Thursday, October 03, 2019

Family History


Like the journey of Granny's chest, I'm on a journey I never anticipated.

I wrote about the journey of Granny's chest in an essay by the same name in my book, Field Notes. In it, I talked about discovering that the old chest my sister and I had played in as kids actually came all the way from Liverpool, England, with our ancestors. Granny was my mother's great-grandmother -- not to be confused with her Gran, who lived in the house pictured above.

That house on Linden Avenue in Scarborough, Ontario, was built by MY great-grandfather (Gran's husband) in 1926. Granny's chest was in the attic of this house -- it was her son, Henry (my maternal great-grandfather), who built the house.
In the essay, I figured it out: John Everest and his wife, Sarah Ringer, immigrated to Toronto, Canada, from England. Their son, Henry, married Mary Latham, known as Gran. Henry and Mary were my mother's grandparents.
Gran lived in this house until she died.
After she died in 1947, my mother and her sister and their father (my mother's mother died in 1945), moved into this house on Linden Avenue in Scarborough. The chest -- which the family started calling Granny's chest -- was in the attic of the house. We have no idea if the chest belonged to John (Banny) and Sarah (Granny) Everest but it's a safe assumption since the chest had Liverpool painted on it, and they came from England.

The whole point in telling you this is: I lived in this house on Linden Avenue, too. I lived here from about four months of age until I was three. My parents sold the house and used their share of the proceeds to buy a funeral home in Cobourg. Until this week, I hadn't paid any more attention to this house on Linden Avenue than what I've seen in photos of the first three years of my life. The house disappeared from our family history, and from my life, in 1973, and I've never thought of it since or even asked to drive by it whenever we were in Scarborough.

But now that I'm working on a book about my dad, I'm returning to Scarborough and my early years -- thanks to Google maps -- and for someone who has moved around a lot in her life, I'm shocked by how much of my childhood landmarks STILL EXIST. The funeral home where my father worked, the fish and chips shop where we ate on Friday nights, the house my parents lived in when they were first married (and where they brought me home to from the hospital), and this: the house my great-grandfather built.

On the outside, nothing has changed. Those front windows represent what my mother remembers as the sunroom and the music room (two separate rooms I bet are now all one room with the living room because that's what I'd do). The living room windows were on the left side where the "front" door was, off the driveway. That room on the second floor overlooking the street? My room.

My room. It's still there. It won't look the same as my photos from the early 1970's. But in a world where so much has changed and is changing, in a city where people tear down the little houses to build lot-filling "monster" homes, the brick house my great-grandfather built 93 years ago still stands, looking exactly like it did when I wandered that street, with our dog alongside me, and stole the bread cooling on the window ledge at our neighbours' house next door.

My mother and I sitting in front of the living room windows.




Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Advice From A Sunflower


It's been a rough year for my husband's sunflowers. Because of the cold, wet spring, he was late planting his seeds. Because of a torrential rainfall on July 1st, he lost half of his seeds; they washed away or were too wet to germinate.

But a whole bunch of sunflowers did manage to grow, and were just beginning to bloom, several weeks behind schedule, when Hurricane Dorian flattened them all on September 7.

And yet.
The remaining sunflowers didn't lie down and die. They didn't give up. They kept growing. They kept blooming. They simply altered how they did it.
I didn't notice what the sunflowers had done until I went to cut a few for the guest bedroom and realized there isn't a straight stalk among them.
The photos show how the sunflowers kept growing upwards, towards the sun, even though the bulk of their stem was lying flat on the ground. The blooms are big and healthy and full of pollinators; even this close to the ground, the bees are finding them. They are as beautiful and bright as if they were standing perfectly straight.

Take this advice from the sunflowers, then: If your roots are strong and supported, no matter what storm flattens you, you will bloom. You can still achieve your purpose even if you are a little bent out of shape. Who needs you will find you. Your beauty will still shine brightly even if you are laying low.

Anyone driving by and feeling sorry for our flattened sunflowers is missing out on the real story of those surviving blooms.





