Sunday, October 30, 2011

More Bad Weather On The Way

That's the song that's playing right now on Steve Martin's bluegrass CD, "Rare Bird Alert" (Apparently, the actor has been playing banjo since he was a kid; if you like bluegrass, definitely pick up that CD). It's appropriate for this post since we've cancelled our trip to Halifax. Rainfall warnings and wind warnings! 50 mm and 100 km gusts! I'm not wimpy but I'm also not stupid.
Despite the fact my mother and I were heading into the city to attend a reading and book signing by our favourite author, Scotland's Ian Rankin, this is no weather to be out on the 104. I don't mind driving in rain but out on the highway with the transports kicking up blinding spray for metres and high winds rocking our vehicle left and right...not my idea of a relaxing Sunday, even if the weather makes me feel like I'm in the Shetland Islands.
Ach, I cannae believe I'm missing a chance to hear that Edinburgh accent!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Good Morning For Some

The promised snowfall didn't happen, at least not in my neck of the northern woods, and the sun is shining and the air is crisp. A perfect fall day as we head into the last weekend of October.
Okay, maybe not perfect: Hunting season opens today so for the deer, it's a month of horror. I'm not a hunter and I have an aversion to killing anything that isn't a fly or an earwig. I can't imagine killing something as elegant as a buck or cutting up the body into pieces but I don't have a problem with killing an animal for food or to protect livestock (as beautiful as foxes are and as lovely as it is to watch them hunt in a field, protecting our chickens comes before a fox's life). Still, I don't like hunting season, don't like a lovely, lush summer coming to a deadly end right before the hardships of winter.
It likely doesn't help that I grew up watching Disney movies. Singing mice, dogs who are friends with foxes, an entire animal kingdom that talks, really. What's worse, my mother used to throw out one particular quote from one particular movie. I grew up hearing, "Mother, Mother, where are you? Your mother is dead, Bambi." I was 23 years old before I actually watched Bambi and my roommate came home to find me sobbing on the couch.
Egads. Who warped me more, Walt Disney or my own mother?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Conversation With...John Eaton

(First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, October 12)

