Edmonton — “Liz, Liz, come quick!” Claire shrieked from the basement. “It’s … THE COLOUR!”
I raced downstairs.
Claire stood frozen over the change table, staring in horror at the thick black goop in Oscar’s diaper. How, her perplexed expression seemed to say, could tonight’s results vary so dramatically from the usual peanut butter?
Stifling a smirk, I painted on my most convincing “worried mother” expression. The prank had worked. On the sly I’d smeared a lump of leftover Christmas pudding in Oscar’s pants, then asked my squeamish sister-in-law to change him, preying on her baby nephew crush.
A naughty trick, I know, never mind how Oscar felt about having plum duff all over his bits. But when relatives live an eight-hour drive, an eight-hour flight away, one must make visits memorable.
Raising a child in a city devoid of immediate family is, in a word, difficult. You send digital photos, upload private YouTube videos, accept the limitations of Skype, swallowing your satellite frustrations when the image freezes or the call is lost mid-conversation.
You envy the people whose parents, siblings have the same mayor, the same commuter routes. You imagine this for yourself, romanticize it, even: the lively Sunday dinners, the picnics, the roster of willing, free babysitters and errand-runners. And then you put that unlikely dream away. You’ve made your bed here, now lie in it.
When we came to Edmonton seven years ago, Jonathan and I had no plans to stay. The city was a stepping stone, a place to get work experience. But one winter passed. Then two. Three. We bought a house, failing to consider the future complications of being so far-flung from our loved ones in England and Saskatchewan.
I often wonder what our ancestors would have thought of the physical disconnect that’s so common in modern-day families. My farming forebears bid farewell to everything they knew to immigrate to this northern wilderness, buoyed by the promise of a better life. Here, they began anew, sought community among strangers. How could they have imagined that, instead of banding together, the generations to follow would continue to disperse like pollen across the landscape, that hundreds, even thousands of kilometres between parent and child, brother and sister, would become not the exception, but the norm?
And now here I am, seeking community among strangers myself. Counting on friends to fill the void. Hoping the family will visit.
Which of course they do, once cute baby cuddles are on the agenda.
Over the holidays, relatives filled our house to share in Oscar’s first Christmas. The visit was relaxing yet intense, each of us fully aware the clock was ticking, that these group moments with the newest member of our clan would soon be over and we’d all be back in our respective corners of the globe.
Jonathan and I marvelled at the unique way each relative interacted with our small son. Auntie Claire, a London lawyer, cranked up her wicked black humour, having serious conversations with Oscar about his dating life and favourite books. Mike, the paternal grandfather, wouldn’t go near a dirty diaper but delighted in holding Oscar, even during the fussy spells. Soon he could distinguish as well as me the difference between a hungry cry, a tired cry, a bored cry. Jonathan’s mum, Mary, showered Oscar with adorable Marks & Spencer outfits and her special brand of quiet love, nicknaming him Bright Eyes as she rocked him, burped him, took him on walkabouts through the house.
My mother, who first met Oscar when he was a day old, is like a third parent. She doesn’t ask permission or hesitate; she simply does what has to be done. Jonathan and I relish Peggy’s visits because she rises early and sneaks Oscar away to her grandma den, giving the parents a much needed opportunity to sleep in. And my stepdad, Jim, will patiently cradle Oscar during an entire nap, unlike me, who plunks him in his crib or chair as soon as he’s asleep so I can get a few things done around the house.
My brothers, who live in Montreal and Regina, have yet to meet their nephew. I remind myself it was my choice, and not theirs, to make Oscar. I try not to pressure them to visit, or to overwhelm their email accounts with the latest cutesy photo and anecdote.
That all these people will only know my child in short, action-packed sessions every few months or once every year or two, instead of watching him change day by day, saddens me. I know from experience having close friends in the same city does not mean you will hang out regularly. Moreover, people tell me they take their relatives in town for granted, or feel obliged to spend time with them when they’d rather do something else.
Still, I pine for those Sunday dinners, those picnics; for a life where I could drop Oscar off at his grandparents’ for a few hours while I did some shopping. How is it ambition, opportunity can trump proximity to family? Why didn’t someone alert me, as I fell in love, to the drawbacks of an international marriage, with half the relatives across the Atlantic? What made me think a mere mommy and daddy would do as Oscar’s everyday family? Only now, with a sleeping boy draped over my shoulder, do these questions plague me. I don’t know if it takes a whole village to raise a child, but some aunts and uncles would sure be nice.
With a drastic move unlikely, Jonathan and I will have to manage. And cherish visits with those loved ones, pudding pranks and all.
“If he has a rash tomorrow, we’ll know why!” my mother-in-law scolded jokingly once the cat was out of the bag. Oscar had not, in fact, expelled the thick black goop; it was, as Jonathan demonstrated, edible. Claire busied herself cleaning up the baby, conversing with him about his mischievous mother. The pudding patty got flushed, but the memories of Oscar’s first Christmas with his relatives will never go down the drain.