Sunday, January 18, 2015

Writing Lessons

I was the last to read a piece of writing out loud at the meeting of our writers group--our challenge being to write a description. I had rewritten a description of an old friend, originally written as an assignment for a writing course.

Before I started reading I thought I had done a fairly good job of describing her, but as my carefully crafted words left the page and passed through my lips into the air, I felt them sinking to the the ground, lifeless. "She" wasn't in them somehow. I had painted a word picture entitled "Bird of Paradise;" but the soul that had touched my soul and left a lasting imprint, was missing; I knew it; did they?

I finished reading with a combination of embarrassment and relief. It was the end of the evening anyway; I knew my friends needed to head out into the cold January night before it got very much later and I was anxious to end a moment that felt awkward to me.

I looked up from the page with a smile, preparing to conclude our evening, when someone asked, "How did you know her?" 

And over the next ten minutes I told the story of how we met, our growing friendship, some details of her life, and her eventual death. I didn't need a mirror to know that my eyes were shining; my face animated--I saw them reflected in another kind of mirror; those of my listeners. I was so grateful for a second chance to tell them who she was; to honour her memory by bringing her back to life so that others might know her.

The page that I had read lay beside me on the floor, a paper doll in comparison. Where did the difference lie?

It was my third rewriting of that particular description.  Maybe my mistake was in trying to capture her image in a moment of time, rather than by describing her in the context of our lives; I probably just needed to relax and let "her" flow out through my words rather than work so hard at it; I'm not sure.

I am not giving up though! I have written about her elsewhere on this blog and I am glad I have that raw material captured for something more substantial about her in the future. Here is a link to one of the other stories I have written about my dear friend Agnes MacDonald; this one was seven years ago: The Tree by the Cookhouse.

I am grateful for the encouragement of our writers group; The Writers Nest; and the knowledge that it is in writing, possibly being embarrassed and writing again, that we learn to write better--I'm all about that. :)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Siblings Forever

"To the outside world, we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other's hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time." - Clara Ortega


"We know one another's faults, virtues, catastrophes, mortifications, triumphs, rivalries, desires, and how long we can each hang by our hands to a bar. We have been banded together under pack codes and tribal laws." - Rose Macaulay

These quotes, from an International Business Times article, on National Sibling Day 2014,  capture the unique power of the sibling relationship.

I was thinking about this at the start of the year as I wrote down some things I am grateful for in my gratitude journal and found myself giving thanks for my brother. 

Rob, 3 years younger than me, has a unique and precious place in my life and heart --our lives having run parallel for almost 62 years and not having other siblings.

There is a set of photos taken on a summer's day, about 60 years ago by Mum that always makes me smile, and also feel sorry for having been so possessive of my toy pram. And he was having so much fun until I seized back my doll!  


We had our share of sibling rivalry growing up, but now it is rare for more than two weeks to go by without one of us calling the other even though we have lived on different continents for 45 years. I tend not to call anyone else just to chat because I always have this thought in my head that I will catch them busy doing something--be interrupting them--nothing I have to say seems worth doing that. But with Rob I am confident that anything he is doing will instantly be second in importance to my call; if I catch him in the middle of a show, he will turn the sound off. We both know what it was like to feel as though we were less important than the news on TV, and we will never do that to each other.

We can talk for an hour about the most menial details of our lives, and they are important enough to keep us interested.

In Rob I have someone to whom I could confide anything, and know that he will tell me the truth in return, yet not judge.

He is intuitive, sensitive and instinctively knows my heart, for good or bad. Sometimes he knows what I am thinking before I express it in words.

We are different in personality and outlook on life and yet we share a history no one else does; our childhood; and family dynamics.

I sometimes measure the quality of whatever I am writing by how Rob might read it. He doesn't enjoy writing, but he is gifted in drawing and has the ability to describe a scene in a movie so well verbally, that when you actually see it, you recognize every detail and experience deja vu. He knows good writing and he isn't impressed with facades or jargon. He can sniff out insincerity pretty quickly.

So the last time we spoke and he said to me, "I sometimes feel that I just haven't done enough for other people," I reminded him of all that he means to me; how important his place in my life.

And to end with a smile, click here for "13 Things Only Siblings Understand."

