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!

Child-built Forts and Hidey-holes

Not “my” fallen tree fort, but one similar



When I told a friend the topic of today’s writing, she instantly recalled her childhood special place. She spent countless contented hours “hiding” under the lace-draped dining room table. Four legs splayed from a central pedestal. Into one of the quadrants so created, she perused a favourite book. Every now and she peaked under the antique cloth to check on the grown-up world. I suspect most children remember a special private place they created from dozens of cushions or cardboard boxes or giant snowballs. What follows is a description of three of my mine.


Directly inside the back door of our new house is a small vestibule. To the left lies the kitchen. Straight ahead, a steep staircase stretches downward. The first ten steps terminate at a landing. Connected at a right angle to this resting place, four more steps reach to the basement’s painted floor. Hidden below the juncture of the opposing stairs exists a private room with an opening just the right size for someone little to squeeze through.


Into this hiding-place, I drag my pillow and blankets. Lots of blankets to warm and cushion the cold cement and a special wine-red one to tack over the door-less entry. Inside are tranquility and darkness and mystery. Earlier, I had concealed in my fortress a few necessities. A tiny black diary—a book of secrets. No one must ever find it. A stubby pencil. A flashlight. Books. Stuffed animals. Miniature tea cups, saucers, plates, and utensils.


My friends join me. Three Bears and Sister. How I long for a real sister. Oh, I already have one, but Celia is fifteen. To her, I am an irksome child. So, I invented a proper sibling. One that listens to my stories and enjoys spending time with me. Bears and Sister are more real than parents, kinfolk or the family dog. We giggle. Shhhh. We mustn’t be found. We travel to distant places. Share stories of glamorous people. Cook up plots against my brothers. Drink tea. Eat biscuits. And dream.


I was fifty when I met Harry Potter. He too had a room under the stairs. Some readers thought him abused. I considered him lucky. Well, except when Dudley jumped on the steps causing debris to cascade over him. No one in my family did that.


My fort-under-the-stairs was a safe and happy place. And, a place where I was in control. I abandoned this haven only when my curious older brother poked his head under the wine-red blanket. By that time, I had grown bigger. My space had not. I needed to re-imagine a niche all my own.


The meadow beckoned. From the time my family moved into our new house, the vacant lots adjoining our property had been my warm-weather playground—a few acres of weeds and wildflowers, mystery and magic. Two large trees presided over this domain—one upright with low branches, perfect for climbing; one toppled but still-living, perfect for hiding. Under this last, I created my second fort.


Bowed to the ground, leafy branches fashioned a green igloo. Inside, I carved out a nest. Lying on my back, I gazed up at a bright picture-puzzle of white and blue, gold and emerald. As the world orbited and the wind blew, patterns danced. A waltz, a tango, a quickstep, a ballet. When the skies teemed, I got wet. I realized that, in times of affliction, a sanctuary with neither roof nor walls gave no protection at all.


A subdivision was growing up around our house. Pieces of lumber lay discarded beside the nearby wooden skeletons. I didn’t think the builders would mind if I pilfered a few of the shorter boards.


With explicit instructions to return the tools to their proper places in the garage, Father provided me with nails, tape measure, handsaw and hammer. I already had a pencil.


The length of the scavenged wood determined the size of my castle. I set to work. Care was crucial. No material could be wasted. Eventually, a tiny wooden box emerged—just long enough for the almost four feet of me to lie down in. I collected some pieces of plywood for the roof and just enough more for the door. Although I struggled with the hinges, I managed to make them work. Next, I added hook-and-eye fasteners to both the inside and outside. For the window, I sewed a calico curtain and slid it over a slim rod.


The construction completed, I asked Father if I could use some of the house trim paint. I had been dutiful about returning the tools. Father said yes. There were two colours, lime green and bright coral. I liked the sour-apple hue but was not fond of the tangerine. Sadly, my fifty-cent per week allowance did not allow for the purchase of new paint. I would have chosen blue. Any blue—sky, navy, royal, cornflower, even teal although that was more green. At least I thought it was. The lime, I brushed on the body of the place and the coral I daubed on the door.


I waterproofed the building but I’m not sure how. I slept there sometimes. Even in the rain. But, never in thunderstorms. Once, my parents forgot to pick my up from summer camp. I had to sleep alone in a corner room on an upper floor of a time-worn wooden barracks. Throughout that eternal night, a ferocious storm groaned, and howled, and hissed, and slammed wet bullets against the window. I never much cared for downpours after that.


One expert on child-built spaces said that the building of forts is as important as the playing in them. Critical thinking skills and scientific reasoning are developed. He went on to state that lack of parental involvement is healthy. How grateful I am that no adult offered to help me construct that first house-of-my-own. Maybe I grew smarter because of that independence.


Whereas the first two forts were private places, this one hosted friends. But, only when I allowed. I was the queen. I ruled the realm.


