Tracy Starr’s Strip Palace

The strip joint was my brother’s idea. Four years my senior and a Royal Military College grad, George could be persuasive. Besides, I was curious. It was 1971. That year, the Ontario government decided to allow full nudity in certain establishments. In late August, Tracy Starr’s opened its doors in London to a standing-room-only crowd of one hundred and seventy-five patrons. Each had paid $2.50 to enjoy one and a half hours of “continuous stripping.” My brother, his wife, my husband and I took in the spectacle some weeks later. Two-thirds of the raked seats in the auditorium were empty.

Six strippers each danced for ten or fifteen minutes. I remember two.

Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” blared out over the audience and ricocheted off the vacant seats. From stage right , a woman who looked thirty-five but might have been twenty-three, pranced into view. Perhaps she galloped. Or trotted. Millie did insist that her boyfriend made her heart go “giddy up.” For a certainty, she was not dancing. Her costume was as childish as the performance—a cotton tutu-like skirt decorated with large, bright dots and, a matching blouse with puffed cap-sleeves and a deeply scooped neckline. A mini-zipper in the front kept her substantial breasts from tumbling out. Last, she carried a giant cardboard sucker with an exaggerated swirl pattern printed on it. From time to time she licked the painted paper.

Scars and home-inked tattoos adorned her body. Her midriff jiggled. During her routine, she directed her gaze to a point somewhere above and beyond the topmost row of seats.

As mentioned, each performance lasted at least ten minutes. “My Boy Lollipop” is a two-minute song. After the second repetition, and Lollipop’s tedious movements, my brother began to chortle. Loudly. The manager approached him. Asked him to be respectful. George tried to suppress his amusement—unsuccessfully. The manager’s second visit made it clear that we would be ejected if my brother didn’t control his response. George could not look at the stage without laughing. So, he stared at his feet and blocked out the music by humming God Save the Queen.

I suppose Lollipop girl stripped. Now that I think of it, it must have been some feat to take off her clothes while holding an over-sized fake candy on the end of a stick. But, I was too embarrassed by my brother’s behaviour to take in the rest of the performance. I too was contemplating the floor. However, just before I looked down, two men seated a few rows in front of us turned around to see what the fuss was about. Dear heaven above, one of them was my Educational Philosophy teacher. What was he doing there? Perhaps, like me, it was his first time. However, observing later his evident relish of the entertainment, I suspected not. I noted that he was as incompetent in his chosen profession as Lollipop was in hers. Professor Negligence’s introductory class lasted fewer than five minutes. He addressed an amphitheatre of more than one hundred students, “Everything you need to know is in the text. Choose a topic from one of the chapters. Write a two thousand word essay. Submit it before the end of term. If you have any questions, make an appointment with my secretary.” What a shame that Lollipop’s performance wasn’t as succinct.

The management saved the best for last. The music began—soft, soulful, sensual. A Blue Goddess materialized in the centre of the stage—her great black height enveloped in a navy catsuit. A sinuous zipper ran from the dip in the front of her neck to just below the navel. She moved only a little. But oh, what movements. Hips swayed. Shoulders rolled. Her entire body undulated with the passionate rhythms. Erotic, mesmerizing, seductive. But never obscene. She played with the zipper. Down, then up. Down a little further. Then up. Down further still. Up, but not quite so far. Tantalizing. Oozing self-confidence, she looked at the audience directly, but not invitingly. Her gaze announced, “I am my own woman. You can look but you can not touch. I love that I can move like this. I love what I do.”

The Blue Goddess never discarded her leotard. The zipper opened only to that spot just below the navel. The lights went out. The dancer vanished. The show was over.

My curiosity had been satisfied. A knowing about myself had been reinforced. Years prior to the strip club adventure, a friend gave me an issue of Playgirl magazine. A birthday joke. I perused the glossy images of naked men—penises flaccid or firm. None excited me. But, the bare feet did. As long as I can remember, I have loved the soles of my unclad feet in contact with the earth. Tar-sticky pavement, morning-dewed grass, blistering white sand, pebbly shores, and kelp-crusted rocks. My soles united me to the earth and the earth to myself. Long ago, a marriage counsellor asked me what I most disliked about my husband. “He wears socks,” I blurted out. Wow! Where had that come from? The male counsellor decoded my response, “You mean he doesn’t uncover his soul?” Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.

