My grandfather was seeped with wisdom, a ‘salt of the earth’ oil man from Alberta. I looked up to Grandpa Tom as my trusted guide along the way, in the years before I had GPS.
Back then, in an era not long after the age of dinosaurs, I was raised by parents who told their children to “mind your elders.” And so, I listened whenever there was a generational life’s lesson.
Tom doted on his backyard peach trees both in the Prairies and in Burlington, Ont., their growth and abundance of tasty fruit, “a miracle,” he said, given the harsh cold winters of Canada.
On my visits, he’d take out his pocket knife, carefully peel back the fuzzy skin of a ripened peach, cutting it in half to reveal the woody pit. This he carved out and set in the sun to dry.
From his pocket he’d pull out a leather pouch holding small, stainless steel stacking drinking cups, (the kind soldiers used in wartime.) Those he set out on his picnic table, three in a row.
The dried out peach pit became the ‘ball’ and once it was placed on the table, the skill-testing shell game had officially begun. The instructions from Grandpa Tom — punctuated by a nicotine stained index finger — were brief:
“Remember, always keep your eye on the ball. Don’t get distracted, don’t look away. Not for an instant. Pay very close attention to what’s going on right in front of you, or you’ll lose the game.”
His huge mottled hands, fingers knarled from arthritis, moved quickly, in a blur really, sliding and lifting cups at lightning speed, faster and faster, until coming to rest for the ‘big reveal.’
From my early jitters and nervous confusion, I learned, with practise, the art of concentration. Where was it? Left. Right. Middle. In time, I had
a near perfect success rate calling it correctly.
My reward was a silver dollar and a tasty ripe peach. The coins got spent on silly childhood things, but the real reward was in savouring Tom’s early advice throughout my life.
His words became my mantra: Never lose sight of the task at hand, the focus, the goal, or what Grandpa Tom had called “the ball.”
And that is why, when I woke up on Sunday, I realized that I had been totally blindsided. I had underestimated my new opponents and looked away and thus lost not only the shell game but the new Monopoly real estate game.
Now it was going to be Snakes, no Ladders.
No way up for the younger generation working and saving for their own affordable house. And no way out for mine, except in a cardboard box, these days the only housing I can afford.
And that’s because as we lay sleeping, a new breed of frenzied moneybag buyers was buying up all the real estate — urban houses, condos, retail space, whole apartment blocks, parkades and shopping malls.
Like locusts, they had invaded rural farmlands too, buying up hundred-acre plus parcels, often sight unseen, most with bonus logs or livestock. Prime, pristine or cultivated land.
A whirlwind of buying and borrowing, soaring bids, multiple offers (like boys to a wallflower at the high school dance) way too good to pass up. Everybody was happy.
Banks, buyers, builders, real estate agents, lawyers, traders, home reno supply stores, property tax collectors, investors, money launderers (those who outsmarted our new ‘transparent’ title/disclosure laws) and — most jubilant of all — the salivating sellers who grabbed their bags of money and ran.
Billions of inflated dollars dolled out for often shabby old places, put back on the market next day, slick new paint, fancy front doors, reno’d to the rafters, and — before the drywall mud had dried — a hiked up price tag, out of reach for most of us.
And then, overnight, there was nothing left.
When I was finally allowed to take off my three ply, cotton Covid-19 mask this week, and come up for fresh air, walk around freely, and pull out my ear plugs (bulldozers and loud bidding wars make a helluva racket,) I looked all around me to see nothing familiar.
It was like the Twilight Zone.
Once modest, older homes in my area looked vastly different. Elegant entrances, brand new roofs, beautiful new landscaping, with pricey sports cars and late model SUVs in the newly paved driveways.
Houses that had sat there for decades, with the same owners, had now changed hands. My old neighbours were all gone. Abducted during the night I guessed, sucked up by hovering UFO’s, replaced by new ones.
All because I got distracted. With a pandemic, flooding, wildfires, record heatwaves, big food and gas price hikes, strokes, you know, small stuff like that. So I was too busy, preoccupied really, to see it all coming.
And so just for an instant, maybe a year, I had closed my eyes. When I opened them again the big reveal had already happened. Cups were overturned and, in some clever, slick, slight-of- hand, skilled new players had taken it all.
Grandpa Tom would be so disappointed in me.
But then he played against a kid. He never had to compete against any savvy shell game masters, and he was never distracted by early morning, eardrum-shattering sounds of a wrecking ball.
Teresa Mallam is an award winning writer. Her credits include a Jack Webster Award of Distinction, BC Law Society Award for Excellence in Legal Reporting and Canadian Authors Association (CAA) award for Best Investigative Journalism, as well as several Black Press media awards for her columns, court coverage and news features.