I Never Delete When I’m Walking the Dog: On Writing and Blogging

There are far too many people born into the world, and far too many words written. Millions and millions of them pouring from the presses every minute. It’s a horrible thought.”

Inspector Alan Grant in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, copyright 1951

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

Stephen King in On Writing—A Memoir of the Craft, copyright 2000

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The renewed desire to write began with him. The Storyteller. He recited a poem. The recitation prickled my skin. Flushed my cheek. The left one—if that makes any difference. The message vibrated every cell.

Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life
We have refused
Again and again
Until now.

Until now.

 David Whyte

I remembered the multitude of times I tried to write. All attempts aborted. Remnants discarded or stuffed into the corners of seldom-opened drawers. The life of a writer. The life refused again and again. Perhaps that was not the gist of the poem. It didn’t matter. It’s what I heard.

The resonance of the poem might have been the result of, or increased by, the unaccustomed yoga posture. I was participating in my first Yin Yoga workshop. Poses were held for several minutes. My body relaxed into the positions, or attempted to. My senses sharpened. My mind expanded. My heart softened.

After that late November weekend, when I returned to writing, I realized that the only person I could write for was myself. I once read that a writer must first know her audience. I suppose, if she wants to earn a living by writing, that’s important. But, I am long retired. I live simply and neither need nor desire more money. I am free to create for myself. Good fortune indeed.

What is marvelous, and unexpected, is that others enjoy my stories. Friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. It’s the last group that astounds me. In the ten months that I have been writing my blog, it has attracted more than 750 visitors and over 2000 views from people in 22 different countries. Further, I have 49 followers. Amazing! Yes, some bloggers have thousands or even millions of fans, but I am thrilled with my half a hundred. The fact that I have any at all is extraordinary when you consider that, in 2019, there were:

  • 500 million blogs worldwide
  • 77.8 million new posts published each month on WordPress
  • over 409 million people reading more than 20 billion pages on WordPress monthly

Were Tey alive today, she would be appalled.

In the face of the world-wide blog-inundation, what compels me to write? First, a need to move thoughts out of my mind and onto paper. Otherwise, my head might explode. Second, that one reader who comments, “I loved that story!” What unparalleled satisfaction.

Of the fifty-one posts that I have published, Onychophagia—an account of my former nail-biting habit—has been most viewed. Were readers intrigued by a word they didn’t recognize? Or, do a lot of WordPress readers bite their nails? The single-word header defied the odds. One source claims that titles of six to thirteen words “attract the highest and most consistent traffic.” So much for statistics.

In 2014, I wrote:

I like computers. You can instantly delete an undesirable word, sentence, paragraph, book.

Yet something is lost in that action. I miss the pencil line through the unwanted prose. The messy manuscript that attests to the hard work that may have resulted in just one perfect sentence. Maybe I’ll stop deleting for a while. Just write. Like I think when I’m walking my dog. The thoughts flow then…no problem. They’re just there. And they feel unforced. They feel good. And right.

I never delete when I’m walking the dog.

In 2017 I took a “writing from life” course. I discovered that, for me, thoughts were best committed first to paper. Not to a keyboard. I bought a fountain pen and a spiral-bound notebook. No computers until those initial thoughts found concrete form. No stopping. No deleting. I suspect there is something different that happens at the end of our fingers when we hold a pen and make marks on paper. Something quite dissimilar to what happens when our thoughts flow through our fingers to a keyboard. Well, that’s true for me. The size and shape of the letters, the pauses, the exclamation marks, the dots and dashes, the going back when I’m done, to edit. The notations in the margins. The arrows and carets. The beautiful messiness of it all. Yes! That’s the part I love. When that barrage of words is then transcribed, the hard work begins. The search for synonyms. The elimination of every unnecessary word. The replacement of the “ly” words and some “ing” words—as much as possible. The checking for action verbs and reworking sentences to avoid the passive tense. Weeks or months or even years later, I decide that a piece of writing is good enough to be shared. I post it on WordPress. Then start anew.

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By the way, I no longer write stories in my head when I walk my dog. Regular writing empties my mind of people and plots. I am free to appreciate the dynamic natural world that surrounds us and, before it’s too late, detect the skunks that sometimes cross our path.

I have always loved words and enjoy reading to anyone who loves to listen.
Pitou and I back from a long walk.

Summers at the Sanitarium Part 3–The Afternoon Shift

The present reception area at Homewood

Sunlight and Shadows

Of the various shifts I worked at Homewood, I enjoyed the three to eleven one the most. Each summer, my housemate and my boyfriend left Waterloo to work in some exotic place—Toronto or Montreal or Wawa. With little to entertain me in the evenings, I looked forward to the drive to Guelph and the work that awaited me there.

The wards were quiet in the afternoon. At times, when I was assigned to B3, I watched soap operas with some half dozen patients. On other occasions, I accompanied four or five women on leisurely strolls through the lush grounds. I much preferred the latter activity. One hundred and thirty-seven years ago, when two former prison inspectors founded Homewood—a private asylum for the insane and inebriates—they provided, “appropriate living conditions for people who needed therapy and had the means to pay for special care.” Part of that special care included access to a therapeutic landscape of water and greenery.

In 1916, the Globe printed a letter written by Veronica, a Guelph resident.

I’m sure you’d all admire the view from our front windows…. Our house is at the head of a little street that runs down to the River Speed, so we have a clear view of that stream. The other side of the river is closely wooded and the trees were a picture when they were turning all colors. The Homewood Sanitarium is on top of the hill, and every day as the leaves fall we discover new buildings that couldn’t be seen before. One of the buildings is called “The Manor” and looks just like an old English home situated in a large park. The scenery all around is beautiful also as there are hills in every direction, either wooded or laid out as farms.

When I arrived at the sanitarium fifty years later, the original nineteen acres had grown to fifty-five and the farms had transformed into “large blocks of second growth forests framing open areas of lawn and ornamental planting beds with specimen trees.” Although I never spotted any, a host of gardeners kept the grounds “naturally” pristine and the crushed stone walkways in perfect repair.

A view of the grounds at Homewood

Only upon arrival each day, did I learn to which unit I was to report. My spirits plunged when I read B4—a ward where no occupant ever experienced the curative power of nature.

