Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In Conversation With...Jill Mundle

First published in the May 9 issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Mattinson.

Jill Mundle sits on the lawn in the warm spring sunshine holding her 15-month-old daughter, Mya, in her lap. How this scene came to be is more than just a matter of a few steps from the back door of the house on Fountain Road outside of Pugwash where Jill has lived for more than 15 years. The story spans a decade, 10,000 kilometres, two 13-hour flights, and one ocean of heartache and happiness.
More than three years ago, Jill, now 41, began the process of adopting a baby from Ethiopia, a country on the eastern side of Africa, once it became clear she and her partner of 16 years, Randy Weeks, could not overcome infertility. 
“I waited for our referral forever and it didn’t bother me,” she says. “Because we were at the stage that if [having our own child] happened for us, it happened.” 
Then, when she least expected it, in the midst of chaos...
“I lost my job two weeks before the referral came in,” Jill explains. “I was devastated by losing my job but in hindsight, it was a good thing.”
Once that referral arrived last November, providing Jill and Randy, who is 47, with the first details and photo of their daughter, the wait was agonizing. 
“I couldn’t stand the fact she was at the orphanage,” she says of the three month wait for the adoption to be approved and a visa issued. “I would have my niece here and be doing her bedtime routine and I’d be thinking of my daughter by herself in the orphanage.”
Finally, on March 1, Jill received the call she’d been waiting for. The next day, she was on a plane for the long, overnight trip to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. What she and Randy had wanted for so long was about to happen: they were parents of a little girl. But, as with any adoption, the transition would be challenging and, at times, heart-wrenching. 
“They had her all cleaned up in this beautiful little dress and they brought her out and shoved her in my arms,”  says Jill. “They said,  ‘Mama, there’s Mama. Say Love Mama’. She just freaked. She was scared and it just broke my heart.”
Mya had no possessions; not even that beautiful dress belonged to her. Jill had to change her out of the dress and leave it behind. As well, the orphanage had provided the wrong measurements for Mya and the shoes Jill had brought with her were too big. 
“We stayed at the orphanage for awhile, fed her lunch and played with the other kids, before we went back to the hotel. When we left the orphanage, there was no looking back,”she says. “Mya held on so tight, that was it. The next day when we got up for breakfast, she was firmly attached to my chest and she stayed there for three weeks.”
Here are the facts about life in an orphanage: There is limited physical contact (no snuggles, no hugs or kisses) and there are little or no personal items (small children lose their toys quickly to the bigger kids). Children learn that not even crying gets them what they want. Mya faced an enormous change from life in the orphanage to life with Jill and Randy. In her first few weeks at home, no one could touch her but Jill and she would play only with whatever she could reach; where she sat was where she stayed even though she could walk. 
“At the orphanage, the kids go outside for 30 minutes every day for Vitamin D but they don’t play; they just sit,” explains Jill. “If you had seen Mya when she first got home, she’s not the same child now. Now she plays like mad. Her favourite things are the swing outside, books and shoes.”
All the lovely things she didn’t possess until Randy and Jill became her parents. 
“Randy and I have been together for a long time and his children are grown. The time for us to do this was ten years ago but at the same time, we’ve waited so long that I just feel...”
Jill stops talking as tears roll down her cheeks. A long moment passes until she can speak again.
“I feel like I waited my whole life for Mya,” she says through these tears of joy. “It doesn’t matter that she’s not our child biologically. She’s my little girl. Mya was meant to be our little girl.”
These tears, this joy reveals how Mya’s arrival has affected not just Jill and Randy as parents but also as a couple who has shared a life - one that included several of Randy’s children from a previous relationship - for more than 15 years. 
“Mya wasn’t home a week when Randy came out of her bedroom after watching her sleep and said, ‘I love her. I really love her’. I knew he would be good to Mya but I never thought he would give out cigars, I never thought he’d bathe her, I never thought he would do all the things he does with her. And that makes me love Randy in a whole different way.”
It was Randy who encouraged the adoption from the beginning. Jill says he told her that if they didn’t do it, she’d regret it for the rest of her life. 
“She’s good for us,” Jill says of her small, curly-haired daughter, her dream come true. “She’s changed our life. Every day I thank God for this little girl.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Don't Feed the Animals

I know better than to put bird seed out in the spring but I really missed seeing the blue jays.