One shiny Saturday morning in early October, I arose to discover my fort in pieces. Green and orange boards adorned the meadow. My response not only surprised the perpetrator, it surprised me. I accepted the situation with aplomb. The neighbour lad who had created the havoc never achieved his expected reward. A younger me would have lunged at him—a lioness incarnate. But, I realized that I was a young lady now, or so my mother said. Young ladies did not play in forts.

Postscript

I have to thank Jo for the appearance of this piece writing today. I wasn’t “perfectly certain” that it was ready for publication. Thank you Jo for believing in me and my writing. I love you.

A Room of My Own–Disappointments and Treasure

A “Sunbonnet Sue” quilt similar to mine

In the late summer of 1955 our family moved into my first fully remembered house. The exterior featured a variety of autumn-hued bricks augmented by vivid coral and lime- green mouldings. Sited atop a steep hill, it beamed its kaleidoscopic newness over the subdivision. The living room showcased two plush, citrus-toned swivel chairs, and a sofa upholstered in a complementary prismatic teal. With much deliberation, and a little compromise, for the kitchen, Mom and Dad chose a green tile floor, orange laminate counter-tops, and knotty pine cabinets complete with black wrought iron hardware. Weird and riotous colour combinations, even to a somewhat chaotic eight-year-old.

The one feature I got to choose was the ceiling light for my very own bedroom. Until then I had had to share sleep-quarters with my older sister. I believe she deplored the co-habitation far more than I did. When you are fifteen, private space is as necessary as a lockable bathroom door.

I perused the weighty lighting catalogue with the same fervency as I devoted to the Sears Christmas Wish Book. In the end, I settled on a magical fixture with a round glass canopy where tiny ballerinas pirouetted on an opaline stage.

Move-in day arrived. I scurried to my room. Looked up. And froze. Above me was a piece of square glass adorned with little girls swinging in a pink sky. Disappointment burst into tears. Father tried, without success, to assuage my heartbreak. How could I possibly love girls on swings? I could practise my ballet in the large and open living room or even in the basement recreation area. But, despite there being four children, there would never be a swing in our yard. Father rigorously controlled his domain. The grass, lush and emerald, was mowed to the ideal height and the shrubs, each chosen for its particular texture and hue, were shorn to regal perfection.

With the sleeve of my yellow sweater, I erased my tears. Then, I lowered my eyes to survey the rest of the room. Whoever designed this house harboured no love of little children. The high, horizontal window allowed me to see only a cloudy sky. To take in the scene across the street, I had to stand on the bed. Cats and dogs choose to lie in places with a view to the outdoors. If no low window sill presents itself, they leap unto chairs, the backs of sofas or even tall bookcases to peer beyond. People are the same. They need to know there is an outside as well as an inside. A place of freedom and adventure where minds and hearts can roam.

As an adult, I spent a few months filling in for an art teacher away on medical leave. Her classroom was located in the centre of a vast building. Its two doors opened into two hallways. Several strips of fluorescent lights provided the only illumination. What manner of principal would assign a room devoid of natural light for visual arts classes?

Even though not of my choosing, one thing I did love about my new bedroom was the hand-made quilt that decorated the single bed. Mother told me that Grandma had given it to me when I was too small to remember. She had saved it until I was old enough to take proper care of it. A wide blue border with crossed strips inside it divided the counterpane into sixteen boxes. Within these frames posed sixteen identical girls. Each wore a simple calico dress and a bright, over-sized bonnet—each outfit a different combination of happy hues.

For many years, every night, after I had knelt in prayer beside my bed, I nestled under the covers and whispered to the silent, faceless quilt children. I shared with them my brave deeds, my joyful adventures, my academic accomplishments, my heartaches, my fears and my deepest longings.

When, at eighteen, I left home for university, Grandmother’s quilt travelled with me. As I unfurled the coverlet over my narrow bed, I never feared my dorm-mate’s censure. The bonnet-girls—keepers of my secrets—wholly belonged there, with me.

My Mother Pauline–A Mosaic

September 22, 1917 – September 4, 2015

Pauline in her 97th year on a visit to Prince Edward Island.
Pauline in her 97th year on a visit to Prince Edward Island

In the fourth year of World War I, my Ukrainian-born grandmother birthed my mom. Her seventh child. At regular intervals another seven arrived. Seven sons. Seven daughters.

The upper floor of the old Manitoba farmhouse boasted two large bedrooms. One for the parents and the two most recent babies. One for the rest of the flock. The newest arrival slept on the foot of the marriage bed. The second youngest in a cradle nearby. When Mom was still a child, Grandma Koshelanyk told her that she was a sickly infant who cried without end. She said there were times when she wanted to kick her off the end of the bed. Mother never forgot that. Maybe that’s why she seldom spoke up to defend herself. Maybe she thought she would be killed.

