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The Fruit Cellar: A Place of Discovery

My mother preserved things. First and foremost was produce, chiefly from her garden: beets, corn, carrots, cucumbers, peaches, pears, cherries as well as applesauce and stewed rhubarb. Anything that could be “put up” in jars.

In the basement of my childhood home, beyond the furnace room, was a second large, dry, windowless space—the fruit cellar. But oh, so much more than fruit was there. The entire right-hand wall boasted a battalion of colourful glass jars. Row upon row, floor to ceiling, arranged by hue. What an artwork Andy Warhol could have made of that display! Certainly a more vibrant masterpiece than 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans.

Sometimes I sneaked into that storeroom, pulled down on the long string connected to the bright ceiling bulb, dragged a blanket from under the lowest shelf, and sat cross-legged on the cement floor in front of the wall of jars. I peered up in awe at the abundance. Our family would never, ever want for food. We would never be the starving children in a far-flung corner of the world to whom Mother threatened to send any uneaten morsels on our dinner plates. Albeit, a diet of pickled veggies and sugared fruit might become tedious after a week or two. Not to mention that our life expectancy might be somewhat abbreviated.

The fruit cellar housed other treasures. The many wooden shelves on the wall opposite the vivid Mason jars supported all manner of valuable articles that Mom’s I-grew-up-in-the-Great Depression mentality refused to discard.

Once, as I rummaged among the relics I unearthed a grade school scribbler. Like all teacher-supplied workbooks at the time, it sported a bright blue cover with heavy black lines for your name and subject. This one belonged to my brother. George was the name, Writing the subject. Each page had widely-spaced blue lines and a broad left hand margin demarcated with a hot pink line. The book housed only one story, “Blackie.” George’s fierce grip on the pencil etched the large printed letters into the page and dented the one below. The tale was short, only a few sentences; the story tragic, the death of his pet dog. The details scant. A car killed Blackie when he ran onto the road.

How odd. I never knew we had a dog. Did we have a dog? George was four years older than me. Did the dog die before I could remember it? Did George make up the story? Maybe there never was a dog. But, from the force of the printing, George must have felt a terrible loss. Why was there only one story? All those empty pages. Mom would have said it was wasteful. Yet, she preserved this book. This single story. Why?

So many questions. So many emotions. So much to take in. I replaced the notebook on the shelf and told no one about my discovery. I wonder, did I ever venture into that space again? More than six decades later, the questions remain unanswered. That bright blue scribbler is the only thing I recall from the left side of the cellar. I still can’t account for the intensity of the experience. Could it have been that my young heart could not grasp the contrast between the colourful life preserved in glass jars and the sudden, inexplicable death of a small black dog?

The Writing Teacher

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

Albert Einstein

On a Saturday in mid-March 2016 my writing teacher died. Susan was fifty-four. She had not only lived fourteen years longer than the doctors had predicted, she had lived her days as if she would never die—full of optimism, determination, humour and sometimes rage.

***

In the fall of 2015, two weeks before my 68th birthday, I signed up for a creative writing course being offered through the local seniors college. The journey began with a locked door on a frigid Thursday afternoon. The church secretary had forgotten us. We stood, seven or eight of us, backs to the wind, crumpled inside our insufficient clothing. I looked at people’s shoes. What type of older woman wears bright pink Mary Janes or fashionable but stalwart brown leather hiking boots? I had on my perennial Birkenstocks—with socks.

Twenty minutes later, the apologetic late-comer opened the door. Susan’s friend helped her and her paraphernalia—computer, briefcase, refreshments—into the classroom..

Around the long table we sat. Introduced ourselves. An artist. A businessman. A teacher. A traveler. Not surprisingly, the artist wore the fuchsia Mary Janes, the traveler the brown leather boots. Susan’s turn came. A published writer—poems and short stories. Wryly funny. Knowledgeable. Articulate. I knew that I was going to enjoy these Thursday afternoons.

When we read our work, Susan read hers. Bits and pieces came together. A car accident at sixteen. A quadriplegic. The illnesses, hospitalizations, pain. She never dwelt on those. Always the elfin grin, the bright eyes, the optimistic spirit. These were what we saw. Not the withered body. Not the twisted limbs. Not the wheelchair.

Susan bubbled information. Best books for memoir, poetry, story-telling. Writing workshops, publishing, writers’ groups. She inspired confidence. Guided our journeys. Proof-read. Edited. Made suggestions. Laughed. Mused. Pontificated. She wrote not of suffering or pain, but of beauty and joy—the perfect “amethyst day.”

After Susan died, I stopped writing. Two months passed. Then, I dreamed of three women. One lost in grief; one lacking self-confidence; one unable to commit to anything. The grieving woman had given up waiting for me and left. The woman short on self-esteem reminded me of my youth—the little girl who could never do anything well enough. I needed to let her and her uncommitted friend go. I needed to be courageous, determined, confident. I needed to open myself to joy. I needed to be like Susan.

I picked up my pen and began.