Saturday, September 21, 2019

Smash and Crash


Once again, I smacked up against that old adage, You don't get what you want, you get what you need.
For the last two weeks, I've been busy. That usual mantra of "I'm so busy." I'm not overwhelmed, just working all the time. Lucky for me, even though I work - mostly write - seven days a week, there are plenty of breaks to keep me sane.
But still. I've been wondering if I'm doing too much on the writing side, trying to cover too many projects. Maybe I'm splitting my creative energy over too many areas.

This busyness has been exacerbated by a wonky internet connection. Our antennae was knocked out of alignment by the hurricane so using the internet, which is what I do for work, and for this blog, became extremely challenging. 

People often say to me, "I suppose you're working," or "You're always so busy." And yes, I am. But what these people don't understand is that I'm not at the point in my career where I'm settled and secure in my job and cruising to retirement. I have three part-time jobs: one pays well but I'm not good at it; one I'm good at but there's no future in it; and the third is the one I love doing but can't seem to make it more solid. I'm still chasing that dream of moving out of freelance writing and into book publishing.

I'm tired of it, to be honest.
An author friend recently suggested I take a break from writing, and by break, she meant step away from all writing for awhile. Actually do other work.
And I'm seriously considering that. The book projects can be on submission a long time so why not do on full-time job while I'm waiting?
So much to think about. I'm seeing signs my brain is getting worn out.

Now you're wondering what all this has to do with a photo of a bandaged thumb, and getting what you need.
Apparently, I need to rest. Or several days of rest. Because as I was getting ready for my bath last night, I went to close the sliding door in the bedroom and it was a beautiful night outside so I wasn't paying attention and for some reason, my thumb was over the locking mechanism.
Yep, what you just thought is exactly what I said out loud. For a long time. Smashed her up good.

So I took it easy today. My weekend To Do list included Fence garden out front, Sort bags in garage for recycling, and Clean spare room (Aunt Gail arrives on Monday). The chickens also need cleaning out and it wouldn't hurt to start cleaning the gardens.
There will likely be a few days of taking it easy, then supervising someone to be my hands because I can't do any of that work with a split thumb nail and some kind of hole in the pad of my thumb that I haven't taken a good look at yet.
I did nothing but read today. And type until it started to hurt my thumb.
I'm not getting what I want, but I guess I'm getting what I need.
And right now, I need another Tylenol.



Friday, September 13, 2019

Post-Hurricane Dorian Post 1

Leonard, supervising storm games. 
Finally getting a chance to post some photos of the category two hurricane that blew through Nova Scotia last weekend. Our power went out around 3 pm on Saturday and it was three days before it was restored. Our internet connection just came back yesterday afternoon. 
Fortunately, we have a generator so we were able to keep our freezer frozen, and the water pump pumping. I'm not one who wants the house to operate on a generator as if it's "business as usual". For me, the generator is part of the emergency system so I still used the water we had in pots and jugs, I didn't flush every time, and we played Scrabble by candlelight. With a little help from a friend. 
It was nice to be able to watch the news, though, and know what was going on in Halifax. 

Before Hurricane Dorian arrived - Saturday, Sept. 7

After Hurricane Dorian left - Sunday, Sept. 8
What was damaged simply added to our emotionally draining summer.
It wasn't bad enough Dwayne's sunflower crop was half of what it normally is because of a cold, wet spring -- and one final deluge at the end of June. Nope, we had to have a category 2 hurricane hit Nova Scotia just as the sunflowers that did come up were beginning to bloom.

The hurricane also cost us the two blue spruce trees that towered over the back of our house. They didn't snap at the truck; they simply pulled up out of the ground. My husband planted those 37 years ago; not a single bit of rot inside them. They were strong and healthy. I'm sorry to see them go, and I know the squirrels and birds will miss them too.
Dwayne was able to save about five feet of one trunk so that will get a bird feeder in winter and perhaps a bird house for summer.
The good news? The second one narrowly missed smashing onto the gazebo. Can you imagine if wed lost that a mere two months after building it?!


Hurricane winds are hard on the nerves, but this is yet another humbling reminder of what we can't control in our world. The weather will always remind us what really is in charge of our lives.
We also are humbled by the fact we lost sunflowers and trees but not our income -- like the farmers in the valley whose fruit and corn crops were blown to the ground -- or our lives -- like so many people in the Bahamas. 