The fourteen children grew strong and resourceful. Fall, winter and spring they trudged five miles to and from the schoolhouse. They played with each other and with the barn cats. They sculpted toys from the ever-plentiful potatoes. When I was eight years old, I whined that I had nothing to do. Mother tossed me a potato and a paring knife and said, “There, make yourself a doll.” While Mother continued paring vegetables, I happily chipped away at the tuber. In time, a small, crude dolly emerged. I loved her. Until her flesh turned to grey mush.

The remembrance made me wonder about the wisdom of bestowing a sharp knife, albeit a small one, on an eight-year-old. Mother said it was hard to cut yourself with a finely-honed blade. It was the dull ones you had to be careful of.

Mom graduated from grade ten. The first of her family to be so highly educated. Two years later she received her registered nursing assistant diploma. Until I saw her graduation photo, I never knew how beautiful my mother was. The white starched cap perched proudly on her lovely dark head.

At twenty, Mom left her prairie home to travel to Quebec and then Ontario. Once, when my teen-aged brother decided to practise his foreign language skills on her, she surprised us all by answering in perfect French. She had waitressed at a restaurant on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal. Tips were higher if you spoke the diners’ native tongue.

Mom had an uncanny talent for disassembling broken appliances then rebuilding them in perfect working order. Toasters. Vacuum cleaners. Wringer washing machines. Mix-masters. All these fell under her realm of expertise. She kept a junk drawer in the kitchen. From its depths she retrieved the exact item needed for a repair. A screw, a washer, a piece of wire, a nut or bolt, a tiny screwdriver. If she didn’t find the right tool, she improvised one.

Every Saturday morning Mother baked. Pies mostly. Apple pies usually. I asked her to teach me. One box of Crisco. That was the only precise measure. About four cups of flour and a little salt. About? A little? Well, the amount of flour depended on the humidity. On the temperature. On the softness of the shortening. The salt? Oh, you just pour a little into your palm and toss it in. Add about half a cup of flour at a time and blend it into the shortening. Keep this up until the mixture resembles small peas. Then add a tablespoon or two of cold water. Just enough to make everything stick together.

I never mastered the little-peas-look or the just-right-water bit. I avoided making pies. My pastry could never be as good as Mom’s. Then, a male colleague who loved to bake passed me a recipe—Fool-proof Flaky Pie Crust. Six ingredients. Exact measurements. Fabulous results.

The apples were another matter. Mother preferred Northern Spies. She bit into one then decided how much sugar and lemon juice to use. But, how do you know? By the sweetness or the tartness of the apples. I never mastered the bite-test either. I just followed instructions I found for baking with tart apples and hoped that my apples were tart.

As soon as the baked pies cooled, it was my job to deliver a small one to our nearest neighbours. The Winnets were an elderly couple who refused none of Mom’s offerings.

Until she gave it up at the grand age of ninety-seven, Mother’s joy and refuge was her vegetable garden. Potatoes of course. But also asparagus, tomatoes, romaine, bib lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, cucumbers, zucchini, bush beans, pole beans, peas and carrots. Rhubarb too.

Autumn meant canning. Brined beets, mustard relish, stewed tomatoes, peaches, jams and jellies, dills and bread-and-butter pickles. Just like her baked goods, Mom shared the bounty of her garden—fresh and preserved—with family, friends and neighbours.

A visit to Mom’s house was a free shopping excursion. She loaded us up with articles on natural healing clipped from newspapers and magazines, ‘useful’ items retrieved from recycle bins, pastries or cookies, canned goods and produce.

Mom was an early earth guardian. She composted, reclaimed, re-purposed, and renewed before those verbs were fashionable. She had weathered the Great Depression—nothing was thrown away. One time she offered me a nickel for every plastic milk bag I saved for her.

One household chore that bypassed Mom’s talents was cleaning. She always began by “tidying up”. Before she had filed her first magazine, she was perched on the edge of the ottoman perusing its table of contents. She soon sat cocooned in a comfy chair savouring a recipe, an article on natural supplements or an ad for a hand-held rototiller. The dust stayed put.

Mom also worked outside the home. For a catering service. In the X-ray department at a hospital. In accounts at a ladies’ clothing store. And finally as a realtor. She even attained her broker’s licence. She had more energy than most of my friends’ younger mothers. Television-watching and novel-reading were Father’s domain. Those activities put Mom to sleep.

Most of all Mother was colour. Vibrant, bold, discordant, flamboyant Ukrainian colour. Orange and pink and red were favourites. But, purple and blue and green and shimmering gold also found homes in her wardrobe. She sometimes resembled one of her intricately painted Easter eggs. I still envision her in periwinkle jeans emblazoned with countless red roses, a garish flannelette shirt and a floppy magenta sunhat. A prismatic nod to the dirndl skirt, embroidered blouse and babushka of her ancestors.

