Blog Feed

Smiling–A Panacea for a Pandemic

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. — Thich Nhat Hanh

Lauren and I


I disliked the book from its first line:

“This doesn’t feel right, patron.” Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.

In spite of my initial response, I read ninety-nine pages. But, no more! I love the author, Louise Penny. I mostly enjoyed the first sixteen novels in the Inspector Gamache series. However, this one, I will not finish. As the saying goes, “Life is too short to drink cheap wine.” Likewise, life is too short to read bleak novels.

Pandemics can bruise our spirit, darken our outlook, wear us down. During this difficult time, it is important to take care of our psychological well-being. Read books that inspire, listen to music that soothes, walk in nature, associate with optimistic people and take time every day to smile and express gratitude. A positive attitude protects us, uplifts us, allows us to be our best possible selves.

My friend’s husband, Shawn exemplified positivity. While still a teenager, Shawn was diagnosed with dystonia. The Mayo Clinic website describes the disease as an incurable movement disorder in which muscles contract involuntarily causing repetitive or twisting movements.

I met Lauren, Shawn’s wife, at a local arts centre. We were both in our forties and Shawn six years older. Lauren and I are soulmates, kindred spirits, or whatever other term describes the heart-to-heart connection between two people. When Lauren introduced me to her husband of almost thirty years, his eyes mesmerized me. Large, bright, blue. His smile crinkled his entire face. When I asked Shawn, how he was doing, he replied, “Tickety-boo”. The thick padded neck brace disappeared. I saw only the joyful man in the easy chair. The intense pain, the debilitation, the surgeries, the injections, none of these were evident in Shawn’s shining eyes, lilting voice, and radiant visage.

I visited Shawn in the hospital a few days before his death. His body contorted, his face twisted, the morphine no longer sufficient to ease the pain, he smiled up at me and assured me he was “Tickety-boo.”

At Shawn’s celebration of life, Lauren gave to each attendee, a small, white, concrete bird. For eight years that symbol of Shawn’s luminous spirit has rested in my garden. It never fails to make me smile and remember that remarkable man.

Smiling makes us healthier. Frequent, unabashed smiling has been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve the immune system, and may even reduce the risk of chronic disease.

Melissa Norton, founder of Four Wellness Co.

My niece

My niece also exemplifies a keen enjoyment of living despite an incurable disease. Alison has a rare type of blood cancer that causes severe pain in all of her nerve endings. On “bad” days, she lies immobile on the living room couch. The smallest movement sends shock waves through her body. On “better” days, she accomplishes small tasks such as cleaning the bathroom sink, or the toilet, or the tub. On “good” days she cooks, shops or even attends a gentle yoga class. Chemotherapy lessens, but does not eliminate, the discomfort. Before her illness, Alison and her husband led active lives. Among other pastimes, they biked, kayaked, and hiked. Even though Alison can no longer do those things, she makes certain to rest during the week so that on designated weekends, she can travel with her husband to one of their favourite trails or rivers. Alex heads off alone on an adventure; Alison drives and meets him at his destination. Those are her “best” days.

When I asked Alison how she keeps such a positive outlook, she said, “With humour and with God.”

I thought about Lauren’s tribute to Shawn, where she wrote that the best part of their relationship was the laughter. I recalled Ruth, a wise yoga teacher, explaining the benefits of smiling. How the muscles activated send a message to the brain to release feel-happy hormones. Ruth said that if you simply could not smile, put a pencil between your teeth. The same muscles respond, the brain is tricked, stress is reduced and positive feelings ensue. I shared that advice with Alison. Perhaps she can use it on the bad days.

Ruth, the wise yoga teacher

Living through a pandemic is not the same as living with an incurable disease. The pandemic will probably become endemic; most of us will resume our previous lives. But, what Shawn and Alison taught me was that if they were able to stay positive and experience joy in their lives, in spite of intense suffering, than I, who am blessed with good health, can certainly do the same.

So, smile for yourself, share your smile with others and make today’s world a healthier, happier place.

The Defective Dog–A Love Story Part II

Rory Arrives In Prince Edward Island

Rory newly-arrived September 2014

I had believed that when we made the two-hour trip to the tiny village in New Brunswick to meet Rory, that we would be bringing him home with us. Not so. Jean, the breeder, would deliver him at her convenience. As it turned out, her convenience was ten weeks later.

