Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Past...and Future

(First published in the December 21 issue of The Oxford Journal)

My father loved Rita MacNeil so when I found out the date for her annual televised Christmas special, I made plans to watch it with him. When I arrived just before 8 o’clock, he wasn’t alone; the 21 other residents of the secure unit of the nursing home were sitting with him, in their pajamas, in the main TV room. 
“It seemed like a good idea to have them all here together,” a personal support worker explained. “We can give them their meds and their snacks while they watch the show.”
As I sat on a vinyl love-seat next to my father and looked around, I thought, ‘These are my people now.’ And it was with those people, 22 of them in various stages of Alzheimer’s, with whom I’d spend Christmas 2005. My mother was spending two weeks with her grandchildren, a much-needed respite after months of struggling with the decision to move Dad into the nursing home. 
It was the first time in my life that I had been alone on Christmas Day. Until then, I’d always thought it was horrible and sad to be alone at Christmas but I got up in the morning and took my dog for a walk as usual, ate breakfast then opened a few gifts from my mother. Shortly before noon, I headed up to the nursing home where the staff had set up a special table for my father and me in the lounge at which to eat Christmas dinner; it appeared I was the only family member visiting with  someone in the unit. Dad couldn’t open his three wrapped gifts and he didn’t seem to understand what day it was. After only a couple of weeks in the nursing home, his rapid decline was heartbreakingly obvious. 
After spending the afternoon with him, and the rest of my people, I headed to the home of good friends who had invited me to become part of their family for that evening. They’d even filled a stocking for me. An unforgettable kindness.
I also won’t forget the lesson of that Christmas: Life doesn’t stop for the holidays. Illness, disease, even death, do not take a break because it is Christmas. Surgeries will continue, diagnoses will be made, bad news will be delivered. Families will split up, family members will be missing, family members still will not be speaking. All around us, people are hurting, people are hoping, people are yearning. Christmas, as with life, isn’t always happy or anticipated. 
When you’re cutting up your father’s mass-produced turkey and feeding it to him, the true meaning of Christmas becomes clear. So, too, the reason we can still celebrate it despite worries and sorrow. So if this is the year when your Christmas isn’t going to be merry and bright, may I wish you instead peace of mind, hope in your heart, and the joy of good memories, past and future.

-- by Sara Mattinson

Sunday, December 25, 2011

In Conversation With...Santa Claus

First published in the December 21, 2011 issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Jewell Mattinson

