Friday, August 4, 2017

Our Exhibition: a highlight of every kid's summer

When I was growing up in Chatham, New Brunswick, the Exhibition was the highlight of the summer. It usually fell conveniently right around the end of August, just before Labour Day although I do remember a couple of times when it was held in early September, after school started. How awful it was for us kids to have to sit in hot classrooms, windows wide open, and hear the tempting sounds of the carnival — the music, the carney announcements, the general hubbub. We could hardly wait for the bell to ring so we could get over there.

The Exhibition was divided into three distinct parts: the building, the midway and the barns. Even as young people, we felt some responsibility to survey the exhibits in the building when we first arrived. This was quite mature of us as the building was mostly commercial exhibits, farm machinery, appliances, lots and lots of raffle tickets — which we mostly left for our parents to buy. There were also baked good, pickles and preserves to be judged and there was w wall-full of local art.

The building was a landmark in Chatham, on a hill behind a large grassy expanse that was used for parking. Later, there were paved lanes in between the grassy parking areas but in my earlier memories, there were unpaved tracks and I remember it as being quite haphazard.

This building was built in 1937 and it burned down in a spectacular fire in 1993. It's since been replaced.

After our dutiful turn around the building, downstairs and up, we were free to head out to the midway with clear consciences. In those days, it was always the Bill Lynch Show and like it or not, the Exhibition was judged on how good the midway was that year. Some years, the rides and the sideshows were scant; people complained and threatened to write letters. The problem was, Bill Lynch could supply a certain number of carnivals at the same time but some years, it became clear, the carnival contents were stretched too thin and all you could do was hope that the following year, schedules would be staggered and we'd get our fair share.

You can tell this photo is taken in Chatham because you can see the famous steeple of St. Michael's Basilica in the lower left.

We would usually wait until we were out on the grounds before we started eating although I remember one of the service clubs — the Lions, I think — served fresh buttered corn on the cob, right inside the main entrance. It was so good, it probably didn't occur to us that we were making a healthy choice to begin our feasting — and maybe with all that butter dripping down our chins, it wasn't all that healthy.

I don't know whether it was a widespread habit or just in my circles but we never got our fries from that first truck on the midway, the high truck on the left. It was always said that he charged more and gave fewer fries per serving — taking advantage of his position.

Right across from that fry truck was the Bingo tent which we had no occasion to enter, not being Bingo players. I think there was an age restriction anyway. I suppose it was considered gambling — but weren't all the games? The back wall of that tent was covered with prizes. I remember table lamps — dozens of table lamps. I remember seeing lots of people over the course of an evening carrying those lamps off too. I'm sure it was an appreciated prize.

The gaming booths didn't hold a lot of attraction for me. I remember as a very small girl, Dad giving me a handful of dimes for the duck pond, which I loved. The prizes were always a long slender flexible stick with some kind of cheap-o toy attached to the end. I can still see the keeper of the duck pond reaching up for another of those prizes which would last about a day.

Much later, my boyfriend during my last summer just after high school was a ballplayer with a good arm. I definitely took home a prize stuffed animal every night of Exhibition Week that year. There's teenage status, of course, connected to walking around the midway carrying a big teddy bear and I enjoyed it while it lasted.

When it came to rides, I was strictly a ferris wheel and merry-go-round (after the little kids had been taken home) kind of girl. As a small child, I'd been taken on the tilt-a-whirl and I screamed so loud and disturbingly, the carnie had to stop the ride and let me off. I promptly went around behind the ride and threw up. That was it for me. Ever since, I've avoided rides that go up and down and spin around.

I do remember another ride that I got on. I think it only came to our Exhibition once although I could be wrong. This ride was called The Caterpillar.

It was a small roller coaster. You were fastened in to your seat and the ride started up and did a few revolutions in the open air. A few minutes in, the green covering started to emerge from the centre. It rose straight up, like the convertible cover of a car and then it gradually folded over and covered the seats and you finished your ride in darkness. Quite interesting now that I think about it. I'm guessing that it's not commonly found on midways today.

Back beyond the games and the rides was another phenomenon that has faded away. This is the side-show — including what was commonly called the "freak" show (The Wild Man of Borneo, The Fat/Bearded/Tattooed Lady, The Armless/Legless/Torsoless Man) and those showmen of particular talents who ate swords and fire and cavorted with snakes.

My friends and I, doing our official rounds of the midway, would stand throughout the barker's sales job as he did his level best to entice people into the tent. He would bring out "samples" and use them as part of his selling point. He was loud and seductive and I can still hear that almost-hypnotic persuasion. I was never inside, of course. People in those days didn't routinely carry ID as far as I know but the barker knew who to let in and we kids all knew we weren't going in.

