My friend Mandy from Running with Glitter Glue shared this on Facebook a while back and it reminded me of a story that I wrote several years ago. I'm feeling under the weather and will be under the influence of NeoCitran soon, so thought this was a good opportunity to post it.
This is about one of those childhood experiences that seemed rather devastating at the time, but writing about it made me laugh. Looking at it now as a mother makes me laugh even harder. Enjoy!
The Jell-O Incident
It was another lazy day at the farm for us kids. Morning was inching closer to noon and the temperature already inching closer to 30 degrees when Terri and I changed out of our pajamas. We were ready to take on the world – right after lunch of course. At Grandma’s, lunch was always the same, almost ritualistic: Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup served in melmac turquoise and brown bowls; an assortment of ham and cheese, tuna and roast beef sandwiches; and today for dessert Jell-O! It was the lunch of champions – or at the very least, the lunch of peckish farmers and their grandchildren.
Michelle was up and about already, watching Grandpa sweat away in the barns. Inside, our cousin Terri and I moved as little as possible in preparation for our big expedition of the day – a trip to the bridge. It was already near sweltering so we thought it best to do as little as possible. All we needed to do was fill our energy reserves and we’d be all set to go. Dad was reading the paper as Mom, Aunt Jean and Grandma battled the heat and those sandwiches. Terri and I sat at the table, oblivious to their efforts and impatient for lunch so we could get on with our day.
Grandma leaned into the fridge, no doubt enjoying a brief respite from the sauna of the kitchen. Then disaster struck at 11:30. In an attempt to nudge past the Jell-O to get a jar of pickles she tipped over the unset dessert. Sweet fruit flavoured water splashed down and coated the bottom of the fridge. In a prime example of poor timing, Michelle bounded through the door at that very moment. “When’s lunch Grandma?” she grinned, showing off the gaps where her adult teeth had yet to grow in. Time froze for a few awkward moments. Grandma, crouching in front of the fridge, slowly turned her head towards the door.
“Get your own goddamn lunch,” she said. Terri and I looked at each other, stunned. We turned to Michelle, whose fine blonde hair was nearly standing on end, blue eyes as big as saucers, her bottom lip trembling. The three of us bolted out the door and huddled on the lawn next to the house.
Terri and I were forever making Michelle ask Grandma for stuff – sheets to make forts outside, the badminton rackets, a ride to Tender Tootsies in town. When Michelle complained we were always forcing her to ask Grandma for stuff we chimed, “You’re the youngest, everybody likes you better.” I was 10, chubby and shy and Terri, at 9 years old, was the lanky opposite of me but outgrowing her cuteness.
Michelle, at the tender age of seven, still had wispy hair that turned nearly white in the summer. She was missing her front teeth. She was funny and coy and knew how to use her cherubic cuteness to her advantage. Of course, Terri and I were onto her act, but Grandma? Was it the heat? To make matters worse, nobody – not Dad, Mom or Aunt Jean – had bothered to come out and see if we were okay.
We needed a plan. To the bridge it was, lunch or no goddamn lunch. And we wouldn’t even tell anyone we were leaving. So off we went, looking back at the house now and then, just to see if anyone would come running out with a bag of sandwiches to sustain our trip. But no one did.
The bridge was as much a tradition as our soup and sandwich lunches back in those days. In reality, it was about a one-kilometre walk. For us, it was an afternoon expedition. Once we got to the end of Grandma and Grandpa’s laneway, we’d turn left and hike down the gravel road past Robbie and Myrah Simpson’s farm. Robbie and Myrah’s place was to the right. On the left, the land was still Grandma and Grandpa’s property and at that point in the trip, we’d pass the beehives. More often than not, I’d end up running past them since I was (and still am) dreadfully afraid of bees. Anyway, after the beehives we’d turn right and keep walking until we hit the bridge, unless something else – a massive mud puddle or maybe a furry caterpillar caught our fancy.
The bridge was a simple concrete structure, crossing the Thames River. It was built when Mom was in high school in the 1960s, to replace the old red metal structure that criss-crossed overhead. Grandma had old black and white photos of the old bridge in the big trunk in the spare bedroom Mom and Dad slept in. My first memories of the place are going to the bridge on a fishing expedition with Dad and Michelle when I was six. Michelle was just a toddler and started crying when she realized we weren’t fishing off the bridge, rather we had to walk through the long grass to the water. Finally, Dad got us both back in the car and brought Michelle back to the farm. Dad and I returned for fishing and about five minutes into it, the old rod he’d found in one of the barns snapped.
Now the bridge was different. We kids rarely went there with our parents now. It was our place, where we’d confide in one another and plan our lives. Eventually, it was under the bridge that baby sister of mine would teach me how to properly inhale a cigarette.
Our Great Escape
When we got there that afternoon we were relieved to be away from the farm. We stayed on top for a while, leaning our chins on the railing and just staring at the current below. We could never tell how deep it really was. All I know is it looked pretty black. We never tried swimming in it, nor did we see anyone else attempt to. The most contact we had that day and any time we went to the bridge was throwing rocks into the river. Better than just tossing the rocks overhand was dropping them through the grates meant to let the rain run through. We didn’t quite know where the rocks would drop so we’d stare at the water, watching for tiny rings.
“I’m going under,” Terri announced. She went back to the start of the bridge and walked down the grassy slope, then turned and disappeared underneath. Michelle, who’d outgrown her fear of the long yellow grass, darted after her. I sighed then followed my sister.
Under the bridge, the grass gave way to rocks. Terri stood, hands on hips, surveying our new surroundings. Michelle wandered closer to the water and found a stick. She poked at the rocks. “Don’t go too close to the edge,” I said, not wanting her to fall, which would inevitably lead to my getting in trouble.
My stomach growled, but I didn’t say anything. I knew going back to the farm wasn’t an option. We hadn’t been gone nearly long enough and going back for something to eat would be like admitting defeat. I sat down on the rocks. “I wish there was more wood under here. Then we could build a fort,” I said.
“Yeah, then we’d never have to go back,” Terri agreed. Despite my hunger, I didn’t even think of the fact that we wouldn’t have food. Michelle worked on turning rocks over with her stick. She was frowning, the same way Dad did when he was reading the paper. I wasn’t sure whether it meant she was concentrating on the rocks or what we were saying.
“We could always go back and steal some sheets,” I said. “Yeah, Michelle couldn’t ask for them,” Terri replied. She looked at me and we started laughing. Michelle just kept quietly poking at the rocks.
I stood up and brushed off the backside of my jeans. “Let’s go back up,” I said and started up. Terri sprinted past me, then Michelle. I muttered under my breath, annoyed that my chunky legs didn’t move as fast as theirs and embarrassed that I was out of breath by the time I got back to the edge of the bridge.
We stood back in the same spot we had earlier, tossing rocks into the water. A dirty white car came from the opposite direction of Grandma and Grandpa’s and started over the bridge. The driver, a man about the same age as Grandpa, waved and honked. We had no clue who he was, but people were always waving and honking around here, so we waved back.
Then we heard a car coming from the other way, and slowing down to a stop. We looked over and it was my Dad in his aqua Mustang with the bucket seats. “What are you guys doing out here?” he asked. He didn’t sound worried or angry, just curious. “Nothing,” we replied in unison. “Well, get in the car. Supper’s almost ready,” he said. We piled in, feeling defeated. They didn’t even miss us.
The Jell-O incident wasn’t discussed for years. In my teens I asked Mom if she remembered it. She confessed that after we’d fled the kitchen, every adult in the room burst out laughing. Finally, at that moment all those years later, so did I.