On my first shift there, I sounded the buzzer. The door opened. A rank odor of urine and disinfectant assaulted me. Ahead, stretched a long, broad corridor. The hall appeared to be wider than those in the other wards. No hardwood floors with Persian carpets or tea tables and chairs punctuated the space. Here faded paint and ugly green linoleum reigned. Parked along each wall, like trains on parallel tracks, stood a few dozen wheelchairs, pushed there every morning, hidden away every night.

Each chair clutched an ancient woman all in white—hospital-gown-white. Some of the captives wore straight-jackets. Some cradled and cooed to little “babies” nestled in their laps—more alive in their ruined minds than their fully-grown children and grandchildren. One time a patient dropped, or threw, her bundle. I found it lying in the middle of the corridor. Returned it to the “wrong” mother. What a howl ensued! Another nurse rectified the situation. The childless crones stared into nothingness. My presence went unperceived.

Thankful to learn that I would have little to do with the wheelchair regiment, I was shown into one of the four spacious windowed rooms. Each held four beds. My superior introduced me to some of the occupants.

Closest to the double-door entry lay Miss Murray, heiress to a cereal empire, a resident of Homewood from the age of seventeen. Forty-something now. A massive woman, perhaps over three-hundred pounds. A special hoist hung over her special bed. No expense was spared. Miss Murray neither spoke nor seemed to hear. She was bathed and changed and kept as comfortable as possible. I never saw her fed. I’m not sure how that was done.

In the window corner of the same room sat Violet, an important politician’s wife. Ever smiling. Ever gracious. “Oh Nurse, I seem to have soiled the bed.” She was petite and frail and always grateful. Every Sunday, for the first few months after she her arrival, Violet’s husband made the long journey from Ottawa to to Guelph to visit her. A dozen long-stemmed red roses accompanied him each time. His wife of many decades smiled and chatted and knew him not at all. When the husband’s grief had abated, the head nurse suggested that his visits were unremembered. He stopped the Sunday ritual. In the four summers I worked at the sanitarium, he was the only visitor to B4.

In the far left corner of another ward resided a pediatrician. A researcher at a major hospital. All day, she sat upright in her bed, wide-eyed, vacant-minded. Her mental breakdown had been sudden and complete. When the medical institution searched for the results of her years of investigation, they found nothing. She had stored everything in her head.

In the same room as the doctor, the bed in the far right corner contained a missionary. Tiny and brittle with a short shock of unexpected black hair. I don’t recall her name. Perhaps, because she was my biggest challenge and my worst fear, I chose to forget it. I’ll call her Miss Steele.

Miss Steele was a catatonic schizophrenic. Years ago, she had curled herself into a rigid fetal position—fists clenched, eyes squeezed shut, lips sealed in a tight line—and had never uncoiled. She always lay on her right side—facing into the room rather than the wall. Perhaps the staff had encouraged the position. That way, it was easier feed her. That job was my mine.

I remembered a description of catatonic schizophrenia in one of my psychology texts. How different it was reading about the condition and trying to feed someone with it. As instructed, I tied a towel, bib-like, around her neck. Ladled a little broth onto a small spoon. Forced the compressed lips apart and poured in a few drops. An hour later, the towel had eaten more than Miss Steele.

Unclenching Miss Steele’s fists to trim her nails was another of my responsibilities. Thankfully, that happened less often than feedings. I required another staff member to assist me to loosen the vise-like grip. There were times I thought we would break bones. I was grateful for her more accessible toenails.

One afternoon, melamine bowl of stock in hand, I approached the wide entry to Miss Steel’s room. I looked up. Dropped the bowl. Gaped. Miss Steele was sitting upright in bed gazing at the door. Two round black eyes took me in. A thin smile creased her face.

I don’t remember what happened then. I do know that the next time I was assigned to B4, Miss Steele was catatonic again. But, ever after the day of her “awakening”, I entered that room with caution and not a little trepidation.

One night, about eight or nine o’clock, the nurse-in-charge requested my assistance. We entered a small room that I never knew existed. On what appeared to be a massage table, lay a large woman with a sheet draped over her naked torso. The dim light enhanced the translucence of her skin. On a nearby stand were white washcloths and a bowl of clear liquid. The nurse instructed me to soak a cloth in the astringent, wring it out then massage the woman’s body. Opposite me, the nurse performed the same task. For the next hour or more, no further words were spoken. At first I was repelled by the cool, spongy texture of the pallid flesh. Further, the many purple subcutaneous pools of blood disturbed me. However, in a short while, the repetitiveness of the action, the silence, and the pale light transported me to a place of quiet meditation. Minutes slid by without thought or feeling. At last, the nurse spoke, softly. “You can stop now. She’s gone.”

Baffled, I looked up. I was unaware that I had been ministering to a dying person. I said nothing. I felt nothing. I backed out of the room.

The patient’s “going” was my first up-close encounter with death. There had been other “passings” in my twenty years of living, but, I was never present at them. For decades after the Homewood experience, I don’t believe I truly grieved the loss of a loved one. Death paralyzed me. Then, my dog died.

The winter I retired, I adopted Sophie, an Australian terrier. We played in the garden, explored the neighbourhood, strolled the beach, and cuddled on the couch. Were were best friends.

Just short of her fourteenth birthday, Sophie fell down a flight of stairs. Her brain smashed against her skull. Her hind legs refused to work. She gazed at me, her dark eyes surprised and confused. The veterinarian said that nothing could be done. I accepted his advice of euthanasia. I cradled Sophie’s soft, and furry and warm body. Minutes later, the doctor said, “She’s gone.” This time I knew I was in the presence of death. This time, instead of feeling nothing, I felt everything. Pain, sorrow, loss, anger, love, and an indescribable emptiness.

When my time to die arrives, even though my body may be cold and bruised, I hope someone I love will be there to hold me.

Summers at the Sanitarium Part 2–The Manic-depressives and others

Some of the buildings and lush grounds at Homewood

Mrs. Baxter liked the way I read. Perhaps because, from the fifth to eight grades, my mother paid Mrs. Gobel, a proper English lady, to give me elocution lessons. I was taught how to breathe from my diaphragm, project my voice, and enunciate every single syllable. In addition, I learned to slow down the pace of my speaking. When I was a child, my family nicknamed me “Speedy.” I did everything fast. It was as if time were running out and I had to get so much in before it was too late. Now that I am seventy-three, time, I suppose, is running out. Yet I am in no rush. There is great peace in unhurriedness.