I grew up, interestingly enough, with a rather warm and affectionate memory of the "girlie shows." I think it's because one day, my friends and I were coming back to the midway from the barns and we somehow got in behind the sideshow tents but still inside the midway fence. There were two or three little trailers there and people milling about. There were women on chaise longues getting some sun, chatting with each other, doing their nails. And there were small children running around playing! We suddenly realized that we had stumbled into the living area of the stars of the girlie show and maybe some of the other sideshows as well. They were families and this was the way they were spending the summer.

It seemed so charming and natural that all sense of titillation was lost on me. I suppose that's why they were tucked out of sight back behind the tent stages.

In an unusual twist, one of the memories that comes back to me about the Exhibition is of something that I didn't personally witness. Twice a day — 5:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. — the high-wire aerialist climbed the tower and began his act. (I know my photo is of a female but as I remember the high-wire acts, they were usually male.)

It was always scary, a lot of breath-holding and gasping and occasional exclamations. Those towers were high — often more than 100 feet — and there was always great relief when the aerialist came down.

One day — I'm pretty sure it was the afternoon show — my friends and I had just left the grounds and were out in the area in front of the building. We could hear the sounds that always accompanied the high-wire act and suddenly, there was a sound that was so different, it's impossible for me to describe it properly. It was a scream of fear and horror and disbelief. We didn't know until later what had happened. The aerialist had — working "without a net" as it was always advertised — plunged to the ground. My memory fails me here although I think he was taken to the hospital (which was nearby) and he may have remained alive for a couple of days but I can't say that for sure.

That event haunts me still. I can hardly bear to think about it. I can't imagine how it must feel to someone who was there.

Years later, I was back living in Chatham and I was editor of the newspaper, the Miramichi Press. By then, the Exhibition — while still fun — was an event to be covered in the paper. Our job was to find new stories about the Exhibition — or to find new angles on old stories.

One hot afternoon, I was wandering around the midway and I thought it might be a good idea to see if I could get an interview with the high-wire aerialist/acrobat. I went and knocked on the door of the trailer that was next to the tower. I knocked several times, in fact, and finally, the door was opened a couple of inches. It was a woman and when I told her why I was there, she said no interview, not under any circumstances. She said he was resting. I honestly can't remember the conversation but after a bit of back and forth, she did let me in. I think maybe he heard the conversation and gave his assent.

(I don't remember their names. I'll call them Paul and Marie. Who knows? Maybe those are their names.)

It was nice in the trailer. There was a fan running and it was dim. Paul was sitting at the table. He was wearing a tank top and sweat pants. His upper body was heavily muscled which I guess is not surprising. Marie was heavily made up and wearing what was obviously a wig. They both smoked a lot. They seemed older than I thought they would be.

We chatted. It wasn't so much an interview as it was people sitting around on a hot afternoon, exchanging life stories. I can't remember where they were from or how they got into the high-wire act business — it was probably something as ordinary as people who were working with the carnival gravitating toward the tower and practicing until they knew how to do it. It was a job to them and they didn't seem to find it any more unusual than anyone would find their job. I think they told me they would finish the circuit in Atlantic Canada and then head for Florida where they would spend the winter.

I sensed at one point that they had become quite suggestive and it was clear that they were interested in me as something other than a local reporter. I made a casual reference to my husband and they reacted quite positively to that mention and wondered if I could get him over to join us. I thought maybe it was time for me to go and I made a graceful exit. I thanked them for their time and wished them all the very best.

I came back later to watch the act with Marie. She didn't go up the tower but she had a crucial role on the ground, co-ordinating the act, adjusting the guy-wires, timing his moves to get him down safely. There was no conversation. She was working. The whole experience — watching him go through those dangerous moves after having spent a couple of hours together — was very tense for me. When he was safely on the ground, I waved and slipped away. They disappeared into the trailer.

I wrote my story and it was published later that week.

Several weeks later, a letter arrived, hand-written in bold black ink. It was from Paul. They were on their way back to Florida. He had seen the story and wanted to thank me. He said he usually avoided reporters because, in his experience, they never got it right but he thought I "got it" and he liked my story. He said Marie sent her regards.

I hope they both lived to a ripe old age and retired in their trailer to a nice Florida beach.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Writing my life — Chatham, Black River, Montreal, Halifax

“Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.” — Gloria Steinem

There are people in my life who feel this way and I admit, it resonates with me too. In fact, I started Each New Day to encourage myself to write, if not every day, at least regularly. I noted that I was spending a lot of time commenting on other people's Facebook posts and thus, in effect, losing my observations some of which, I said in that first post, "were researched, others that were well-thought-out and carefully written."

So I wanted to keep track of what I was thinking but also, I wanted to write almost every day. We were still living in our house on Duncan St. and although I sometimes suggested that I was in a rut, I was really just keeping to a carefully maintained routine. I'm a night owl and I always wrote my blog posts late at night. It seemed natural then. I wrote about the issues of the day or something wonderful I'd cooked that day or a short reminiscence about a recent trip we'd taken.