In mid-September, 2014, Jean and her friend pulled into our driveway. When Jean released Rory from his travelling cage, he danced in circles, thrilled to be free. An hour later, our property having passed inspection, I handed a cheque to Jean to seal the transaction. The friend took the steering wheel. Jean wept in the passenger’s seat. After the death of her daughter, Rory had became the focus of her life and of her love. Parting with him renewed her terrible loss. I promised to keep in touch with photos and updates—a small consolation in the face of such emotional devastation.

The first item on my agenda was a new name for Rory. In the eleven years we had Sophie, Gilles consistently called her Pitou. In Quebec, Pitou means “little one” or “puppy.” Calling a dog “Pitou” is the equivalent of naming a cat “Kitty.” However, to avoid confusing our new family member, he would have to be Pitou. Within days, Rory answered to his new name, especially if food were involved.

I signed us up for obedience lessons and bought the necessary paraphernalia—clicker, waist pouch, treats, and a special chest harness. For six weeks Pitou and I learned the basics of good behaviour. Pitou soon knew how to “Lie down”, “Stay”, “Heel”, and go “On-by.” But “Sit?” Never! When I communicated the problem to Jean, she said, “Of course he won’t sit. Show dogs are punished if they sit.” So, Pitou lies down when asked. He never learned to shake a paw—too difficult from a prone position.

The Graduate Doesn’t Look Impressed

The training was food-oriented: click—treat, click—treat, click—treat. About half-way through the sessions, Pitou developed itchy black scabs on his torso. Trial and error determined that one-ingredient treats produced the fewest symptoms.

Over the next five years, the scabs worsened. On a veterinarian’s advice, we experimented with various foods, shampoos, creams and ointments. Changes in diet produced bowel irritations. On many winter nights I stood under the cold stars waiting for Pitou to expel pudding-like poo.

Meditation time with Pitou

By January 2019, the problem had become extreme. Most of Pitou’s skin had turned black. Further, this non-shedding dog lost most of his hair. His ears were often infected. I was frustrated, angry and exhausted from worry and lack of sleep. The constant scratching made me cry. I was a bad dog owner. I couldn’t alleviate Pitou’s suffering. I requested that my vet refer Pitou to the dermatologist at the Atlantic Veterinary College. There, three biopsies uncovered an auto-immune disorder. Pitou’s immune system attacks his sebaceous glands. The doctor prescribed a medication to suppress, but not cure, the disease.

Throughout the years of his ordeal, Pitou never ceased to be my “best friend.” In spite of his discomfort, he cheerfully accompanied me on walks, shadowed me from room to room in the house, and snuggled against my side while I read or watched a favourite NetFlix program—lowering my blood pressure, softening my heart.

Each month I pay almost $400 for Pitou’s medications and special food. Grooming, vet visits, annual shots, and dental care are extra. How grateful I am that I can afford these expenses. As I said earlier, unconditional love has no price tag.

The spring after Pitou’s arrival, I emailed Jean her regular update. Her husband responded. Jean had passed away suddenly. I don’t believe in coincidence. I do believe in synchronicity—”events that appear meaningfully related but do not seem to be causally connected.” Pitou and I were meant to find each other so that Jean could rest undisturbed knowing that her favourite terrier was well-cared for and deeply, deeply loved.

Pitou, October 2021

Postscript

If you type “scientific benefits of dogs” into a search engine, a thousand or more lists pop up, each with five to one hundred and two entries. Below are the ten advantages of dog ownership that Kaitlyn Arford compiled for the American Kennel Club in October of 2020. For the full version go to

10 Science-Based Benefits of Having a Dog

1. Dogs make us feel less alone.

2. Dogs are good for your heart.

3. Dogs help you stop stressing out.

4. Dogs help us cope with crisis

5. Dogs encourage you to move.

6. Dogs make you more attractive—even virtually.

7. Dogs make us more social.

8. Dogs are so adorable they make us love them

9. Dogs make us happier

10. Dogs help seniors with cognitive function and social interaction

The Defective Dog–A Love Story

Part I

Dogs come into our lives to teach us about love, they depart to teach us about loss. A new dog never replaces an old dog. It merely expands the heart……… Author Unknown

Rory–newly arrived, September 2014

I became suspicious when the breeder delivered Rory to us accompanied by a bottle of medicine. “He has an eye infection,” Jean said. “Just put in a couple drops twice a day for a while.” Seven years, and many thousands of dollars later, the pooch still gets eye medication every day, as well as another more costly preparation for a different incurable health problem. Nonetheless, I have no regrets. The unimagined joy of the little dog’s affection has no price tag.