The wind is raging around the Great Room in Thinkers’ Lodge. As waves pound the point of land where the building sits at the mouth of the  Pugwash harbour, the room’s  massive, floor to ceiling window taunts the weather to do its worst. Yet not even a draught is felt in this nearly-two hundred year old house. The man sitting in an armchair by the window is responsible for the warmth and loveliness of not only this room but the whole house. 
“A lot of people assume I’ve been coming to Thinkers’ Lodge all of my life or that this was the summer home for my family,” John Eaton says. “I’d never been here before 2005.”
John’s grandfather is Cyrus Eaton, the man who would make Pugwash world famous for peace. Depsite being born (in 1883) and raised in Pugwash Junction, Cyrus built his family’s summer home in Deep Cove on Mahone  Bay, so when John thinks of Nova Scotia, that place comes to mind, not Pugwash. 
It was wanting to follow in the footsteps of an uncle who was a minister that Cyrus Eaton ended up in Cleveland in 1905 where he found his true calling in business and built an empire  out of utilities, steel, and railroads. When fire ravaged the village of Pugwash in the late 1920’s, Cyrus returned to clean up the waterfront, build the seawall, and buy the Pineo estate (which in 1955, became Thinkers’ Lodge). Through an act of the legislature, the non-profit organization, Pugwash Park Commission, was created in 1929; the bylaws require that two of the three commissioners should be members of the Eaton family. 
In 2005, John received a call to join the Pugwash Park Commission. 
“I said, That sounds interesting, so they sent me a package of information. I felt I owed it to myself to educate myself about this. At that time, I had lived in California for more than 25 years.”
John was born and raised in the United States, where the shadow of his commanding, energetic and intelligent grandfather threw a longer, darker shadow. 
“As I became a little more aware as I got older, one of the things that was inescapable was that in the United States, my grandfather was very controversial,” John says. “He was an advocate of talking to the people you disagree with. He felt we should be talking to the leaders of the Soviet Union, to the leaders of Eastern Europe, and China, and then after 1959, to the leaders of Cuba. It was rather easy to paint Cyrus Eaton as some kind of Communist sympathizer, if not worse. You couldn’t avoid that, living in Ohio. You couldn’t avoid being teased by your classmates, you couldn’t avoid seeing a billboard that said, ‘Cyrus Eaton, go back to Russia where you belong’. It was something you grew up with.”
So where was John in 1957 when his grandfather hosted the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs at Thinkers’ Lodge in Pugwash,  Nova Scotia? 
“In 1957, I would have been 9 years old. While my grandfather  would have been here, I was probably down in Deep Cove, completely oblivious to what was going on. We didn’t have radio or television down there and I certainly wasn’t reading the newspapers. I was busy being a kid, fishing off the end of the dock and playing capture the flag.”
So that phone call in 2005 came as a bit of a surprise because, he says, “I knew Thinkers’ Lodge still existed but I didn’t know how it was run.” 
John agreed to join the Commission because he “felt the tug of family, the tug of history. I owed it to myself to contribute. Then I got up here and I was a little bit shocked at the physical shape of the lodge. Never having been here, I didn’t know what to expect. But I should have known better. You can tell from the weather right now that this is a building that has to deal with the elements.”
What surprised John most was meeting locals who told him they’d never been inside the lodge; it was assumed to be “off-limits”. John knew that had to change as they moved forward. For the past three years, the Commission has worked on the restoration of Thinkers’ Lodge, aiming to have it completed for the official opening of the lodge as  a Parks Canada National Historic Site. 
John is quick to point out that Thinkers’ Lodge isn’t going to be off-limits to the public. 
“The challenge is to tell the story without overwhelming the place. The intention is not to turn it into a museum; the intention is to be continually in use for workshops and seminars and conferences. The hope is not only to build on the legacy of Thinkers’ Lodge but to help the economy of the north shore and the village of Pugwash,” he says. 
Like all commissioners, John is a volunteer. He calls the past three years, during which the entire Thinkers’ Lodge has been fixed up, overhauled and upgraded, a labour of love. 
“This place is going to be here for years to come. The legacy will be here. That [restoration] was the first step and now the goal is: Do you think we can hold an event that will be as famous as the one in 1957? Probably not but it’s important to remember  that if they ever get rid of nuclear weapons and they need to find some place where that movement started, in terms of physical places in the world, this is it.
“We want Thinkers’ Lodge to be an inspiration to people who perhaps don’t realize ‘big things can happen in small places’,” John says. 
As the conversation winds down, the wind is still beating futilely against the window, kept out by the solid walls, a new furnace, and the inspirational power of peace. 

by Sara Mattinson

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fuzzy Predictions About Winter

The fuzzy caterpillars, and the meteorologist's grandmother, are predicting a mild winter.
Before you get excited about "nice" winter weather, a few words of reality from my husband who has worked for the Department of Transportation's maintenance division for 32 years: A mild winter can be a messy winter.
We'll get winter whether the fuzzy caterpillars predict mild or harsh. This is Nova Scotia, Canada's ocean playground. In our beloved maritime province, pecipitation happens. According to my husband, who likely has seen everything in 32 winters, all a "mild winter" means is that it won't be very cold. No minus-32 degrees on the night of the big dance in January, no solid ice in the rivers for fishing and snowmobiling. If you're not into ice fishing or snowmobiling (or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing), sure, those milder temperatures are nice but like I said, around here, precipitation happens so what doesn't fall as snow...falls as rain. I'm about to use the f-word: Freezing rain.
Remember the massive ice storm of 1997?
Where were you for the ice storm of 2009?
Already, my husband is hinting that my Christmas gift this year won't be a snowblower...but an electric start generator.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Second Growing Season?

My younger sister and her family live in Georgia, in the country about an hour south of Atlanta. They have two growing seasons there; the first one begins in March and the second one in July or August. Imagine! Twice the opportunities to grow tomatoes and peas and zucchini and pumpkins (is that why American Thanksgiving falls in late November?).
We may be catching up here in northern Nova Scotia. When we can let the chickens out of their fenced pen to roam around our one-acre yard, it means it's time to clear the annuals out of the flower gardens. Yet many of my annuals - sunflowers and zinnias excepted - were still in bloom. They seemed worn out, likely tired of coping with the temperature extremes of warm days and cold nights, or perhaps they are simply weary of treading water after all the rain we've had, but they are still in bloom. In fact, my osteopernum were not merely in bloom - they were reblooming. The plants looked so strong and healthy, you would have would have sworn it was July. I didn't have the heart to rip them out of the ground.
Here's the thing: although I believe in global warming and know it's humans paving the ground and spewing poisons into the water and atmosphere that has caused it, it's tempting to enjoy the prospect of a second growing season. Think of all the hard work that goes into creating and maintaining flower gardens (as well as vegetable gardens but those are my husband's domain); if those gardens could last two months later, that's more time to take pleasure in the sights. If that's the case, however, I'm going to have to plant more late-season bloomers like asters, helenium, and sedum.
And perhaps if we can offer a second growing season -- and no cockroaches -- I'll be able to convince my sister and her husband and their four kids that northern Nova Scotia is as good a place to live as southern Georgia.