We moved in October, partly because I wanted a change in routine — which I happily got. I'm still a night owl but for some reason, writing blog posts at midnight doesn't come naturally to me that way it did last year. Who knows why? Don't mind me; I'm just thinking out loud.

Something else happened. I discovered I liked writing about my past life, memoir-style writing. It turns out that my readers like those pieces too. My most-read piece — by far — is a little story about a lake in the woods near Chatham, NB, where I grew up. Close behind are stories about things I lost when our house in Black River Bridge burned; a sweet story about the legendary ball-player, Billy Daley; and a three-part love story about the boy who disappeared.

My problem is, I have a lot of stories partly written but I'm out of the habit of getting my writing done and published every day. I'm confessing this because I want to change my behaviour and it's a well-known fact that if your confession is public, you pretty much have to follow through.

Meanwhile, one of the small but interesting projects we began in our new place is that we take a photo at the same time and place every day, just to watch the world change around us. Because I often tried to be at the window at noon anyway, to see the puff of smoke when they fire the Noon Gun (and hear the boom, which takes a second or so to get here), we decided to take our photo at noon. We started the photo series on March 20, the Spring Equinox. We haven't missed a day yet.

The photos I'm showing you here are one month apart, the last one being June 21, the Summer Equinox. When we started, we took the photos from inside, through the window. The weather is now beautiful and we take it from outside on the balcony.

We would definitely be aware how our scenery changes even without the photos. It's rather nice to watch it happen consciously and intentionally though. I'll be sure to show you more photos, as time goes by. You wouldn't want to miss the ones when we're so socked in by fog you can't even see the hotel.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Something old, something new in the tart world of rhubarb

Every year we're challenged anew: what can we do with the springtime gift that is rhubarb that we've never done before? (Rhubarb is a gift of springtime but it's also a gift from our friend Valerie who generously brings it to us from Amherst. She's often looking for new ways to enjoy rhubarb also.)

It often feels as if we've done it all. We've made jams and jellies; pies and crisps; cakes and muffins; chutneys. We've made cordial and compote, sweet sauce for ice cream, savoury sauce for chicken and meat.

Last year and again this year, we've had a delicious rhubarb coffee cake for Dan's birthday.

We're by no means finished this year — we will get back to the tried and true, the old favourites.

In the meantime though, I did try something new. Here are clues:

(The Junior cat showed up as a distraction)

You're right. It's rhubarb pickle. It's very easy and the combination of cider vinegar, fresh sliced ginger and lots of pickling spice should make a very flavourful condiment.

They have to sit for a couple of weeks so I'll let them do that and I'll report back.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mothers: reduced to nothing, blamed for everything

I wouldn't want anyone to think I've lost my anger even though I may express it more calmly than I used to. I have to tell you though, I'm glad there was a time when I would write a piece like this — on Mother's Day yet! — and never think twice about the fallout.

This was a column I wrote in The Daily News for Mother's Day, May 12, 1991. It was just a few months after the start of the First Gulf War. I remember exactly where I was when that war started; I still remember watching the surreal scenes on television of bombs falling on Baghdad — little green explosions on the TV screen. I was sad and I was angry.

This column grew out of that sadness and anger.

Sometimes, when I want to refer to something as a “motherhood issue,” I write “so-called motherhood issue.” I do that to acknowledge society's meaning for the expression but also to point out society's ambivalence — not about the issue, but about motherhood. My “so-called” is usually excised by a sharp-eyed editor who no doubt asks himself, “Is it a motherhood issue or not?”

A few weeks ago, I quoted a few lines from an article by American sociologist Carol Cohn. The article, Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals, deals with the images and languages of war and its weapons. She prepared her article after spending a year at a centre for defense technology and arms control.

There's no shortage of research that suggests that some of the rage men feel toward women is rooted in envy of the biological power of women. I shudder every time I hear about fertilized eggs being implanted in a male body in one further step toward appropriating childbirth, and I emphatically disagree when I hear a woman say, “I wish they could have the babies and leave us out of it.”

Cohn found much childhood and motherhood imagery in the nuclear war industry. In December 1942, she writes, a telegram sent to the physicists who had developed the atom bomb read, “Congratulations to the new parents. Can hardly wait to see the new arrival.” The bomb was often referred to as “Oppenheimer's baby.”

The hydrogen bomb was referred to as “Teller's baby,” although “those who wanted to disparage Edward Teller's contribution claimed he was not the bomb's father, but its mother. They claimed Stanislaw Ulam was the real father; he had the all-important idea and inseminated Teller with it. Teller only 'carried it' after that.”