For me, bare feet were alluring, blatant nudity was not. I’m the kind of person who loves shadows. I look beyond the thing to the shape it casts. Then hypothesize about the thing itself. I love mysteries. The Blue Goddess left something hidden, something to be imagined, something to look forward to. I never perused another Playgirl magazine. I never visited another strip club. There was no need. I had my answers.

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.

The Quest for Shade

Gazebo: Noun

A small building, especially one in the garden of a house, that gives a wide view of the surrounding area.

The Black Gazebo

Origin

Mid 18th century perhaps humorously from gaze, in imitation of Latin future tenses ending in -ebo.

Oxford Dictionary

A screen porch isn’t a luxury—it’s an essential way to celebrate

summer weather and the outdoors.

Sarah Susanka, The Not So Big House

I have skin cancer. The first melanoma was surgically removed twelve years ago. The second one more recently. Before, between and since those times, a dozen or so less deadly cancers have been burned out, dug out, or eliminated with chemicals.

One dermatologist told me that with skin like mine—pale, freckled, and mole-dappled—I could get cancer walking across a parking lot. Her rules:

  • stay inside between 10 AM and 3 PM
  • wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, sun glasses and a wide-brimmed hat
  • cover whatever skin is exposed with sunscreen

I do most of those things. The ten to three timeline is difficult. Weeds don’t stop growing during the height the day and birds need fresh water. As to the clothing, my over-sized, floppy-rimmed, lilac hat and my short stature bring to mind a lavender toadstool.

Me in my lilac sun-hat

Seven years ago, when we decided to move to Prince Edward Island, I sought to buy a property dotted with large shade trees. At the time, none—with a suitable residence—were to be had. So, we bought more than half an acre of lawn which boasted a modern house and three struggling trees. Every year, I plant more evergreen and leaf-shedding specimens, but only now, do three or four provide a small puddle of mid-day shade.

Determined to spend more time out-of-doors, I built a pergola. A deck twelve feet square. Four posts and beams. Then, I added a sun-safe, fabric roof. Alas, for most of the day, the shadow of the covering fell outside the deck. I installed curtains. Perfect. Until the wind blew. Their shadows vanished. Actually, they danced fiercely far beyond the perimeter of the little structure. I weighted the bottoms. On windy days, my chair or I got struck by the metal rods I’d inserted into the hems. I fastened the bottoms down. The curtains ripped. No one had warned me about maritime “breezes.”

The Pergola

After two years of shade-frustration, I decided to close in the pergola. I perused sun-protected structures on the internet and chose one that I deemed my limited carpentry skills could replicate. I had only two saws, a hand saw and a Skil saw. Using the picnic table as a support, I cut eight, two-by-six studs and began to insert two of them equally between each set of corner posts. For a short while, my next-door neighbour, who has a state of the art wood-working shop, observed my labours. Then, Mike sauntered over and asked if I’d like some help. Did I look inept? Without hesitation, I swallowed my pride and accepted his offer. We levelled and fastened the uprights, then inserted additional roof beams. When it came time for the half-walls, Mike retrieved his mitre saw. I never knew that eleven stud walls, even miniature ones, could be cut and assembled in so little time!

Now that the skeleton was complete, I was on my own. I hand-sawed and attached clapboards on the outside and fence boards on the inside. Next, I read up on “flat” roofs only to discover that flat roofs are not flat. They must incline a minimum of one-quarter inch per foot in order for water to drain away. For the first time since the start of the project, I was intimidated. My son from Alberta was scheduled to visit in a few weeks. He had considerable experience building sheds and their roofs. I awaited his arrival. Tyler demonstrated how to cut the high-front to low-back angle. Best of all, he bought me an Irwin Quick-Clamp. He called it “a second hand.” (I have been so impressed by its usefulness, that I recently purchased its twin.) A few days later, when my daughter and her family from Ontario got here, my son-in-law adeptly stained the roof beams black. Mike’s wife had suggested the colour.