Let me back up to 2002—the year I retired. Less than a month after being home alone, I decided I wanted a live-in friend—a furry, four-legged one. My husband, who never grew up with pets, vetoed the idea. However, I won the argument by reminding him of my age seniority and the fact that he would be employed for at least another ten years. He would have little contact with whatever creature I acquired.

I already had Alexia-the-Siamese-cat. However, she refused to accompany me on walks, play fetch, or cuddle with me on the couch. A dog would be more compliant. But, not a puppy! Over the past twenty years, I had trained three puppies. This time, the goal was an older dog, well-acquainted with the basics of polite behaviour. The search produced Sophie, a three-year old Australian Terrier—gentle, intelligent, loving and always ready for an hour of exercise. For eleven years, walks with Sophie provided some of the happiest moments of my day. Then, a fall down a flight of stairs resulted in brain damage and partial paralysis. The vet offered no option except euthanasia.

In the aftermath of Sophie’s death, my husband said, “No more dogs!” I said, “I’ll wait one year.”

Before I met my husband, I made a list of the characteristics I desired in an “ideal” mate. With one failed marriage and a few disastrous liaisons to my dis-credit, I thought I would take a more rational approach this time. Gilles met most of the criteria I’d enumerated. After twenty-two years together, I have discovered a few more assets that I hadn’t anticipated as well as a few flaws. I am certain the same discoveries apply to his assessment of me. This month I turn seventy-four. I am unlikely to need another, “Potential Partner” list. However, if I did, the topmost entry would be, “Must love having a dog!” It sounds simple; but, there is so much more to the statement than its simplicity suggests. A person who loves dogs must be patient, kind, compassionate, spontaneous, sociable, financially stable, fond of exercise, love the outdoors, and live in the moment. Perhaps just that one entry would suffice.

Ten months passed. I wanted a dog. Gilles had retired by this time but we spent little time together. Although we both take daily walks, Gilles’ is a race to the finish line, out and back at a startled-gazelle pace. As for me, I meander, stop to chat with neighbours or strangers, cloud-gaze, echo the chatter of birds, breathe in the scent of ocean air, veer off the road onto red clay lanes or grassy paths. I walk not to reach a destination, but to savour the adventure. Walking with a dog often brings me closer to the moment. Dogs sniff every enticing doggy or dead-animal smell. They stop to pee a dozen times. Once, because of such behaviour, I spotted three partridges roosting on a low tree branch. Another time the pause allowed me a glimpse of a brood of bright pheasants.

Oh, but Gilles and my approach to walking is not our only difference. In separate rooms, we each have our own television because we enjoy different programs. I garden; he plays computer games. I enjoy eating out; he prefers his own cooking. We both read. Once again, different genres in our separate rooms. I prefer a certain amount of socialization; Gilles prefers his own company.

I needed a dog. I needed a dog for all the same reasons I got Sophie—a companion—to walk with, play with, cuddle with.

Without success, I tried the rescue route. I read dog magazines, talked to dog owners, and went to a local dog show. It was the last that brought success. There I found the perfect breed. A Wizard of Oz Toto dog! A Cairn Terrier. The dog show breeder had no “older” dogs for adoption. She referred me to a breeder in Nova Scotia. He put me in touch with a breeder in New Brunswick. Six months later, Rory arrived.

To be continued…

Why Wait for the 0’s and 5’s to Celebrate? Every Birthday Can Be a Festival

Today is my 74th birthday. Upon rising, one of my first thoughts was, “Next year I’ll turn 75. I will have to plan something special.” The next thought was, “Why?” Children’s birthdays are celebrated every year. Just look at the card racks. “Happy Birthday One Year Old,” Two, Three, Four, Five and all the way up to Ten. Albeit, the higher you go, the fewer cards there are. What happens then? Well, there are 20’s 30’s 40’s 50’s and 60’s greeting cards. More after that, the 5’s get included…65, 75, 85 and then 90. I can’t recall seeing a 95 one—perhaps not enough are sold to make their manufacture worthwhile.

For my Mom’s 95th my sister hosted a family gathering. A smaller group met for her 96th. The following year, because most of our small family was widely dispersed, there was no celebration at all. I know Mom was disappointed. She died two weeks before her 98th birthday. I suspect her passing then was intentional. Impossible to be disappointed if you’re not here.