Cohn discovered that the idea of male birth and its accompanying belittling of maternity — “the denial of women's role in the process of creation and the reduction of motherhood to the provision of nurturance (apparently Teller did not need to provide an egg, only a womb)” — has survived to this day in the nuclear industry. She quotes an officer talking about a new satellite system saying, “We'll do only the motherhood role — telemetry, tracking, and control — the maintenance.”

Incidentally, the imagery doesn't stop with the “parents” but continues on with the “children.” In early testing of the nuclear weapons, scientists expressed the hope that the baby was a boy, not a girl — that is, not a dud.

So I guess you're thinking, if childbirth and motherhood have been reduced to so little importance, how come you get blamed for everything? Is it really all your fault?

These are the words of the revered Carl Jung on the subject:

“My own view differs from that of other medico-psychological theories principally in that I attribute to the personal mother only a limited etiological significance. That is to say, all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity.”

Having reduced women to nothing, writes Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology, Jung then blames them for everything.

In the early days of what we so blithely call civilization, motherhood was the only recognized relationship — the one that was easily identified. It's really only since someone thought up the idea of marriage and exclusive sexual rights that paternity has become an issue — in fact, that paternity has been given such significance that mothers who raise children without a father are disparaged and discriminated against.

A “motherhood issue” is something we're supposed to accept as good without thinking about it. A good education system, universal health care, enough food for everyone — these are motherhood issues. Or are they so-called motherhood issues? You see my problem.

Happy Mother's Day, anyway.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

'The most popular opera in the world' — big & full & lush

La Traviata, it's said, is "the most popular opera in the world." It's often said with a bit of a sniff, as if its very popularity is a negative thing.

I do like it, as it happens, and I've liked it for a long time. I first became familiar with it when a boyfriend gave me a long-playing album of the orchestral version — no singing. I was a Montreal General Hospital student nurse, at that time doing an affiliation at the Montreal Children's Hospital. We were sitting in a restaurant near the old Montreal Forum and when he gave it to me and I read the title, I really had no idea what it was.

I can't remember where I first listened to the record — I'm pretty sure there were no record players in the public areas of our residences — but I listened to it somewhere because over the years, it became very familiar. Eventually, I preferred the opera with the singing included but I kept this record until very recently, when we moved and parted with all the hundreds and hundreds of LPs in our collections.

The music of La Traviata is big and full and lush. The singing is emotional and sensual. Productions of this opera usually match all those descriptions with colour and elaborate costumes and grand sets. They're often described as sumptuous or florid.

The Metropolitan production of 1957, starring Renata Tebaldi, was one example.

A production in Rome in 2009 was another example:

On a recent Saturday afternoon, we saw it Live from the Met with — as they like to say — "audiences around the world . . . when it simulcast the matinee to over 2,000 theaters in some 70 countries as part of its Live in HD series."

Sumptuous and florid, it was not. I thought this review described it well:

The curtain rises on a mostly bare stage with a huge semi-circular wall stretching from wing to wing and a curved bench placed in front of it. A gigantic clock leans against the wall at stage left and a man dressed in black, with white hair and stubbly beard, sits on the bench next to the clock, hands on his knees, staring off into space as though waiting for someone to arrive.

He, of course, represents Death, or one of his henchmen, and he will stalk Violetta throughout the opera, popping up unobtrusively in various scenes until the final one when he (played by James Courtney) sings the small part of the doctor attending her in her final hours.

During the Overture, Violetta herself enters wearing a bright red dress. She first collapses on the bench as though exhausted from a night of partying, then hauls herself up and staggers across the stage as though her feet hurt, kicks off her shoes, and sits next to the man.

The walled-in stage serves as the set for all scenes, allowing for both scenes of Act II and Act III to be sung without pause. Some boxy IKEA-like couches are added for Violetta’s and Alfredo’s villa outside Paris where Alfredo prances around in boxer shorts. The chorus, all dressed in black suits and ties, men and women alike, invade the stage for the party scenes, emphasizing a male-dominated society. The clock gets moved around some. It’s all very arty.

Although I'm trying to be more open-minded, it's possible that if I'd read this before I went, I might have had second thoughts. Thank goodness I didn't. I loved this production. The very starkness of the sets magnified the effect of the music, the characters, the story.

In truth though, the real star of this show (along with Verdi, of course) was the Star.

Sonya Yoncheva was so appealing. Her voice was magnificent and her acting was so heartfelt — so playful, so sexy and sad, so human. She was almost never out of our sight and her energy never flagged. It was a performance that has stayed with me and keeps popping back into my head.

The theatre, opera, ballet that we've been able to see at the Cineplex Events have become one of my favourite things. I'll come back another day and tell you about some of the other wonderful productions we've seen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A photo project, a Mrs. Enid sighting & rubber leg syndrome

The Halifax Public Gardens are closed in the winter. I had never given that much thought until we moved across the street. I'm glad they're closed; it looks so restful over there. As the snow comes and goes, the flower beds and the paths change shape and direction. The pond freezes and snow covers it. The temperature goes up and it's open water again. The Gardens are filled with exotic plants, rare trees, tropical shrubs, and they need this peaceful break.