My mother was a survivor. She seldom saw a doctor and protested when in her early 90’s, one prescribed high blood pressure pills. She acquiesced only because she feared a stroke more than death. At sixteen I had my ears pierced and fainted at the sight of a few droplets of blood. When Mother gashed her palm with a carving knife—it must have been a dull one—she staunched the bleeding, bandaged the wound and continued preparing dinner. In her ninety-eighth year Mom paid a rare visit to her physician. “Doctor,” she said, “I have a disease.”

“Yes, I know,” the young man said gently. “It’s called old age.”

…………

Postscript

Mom passed away a few weeks before her ninety-eighth birthday. Someone said my grief would be less because I’d had her so long. Precisely because “I’d had her so long,” my grief was bottomless. Now, more than four years later, I can remember her without tears—most of the time.

In the fall of 2013 my husband and I relocated to a far-away province. I made it a habit of phoning Mom every Sunday. In her last few months, Mom could no longer talk. I began writing her weekly letters. I was grateful to my sister for reading them to her. In researching this piece, I came across a copy of my final missive. It never reached Mom in this life. I trust she knew how much I loved her.

Here is that letter.

August 31, 2015

Hello dear Mom,

Recently when Pitou and I were out for a walk, our neighbour, Gordon, called us over to his garden. He gifted us with tomatoes (mine aren’t ripe yet), ears of corn, sprigs of basil and a green pepper. His garden is huge…even bigger than yours at Maple Leaf Acres. [Gilles] roasted a rack of lamb for dinner and I used most of what Gordon gave us as “trimmings.” First was a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad with balsamic vinaigrette. The cobs of corn were cooked for just three minutes. How sweet and juicy and fresh they tasted. Aren’t we lucky to have such friendly and generous neighbours? I know how you loved to share the bounty of your garden. You have made so many people happy over the years. Thank you for teaching me about generosity. When my little garden ripens, I’ll certainly be sharing more than just zucchinis and lettuce.

As always Mom,

I miss you.

And I love you.

Prairie

My colourful Mom, Pauline Vance

Prairie, At Last–“Moons” The Final Chapters

Gilles and I on our marriage day, 2002

Chapter 49

Seventh Path Hypnosis Reveals Another Piece of the Love Puzzle

Littleton was a magnet for alternative healers. Someone told me that the town sat on intersecting ley lines. There was a lot of energy available. Maybe that was why I was drawn there. Maybe that was one of the reasons that I stayed sixteen years.

A woman I met in the town invited me to enrol in a course on self-hypnosis. She claimed that to heal old wounds we needed to remove old programming. To “empty the cup.” I thought that in the three sessions of holotropic breathwork I had “emptied the cup.” Perhaps some dregs remained. I had recited affirmations for years. “I am good; I am worthy; I am loved.” Did I genuinely believe those words?

I remember asking Doctor Anne what love felt like. I said, “I know I love my children.” When they were small, I would sneak into their rooms while they slept and watch them breathe. Bellies softly rose and fell. Peaceful pink faces attested to untroubled dreams. I was filled with awe and a feeling that could only be love. I also knew that I loved my mother, even when I was frustrated with her. Now, much later, I knew I loved Gilles. I decided that love was more of a knowing than a feeling. A certainty that you cherished the person before you. But did I love myself? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know.

I decided I had nothing to lose, and possibly something to gain. I took the Seventh Path course. First, Carol described hypnosis and the subconscious. Next, she explained how to induce self- hypnosis. However, before I experienced that state, I needed a Delta word.

The Seventh Path system was influenced by A Course In Miracles and therefore worked best if I believed in a higher power. Indeed, I did.

I had to choose a name for that power. Goodness, Goddess, Universal Love, Christ, Buddha, Allah, God. I had wrestled with the God-word for years. I was a spiritual person, but no longer a religious one. The image of “God-the-white-robed-bearded-patriach-ensconced-on-a-golden-throne-in-heaven” had evaporated. That mental picture had been replaced with a God-experience. God was the ecstasy of a thousand rainbows. The velveteen stillness of an eternal embrace. The solace of huge pink towel. I had no problem using God as my Delta word.

While I was hypnotized, Carol recited recognitions, positive statements that bypassed my conscious mind and challenged long-held limiting convictions. The first phrases weakened or removed the faulty assumptions.

The five short suggestions slid effortlessly into my unconscious mind. I remember two.

“God knows there’s nothing wrong with me.”

and

“God made me always lovable.”

After the first session, as instructed, I practised self-hypnosis and the recognitions three or more times every day. When I returned for the second class a week or two later, I was well-prepared for the experience. But not for the outcome.

After we entered the self-hypnotic state, Carol quietly repeated longer versions of the recognitions. The second part replaced the faulty assumptions with positive truths.