Mom’s 95th Birthday

As for me, on my 65th, I invited five women friends, including my daughter, to my house for brunch and a session with a spiritual healer. Kerrilynn is a gifted intuitive. She “saw” deceased loved ones and communicated with them to bring comfort to those left behind. I have no memory of my “reading”, but I do recall that Kerrilynn had a great deal to say to the others present.

My 65th Birthday

That was the last time I honoured a birthday with a group of friends.

Here’s what I have done today:

a) Luxuriated in a hot Epsom salts bath perfumed with jasmine essential oil. I always let the fragrance choose me. Without looking at the labels of my identical blue bottles, I uncap and sniff each one, accepting or rejecting the scent. Sometimes only one says, “Yes!” If there are two of three contenders, I repeat the sniffing exercise until the best one emerges. Then, I look up the qualities of the oil in my aromatherapy handbook.

A few of my aromatherapy oils

Here’s a small part of what I read about jasmine:

In India the jasmine plant is called “queen of the night” or “moonshine in the garden.”

The fragrance penetrates and diminishes fear. No other essential oil is quite as capable of changing our mood so intensely. Jasmine oil does not simply lighten our mood, it brings euphoria to darkness. Jasmine is helpful for recapturing self-confidence and defeating pessimism.

No matter how often I allow an oil to choose me, I am amazed by the appropriateness of the fragrance. I had been feeling low for a while. Little energy to do anything but necessary tasks. Creative projects held no appeal. During my twenty-minute soak, ideas tumbled out. I’m not a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing. It confuses me. However, a form of that technique seemed appropriate here. I wanted to put down, (mostly) unedited, thoughts about my birthday. The task is proving difficult. Most of my writing is edited at least half a dozen times. I don’t know how much of this will stay when I’m done…but the doing is fun.

Speaking of blogs, according to Wikipedia,

A blog is a discussion or informational website published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries. Posts are typically displayed in reverse chronological order, so that the most recent post appears first, at the top of the web page.

Only one or two of my thirty or so posts have been diary-like. I guess I will have to add this one to that list.

b) Walked with my dog in warm October sunshine.

I love having been born in the fall. As Anne Shirley said, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” Of course, there are Octobers everywhere. But I know what Lucy Maude Montgomery meant—a land rife with sugar maples that exchange their summer-green gowns for vibrant orange and red and yellow canopies that dance in the autumn sun.

Strathgartney Provincial Park, Prince Edward Island, Canada

My walking companion
Pitou

c) Vacuumed the whole house.

d) Stripped my bed and remade it with freshly laundered, line-dried linens.

e) Manicured my fingernails.

f) Written this blog.

All this before noon! Furthermore, all were activities that I enjoy. Well, vacuuming is not that great. But, I do have an amazing stick vac that does a thorough and time-efficient job.

I realize that I have already celebrated my birthday in hundreds of happy moments. And just think, there are many hours left in this day to fill with joy. Why does anyone need a “big” event for a birthday to be special?

Me on my 75th birthday enjoying snow crab for lunch

PS I may still plan something “big” for my 75th. Or, I may not.

Alexia the Tortie Point Siamese

Alexia

When Rowan and I entered the house, the look on my husband’s face said it all, “What have you done? No Cats!”

The look on my young daughter’s face said more, “I love her. I love her. I love her.”

So, it was settled. The cat stayed.

Over the twenty years of our marriage Carl and I had nurtured two dogs, three children, a few guinea pigs, three or more rabbits, lots of gerbils and hamsters, one canary and several fish. What was one small feline?

I had wanted a cat for some time. Kevin, the owner of our favourite pet store, knew this. However, the right one proved illusive. Then, one day when Rowan and I entered his shop to buy cedar chips for a rodent cage, Kevin announced, “I have your cat.” I hurried to the enclosure he indicated. Then, stopped short. In it were five Siamese kittens. “But I don’t want a Siamese. They’re noisy and needy and devious. Nasty little beasts.” Why I thought that, I don’t know. Hearsay, I suppose. I’d never actually met a Siamese cat.

Kevin said, “It’s the large one.”

The large one was perhaps four months old. Kevin had kept her for a personal pet but his circumstances changed and he had to let her go. He believed that our family would be her perfect new home. “Pick her up,” he said.