One of the “experts” at the construction desk of a local building supply company knew more about metal roofs than any of the internet sites I visited. I supplied him with “exact” measurements; he asked me countless specific details; then he ordered everything I needed. After the roofing materials came, I took several days to summon the courage to tackle the project. Heights scare me. Even when they are only ten feet above the ground. Sliding across the steel panels on my bum as I fastened rivets, I noticed the young couple next door eyeing me with suspicion, or perhaps with trepidation. In the end, I never fell and, with a few adjustments, all the pieces fit.

Mike provided one last service. On the table saw in his workshop, he halved several pressure-treated two-by-fours lengthwise. With these, I built frames for the screening.

Finishing details included: re-cutting the copper pergola pipes to make shorter curtain rods; repairing and hemming the tan and white striped panels to fit the new openings; purchasing an outdoor sectional at an end-of-season sale.

The end product solved my shade dilemma. The steel roof blocks all of the sun’s skin-damaging rays; half-walls provide further protection; the screens serve two purposes—they keep the throngs of biting, stinging visitors at bay and block thirty per cent of the wind’s power, thus allowing the curtains to do their part in the quest for shade.

I still have skin cancer. However, in my garden, I now also have a black gazebo.

Pitou resting in the gazebo
One of the views from inside the gazebo. The owl chair was bought for my granddaughter.

The Search for a Woodland Sanctuary

There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”

Henry David Thoreau

Introduction

The seed for my vision of a “cabin-in-the-woods” may have been planted at Camp Keewaydin. At dusk, two dozen Girl Guides sat around a bonfire singing rounds, songs of adventure, and hand-action tunes. In the last category was this:

In a cottage in a wood
A little old man at the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at the door.

‘Help me, help me, help me,’ he said
‘Before the hunter shoots me dead!’
‘Come little rabbit, stay with me,
Happy you shall be.’

(Repeat)

Each repetition omitted the words of the previous line. On the ninth iteration, silence prevailed while twenty-four pairs of raised hands drew cottages and window frames, knocked on imaginary doors and mimicked the hopping of rabbits and the firing of shotguns. But, you had to be singing in your head to get the right sequence of actions. What pedagogical genius condemned rote learning? A septuagenarian now, I remember not only the melody and the words, but also the hand actions. Until today, copying the song, I never noticed the change in person—third to first. But, until today, I had never written down the words. And what importance does grammatical consistency have for an eleven-year-old? What intrigued me was the concept of a refuge in a woods. I found one—twice.

The Oxley Cottage

Near the western terminus of stagecoach route that traced the north shore of Lake Erie, reposed an inn, ancient and weather-beaten. Six equally time-worn cottages lounged among the hundreds of mature maples that dotted the grounds.

For three months in the spring of my twenty-sixth year, my husband and I inhabited one of the sextet of tiny cabins. We had purchased our first house, a two-bedroom bungalow, a year and a half earlier. Soon we tired of its mediocrity and boxy newness. A stately, red-brick Victorian, complete with a two-story turret, came on the market. In short order, we bought the property and sold ours; however, the closing dates did not correspond. We needed to vacate the bungalow almost at once.

The good-hearted, elderly owners of the 1865 former manse, agreed to store our belongings for a few months. Somehow, we discovered the Ravine Cottages. It was the low season and only one other was rented out.

Our cabin consisted of one large room. Across the back wall, a small fridge, sink, and stove perched in a crooked row. To their right, a three-piece washroom—pedestal sink, toilet and shower—functioned without pretense. An unpainted wooden table and four chairs occupied the middle ground. At the front of the room, side by side and facing the water, were a sitting area and a sleeping space. A double bed had been wedged into the rectangle created by the back wall of the bathroom and two walls of the cottage—a three-sided cage. I slept on the inside—a bonus when I wanted to open or close the window. Inconvenient for nighttime trips to the toilet. Large paired windows graced each side of a central door. A screened porch completed the plan. I first viewed the bug-safe enclosure as a welcome luxury. In May, when legions of shad-flies coated the world with their fragile living, dying, and decomposing bodies, I realized the necessity of the protected space.