On the first day of Spring, we started one of those projects you so often read of other people doing. We decided to take a photo every day at the same time (approximately) of the same view for a year. Dan wanted to get fancy and buy a tripod and do it "properly" but I wanted a more casual project. We'd just go to the window and take the picture. We decided on a view that includes the Public Gardens and Citadel Hill.

Because I usually try to be near the window at noon, to see/hear the Noon Gun from the Citadel, that seemed like a good time to take the picture. (I separate "see" and "hear"because even though the gun is not far away, there's an obvious pause between when we see the puff of smoke and when we hear the boom.) So far, we've done the photo every day. A couple of times, we were going to be out so we took the photo early but that's to be expected.

A couple of days ago, I was waiting at the window and scanning the surrounding area when I noticed people walking inside the Gardens. They didn't look like intruders so I assumed they were City workers. One fellow set up a tripod and I thought maybe they were going to be doing some surveying.

Then I noticed there were a couple of women with them, women who looked a bit familiar. There was something about those cloth coats, the little hats, the fur-trimmed snow-boots, the handbag hanging over the arm. "I think that's Mrs. Enid," I said to Dan.

Regular viewers of This Hour has 22 Minutes will recognize the wonderful Cathy Jones. Mrs. Enid is always seen trudging somewhat tiredly down a path in a park, expounding on life. She used to do it regularly with Eulalia — played by Mary Walsh — but I don't think it was Mary with her this time. I'll wait for the program. It was a cold windy day and the way TV is, for a five-minute skit, they were there for at least two hours.

There was one more little drama to play out that day. Just before 7:00 p.m., there was a fire alarm. It was very very loud — quite alarming, in fact — and the cats didn't like it at all. Me either. We didn't know what the protocol was in a situation like this so we opened our door and went out into the hall. The only neighbour out was the young man who lives next door. He looked pretty relaxed and said since he's lived here, there have been a couple of such events and they were both false alarms. He thought he'd wait and see if anything happened.

We decided maybe we'd better head down. I put on my winter jacket and boots and grabbed my phone, my keys and a pair of gloves. So much for, "What treasures would you rescue if you were escaping a burning building?" We told the cats we'd be right back and we hit the stairs.

Now remember, we live on the 17th floor — that's our building on the left. Count four balconies down from the top and that's us.

It was awful in the stairwell. There was a wind blowing through there. It was echo-y. People kept joining us as we went down — old people, young people, families, some with babes-in-arms. In one family, two parents and two small children, both adults carried a violin. They knew what to grab on their way out.

I found it very hard. I couldn't set my own pace because there were people ahead of us, people behind us. I didn't want to be the one who broke the rhythm. I was very thankful for the railing which was continuous and steady.

We did eventually find ourselves in the lobby which was full of people and tiny dogs. The alarm was still clanging and when it stopped, the cacophony continued because those little dogs hadn't been able to hear themselves before. They had to make up for lost time. The firetruck was in front of the building but after about five minutes, the firefighters came through the lobby and they declared the all-clear. False alarm. Dan left and went off to a lecture where he'd been headed when all this started, our building manager opened the elevators, and I took the liberty of going ahead of a parade of little dogs and got on the first elevator.

By the time I reached the apartment, my legs felt as if they were made of rubber. I was very glad that we didn't have to walk up the stairs but who knew going down all those stairs would be so hard? At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I honestly did use muscles in my legs that I didn't know were there. My legs were very sore for a couple of days and I will head back to the treadmill so I'll be more prepared if the occasion arises again.

Friday, March 10, 2017

There's a long long trail a-winding *

Finton Sanburn O'Donnell was born on May 12, 1896, in Carroll's Crossing, Northumberland Co., New Brunswick on the upper reaches of the Miramichi River.

On November 9, 1915, he travelled to Sussex, NB where he enlisted in the 104th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Six months later, on June 28, 1916, the Battalion embarked at Halifax on the S.S. Olympic (the older sister of the Titanic and the Brittanic) and set sail for Europe. (If you click on the pictures, you'll be able to read the small print.)

I never heard him talk about the war but I do know that he fought in the north of France and in Belgium. I connect him with Passchendaele and his service record seems to suggest that he fought at Vimy Ridge. Right at the end of his CEF Soldier Detail form, there's a cryptic note that suggested he might have been killed at Vimy. Look at the very last line:

He wasn't killed at Vimy but it may have been there that he picked up all those pieces of shrapnel that remained embedded in his body for decades after. I have a clear memory of him being in the hospital — I think it would have been in the '60s — for "removal of World War I shrapnel." If he went back to Vimy today, he would find it has changed although there may be landmarks he would recognize. It looked like this when we visited in 2015.