I reached inside the large wire pen and retrieved the kitten from the shelf on which she sat. She lay on her back in my arms. Her intense blue stare met mine. To my surprise, she stayed like that—cradled, contented. When she began to purr, I was sold. Or rather, the cat was sold. To me.

Algie and Cher, the two miniature Schnauzers that had been in the family for a decade, paid no heed to this newest addition. Alexia, however, attempted to intimidate the canine pair. She sprawled along back of the sofa, then waited for one of the dogs to pass beneath her. Swoop! Down went a long foreleg to swipe at the head of the trespasser. Back then, it was usual for domestic cats to have their front paws declawed. So, Alexia’s flared talon-less toes held no threat. The dog paused only long enough to look up in disgust.

On warm days, our new neighbour, an elegant spinster, strolled down the sidewalk in front of our house. On a bejewelled leash, her Siamese cat sauntered beside her. Rowan, inspired by the spectacle, requested a harness for Alexia. She wanted to enter her into the children’s pets category at the county fair. We duly purchased the apparatus; but, as soon as the contraption was attached to the cat, she lay down, belly to floor, legs splayed and refused to budge. “The indignity! Never will I behave like that pampered furball!” Rowan had to carry Alexia to the judges’ table where the recalcitrant cat, much to her disdain, was thoroughly examined, then later declared, “Best in Show.” The golden trophy was bigger than the animal. Rowan’s pride outshone both pet and prize.

Along the windowless wall in our sunroom, stretched eight feet of conjoined white cabinets. Cupboards and drawers lined the bottom half, open glass shelves the upper part. The unit rose to more than six feet in height. Alexia’s favourite sofa, the one where she ambushed the schnauzers, sat at right angles to the display unit. Alexia sometimes rested in one of the empty glass compartments. More often, with one powerful leap she would soar from sofa back to cabinet top. There she would roost, mistress of all she surveyed.

Alexia in Display Unit

A cat can navigate the length of a mantle cluttered with candle sticks, Christmas cards, pine cones, and innumerable miniature relics, without displacing a single thing. In spite of this particular ability of felines, the top of our white cabinet was usually unadorned. One Christmas however, as a precaution against active dogs and children, I decided to place the nativity creche high, high, high. The top of the display case felt ideal. The creche was a rustic affair that consisted of a star-topped wooden stable with crudely carved people and animals. To supplement the latter, the children recruited some creatures from their Fisher-Price Farm. Alexia soon noticed the encroachment into her space, performed her flying cat feat and landed on all fours beside the intruders. Her investigation was brief. Swat! Joseph flew to the floor. Swat! Mary met the same demise. Swat! Swat! Swat! Swat! Swat! Out went the three wise men, shepherds, sheep, dogs and pigs, yes, we included pigs. One final “Swat!” and down came baby Jesus manger and all. Alexia slid inside the now vacated stable, lay down on the few remaining pieces of straw and peered out over her realm. Her imperious expression declared that I need not replace the former Yuletide inhabitants.

Alexia lived a glorious eighteen years. She survived the acquisition of other dogs and rabbits, a divorce, seven moves, short periods of temporary residences, and in her very old age, Sophie.

One month after I retired, I adopted Sophie, a three-year-old Australian terrier. In spite of her grand age, Alexia still presided over the castle. She lay at the top of the stairs that led to the upper bedrooms and guarded the landing. Sophie refused to pass her. Perhaps the dog didn’t realize that the cat’s paws were harmless or maybe she chose to defer to the matriarch. Whatever the reason, for the next few years, whenever I climbed the stairs, I had to pick Sophie up and carry her past the smug sentinel.

Alexia died quietly—lying on her back, cradled in my arms, purring softly.

A teen-aged Rowan with Sophie and Alexia

A note to my readers:

As I did last year, I won’t be posting over the summer. I will still be reading and writing though. Until September, savour the moments and be kind to each other.

Love,

Prairie

Alexia and a younger me

Algernon and Cherish Me

The Miniature Schnauzers

Algernon and Cherish Me

There is comfort for dogs in small spaces. Yet, there are other reasons for this behavior. The most common reason is fear. Your dog may be fearful of the area they are in because of loud noises, thunderstorms, strangers, abuse, or experiences in the past that bring about fear.

Erika Seidel

The two small dogs cowered in the far corner of the large kennel. I knelt down and cooed gentle words of encouragement. “Come little ones. Would you like to have your ears scratched? Or maybe your chest rubbed? It’s okay. No one is going to hurt you.” The girl shifted a little away from her brother. She trembled forward, belly to floor. Even so, her tail wagged a few tentative times. She stopped opposite me, behind the barrier, still quivering but willing to risk whatever fate awaited her.