For our only neighbours, a young New Zealand couple, the Ravine Cottages was the latest stop on their west-to-east cross-Canada journey. In their cabin, pressed against a wall, squatted a small dresser blackened with age. The checkered shellac surface and a large dark ring seared into the top didn’t diminish its inherent beauty. I asked the proprietress if she would exchange the piece for one of our light-oak washstands. Although she made it a policy not to sell any of the inn’s original furnishings, she deemed a trade acceptable.

Once at our cottage, a closer examination revealed the value of the dark little cabinet—black walnut construction with burled walnut inlays, hand-forged nails and abstract flower petals carved into the back rail. I felt guilty about the exchange and spoke to the owner. She beamed at me, “What a fantastic swap! The oak piece is far too nice to leave in a cottage so we brought it into the hotel!” My conscience was appeased.

During those months in the Oxley cottage, I enjoyed the freedom of few possessions—some clothes, toiletries, and books—and the ease of keeping such a small space clean. I taught only in the morning. During the unhurried afternoons I ambled among rivers of discarded leaves, inhaled their musty perfume as I disturbed their evolution; listened to cheerful melodies of tiny songbirds; watched fat grey squirrels and curious chipmunks scamper among the spring-ripening forest. When troubled thoughts crowded my mind and obliterated the peace of the natural sanctuary, a protruding root, a noisy sparrow or an unexpected fragrance pulled me back to the present and restored my equanimity.

The Don Street Shack

Twenty-four years later, I relocated to a small town cradled on the shore of Georgian Bay. There I discovered a second “cabin-in-the-woods.” The tiny shack, abandoned for years, huddled among half an acre of mature maples and pines. The weathered clapboards had never seen paint and most of the green had deserted the rotting wooden shutters. Sealed tight, the blinded house prevented my peering in. Even so, I envisioned “saving” the neglected gem. My recent divorce and part-time work dictated that the salvation would have to wait.

Two years passed. On summer’s first Friday, I signed a permanent teaching contract. Next, I drove by the Don Street cabin. Braked. Stared at the charming vinyl-clad home that stood tall in the place where the shack had once crouched. A local builder, who had taken on the renovation as a hobby, had done a remarkable job. Better even than I had envisioned. The addition of a wrap-around veranda was pure genius. Best of all, in the front yard, on a sturdy square post, swung a large white, red, and blue sign—FOR SALE. On Monday, I officially owned the house. I loved it for fourteen years.

Why did I move? First, the neighbour to the west added a two-story addition. It obscured the view of the bay. Second, the builder who refurbished my home owned the two wooded lots adjoining it. He fancied the area so much that he cleared the forest on the east side and built a house for him and his family. That land was elevated. When he put in the swimming pool, his children and their friends had an unimpeded view into our once secluded backyard. Then, the same contractor sold the large treed acreage behind our two properties—a tract with a brook winding through it where I frequently roamed. A retired couple built a sizable house on the land then created a sizable number of vegetable gardens that abutted our fence. My forest refuge shrank to a small island in a sea of domiciles.

The renovated Don Street shack

Prince Edward Island

The property we bought six years ago is not a cabin-in-the-woods. It is a multi-level, modern dwelling situated on more than half an acre of lawn. However, every spring I plant trees. More than thirty to date. In the future, not in my life-time though, towering blue spruces, Austrian and red pines, maples, and lindens will protect the house from searing sun and icy gales. Whoever comes to dwell here will revel in their own private woodland sanctuary.

Some of the trees I have planted–spruces and a weeping crab-apple
One of four ornamental pears that I planted four years ago.
An hydrangea standard that was badly damaged in a hurricane and another ornamental pear.
Four new blue spruces planted on the berm this spring

When Dealing with a Skunk, Attitude is Everything

Mother Skunk on a daytime grass-collection mission

Skunk moved into the earthy apartment underneath our garden shed. The space had previously been occupied by an extended family of mice followed closely by Rat. No morally acceptable method that I used convinced the most recent tenant to relocate.

