Monday, November 30, 2015

A Christmas story: the poinsettia saga

About 20 years ago, our single Christmas poinsettia was still green and fresh-looking well into the springtime. It was still so lovely in April, I decided it should be saved. I filled some pots with soil and I cut it back quite ruthlessly. I dipped the cuttings into a little rooting hormone and stuck them into the extra pots.

(As always, my reminder: click on the photos to enlarge.)

They lived and grew. Every spring, I kept cutting back, adding new pots, looking for nooks and crannies in the house where they could reside all winter. For the first few years, I followed book rules and covered them every night so they'd have a period of complete darkness. I used dark garbage bags. Then, for awhile, I started stashing them under the table and hung blankets around the sides to block any light. I got tired of that though so I began to treat them like all the other plants. It's been many years since I've worried about them getting light overnight.

After they're cut back, I put them outdoors for the summer. They love being outdoors and stay out well into October. They grow lush and green and they thrive. All these photos were taken this past summer so some of these are just a few months old.

Many pots of poinsettias moved to Ottawa with us in the mid '90s, in the moving truck, and lived happily there in two different houses. After a few years, we all moved back to Halifax – toddler, cats and about 20 poinsettias.

Many of the plants produce red bracts for Christmas. They're not at all like the big gaudy ones you see in the stores which look unnatural to me now but that's because these ones look so natural.

There are 17 plants at this point – there have been more and there have been fewer. In the photo below, the one in the top left corner is the Mother of them all. Her main stem is woody, like a small tree trunk. Long may she live.

Below are some of the red bracts that were produced last year although this picture is at the end of the winter when they've become scraggly and are ready to be cut back and ready to enjoy another long summer outdoors.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Still won't stay in his seat

I published this photo on Facebook yesterday.

My caption was: This guy – Will O'Connor – known as William to his mother (me) will be 21 tomorrow, November 29. This was taken in the Morada Motel in Chatham, NB, when William and I were on our way to the wedding of my beloved niece and nephew, Lisa Marie Knowles and Mike Knowles.

When William was about this age, I wrote an article about him and, among other things, I said, "From the beginning, William was – and remains – a good sleeper, a good eater, a little fellow who seems to enjoy life." That why I love this picture. It expresses his love of life so openly.

He was an exuberant child. If I had a nickel – as they say – for every time a teacher called me from the school to tell me William had been sent to the office, I'd be rich. His crime was always the same: he was rough-housing. He and Sebastian were wrestling. He body-checked Rhett in the hall on the way to the gym. The teachers always made a point of acknowledging that William was not mean or malicious – he was high-spirited.

But rules were rules and the rule that seemed to be at the top of the rule-book was the no-touching rule. William broke that rule on a regular basis.

I confess, there came a day when I got tired of the phone calls though. I respect teachers beyond most other professional people and you couldn't pay me enough to do their job. But the day the teacher called and said, "William won't stay in his seat!" was the day I answered back. In retrospect, I'm sure she was having a bad day and had just had it up to here but at the time, I guess I'd had it too.

"What do you want me to do, Madame?" I asked. "Do you want me to come down there and tell William to stay in his seat?" I think she quite quickly realized that it must have sounded a little silly to me because she quickly answered, "No, but I thought you should know." I thanked her for that and then, because I felt bad for her, I said, "You know what? You can tell William that if he doesn't stay in his seat, I'm coming down there. I think that will help." I don't know if she did.

When he was in grade three or four – can't remember which – he had a little assignment which was to write 10 facts about his mother. He was in French Immersion so his facts were all in French.

He started with the obvious: he said I was a good cook and, quite endearingly, he said I took good care of him. He said I was a writer and editor. At about number four, he wrote, "Elle est une communiste." I swear, to this day, I wonder what the teacher must have thought when she read that. I didn't see it until the end of term so I think I saw her several times between when he wrote it and when I saw it. It was never an issue, as far as I know.

I'm not sure where that came from although it might have been that I defended Castro's Cuba against so much of the American propaganda that even school-kids seemed to hear. I didn't always insert myself into kids' conversations but if I heard something that I thought deserved discussion and another point of view, there I was.

William still takes a huge interest in politics, in how the world works and in all current events. He keeps a closer eye on much of it than I do and he loves to talk about issues, from local to international, from US presidential candidates to Putin and Turkey. He enjoys hearing a historical perspective and making connections. Dan has worked in politics most of his adult life and William loves hearing what happens on the inside of politics. He and Dan actively worked together on two recent election campaigns.