An unintended off-shoot of Mrs. Gobel’s lessons was that I spoke with a British accent. Sixty years on, I am still sometimes asked my birthplace. When I told a French woman that I was Canadian, she informed me that I didn’t speak “Canadian” English.

In the 1960’s, Mrs. Baxter was diagnosed with manic-depression—now called bipolar disorder. On some of her “up” days, she believed she was East Indian royalty. In her pink terry bathrobe, she paraded up and down the broad corridor of B3 . Posture erect, chin up, gaze down, she surveyed the lesser beings on the ward. At those times, she wouldn’t hear of my reading to her. But, weeks or months later, when she simply could not get out of bed, she regularly called for nurse Vance. “Where is Nurse Vance? She’s the only one who can read properly.”

I enjoyed the task—it certainly beat watching soap operas in the TV room with six or seven of the other patients. Even though Mrs. B and her husband had been missionaries in India, she never asked me to read a Bible. Well-researched and well-written historical fiction comprised most of her personal library. To this day, I still relish the genre. At present, I’m half-way through a third reading of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

I liked Mrs. Baxter. Even in her manic states, she was never unkind and, when depressed she always appreciated a “good read.” Furthermore, she never tried to escape.

B3 was a locked unit. No staff came or went without a key and most patients never left. In fact, on a regular basis, only one did—Rose. Rose was a millionaire. Unlike some of the other long-term wealthy patients, I had no idea where Rose’s money came from. Perhaps, had I known her last name, I might have conjectured. But Rose, to us staff, had no surname.

Like Mrs. Baxter, Rose was manic-depressive. She was also a nymphomaniac. There were weeks when she never got dressed. There were weeks when she insisted on attending every mixed-gender social function slated at the sanitarium. Although I escorted Rose to her beauty appointments, I was never asked to accompany her to a social event. That job was given to a burly, sour nurse—one strong enough to wrestle Rose into submission if necessary. Rose was big—big spirited, big boned, big breasted. Inside activities proved safer than outdoor ones. The bowling alleys were almost risk-free—the corn roasts a nightmare. One time Rose disappeared under a dense thicket of shrubs with a new male acquaintance. Upon discovery, she was dragged out screaming protestations.

For a month or two each year, between Rose’s highest and lowest moods, she behaved in socially acceptable ways. During these times, she travelled abroad with a female companion-protector. One August, Rose returned from a European tour bearing small gifts for the ward staff. She bestowed trinkets upon each of us—even to me, although I was only “summer help.” How happy she was in her generosity. I smiled as I remembered that gift-giving day. No matter the value of the present, the magnanimous spirit in which it was given illuminated the kind-hearted side of Rose.

I was grateful that I was assigned to B3 more often than to any other ward. The central hall was wide, the numerous windows large, and the sitting room comfortable. Moreover, the head nurse and I got on well. Mrs. Dale always treated me with respect in spite of my being the youngest and least experienced of the staff. The work was most often uncomplicated. I stood at attention in Mrs. Covey’s room while the national anthem blared from her radio, helped that same patient compose letters to her family in eastern Canada; retrieved Sister George’s “baby” from wherever she might have fallen; supervised Nurse Bradley while she savoured her daily medicinal half-glass of beer; accompanied patients to electric shock therapy treatments or psychiatric appointments.

There was one room from which I was barred. I was told that the occupant had killed a nurse. No one entered that locked door except for two private attendants. Occasionally, the patient would sit in the wide hall in a comfortable chair pulled from her room. One of her “guardians” sat opposite her. Staff were not to speak to either person. I avoided even looking at them. No one volunteered the whole story of the murder. I never inquired. That room was the only blot on the otherwise cheerful atmosphere of B3. Of the four wards I worked on during my summers at Homewood, that one retains the brightest and happiest memories.

Summers at the Sanitarium Part 1–The Escapee

Homewood Sanitarium 1902

Jo-Anne vanished. At first we thought she had escaped over the wall. Her boyfriend and his motorcycle had been hanging out behind that wall ever since Jo-Anne was admitted. Constructed with rough-hewn bricks and only six feet in height, the barrier would have been an easy climb for someone as nimble as Jo-Anne. Its purpose was not to keep the residents in but to keep prying eyes out. Mental hospitals elicit a macabre fascination. By 1967, the weighty steel rings secured to floors and walls with equally hefty chains attached, had long disappeared. So had moonlit howls. Even so, curious minds insisted on preserving a fierce imagining of what went on behind that wall.

An immediate investigation quickly discovered the boyfriend and his bike. But, no Jo-Anne.

Her disappearance was my fault. Jo-Anne had been assigned to B2—a semi-locked women’s ward. All the B wards were female only. Men’s ward-numbers were preceded by an A. Unmarried women such as I were not permitted to work on them. On a semi-locked ward, the patients were permitted to leave for various reasons. Meal-time was one of them. However, two escorts were the rule. One nurse at the front of the line. The second at the back. The ten or twelve diners formed a ragged row between these two poles. After this particular noon-day meal, I was assigned to the rear position. At some point on our journey back to the ward, a woman mid-line called me to her. When I returned to my designated place, Jo-Anne was gone.

The alert circulated. Personnel scoured buildings and grounds—to no avail. I had lost a patient. Surely, I would lose my job. But, the higher-ups, did not seem particularly concerned. At three PM, just as I was going off shift, Jo-Anne returned to the ward. She sneered at me, “I bet I got you in trouble.”

Jo-Anne hated me. I stood for so much that she was not. Our only two points of similarity were these: we were both university students and we both had a boyfriend. I was successful in school. She was not. My relationship was stable. Hers was not. I had a driver’s licence. She had none. I worked in a mental hospital. She was confined to one.

I learned later that when I went forward in the procession, Jo-Anne seized the opportunity to hide in a broom closet. She waited there over an hour. Then, sneaked out of the tiny, dark compartment and proceeded to her group-therapy session. The psychiatrist in charge, unaware of the missing person report, proceeded as usual. Following the hour-long discussion, Jo-Anne returned to the ward making certain to arrive before I had left for the day.