Friday, October 21, 2011

From the October 19 issue of The Oxford Journal

Our phone stopped working late on a Saturday afternoon. We reported it the next day by using my in-laws’ phone and were told “there was a pattern” in our neighbourhood and we weren’t the only report of phones not working. This made my in-laws’ phone an oasis of dial tone in the middle of a wasteland of ringers gone silent.
By the time we went to bed on Sunday night at ten o’clock, the phones still were not working. I try not to be cynical, try not to see anti-rural intentions in everything but I wonder: If this had happened in the city or a large town, if a hundred households had been affected and not merely ten, would we have gone more than 24 hours without phone service?
Last winter, we awakened in the middle of the night to discover a fire in our flu. As we leaped out of bed and pulled on clothes, my husband said to me, “Call 9-1-1.” I automatically reached for the phone. For most of us over the age of 30, when we are inside a house, the automatic reaction is to reach for the home phone. When you call 9-1-1 from a house, your name and location is registered; no matter how to react in  crisis (I tend to freeze), you know that by using that phone, someone knows where to send the help you need.
In a real fire, if I had picked up the phone to find it dead, would I have had the presence of mind to think ‘cell phone’, to locate my husband’s in the dark while trying to gather together the dog and cat and my mother who was sleeping upstairs? If my brain shuts down and I can’t operate on habit, I’m in trouble. 
This phone habit is more than just a link to friends and family, the vet and take-out pizza; it’s a life-line. On that peaceful Sunday without the phone ringing, what if my mother had fallen down the stairs? What if I had? What if my husband had fallen off the garage roof again - and this time, I’d noticed? Although our voicemail would pick up messages, not hearing a dial tone when I picked up the receiver out of  habit to make a call had me pondering the bigger, scarier picture. 
Going more than 24 hours without a working phone because we have the good fortune/bad sense to live in the country is a greater disconnect than we deserve. Perhaps the isolation experienced by rural dwellers, who may not receive decent cell phone coverage, should classify phone service as an essential service. 
Take it from me: the only thing better than hearing a dial tone when you jam that receiver against your ear is hearing a voice tell you that fire trucks are on the way, now get out of the house.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mentoring at the OJ

My niece, Emma, wants to know what it's like to be a journalist and work at a newspaper so she came to work with me today. Emma is a Grade 3 student and she will produce a slide show of all the pictures she taking and show it to her class.

Emma says she enjoyed her day at the newspaper. "Making a newspaper is hard work but a lot of fun," she told me. If she gets that, she's been hooked.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Fall In Love

It's the perfect fall day. Even with the wind, it's Autumn at its finest. It's why I love living not just in  Nova Scotia but in the northern part, with the hills and the river valley.
We were just lazing in bed until my husband said, "Why don't I take you into Oxford to the farmers' market?" I was out of bed, dressed and waiting in the truck before he'd finished his second cup of coffee. The market wasn't busy but it certainly put us in the mood for more adventures.
"Could I interest you in a cup of tea?" my husband asked, and with take-aways in hand, we turned left instead of right and headed out of town.
I couldn't believe what a beautiful day it was. After a lush and green summer, now the leaves are vibrant reds and yellows, the sun is shining, the sky is blue. No wonder this my favourite season.
"This is a day to focus on all our blessings," I said as leaves skittered across the road and twisted in the air around us. "We are lucky to have each other and to live in a such a wonderful part of the country. Let's just enjoy being happy."
In Collingwood, I spied a sign announcing a yard and bake sale at the community hall so we turned around to check it out. I scored a warm hoodie for Dwayne  and a coat for me to wear to the chicken coop (alas, the leaves remind me that winter is coming). Still, we weren't ready to head home. We headed further up the road and when we pulled into the local snowmobile/ATV dealer, just for a moment I thought, He's gone and bought something and this is is way of surprising me. Not so, however, and I'm not sure if I was relieved or disappointed. We looked, and sat, and even turned on, and he let me decide which colour we'd get, if... (Red).
We kept on driving and found ourselves up the mountain, found friends to visit and a large dog in need of a serious butt scratch. They told us about discovering a patridge dead inside the cabin.
"It must have been flying from the other side of the creek," they said. "It went right through the centre of the window."
Only in the country. But better a home invasion by a doomed bird than a determined thief.
"Could I treat you to chowder for lunch?" my husband asked as we headed back into town. Not yet ready to return home, not ready to come down from our happiness high.
What a day for being content, for counting blessings, for feeling lucky, for being in love - with each other and with northern Nova Scotia.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In Conversation With...Trish Elliot