He also loves to talk about sports – basketball mostly – and music and movies and other aspects of pop culture. He has kept Dan and me interested in things that we might have missed.

He moves constantly while he's talking – walking up and down the room, sitting then standing, walking in another direction. It clearly helps with his thinking and I listen to him happily and I never phone anybody to say, "William won't stay in his seat."

Over the years, William has willingly gone with Dan and me to the theatre, to Symphony concerts, to movies that he probably wouldn't choose on his own. He always appreciates them and is always glad he went. One day, not too long ago, I told him I had got him a ticket for some show or other. I said, "I think you'll enjoy it." He said, "I enjoy pretty much everything, Mama."

It's not a bad way to go through life.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Talking turkey

We always have lovely turkey at our house – Thanksgiving and Christmas – so I don't identify at all with people who always seem to have a bad experience. It's a process though.

We get our turkey from our farmer – she takes orders and we pick it up a couple of days before we need it. Her turkeys have lived a good life; they've eaten well, had some freedom, were never treated badly or cruelly. They've never had antibiotics or steroids – or any medication. They've grown up less than an hour from where we live.

It definitely makes me feel better.

The day before we're going to roast it, we brine it. If it's really big, we use the big cooler and just put the whole thing right in there. Dan does the brining and he's used different things at different times: kosher salt, brown sugar, maybe some herbs. The turkey stays in the brine overnight and in the morning, it's drained and dried.

Before the roasting begins, I like to put some nice fragrant additions into the cavity: wedges of orange or lemon, lots of onion, garlic, handfuls of mixed herbs – sage, thyme, rosemary. Sometimes, I take some of those same flavours and use them under the skin. I slide my hand between skin and breast to make a nice pocket and slip in some thin slices of lemon, garlic and whole sage leaves.

I know most people swear by butter rubbed all over the outside of the turkey and I like that too. Who wouldn't? But sometimes, if I've got the lemon fever, I rub the skin all over with olive oil, then with a cut lemon, then I zest some lemon peel all over. I sprinkle with coarse salt and roughly ground pepper and Bob's your uncle!

Then comes the roasting time – and here's one way I like:

You can see that with this barbecue, I could put the drip pan under the rack so the turkey sat directly on the rack. I liked that.

This picture is from Christmas 2009. The turkey's almost done. You can tell by its lovely colour and also by the fact that I'm already fixed up and ready for our dinner guests to arrive.

By 2011, we had a different barbecue. It was good in many ways but, as you can see, the turkey had to be placed into the pan because the rack was too close to the heat source and the pan wouldn't fit under there.

See what I mean?

This turkey still has a way to go. The skin is not yet browned the way it should be and I'm not even dressed yet!

Roasting the turkey on the barbecue is fun. It doesn't seem like as much work, it does seem to keep the turkey moist and juicy, and the drippings are always lovely and brown and make delicious gravy.

If you haven't done it yet, try it this Christmas. I recommend it.

P.S. Of course, I make dressing! I make it in a baking dish. Bread crumbs, onions, garlic, summer savoury, salt, pepper, chicken stock – and some of the turkey drippings drizzled over it for extra taste at the end.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Back to Shakespeare

We went to see The Winter's Tale this evening, another filmed London stage play. It was broadcast live to Europe and we saw it on a bit of a delay.

As we were leaving, some people sitting around us said, in our general direction, "If you ever get a chance, tell us what that was all about!" They were laughing but they seemed to imply they'd had a hard time following it.

Dan and I enjoyed it. I had a short text exchange with William during intermission and he said, "How's the play, Mum?" I said, "It's intense Shakespeare."

And it was. You really needed to focus; if your mind wandered, you were in danger of losing the thread.

The acting was superb. A Reuters story said this:

Her cutting words were written by William Shakespeare, but the withering stare the straight-talking Paulina focuses on co-star Kenneth Branagh's insanely jealous King Leontes in a new production of "The Winter's Tale" is pure Judi Dench.

Dench's stare, at the end of the first half, has had audiences sitting on the edge of their seats since the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company's production of Shakespeare's late-life portrait of the wreckage wrought by jealousy opened this month.

It is a "moment I shall long remember," Guardian critic Michael Billington wrote.

The play is thought to be one of Shakespeare's later works and was first performed in 1611. It's not performed as often as many of his other works but it's getting a warm reception in London right now.

