At our house, there is no Boxing Day shopping. Instead, we bundle up every year with my husband's extended family and troop out into a cold, pearl-grey morning to watch our kids and their cousins fire shotguns across a silent meadow.
Actually, I am the only one watching. All the other adults take part, laughing and keeping score to see who will win bragging rights as the best shooter of the day.
My nephews, all older than my children, teach my kids how to load, take aim and fire at clay pigeons flung far into the air by an ancient but powerful mechanical arm. "Three … two … one … pull!" they shout as, one after the other, each family member tries to blow apart the moving target.
Waiting their turn, my kids, aged 14, 12 and 10, are so excited they hop around like Easter bunnies on Red Bull. The urbanite in me feels faint at the sight of them handling these lethal weapons.
It's just one of the many nightmares of country living I've had to contend with since marrying David.
It was on our second date, when he smiled at me from across the restaurant table and said, "I'm just a hick," that I began to fall in love with him. He was a small-town boy working as a junior marketing executive, and he seemed anything but a hick.
Seventeen years later, I've come to realize the awful truth of his early confession. To David, city living means crime, pollution and neighbours who can see inside our windows. I grew up on the not-so-mean streets of Toronto and love everything about city life. And I know, from the top of my head to the tips of my pedicured toes, that the country is chock-full of life-threatening hazards for our children.
Thankfully, David's job means we have to live in the big bad city, where my country-bred husband lobbies to get cameras mounted above our front door so we can see home invaders masquerading as Jehovah's Witnesses. Meanwhile, I have been known to set the alarm when leaving the house only to leave the back door wide open.
The way to keep my rural half happy, it has turned out, is to go to the country on every weekend possible. As we sail east past the city limits, toward the farm David purchased before we had even met, I can feel the week's tensions melt off his shoulders and settle like wet cement onto mine. I never know what menacing new escapade will be suggested. I just know I won't like it.
It started when my firstborn was barely out of diapers. The family owns something called a Green Machine. Made by John Deere, a Green Machine is best described as a five-wheeled instrument of death. Or that's how I felt when David suggested letting my toddler take the wheel while seated on his lap.
The Green Machine is actually a cross between an ATV and a miniature tractor. It goes a mere 24 kilometres an hour, and is as heavy and lumbering as a lame rhinoceros. And every bit as deadly, I argued, in the event it tips over.
"It'll never happen," David assured me. And they were off, hand-in-hand, on the first of many country bonding experiences.
Why couldn't David's idea of quality father-son time consist of pushing our baby on a swing in the park while manfully performing under-doggies? Would he next be encouraging him to wade into the fast-moving, leech-infested stream that runs through our farm to catch crawfish?
Yes, as a matter of fact. He would.
On our country weekends, David happily picks his way down a steep embankment with the kids to place pennies on the railway tracks behind our farm, hurrying back with them to gather the flattened discs after the train has whistled past. And he has cheerfully financed a four-storey tree house built by the kids and their cousins. At its highest point, the tree house soars nine metres off the ground. The kids clamber up and down its ladders and suspended bridges with the agility of chimpanzees, while I try not to think of how mangled their limbs would be if they fell.
Whenever I protest another country adventure, I am laughed at by my offspring, who call me "city girl." Every Sunday night, when we escape our rural retreat still alive, I wonder how many more weekends I will have to endure before all three have gone to university or, better yet, decided staying in the city would be more fun. As I listen to them discuss the bike trails they blazed through the woods, or making apple cider with our own apples, I realize that day isn't coming any time soon.
One sunny Monday morning, I suggested that our 12-year-old daughter take the subway to school because I had an appointment. David looked at me as if I were a criminal. Despite his packed morning, he rearranged his meetings and drove her to school. She protested that she was perfectly capable of riding the rails. She is no more scared of potential perverts than she is of leeches, farm equipment or shotguns.
Despite my long-standing resistance to redneck adventures and my husband's tireless efforts to ward off the dangers of all things urban, my kids have got what it takes to be comfortable in either a barn or a boardroom. That's a happy ending no matter which side of the rail fence I'm sitting on.
Patricia Sculthorpe lives in Toronto.