“God knows there’s nothing wrong with me—there never was.” Astonishing! How many times had I heard, “What’s the matter with you?” “Are you stupid?” “What’s wrong with you?” The utter belief that there was never anything wrong with me uprooted a former sense of self. It freed me to begin loving this person that was me.

The next one had the same potent effect.

“God made me always lovable—just as I am.”

Unchecked, tears coursed down my cheeks. I was lovable. Just as I was—imperfect, impulsive, passionate, insecure, and brave. At last, I knew that I loved myself, in my beauty and my brokenness. Now, I could forgive myself. Now, I could better love and forgive others.

Chapter 50

Steadfastness and Change

“You cannot change another person. The only person you can change is yourself.”

I cannot remember who told me that. I cannot remember how many boyfriends I thought I could change. “Once we’re in a relationship, he will give up smoking. He will stop his negative thinking. He will eat better. He will drink less. He will play fewer video games. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.” By the time I met Gilles, I had changed enough to know that I could not change Gilles.

Nonetheless, as long as I never tried to alter Gilles’ essential character, I thought it permissible to tamper a little with his appearance. When I first met him, a ragged bush of dark hair pruned by an incompetent barber, and antiquated black-rimmed spectacles with saucer-sized lenses, masked his handsome countenance. He resembled a tall dishevelled owl.

When I made the impromptu suggestion that he give my hair stylist a try, he readily acquiesced. Upon his return, rather than being gob-smacked by the quadruple price, he beamed at me, “He spent an entire hour cutting my hair!” Subsequent appointments were shorter.

The alteration in bifocals came about just as fuss-free. Without glasses Gilles inhabits a opaque universe. Choosing frames was a challenge. When the time came for new lenses, he asked me to accompany him to the optometrist.

As for Gilles’ makeover of me, that never happened. Gilles was better than me at the “you cannot change another person” dictum. He sometimes alludes to my abbreviated stature; however, I believe he enjoys being necessary when he retrieves “high-up” items from the cupboards. Besides, one’s height cannot be remedied by tamed and contoured hair or up-to-date eye glasses.

Over the years with Gilles, I have come to understand another important truth about change. Everyone changes. No one stays the same. Initially, we may notice the physical transformations—the first grey hair, then more grey hairs, then not so much hair; the wrinkles around the eyes, then the mouth, then the elbows and knees and bellies and bums. Next come the mental modifications—the memory lapses; the seniors’ moments; the effort to find a word that sometimes arrives the next hour or the next day or not at all; a former pastime—swimming or chess—replaced by woods-wandering or puzzle-solving. Old love demands courage.

Chapter 51

Illness and Recovery

After that first remarkable kiss, Gilles and I chose to be partners in an exclusive, monogamous relationship. Twenty months later, Gilles relocated to my house.

Even though I had attracted into my life a man who loved me unconditionally, prepared succulent dinners for me almost every night of the week, and planted twelve hundred periwinkle shoots in my front yard because I didn’t like grass, did not mean that all my problems vanished. What it did mean was that a devoted and supportive companion would travel with me on the next leg of my becoming-Prairie journey.

Over the previous few years, tumultuous changes had taken place in the field of education: burgeoning class sizes, a substantial increase in independent learning plans, slashed preparation times, teacher re-evaluations, and complex computer-generated report cards. My penchant for perfection did not pair well with these innovations. In spite of having diligent and helpful co-op assistants, the workload remained onerous. Early in 2002, mononucleosis infected me. The only person I kissed was Gilles. He was healthy. Perhaps a stressed immune system and daily exposure to scores of wheezing, coughing teenagers were responsible for my disease. In spite of the fatigue, I made it to the end of the first semester but was too ill to begin the second one.

Father died on Thursday, February 8th. The previous Sunday he phoned to remind me, “You are the disgrace of the family. You are the only one to get divorced and you are living in sin.” Whether my illness made me too weak to challenge his assessment or I had grown in compassion, I simply said, “I’m sorry you feel that way because I have never been happier.”

Before I could return to the classroom, viral bronchitis decided to befriend me. I slept separately from Gilles. Sat up in bed to keep the air passages open. I arose several times at night, turned the shower dial to its hottest setting, then crouched in the corner of the stall so steam could restore my breathing. My doctor could not help me. I sought out a German-trained physician in another city. He prescribed a number of homeopathic cures, none of which cured me. As the illness dragged on I decided that a massage might make me feel less miserable.

Audrey was an experienced massage therapist who also practised manual lymphatic drainage. Further, she was a doctor of osteopathic medicine. A friend drove me to her office. When Audrey came to manipulate my legs she noticed the swollen lymph glands behind my knees. I never knew I had glands there. She checked the rest of my body. All my nodes were tumid. She asked if I had had mono. With adequate rest, the debilitating symptoms of that disease usually disappear on their own. However, months and even years, later lymph glands can remain enlarged. Audrey suggested that I return for three manual lymphatic drainage appointments. After the first session, I felt better than I had in two and a half months. After the second one I drove myself home. After the third, I returned to teaching. A miracle.