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Glimpse of a Girl

Once upon a time in England, lived a quiet, shy girl, who loved nothing more than to lose herself in the pages of a book. She also loved to draw, write and take photographs. When she was 12 she started 5 years of Domestic Science classes at school, in which she discovered a passion for cooking. She loved English, art and history and singing hymns. When not reading or drawing, she was always busy sewing, knitting or doing embroidery.

The year she turned 12 her parents gave her a five year diary for Christmas. It only lasted her for four years because once she turned 16 she couldn't fit everything she wanted to say into the small space available.
         
In 1963 her father made his two children a heavy wooden sled, (which English children call a "sledge.") It was painted maroon, and because he also nailed aluminum strips to the wooden runners, it ran as swift as the wind! That winter the girl developed chilblains--painful itchy patches on the backs of her heels, from prolonged time spent outside in the cold in damp footwear.

This is what she wrote on this day, December 29th, over the four years she kept the diary! 

1963:
Daddy's finished our sledge. But a sledge isn't much good without snow. Oh, for the fun of whizzing down the hill at top speed. 

1964:
Today the snow thawed a little and I was the only girl on the sledge track. They waited for me to go down and then raced down after me and pelted me with snow.

1965:
Today the ice thawed and then froze again. There was a queue of about 20 cars up Bear Hill. One overturned and another skidded right around. I had a Christmas card from Han. It was sweet; much nicer than the one I sent him. I realize now that I never really liked Andrew. It was four months ago exactly yesterday since I met Han at Eskaline's party.

1966:
After work today Eileen phoned to invite me over on Saturday night. Di phoned later, when I was having a bath, so I had a mad dash out. I helped Margaret type out some addresses. It is nice to spend an evening at home for a change. There are so many little things to do. Di has done her hair like mine.

On December 30, 1966 she wrote:
Tomorrow will be the last time I write in this diary. Sad in a way, but I've grown out of the ink blot and funny lyrics on the fly page stage. I wonder what will become of me in the next year. So much has happened in the past two years especially...I cleared my bedroom out tonight. That has changed too, from a mess of school books and satchels to a place full of little bottles of perfume and boxes full of treasures and mysterious sweet smelling jars.

It is hard to believe that the girl that I was, wrote those words almost 50 years ago! Eileen is still my friend--we spoke by phone just yesterday, but Diana, mentioned in the 1966 entry, died in January 2003 of breast cancer. We were friends to the end.

Although I haven't recently whizzed down a hill on a sled, all the things I loved then, I love now.

I felt so completely different to everyone else in my family back then that I wondered if I had been planted among them by aliens. It has taken all of the intervening decades to relax into my skin and recognize that like every other person in the world, I have my place and unique purpose to fulfill, just as I am. My purpose, and how it fits with all that I am, unfolds daily.

I don't believe God is threatened by our questions and uncertainties, and as I continue my journey of life, it is as a seeker of God's truth; growing in an ever deeper understanding of who he is and who and how we should be that rings true to my heart and spirit. From girlhood to womanhood the journey of growth continues!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Life of Celebration

I've been busy baking many pies this week, so instead of writing something new, I am sharing a post from the archives--first published 5 years ago as part of a series of posts about the time in our lives when our children were growing up and we were house parents to a group of 12 men with disabilities. This is about our Christmases then...


Brenda and I sipped our Saturday morning coffee recently, sitting back in comfortable armchairs in the sunshine that streamed through the windows of our spacious back room. She was thinking back to her childhood and the impact it had on her, her ten years of growing up at Maplewood Lodge.

She said, "I was always surrounded by adults who listened to me and made me feel as if what I had to say was actually interesting."


"And we celebrated everything!"

Yes, we did celebrate. We celebrated St. Patrick's day by giving prizes to the person who wore the greatest number of green items of clothing or we had Irish stew and mashed potatoes tinted green; we made the same special heart shaped cookies each year at Valentines; we had parties with old fashioned games like Pass the Parcel, and Blind Man's Bluff and Musical Chairs--all played by our children and the men we cared for. Every occasion was duly feted, including 16 birthdays a year, for which I baked and decorated all of the cakes. Our surroundings were humble in terms of furnishings, but those things are so unimportant really when it comes to the enjoyment of life.