The directions for Santa’s house are simple enough. 
“When you leave the highway, turn right at the stop sign and drive 8 kilometres till you see the red mailbox.”
Red mailbox. Of course. The lane heads up and there is Santa’s house, a sprawling country home nestled against the woods. There are no reindeer in the yard or an elf welcome party; only Santa himself, wearing his trademark red hat with the white trim, blue jeans and a red windbreaker, hanging another garland on his front porch. I follow him into the house, passing under a sign that reads “We Believe In Santa”, and before you can say naughty or nice, we are seated at the kitchen table, drinking coffee out of red and green mugs. 
My first question to Santa is the obvious one: What changes has he seen in the last ten years?
“Kids’ requests for expensive electronic gear are right off the scale,” he answers. “Every now and then you’ll get a little girl who wants a Barbie doll or little guy who wants a pair of skates or a hockey stick but very seldom do you hit that. I feel sorry for some of the parents. Some of the cheapest stuff the kids ask for is $250. Some small, young family starting out, they’ll have $250 for the whole family for Christmas. And trying to do Christmas dinner, too. The kids have no idea about reality.”
Santa takes a sip of his coffee then rubs a hand across his face before continuing. 
“Sometimes you get the tear-jerkers as well, like a little girl who asks for her mother to come home for Christmas. It’s the same as a child asking for an unmeltable ice cream. I tell her that I’ll do the best I can. I always do the best I can.”
Santa smiles at me and it hits me: This is the real deal. Crinkly white beard? Check. Twinkle in the eyes? Check. Dimples and rosy cheeks? Check. The big stomach (which Santa carries very well, I assure you)? Check. I’m having a conversation with Santa Claus, who has remembered another story he wants to share. 
 “I remember one little guy who had a bad cold,” says Santa, “and I said, ‘You’re not feeling very good,’ and he said no. I asked him if he’d had a candy cane today and he said no. I happened to have one so I said to him, ‘I have to tell you something. Candy canes will cure almost anything. As a matter of fact, one of the reindeer wasn’t feeling well this morning and I knew that because he was walking on the ceiling in the barn. I have to get him down to get him to take his medicine but I’m in luck because his medicine is a candy cane so I hold it up and he grabs onto it and I pull him down. He ate his candy cane and I think he’s feeling better’.” 
Santa chuckles at the memory and rests his arms on his stomach. He confirms that the Santas at the malls are simply helpers because at this time of year, Santa is busy with the parades and office parties and private visits that allow him to really make magic happen. He doesn’t charge a fee for these public appearances but he accepts donations because Santa has a cause: “I find a family or two in need and help them out at Christmas.” Because sometimes Santa needs a little more than a twinkle in his eyes and a magic bag to make Christmas happen for some people. 
Speaking of that bag, Santa reveals the secret as to how he can carry gifts to every child around the world on Christmas Eve. 
“The elves makes one of each toy. When it goes into the bag, it duplicates. So I can reach my hand in over and over and always have enough.” 
And if there isn’t a chimney? He chuckles again. It’s a lovely sound, deeper and more relaxed than his trademark ho-ho-ho.
“I make one,” he says. “I wish the chimney.” Which comes with a hearth and fire, by the way. 
Santa admits he has to be up on every Christmas movie ever made because the kids will ask him about them but his favourite movies are A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th  Street because the message of those movies is important and timeless. 
“Just for a little while, let your guard down,” he suggests. “Relax. Christmastime only lasts for a short while. Enjoy. You don’t have to have a million dollars. Just enjoy the season.”
My hour is up and Santa offers me the use of his facilities. Here is the final secret to reveal: Santa has a gorgeous bathroom, and I’ll bet my last candy cane he spends Christmas Day soaking in the whirlpool tub. 
“When you sit down to write your story,” Santa Claus says to me as I pull on my coat, “remember to have a mug of hot chocolate.” 
I thank him again for taking time out of his busy schedule for this conversation and we shake hands. As I walk to my car, I slip my hand into a pocket for my keys and find a business card in my palm. It’s Santa’s card and all it says is I’m watching. Turning to look back at the house, I see Santa at the window, one finger resting aside his nose. 

Photo courtesy of Santa Claus

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Welcome, Winter Solstice!

Depending on where you are in the world, December 21 or 22 marks the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere: the official beginning of winter, and the longest night of the year. Here in Nova Scotia, the switch happens either late tonight at 11:30 pm.
The bright side to the longest night? The days start to get progressively longer, up until the summer solstice in June.
The word “solstice” is Latin for “sun-stand still”.
Ever wondered what the difference is between a "solstice" and an "equinox"? It's related to the Earth's orbit around the sun.
Twice a year, at the spring and fall equinox, the north and south pole are perpendicular, giving us equal amounts of day and night. As the orbit of the Earth continues, the angle of the poles increase or decrease, changing the balance of day or night. Therefore, we get the longest day in late June and the shortest day in late December. 

Don't Be Afraid To Wish Someone A Merry Christmas

First published in the December 14 issue of The Oxford Journal:

Overheard a couple of years ago while in the waiting room at the physiotherapy unit at the hospital in Amherst:
Agnes: “Do you work at the grocery store?”
Wanita smiled and nodded.
Agnes: “I think you did my postage the other day.”
Wanita: “I’m surprised I’m not dreaming about letters chasing me.”
Agnes: “It’s hard to believe it’s only ten days until Christmas.”
Wanita: “I’ll be glad when it’s over. It’s so busy. And there isn’t much cheer.”
Agnes: “Really?”
Wanita: “I find that no one says Merry Christmas anymore.”
That was in 2009. I wonder how Wanita is finding the cheer leading up to Christmas this year.  For those of us still daring to use the phrase, “Merry Christmas”, are we all too worried about money and too rushed by daily obligations to feel merry, let alone wish someone else good cheer? We’ve allowed the pressures of the perfect gifts to usurp the joy and peace that should be the hallmarks of this season. 
Uncertainty, even chaos, in finance and business is just a scaled-up version of what most of us are feeling in our personal households. As power rates go up, gas prices stay high, and the cost of food creeps up, anyone hanging on for the next pay cheque will find the holiday season stretching resources as thin as cellophane, tied up with a generous dose of guilt and anxiety.
In this context, how do we muster up enough cheer to wish Wanita, and each other, a Merry Christmas...and really mean it? You think I’m going to say ‘spend less’ but that’s the obvious answer. Instead, try ‘slow down’. The new hallmarks of the holiday season are waiting, rushing, and fretting. Imagine giving, or receiving, a dose of kindness on a day when you really don’t feel like shopping, let alone saying Merry Christmas. My colleague Jane recently let a man go ahead of her in a line at a store, explaining that at this time of year, there is no point in being in a hurry. 
“It doesn’t take a large gesture to ease the stress in someone else’s day,” Jane told me. 
We all feel pressured to shop and give till it hurts, but we can’t lose sight of the only thing that makes Christmas worthwhile: the point of all those gifts. They are an act of appreciation, and the ultimate gesture of kindness. Just like saying “Merry Christmas” to Wanita and each other...and meaning it.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The New Meaning of "Rural Roots"

(First published in the December 7 issue of The Oxford Journal)

My hair stylist is an expert on all things country. She knows that free-range hens lay eggs with dark yellow yolks. She knows that ospreys only eat fish and fly south for the winter. She knows not to go hunting on Sunday.
She knows these things now. Six months ago, Jessica didn’t know nothin’ about living in the country. That’s because she lives in Halifax and works at a downtown salon. She looks and sounds and smells like a city girl (I should know; I once was one). I met her in July and bless her heart, she didn’t laugh at her new client who talked about chickens laying green-shelled eggs and needing to learn to shoot a gun, and working for a community newspaper that publishes weekly.
Although, now that I think about it, she might have checked me for ticks. 
Twenty years ago, I would have been self-conscious about being a hayseed in the city. Back then, I wanted to get out of my small town as quick as possible and make my mark on the world in a bigger place. By the time I ended up living in downtown Vancouver, however, I was starting to fantasize about a house on a country road instead of a fourth-floor condo, about fields and hills instead of mountains, about miles and miles of empty highway instead of rush hour traffic at three in the afternoon. All on the opposite coast. 
When you’re a hayseed at heart, it’s only a matter of time before you end up living  on a rural route  with a coop full of chickens and your very own .22 in the gun cabinet. 
“I didn’t know you couldn’t hunt on  Sundays,” Jessica said at our most recent appointment. 
I laughed. “Why would you know that?”
“That’s true.” 
She snipped for a bit then said, “I can’t wait to go out with my friends and tell them that!”
This is how Jessica earns her tip: she seems genuinely interested in hearing about the unique personalities of each of my chickens. She certainly expressed the proper sympathy when my story about Betty, our pet chicken, ended in tragedy. And when I brought her half a dozen eggs, not only did she not blink when I told her there were only six because half the flock is molting and not laying eggs, she was tickled by the two green-shelled eggs. 
“I can’t believe you don’t have to put these in the fridge,” she said after I’d explained why she didn’t have to worry about them being warm while she worked. 
It’s nice, you know, when you can educate those city people and help at least one get in touch with her inner hayseed. If only to impress her friends. 