Susan’s Mom with Dahlias

A Passion to Learn

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.’ ―William Arthur Ward

With a complete disregard for deportment, my mother spewed me out on a late afternoon in mid-October, 1947. Perhaps because of the optimistic era that followed the end of World War II, multitudes of babies arrived that year. By 1952, not all of us could squeeze into the extant kindergarten classrooms. To solve the problem, the authorities changed the cut-off birth date for entering school from December 31st to August 31st. As a result, from our entry into and exit from all government-approved places of enlightenment, Billy Sutherland and I were always older than our classmates. However, the awkwardness that that fact sometimes caused never hindered my passion for learning. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love school.

In grade two I was assigned to Miss Wiebe’s split class which consisted of ten or twelve of us second graders and twenty or so children in the third grade. When the teacher taught the larger group she gave us seat-work. I finished my exercises in short order then listened in on the harder lesson. I was in heaven.

The next year I was again in Miss Wiebe’s split class. This time, the ratio was reversed. Twice as many grade twos as threes. I was bored. No such thing as enrichment then. I was jealous of the all-grade-three class—the one with a busy fairy-godmother teacher. Miss Anderson brought treasures from her foreign travels into the classroom and created lessons around them. How I longed to see those exotic objects and listen to their stories.

Miss Osborne, my scary-marvelous grade four teacher, demanded perfect attention and perfect silence. And, she got them. I don’t know how. She never yelled. She never used “the strap.” She was stern but knew how to deliver a lesson so that everyone could grasp it. I excelled in school that year. I loved Miss O.

Miss Osborne had a rule that if you wanted to go to the bathroom you raised your hand with two fingers extended. Just an index finger meant you wanted a drink. She was more inclined to grant the first than the latter so most kids just put up two fingers and got a drink on the way to or from the washroom where they stayed only long enough to suggest that they had needed to use it.

Miss O was super-strict during tests. No one dare look around, or down or even out the window. During one exam, I needed to pee but was afraid to ask. She might think I wanted to go to the washroom to consult a cheat sheet. The pressure on my bladder grew until I started to dribble. Soon a large yellow puddle glistened under my desk. The recess bell rang. The others handed in their papers and raced for the door. I sat there, paralyzed. When Miss O approached, I burst into tears. Formidable Miss O dissolved. A grandmother-like person knelt down beside my desk, soothed and consoled me and said that the next time I was to raise two fingers—even it is was during a test. Then, she sent me home to change my clothes. It was a figure skating afternoon. On those days, we girls wore our skating outfits to school then walked to the arena after classes. I remember that I had on a violet corduroy skirt, its hem fringed with a double row of small white pom-poms. I lived a short walk away. When I returned in different clothes, some of the kids asked me if had I peed my pants. “No,” I lied. Strange to say, that was the end of it. Perhaps the formidable Miss Osborne warned them to “Mind their own business.” Whatever the reason for the silence of my classmates on the subject, I never again wore that white-tufted purple skirt.

Grade five. Mrs. Carson. Short, stout, merry Mrs. Carson. She reveled in history and poetry. As Sir Walter Raleigh, she flung a red velvet cape over her shoulders. A gallant knight, she swept it off to cover an imaginary rain puddle on the green tiled floor. Then, she metamorphosed into Queen Elizabeth, trod daintily over the cape, and nodded appreciation to the place where the gallant knight once stood.

As for poems, Mrs. C recited ballads with gusto. On our part, we were required, by the end of the school year, to choose, memorize, and deliver two hundred lines of poetry. How wonderful! All of my two hundred lines came from one book—Flint and Feather, by Pauline Johnson, an Indian princess. The poet lived close to our town on the reservation in Brantford, Ontario. The poems sang. The rhythms pulsated. The landscape and the characters, exuded colour and detail and foreignness. I chose to recite a few of the longer poems including “The Cattle Thief” and “Wolverine.” More than sixty years later, I still remember the opening lines of the first:

They were coming across the prairie, they were galloping hard and fast;

For the eyes of those desperate riders had sighted their man at last—

Sighted him off to eastward, where the Cree encampment lay,

Where the cotton woods fringed the river miles and miles away.

I felt sorry for my sixth grade teacher because so few of us students paid attention. Mrs. Carson had set the bar so high that she couldn’t compete.

Seventh grade. Mr Parkinson. My first male teacher. A grammar fanatic. I loved grammar. Homework: ten sentences to parse. Every word. “The nasty neighbour throws rotten apples at our playful dog.”

The: definite article modifying the noun neighbour.

Nasty: adjective modifying the noun neighbour.

Neighbour: common noun subject of the verb throws. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et Cetera.

It took hours. Joyous hours. English could be dissected and understood. Just like a fetal pig in biology or a mathematical formula. Never before had I known the precision of language. I loved precision. With parsing, you were either right or wrong. A word was or was not a particular part of speech. Not like answers to short stories or novels, the rightness or wrongness of which often depended on the teacher’s point-of-view.

In high school I had an abundance of teachers. Two made me want to excel in their subject.

When we arrived for our first grade nine history class with Mr. Hull, he was standing at the front of the room, his feet splayed in an approximate second ballet position. His hands gripped the chalk ledge behind him. Four colossal numerals filled all three blackboards: 1066. He bounced on his toes as he proclaimed, “If you learn nothing else in this class, you will learn and remember this date—the most important in the history of Great Britain.” I’m seventy-three years old and still retain facts about the Battle of Hastings. History, as taught by Mr. Hull was as precise as parsing a sentence.