(First published in The Oxford Journal September 28, 2011)

As a high school student, Trish Elliot likely did not picture a future creating paintings in a lovely lakeside home nestled in the woods along Route 6 between Pugwash and Wallace, Nova Scotia. Even though her parents came from Nova Scotia, she grew up outside Ottawa, Ontario, where her father was a minister. Yet that gave her opportunities she may not have received here.
“I lived in a little town but only 20 minutes from Ottawa so I had the best of both worlds,” the 40-something Trish explains. “The high school I went to had seven or eight art courses to choose from - ceramics, photography, graphic design. It was great. I got to do a little of everything.”
Her ties to Nova Scotia were encouraged, however; her family spent summers at Heather Beach then in Northport where, at 17, Trish met Eben Elliot while hanging out at the wharf where he worked. They married three years later, and moved into the house they had built on Elliot family land during their engagement. Trish admits she found the first few years very isolating although a job at Seagull Pewter as a clay artist helped - and honed a skill that would re-surface when she picked up a paintbrush. 
“We  took the drawings and made them into something three-dimensional,” she explains. “The models had to be four or six or five millimetres. It was really fine, fine work, and it was a lot of fun.” 
That job lasted a couple of years, until the first of her three children was born.
“As much as I loved the job and missed the people I worked with, I couldn’t leave him,” she says of her decision to not return to work.  
Yet at some point, there had to be a return to art since the walls of her spacious, light-filled house are covered with her paintings. From a distance, they look like photographs but up close, the smooth canvas she prefers, the acrylic paint she uses, and the fine details become obvious.
“When the kids were little, I took an art course with Louise Cloutier. I had to get out of the house and she did this course one evening a week for six weeks. It was ‘Painting on Unusual Surfaces’.” As Trish talks, she gets up and walks around the brick fireplace in the middle of the living room to the far wall. She still has that first painting. “Of course of still have it,” she laughs as she holds up the wooden top with a pheasant painted on it.
It certainly doesn’t look like something that a young mother, desperate to get out of the house, would produce her first time with paints in ten years. This is an artist with natural talent, and no formal training after high school. 
Yet Trish still didn’t commit to painting. 
“I still had three young kids at home,” she says. She couldn’t get her paints out, let alone leave them out nor did she have five spare minutes to paint. 
“It was after they were all in school that I started to paint at home. Then somebody told there was an art group in Pugwash. What I heard was there were art classes so I showed up with all my stuff but it wasn’t lessons, it was just people painting. Everyone was just doing their own thing and I didn’t know what to do so I got some paper out and started to paint and they seemed to accept me.”
That was ten years ago; Trish maintains her membership with the Mixed Palette in Pugwash and also attends an artists’ group in Wallace on Mondays. She says the encouragement of an art group is important .
“It gives you that push to do something. If you’re at home, there’s laundry, there’s cleaning, especially when you have kids. When you’re going out of the house, you’re taking your art stuff with you and staying for the day. You talk and support each other. It was the reason I kept painting.”
Trish’s paintings start as a photograph which suits an artist who says realism is important to her.
“For me, it has to be the right colour. Colour mixing can take quite awhile. I have my photo and I’m comparing. Every colour I mix has a little of everything in it. Even white isn’t white; it has blue in it, or yellow.”
Suddenly, there is a new energy as she talks. Besides her family, this is what she loves.   
 “Snow. You start with white but there’s probably blue in it, a little black, maybe a little red because there’s some purple in it. If there’s sun involved...” and you can see how her paintings come to be so realistic.  
As lovely as her paintings of swallows and foxes and pheasants are, her passion now is channelled into boats and water. 
“Years ago, I would never do water. Water is so hard,” she admits. “I could never paint water. Then one day I tried it. What’s the point in saying ‘I can’t paint that’? If I said I couldn’t do it [paint water], I never would have.”
And now it is her favourite subject. 
“Water is just so picturesque and romantic. It’s not just a survival thing; everyone wants to be near the water and we have a lot of it around here. And boats have such beautiful lines, especially the white lobster boats with those curves. Boats and wharves now are my specialty.”
It takes Trish 40 to 50 hours to create her paintings. She used to sell them all but realized she needed to keep a couple after spending so much time on them, and getting attached to them.
“The most I’ve done in a year is eight,” she says. “Right now, I’m averaging three a year.” 
With her two sons in college and her daughter  graduating from high school in two years, Trish is dreading her empty nest. 
“I’m assuming that art is going to be my way of coping with that,” she says.          

