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 if 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. It 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 sixty 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

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.

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.