The other miracle was that, in spite of my illnesses, Gilles chose to marry me.

Chapter 52

Prairie

Let there be space in your togetherness.

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love;

let it be rather a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Kahil Gibran

Gilles and I resided at 27 Pine Street. We met on the 27th of August. We shared our first dinner on the 27th of November. A few years later, on the 27th day of June a retired nun officiated our union.

I am a list maker. When I complete an item I obliterate it with heavy scratches or mark it off with an exuberant tick. The physical action magnifies my sense of accomplishment. I had never entered marriage on any list. Nevertheless, even an extravagant ink flourish could not sufficiently express my joy.

Each Valentine’s Day, the day that my name became official, I enumerate fourteen reasons why I love Gilles. Each one is accompanied by a vibrant red check mark. Over the years, some things have never changed: a weird but lovable sense of humour, an impish smile, a brilliant and unusual mind, emotional calm and an overabundance of tolerance, loyalty and generosity.

Missing from the February lists but perhaps the thing I love most about Gilles is the way he says my name—like Line’s melodic French pronunciation of Geraldine, with a softly rolled ‘r’. Yet so much better—Gilles has never known me as anyone but Prairie. Besides, Prairie has two r’s.

When I give my name to a clerk or am introduced for the first time, a frequent response is, “What a lovely name.” I meet the speaker’s eyes and reply with genuine warmth, “Thank you. I have always liked my name.”

The end

Moons–memoir–chapters 1 & 2

These Many Moons Magnificent

A Memoir

Part One

Slivers

five to thirty-five

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

Maya Angelou

Chapter 1

Geraldine

When I was nine years old, I was convinced that I had the wrong name. I had suspected it for a long time.

“What’s your name, honey?”

No response.

“Don’t you have a name?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what is it?”

Reluctantly, “Geraldine”.

“Oh, that’s a nice name.”

But it wasn’t a nice name. Not to me.

I preferred being called Gerry. It had only two syllables and somehow sounded better. Not so harsh as Geraldine. After I learned to read, I looked up the meaning of Geraldine. “Mighty spear-thrower.” Oh, how awful! I was tiny and could barely hold a tennis racket. How could I possibly hurl spears?

My grade three teacher announced that we’d be learning how to do cursive writing. How exciting! It must have something to do with cursing. Only grown-ups were allowed to swear and grown-ups wrote with joined-up letters. When I mastered this new skill, I too could say words like shit and damn. In 1956 only dyed-in-the-wool sinners used the F-word.

Preliminaries first. How to unscrew the cap from the ink pot. Some of the kids spilled the blue-black gunk all over their go-to-school clothes—a transgression just short of spilling it on your go-to-church clothes. But I had already opened my jar and set it into the perfect-sized hole drilled into the top right corner of the desk. The marred wooden surface bore inky testament to the hundreds of children who came before. Speaking of desks, mine had to be imported from the grade one classroom. I might have been humiliated; instead I was all delight—my feet touched the floor.

I inserted the sharp steel nib into the just-right slots of the slender red holder. Dip, wipe, write. Disaster. Nib legs splayed. Paper ripped. Miscellaneous blobs and illegible words decorated the page. Achieving the just-right pressure was impossible. I wondered, briefly, how the left-handers were faring. What numbskull decided that needle points and flimsy paper made good partners?

Day after day, I practised. I seldom gave up on anything. Certainly nothing this important. At last I got it.

“Gerry” I wrote. No blobs, no tears, perfectly readable. I peered at the name. Something was wrong. It didn’t look right. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t even smell right. I wrote, Gerrie. Jerry. Gerri. Geree. No matter how I spelled it, an inner voice whispered, “That’s not you”.

Chapter 2

The Near Death

Too young and too little, I didn’t know what to do with this knowing. For the next five years I simply accepted my name. Once or twice I did wonder if the wrong-name feeling began in earnest the day I almost died.

On a perfect summer afternoon, I clambered up to my assigned place in the family sedan—the ledge beneath the rear-view window. My much older sister and two older brothers filled the back seat. My parents occupied “the thrones”. Father drove—always.

We were going to the beach, not Peace Haven with its quiet water and jumping-bridge, but a lake so big it had no further shore.

My body didn’t work like other people’s. I was often cold. Lying in the heat of the window shelf was one of my most favourite things. Bathed in sunbeams, I closed my eyes and dreamed. Peaceful dreams. I smelled the sea first. Always I awoke just as the car crested the very last hill. Before me lay the water—a corduroy of moving ridges, white and blue.