by Sara Mattinson

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Morning Walk

Growing up, in Ontario, my father was the dog walker in the family. It was his dog and his morning ritual. The dog came with me only when I was heading out for a walk with a boy; she even once chaperoned a date to the drive-in movies...where she proceeded to let out a fart every ten minutes. 
When I got my own dog at the age of 26, I began my own walking rituals. We lived in Vancouver then, in an apartment, so we walked three times a day, long walks that took us through different neighbourhoods or to the beach or up into the mountains. Later, having moved back east, we still walked two and three times a day, down the road and along the beach when we were in Pugwash, around town or out in the woods if we were in Ontario. A new dog by then, with too much energy and no back yard. I’ve walked around the world a couple of times with her. 
In any kind of weather. Days of heavy rain in Vancouver or stinging snow whipping off Lake Ontario. The dregs of hurricanes or October snow in northern Nova Scotia.  
Now we live in the country so our walks are limited to daytime, to the road -- no woods walking during hunting season or after seeing coyote or bear tracks on the old dirt road behind the house; without streetlights to keep us safe, I have traded the solitude of walking in the dark for the peace of the river valley.  
On a particular morning...Fog lifts gently off the river and undulates over the field, cloaking the cows and their one horse companion in scarves of mist. Above the silhouette of trees, an orange glow promises the bursting arrival of the sun.
Over the abandoned house on the other side of the gully, purple fog drifts in the sky. Purple fog! Of course. The rising sun diffusing through the cool moisture creates unexpected palettes in the sky. Burning orange at its centre with a pink puff then purple at the edges.
The dog meanders through the ditch, seeking bodies to match the smells: mice, skunk, raccoons, fox, deer. Thankfully, they are long gone, safe and sound, into the woods or down by the river.
Every walk ends with coffee or tea; the anticipation of it keeps my feet moving briskly towards home. In the mornings, it is always coffee. The dog finds her bed in the sun and flops into it, knowing her breakfast comes later. Wisps of steam drift from the roof as the sun flings itself over the tops of the pine trees. While the coffee perks, I hang a load of wash on the clothesline, dark work clothes punctuated by a sunlit splash of red handkerchief.
That’s new, the laundry part of the ritual. I like it, like that it reminds me of why, when living in Vancouver, I always dreamed of living in the country. 

Saturday, October 08, 2011

In Conversation With...Sean Mackenzie

(First published in The Oxford Journal on September 14, 2011)

                   (Sean sits on the bench press in the weight room at Oxford Regional Education Centre.)