After the war was over, when he came back home, he married my mother's oldest sister — Lou, or Lulu. She had been teaching at the little school in Durham Bridge where she and her brothers and sisters had grown up. At some point after they got married, they moved to Smoothrock Falls in Northern Ontario where two of Lou's brothers had settled with their families.

But their future was in Durham Bridge. They came back and lived with Lou's family — their only child, Cedric, was born there — while Fint built the house that I visited throughout my young life.

The house is still there, in a lovely shady yard not that easily seen from the road.

It was a pretty house. It has some charming features that were particularly attractive to little girls. There were inviting built-in bookshelves in the triangular space beneath the stairs. Lulu had lots of books that we loved reading, including most of the works of L.M. Montgomery in old-fashioned hard-cover editions. I was reading one of them one day when it came time to leave and she insisted I take it with me. I still have it.

Upstairs, there was a cozy bed at the end of the hall, built into the space where the two slanted walls of the roof met. It was where I slept when we stayed overnight and I liked it partly because I could see whatever coming and going there was in the night, being out there in the hall. It showed a lot of imagination and creativity to have built that little bed in that space. People with less imagination might have simply put a table there — not nearly as interesting.

The screened-in sunporch at the front of the house was the chosen place for spending an afternoon during a summer visit. I can still feel the soft breeze and almost smell the fragrance from the flower garden, not far beyond where we sat. The women always sat on one end of the porch, the men on the other. There would be tea.

As with most country houses though, the kitchen was the heart of the house and the focal point in the kitchen was the built-in sofa/day bed. It was an inviting spot and I spent many an hour curled up there, reading. It seems odd to me now but it seemed perfectly natural then that stacked near the bottom of the day bed was a pile of The Illustrated London News. We often walked with Fint up the railway tracks to the station to get the mail and I remember a couple of times, a bunch of The Illustrated London News would have arrived. It was an occasion; those papers were much anticipated.

The kitchen sink with a water hand-pump was in front of a low window that looked out onto the garden. There were the usual rows of vegetables but the spectacular parts of the garden were the flowers. There were sweet peas and gladiolas, roses and pansies, cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, nasturtium. Those flowers were magnificent. At a certain point in the summer, every room in the house would be adorned with bowls and vases full of roses. It was a touch of such beauty and elegance.

Fint reputedly was not that fond of children but he seemed to like Marilyn (my sister) and me and we spent a lot of time with him. The land that belonged to the family was rented out and farmed by a neighbour but Fint still liked to take a walk down through the fields and he often took us with him, especially when there was haying or harvesting being done.

Although he had retired from working the farm, he kept some chickens and a black cow called Lady in a small barn not that far from the house. I was a little scared of Lady although not when she was in the barn. We loved being there when Fint was milking Lady. There were cats and kittens in the barn and he would send a stream of milk toward them and the cats would leap with open mouths to catch some milk, nice and fresh. He sat on a three-legged stool and milked into a shiny metal pail and from there, the milk went into a beautiful large amber pitcher, right into the fridge.

One time, Fint took us up the road to a supper in the community hall. It was baked beans, brown bread, potato scallop and ham. I'm not sure why no one else went to the supper but Marilyn and I were happy to go along with him. It was a good supper too and looking back, I remember how respectful all the people there were toward Fint. I had never seen him except in very familiar family situations and it was nice to see that his neighbours felt so warmly toward him.

Lulu did most of the cooking in the household, as far as we knew, but apart from that, she sat in her rocking chair like a tiny Queen. She was said to be "delicate," which caused her younger sisters to scoff. "She'll outlive us all," they often said and indeed, she did.

She was always nicely turned out and it was no secret that Fint regularly took the bus into town — Fredericton — where he exchanged her library books, bought a box of chocolates, and brought dresses and shoes home "on approval." She would make her choices and on his next trip, he'd return the rejects.

When Lady and the chickens were gone and he needed more challenges, he built a workshop just across the yard from the backdoor of the house. It was another place that he welcomed us and I loved going out to the workshop. Inside, there was a workbench on one end with every kind of saw and a good selection of tools. In the far corner, there was a cot and along the opposite wall, a pot-bellied stove. There was a record player with a selection of 78 rpm records that he was using to learn another language — Russian, I think.

Near the window, there was an easel where Fint painted pictures, usually still life of fruit or flowers. He built the wooden frames to put around his pictures. The floor was covered with curls of newly-planed wood. I loved the smell of the shop, the fresh wood, the paint, the turpentine.

He built furniture also. Mum had a sturdy little end table in her den that he'd built.

