25 June 2008

Farmer Party At The Old Folks Home

We made it down to Detroit in no time at all, stopping only for $5 subs at a Subway that was built into a gas station and truck stop somewhere out in the wilds of the central/northern Lower Peninsula. The piped-in pseudo-country music reminded me of my old stomping grounds in Mendocino County, Willits in particular, and I briefly shed a psychic tear for my own country days, but then we were racing down the highway again and hit Detroit's northern suburbs just as the rush hour (what there is of it in that depressed and depressing city) was winding up.

It was early enough that we could have gone on to our destination in Canada, but we'd already decided to stop for the night and cross the border in the morning for a couple reasons. One was that my mother has what could be seen as an irregular status, citizenship-wise. She was born in Canada, but emigrated to the US with her family in 1926, when she was eight years old. She's lived in the USA ever since, has voted in every election since 1940, at one time held a US passport, but for some reason never quite got around to finalizing her naturalization papers (in case you wondered where I got my procrastinating tendencies), having assumed that she had automatically become a citizen when her father did.

Which may or may not be the case, but if we were going to have to argue about it with the border guards, I preferred to do it bright and early in the morning when we'd had a full night's rest rather than at the end of a 450 mile drive. (The whole issue could have been neatly avoided if Mom had only been willing to fork out the $100 for a new passport, but according to her reasoning, which is probably pretty sound, "Chances are I'll never leave the country again? Why should I pay all that money just to cross the border once?")

Both of us, of course, are used to a much more relaxed border regime; the entire time I was growing up, we routinely crossed back and forth from Canada with no more interrogation than a perfunctory "Where were you born?/Where are you going?" and often not even that much.

The other reason for staying on the Detroit side was that the declining value of the American dollar has been turning us into third worlders vis-à-vis the cost of living in Canada. Most Canadian prices were set back in the days when the US dollar was worth 10 or 20% more than the Canadian currency. Now the prices are the same or higher, but our puny greenback has dwindled to a shadow of its former self in terms of purchasing power.

It was readily apparent just how much America has come down in the world as soon as we crossed the border the next morning (with no trouble whatsoever, despite my mother's trepidations). Things were newer, nicer, better kept, and gas was more than five bucks a gallon. Which may seem steep to Americans who are still bitching about the four dollar gallon, but when you see the quality of life that extra dollar (most if not all of it tax) buys for Canadians, it doesn't seem like a bad bargain at all.

For instance, the nursing home where our centenarian cousin was living and would celebrate her birthday: it was like a resort hotel, especially when compared with the squalid slice of bedlam where my father was compelled to spend his last days. And yet the price - totally subsidized by the government, of course - was only a quarter of what my father had to pay. If dad had lived a couple years longer, he would have been bankrupt (as would my mother); our Canadian cousin can live another 100 years secure in the knowledge that she'll always have a comfortable home.

But enough politicking; we're here to party like only a packed house of 80 and 90 year old farmers and farmers' wives can! All right, I exaggerate; although we were celebrating in a very rural community, and although I spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time hearing about tractors, combines, the prospects of rain and the likely effects of said rain on this year's corn crop, there were plenty of non-farmers, too, including the younger cousins (i.e., my age) who organized the shindig. He's part-Newfie, she's farm-born and raised, only a couple miles from where they live today, but in the interim they've been all over the world, first with the Navy and then with the Foreign Service. I didn't have the nerve to ask him straight out if he was a "spy," but have you ever seen Meet The Fokkers? Remember Robert DeNiro's secret room full of electronic devices and monitoring equipment? Cuz has got one just like it.

Cousin Harold, on the other hand, is a lifelong farmer, and only gave up plowing a few years ago, when he was 92. He's 96 now, and apparently isn't supposed to be driving a car any more, but nobody told me about that, so when he asked me to give him a ride to his car, which was parked way out back (there was some major thunderstorm action going on), I readily consented. I dropped him off, then watched, amazed, as he not only drove the wrong way up the road to the nursing home, sending several other cars fleeing for cover, but then mounted the sidewalk and drove to within a few feet of the front door, looking for all the world as though he were going to drive right inside. His wife hardly batted an eye as she stepped outside and into the car; apparently she's well used to this sort of thing.

But driving habits aside, Cousin Harold's a pretty sharp old dude, cracking the dry sort of jokes that leave you never completely sure as to whether he's joking. Cousin Lottie, on the other hand, whose birthday it is, is downright majestic as she presides over the afternoon. Dressed in a long white satin gown and wearing a jewel-bedecked tiara, she resembles a taller, thinner version of the Queen of England, who incidentally has sent her greetings, as has the Governor General and Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of Ontario, and a host of lesser luminaries. Lottie can no longer walk, so she held court from a wheelchair, but her mind is still sharp as a tack, and we sat talking and gossiping for much of the afternoon. Her hearing is still good, too, but her voice has gone a little wonky in the past couple years, causing her to sound uncannily like Marge Simpson, an effect heightened by Cousin Tom, who when he chortles enthusiastically over something - which he often does - bears a strong resemblance, vocally at least, to Homer.

Tom also rather enthusiastically plays the bagpipes, and did so for us the following morning before we set off down the road to Kitchener. Oh, but first we made our usual detour to the graveyard where we fended off mosquitoes while studying several sets of family headstones dating back to the mid-19th century. I find it strangely restful and only slightly unsettling when I see the names and birthdates carved on as the as yet unused headstones that await our many cousins who are still very much alive. Then we hopped onto the 401, the expressway that lopped off the back end of Uncle Will's farm when they put it in sometime in the 1950s or 60s, and headed east. A whole other passel of city slicker cousins awaited us there, but that will have to be a story for tomorrow. Now it's time to write a few thank you notes and then throw three t-shirts in a bag and call myself packed for Baltimore and the Fest!

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