by Sara Mattinson

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas

Santa might be bringing me snow pants this Christmas (after four winters here, I'm finally wising up and dressing appropriately) but it doesn't sound like I'll be needing them any time soon.
Environment Canada is saying there is a less than 50% chance we'll have a white Christmas here in the Maritimes. We didn't have one last year either; I remember how mild it was because we were harbouring a stray cat under the sun porch (also known as the Stray Cat Hotel) and I didn't have to worry about food or water freezing (incidentally, just as the snow arrived in early January, she became our pet).
Anyway, according to the meteorologists at Environment Canada, there used to be a 63% chance of at least two centimeters of snow on December 25; now it's a mere 47%. Funny how we seem to think Christmas has to come with snow when most of the world that celebrates Christmas does it without snow; with blazing heat, in fact. Hello, palm trees and margaritas! Do you think anyone has ever suggested that Christmas be cancelled because there is no snow?! Christmas and snow do not go hand-in-hand; it just seems like it should here in Canada because, well, we're cold and northern and so gosh darn close to the North Pole where you-know-who lives. I mean, when Santa's in our backyard, it's like he's our neighbour. Wait - Canada has sovereign control over the Arctic, right? So that makes Santa and the elves Canadian citizens. Santa for Prime Minister!
But I digress.
The whole point of Christmas is the spirit, not the weather. It's "Ho Ho Ho and mistletoe and presents under the tree" as Lucy says in A Charlie Brown Christmas. And c'mon, you know how everyone would complain about the inconvenience for shopping if it snows any day between now and next Saturday night. Nothing sucks the life out of the holiday season like complaining. Christmas without snow is simply a lesson in humility: You can't have everything, and perfection is an illusion. Far better to believe in Santa Claus.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Only Two Saturdays Left For Shopping

That means you need to take this Saturday to visit the Pugwash Farmers' Market's annual Christmas market. It's being held indoors, where it's warm and dry and spacious, at the Pugwash high school. Is there a person on your list who is hard to buy for because he or she has "has everything"? Find something unique at the Pugwash Farmers' Market. There isn't a smart phone out there that can top the loveliness of homemade strawberry jam or a handmade mug.

Speaking of strawberry jam...my best friend lives in Ontario and every so often, I send her a small box that contains a jar of my mother's homemade jam. Sarah finds a reason to send that box back to me because it's the perfect size for sending jars of jam. It usually arrives just after she's finished the jar...

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Why Old Dogs Rock

We're trying to house-train a nine-week-old puppy and "weather bombs" like the one we experienced this morning are not helpful. She seems to be reluctant to poop outside when it is dark and cold and/or wet.
That's northern Nova Scotia in December! And January, and February...sometimes even May.
It's just one of several adjustments being made to having a puppy in the house. We're so used the old dog, who is almost nine and is well-established in her routine and reliable for doing it sight unseen that the continuous excursions to the yard for piddles and poops are a shock to the system.
I'm not so keen on standing around outside in the dark and cold and wet either. Makes it a little harder to be enthusiastic when someone finally poops.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Conversation With...Jerry Draheim

(First published in the November 23 issue of The Oxford Journal)