The breeder, Beth, was devastated. For the first time in her career, a dog that she had placed with a family had been returned. And not just one dog. Two. A couple bought the pair as showpieces. Purebred miniature schnauzers. One salt and pepper. One black and silver. But, they didn’t have time for pets, especially eight week old puppies. Both worked. Both had busy social lives. All day, and often in the evenings, Sonny and Cher were kept separated in two small kennels. Later they were punished for behaving as all young dogs do.

It was the black and silver dog, Cherish Me, that approached us. We had no intention of owning two dogs. We had spent a long time researching dog breeds, had decided on size, weight, and personality. We calculated the costs: food, grooming, medications, veterinarian visits, unexpected emergencies. Our decision: one dog, twenty pounds or less, non-shedding, always ready for a walk. We attended a dog show to check out the three breeds that we had settled on. We met Beth there and learned that she had puppies that would soon be old enough to be adopted. Thus, Algernon joined our family.

A month or so after the adoption, we stopped to visit Beth on our way north for a vacation. It was during that visit that we met the mistreated puppies. Before we left, we had agreed to retrieve Cherish Me on our return trip.

We had changed Algernon’s kennel name because we liked the fact that Algernon means a “moustached man.” Further, the dandy by that name in The Importance of Being Earnest always makes me smile. We never re-named Cherish Me. The moniker suited her perfectly. Cher asked for nothing except to be loved.

When we brought our first child home from the hospital, I laid the infant on a receiving blanket in the middle of the living room rug. Then, my husband and I invited Algie and Cher to come and meet their new brother. They sniffed and licked and wagged their approval. Over the next eight years, two more babies arrived and were introduced in the same way. The canine brother and sister took equal pleasure in welcoming these new additions to the pack.

Brothers and Cherish Me

In one of our longest-lived-in houses, a short passageway lead from a ground floor bedroom into a bathroom. A small closet punctuated the right hand wall. Thunderstorms, firecrackers, construction trucks, and sirens terrified Cherish Me. We piled cushions and blankets on the floor in the small closet. Cher created a nest in the deepest corner. I closed the doors on each side of the little hallway and, in almost total darkness petted and whispered reasurances to the frightened pup. For some of us, people and pets alike, a dark small world soft with love and comfort is our safe place.

When Algie grew old and unwell, Cher lay beside him and licked away his pain. Given the opportunity, she would have been a wonderful mother. With the vet’s help, we allowed Algie a dignified death at the age of thirteen.

After a time of grieving, I suggested we get a puppy for Cher to “look after.” Along came Quinley, a salt and pepper male miniature schnauzer—just like Algie. Cher’s spirits lifted and, although she couldn’t keep up with her new charge, for two years, she tenderly mothered her little companion.

Cher had a fatty tumour on her chest. By the time she was fifteen, it had grown to the size of a grapefruit. When it started to shrink, we learned that her failing body was feeding off its fat. In time, her back legs refused to negotiate stairs. We picked her up to convey her outside.

Why was it so much harder to allow Cher to die? Perhaps because she needed us more than Algie. She seemed to know that we had “saved” her. That we were the right people to take her into our lives and into our hearts. When her quality of life deteriorated further, we had to let her go.

In spite of the few harsh weeks near the beginning of her life, Cherish Me died a happy, fulfilled and much treasured little dog.

Big hug for a little dog
Alger and son growing up

When Polly Met Billy

(This piece was written for my grandchildren even though some are still too young to appreciate it. The oldest, now nine, was a toddler when her Great Grandma Vance died. Her Grandpa Vance had passed away some years earlier. A bit of family history told from a unique perspective shines a warm light on the past.)

My parents’ proper names were Pauline and William.

But, to each other, they were always Polly and Billy.

Crystal Beach, Canada from an undated postcard

More than eighty years ago, my mother Pauline, and her two closest sisters, Marie and Alice, left their home in rural Manitoba to explore eastern Canada. Mom never spoke much about the time before she met Dad. Even so, because I was an inquisitive child, that’s a nice way of saying nosy, I learned bits and pieces of her before-Dad life. One day, George, my older brother, decided to show off. He spoke to Mom using his best high school French. She surprised him by answering in the same language. With some coaxing, Mom said that once she had waitressed in a restaurant on Rue Sherbrooke in Montreal. I imagine that happened during the eastern adventure with her sisters.


