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