Earlier, I had concocted rat deterrents using hardware cloth—a metal grid used for a myriad of DIY projects. I folded 12” square pieces of the mesh accordion style and clipped the squares in several places to create rat-dangerous miniature spikes. I soaked rags in peppermint oil, which rodents are supposed to find disagreeable, stuffed them into the folds and placed five of the contraptions around the shed. Voila! No more Rat.

Shortly after Rat failed to put in an appearance, I espied an extremely large entry hole leading under the shed. The little metal accordion in that location had been pushed off to one side. Did Rat mutate? Did the essential oil create Super Rat? I waited. And watched. Transformed Rat appeared–much much larger, much much hairier and its dull grey coat had changed to a glossy black and white. I phoned the wildlife control officer.

Hundreds of dollars to set a trap for Skunk. More to come and re-bait it. More to dig a trench and install a rodent barrier—guaranteed for ten years against skunks and raccoons, not against rats or mice.

For almost two weeks, the spring pandemic prevented the officer’s arrival. For several days, Skunk had not been seen. When Mister Wildlife got here, I thanked him but said his services were no longer required. He explained that Skunk had two or three homes and would probably be back. I would take my chances.

One afternoon I spotted Rat, or one of his relatives, entering the large hole. Had the peppermint oil evaporated? Had Skunk permanently vacated the lair? Were the two creatures cohabiting? The next morning, when I went to to the shed to retrieve my gardening tools, a repugnant odour assaulted me. Fresh skunk-stench. Did Skunk return and evict Rat? How grateful I was to have kept my hole-digging, rat-hunting terrier far from the building.

I took no further steps to deal with the problem. Difficulties are created in the mind. not in the circumstances. If I perceived Skunk as a fellow sentient creature who wanted nothing but to be left alone, rather than as a mortal enemy, we could peacefully co-exist. Every day when I passed her entrance, I called out, “Hello, Mother Skunk. I trust you will enjoy your day. If your babies have arrived, keep them safe.” Then, I tied open the shed doors, and wandered in and out of the little barn as often as necessary.

Three weeks have passed. Never, by sight or smell, has Skunk showed herself again. She may have decided that there was simply too much traffic near this particular home and retired to a quieter den.

Rat too has disappeared. Although Mister Wildlife said that once we had critters under the shed, we would always have critters, I am content to bide my time and be grateful that, just now, the apartment is vacant.

Postscript

After writing this piece, I consulted the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s article on skunks. Apparently they don’t mind music but are threatened by the sound of human voices. My good morning ritual might have been what actually drove her away.

What a great tail on Mother Skunk!

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.

A Room of My Own–Disappointments and Treasure

A “Sunbonnet Sue” quilt similar to mine

In the late summer of 1955 our family moved into my first fully remembered house. The exterior featured a variety of autumn-hued bricks augmented by vivid coral and lime- green mouldings. Sited atop a steep hill, it beamed its kaleidoscopic newness over the subdivision. The living room showcased two plush, citrus-toned swivel chairs, and a sofa upholstered in a complementary prismatic teal. With much deliberation, and a little compromise, for the kitchen, Mom and Dad chose a green tile floor, orange laminate counter-tops, and knotty pine cabinets complete with black wrought iron hardware. Weird and riotous colour combinations, even to a somewhat chaotic eight-year-old.

The one feature I got to choose was the ceiling light for my very own bedroom. Until then I had had to share sleep-quarters with my older sister. I believe she deplored the co-habitation far more than I did. When you are fifteen, private space is as necessary as a lockable bathroom door.

I perused the weighty lighting catalogue with the same fervency as I devoted to the Sears Christmas Wish Book. In the end, I settled on a magical fixture with a round glass canopy where tiny ballerinas pirouetted on an opaline stage.

Move-in day arrived. I scurried to my room. Looked up. And froze. Above me was a piece of square glass adorned with little girls swinging in a pink sky. Disappointment burst into tears. Father tried, without success, to assuage my heartbreak. How could I possibly love girls on swings? I could practise my ballet in the large and open living room or even in the basement recreation area. But, despite there being four children, there would never be a swing in our yard. Father rigorously controlled his domain. The grass, lush and emerald, was mowed to the ideal height and the shrubs, each chosen for its particular texture and hue, were shorn to regal perfection.