The Dance Hall and Ferris Wheel at Crystal Beach

As the summer of 1939 approached, Mom and her siblings left Quebec and headed to Crystal Beach—a popular tourist destination in Ontario. The beach, on the north shore of Lake Erie was named for its crystal-clear swimming water. It drew up to twenty thousand visitors every day. Several ferries brought guests to the beach from Buffalo and other American cities. There was a dance pavilion that could hold up to three thousand people and a mammoth amusement park that included a state-of-the-art roller coaster. No wonder young people flocked there!

My father, Bill, had left the family farm in Saskatchewan a few years earlier and was working as an accountant in Galt Ontario. By the way, you won’t find Galt on a map. Long ago the city joined with two of its neighbours and the name for all three changed to Cambridge.

One weekend, Bill and two of his buddies headed east in search of sun and sand and pretty girls. An hour and a half later, they arrived at Crystal Beach. Food was their first priority. It just so happened that of all the restaurants there, they chose the one where Pauline worked. It also just so happened that they chose a table in Pauline’s section.

I don’t know if it was love at first sight. But, that December Polly and Billy got married. I asked Mom what attracted her to Dad. She said it was his handsome “Roman” nose. Another name for a Roman nose is aquiline…which means eagle-like. Here’s how one source describes such a nose:

A high, arched bridge characterizes the Roman nose. Its name is derived from Roman art, which depicted figures with long, high-bridged noses. They therefore were symbols of people with authority. They also have an aura of nobility and courage.

I’m glad Mom liked Dad’s nose. His other characteristics wouldn’t have appealed to me. In the fashion current at the time, his shock of bright red hair was slicked straight back from his high forehead. He owed his pale freckled skin to his Irish ancestry. His love of sunbathing meant that the exposed parts of his body were only a little less red than his hair. A thin man of average height, I thought he must have resembled a skinny lobster with a distinctive nose. It’s a wonderful thing that we fall in love with different aspects of people.

Mom was beautiful. Her brown hair glistened; the sun kissed her Ukrainian skin to a warm caramel colour; golden flecks sparkled in her blue-grey eyes; her stature was short but her figure shapely. Interestingly, Dad considered Mom’s calves to be her best feature. As I said, what we find attractive in another is entirely personal. Once, a boy in grade eight told me that he always looked first at a girl’s ears. Weird, I thought.

Pauline and Bill brought a farm just outside Galt. Mom managed the farm and Dad continued his accountant’s job. When Dad got home from work, he helped Mom with the chores. Their first child, my sister Connie, was born the next summer. Four years later my brother George arrived. Mom was doing fine with the farm and the two kids. Then two more of us showed up. A seven year-old, three children under three, and running a mixed farm exhausted Mom. She sent a photo of herself to her mother in Manitoba. Maria cried. She thought Mom was so skinny because she and Dad couldn’t afford proper food. Wives were supposed to be roly-poly and radiant.

When I was six months old, Mom and Dad sold the farm and moved into town. My only knowledge of my life in the country comes from a few tales my sister shared and some black and white photographs. When I was a child, I would pore through Mom’s albums looking for pictures of me. There were only a few. One photo showed a baby being bathed in a big metal tub set on the wooden kitchen table. I asked my sister if I was the baby. She didn’t know.

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

Postscript: I had a lot of fun researching the history of Crystal Beach. Wikipedia gives a respectable account. However, the Buffalo News article written in 2019 and recently updated, has lots of pictures and a more personal perspective.

https://buffalonews.com/news/local/history/remembering-crystal-beach-30-years-after-park-closed/article

Nature’s Wisdom: Learning from Trees

My first tree was a climbing tree. In the yard of the house of my early childhood. It was a perfect tree. A giant maple. Limbs stretched out parallel to the ground before turning upward to tickle the sky. The lowest bough hovered five feet above the lawn. Regular-sized kids could run, leap, catch its bulk then hoist themselves onto its sturdy breadth. Although six, I was puny. I would have needed a ladder to reach that branch. Or, a bigger person to hoist me up. But, kids can be mean. If the others ran away, how would I get down?

I don’t know why my brother scaled the tree. Maybe the others dared him. Gordon was only fifteen months my senior but he was a proper size. Up and up he climbed. No one had ever gone that high. Was he being taunted? Most early memories are fuzzy. Maybe it’s better that way. Too many details would be harder to erase.