Jo-Anne was a new type of resident that year. For the first two summers I worked at Homewood, a private mental hospital, only wealthy people inhabited its grand buildings. No one else could afford it. One summer, a long-term resident showed me her bill. Her monthly rent was more than I paid in a year! But, it did include meals. Everything else was extra. Doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, medication, outings.

As it turned out, by the mid-nineteen-sixties, rich people found alternatives to Homewood. I heard stories that, at one time, famous people, including Red Skelton had spent time there. Of course, celebrities resided on an unlocked ward—the number 1’s. Luxurious Persian carpets on the floor, rich mahogany furniture, huge windows with sweeping vistas down to the Speed River. Wall-mounted sinks and, I imagine, water closets too. I only ever got to peek into an unoccupied room on my initial tour of the place. Discretion was paramount. Who would think of looking for a movie star in a small town in Canada? That was the whole point. The food was first rate. The bowling alleys, beauty salon, craft rooms, and spectacular grounds were additional drawing points. Further, there were dances, and corn roasts and bingo games. I have no idea whether the celebrity guests attended any of these. I usually worked on the “higher” numbered floors where few patients were allowed “out.”

In order to bolster the declining revenues, in 1968, the sanitarium’s administration applied for, and received, partial government funding. For the first time in its history, regular folk such as hairdressers, homemakers, factory workers, teachers and students, inhabited the luxurious halls of Homewood. That is why Jo-Anne, neither rich nor famous, was there.

I don’t know what became of Jo-Anne. I returned to university that September. When I went back to Homewood the next May, Jo-Anne was gone. I never inquired after her. Rather, I silently thanked her for the important lesson she taught me. In the succeeding summers, I never “lost” another patient.

A more recent photo of some of the buildings at Homewood

Sulphites Don’t Like Me–Allergies and Anxiety

After thirty years of teaching teenagers, my health was in jeopardy. I investigated early retirement. The pension plan administrators informed me that I could work just one more semester and retire with only a small financial penalty. Without hesitation, I embraced the option.

On January 31, 2003, I officially left the pedagogical profession. Five days later, I fell down a flight of icy stairs.

I landed hard on the concrete pad at the bottom. A corner of the house hid my body from the street. A row of evergreens hid it from the neighbours. My husband would not return for hours. I had no cell phone. Colder and colder I grew. I recalled Robert Frost’s poem about the world ending in fire or ice. Decided that neither was preferable. Dragged myself up the slippery steps. Managed to push open the back door and slide into the warm kitchen. I checked for injuries. No blood. Just pain.

The medical verdict: significant bruising and a few misplaced ribs. Nothing broken. When the underlying tissues had healed sufficiently, a talented osteopath put my ribs back where they belonged. What remained after her work was a left arm that refused to reach behind my back. An inconvenient restriction. I invested in a few front-closure bras.

Months elapsed without improvement. I consulted Phil, a physiotherapist. He tried a number of techniques, including acupuncture, to increase my range of motion. After a few unproductive sessions, he referred me to Joe, a new hiree who used a technique called Trigenics—a nerve-based treatment system. In my case, Joe used it to lengthen the muscles that had been compromised by my fall. He instructed me to visualize the tissues in my shoulder softening as he pushed his thumb into particular places. I was good at visualization. I enjoyed being part of the cure. After six weeks of therapy I had regained eighty per cent of the movement in my arm.

Joe was much more than a good physiotherapist. He was a spiritual soul-mate. During my sessions we discussed alternative healing modalities, near-death experiences and how emotions affect our health. He loaned me his copy of Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion. Although science was never my forte—I earned a D+ in first year biology at university—Pert made the bio-molecular basis for our emotions comprehensible. I was excited to find scientific proof of the interconnectedness of body and mind. A year later, when I had a full-blown panic attack, the information I had gleaned from the book helped me to untangle the complex relationship between food allergies, negative thoughts and acute anxiety.

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In my twenties, I experienced a panic attack. I didn’t know what it was. Heart raced. Breath stopped. Extremities froze. Thoughts plummeted—fatal illness, unbearable pain, death. Two decades of therapy and a mulish obstinacy to heal, worked to dislodge the disorder.

For several years I was panic free. I suffered from anxiety now and then, but was able to calm the symptoms without drugs. I no longer kept a supply of Xanax on hand. Then, one evening in early 2004, the familiar fear rose up and swallowed me.

My daughter had asked me to help her host a special dinner for a few friends. I wanted to be the perfect mom, create the perfect atmosphere, prepare the perfect food. Instead, my husband delivered me to the hospital emergency room.

Gilles had never witnessed an anxiety attack. He was sure I was going to die. I was sure I was going to die. I heard myself saying so. But, there were two “me’s”—the frantic woman trembling wide-eyed on the gurney and the calm woman watching her and wondering why she was behaving that way.

What had happened?

When I was thirty years old Carl, my first husband, and I vacationed in Vermont. We shared a roadhouse supper: Heineken beer, corned beef sandwiches and potato chips. Upon our return to the hotel I felt unwell. I lay down in our room and Carl joined the small group at the piano bar. Later Carl found me unconscious on the bathroom floor.

At the hospital, I had my stomach pumped. For hours I watched as cloudy fluid and partially digested chunks of food emerged through a clear plastic tube that had been inserted through my nose and down into my belly. After the evacuation, the congestion, abdominal pain, nausea, and dizziness disappeared. The medical team could not explain my reaction. Carl, who had eaten the identical food, was unaffected.

After numerous similar incidents, usually initiated in restaurants and other people’s houses, I grew afraid to eat anywhere except at home. A visit to a sixth allergist finally solved the problem. I was allergic to sulphites, chiefly metabisulphite. That wonder chemical is a preservative used in certain beers, corned beef, and potato chips. It also resides in some dried fruits, baby cookies, maraschino cherries, shredded coconut, balsamic vinegar, wine, and hundreds of other products. In spray form it was used extensively in salad bars. Lettuce put out at noon sat up plump and turgid until ten that night. My body interpreted the chemical as poison and did its best to eliminate it.

Over the years I learned to scrutinize labels, to avoid all foods prepared with a crust or a sauce and to drink alcohol in puritanical moderation.

On the day of Rowan’s party I had snacked distractedly on bits and pieces of whatever lay about. I had drunk a glass of wine supplied by one of Rowan’s guests. I had not paid attention. In retrospect, the wine in the unexamined bottle, likely full of sulphites, probably triggered an allergic reaction. The allergic reaction triggered the panic attack.