For four years Mr. Weber taught me art. What I loved best were not the art projects, which I did enjoy, but the history of art. After I graduated from university with a major in Psychology and a minor in English Literature, I returned to study art. Over twelve years, at intersession and summer school, I took every art course available: printmaking, photography, art history, art theory, drawing, painting, sculpture. When no art course was available in a suitable time slot, I opted for one on architecture.

After eight years of teaching English, my high school assignments grew to include art courses. I continued in that field until my retirement. Thank you Mr. Weber.

My four years at university produced one remarkable professor. Dr. Jacques Goutour. About seventy-five students filled a small amphitheatre. A wiry, energetic man entered. He paced and gestured as he announced with a charismatic French accent, “Your curriculum states that this is a course in Continental European History. It is not. It is a history of France from the years just prior to the 1789 revolution to the end of World War II. All those who want to leave, go.” No one left.

Like Mrs. Carson, Prof. Goutour was a storyteller. Unlike Mr. Hull, he was more interested in the people who created history than in the dates of battles won or lost. Our text for the French Revolution was R R Palmer’s The Twelve Who Ruled. In-depth portraits of the men who fuelled the reign of terror. Goutour’s maxim: “People make history. Not events.”

Charles de Gaulle came to life in the childhood memories that Professor G shared. When De Gaulle learned that the allies were proceeding north liberating France, he and his entourage paraded through a town just ahead of their arrival claiming to be the saviors of the country. On a Sunday drive past de Gaulle’s provincial palace, every guard posted on the parapets raised his rifle and pointed it directly at Monsieur Goutour’s car then panned along with it until it passed beyond firing range. A memorable outing for a young lad and a memorable tale for the students in his history class.

As much as I loved history, I taught it only one semester. There is a saying, “Teach what you love.” By good fortune I have many loves—Visual arts and the English language among them. Those two became the chief vehicles through which I communicated, for thirty-two years, my love of learning to innumerable young people. I am grateful for the ardent women and men who inspired me.

Book Love

The essence of a book does not change with its form. However, the experience does.”

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a book is a written text that can be published in printed or electronic form.

But which format, printed or electronic, gives greater reader satisfaction?

Outside, a blizzard seethes. Frozen pellets smash against window panes. Icy air seeps through poorly sealed thresholds and window sashes. Inside, a white-haired woman, book in hand, burrows deeper into her favourite armchair. Beside her, on a cluttered little table, balances a mug of steaming tea. Her legs, warmed by a heavy throw, stretch across a large ottoman. That same blanket furnishes a nest for her brindle terrier. She gazes at her companion. “Two blankets,” she smiles. The Mozart symphony that bathes the room, fades away as the woman returns to the book. Before her, a mystery unfolds.

Did you picture the woman holding an I-pad or a Kobo reader? The answer might depend on your age. Anyone older than fifty would most likely have envisioned a traditional book. One with physical pages that emit a particular and beloved book-fragrance. How pleased I was to learn that print books still outsell e-books and that, in 2019, sales of the former rose and the latter fell.

With regard to the appreciation of books, Carl Sagan wrote:

The essence of a book does not change with its form. However, the experience does.

Page turning. A most rewarding aspect of reading hard copy is the act of turning over a page, maybe licking your finger to do so. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, finger-licking is central to the plot. I’ve never observed anyone wetting a stylus or a digit to “turn” a page in an electronic book. We speak of “turning over a new leaf”, not sliding past an old problem.

Maps. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and most of my favourite English cozies, feature maps to guide the reader on the adventure. How easy to tuck your finger into the front of the book and glance back whenever you need a reminder of place. Referring back with e-books is less convenient.

Manipulation. Dog-ears, marginal notations, asterisks, NB or nb depending on just how important the passage is, underlining, highlighting—fluorescent pink, yellow or green each denoting a different notable feature.

Name plates. Or inscribed dedications. Without the name and address in the fly-leaf of Charles Lamb’s Selected Essays of Elia, Juliet and Dawsey would never have found each other. How would that be possible with books stored on an e-reader? Unless you lost it. Then the finder might get a sense of who you are by your literary choices but would gather nothing from your handwriting, your thoughts, your inspirations, your scribbles in the margins.

Accessibility. Who among us, buried under our bed-covers, flashlight in hand, has not defied curfew to read just a few more paragraphs, pages, chapters? Okay, you can do that with an e-book. However, the blue-light emitted from it might keep your brain awake for hours.

Hardcover or softcover? The latter is preferable. Something about a hardcover book forbids decorating its pages with miscellaneous notations or symbols. Once, my two-year old took a bright blue marker to several pages of an heirloom World Atlas. I was not pleased. Mind you, that toddler later earned a university degree in applied geography.

When I attended high school, students bought their own texts. As the youngest of four siblings, the English literature books that were passed down to me were filled with informative and sometimes blasphemous side notes. Math texts had solutions to problems filled in. Sad was the day when the department of education decided to pay for texts and loan them to students. The expectation was that the book be returned in pristine condition. How much was lost! Not just the answers to math problems but the various interpretations that English teachers gave to lines of poetry or the motivation of a character.