This is the fellow from last week who was so reluctant to leave the breakfast buffet...

Monday, May 28, 2012

All Hail the New Queen of Gravy

"You've been holding out on me for five years," my husband Dwayne said to me on Sunday night as he tucked into his roast beef and potatoes. They were both smothered in thick, dark brown gravy.
My daddy's gravy.
I honestly never thought I made good gravy - it was always lumpy and thin - so I never bothered. Just as I learned to live without cheese sauce on broccoli (I still remember those rare, special nights as a kid when Mum had bothered to make cheese sauce), I learned to live without gravy. As hosts of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, we have clearly delineated roles: I'm vegetables and dessert, and my husband is meat and gravy. If he wants it, and as a proper Nova Scotia country boy, he does, he has to make it.
Then on Saturday, the trick to making good gravy was revealed to me.
After crock-potting a roast for my father-in-law because his wife was ill, I needed gravy but Dwayne was busy. My mother graciously agreed to make it and I watched as she dissolved the corn starch in water BEFORE adding it to the roast juice simmering in a pot.

So when it came to serving our pot roast on Sunday, I was able to put a boat of my own gravy on the table for the first time. Thick, dark brown gravy that contained absolutely no mushroom soup.
And now my husband is a convert to Ontario gravy.
....and so is his father...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sleeping With The Windows Open

At 3 am, the puppy wanted out to pee and the cat went out with her. At 4 am, Brewster the rooster started crowing. At 5 am, crows perched in the trees outside the bedroom, cawing. I figured I might as well start my day and then discovered why they were making such a racket so close to the house: the cat was rolling over a freshly-killed rat.
Clicked on the kettle to make tea. 
Let both dogs out the back door and hoped the crows snatched up the dead rodent before they discovered it. 
While my tea steeped, I glanced out the sliding doors facing our front yard and noticed a raccoon squatting in the tray bird feeder attached to the maple tree. I'd filled it the day before for the blue jays and chickadees. Only fair since we feed the finches year round. Over the course of the two hours I had before leaving for work, it took three "conversations" to convince the raccoon that vacating the premises meant getting down and leaving the yard, not climbing back up the tree.
Thank goodness that was just one morning this past week. I wouldn't survive if every morning was so busy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Every Day Was Mother's Day For Country Women

First published in the May 9 issue of The Oxford Journal  by Sara Mattinson.