During intermission, we were amused by a recitation of Bernard Levin's Shakespearean quotes. Here it is although it's probably more fun to listen to than to read yourself.

On Quoting Shakespeare

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me,"

you are quoting Shakespeare;

if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning,

you are quoting Shakespeare;

if you recall your salad days,

you are quoting Shakespeare;

if you act more in sorrow than in anger;

if your wish is father to the thought;

if your lost property has vanished into thin air,

you are quoting Shakespeare;

if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy,

if you have played fast and loose,

if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle,

if you have knitted your brows,

made a virtue of necessity,

insisted on fair play,

slept not one wink,

stood on ceremony,

danced attendance (on your lord and master),

laughed yourself into stitches,

had short shrift,

cold comfort or too much of a good thing,

if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise

why, be that as it may,

the more fool you,

for it is a foregone conclusion that

you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare;

if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage,

if you think it is high time and that is the long and short of it,

if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out

even if it involves your own flesh and blood,

if you lie low 'till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play,

if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason,

then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head)

you are quoting Shakespeare;

even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing,

if you wish I was dead as a door-nail,

if you think I am an eyesore,

a laughing stock,

the devil incarnate,

a stony-hearted villain,


or a blinking idiot,

then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! - it is all one to me, for

you are quoting Shakespeare.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Living it up, cat-style

Our couch is old and worn and when we want it to look a little nicer, we spread a lovely Nova Scotia tartan blanket over it. The blanket belonged to Dan's late Mom so it's sentimental as well as just being good to look at it.

We often use the lovely blanket when we have people coming over but the cats – Grizzly and Junior – don't know that. As far as they're concerned, lovely blankets spread on the couch are for cats' pleasure and enjoyment. They often watch in anticipation as the humans are spreading the blanket and as soon as it's in place, so are they.

(Don't forget to click on the pictures to see the big ones.)

These cats don't particularly like each other but when there's common cause – a comfy not-every-day nap space – they're willing to tolerate each other.

They seem to have become aware of the photographer so they go into pose mode.

"Look at me. Do you think I have enough fur? Do you think I'm beautiful?"

And then, when we're ready to take the blanket off and fold it up until next time and we've obediently waited for the cats to decamp, we find that one of them is not finished yet. Grizzly has tucked under to have one more nap.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Backstage at the Vatican

When we were in Rome, it took us a few days to get up the nerve to call the priest whose number we had brought with us from Halifax. Our parish priest at that time was Italian and when he heard we were going to Rome, he insisted on giving us the name and number of one of his former professors who now worked in the Vatican Secretariat of State. He said his old friend would be delighted to meet us and would show us around the Vatican.

We called him on a Saturday, just before noon. We explained who we were and named our priest and Father L. instantly treated us as if we were old friends and told us to come right over. He said he had a couple of hours before he had to be somewhere but he'd be happy to give us a tour. He told us to go to the Bronze Door and they would tell us what to do then.

The Bronze Door

We went in through the very impressive doors and gave Father L.'s name to the Swiss Guards on duty. We were directed toward a small office to be issued visas because we were, of course, leaving Italy and entering a separate city-state. We knew that but somehow, we hadn't thought about it when we left the hotel because we hadn't brought our passports.

Fortunately, we all had ID and we had Father L. awaiting us so we filled out all the forms and we were admitted. We were given precise directions and we found ourselves climbing a flight of marble stairs and it dawned on us: we were inside Vatican City.

I have always been interested in behind-the-scenes details. I like being backstage in theatres; this past summer in London, I liked being inside Buckingham Palace and hearing how preparations are made for public events. I didn't expect secret details in the Vatican but I enjoyed seeing things that weren't on anyone's regular tour.

We made our way to Father L.'s office and he was warm and friendly and welcoming. The tour was informal and informative. He pointed out priceless art as we strolled along the corridors. Once, he waved his hand casually toward a large painting and said, with Italian flourish, "Raphael." There were antique maps along the walls of one corridor and paying attention to our origins, he made sure he pointed out Nova Scotia and some of the misconceptions of the early map-makers.

We walked along one corridor on our way to the outside and he gestured down the hall and said, "That's where the Holy Father lives." It was summer and he wasn't there but it seemed kind of exciting anyway. When we were outside, he showed us the various locations where the Pope would meet heads of state when they came visiting. As we walked from one courtyard to another, he said that we were just behind the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums and he pointed out damage to the back walls that he said would collapse if they weren't soon fixed. I think he was exaggerating. I don't expect to watch the news one day and see that a wall of the Sistine Chapel had collapsed!