Jerry Draheim puts two glasses of homemade apple juice on the table. The juice tastes almost tart and naturally sweet; in the glass it looks a little murky but its taste is pure. The apples come from the orchard Jerry planted in the 1980’s but that’s getting ahead of the story. 
“My wife and I were working in the States in the late sixties and wanted to find a place in the country,” he says. “We looked around where we lived, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but didn’t see anything we really liked or could afford. We came to Nova Scotia in 1971 on vacation in August when there are no black flies, no mosquitoes and fruit hanging everywhere. We fell in love with the place.”
With the tourist brochures came a list of farms for sale and Jerry couldn’t believe how cheap land was up here so he and his wife decided to move to Canada.  They arrived as landed immigrants in February 1972, started working in Dartmouth, and looking for land.
“We found a farm for sale around Oxford so we drove up and I guess the old lady liked my wife and me, and it was a winter when it was really open and we could walk around. We decided to buy the farm right then.”
And that is how a city planner from Minneapolis ended up on 70 acres in Roslin with half a mile of frontage on River Philip.
Three weeks later, Jerry was laid off so he traded his car and bought an old pickup and at the beginning of April, moved to the farm in Roslin. There was a foot of snow on the ground.
“It snowed every other day and we got a normal amount of snowfall that year,” Jerry remembers. “It certainly was an adventure.”
Having grown up on a farm, Jerry wanted to return to what he loved. He had plans for ducks and goats and some bees, for gardens but the first thing he did was start bee keeping, even though he’d never had bees before. 
“The bees came in little packages in the mail,” Jerry says. “I remember sitting at the end of my lane waiting for the mail in the pickup truck because there was a huge snowstorm and I remember thinking, Here it is the middle of May and it’s snowing out. Maybe I made a mistake.”
The bees arrived and so did the goats and the gardens. 
“I didn’t like the goats at all but we milked them,” says Jerry. “We got some geese. These things came and went.” 
So, too, did Jerry’s wife; unable to handle the isolation, she returned to the States after a couple of years. For five winters, Jerry supported himself through a federal program that hired people to work on public projects, providing him with enough income to get started with the farm.
“I also had enough bees that I was making money from the honey, and from selling eggs.”
More heartache. Jerry didn’t realize that the equipment he’d bought from a neighbour was infected with a disease until the provincial apiarist explained why the bees weren’t doing well.
“I had to exterminate the bees,” Jerry says. “It was really hard. Seeing them die, I said I’m never doing this again. I’m going to learn to keep bees so they are healthy. I started over right with new equipment.”
A series of fortuitous events allowed Jerry to eventually declare “bee keeper” his formal occupation. In 1976, the price of honey doubled from 25 cents to 50 cents per pound, which Jerry says was significant. He also benefited from government subsidies encouraging expansion of farm operations and by the 1980’s, Jerry had 250 hives. He began renting bees for blueberry pollination then in the 1980’s, our border was closed to bees from the States due to a nasty infection. 
All was not golden, however. Jerry’s second wife died of cancer. They were together for five years. Unlucky in love, Jerry discovered he had a knack with a different kind of female. 
“I had a hive of bees that produced a lot more honey than the others and I found out that it was genetics. The queen was not aggressive and I wanted to know how to get all my queens to be like that one.”
All Jerry had to do was learn how to breed queens from that particular queen so Jerry went to  California to learn from a bee breeding expert.   
“I got all the hands-on training I needed to start my own breeding program. I did artificial insemination and really refined my breeding program which I’ve carried on ever since. Selling bees to other beekeepers became very lucrative for me.”
Love came around again. Jerry first met Carol at a party in 1974 but they were both married to other people; then Carol saw him at a sugar bush party in New Brunswick in 1998. 
“I love it here,” Carol says from the kitchen where she’s cutting onions for pickled beets. Despite his truck breaking down on their first date, they’ve been together for 12 years. 
In 2005, after three decades in the old yellow farmhouse, Jerry built a new lovely, light-filled home that he designed himself. He’s also done all the landscaping around the property, including the planting of 10,000 daffodils and narcissus that come up in the spring.
 An astrologer once told Jerry that he should live on a hill near water, and he does.  After 41 years, four wives, thousands of bees, and one recent battle with cancer, what does he love best about his life on Honey Wind Farm? 
“My freedom,” Jerry says. “Being able to do what I want to do whenever I want to do it. I would hate to work for someone else.”

by Sara Mattinson

Monday, December 05, 2011

More Shopping Local Ideas

In this week's Journal, a full page celebrating "A Country Christmas" in the lovely seaside village of Wallace.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Morning Meditation

Just returned from a long walk with my older dog, an hour up to Carrington Road and back. It's raw out, the sky steel grey, the air damp. Definitely a day to keep the throat wrapped warmly but I can't tell if it feels like December yet; last weekend, as the snow melted away and the sun came out, the day felt like March. I get so few chances to go for a good, long walk with the dog now that I'm grateful for this mild start to winter. 
My colleague, Jane, has a puppy who is five months old and recently, Jane discovered the joys of the morning walk. She's enjoying the quiet time not only on the streets but also with herself. IWhile I'm happy that she has found something that brings her happiness, it pains my heart to hear her talk. For the first time in 15 years, I'm not starting out my days with a morning walk with the dog. It's partly circumstances - a regular job schedule now - but also the downside to living rurally: no street lights or sidewalks, and coyotes in the woods.
There is something very special about that time alone, with only a dog for companionship, early in the morning when traffic is scarce, the air is fresh, and the light is spreading slowly across the sky, low and burnished, gentle on the eyes. It's a lovely way to wake up and I believe by breathing in that atmosphere, we carry it inside ourselves all day.
For now, I must be satisfied with breathing in Jane's words.