And he built this:

My lovely little bookcase — always called "the Sharon bookcase" — has now been with me for several decades. Its first home was in my bedroom when we still lived in the "hydro houses" in Chatham. It stayed home with Mum and Dad for awhile but it's now part of my furniture and has been for many years and in lots of houses. It's just outside the kitchen door here — a high-traffic area — and it's full of cookbooks which seem to suit it very well.

When I look at it closely, I see what a labour of love it truly was.

That's a little drawer along the top and the letters that spell my name are cut from wood and painted silver. Think of the work! I wish I had appreciated it then the way I appreciate it now.

It was the bookcase that inspired me to write about Fint. He really was such an interesting person. I had no idea when I was little. How would I know? But when I look back at the man who built such an interesting little house with such imaginative details; who was teaching himself another language; who read The Illustrated London News; who grew the most beautiful flowers ever and also painted their portraits; who built a personalized bookcase for his little niece never knowing that more than half-a-century later it would hold pride of place wherever I lived, I'm filled with admiration.

When you hear the expression, "a life well-lived," you don't always think of a life like Fint's, a life on a small farm in central New Brunswick, in sleepy little Durham Bridge.

I think his life qualifies though and I would like to think he thought so too.

* As often happens, I have no particular reason for choosing my headline except for a song that keeps running through my head as I write. I do think of the First World War when I think of Fint although I think of many other things too. But I like this song and I listened to a version that was recorded by John McCormack in 1917. You can listen to it too. You don't have to download it. You can click right at the top of the page where it says Vintage Audio. (Adjust the volume on your keyboard. It opens very loud.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My virtual journey to the land of the politically unhinged

It started one day last week when I was reading a Facebook discussion about the latest from the Trump administration. It was the time of the infamous ban on immigration from certain countries; his prayer breakfast ask for better ratings for The Apprentice; his angry and inappropriate conversations with world leaders; and his Black History Month statement with the astonishing reference to Frederick Douglass.

Most of the people in the Facebook discussion — progressives all — were expressing various degrees of outrage, shock and embarrassment. It was the mention of embarrassment that raised the subject of people in the US who had voted for Trump: do you think those people are regretting their vote? Do you think they're feeling remorse and will be joining the resistance as time proceeds?

It was right about then that a commenter showed up to say something like, "Let's give him some time. Every new president has to learn the ropes and he should be given the same chance as others."

This is not an uncommon view on the Internet but I was surprised to see it in this particular discussion. So I popped over to his place to see what kind of fellow he was. I took a look at his profile — he's a Canadian — and checked out a few of the discussions on his own page. Nothing outstanding. Some of his friends looked intriguing though so I took a ramble around. The people I clicked on were American but apart from that, completely random — I chose them either because I found they were interesting looking or they made a comment that invited further investigation.

It's hard to come up with numbers but I clicked on dozens of different people starting with that fellow and moving through whole colonies and communities of his friends and their friends and so on and so on. Most people don't use tight privacy measures and all of the people I checked out had hundreds — some had a few thousand — Facebook friends. I read many many discussions on their pages and saw little disagreement among the participants so I think it's fair to say that I managed to get a wee taste, at least, of the political climate.

The people I chose were not wild-eyed, tobacco-chewin' reprobates. Many, but not all, of my choices were women — women who garden and who lay a lovely Thanksgiving table and have grandchildren. They're church-goers and they quote the Bible regularly. There were quite a few from Texas but also people from Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, California, Maine and I'm sure a few other states I'm forgetting.

Having spent a few days following a variety of their discussions, I can assure you of one thing: they do not regret voting for Donald Trump. On the contrary, they love everything he's done so far and they're looking forward to whatever outrageous thing he does next. They couldn't be happier about his cabinet and judicial choices and the harder the Democrats fight against the appointments, the more gleeful and gloating these Facebookers are.

I can see something else very clearly: their love and admiration and support for Trump has risen to the top of their political lives but it's built on a foundation that is solid and enduring. That is their malevolent, toxic, vicious hatred for President Obama.

The accusations of Satanism are just the beginning. On most of the pages, when he's mentioned, he's referred to as Barack HUSSEIN Obama II. The hatred of Obama is matched only by the hatred and fear of Muslims which is never far from the surface of the discussion. It is also deeply rooted in racism and full of words and images that I can't get out of my head and that I'm certainly not going to report here. I will only say that more than once — many times, in fact — I have seen references to "our" America (quotation marks theirs) and I've often seen a picture like this. . .

. . .with the statement, "Thank God, we have a real family in the White House now."

Now I wasn't that surprised to see and experience the hate. I've always known it was there. Anyone who follows US politics knows it was there. I admit that I was taken aback by the extent of the virulence of some of it and there are plenty of posts, memes and pictures I wish I could un-see. I'll have to hope it fades.

If I wasn't surprised by the hate, I was surprised by the love. I don't know if it's really love but it's expressed that way.