I have read several electronic books. I enjoyed their content. But, I missed the texture, the odour, and the intimacy of holding a traditionally bound book.

As another blogger wrote:

Traditional books look great,

they smell good,

and they last a really, really long time.”

Reflections on Aging

I’m glad my head is not as big as it looks in a magnifying mirror.

I Am Not Old


I am not old…she said
I am rare.
I am the standing ovation
At the end of the play.
I am the retrospective
Of my life as art
I am the hours
Connected like dots
Into good sense
I am the fullness
Of existing.
You think I am waiting to die…
But I am waiting to be found
I am a treasure.
I am a map.
And these wrinkles are
Imprints of my journey
Ask me anything.


– Samantha Reynolds

A frozen morning in late January. A pandemic still clutched the world.

In preparation for Writers’ Group on Saturday, I neatened, dusted, and vacuumed. I also baked a dozen banana-maple muffins and a moist rhubarb cake. The next day, with a clean house and sweets on hand, I had little to do and nowhere to go.

A few hours of pampering beckoned. First, a steamy Epsom salts bath. I lounged in the silky water as a coal-tar and menthol solution cooled my scalp. I shaved my legs. Not necessary in terms of appearance, but required to keep my long-johns from chafing against stubble. I pushed back the cuticles on all twenty nails. Emerged refreshed.

I massaged Hawaiian body cream into my feet and legs, elbows and arms. Donned my bathrobe, fetched tweezers and a magnifying mirror then headed to the big, bright bedroom window.

I gazed at my reflection, shook my head, and wondered, “When did I get to look this old?”

In her late eighties, my mother asked me, “How will I pluck my eyebrows when I’m old?” I realized, I wasn’t that ancient—I could still find the stray hairs and yank them out. There are fewer now and half of those are grey. Plucking doesn’t seem so urgent. I don’t think Mom needed to worry. My older sister recently had cataract surgery. Although pleased with her improved vision, she said, “I have a lot more wrinkles than I thought.”

Perhaps our eyesight is supposed to dim with age so that the world, and our visage in a magnifying glass, looks softer, gentler, smoother. Our blurry vision allows us to be kinder to ourselves and to each other.

Two other hairs, besides those erratic ones above my eyes, caught my attention. Brittle. Blonde. And long! Witch-like, they sprouted from my chin. I once saw just such a hair on the face of a teaching colleague. I said nothing. Did her students notice? Oh what whispered barbs those teenage mouths could utter. I ripped out the offenders, grateful to be so long retired.

The short grey hair on my head, I like. I stopped colouring it eighteen years ago. A windy day, a winter toque or a wind-brimmed summer hat do little to disturb it. It’s easy, it’s fun and I am thankful there is still so much of it.

I peer harder. More wrinkles. More under-chin flab. Saggier jowls. My eyes have shrunk.

My amber teeth will never regain their onetime alabaster brightness. Thank goodness, in an attempt to improve my exterior, I seldom perform this ritual. Such close scrutiny can be demoralizing. However, today I am happy. Because I realize, that in spite of the wrinkles, the sags, the stray hairs, the yellowing teeth, I like my face. I like myself.

My mother told me that beauty is skin deep. She was wrong. Loveliness may be skin deep but beauty radiates from within.

We are all beautiful.

The Bird Feeder

I don’t feed the birds because they need me; I feed the birds because I need them.

Kathi Hutton

Mom, at ninety-six, beside her feeders

A Wednesday morning in January 2021. Minus four degrees Celsius. A shimmer of snow. A shiver of wind. Tentative sunbeams through rippled clouds. A perfect day for a walk.

We meet at nine. My neighbours and I. I wait. This day, no one comes. I walk alone.

Pronoia…the belief that good things are just waiting to happen. I’ve been waiting for a spark. An inspiration. Without companions, stillness enters. Only the crunch of boots on brittle snow. The swish of swinging arms against a scarlet coat. My mind relaxes. Then plays with a word. Alone.

**********

As she grew older, and older, and older still, my mother’s most ardent wish was not to die alone. My sister said she did. I don’t believe her.

Mom died at ninety-seven. But, she was probably ninety-eight. We celebrated Mom’s birthday on September 22. However, when I prepared a natal chart for her, it didn’t belong to the woman I knew. Mom said that her oldest brother once told her that she, the seventh child, was born in August—harvest season on the Manitoba farm. Some weeks later, her parents, Anton and Maria Koshelanyk, journeyed from Caliento to Steinbach—only thirty minutes by car today but an arduous trek in 1917—to register the birth. Both spoke only Ukrainian. The registration date became Mom’s birthday.