With the sleeve of my yellow sweater, I erased my tears. Then, I lowered my eyes to survey the rest of the room. Whoever designed this house harboured no love of little children. The high, horizontal window allowed me to see only a cloudy sky. To take in the scene across the street, I had to stand on the bed. Cats and dogs choose to lie in places with a view to the outdoors. If no low window sill presents itself, they leap unto chairs, the backs of sofas or even tall bookcases to peer beyond. People are the same. They need to know there is an outside as well as an inside. A place of freedom and adventure where minds and hearts can roam.

As an adult, I spent a few months filling in for an art teacher away on medical leave. Her classroom was located in the centre of a vast building. Its two doors opened into two hallways. Several strips of fluorescent lights provided the only illumination. What manner of principal would assign a room devoid of natural light for visual arts classes?

Even though not of my choosing, one thing I did love about my new bedroom was the hand-made quilt that decorated the single bed. Mother told me that Grandma had given it to me when I was too small to remember. She had saved it until I was old enough to take proper care of it. A wide blue border with crossed strips inside it divided the counterpane into sixteen boxes. Within these frames posed sixteen identical girls. Each wore a simple calico dress and a bright, over-sized bonnet—each outfit a different combination of happy hues.

For many years, every night, after I had knelt in prayer beside my bed, I nestled under the covers and whispered to the silent, faceless quilt children. I shared with them my brave deeds, my joyful adventures, my academic accomplishments, my heartaches, my fears and my deepest longings.

When, at eighteen, I left home for university, Grandmother’s quilt travelled with me. As I unfurled the coverlet over my narrow bed, I never feared my dorm-mate’s censure. The bonnet-girls—keepers of my secrets—wholly belonged there, with me.

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

The Hairdresser’s Sewing Lesson or Why Moving Furniture Is Good For You

The sofa against the “impossible” wall

Since birth, I have inhabited twenty-two different residences in eleven different municipalities in three different provinces. Some of the re-locations were beyond my control. For example, I was born on a farm, transferred to a city apartment, then moved into a house all before I turned two years of age. I had no say in those decisions. Most of the others were self-motivated. The need to uproot myself so often forms no part of this story. I have not examined the theme at any length. I suspect it’s a disease. However, as I have stayed put for six years, perhaps the illness is cured.

The adult changes of address had two serious repercussions: how to find a good hairdresser and how to arrange my motley collection of furniture.

In newest province I call home, I perch on a wooden bench in the change room of a yoga studio. I surreptitiously scrutinize hair styles, espy one that would suit me, ask its owner who cuts her hair.

Once home, a phone call to the salon is met with: “I’m so sorry, Melanie is not accepting new clients”. I leave my contact info anyway. It has been a month since my last haircut. Two more weeks pass. My usual super-short hair is now super-longish. From the internet, I choose a beauty salon at random and book an appointment. Just days before the crucial date, I get the call. Melanie has had a cancellation. Would I like to take it?

Yes!

There are no coincidences. Melanie is a soul mate. She talks about her Greyhound rescue; I share my Cairn Terrier stories. On my recommendation, she buys a copy of Living Your Yoga; on hers, I enjoy a dinner at the Landmark Cafe. She visits the Louvre and conveys her impressions; I build a black gazebo and she asks for photos to show her partner. She describes her successes in interior design; I show her pictures of my rooms to get her input. She says she would love to learn to sew; I invite her to my house for a lesson.

I have been sewing since I was seven. Mother sent to me to the Singer Sewing Centre on Main Street. The instructors assigned me to a children’s machine. Mother demanded that I learn on a full-size model. In order to reach the controls, I sat on a raised stool. I made a pink calico dolly’s nightgown. In another set of lessons when I was eleven or twelve, I constructed a light brown dress with inset pleats and darker brown piping. Later came blouses, dresses, slacks, jackets and vests. Then, dozens of costumes for my children—Halloween witches, devils, angels and clowns; ballet tutus; an ice-skating prince’s togs.

