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 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

Blessings and Blisters in the Time of Covid

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

The Lane that Leads to the Shore

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

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

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

She said I couldn’t walk there.

She said I was trespassing.

She broke my heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child-built Forts and Hidey-holes

Not “my” fallen tree fort, but one similar



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Postscript

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

My Mother Pauline–A Mosaic

September 22, 1917 – September 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………

Postscript

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

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

Here is that letter.

August 31, 2015

Hello dear Mom,

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

As always Mom,

I miss you.

And I love you.

Prairie

My colourful Mom, Pauline Vance

Prairie, At Last–“Moons” The Final Chapters

Gilles and I on our marriage day, 2002

Chapter 49

Seventh Path Hypnosis Reveals Another Piece of the Love Puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

“God made me always lovable.”

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

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

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

The next one had the same potent effect.

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

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

Chapter 50

Steadfastness and Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 51

Illness and Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 52

Prairie

Let there be space in your togetherness.

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love;

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

Kahil Gibran

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

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

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

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

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

The end