Because Father L. was so hospitable and his tour was so interesting, we didn't stop to take photos. I'm sorry now that we didn't but it probably would have seemed a bit inappropriate – like being shown around someone's home and snapping pictures in every room.

We did take this one, on a terrace right near Father L.'s office.

Maybe we'll get to take pictures the next time.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Grammar rules

There are numerous sites around the Internet where the rules of grammar are chiselled in stone and where frighteningly knowledgeable people are ready to scold you for your little mis-uses.

I've been one of them although I always tried to cajole rather than scold. The Writing Resource, a team of writers, editors and educators used a blog I wrote about grammar and proper use of words. Many of my pet peeves are included in the blog and I hope you'll go and have a look because for sure, you'll see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I'm not going to rehash my favourites (tow the line? bare the pain?) but they're there, along with scores of others.

You might think we've come to the end of the line. All the mistakes have already been made and from now on, it's just a matter of re-hashing the old ones until everyone has been corrected and chastened and, in the end, enlightened.

Think again. I have a new one.

A few days ago, I was reading the comment thread in one place or another and found myself oddly absorbed in a heated discussion between two people – strangers to me and, I think, strangers to each other. One of them became very annoyed which caused the other to say (and I'm paraphrasing both of them): "You seem to have taken unbridge at something I've said but I stand by my opinion." The other guy said, "Yeah, well your opinion is wrong and furthermore, I didn't take 'unbridge' as you said. I took 'umbridge'."

Well, I take umbrage at both of you. I considered dropping in on the conversation to say just that but I thought it would be obnoxious.

Good grammar and using words correctly are all very well but we must remain gracious.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Hamlet-the-character: regularly redefined

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet was playing in London while we were there recently. We had checked on tickets before we ever left home but tickets had sold out in an hour a full year before the play opened. There were 30 tickets made available for each performance when we were there – first come, first served – and people were sleeping overnight on the sidewalk in front of the theatre hoping to score. We weren't among them.

The production didn't get good reviews but Benedict got rave reviews for his portrayal of Hamlet.

However, we did see it in the end, in a movie theatre in downtown Halifax. This was a filmed version of the stage production. We had read all the negative reviews but we weren't deterred from seeing it. I'm glad; I was blown away by it.

Before it started and during intermission, you could see the audience going in and out, getting some wine and snacks, stretching their legs (it was over three hours!) etc. That was fun – it was a little like being there.

Benedict is a wonderful actor – and must be exhausted by the end of it. He plays Hamlet with great energy and bravado. It is one of the most-produced plays of all time and I'm sure I'm just the latest in a long long line of people to say that Hamlet-the-character is regularly redefined by the last actor to play him. Over the last few days, I've watched (thanks, YouTube!) some of the actors who have risen to the occasion and who've been acclaimed for their performances. I found them all so different from each other.

John Gielgud played Hamlet anguished; Richard Burton – determined and confident; Laurence Olivier – forlorn and sad; David Tennant – a little bewildered. Hamlet, it seems, is whoever the actor portraying him decides he is.

After the curtain call at the theatre in London, Benedict always stepped forward and talked to the audience about the refugee crisis in Europe. He asked the audience for donations to help the refugees and by the end of the run, he had raised a lot of money for the cause. He spoke to us in the movie theatres after his performance also and was eloquent in his plea for people to help in this humanitarian emergency. He quoted an excerpt from the poem Home by Warsan Shire.

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory

is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land. . .

You can read the rest here.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Yes, the only Mom on the corner wearing mink

I have a mink coat. This is exactly what it looks like:

It's a gorgeous coat. My late mother-in-law gave it to me several years ago. She had stopped wearing it and felt it was a waste to keep it hanging in her closet all winter and placed in cold storage all summer. It's soft and luxurious and without any doubt, the warmest garment I have ever been lucky enough to put on.

I wore it occasionally, mostly if I were out in the evening to the theatre or the symphony. I thought the crowd there would be accepting of my sartorial choice. If they weren't wearing their own fur, I assumed they'd be a little envious of mine.

I also wore it on the coldest days of winter when I had to go up the street and stand on the corner waiting for the school bus when William was a little guy. It was freezing cold out there and I was the only Mom on the corner wearing mink. It made the wait bearable though.