At ninety-two, Mom moved from her small home into a retirement community. She had a bright one bedroom, ground-floor apartment with a small, but fully functional kitchen. Her two garden plots provided an abundance of fresh produce for her to eat and preserve. Her several bird feeders that hung just beyond the living room window provided food for her spirit. Behind them lay conservation land—trees, scrub, wildflowers, and grasses—an abundance of camouflage for avian visitors. Mom insisted that black oilers furnished the best nutrition and would tolerate no “cheap bird blends.” A myriad of breeds crowded her feeders: woodpeckers, sparrows, juncos, nuthatches, chickadees, and cardinals—as many as five vibrant red males at one time! Bully birds, especially jays, would also fly in but mom shooed them away. In spite of the deterrents that my brother provided, her battles with squirrels were less successful.

One winter afternoon in her ninety-seventh year, Mom headed out to replenish the feeding station. Stepped into a snowbank. Sank beyond her knees. Struggled to free herself–without success. In time, a passerby rescued her. Then, that good Samaritan reported the incident to the authorities. The latter prohibited Mom from leaving the building to feed the birds. They bolted the service door that she usually used and threatened to remove the feeders if she disobeyed the order.

Mom told them, “If you take away my feeders, I will die.”

A compassionate custodian took over the job of restocking the bird station. One day, when her helper was off-duty and the feeders were empty, Mom placed suet and feed beside the living room window. She opened the sash, climbed out, retrieved the food and fed her feathered friends. Her mission accomplished, she clambered back in. However, once inside, she couldn’t close the sash. It refused to budge the last two inches. Mom turned up the thermostat, donned a heavy jacket and waited for my sister’s next visit.

When Mom was ninety-six, she stayed a week with us in Prince Edward Island. She told me at the time, “Prairie, don’t live to be this old. It isn’t any fun. I’m ready to go.” Even so, she lived another fourteen months. We siblings believe that she decided to stay around until a great-grandson was born. The baby was expected on my father’s birthday, April 27. Lincoln arrived one day early. When he was just days old, my niece took him to see his great-grandma.

Mom, granddaughter Kim and great-grandson Lincoln, May 2015

Shortly before that visit, health assessors determined that Mom was functioning well and would be able to continue in her present location for some time. Two weeks later, Mom was put on an emergency transfer list. In a phone call I asked her how she felt about the move to a nursing home. “I don’t like it at all,” she said. That was our last conversation. From that day on, words refused to move from her brain to her tongue.

On July 1st Mom was transferred to her new residence—a single dingy room on an upper floor of a large rectangular block of bricks. She refused to have any of her artworks hung or photographs displayed. She turned her chair away from the small window. There was nothing to see. There were no birds to feed.

Two months and three days later, the nurse in charge told my sister that Mom’s organs were failing. She died that night.

Was she alone? I don’t believe so. In the spring I had a dream that I shared with Mom. In my vision, Mom and I sit close together on the upper tier of an open bleacher. Sunlight bathes us. We don’t speak. Just enjoy the warmth and the view over the empty playing field. After a time, my Aunt Alice, Mom’s favourite sister, appears. She smiles at each of us then takes Mom’s hand. The two vanish.

I’m grateful I told Mom my dream. Like, me she is a believer in visions.

After my walk today I filled my bird feeders. Used a special treat—hulled black oilers. I gazed up at the sun-streaked sky and said, “Hi Mom.”

Mom’s summer bird feeders

The Last Shift at the Sanitarium

When the Job Became Incompatible with the Rest of My Life, I Retreated to Another

Riverslea, Homewood Sanitarium, Guelph, Ontario

[Some readers asked how I came to work at Homewood Sanitarium and why I left. Here are the answers.]

The end of the university year catapulted toward me. Like most frosh, I had begun my summer job search months earlier—so far, without success. Bob, a fellow psychology major, asked if I might like to work at Homewood. His aunt was the personnel director there; he could put in a good word for me. Although I grew up in Galt, a short drive from the sanitarium, I had never heard of the place. I did some research, included Bob’s name in my cover letter, secured an interview with the aunt, and began work as a nurses’ assistant the first week of May.

In 1967, student nurses were required to spend some of their practical hours in institutions for the mentally ill. That first summer, several informed me that, compared with other psychiatric hospitals in Ontario, Homewood was paradise. A recent letter from my ninety-year-old pen pal confirmed their observations. Pat wrote:

As a student nurse (1949-52) at Victoria Hospital in London Ontario, I spent three months at the old London Psychiatric Hospital. It was a big old grey building up a long walk from Dundas Street. Now gone—thankfully.

One ward I worked on—a women’s ward—had bare pine floors. No finish. Cracks between the boards. One day the patients were fed rotten food. “You know what” [gushed] from them all over the floor and between the cracks. My job—just to keep mopping up the mess.

The beds in the “bed-room” were jammed up close together—just a small cabinet separating them. Windows cracked and broken. COLD!

Another women’s ward. Our job at 7 PM was to put night clothes on the patients and they were then placed in a locked room—to mill around until bedtime.

And yes, I had to hold down people receiving electric shock treatment.

In the 50’s there was a movie called “The Snake Pit” with Olivia de Havilland. It was a pretty true picture of a psychiatric hospital.

The Snake Pit debuted in 1948. A similar themed movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, premiered in 1975. A few of its scenes resonated with some of my experiences at Homewood, but moreso with the tales related by the student nurses.

