.  It was called the “dormitory.”  The wooden pegs where the boys would hang their clothes are still there.

One year, the contagion of diptheria spread through the village like wildfire.  Four of the boys succumbed to the disease within a few days, but my wife’s great grandfather asked for a pickle.  Thinking he was out of his mind with fever, his mother consented.  The acid in the pickle broke through the phlegm that was choking his swollen throat.  Charles Stewart lived to sire his own children, and the old farmhouse stayed in the family.

With the exception of one very wet day, the weather gods cooperated with my son’s visit.  And when the time came to pack up, most of the scattered toys reappeared from places they had been scattered.  Some had been camouflaged by the floral pattern in the rug.

We made our way back to the airport, tucked into lunch at Tim Horton’s, a Canadian institution, and said our goodbyes.  A good time was had by all.  The sticks and the hammock will be here waiting, next time they come.  In the meantime, you never can tell when a hippo will come in handy.


Our Melbourne flat looked pretty desolate early Sunday morning  when the surly taxi driver dropped us off, refusing to touch a single suitcase.  He informed us at the airport that he thought we needed a station wagon, but we had already loaded our bags in his car and there was still room for another passenger in the front seat. After a sixteen hour flight in the back row of a 747, neither of us was inclined to indulge the driver, no matter how disinclined he was to take our fare.  Our place is only ten minutes from the airport.  Maybe that was it.  Maybe we smelled bad.  Who knows?  Who cares?

When we got inside, our cat let out a long wail that seemed to sum up our six week absence.  Where were you guys?  Two house sitters taking care of her needs while we were in North America was simply not enough. It is winter in Melbourne and the weather can be cold, wet and miserable, although it is so changeable that it sometimes seems like spring.  This time of year, Tibbey spends much of her time indoors, nursing grievances.

I happened on a piece in the Sunday supplement that was all about complaining.  The author of the article had come across a book suggesting that we all do too much of it.  Most complaints fall on deaf ears and sour us to life’s pleasures.  The writer had attempted to go for 21 days without one complaint.  The trick is to notice and keep track, and the secret weapon seems to be a purple rubber band.   I doubt if our cat would go for that. Purple is just not her color.

In a last-ditch attempt to hold on to some of the fragile summer sun in Nova Scotia, we did get out on the ocean for one afternoon of sea kayaking before we left.  It was windy, but wonderful.  At the end of the afternoon the cheap sunscreen seeped into my eyes and stung like anything.   I complained, of course, cursing myself for buying stuff that did that.

The day we left, we got up much too early and headed to the airport for our flight west.  Our trajectory back to Australia took us through Portland, once again.  We arrived in time to help my son celebrate his 37th birthday, to enjoy a delicious cheesecake baked by his talented wife, and to marvel at the verbal skills of Lucas, who has just turned three.  And meet his new sister, Zooey Marie.  She is beautiful, of course, but shows no signs of being a docile, quiet child.  I wouldn’t have expected as much, but these new Halbrooks are going to be handful.

I was able to get in a good bike ride in that bike-friendly city.  I saw the art museum and one small section of Powell’s huge book store.  While my son was at work, the rest of us went for a long walk into Mount Tabor park.  Lucas and I pretended to be airplanes beneath the towering pine trees.  He is absolutely obsessed with planes and helicopters of all descriptions.  Needless to say, I don’t share his enthusiasm.  As one of my favorite cartoons puts it, if man had been meant to fly, the Creator would have given him shorter legs and narrower shoulders.

It was a long, long walk for Lucas and I’m happy to say he made it home without having to water someone’s garden on the way.  Now that we are back in Oz, the heat of summer and the bright sun in North America at this time of year seems very far away.  At night, Tibbey curls up between our heads.  Sometimes I wake up to find that she has managed to displace my head on the pillow.  She pretends ignorance, of course.  “Oh, was this your pillow?”  Occasionally, she snores.  It is a peculiar sound, almost musical.  Who’s complaining?  We are all just fine.

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March 2020
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March 2020
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