At some point, I determined that savvy shopping yielded well-made clothes at the same expense as fabric with no work involved. Well, except a new hem now and then. These days, I mainly sew home décor items—especially zippered covers for feather inserts. A change of seasons demands a change of sofa cushions.

On the appointed day, Melanie arrived with a portable sewing machine and a fresh apple pie in hand. Perfect synchronicity! It was Gilles’ birthday, and I’d not made him a special dessert.

After an hour and a half of instruction—threading the machine, winding the bobbin, straight-stitching, back-stitching, and squaring fabric, Melanie said that her brain was saturated. Then she asked, “Have you ever considered putting the sofa on that wall?”

I dare say, I had tried it on every other wall. But, not that one. That wall backed onto the garage and formed one side of a wide entry. You can’t put a sofa in a hallway. Instead, I had island-ed it and angled it and even considered replacing it. The room is a decorator’s bane—on its borders are four doors, three staircases, two closets and two wall extensions. For six years, without success, I had attempted to make the room “work”. In fact, I had changed the set-up so many times that Gilles, having more than once tripped over a re-positioned ottoman, learned to navigate its interior with caution.

I thought that my frequent rearrangement of furniture was, like moving residences, a kind of sickness. It was a relief to discover that the activity provides several health benefits. According to some studies, moving furniture and other movement-based creation–such as building a gazebo or sewing cushion covers–spur energy, spark joy, assist with problem-solving, and improve self-esteem. Further, Carrie Barron, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School, states in her article Rearranging the Furniture Makes Me Feel Better/ Achieving inner and outer harmony by moving things around:

An impact on the environment…lifts mood, provides concrete satisfaction, and instills a sense of effectiveness. Inner and outer harmony happen when pieces are placed in a way that makes sense for you.

With undisguised mistrust, I told Melanie I would “try” the sofa on that wall.

“Let’s do it now! I still have an hour before I have to leave.”

So, for the next hour we two small, strong women heaved and shoved and pushed and carried chairs, tables, chests, cabinets, rugs, artworks, lamps, and the sofa. When we finished, Melanie surveyed the room then said, “You need something small and narrow in front of the couch”. From the main bathroom we retrieved an antique oak chest of the perfect proportions. Melanie tossed a white faux-fur throw over it to “add texture and soften the angles”. With the transformation complete, for the first time since moving into the house, the room functioned to my specifications, exuded comfort, and even photographed well. And, as nothing had been bought, there was no buyer’s remorse. As Barron’s article predicted, we felt “creative, clever and resourceful”. I alone was astonished that a sofa could exist comfortably in a vestibule.

On seeing the metamorphosed space, a friend said, “Melanie missed her calling”. I hope not. Who so talented and compatible would cut my hair?

Home-sewn Halloween Costumes

The Burgundy Bicycles–a testament to the tenacity of the young and not-so-young

The Second Burgundy Bicycle suspended for the winter

In early July of my seventh year, I planted my feet on the green tile floor, pressed fists to waist, thrust out my elbows, stuck out my chest and declared to my mother’s back, “I’m a big girl now. I need a big bike. Tricycles are for babies”.

In matter of fact I was not a big girl. Oh, big in spirit and very big in imagination, but quite small in stature. On a chart recording the height and weight of every six-and-three-quarter-year-old in every part of the world, I would have landed in the bottom five percentile.

Mom turned from her task at the kitchen sink, eyed me from top to toe, then toe to top. At last, she directed her gaze into my eyes. She must have seen my tough-little-girl determination because she said, “All right”.

We went outside to the storage space under the big veranda, its treasures not-quite hidden by hundreds of crisscrossed slats of white lattice. Mom dragged out a bulky burgundy bicycle. As I was the youngest of four siblings, a new bike was an impossibility. This one had belonged to my seven-years-older sister. The best thing was, that in 1954, girls simply did not ride boys bikes—I couldn’t inherit one of my brothers’.