In spite of the fact that Homewood’s treatments were more advanced and more curative than other asylums, no institution, no matter how prestigious, no matter how forward-thinking its programs, is free from problems. For me, one of those problems related to staff. Mrs Woodward was an older head nurse who worked solely on B2. I had befriended one of short-term patients on that ward. Sandy was a vet student at the university of Guelph. She developed paralysis in both legs and had to wear braces. As a result, the university required her to abandon the large animal program in favour of small animal doctoring. Devastated by the loss of her dream, Sandy sank into a deep depression and was admitted to Homewood. After a few weeks of therapy, Sandy’s mental health improved. She looked forward to returning to her studies. One afternoon, I stopped short in the doorway of Sandy’s room. Mrs Woodward was inside, alone with Sandy. Nurse W accused Sandy of faking her paralysis. Christ-like, she ordered her to remove the braces and walk! Sandy, frightened, obeyed the order. Stumbled a few feet. Fell to the floor in tears. As Mrs Woodward strode from the room, she glared at me…a smug and satisfied.

Two interns from Ireland did their psychiatric practicum at Homewood. In a lunch-time conversation, one of them mentioned how dissimilar staff assignments in their homeland were compared with Canada. Nurses rotated jobs. They worked on the wards for three months, then were assigned other duties for three months. Over time, they said, if someone worked for long periods with the mentally ill, one’s own sanity could be jeopardized. Is that what happened to Mrs Woodward? No wonder that, after my four months each summer, I was eager to leave Homewood and return to academia.

The first two months of my fourth, and final, summer began as usual with shifts on B 2, 3 and 4. Although I had graduated in June, I chose to take an additional university course to up my chances of securing a teaching post. I requested certain shifts and successfully juggled nursing and coursework. That was, until I was posted to the night shift at Riverslea.

Riverslea stood apart from the other mansions that comprised the Homewood complex. A majestic Edwardian edifice, it sat at the bottom of the hill alongside the Speed River. Built in 1848 by James Goldie for his wife and their eight children, it was later bought by Homewood.

I had never been inside the building and heard nothing of its residents except that they were, in some way, “privileged.” For my first, and only, night shift, I arrived at 10:30 PM, parked close to the grand house and proceeded inside. The change-of-shifts meeting took place in the library. What magnificence! A grand room lined with dark wood shelves heavy with tomes. Damask drapes. Sumptuous sofas. And a plush carpet underfoot. One of the privileges that the patients enjoyed was to live in such luxury.

The nurse-supervisor, an attractive, youngish woman, and I were the only overnight staff. Riverslea housed about a dozen patients. All had retired an hour earlier. The evening report included nothing of note. There was little to do except to be there if someone required help. A soon as the afternoon staff left, pretty-nurse announced, “I am going to sleep on one of the sofas. Wake me up six.” Although taken aback, I complied. She was in charge. She could do what she wanted. But, how unfair. Not only did she get to sleep, she would be paid three times my night’s salary to do it.

For a time I wandered. Although soft yellow light bathed the wide corridors, eerie shadows crept up the walls behind over-stuffed settees and Tiffany-styled lamps on mahogany tables. Heavy draperies trapped the gloom. Unpleasant memories of Miss Havisham’s house arose. No cobwebs and ruined wedding feast, but the residents at Riverslea were patients in a mental hospital.

I wished I were a coffee drinker. How I relished the fragrance of that brew. Too bad that my ingesting it caused nausea and tremors. The strong tea I drank had no effect on my alertness. The only other time I had stayed up all night, a young man and I had sat on a rock and watched the sun rise over Lake Muskoka. It’s easier to stay awake with a friend by your side.

At five AM, I vomited. At six AM I awoke sleeping beauty. At eight AM I attended an unsuccessful job interview. A ten AM I fell asleep in a lecture hall.

The following day, I asked Bob’s aunt if I might be exempted from night shifts. “Not possible,” she said. I resigned my position.

**********

In the twelfth grade I worked part-time serving tables in the dining room of a respectable local hotel. The hostess, Miss Priscilla Heyboer, an elderly British woman, insisted that every detail of proper service be observed. Serve from the left; take away from the right. Cutlery one inch from the edge of the table. Linen serviettes folded in such a way that they unfurled swan-like when a diner pick one up by its near corner. We were forbidden to sit down in our white uniforms because, “No one wants to look at a creased bum.” I bought two front-buttoned uniforms. At break times, I opened the bottom half of the closures and sat on a tall stool. Once, two diners at a small table ordered a pot of tea with their meal. I set the pot as near as possible to its “ideal” place. Miss Heyboer emerged from the shadows, gave me a “You-know-better-than-that” smile and gave the couple an apologetic “She’s-new-here” smile, then shifted the teapot one inch to the left.

Over the years, when I needed to make decent money fast, I returned to serving. With the precise training I had, it was easy to find work. I was over-qualified for most of the places where I applied, but that didn’t bother the owners. When I left Homewood in July, Bobby, of Bobby’s Diner, hired me on the spot—even when I told him I couldn’t come in until noon. The place closed at eight. I never worked another night shift.