A woman named Lila, who is in her eighties, shared with me the story of the birth of her third child, who was stillborn, on the way to the hospital. The details are not mine to share but her experience is one of the most extraordinary I have ever heard, in part because Lila’s story reveals what it was like to be a woman and a mother “back then” in a rural area in the 1950’s. 
For women living in the countryside, most births took place at home. 
“There were no tests or machines then,” Lila said. “We had no ultrasounds. Back then, you either had a child or you didn’t.”
Imagine a pregnant woman today having that attitude. You either had a child or you didn’t. With our easy access to doctors and hospitals, with information at our fingertips in books and online, it is inconceivable that a woman would speak so cavalierly about having a child. These days, a birth at home happens by choice with a midwife in attendance. These days, a woman schedules her C-section.
What makes Lila’s story so moving and unforgettable is the fact that the experience has not lost its power, or any detail. As she told the story of the two days surrounding this early birth sixty years after it happened, remembering every moment as clearly as if it had happened recently, Lila was overcome by emotion. The tears in her voice made me appreciate how strong this woman is and has had to be. Also, Lila isn’t alone in carrying this loss with her for a lifetime; there are many women in their seventies and eighties with stories just like this buried deep in their memories. 
The doctor told Lila that they didn’t name stillborn babies so she buried her son naming him only in her heart (for she already had a name picked out). Imagine a doctor saying that today. No name for a baby that dies. I can’t imagine any of my friends accepting that. 
While I was visiting my best friend when she was pregnant with her second child in 2005, she said to me, “There’s something wrong. I’m going to the hospital.” Thankfully, we did not live through a tragedy together (her son will be seven this summer) but if that had been 1955, I’d have had to hold her hand while we waited for the doctor to come to the house and tell her to go to bed and that he’d be back the next day. Only by the next day, it would be too late. 
Because of the era in which they grew up, none of my friends have ever experienced a tragedy like Lila’s so I am grateful that Lila trusted me with her story. I needed to hear it, needed to know, needed to remember. Back then, women lived so much closer to life and death – you either had a child or you didn’t – yet there was no time for mourning. There were other children to care for (and eventually, other children to have), there was a husband and hired hands to feed, there was a self to pull together. 
There is nothing weak about a woman like that. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Another Win for Cumberland County

Congratulations to Harry Thurston, who lives in Tidnish Bridge.

His book, Atlantic Coast: A Natural History (Greystone Books), took home the Dartmouth Prize for Non-Fiction In Memory of Robbie Robertson at last week's Atlantic Book Awards.

Harry has lived in Nova Scotia his whole life and while he started out with a career as a fisheries technician (after studying biology at Acadia University), he is well-known as an award-winning poet and a journalist.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Typical Man Moment

It's time for the annual fishing trip and after an entire week of preparation (!), the boys headed out early Thursday morning for the four-hour trek to their lake and last night about nine o'clock, I took a call from the reception rock somewhere in Guysborough County.
"We had a feed of trout for supper," my husband told me, "along with some hot dogs."
This is what men on a fishing trip consider gourmet: Fresh-caught trout with a side of weiners.
Beautiful weekend for them. Apparently, it poured yesterday afternoon but forecast is calling for sunshine for the next four days. It was two degrees this morning when I got up at six o'clock to walk the dogs and the west wind is keeping things cool in my little pocket of northern Nova Scotia but Hey: there is nothing better than sunshine for a long weekend. Enjoy!

The Pugwash Farmers' Market opens tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. Be there to support our local entrepreneurs (and maybe you'll get your picture taken by me).

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Community News Comes First

First and foremost, The Oxford Journal is a community news paper. This is what we do best and what we are appreciated for. For the first time, The Journal submitted entries to the annual Atlantic Community Newspaper Awards competition which allowed our paper to be judged in the General Excellence category. We came in last on the list but there is a good reason: for Editorial Page, we receive 0 out of 100 points. Editorializing is not what we do; community news is our strength. So it was too bad that in that category, we didn't do as well as we should have. I'm sure the judges put the emphasis on "news", not on "community".  Our best categories were the three for advertising plus the one for Production Quality.
Still, we are one of the few independent, and family-owned, newspaper left in Canada so consider us the little newspaper that could.
And does. Week after week, loyal and reliable correspondents send in the news of their communities; they are the priority when it comes to getting published.  I'm explaining this because not one but two regular columnists didn't make it into this week's paper.
So it's that a sure sign of spring: More ads and more local events in the paper. Business for yard sales and Andy Carter's auctions is picking up. The community news items get bigger as well and there are more submissions (for instance, we feature a story about Harbourfest in this week's issue). It means I have to adjust my publishing schedule and not expect to publish either my Field Notes column or my much-longer In Conversation With... column each week (bi-weekly). I've had a good run with ICW since last August and found my groove with Field Notes from January on. My most recent ICW piece on a local woman who adopted a daughter from Ethopia has been very well-received (watch for it here next Wednesday) so that's a high note to hold while I wait for space to open up for the next piece.
But in all honesty, with the gardens blooming and the days warming up...I'd rather be outside digging and planting than inside writing! (I only say that for two months, June and July. After the black flies and mosquitos, the writing bug returns in August.)