Had I been mindful, I could have treated the allergy with Benedryl. It might have prevented the panic. Instead, irrational, catastrophic thoughts took over. My emotions went haywire. Gilles drove me to the hospital.

On a positive note, that 2004 panic attack was my last. For the ensuing sixteen years, I have kept both Benedryl and alprazolam, generic Xanax, on hand at all times. They are my security blankets. If I am certain that I am experiencing an allergy, such as the recent one that dry roasted pistachios produced—who knew that sulphites hid in nuts—I take Benedryl. I also remind myself that I am not going to die and vigilantly monitor my thoughts. I no longer confuse allergies and anxiety. Not usually anyway. They can express themselves in similar ways. When I’m feeling anxious, I have lots of tools to calm me—conscious breathing, mantras, happy memories, self-Reiki, and grounding exercises. Only if these strategies fail to work and it is essential that I be somewhere to fulfill an important obligation do I dissolve the smallest possible dose of alprazolam under my tongue. I do not upbraid myself for being weak. I express gratitude for the drug and for the wisdom to know when to take it.

Meditating with my dog…not sure Pitou is quite into it.

Tracy Starr’s Strip Palace

The strip joint was my brother’s idea. Four years my senior and a Royal Military College grad, George could be persuasive. Besides, I was curious. It was 1971. That year, the Ontario government decided to allow full nudity in certain establishments. In late August, Tracy Starr’s opened its doors in London to a standing-room-only crowd of one hundred and seventy-five patrons. Each had paid $2.50 to enjoy one and a half hours of “continuous stripping.” My brother, his wife, my husband and I took in the spectacle some weeks later. Two-thirds of the raked seats in the auditorium were empty.

Six strippers each danced for ten or fifteen minutes. I remember two.

Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” blared out over the audience and ricocheted off the vacant seats. From stage right , a woman who looked thirty-five but might have been twenty-three, pranced into view. Perhaps she galloped. Or trotted. Millie did insist that her boyfriend made her heart go “giddy up.” For a certainty, she was not dancing. Her costume was as childish as the performance—a cotton tutu-like skirt decorated with large, bright dots and, a matching blouse with puffed cap-sleeves and a deeply scooped neckline. A mini-zipper in the front kept her substantial breasts from tumbling out. Last, she carried a giant cardboard sucker with an exaggerated swirl pattern printed on it. From time to time she licked the painted paper.

Scars and home-inked tattoos adorned her body. Her midriff jiggled. During her routine, she directed her gaze to a point somewhere above and beyond the topmost row of seats.

As mentioned, each performance lasted at least ten minutes. “My Boy Lollipop” is a two-minute song. After the second repetition, and Lollipop’s tedious movements, my brother began to chortle. Loudly. The manager approached him. Asked him to be respectful. George tried to suppress his amusement—unsuccessfully. The manager’s second visit made it clear that we would be ejected if my brother didn’t control his response. George could not look at the stage without laughing. So, he stared at his feet and blocked out the music by humming God Save the Queen.

I suppose Lollipop girl stripped. Now that I think of it, it must have been some feat to take off her clothes while holding an over-sized fake candy on the end of a stick. But, I was too embarrassed by my brother’s behaviour to take in the rest of the performance. I too was contemplating the floor. However, just before I looked down, two men seated a few rows in front of us turned around to see what the fuss was about. Dear heaven above, one of them was my Educational Philosophy teacher. What was he doing there? Perhaps, like me, it was his first time. However, observing later his evident relish of the entertainment, I suspected not. I noted that he was as incompetent in his chosen profession as Lollipop was in hers. Professor Negligence’s introductory class lasted fewer than five minutes. He addressed an amphitheatre of more than one hundred students, “Everything you need to know is in the text. Choose a topic from one of the chapters. Write a two thousand word essay. Submit it before the end of term. If you have any questions, make an appointment with my secretary.” What a shame that Lollipop’s performance wasn’t as succinct.

The management saved the best for last. The music began—soft, soulful, sensual. A Blue Goddess materialized in the centre of the stage—her great black height enveloped in a navy catsuit. A sinuous zipper ran from the dip in the front of her neck to just below the navel. She moved only a little. But oh, what movements. Hips swayed. Shoulders rolled. Her entire body undulated with the passionate rhythms. Erotic, mesmerizing, seductive. But never obscene. She played with the zipper. Down, then up. Down a little further. Then up. Down further still. Up, but not quite so far. Tantalizing. Oozing self-confidence, she looked at the audience directly, but not invitingly. Her gaze announced, “I am my own woman. You can look but you can not touch. I love that I can move like this. I love what I do.”

The Blue Goddess never discarded her leotard. The zipper opened only to that spot just below the navel. The lights went out. The dancer vanished. The show was over.

My curiosity had been satisfied. A knowing about myself had been reinforced. Years prior to the strip club adventure, a friend gave me an issue of Playgirl magazine. A birthday joke. I perused the glossy images of naked men—penises flaccid or firm. None excited me. But, the bare feet did. As long as I can remember, I have loved the soles of my unclad feet in contact with the earth. Tar-sticky pavement, morning-dewed grass, blistering white sand, pebbly shores, and kelp-crusted rocks. My soles united me to the earth and the earth to myself. Long ago, a marriage counsellor asked me what I most disliked about my husband. “He wears socks,” I blurted out. Wow! Where had that come from? The male counsellor decoded my response, “You mean he doesn’t uncover his soul?” Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.

For me, bare feet were alluring, blatant nudity was not. I’m the kind of person who loves shadows. I look beyond the thing to the shape it casts. Then hypothesize about the thing itself. I love mysteries. The Blue Goddess left something hidden, something to be imagined, something to look forward to. I never perused another Playgirl magazine. I never visited another strip club. There was no need. I had my answers.

Blessings and Blisters in the Time of Covid

Sometimes only heartbreak allows us to see the truth of a relationship

The Lane that Leads to the Shore

Parallel to the south shore of the island, a rural highway meanders for miles and miles. Fifty or so years ago, in those places on the water side, where the land broadens into the sea, small cottage subdivisions sprang to life. Seven years ago, my husband and I bought a house opposite one of those tiny communities.