Early in the Pandemic Beauty Parlours Closed but Hair Continued to Grow

I think that the most important thing a woman can have- next to talent, of course- is her hairdresser.” – Joan Crawford

Me in late July with my newly- cut very short hair

I wear my hair short. Really short. I book haircuts six months in advance—one every five weeks. Melanie, my stylist, seldom has a cancellation. That was, until March 2020 when a pandemic shut down her place of business.

Human heads sport about 100,000 hairs. Fifty to two hundred of those are shed every day. Thankfully, for most of our lives, the lost ones get replaced. A few years ago, some of my replacement hairs began behaving in unexpected and irksome ways. For example, when my head is left unshorn, white tufts encircle my ears. I resemble a hoary clown, blonde hair now white but still fuzzy. I soak the frizz with water or gel. Paste it to my cheeks. That works—for a while. Then a single strand springs up and out and bends forward or backward. Then another and another. After I rediscovered some silver barrettes in a old cosmetic case, I smoothed back the disobedient hair then clipped it to my scalp. In time it escaped even those metal prisons.

There is a more than an image problem with my longer hair. I’m allergic to it. When my bangs lengthen and cover my brow, they irritate my eyes. Dry, red, itchy lids result. So, I wet and gel and clip them back as well.

Outdoors is easier. Walking or gardening, I wear a hat. I tuck most of the overgrown frizz under a large wool toque or a lavender brimmed sunbonnet. I wondered if I couldn’t wear a head-covering indoors—a turban, a towel, a nightcap? A ridiculous notion. In a pandemic, no one can drop in anyway!

As I focused on my longer-hair problem, I thought, “How silly I am! What a trivial concern mine is in such a time!” But, is it trivial?

Long ago I dreamt that, against my will, someone cut my hair. In past dreams, I always had long hair. The dream-me cried angry tears. I remembered that when Delilah had a servant cut Samson’s long locks, she deprived him of his strength. I wondered, “What inner energy is robbing me of my vitality?” I must have figured it out as I haven’t had such a dream in decades. How do people unfamiliar with the Bible interpret certain dreams? Perhaps our unconscious sends each of us symbols it knows we will understand even if we are not immediately aware of their meaning.

In late June, I got a hair appointment. I asked Melanie just to trim my four-months “long” hair. I thought I would like it. The next time I saw her, I said, “Cut it off!” Melanie smiled. She said that I was a little person and I needed “little” hair. But, like me, Melanie soars to a height of just over five feet. And, her hair grazes her shoulders. However, its obsidian shagginess, her flowing dark robes, her unique metal necklaces, and funky footwear are the antithesis of my fluffy white locks, bluejeans, unadorned neck, and Birkenstocks—worn with socks. I guess that some people, no matter their stature, can carry off the long-hair look.

Research informed me that historically, hair has always been important to women. A bad hair day can adversely affect a woman’s self-worth. I wasn’t unique in my concern regarding the fuzzy clown-look.

In September 2014, Lucinda Ellery, a hair specialist, wrote:

Hair and beauty is a multi-billion-dollar industry…the average woman spends approximately $50,000 on her hair over her lifetime and almost two hours a week washing and styling her hair. This is not just because many of us believe that appearances are important, but also because our hair represents our personality, thoughts and beliefs. For centuries, women have been able to play different roles by changing different hairstyles, and from their stories, we can see that hair contributes greatly to women’s self-esteem, actions and motive.

The pandemic rages on. However, hand sanitation and masks make regular haircuts possible once again. My morale is boosted each time I visit Melanie in her salon. A not-so-small thing in a difficult time.

Katie’s Wisdom: Look Not at the Problems, but at the Potential

The potential possibilities of any child are the most intriguing and stimulating in all creation.”  

Ray L. Wilbur, third president of Stanford University

Although I graduated from university and then teachers’ college, I became a good educator only after I had spent two years working with mentally handicapped children. They are not called that today. It’s politically incorrect. Even so, my diploma says that I am certified to teach “Preschool Education for the Mentally Retarded.” It is a wonder that the certificates were not recalled when the language changed. Then recalled again.

Katie supervised the nursery program at Sun Parlour School. Her enthusiasm and knowledge inspired everyone who knew her. When Katie’s oldest boy was a few months old, Katie worried about his lassitude. Healthcare professionals told her not to fret–all children matured at their own rate. A second son soon followed. Katie noticed that he too seemed “slow.” She suspected that her sons’ lethargy related to the chloroformed cotton held to her face during their births. In both cases, the nurses said that the baby was coming too fast. They had to slow down the process. During the birth of her third son, Katie deflected the hand holding the “slowing-down” cloth. The vagina spat out the child. Much later, Katie learned that, because they had spent too long in the birth canal, the older boys had suffered a lack of oxygen to their brains that resulted in mental retardation. The third, non-chloroformed son graduated in veterinarian medicine.

Rather than lament her situation, Katie resolved to see the highest potential in every child. She carried that positive approach to work every day.

Four Foster Children

James

Autistic James had a sixth toe on each foot. In his chubby five years he had never walked. We asked his foster mother how James spent his days. With a small, almost embarrassed, smile, she informed us that he lay on the floor and gnawed on the tires of a tricycle, contented as a cud-chewing cow.