Friday, September 06, 2019

The Secret of the Bones


Last evening, after shutting up the chicken coop for the night, I wandered over to my father's garden to check out the sunflowers I'd planted there. They finally are beginning to bloom. I pulled some weeds, read Dad's engraved stone, then started to looked up.
It's a poignant time around here because this is the time of year when the entire osprey family, parents and fledglings, leave the nest for good as they begin their migration south.
This is the time of normal leave-taking, as nature intended. This is the second year in a row we've been denied this ritual.

A little voice said to me, "Go walk in the field underneath the osprey nest."
I think I wanted to find a feather but instead I found an answer.

Only several steps in, a well-picked carcass lay abandoned in the grass. I believe it is what's left of the oldest, largest osprey baby, the one we last saw on July 29.



This discovery creates a slightly different narrative than the one we had in August.

I've assumed all three babies perished in the nest after, we believe, their father was killed by someone in the neighbourhood who has a trout pond. The mother -- perhaps injured in some way -- wasn't around much. This meant the three babies weren't getting enough food but it also meant they weren't being protected from the eagles.

I remember, on a few days after July 29, seeing the surviving osprey parent land on the edge of nest.  I can't recall if she had brought a fish with her. She seemed to be looking down in the nest, and at the time, this seemed both sad and gruesome -- she'd be gazing at the bodies of her three babies.
Now I wonder if she was looking for the offspring who'd been alive a few days earlier.

This carcass suggests that baby was picked off by the eagle. Unfortunately, as we learned in the summer of 2015, with an eagle nest right across the river (the result of 2014's Hurricane Arthur knocking down the longtime nest further upriver), our ospreys must be vigilant at keeping eagles away from their nest. One of the hallmarks of this new breeding pair was their attentiveness to the nest; there was always a parent in the nest. They were diligent about driving away the eagles when they flew nearby. But with one parent gone, our baby ospreys were alone for too long and the eagles took advantage.

It's one thing for ospreys to be deliberately and senselessly killed by humans, but another to be taken as part of the cycle of nature. As much as I don't want the osprey babies preyed on by the eagles, at least that makes sense. Nature is beautiful and brutal, and as much as it breaks my heart, at least it's based on primal survival instincts.

I collected everything I found in the area around the carcass and brought it all home (I'd hoped to find the skull but it's been taken away by the eagles or another animal). I wanted to photograph it and share this story. I wanted to show you the skin and claws still attached to one foot and leg. The one to the right I found in another spot.


This carcass has been out in the field underneath the osprey nest for over a month but I couldn't go over there until now. My grief and my anger made it impossible for me to even think of being near that space, let alone discover something like this. For weeks, I've been glancing at the nest -- involuntarily, I can't help myself, the habit it so ingrained -- and thinking of the bodies in there. Wondered if the "death nest" meant no other ospreys would ever want to take it over. And maybe that's better, if no one nests there again. If no one is tempted to fish trout of out the killer's pond.
Yet last night, that small voice told me to go into that space. I didn't find the assurance I need, but I did find a plausible answer to what happened.

What would not have happened if a human hadn't interfered with the normal cycle of nature.
Claws crossed, my friends, for a different outcome in the summer of 2020.



Saturday, August 31, 2019

Taking My Art Back

My field of flowers is on the left. Louise Cloutier's is on the right. Obviously.
I've had a breakthrough.
I remember how to paint. How to paint my way, the way I'm comfortable and confident painting. It's more random than precise, definitely not detailed. It's not the way of the paintbrush, but the way of the hands and the weird tools, with the runny paint and the splatters.
How I love to splatter!

I've been taking Louise Cloutier's art classes at ArtQuarters in Pugwash again this summer, a regular Monday night class and then periodic "One Hit Wonder" classes, which is how the field of wildflowers came to be. Of course I wanted to paint a field of wildflowers!
And after a summer of frustrating art projects which are a reflection of my negative head space and not Louise's teaching, that painting reminded me of how I used to paint when I first moved to rural Nova Scotia. I found it relaxing. But I got away from it; got busy, got discouraged, got distracted. Poured all my creative energy into writing.
But all write and no paint makes Sara an unhappy girl.
Because that's not the only remembering I've done this summer.
There are voices in my head that have nothing to do with writing. 