A zillion colours crowded the shore. Beach blankets and umbrellas rich in design, bathing suits of every description, people pale or black or some colour in between. Mother, eagle-eyed, spied the ideal plot of sand. We children raced to claim it. Plaid blankets were duly laid down, picnic baskets and cooler set off to one side. Swim first. Eat later. My towel claimed and deposited nearby, I headed to the water.

I stand and watch. Over and over small waves slap the shore. They arrive on an angle and retrace their paths in their retreat. I wade in. Not too far. Bliss. I close my eyes. Warm water invites me further. I laugh. A gull, I spread my arms and fly above the sea. Walk on. One step more. Into the trough I fall. I flail and gasp. Can no one see me? Beneath the surface I sink. Into darkness. Into forever-ness.

But I refuse to die. Perhaps I pray. I don’t remember. A miracle. My foot touches sand. Up I climb. Out of the hollow. Find the sky above the sea. Gulp the air. Sob.

Shoreward I turn. Scan the beach for my parents relaxing on plaid blankets. Find them at last. Proceed with great caution. Arrive. Enfold myself in the huge pink towel. Sit.

And say nothing.

very young Geraldine

Why Write A Memoir?

A little more than a year ago when I finished my memoir, I sent a query letter and a few sample chapters to a publisher—one that promised to respond within sixteen weeks. No acknowedgement arrived. Further, research pointed out that only one in 300,000 manuscripts by “unknown” authors gets accepted by a traditional publishing house. These Many Moons Magnificent was my new-born daughter, albeit, a tiny one. Four years of writing culminated in a book of only 34,000 words. Who would print such a paltry thing? A more important consideration, however, was my reluctance to share my past with strangers. I put the pages in a purple folder, inserted the folder in a plain brown envelope, then secreted the package at the bottom of a deep drawer. Next, I continued to write. Once I had began, I could not stop.

In late December 2019, I published my first blog, “Perfect Meatballs”, a glimpse into my determination to overcome perfectionism. On the next four Sundays, I posted four more tales. During those weeks, I realized I was ready to blog Moons.

Why? Not for imagined riches. I ignored WordPress’s promise that I could earn, earn, earn if I included ads in my blog. A good story is its own advertiser–naive but I want to believe it is true. Further, and gratefully, I do not need money. Nor fame. I am content in my modest life.

One afternoon at the Writers’ Group, I was struggling with a difficult piece of personal history. I said, “Sometimes the writing is painful.”

A member pounced on the admission, “Then why do you do it?”

Before I could formulate a response, a woman answered for me, “Because she has to.”

There was that. But, why did I have to?

Finding Your Answers Within, a book by Dick Sutphen, had found me decades earlier. I decided to look inside—myself, not the book. Quiet moments when beach-walking, forest-bathing, bicycle-riding, or highway-driving provide fertile ground for answer-seeking. On the way home from Writers’ Group that day, auto-pilot kicked in. My mind returned to the aggressive question. Why was I writing a memoir? Before I thought them, three words sprang up—a final expiation. I chuckled. I didn’t know the meaning of expiation. Even so, I remembered a solo winter walk where I asked myself why I blurted out nonsensical words every now and then. Emotional repression spontaneously emerged. The inner wise woman was right then. She must be right now.

Once home, a dictionary pronounced:

expiation (noun)

the act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement.

Similar: atonement, redemption, redress, reparation, restitution

For what did I need to atone? One atones for sins. Real sins or imagined sins? Perhaps both.

I knew I had injured people through Emma-like precipitate remarks, an inflexible stand on negotiable issues, and the acting out of fantasies and delusions. But, I had spent years forgiving myself for such transgressions and, where possible, had sought forgiveness from those I had hurt. When painful memories arose, I recited Louise Hay’s mantra,“I did the best I could with the knowledge, awareness and understanding I had at that time.” And similarly “S/he did the best ….” Maybe, there was some deep-seated guilt, real or imagined, that yet plagued me. My response to the message was to keep writing.

A first reader suggested that I publish Moons because it would help others on their self-realization journeys. Certain fragments may inspire some people to embark on Vision Quests, study astrology, participate in Breathwork, or dialogue with a witch. Perhaps. But, just like wealth and fame, self-help was not my motivation in broadcasting the work. For whatever reason, I was now ready to share my story with more than a handful of friends.

In the final analysis, perhaps passion or pleasure propels people to write. Memoir is the most accessible and the most intimate subject matter.

Postscript

Tomorrow, the first two chapters of These Many Moons Magnificent will be published. The book is short; the chapters are short—only one to four pages in length. Even so, as one reader told me, “Prairie, you say a lot with few words.”