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Weekend To Go To The Cottage

The road we live on is the direct route from Oxford and Springhill to the beach so it was busy yesterday afternoon once everyone returned home from church and taking Mother to lunch. One pick-up truck went by with two new lawn chairs in the back along with a trailer carrying a lawn mower - a common sight.
Our two "pet" rabbits spend the winter inside the coop and although it has two windows, not a lot of sunshine reaches their pen. When I went in last week and found Rosie, the grey rabbit, sitting on top of the wooden enclosure inside their pen in the tiny pool of morning sun coming in the north-east-facing window, I realized it was time to take them to their cottage.
Every so often we see fox prints on top of this outdoor pen (that must make for a terrifying night) but they've been safe for three summers and they seem to enjoy it. Hopefully this summer, we get around to converting an old shed into their own indoor/outdoor home. Although I kind of like their little cottage...

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mow, Mow, Mow Your Lawn

Hubby is mowing the lawn today before it becomes a hayfield. I feel so sorry for him: because we enjoy such a large lot (too big to call a yard), he spends six months of the year on the lawn mower, cutting grass. I wonder what he thinks about for all those hours?
If I mowed lawn, I'd be stopping every 15 minutes to write down ideas. I suspect mowing a lawn, particularly one as sprawling as ours, would be one of those activities like washing dishes or shaving legs that allows your mind to drop into a peaceful, non-thinking mode. Once that happens, once you stop actively pursuing certain paths of thoughts, the really good ones, the elusive ones, the truly creative ones that are suppressed by the bullies of every day living (To Do lists and conflicts) are able to float quietly to the surface of the pond of the mind where they gently *pop*, rippling your brain until you pause in whatever mindless activity in which you're engaged and say, "I have to write that down."
(Which is why I keep special crayons in the bathtub! I once experience the horror of a wonderful thought going down the drain as I toweled off. It was almost as if the thought physically existed, it disappeared from my head so thoroughly out of my mind as I stepped out of the tub. There: insight into one writer's brain.)
For my husband, who is not a writer, I suppose these three or four hours on the lawn mower, with that god-awful roar a constant sound in his ears, is his quiet time. Perhaps he isn't thinking. He's resting from the To Do lists and the conflicts, from my endless conversations, from having to work. Perhaps this is why we have such a large lawn after all.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

In Conversation With...Nicole Rushton

First published in The Oxford Journal on April 25, 2012, by Sara Mattinson.