I haven't worn the coat for quite a long time. I love it but I realize now that I always felt a little self-conscious when I was wearing it. I assumed people were looking at me – I honestly don't know if they really were – and I found that idea kind of uncomfortable.

I also felt guilty. I am completely opposed to killing animals for their fur and I wondered if I should wear a little sign to that effect – or maybe print small pamphlets to hand out while I was wearing it. I wanted to explain that I would never have bought it myself and I don't in any way encourage or condone the fur industry but it already existed and it had been given to me.

I considered lying to people and telling them it was faux-fur. "They're doing a wonderful job these days of making it look like real fur," I would say.

If the truth be known, I also always feared that someone might, against all likelihood, throw red paint at me. I wasn't thinking of the coat being ruined. I was thinking of the aggression and how upsetting it would be. I didn't like the idea of drawing attention to myself in a negative way and perhaps having to deal with the consequences.

So I gradually – not consciously – stopped wearing the coat. I still have it. I still remember how sumptuous it felt to snuggle into it.

I'm talking myself into getting it out and wearing it on very select occasions.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Canada Bereft: In the right place

The Canada Bereft statue at the Vimy Memorial in France is also called Mother Canada and sometimes, Mother of Canada. She looks bereft and you can feel sad just being near her.

“Mother Canada” or “Canada Bereft”: A female figure draped in a cloak stands alone on the wall at the north-eastern side of the memorial. She bows her head and is looking down at a stone sarcophogus, representing Canada's war dead, at the base of the 24 foot (7.3 metres) wall below her. The magnificent view across the Douai plain and the location of the old enemy of the time spreads out before her. This figure is called Mother Canada or Canada Bereft, representing the nation of Canada mourning for her dead. The figure was carved from a single 30 tonne block of limestone.

The memorial is vast and she is very much to scale. She's overwhelming only in the compassion she engenders.

Compare her to this:

This is the statue – also called "Mother Canada" – proposed for Green Cove in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It is the subject of much controversy not least because it's so ugly – a monstrosity, it's often called. It's also planned to be located in a National Park and it's a blatantly commercial venture, masquerading as a site to honour Canadian soldiers who didn't come home from the wars.

Those are all legitimate reasons to shut down this awful project and there's another good one. The statue in France stands in the middle of a battlefield. She's surrounded by graveyards and numerous reminders of the tragedies she's mourning. She's part of something much larger than herself.

She's so moving because she's in the right place.

And let me add this assurance – with definite reference to the commercial plans for the monstrosity – there is no Canada Bereft Gift Shop anywhere in sight.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

In Memory of Their 60,000 Dead . . .

I don't know if I really buy the mythology about Vimy Ridge – the often-quoted assertion that the battle was a defining moment for Canada, "when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness." It sounds a bit romanticized to me, the kind of emotion I try to avoid when looking at wars.

But it doesn't really matter what I think about it. The Battle of Vimy Ridge is a major part of our history. I've known veterans of that battle – gone now, of course – and as we so often do when we look back, I wish I had asked more questions about it. I wish I had known which questions to ask.

We visited the Vimy battlefield a few weeks ago. As always – as I've described here – I can't imagine the scene as it must have been. I can't imagine it because I can't conceive of it.

It looks like this now. We know it didn't look like this then.

It's a very peaceful site which seems appropriate. People are quiet. You get the impression they're trying to absorb the history that surrounds them. But maybe I'm reading too much into the atmosphere.

I've seen lots of pictures of the cemeteries – you have too – but I'm not sure any number of pictures can prepare you for the endless fields of graves – not only the Vimy cemeteries but the cemeteries that cover miles and miles of surrounding countryside.

The Vimy Memorial is instantly recognizable and is as impressive as everyone has told you. It's very very big; it dominates the surrounding landscape and commands careful attention from all sides. It's made up of many sculptures, all of them with symbolic – mostly religious – meaning.

The Canadian Memorials are all seen to be expressions of grief and mourning unlike some of the national monuments which are seen to depict triumph and victory. In keeping with the religious imagery,

"the figure of 'Canada mourning her fallen sons' makes a clear reference to traditional images of the Mater Dolorosa (the Virgin Mary in mourning)."

Most of the people I knew who served in the wars didn't talk about it – not about the bad stuff. We have to try to understand it outside the history books through the trenches, the tunnels, the exhibits, the graves, the memorials. It's a representation of history, an album of pictures that's put been put together with love and respect and with much dignity. There's an air of sadness all around but enduring the sadness is surely the least we can do.