At the time, I didn’t know how it happened. I gazed up into the branch-maze. Watched my brother disappear. First, an eerie silence. Then, the clatter of breaking things. The tearing of wood. The ripping of leaves. A hideous thud. My brother on the ground. Inert. The uncanny emptiness. The others ran away. I ran for our parents.

That afternoon, in the upper branches of the big maple, my brother had his first epileptic seizure. Is that why he did not scream? Is that why he escaped with only some scrapes and scratches and a broken arm? Did he know how lucky he was? Probably not. When young, we are immortal. Just like Bugs Bunny who crashed through walls or disappeared beneath a steamroller and emerged unscathed.

As for me, I learned respect for trees that day. When I grew big enough to climb them unassisted, I

stayed a safe distance above the ground. Left the loftiest branches to the birds.

*****

A year after Gordon’s accident, we moved across town to a new home. I played among the weeds and the wildflowers that crowded the empty lots next to our property. Two trees dominated that vast realm. A climbing tree very much like the one with bad memories that we had left behind. And, a toppled tree, broken but alive, just like my brother. The second, its limbs lush with leaves and bowed to the ground, furnished a perfect hideaway.

One summer afternoon, I crawled inside the ragged green dome. I was hidden. I was safe. Still, I trembled. How long would I have to wait, this time? This time had been the worst. I had run from my brother before. But now my words sparked vengeance. He came at me with a knife. A butcher knife yanked from the kitchen drawer. I had teased him. I was mean. From where did such cruelty come? From example, I suppose. Parents, siblings, peers.

In high school we read Lord of the Flies. I refused to believe that children, left on their own, ceased to be good. Embraced evil. But, who had provoked my brother? Some part of me that I didn’t want to believe was there?

He never found me. My brother. Inside my emerald igloo. One hour. Two hours. I thought it safe to emerge. It was. I never told my parents. I never again tormented my brother.

*****

A few decades later, a native teacher told me to go into the forest. Wander until a tree called my name. Sit at its base, back to its trunk. Observe my breath. Empty my mind. Wait for a message. How silly. Trees don’t talk. Not English anyway.

I am often not good at following rules. They get in the way. They slow me down. This time, however, I did as I was told. Perhaps because of the undisputed authority of the elder. Or, perhaps because it was a warm afternoon in June and I had nothing better to do.

I rambled. Followed no path. Allowed my intuition, and the trees, to lead me. Mossy ground moulded to the shape of my leather soles. The whistle of a warbler sweetened the air. Twigs snapped. Leaves kissed. After a small eternity—stillness. A solitary oak beckoned me forward. “Come. Sit

beneath my canopy. Lean against my rugged bark. Rest in my strength and in my wisdom.”

No, the tree never spoke those words. But, if the tree had been granted speech, that is what I imagined it would have said. As it turned out, my tree was far more eloquent and succinct than I was.

I sat. Bathed in leaf-dappled sunlight. Breathed and pondered. “What knowledge could a tree possibly give me?” Another eternity. I may have slept. The words came as they do in dreams. Not as language

but as a knowing. An absolute truth conveyed as a wordless thought. The words come later. There must be a special part of our brain designed to decode such truths.

Keep your consciousness in your feet.”

There was no possibility that I could have said that. I didn’t know what it meant. My surprise gave way to speculation. Just how was I supposed to “keep my consciousness in my feet?”

I never acted on the tree’s wisdom. How could I act on something I didn’t understand? But, neither did I forget the message.

Some years later, mindfulness found me in the guise of a book—Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. At last I understood. I could not be present in the moment if I was always in my head—remembering, regretting, apologizing, planning, arranging, fantasizing, formulating, arguing, writing. If I focused on my feet, on the softness or solidity of the ground beneath them, or, going deeper, on the earth energy moving up and through me, or, on the fragrance of crushed grass or sun-

softened tar that enveloped me as I ambled, then, all worry, all troubles would fall away and my life would unfold in the most effortless fashion.

Now, when I walk my dog, or tend to the gardens, or vacuum the house, or scrub the dishes, I try to remember my feet. To put my attention there…on the ground. Connected to the earth. Connected to my self. It is not always easy. In fact, I am not especially good at it. Even so, every time I do remember, I think back to the elder who taught me to be still and to listen. I smile and thank that long ago tree.

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