Katie knew not only that James could walk, but that he wanted to walk. We placed two chairs facing each other about six feet apart. Katie sat on one, I on the other. Katie held James upright between her knees and pointed him in my direction. Then, still holding his hips, she gave a little shove. I reached forward, grabbed his hands, guided him to me, took him onto my lap, then jiggled him up and down and up and down and up and down and told him what a terrific job he had done. Although James never laughed, his eyes grew bright and nearly met mine. Over and over we played the “go get teacher” game. In time, James walked, unassisted, the entire two meters.

A few days later, James’ foster mother raged into the schoolroom. Fury shook her voice. “Why did you teach him to walk?” How much simpler it had been when James lay on the floor biting tricycle tires. His caretaker valued easily earned government money more than a child’s independence and self-worth.

Colin

Colin’s too-small sneakers had holes in their bottoms. In winter Colin went bootless. Katie asked his custodian to provide him with size-appropriate, intact footwear suited to the Canadian climate. His foster parent claimed there was not enough money. Katie’s influence stretched far into the school’s community. Soon, Colin had both shoes and boots—the proper size and without holes. We kept them at the school. Had he gone home with them, a different child would have profited.

Billy

Although it may be wrong for teachers to have pets, Billy was everyone’s favourite. Happy, healthy, huggable Billy, a down’s syndrome child. Each day his foster mom sent him to school with a supply of freshly-laundered bibs to catch the perpetual drool that escaped his mouth. Down’s kids have trouble with tongue-pointing. To strengthen the muscles, and thus improve his speech, Katie devised a game for Billy. Billy and I sat close to each other on tiny facing chairs. I held a bright lollipop in front of me. Billy reached out his tongue and tried to lick it. Many times when his tongue refused to stretch far enough, I moved the candy closer to reward his heroic efforts.

Government officials decided that Billy had been too long with one family. He was becoming attached. When the authorities told his foster parents that Billy was being moved, they filed for his adoption.

Cathy

Cathy may have been six, but looked four. Because her body absorbed nutrients poorly, she was forever hungry. One day in the playground, I watched as Cathy reached through the chain-link fence, clutched some green tomatoes, dragged them out, then smashed several into her mouth. Seeds and juice smeared her face. Her euphoric smile refused to fade at my reprimand.

One afternoon, Katie made one of her unannounced visits to Cathy’s home. The deplorable condition of both the premises and the other foster children prompted Katie to call children’s services. Representatives from that authority duly paid their own visit. Reported that everything was “fine.” Nothing of concern. “Did you notify them of your coming?” Katie inquired.

“Of course we did.”

The situation reminded me of a lazy high school teacher who sat at his desk reading stock market reports while the class did assigned work. One day, the principal sat in at the back of the room for a prearranged inspection. As he left the room, a student commented, “Sir, that was amazing! Why don’t you teach like that all the time?”

Two weeks into the summer vacation, Katie called me with news of Cathy. One morning, another youngster in the household came down the stairs and told her foster mom that Cathy was dead. The mother rebuked her. The child insisted. The mother relented and went to investigate. On the floor beside the bed, lay Cathy’s corpse. No charges were laid. The family continued to foster children.

*************

I chose not to return to Sun Parlour School that fall. My first child was two months old. I wanted to stay home and enjoy him longer. But, it was more than that. Just like my time working in the sanitarium came to an end, I knew that the emotional toll of “special” education was too great for my sensitive nature. A few years later, I went back to teaching teenagers. This time I took with me the invaluable tools that Katie had given me:

  • See potential not problems
  • Set each task just a little higher that a child’s present learning—create a challenge, not frustration
  • Praise the smallest accomplishment—with honesty and enthusiasm
  • Remember, always, that every child wants to be successful

Over the next twenty-nine years of my teaching career, I continued to hone those abilities. Further, even though I acquired other useful insights and skills, I still view Katie as my greatest inspiration.

Postscript

Peter

I was teaching a ninth grade remedial English class. Reading levels ranged from grades two to six. The lesson: “How to Write a Five Sentence Paragraph.” First, list three things that you like about yourself and give support for each. Some of the students had a tough time with that. I furnished examples: I have a good sense of humor—I can make my family laugh. I like the way I dress—I have a unique fashion sense. I am a good friend—I am always there for my pals. It is easy after that—an opening sentence to introduce the topic, three supporting sentences with examples and a concluding sentence.

I toured the room. Seventeen pupils scribbled. One sat sullen. Stared at a blank page. I took the chair beside Peter’s. “What do you like about yourself?” I whispered.

“Nothing.”

“I’ll tell you what I like about you. Are you okay with that?”

A small nod.

“I like your mischievous grin. It suggests that there is a fun-loving part of you. Also, I notice that you always stand up for your friends. I saw that in the hall today when you stepped in to protect little Martin. Third, you are handsome.”

Peter wrote down the first two suggestions but balked at the last. Embarrassed. “I can’t say that!”

“Well, I think you’re good-looking. But, you could say instead, I like that I am strong, or fit, or healthy.” Peter wrote his five-sentence paragraph. I wondered if it was the first time an adult had praised him.

Thank you Katie for teaching me to believe in every child.

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

_______________________________________________________________

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.

*******************

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.