"I love President Trump so much," was one simple post I saw from a woman in Baton Rouge. There were no comments following it, just a series of sweet little heart icons. It made me sick, to be honest. I never thought someone could feel that way about Trump. But it wasn't the last time I saw that sentiment expressed. It was all over the place. It made me wonder how people could feel so differently about one man and his actions? How could Trump be mocked and ridiculed, scorned and despised by one group of people while another group swoons with happiness over every scandalous action he takes and every atrocious word he utters?

Two reasons: It's possible that the real divide in the US is where your information comes from. The Trump-lovers are not getting their information from the New York Times or the Washington Post or the LA Times or CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC — any of the outlets that Trump himself calls the "dirty lying media." Source of all fake news.

And if Fox News and Breitbart disappeared tomorrow, Trump-lovers would not be left high and dry looking for news. There are certainly hundreds — probably thousands — of "news" sources out there ready to pick up the slack. The appointments Trump makes, the things he says and does, and the things that others say about him are "reported" so differently as to be unrecognizable. When they read the beautiful things about Betsy Devos' life and beliefs and then read about the obscene, repugnant teachers unions and civil rights groups who spoke against her appointment — they're convinced. They love Betsy and anyone who's so kind and so generous will save and protect the children from the perverts who make up the education system.

So yes, media make a difference. But maybe not the biggest difference.

This picture has been going around in various communities. It's a big joke in some of them but believe me, to the people I've been visiting with, it's no joke. They not only accept this version of what's happening in the Oval Office, they believe it was ordained. One person posted, "If only you knew a little more about the REAL US history, you would know that Trump is a freaking force of nature sent by GOD to defeat evil! End of story!" The history he's referring to is slavery. He posts a picture of Jesus signing a bill then, a few breaths later, he launches into some of the most disgusting hate language I've seen all week.

So I think this is all pretty complicated. I wrote this because I became convinced that there are probably many people who voted for Trump who are not sorry and who love him and his presidency. I've now come to believe that if anyone tries to remove him, there will be hell to pay.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Regrets? I've had a few but then again. . .

One of the apartments I lived in as a young woman in Montreal had a French Provincial dining room suite — a table to seat six, a buffet and hutch. I remember them looking something like this:

I may be remembering them a little more elegantly than they were but these look close in my memory anyway.

There was nice living room furniture too — also some French Provincial pieces although the cat had really done some unfortunate damage to a pretty little love-seat. This kind of damage:

It was very unlike the chrome sets and plastic upholstery of most furnished apartments.

I enjoyed it a lot until a friend speculated that an elderly couple had probably been evicted for non-payment of rent and the evil landlord had seized the furniture and sent the dear old pensioners packing. That was a terrible story. I preferred the version that had the old couple passing away peacefully and their grateful family donating the furniture to the building in memory of their happy life there.

I lived alone in that apartment for awhile, an interesting experience for me. I had never lived alone. I wasn't working right then — by choice — and I enjoyed the leisure time I had, pursuing some of the interests I'd never been able to fit in. I spent time in museums and galleries, I browsed in the bookstores, I went to two movies — alone!— I had lunch with friends.

One day, when I was browsing in the record store, I ran into a fellow I knew through some mutual friends. I liked him. He was a lovely guy, smart, funny, a little shy. We had a nice conversation about the music we were both looking at and he was very enthusiastic about his purchases. He said he'd love to play them for me and I said I'd love to hear them. We agreed to get together at my place, order a pizza and listen to music. It was very casual.

He came over a couple of days later and it was fun. We talked a lot. We sat on the floor near the record player and took turns choosing music. We ate some pizza and drank some wine.

It was late when the conversation wound down and we started to dance. The music was soothing; the movement was easy and relaxed. What a lovely dancer he was.

Barbra Streisand was singing He Touched Me when we kissed, a soft sweet kiss that came so close to sweeping me away that I suddenly realized I had gone too far.

I was in a committed relationship and this was not something I would do.

I moved away from him, so sadly, and I told him this was wrong for me. It hadn't been my intention. He was sad too. He said it hadn't been his intention either and I believed him.

The buses had stopped running and he lived quite a distance away. I assured him it was okay if he stayed although those French Provincial couches weren't made for napping on. We both went in and lay on the bed, each on one side, on top of the bedding. When it began to get light out, he left quietly.

I continued to see him over the next few years — always in the company of others. There was plenty of laughter and music. I even have a few photos of him and me, fooling around, obviously having fun. The subject of the evening we spent together never came up.

Would this be a better story if it had ended differently? There's no answer to that. Stories don't end so easily. If I had chosen differently that evening, my story might have had a much different plot.

It's said that when we look back, we'll regret the things we didn't do more than anything we did. Maybe.

Maybe not.

Listen to Edith Piaf here.