Sean Mackenzie settles his long, lean body into  a chair in the Journal office but he doesn’t relax. He’s back in town, trying to adjust to a different kind of life than the one he left, as a medical emergency, not quite four months ago. 
“It started out as a normal night,” Sean says of Sunday, May 22. “We got back to a friend’s house and decided to have a fire. We were trying to light it but nothing would happen; it kept going out. Eventually, I asked for something flammable like kerosene to pour on the fire.”
When the fire didn’t take the first time, Sean poured the kerosene onto the fire again and this time, the flames caught -- the liquid. The fire went up into the can and there was an explosion. 
“I’ll never forget the noise it made,” Sean admits. “I kind of stood there like, ‘What the h-- just happened?’ All that was left of the kerosene jug was the handle so I threw it down and I looked at my hands to make sure everything was all right. But then the fire started to go up in front of me so I turned to run because I was soaked in kerosene but it caught the ground and then my legs.”
The fire travelled up Sean’s legs to his chest then to his arms. 
“I was  freaking out because I was burning,” he says. He tried to take off his jacket, which was nylon, but the zipper was melted to his chest. When he heard his friends yelling “Stop, drop and roll”, he dropped to the ground but rolling around didn’t  put the fire out. As someone ran to call 9-1-1, Sean sat up.
“I’d pretty much accepted what was going to happen so I got in my last few swear words. My life actually flashed before my eyes. Everything I could remember went through my mind, just like that, but it felt like it was forever.”
Another friend tackled Sean back to the ground and smothered the fire. Sean says it felt like he was on fire for 30 minutes but really it was only a fraction of that time. After the paramedics took him to the hospital in Amherst, he was airlifted to the QEII in Halifax. 
“A week later, I woke up and didn’t know where I was,” Sean recalls. “My mother had been there every day. It must have been hard to see her only son like that.” 
The first person he asked for was his stepfather, with whom he lives in Oxford, because the night of the accident, his stepfather had wanted him to stay home.
“He told me not go out,” says Sean. “He said he had a bad feeling, but I told him what could happen? I was going to out and enjoy my weekend.”
Sean suffered third degree burns to 36 percent of his body, the worst on his legs and chest. 
“That’s not that bad,” he says. “I thought I was burned beyond recognition. The only deformity I have from the fire is that I’m missing a little part of my right ear. I have all my fingers, which is weird, considering the can exploded.” (He knows it could have been worse. He was told that if the liquid had been gasoline, the explosion likely would have been deadly.)
His recovery is remarkable. Sean spent a month in hospital then another month in rehab before returning to Oxford at the end of August. 
“I thought I was going to be stuck in that hospital for a really long time,” he says.  He celebrated his 19th birthday exactly a month after the accident. “It was really hard not going to prom and graduation,” he admits. “I wish I could have been there.”
He doesn’t want to be here now, that’s for sure. His plan was to join the army this fall; instead he’s returning to high school part-time while he rebuilds his body, and restores his peace of mind.
“They said I’ll be back to normal in two years time. I’ll be able to work out a lot, go for long walks,  my skin won’t tear so easily,” Sean explains. “I’ll be scarred for the rest of my life but they’re going to go down a bit. People will have to look close to tell I was burned.”
As he talks, two fingers trace the outline of the thick, pink burned skin on the side of the opposite hand. For a confident, good-looking kid, this is new territory for him, this hyper-awareness of the way he looks, of the reason why people are staring at him. When asked if the accident changed him, he says he’s still the same; what’s different is what he has learned to appreciate. 
 “I had people visit me who I never thought would come in. I had people praying for me at the churches. It felt really good, like I was loved,” he  says. “One of my friends said that sometimes it takes an accident like this to make people realize who their real friends are. When this happened, a lot of my opinions changed about people I never thought would have cared.”
Sometimes it takes an accident like this to make someone aware of what’s already good in themselves and in their life. 
“I was lucky to have a good father figure to keep me in check, to make sure I didn’t become an arrogant little jerk.” He’s talking about his stepfather now. “You know the thing I regret the most is that I didn’t listen to him [that night]. I took a lot of it for granted, and you know, I still am. I really love my stepfather and I’m glad he was there.” 
The only time Sean shows emotion during this intense conversation is now, when he speaks about his family, when he remembers how he felt when he thought he was dying. But there was no light at the end of the tunnel. 
“The only thing weird that happened to me that night was my life flashed before my eyes,” he says. “The thing is it wasn’t bad crap; it was all the good things in life that I ever experienced.”

by Sara Mattinson

Friday, October 07, 2011

The New Employee

We are dog-friendly at The Oxford Journal (The Friendly Home Paper of Central & Eastern Cumberland County for over 100 years) so Jane, my esteemed colleague and mentor, has been bringing in her new puppy.
In this photo, "Sam" keeps a close eye on the quality of Jane's work while waiting for Charlie to let him know that tea is ready...