Raku moons, Prairie Wakerobin, from a 1994 exhibition

The Hairdresser’s Sewing Lesson or Why Moving Furniture Is Good For You

The sofa against the “impossible” wall

Since birth, I have inhabited twenty-two different residences in eleven different municipalities in three different provinces. Some of the re-locations were beyond my control. For example, I was born on a farm, transferred to a city apartment, then moved into a house all before I turned two years of age. I had no say in those decisions. Most of the others were self-motivated. The need to uproot myself so often forms no part of this story. I have not examined the theme at any length. I suspect it’s a disease. However, as I have stayed put for six years, perhaps the illness is cured.

The adult changes of address had two serious repercussions: how to find a good hairdresser and how to arrange my motley collection of furniture.

In newest province I call home, I perch on a wooden bench in the change room of a yoga studio. I surreptitiously scrutinize hair styles, espy one that would suit me, ask its owner who cuts her hair.

Once home, a phone call to the salon is met with: “I’m so sorry, Melanie is not accepting new clients”. I leave my contact info anyway. It has been a month since my last haircut. Two more weeks pass. My usual super-short hair is now super-longish. From the internet, I choose a beauty salon at random and book an appointment. Just days before the crucial date, I get the call. Melanie has had a cancellation. Would I like to take it?

Yes!

There are no coincidences. Melanie is a soul mate. She talks about her Greyhound rescue; I share my Cairn Terrier stories. On my recommendation, she buys a copy of Living Your Yoga; on hers, I enjoy a dinner at the Landmark Cafe. She visits the Louvre and conveys her impressions; I build a black gazebo and she asks for photos to show her partner. She describes her successes in interior design; I show her pictures of my rooms to get her input. She says she would love to learn to sew; I invite her to my house for a lesson.

I have been sewing since I was seven. Mother sent to me to the Singer Sewing Centre on Main Street. The instructors assigned me to a children’s machine. Mother demanded that I learn on a full-size model. In order to reach the controls, I sat on a raised stool. I made a pink calico dolly’s nightgown. In another set of lessons when I was eleven or twelve, I constructed a light brown dress with inset pleats and darker brown piping. Later came blouses, dresses, slacks, jackets and vests. Then, dozens of costumes for my children—Halloween witches, devils, angels and clowns; ballet tutus; an ice-skating prince’s togs.

At some point, I determined that savvy shopping yielded well-made clothes at the same expense as fabric with no work involved. Well, except a new hem now and then. These days, I mainly sew home décor items—especially zippered covers for feather inserts. A change of seasons demands a change of sofa cushions.

On the appointed day, Melanie arrived with a portable sewing machine and a fresh apple pie in hand. Perfect synchronicity! It was Gilles’ birthday, and I’d not made him a special dessert.

After an hour and a half of instruction—threading the machine, winding the bobbin, straight-stitching, back-stitching, and squaring fabric, Melanie said that her brain was saturated. Then she asked, “Have you ever considered putting the sofa on that wall?”

I dare say, I had tried it on every other wall. But, not that one. That wall backed onto the garage and formed one side of a wide entry. You can’t put a sofa in a hallway. Instead, I had island-ed it and angled it and even considered replacing it. The room is a decorator’s bane—on its borders are four doors, three staircases, two closets and two wall extensions. For six years, without success, I had attempted to make the room “work”. In fact, I had changed the set-up so many times that Gilles, having more than once tripped over a re-positioned ottoman, learned to navigate its interior with caution.

I thought that my frequent rearrangement of furniture was, like moving residences, a kind of sickness. It was a relief to discover that the activity provides several health benefits. According to some studies, moving furniture and other movement-based creation–such as building a gazebo or sewing cushion covers–spur energy, spark joy, assist with problem-solving, and improve self-esteem. Further, Carrie Barron, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School, states in her article Rearranging the Furniture Makes Me Feel Better/ Achieving inner and outer harmony by moving things around:

An impact on the environment…lifts mood, provides concrete satisfaction, and instills a sense of effectiveness. Inner and outer harmony happen when pieces are placed in a way that makes sense for you.

With undisguised mistrust, I told Melanie I would “try” the sofa on that wall.

“Let’s do it now! I still have an hour before I have to leave.”

So, for the next hour we two small, strong women heaved and shoved and pushed and carried chairs, tables, chests, cabinets, rugs, artworks, lamps, and the sofa. When we finished, Melanie surveyed the room then said, “You need something small and narrow in front of the couch”. From the main bathroom we retrieved an antique oak chest of the perfect proportions. Melanie tossed a white faux-fur throw over it to “add texture and soften the angles”. With the transformation complete, for the first time since moving into the house, the room functioned to my specifications, exuded comfort, and even photographed well. And, as nothing had been bought, there was no buyer’s remorse. As Barron’s article predicted, we felt “creative, clever and resourceful”. I alone was astonished that a sofa could exist comfortably in a vestibule.

On seeing the metamorphosed space, a friend said, “Melanie missed her calling”. I hope not. Who so talented and compatible would cut my hair?

Home-sewn Halloween Costumes