Worn white letters on dark metal proclaimed CCM—Canada Cycle and Motor Company. Fat steel cylinders formed the frame—the front tube was elegantly curved. Very lady-like. The handlebars extended straight out from the centre then, at the same height, turned toward the rider. A proper-sized person riding the bike could sit up straight and enjoy the scenery.

Mother scanned the bicycle. Scanned me. Looked back at the bike. Looked back at me then re-entered the house. Out she emerged with a large pillow and one of my brothers’ belts. I trusted my Mom’s wisdom and allowed her to secure the cushion to my backside by tightly clinching it with the leather strap. Satisfied, Mom returned to her work in the kitchen.

I leaned the bike against the trellis wall and tried to climb onto the seat. The bustle made it hopeless. It became clear that even if I could get onto the saddle, my short legs would never permit my feet to touch the pedals. Thank goodness there was no crossbar. Standing on the rubber footholds, I wedged myself against the hard line of the wide silver shaft just below the seat. The cushion helped here. It kept me forward enough that the saddle didn’t puncture my neck. In this fashion I managed to push myself off the wall and travel a few wobbly feet. Over and over I practised how to balance the bike and move at the same time. Days later, the few feet became more feet, then a lot of feet, then actual yards. For some time, I thought that another purpose of the bustle was to protect me when I fell. Several tumbles later, I realized that no one falls off a bike onto her bum. Knees, shoulders, hands, elbows, shins, scalps and faces could be scraped raw, but never one’s backside. Further, because I gripped the handlebars so fiercely when the bike began to totter beyond my control, the heavy machine, without fail, fell on top of me. The pillow was quite useless against that problem as well.

We lived in a neighbourhood of red brick bungalows. Giant maples shaded its narrow streets. When finally I was able to ride the bike a reasonable distance without mishap, Mom allowed me to leave the property. However, she warned me not to ride on the walkways. I might kill someone. No helmets in those days. And thankfully, little traffic. In the first hours of my new-found freedom, I weaved over most of my lane and into the opposite one as well. But, with resolute persistence, I did learn to control the bicycle.

A lecturer from my university days spoke of “The Concept of Competence”. In brief, he defined the term as “the satisfaction a child feels when [she] has successfully mastered a new skill”. I reveled in my bike-riding accomplishment. I was then so much bigger than my backyard or the short distances my little legs could carry me.

…..

It is not possible that I outgrew the burgundy bike. I never got taller than five feet and five-eights of an inch. After I had ignored the bicycle for a few years, it disappeared. I imagine Mother did one of her regular, “donate stuff to charity” acts and the bike was part of the donation.

In my twenties I purchased a youth-sized Canadian Tire specimen. It was a boy’s bike and the crossbar sometimes caused me difficulties. Even so, I rode it for three decades. When my daughter moved to the big city she asked if she could have it. Apparently, old bikes were retro-smart. Besides, there was little likelihood of it being stolen. Although I had owned it longer, I never loved it as I had that first learn-to-ride bicycle. I let it go.

At the time I lived in a small hilly Ontario town on Georgian Bay. The steep slopes careened toward the shoreline where a smooth and level path circled the bay—an open invitation to cyclists. I missed having a bike. I paid a visit to a local cycle shop. A used bicycle had just been received. A Trek Navigator 2.0. Tubular steel, a gently curved front tube, burgundy in colour. I knew it had to be mine.

When we moved to Prince Edward Island five years ago, the second burgundy bike accompanied me. I ride it on the south shore road to collect eggs from a neighbour or deliver baked goods to the old school house. I avoid the hills. Even the gentle gradient that slopes upwards from the school corner to our house challenges my seventy-one year-old body. Once, riding home into a headwind, I considered dismounting and pushing the bike. Then, I remembered the six-year old me. I stood up on the pedals, leaned into the handlebars, pushed hard against the foot levers and rode on. Only when I reached the bottom of our driveway did I stop. Breathless and with pounding heart, I dismounted. Then, I stood still. I waited until breath and heart slowed. And in that pause, a smile began as a tickle in my belly, skipped to my heart, then burst into sunbeams over my face. I did it. I never gave up.

Prairie Wakerobin