The fun, as a parcel is tossed from hand to hand, with layers of paper torn off in the interval when the music stops was intense! Many times the " paper ripper" would have to be urged to stop ripping when the music started again and pass on the parcel that grew ever more tantalizingly small and close to the inner surprise with every layer. Hands held onto that parcel tightly before letting go, willing the music to stop before it passed on. It makes me laugh even now to think of it.

Christmas was the crowning Celebration of Celebrations and preparations began in late October with the baking of the Christmas cakes--a rich concoction from an English recipe, into which after baking for hours in brown paper lined tins, I would poke holes with skewers and pour in brandy, wrapping afterwards in brandy soaked tea towels and putting them somewhere cool to ripen. Sometime in early December the cake would be unwrapped and brushed with sieved apricot jam with which to adhere a layer of almond icing. This would be left to harden for a day or so and then came the layer of royal icing.

I once bumped into Mr. McKenzie, the administrator of Pine Ridge when I was there for a meeting one November and he asked me how things were. I said that I was very busy baking for Christmas. He asked why I was baking and not just buying. I tried to explain that Christmas was home made. It made it more special somehow and each year the same special treats issued from the kitchen and were carefully stored out in the cold breezeway: rocky road fudge; shortbread; sugar cookies decorated by the children; mince pies, and many other delicacies.

We began a tradition of having a big Christmas open house in December, to which a stream of 80 or so people would come: family members, staff from Pine Ridge and friends of the men who lived at Maplewood. We would have large bowls of cold salads, plates of turkey, English trifle and all of the baking would be out for the occasion. We would always spend time after eating, singing some carols.

Christmas shopping and wrapping was a huge undertaking for our large household. It was unthinkable that there would be inequity in the quantity of presents. We recognized that we owed our living to the people we had moved in to support and on Christmas Eve, after they went to bed, I crept into their side of the house and laid piles of presents to add to those from their families, beneath the lights that twinkled magically on the tree. Everyone cooperated by going to bed early that night of the year as if by some unspoken agreement, and there was a hushed anticipation over the whole house. There was at least one true believer in Santa Claus amongst the men, which added to the magic.

In the silence of Christmas Eve, I was often the last person up, padding around the kitchen making last minute preparations for Christmas Day. The wind would blow and snow swirl across the lonely fields ourside, and the sense of waiting was tangible in the air, just as it must have been on the night of Jesus' birth.

I went to bed late on Christmas nights, having stuffed a large turkey and put it in the oven to cook overnight.

We would put one present on the children's beds for them to open when they woke up but then the day of waiting began for them! They enjoy telling now what torture they went through, but it is with laughter.

After a quick breakfast we would all go and join the men around their tree. Some would have gone home for Christmas, but there were usually about 7 who hadn't. The names on the presents would be read out by Paul with a Santa hat on; on his hands and knees by the tree. One person in particular, would never open any of his presents, but would sit while his pile accumulated beside him, until there were no more presents under the tree. Then, and only then, would he begin to open them.

Around our tree the presents beckoned, but we had church yet! Paul would take the children to church while I prepared the Christmas dinner. On his way home he would stop and pick up our very dear, elderly friend, Miss MacDonald, my beloved "Aunt Agnes." Aunt Agnes never married because her first beau died in the First World War and she left the second love of her life behind on the mission field in Africa, when malaria forced her to return to Canada. One year after Christmas I asked her what she had done for Christmas and was crushed to hear that she had spent it alone. I had imagined that she would be in demand at many Christmas tables. I vowed that as long as she lived she would never spend another alone.

Eventually the children, Paul and Aunt Agnes would arrive back from church and sometimes Paul's family would join us too. By this time the children would be getting phone calls from their friends, asking what they got for Christmas. "We don't know yet!" they would say, to the disbelief of their friends.

We didn't intentionally spread the day out like this but there was just so much to be done! Eventually all the presents were opened and dinner was served. The best of all times came then, when the afternoon twilight would deepen and the Christmas lights would twinkle in each room. Boxes of chocolates were opened and snacks laid out; turkey sandwiches made for the evening meal, and a happy quietness settled over all of us in the house. Sated and tired we snoozed intermittently and had another chocolate or two, grateful for the blessings of Christmas.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Traditions Held Dear

Did you know that the word "tradition" comes from the Latin "tradere"; to transmit, or give for safekeeping? Thank you Wikepedia for that information! 