The man whose house we bought said that, despite the word “private” on the sign beside the lane that led through the subdivision to the shore, we were welcome to walk there. Just to be certain, on my first amble down that dusty road, I met a resident and inquired if I were trespassing. She laughed and said, “Of course not! That sign is meant for strangers—not for neighbours.” The affable woman introduced herself and invited me to enjoy the “most glorious sunsets” from one of the two Adirondack chairs that she and her husband had placed in their yard—just for that purpose. “Don’t come to the cottage and ask. Just use them,” she added.

Over the years, on rambles with my little dog, I became acquainted with most of the residents. A smile, a wave, a bit of news. Gardening tips, construction advice, or, the maritime favourite, weather observations—“The farmers could sure use some rain; they say the snow’s gonna be pretty bad this year”—were freely exchanged. A stronger familiarity grew up with some of the owners. We drove each other to workshops and meetings, and enjoyed lunches and walks together. One babysat my dog for several days and that same warm-hearted woman comforted me when my mother took ill and then died. Decorating ideas, artistic preferences and family stories flowed among us. More recently, a few months after a pandemic had washed over the world, two of the women and I enjoyed a movie together—physically distanced of course—while sipping half-glasses of chilled white wine.

She said I couldn’t walk there.

She said I was trespassing.

She broke my heart.

On a large lot abutting the western perimeter of the genial subdivision, is the home of a widow. The widow and I became friends and, after a time, engaged in some evenings of chit-chat and word games.

Last week, in the midst of a Scrabble-like game, the widow announced that I was not permitted to walk in the subdivision. I was trespassing. I was not a resident. I had no right to be there.

A few short, sharp sentences revoked an invitation of seven years standing. A carpet of cordial relationships was ripped from under me. I walked home that night believing myself a criminal. Never had I felt lonelier. Every one of my relatives and many dear friends lived thousands of miles away. Covid precluded non-essential travel. Covid canceled book clubs, yoga classes, restaurant lunches, museums and excursions. And now, the friendly people across the road were off-limits too.

The delivery of the indictment—harsh and unexpected—pained me as much as the accusation. I was blindsided. For three days, I grieved. For three nights, I cried myself to sleep. I considered phoning one of the residents and apologizing. I wrote a letter of apology. Never sent it. Thank goodness. On the evening of the fourth day, as I was watering the flowers at the front of our house, an acquaintance from the subdivision strolled up our driveway. Before she said a word, I burst into tears. Shocked, she told me that the express reason for her visit was to assure me that the new, much larger, private sign that had just been erected at the end of the lane did not apply to us or to our neighbours. We were welcome there, as always. I cried even more. Then, she did a miraculous thing. “What the heck, I don’t have Covid” she said, and wrapped her arms around me. She held me while I cried. Tears of perfect relief and unimaginable joy.

The good-will ambassador informed me that the widow, who owned no property in the private community, had no authority to speak on the behalf of the homeowners. I was baffled.

I phoned the widow. Told her what had transpired. Asked what had prompted her prohibition. She said, “It’s been that way for years.” No. It had not. I asked why she had never mentioned it before. She said, “I have.” No. She had not. Surely I would have remembered such a brutal injunction. I told her that for three nights I had cried myself to sleep. She replied, “Don’t be silly. Come over and have a game.” A game with her was the last thing I wanted. I wanted time—time to process all that had passed. I said it would be a while before I saw her again. I told her I would forgive her because I knew she had a good heart, but, I needed time for the hurt to heal.

Days passed. I thought perhaps there would be an apology. “Oh, Prairie, I’m sorry I hurt you. I never meant to.” None came.

Sometimes, only heart-break allows us to see the truth of a relationship. As I looked back over the years, I realized that the widow and I had little in common. Our diets, pastimes, intellectual pursuits, exercise preferences, health care choices, and spiritual beliefs differed vastly. The thread that united us was the Scrabble-like game.

I further recognized that our time together was peppered with the widows’ dismissals of my emotions and my accomplishments, and those of my family. These I had let pass. Because they were only “little hurts”, I could handle them. The last, the “big hurt”, the “Don’t be silly” hurt, allowed me to let the widow go.

I’ve been told that some “people of her generation”, the one preceding mine, armour themselves against pain and suffering. That “Don’t be silly” is a frequent admonition. Be that as it may, I prefer to forgive and be kind to those people—from a distance. To seek companionship elsewhere. With empathetic people. People who can climb out of their skin and into mine and feel my joys and my sorrows, share the pride of my achievements and the misery of my failures, without reference to themselves or their particular situation—past or present. I have a number of friends like that. I phoned a couple of them. They understood. They didn’t counsel me. They just listened. With their hearts. How blessed I am.

The women in the photos are some of my longest-standing “empath” friends.

The Quest for Shade

Gazebo: Noun

A small building, especially one in the garden of a house, that gives a wide view of the surrounding area.

The Black Gazebo

Origin

Mid 18th century perhaps humorously from gaze, in imitation of Latin future tenses ending in -ebo.

Oxford Dictionary

A screen porch isn’t a luxury—it’s an essential way to celebrate

summer weather and the outdoors.

Sarah Susanka, The Not So Big House

I have skin cancer. The first melanoma was surgically removed twelve years ago. The second one more recently. Before, between and since those times, a dozen or so less deadly cancers have been burned out, dug out, or eliminated with chemicals.

One dermatologist told me that with skin like mine—pale, freckled, and mole-dappled—I could get cancer walking across a parking lot. Her rules:

  • stay inside between 10 AM and 3 PM
  • wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, sun glasses and a wide-brimmed hat
  • cover whatever skin is exposed with sunscreen

I do most of those things. The ten to three timeline is difficult. Weeds don’t stop growing during the height the day and birds need fresh water. As to the clothing, my over-sized, floppy-rimmed, lilac hat and my short stature bring to mind a lavender toadstool.

Me in my lilac sun-hat

Seven years ago, when we decided to move to Prince Edward Island, I sought to buy a property dotted with large shade trees. At the time, none—with a suitable residence—were to be had. So, we bought more than half an acre of lawn which boasted a modern house and three struggling trees. Every year, I plant more evergreen and leaf-shedding specimens, but only now, do three or four provide a small puddle of mid-day shade.