The Grade Nine Art teacher who told me not to bother taking any more art classes.
The teaching supervisor who told me, in my final practicum, not to bother becoming a teacher.
Twenty-five, thirty-five years later, those statements mean something: they mean a lifetime wasted. They mean not only a path not taken but a path denied. They mean countless of opportunities missed, potential not realized, decisions made based on wrong information.

I am an artist. I am a teacher.
I'm not skilled at either because I was denied the chance to learn by doing. My personality is the type that internalizes, boxes in, keeps quiet. I never told anyone. I wasn't the type to tell my parents and get outraged, to say, How dare he? and I'll show him.
I wasn't the type to say, "F**k you, I'm going to take more art classes, I'm going to become a teacher." But now that I'm 49 years old and living with the ramifications of not being an artist, not being a teacher, now that I'm saying, "I'm too old for this shit", I'm developing that necessary "F**k you" attitude.
The one that says I am and I will be, and I don't care what you say or what you think because
YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME. That's the new voice inside my head. Sure, it swears but sometimes, you need something strong and powerful and shocking. To wake you up. To make you take yourself seriously.
To make others back away and think twice about telling you what to do.

It's unlikely I'll become a teacher, I just don't have the experience or professional development to start now, but I'm going to be an artist. Wait - I am an artist. I'm just going to become a better one.
I'm going to draw and paint again. But with a plan and a discipline.
Thirty minutes a day on drawing. Drawing the same thing every day for a week. I'm going to start with drawing the chicken coop.
I've cleared off my drafting table so I can paint again. I'm going to paint the wildflowers again and again until I've learned something, until I'm satisfied, until it doesn't want to be painted anymore. I'm going to do torn paper collages because they are fun. I'm going to recreate a painting I did the first summer I was back in Nova Scotia, when I first came back, from the west coast, in 2002. Back when I first remembered what my Grade Nine art teacher said to me.

Well, F**k you, Mr. Livingston. The first book I write AND illustrate, I'm dedicating to you.




Friday, August 23, 2019

August Sunshine


This sunflower is growing at the edge of our rock garden. Not the inside edge but on the driveway side. It was "planted" by the birds eating sunflower seeds in the winter. Thank you, blue jays!
There are six other sunflowers scattered around our house that I dug up as seedlings out of our lawn. Two of them are on my mother's balcony.
You can never have enough sunflowers -- just look at its big yellow glory!

It's a good reminder that good things happen when you least expect it, and big, beautiful things grow from small seeds you may not even know were planted.

The expression, There aren't enough hours in the day, takes on a whole new meaning this August. I'm trying to cram an entire summer of creativity into two weeks!
The days start later so instead of waking up with the dawn at 5:30, I'm not getting out for my walk until twenty after six. That means my morning routine of feeding the animals, drinking coffee and eating breakfast, and doing a little reading gets bumped back an hour.

That's an hour I need now!
I've finally shaken my despair over the unnecessary death of the three baby ospreys and over the utter silence from the publishing world about my submissions. I've finally hit my stride with two new book projects, both related to growing up with a funeral director for a father and living above a funeral home for the first twenty years of my life.
I hit my stride just as my summer break from church writing and substitute teaching is coming to an end but the energy of a new and exciting project provides energy for everything. I know how to juggle all three jobs now and part of that is taking it one day at a time. And writing a To Do List every night before I go to bed.

And I don't want to rush the last week of August. It's Dwayne's birthday on Monday so we're going on a little trip to celebrate, and I have TWO art classes next week, plus some novels I can't wait to get into. So I might just take it easy next week, and make the most of the very last week of summer. There's a gazebo with the perfect reading chair right in my back yard...

I shall be like this sunflower next week: big and happy and glowing.
And when September arrives and work gets really busy, I will look at my new book projects and remember how this sunflower came to be: a seed planted "by accident" that grew into a big, beautiful thing.