This, of all times of the year is bound up in tradition. Who can't look back on their childhood and remember, not just that there were Christmases, but the particular way in which it was done; the little rituals that you could count on?

When our children were growing up, they knew that they would have one gift on their bed, along with a Christmas stocking when they woke up on Christmas morning. I think we hoped (vainly) that this would buy us a few more minutes in bed! 

As new families form they make their own traditions based on thier values. One young mom with two preschoolers has begun a tradition of sharing their family Christmas with friends who would otherwise be alone. How true to the spirit of Christmas to shift the focus from giving things, to giving the gift of welcome. 

And sometimes we hold onto traditions that don't seem to make sense because they matter to someone. A coworker told me that his teen aged children insist that their Christmas tree be cut from the lot up north where they have cut them for years. He ruefully shook his head with a smile, knowing that he would have to make the trip this weekend even though it would be much easier to put up an artificial tree or cheaper to buy a real one locally.

But it isn't that rituals and traditions can't be adapted or changed. This year two other friends and I have renegotiated our Christmas traditions to better suit our circumstances. The fact that there were "negotiations," speaks to their importance to us.

Today we celebrated St. Nicholas' Day with our six grandchildren. They call it, "Dutch Christmas"; a way of including part of our heritage in our celebrations. I made sugar cookie dough and the children rolled it out and cut out cookies with the same cookie cutters their parents used when they were children. Each year they decorate them with greater skill; more sugar lands on the cookies and less on the floor! 


It all had to be fit in today between hockey games and a Christmas play rehearsal, a window of a few hours in the afternoon of a busy day. Sue, our daughter-in-law, collapsed into a chair when she arrived. "The children have been looking forward to this for weeks," she said, "But I just kept telling myself, "If I can just get through Saturday!"

"Well, it's almost over!" I said.

That was when a little voice from the next room said, "But I don't want it to be over." 

And if I needed to know, I knew then it was worth it; the making of dough at midnight after a week of caroling and parties; to have "kept safe" for another year, something precious to the heart of a child.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy to be "Here"

Exactly one week ago today Paul and I heaved a joint sigh of relief and relaxed as we have not been able to for four months--the four months that our house has been on the market.

It was July 23, in the hot and verdant Ontario summer, when the "For Sale" sign went up on the front lawn of our beloved house. I wrote about the emotional turmoil of that, here.

A big part of what prompted our decision to sell was that maintaining the acre our house sits on was getting hard for Paul. He was living with chronic joint pain, and as we anticipated our retirement next year, it felt like time to downsize. But we prayed throughout the process for God to guide--and we are still here.

In the four months of having a lock box on our front door; a sign in our foyer saying, "please remove your shoes;" and visiting real estate agents' cards on our hall table; I learned a lot that I am grateful for. I wrote with a groan in July about "the ruthless tidiness of it all." Keeping the house clean and tidy without lapsing was something I didn't manage to do perfectly I'm afraid, so I had a few quite rapid and breathless cleaning sessions for surprise showings; but here are six things useful things I learned.

1) Clearing the house of clutter makes cleaning much easier and I will maintain a clutter free house forever. I'm not sure yet what to do with the boxes of things we packed away and haven't missed, but I'm not unpacking them!
2) It is possible to hide a lot of things that you need to use on regularly and just get them out when you need them. I discovered all kinds of flattish oblong zippered containers for underneath furniture and lots of clever ways to store jewelry other small things. The local Solutions--Your Organized Living Store became a favourite destination when staging our home.
3) Keeping surfaces clutter free is soothing to the eye and soul. 
4) A house can be an "anchor" of sorts to people. Several people from our cell group, and the writers group that meets here, said, only half jokingly, "You didn't ask us," when we put our house up for sale, and some of our grandchildren were not impressed. 
5) People have interesting reasons for not liking a house. More than one family said that they loved the house but considered the fact that it is opposite a cemetery unlucky, or bad feng shui.  I find the old cemetery peaceful and see it as an asset. There is a practice called, Memento Mori, which is Latin for "remember that you have to die," which I recommend in this age of youth culture and denial. As a child in an English village I walked to school through a cemetery and played there with friends afterwards, the past and present co-existing naturally. I find that a cemetery makes me more aware of the brevity of life and also causes me to cherish greatly the gift of still being able to make a difference in the world. 
6) What is perfect for us, is not so perfect for other people. Our home has been built and shaped over the years around our lifestyle. It is perfect for gatherings and has many spaces in which to close a door and be alone, but it doesn't have many bedrooms or all of the shiny new elements that buyers look for now, including ourselves when we were looking at other houses. We can now see our home through more realistic eyes, and yet appreciate its perfect utility for us. 