Determined to spend more time out-of-doors, I built a pergola. A deck twelve feet square. Four posts and beams. Then, I added a sun-safe, fabric roof. Alas, for most of the day, the shadow of the covering fell outside the deck. I installed curtains. Perfect. Until the wind blew. Their shadows vanished. Actually, they danced fiercely far beyond the perimeter of the little structure. I weighted the bottoms. On windy days, my chair or I got struck by the metal rods I’d inserted into the hems. I fastened the bottoms down. The curtains ripped. No one had warned me about maritime “breezes.”

The Pergola

After two years of shade-frustration, I decided to close in the pergola. I perused sun-protected structures on the internet and chose one that I deemed my limited carpentry skills could replicate. I had only two saws, a hand saw and a Skil saw. Using the picnic table as a support, I cut eight, two-by-six studs and began to insert two of them equally between each set of corner posts. For a short while, my next-door neighbour, who has a state of the art wood-working shop, observed my labours. Then, Mike sauntered over and asked if I’d like some help. Did I look inept? Without hesitation, I swallowed my pride and accepted his offer. We levelled and fastened the uprights, then inserted additional roof beams. When it came time for the half-walls, Mike retrieved his mitre saw. I never knew that eleven stud walls, even miniature ones, could be cut and assembled in so little time!

Now that the skeleton was complete, I was on my own. I hand-sawed and attached clapboards on the outside and fence boards on the inside. Next, I read up on “flat” roofs only to discover that flat roofs are not flat. They must incline a minimum of one-quarter inch per foot in order for water to drain away. For the first time since the start of the project, I was intimidated. My son from Alberta was scheduled to visit in a few weeks. He had considerable experience building sheds and their roofs. I awaited his arrival. Tyler demonstrated how to cut the high-front to low-back angle. Best of all, he bought me an Irwin Quick-Clamp. He called it “a second hand.” (I have been so impressed by its usefulness, that I recently purchased its twin.) A few days later, when my daughter and her family from Ontario got here, my son-in-law adeptly stained the roof beams black. Mike’s wife had suggested the colour.

One of the “experts” at the construction desk of a local building supply company knew more about metal roofs than any of the internet sites I visited. I supplied him with “exact” measurements; he asked me countless specific details; then he ordered everything I needed. After the roofing materials came, I took several days to summon the courage to tackle the project. Heights scare me. Even when they are only ten feet above the ground. Sliding across the steel panels on my bum as I fastened rivets, I noticed the young couple next door eyeing me with suspicion, or perhaps with trepidation. In the end, I never fell and, with a few adjustments, all the pieces fit.

Mike provided one last service. On the table saw in his workshop, he halved several pressure-treated two-by-fours lengthwise. With these, I built frames for the screening.

Finishing details included: re-cutting the copper pergola pipes to make shorter curtain rods; repairing and hemming the tan and white striped panels to fit the new openings; purchasing an outdoor sectional at an end-of-season sale.

The end product solved my shade dilemma. The steel roof blocks all of the sun’s skin-damaging rays; half-walls provide further protection; the screens serve two purposes—they keep the throngs of biting, stinging visitors at bay and block thirty per cent of the wind’s power, thus allowing the curtains to do their part in the quest for shade.

I still have skin cancer. However, in my garden, I now also have a black gazebo.

Pitou resting in the gazebo
One of the views from inside the gazebo. The owl chair was bought for my granddaughter.

The Search for a Woodland Sanctuary

There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”

Henry David Thoreau

Introduction

The seed for my vision of a “cabin-in-the-woods” may have been planted at Camp Keewaydin. At dusk, two dozen Girl Guides sat around a bonfire singing rounds, songs of adventure, and hand-action tunes. In the last category was this:

In a cottage in a wood
A little old man at the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at the door.

‘Help me, help me, help me,’ he said
‘Before the hunter shoots me dead!’
‘Come little rabbit, stay with me,
Happy you shall be.’

(Repeat)

Each repetition omitted the words of the previous line. On the ninth iteration, silence prevailed while twenty-four pairs of raised hands drew cottages and window frames, knocked on imaginary doors and mimicked the hopping of rabbits and the firing of shotguns. But, you had to be singing in your head to get the right sequence of actions. What pedagogical genius condemned rote learning? A septuagenarian now, I remember not only the melody and the words, but also the hand actions. Until today, copying the song, I never noticed the change in person—third to first. But, until today, I had never written down the words. And what importance does grammatical consistency have for an eleven-year-old? What intrigued me was the concept of a refuge in a woods. I found one—twice.

The Oxley Cottage

Near the western terminus of stagecoach route that traced the north shore of Lake Erie, reposed an inn, ancient and weather-beaten. Six equally time-worn cottages lounged among the hundreds of mature maples that dotted the grounds.

For three months in the spring of my twenty-sixth year, my husband and I inhabited one of the sextet of tiny cabins. We had purchased our first house, a two-bedroom bungalow, a year and a half earlier. Soon we tired of its mediocrity and boxy newness. A stately, red-brick Victorian, complete with a two-story turret, came on the market. In short order, we bought the property and sold ours; however, the closing dates did not correspond. We needed to vacate the bungalow almost at once.

The good-hearted, elderly owners of the 1865 former manse, agreed to store our belongings for a few months. Somehow, we discovered the Ravine Cottages. It was the low season and only one other was rented out.

Our cabin consisted of one large room. Across the back wall, a small fridge, sink, and stove perched in a crooked row. To their right, a three-piece washroom—pedestal sink, toilet and shower—functioned without pretense. An unpainted wooden table and four chairs occupied the middle ground. At the front of the room, side by side and facing the water, were a sitting area and a sleeping space. A double bed had been wedged into the rectangle created by the back wall of the bathroom and two walls of the cottage—a three-sided cage. I slept on the inside—a bonus when I wanted to open or close the window. Inconvenient for nighttime trips to the toilet. Large paired windows graced each side of a central door. A screened porch completed the plan. I first viewed the bug-safe enclosure as a welcome luxury. In May, when legions of shad-flies coated the world with their fragile living, dying, and decomposing bodies, I realized the necessity of the protected space.

For our only neighbours, a young New Zealand couple, the Ravine Cottages was the latest stop on their west-to-east cross-Canada journey. In their cabin, pressed against a wall, squatted a small dresser blackened with age. The checkered shellac surface and a large dark ring seared into the top didn’t diminish its inherent beauty. I asked the proprietress if she would exchange the piece for one of our light-oak washstands. Although she made it a policy not to sell any of the inn’s original furnishings, she deemed a trade acceptable.