When I knock on the front door of the neat mini-home tucked away on a back road in Mount Pleasant, the curtains in the front window move and a pair of hands holding yellow rubber gloves appear against the glass but no one calls out, “Mom! Someone’s at the door.”  As Nicole Rushton brings me inside, her 10-year-old son Bryson waggles the rubber gloves at me. He’s vocalizing, a steady stream of sounds but none are words.  
Bryson has autism. 
“He was a very quickly developing baby,” Nicole recalls. “At six months, he probably had six to eight words that he said on his own without prompting. Nine months, if you helped him stand on his feet, he could walk all day long. He couldn’t crawl until he was a year and a half but he walked.”
When it was time to return to work, Nicole found a babysitter for Bryson. It was the babysitter  who noticed that the 18-month-old boy ignored the commotion around him. 
“She thought Bryson was hard of hearing,” says Nicole so she followed the babysitter’s suggestion that she have his hearing tested. The person who performed the test told Nicole she should contact Cumberland Early Intervention Program because the hearing tests were normal. 
An assessment by program staff resulted in the diagnosis of autism. 
“He had lack of eye contact,” Nicole says. “Even the words he already had seemed to shut off, and he had very repetitive behaviour. He wouldn’t respond to his name at all. He’d been progressing so quickly and it was like a switch went off.”
It wasn’t easy for Nicole to accept that her son had autism. 
“I was quite upset. My little boy was perfect in every way and I didn’t know anything about autism. All I heard was that something was wrong. They were telling me that my little boy was very special but I was in a totally different direction.”
Nicole pauses, takes a deep breath. Since then, her outlook has changed profoundly.
“He is special,” Nicole says of Bryson. “He’s happy, he’s healthy. He shows emotion. We’d hoped his language would come back but it never did. He makes a lot of sounds but he does not communicate with his words.”
Understanding what Bryson wants and needs is the greatest challenge, then. Bryson assumes that his mother already knows what he wants so when Nicole doesn’t understand, he gets frustrated. On a good day, when she asks him to “show Mommy”, he will but she says on an overwhelming day, he might not have the patience; he just wants what he wants. 
“But the most frustrating is when he is sick,” Nicole says. “You don’t know what hurts. When he is sick, I constantly watch him to pick up on his non-verbal cues, like holding his stomach or holding his head. It’s a helpless feeling.”
Bryson is not as self-sufficient as other 10-year- olds but he is able to do things on his own, like brush his teeth, if his mother asks him to. One evening, when she suggested it was time for a bath, he went and ran the water by himself.
“I’m creating opportunities for him to be independent,” says Nicole. “For instance, walking from our house to my mom’s house.” (Her parents live about 150 yards away on this empty gravel road.) “I’ll call my mother and tell her I’m sending him over. She stands on her front step while I stand on mind and I can see him all the way over.”
These are the moments that remind her that there is more to Bryson than autism.
“Sometimes he is like a typical kid in every sense, except for the speaking. I have to remind myself that certain things that he does are not because he is autistic but because he’s a kid. Like if I open the door, he’ll close it and want to open it himself. That’s not necessarily an autistic thing. I know he’s labelled autistic but not everything he does is.” 
Nicole, who was 24 when Bryson was born, says the past ten years have taught her not to take the small things for granted. And sometimes, those small things come with a big jump in understanding. 
“We went down the back road for a walk,” Nicole says, “and I saw an apple tree. ‘Look, apples,’ I said, trying to get Bryson’s attention. I picked him up, this was when he was smaller, and said ‘Look, apple,’ and touched it but he was looking all around, making his noises, couldn’t care less. I put him back down and grabbed a couple of apples to see if he’d carry them but he showed no interest. We walked down to the pond because he likes water and I threw the apples into the pond. They’d splash and he liked that so I gave him one and he threw it. Two weeks later,” she continues, “we took the same walk but I was just walking, not paying attention, and Bryson was behind me. I looked and he was staring at the apple tree. The same tree that I didn’t think he’d seen. I lifted him up and he was grabbing for apples. He carried them down to the pond and he threw all the apples he had in his hands into the water.”
For most of us,  that would be one moment out of a thousand. For Nicole, “It was amazing. He does stuff like that all the time that blows me away.”
Which is what makes Bryson special. 

Monday, May 07, 2012

Everyone's A Winner

The Atlantic Journalism Awards were held on Saturday night in Fredericton and stories from Cumberland County were big winners.
Carol Moreira was the gold winner in our category of Atlantic Magazine Article for a story she wrote about Cyrus Eaton and the Thinkers Lodge in Pugwash. My nominated article about the ospreys nesting along the River Philip was a silver winner.

Along with my silver win for Saltscapes magazine, Jack MacAndrew was the gold winner for Saltscapes in the Atlantic Magazine Profile for a story he wrote about singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan.  This is Jack's fourth win. He's from PEI.