Recently Paul went online and did some research on a statin drug he was taking to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart. He learned that the joint pain he was living with could be a side effect of the drug. He decided to stop taking them and within 3 days, he was pain free. The drug he was taking to manage his pain came with a risk of heart attack--the thing he was taking the statin drugs to avoid--a potentially deadly cycle! 

Having eliminated one of our main reasons for wanting to move; and realizing that we could happily stay put; we counted down the last few weeks of the real estate contract and celebrated at the end of it.

It was with joy that I watched Paul haul in the box from the garage with our artificial Christmas tree and put it up for another Christmas here, when we thought we would be celebrating it elsewhere this year.

Our Sale of the Century is indefinitely postponed!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Connections

There are times imprinted in memory because of the seasons in our lives in which they occurred, although memory can also be a fragile faculty.

At the monthly meeting of the writers group that meets in our home, November's topic was Memories/Remembrance. Everyone came at the topic uniquely. We met on November 11, Remembrance Day, and one person, instead of writing, brought memorabilia of generations of her family at war and spoke of her hopes and fears now that a son-in-law has enlisted. We passed around her fascinating items and photos. 

I shared the story of my father's two months overseas during the war, right at the end, and I brought out one of my own treasures, a rifle oiler from World War 1, a gift from my nephew John in 2011. You can link to my post about the rifle oiler, with photos of it, here.

Magda shared a story about her family's history, starting in Holland during World War 11 and then continuing into their first decade or so in Ontario after emigrating in the 1950's. They were hard years fraught with disappointments and losses. Her memories of childhood were of the difficulty of adjusting to a new country and culture under harsh conditions. It was as she read with pride of her father and recounted his many jobs, that I listened even more intently. One of them was as the janitor at Ardills Department Store and Ski Shop in Aurora. 

"I worked at Ardills!" I said.

"When?" asked Magda.

"1969," I said.

Magda nodded with a smile, "He would have been there then."

I couldn't remember ever meeting the janitor, which wasn't surprising since he would have most likely been there after closing time, but I wrote a blog post about the women I worked with there after arriving in Canada from England; a homesick 19 year old newlywed; in 1969. The post was entitled, The Ladies of Ardills, and you can read it here.

The women I worked with were each distinct in their personalities. Four of them had grey hair and I thought of them as so much older than myself, which they were by at least 40 years. And now I am at least as old as they must have been!

And then a strange thing happened, a resurrection from the vault of memory! I suddenly "saw" a man in dark blue overalls with a head of abundant fuzzy white hair, that I had completely forgotten until that moment. "I do remember Herman!" I said,  hoping that I hadn't manufactured a man from my imagination. But Madga said that her dad's hair was curly, so I am sure that it really was him I saw in my mind's eye.

Stocking Cap With Long Tail Knitting PatternAnd then in Magda's story, a man named Billy was mentioned; a young man with disabilities who would come by the store to pick up the flyers for the newspaper. Out of my mental archives, a long forgotten short, dark haired man, sprang; wearing a scarf and an over sized black winter coat, unzipped. A long stocking cap with a tail that swung from side to side behind him with every step of his unsteady gait. It was pulled down above a sharp featured but cheerful face. 

"I remember Billy!" I said, amazed at the  emergence of memories that had been lost until that moment.


That year I went through the rite of passage, from girlhood to womanhood, and then to motherhood. I was homesick and lonely and the women of Ardills filled a little of my need for family. I had somehow lost Herman and Billy in my memory bank but thanks to Magda's story they are back.

And I can't help but be amazed at the silken threads of connectivity that so many decades later, brought Herman's daughter Magda and I together, through our mutual love of writing.

Post Script: A photo sent by Magda, of her father.