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In Conversation With...Doug, Betty & Breanna Curry

(First published in The Oxford Journal on August 31, 2011)

Inside the farm house, a tiny grey kitten with white markings and bright eyes saunters across the kitchen floor. 
“That’s George,” Doug Curry says. Great name for a cat. “I think my granddaughter’s got names for all the cats.”
As Doug settles into a chair at the table, Betty takes a seat in a rocking chair. A break from their preparations for more than a week of Exhibitions in Truro and Oxford.  
Doug and Betty (Patriquin) Curry live on 200 rolling acres in the Wentworth Valley. Married for 50 years, this has been their home since 1963, when Betty’s father died and they moved in with her mother. Both Doug and Betty were working, and would continue to work, full-time jobs in Amherst. 
“When I was a young boy, we lived out Tyndal Road. When Dad came home from the army, he had dairy cattle and a few horses so I knew what it was about,” says Doug about their move to his in-laws’ dairy farm.
He added eight Angus to the herd but these days, the milkers are gone, replaced by 48 head of Angus and Hereford that the Currys raise for breeding. It was the draft ponies that cultivated their garden, however, that got Doug started with showing at the Cumberland County Exhibition in 1965. Those ponies are a smaller version of the horses that perform in the horse pulls, the event that traditionally draws the biggest crowds at an exhibition. 
“It’s so exciting,” Doug says of the Thursday night event. “People love to see who can pull the most weight.”
Doug’s favourite competition, Tug-of-War, has been off the schedule in Oxford for a few years. The reason for that, Doug says, is that “There’s no more fools like me anymore that will get on the rope.” 
Betty rolls her eyes so Doug adds, “I was the most hated person in this house the whole time I pulled.”
“It’s hard on the body,” Betty asserts. 
“I never missed a pull,” her 74-year-old husband interjects.
“It gives you back problems, you know. There’s a lot of pulling, you put a lot of strength into it.”
“I’d do it again tomorrow,” Doug insists and Betty shakes her head. He had triple bypass heart surgery last year.
But that tough-guy image doesn’t influence his philosophy about animals. 
“They claim an animal is stupid but you can talk to the animals and they know everything you say,” says Doug. “I’m in favour of TLC: tender, loving care. That’s the best results you’ll get out of an animal.” He leans forward in his chair. “For example, this morning four of our 4-H heifers got out. They know her voice and my voice. So we just let out a roar and called one by name and they came out of the woods and back up to the barn.”
“He’s always fed them so he just shakes the bucket, ‘Come, boss, Come, boss’ and they come,” Betty adds.  
When asked what he has learned from animals, Doug answers immediately: “Patience. They are great at teaching you patience if you are willing to work with them.”
“You’re kind,” Betty adds, and suddenly 50 years of marriage comes into sharp focus. Patience. Kindness. Family. 
And grief. One name is mentioned and it’s like the house lets out a held breath.
“Byron always told Breanna, ‘When you’re working with an animal, when you’re dressing it, showing it, you’re in the ring, keep your voice low, talk in low tones. If you raise your voice, they know there’s a difference,” Betty says.
Breanna is the teenaged daughter of their only son, Byron, who died in late April at the age of 45. His absence is like an empty space between these people but just as strong is the sense that he is, somehow, present. Breanna, who has lived mostly with her grandparents since the age of three, passes through the kitchen on her way to harness one of her show heifers for a photo and Doug nods his head as she goes out. 
“There’s a young girl right there this year has broken three steers to go to shows. She has one for Oxford, she took one of my black ones. She broke all three, clipped them, bathed them.”
The pride in his voice is clear but so, too, is what is missing: her father, his son. Gone but living on. In this space and in this girl.
This is their first fair season without Byron, and Doug mentions that Breanna hesitated about going without her father.
“I’ve done pretty well so far,” 15-year-old Breanna admits when she returns to the kitchen. “It’s going to be pretty hard [at Oxford]. I’d always go into the ring with the heifers and come back out and my father would be standing there watching me. He wouldn’t say anything but he’d have this certain look on his face and I knew he was proud of me. Now it’s not going to be the same.”
Out in the yard, Breanna leads the black heifer back into the barn. While she’s out of sight, fetching a Hereford, Doug murmurs, “You don’t know how much I miss him.” His son, Byron. “I hope I get to live another 10 years to see her grow up.”
Breanna reappears, trying to convince the less cooperative Hereford to exit the barn. “She works like a man,” Doug proclaims proudly.
Indeed. Like one particular man. 
Back in the house, Doug sits back down in his kitchen chair and picks George the kitten off the floor with those thick tug-of-war hands. Without a sound, the tiny ball of grey fur nestles into the lap of tender, loving memories.

by Sara Mattinson