Once at our cottage, a closer examination revealed the value of the dark little cabinet—black walnut construction with burled walnut inlays, hand-forged nails and abstract flower petals carved into the back rail. I felt guilty about the exchange and spoke to the owner. She beamed at me, “What a fantastic swap! The oak piece is far too nice to leave in a cottage so we brought it into the hotel!” My conscience was appeased.

During those months in the Oxley cottage, I enjoyed the freedom of few possessions—some clothes, toiletries, and books—and the ease of keeping such a small space clean. I taught only in the morning. During the unhurried afternoons I ambled among rivers of discarded leaves, inhaled their musty perfume as I disturbed their evolution; listened to cheerful melodies of tiny songbirds; watched fat grey squirrels and curious chipmunks scamper among the spring-ripening forest. When troubled thoughts crowded my mind and obliterated the peace of the natural sanctuary, a protruding root, a noisy sparrow or an unexpected fragrance pulled me back to the present and restored my equanimity.

The Don Street Shack

Twenty-four years later, I relocated to a small town cradled on the shore of Georgian Bay. There I discovered a second “cabin-in-the-woods.” The tiny shack, abandoned for years, huddled among half an acre of mature maples and pines. The weathered clapboards had never seen paint and most of the green had deserted the rotting wooden shutters. Sealed tight, the blinded house prevented my peering in. Even so, I envisioned “saving” the neglected gem. My recent divorce and part-time work dictated that the salvation would have to wait.

Two years passed. On summer’s first Friday, I signed a permanent teaching contract. Next, I drove by the Don Street cabin. Braked. Stared at the charming vinyl-clad home that stood tall in the place where the shack had once crouched. A local builder, who had taken on the renovation as a hobby, had done a remarkable job. Better even than I had envisioned. The addition of a wrap-around veranda was pure genius. Best of all, in the front yard, on a sturdy square post, swung a large white, red, and blue sign—FOR SALE. On Monday, I officially owned the house. I loved it for fourteen years.

Why did I move? First, the neighbour to the west added a two-story addition. It obscured the view of the bay. Second, the builder who refurbished my home owned the two wooded lots adjoining it. He fancied the area so much that he cleared the forest on the east side and built a house for him and his family. That land was elevated. When he put in the swimming pool, his children and their friends had an unimpeded view into our once secluded backyard. Then, the same contractor sold the large treed acreage behind our two properties—a tract with a brook winding through it where I frequently roamed. A retired couple built a sizable house on the land then created a sizable number of vegetable gardens that abutted our fence. My forest refuge shrank to a small island in a sea of domiciles.

The renovated Don Street shack

Prince Edward Island

The property we bought six years ago is not a cabin-in-the-woods. It is a multi-level, modern dwelling situated on more than half an acre of lawn. However, every spring I plant trees. More than thirty to date. In the future, not in my life-time though, towering blue spruces, Austrian and red pines, maples, and lindens will protect the house from searing sun and icy gales. Whoever comes to dwell here will revel in their own private woodland sanctuary.

Some of the trees I have planted–spruces and a weeping crab-apple
One of four ornamental pears that I planted four years ago.
An hydrangea standard that was badly damaged in a hurricane and another ornamental pear.
Four new blue spruces planted on the berm this spring

When Dealing with a Skunk, Attitude is Everything

Mother Skunk on a daytime grass-collection mission

Skunk moved into the earthy apartment underneath our garden shed. The space had previously been occupied by an extended family of mice followed closely by Rat. No morally acceptable method that I used convinced the most recent tenant to relocate.

Earlier, I had concocted rat deterrents using hardware cloth—a metal grid used for a myriad of DIY projects. I folded 12” square pieces of the mesh accordion style and clipped the squares in several places to create rat-dangerous miniature spikes. I soaked rags in peppermint oil, which rodents are supposed to find disagreeable, stuffed them into the folds and placed five of the contraptions around the shed. Voila! No more Rat.

Shortly after Rat failed to put in an appearance, I espied an extremely large entry hole leading under the shed. The little metal accordion in that location had been pushed off to one side. Did Rat mutate? Did the essential oil create Super Rat? I waited. And watched. Transformed Rat appeared–much much larger, much much hairier and its dull grey coat had changed to a glossy black and white. I phoned the wildlife control officer.

Hundreds of dollars to set a trap for Skunk. More to come and re-bait it. More to dig a trench and install a rodent barrier—guaranteed for ten years against skunks and raccoons, not against rats or mice.

For almost two weeks, the spring pandemic prevented the officer’s arrival. For several days, Skunk had not been seen. When Mister Wildlife got here, I thanked him but said his services were no longer required. He explained that Skunk had two or three homes and would probably be back. I would take my chances.

One afternoon I spotted Rat, or one of his relatives, entering the large hole. Had the peppermint oil evaporated? Had Skunk permanently vacated the lair? Were the two creatures cohabiting? The next morning, when I went to to the shed to retrieve my gardening tools, a repugnant odour assaulted me. Fresh skunk-stench. Did Skunk return and evict Rat? How grateful I was to have kept my hole-digging, rat-hunting terrier far from the building.

I took no further steps to deal with the problem. Difficulties are created in the mind. not in the circumstances. If I perceived Skunk as a fellow sentient creature who wanted nothing but to be left alone, rather than as a mortal enemy, we could peacefully co-exist. Every day when I passed her entrance, I called out, “Hello, Mother Skunk. I trust you will enjoy your day. If your babies have arrived, keep them safe.” Then, I tied open the shed doors, and wandered in and out of the little barn as often as necessary.

Three weeks have passed. Never, by sight or smell, has Skunk showed herself again. She may have decided that there was simply too much traffic near this particular home and retired to a quieter den.

Rat too has disappeared. Although Mister Wildlife said that once we had critters under the shed, we would always have critters, I am content to bide my time and be grateful that, just now, the apartment is vacant.

Postscript

After writing this piece, I consulted the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s article on skunks. Apparently they don’t mind music but are threatened by the sound of human voices. My good morning ritual might have been what actually drove her away.

What a great tail on Mother Skunk!