It was a great night. Lovely to share the evening with Saltscapes publishers Jim and Linda Gourlay. Guest speaker, CBC News anchor Ian Hanomansing, who hails from Sackville, NB, was riveting; he spoke eloquently for 20 minutes without notes which made me want to throw my dinner roll at him in envy. It was inspiring to see others' work (every nomination was previewed on the big screens before the winner was announced) and to see so many young (and young-ish) journalists not only present but winning.
Definitely an evening to celebrate excellence in Atlantic journalism.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Same Mother, Definitely Not The Same Egg

Since Dad died three years ago, my mother has divided her time between winters in Georgia with my sister, who has four children, and Nova Scotia, where she now lives with Dwayne and me. 
This weekend, my mother is staying home to look after the dogs and cat and chickens while we head to Fredericton to the Atlantic Journalism Awards gala. The whole time, she'll be thinking about her other daughter, who is flying to Ethiopia with her whole family in order to bring her newly-adopted daughter back home.
"It's rather interesting," Mum said this morning, "that this is a very big weekend for both my daughters but for two completely different reasons."

Me, my sister and my mother
June 2011, at my mother's 70th birthday party

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

You Can't Be Gloomy When Daffodils Are Blooming

First published in The Oxford Journal on  Wednesday, April 18, 2012 by Sara Mattinson.

Rick Bass, in his book The Wild Marsh, writes about April: “Consider again, please, the notion of sight, odor, taste, and touch as a kind of music: as all lesser complements to this astounding movement of April. It is like nothing if not a symphony out there...Everywhere you look, in April, you see music and movement...” 
Bass writes in Montana where, like Nova Scotia, spring teases for several months (27 degrees, big snowstorm, 14 degrees, freezing rain, 20 degrees, rain for a week). Regardless of the tricks Nature plays on us, there are definite signs of spring that the weather will not deter.
Robins. Always the robins.  Usually, there is the scout that gets us excited about the return of the robins but this year, they seemed to turn up all at once (a seat sale at Migration Air?). 
For my husband and me, another bird is the harbinger of spring: the arrival of the ospreys back to the nest near our home. Around the first of April, my husband says once a day, “I wonder when the ospreys will arrival,” and they are arriving earlier every year. Two springs ago, they arrived on April 20 and last year, it was the 13th but this year, we saw their distinctive shape in the nest on the 10th. We forget how in tune we are with their presence until our eyes and ears are filled with their music and movement. 
That’s how my friend Patti feels about spring peepers. About hearing them for the first time this year, she says, “My heart started to beat faster. You’re listening for them but it creeps up on you. You can be talking to someone and the sound will draw you away from your conversation until you realize what you are hearing.”
We have met over coffee at the cafĂ© in Pugwash and she’s brought a cluster of mayflowers with her, stems soaking in water inside a clear baggie.
“The scruffy little flowers grow at the side of the road,” she explains, “and all you see are these grubby leaves.” 
The leaves indeed appear ragged and worn out. 
“Then within them,” Patti continues, “are these jewels.” 
She holds the bunch of tiny mayflowers to my nose. They are so small yet their wild, sweet scent is distinct and lovely. 
What are the other signs of spring? Opening day of fishing season. Men standing around watching ditches burn. The first hot sunny day at the beach. 
That was March 17 this year because while walking our dogs at Heather Beach on that afternoon, my friend Jane and I witnessed a woman in a blue bathing suit walk into the water and dip her body under the surface. Someone took her picture then she dashed back to shore. 
It’s the music that cues a striptease. When we hear the symphony of spring tuning up, we peel away our inhibitions like layers of wool and fleece and flannel. Spring makes us daring, fills us with hope and excitement. The first swim, the first hatless walk into a north wind, the first sockless day. Imagine living in a place where there are no seasons, no summer or winter, no fall, but worst of all, no peepers or young men walking along the side of the road carrying fishing poles or a crazy lady at the beach covered in goose bumps, her laughter a concerto of audacity. 


Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Circle Of Life

That's the name of my article that is nominated for an Atlantic Journalism Award, to be given out this weekend in Fredericton.
I finally found a link to the article: