Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In Conversation With...Devinder and Bala Mehta

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, February 13, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

As I settle into a big armchair in the Mehta’s living room overlooking Pugwash harbour, Bala brings out a coffee pot and a plate of pakora.
“Indian fritters,” she explains. Three kinds of deep-fried vegetables: potato, cauliflower and egg plant. Warm and delicious. 
Good thing I just have to sit back and listen to the story of how Bala and her husband, Devinder, or David, came to live in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. It’s a love story, actually.
Bala was born in Kenya, in eastern Africa, while David’s family left India in 1948 when he was  14 because of the partition (he was born in what is now Pakistan). They speak fluent English plus three other languages. 
“The medium of instruction in school was  English,” Bala explains. “At home, we talked in our own language [Hindi or Punjabi] and you talked to the Africans in Swahili.” 
Bala and David met in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and married in 1962.
“Bala had already gotten admission to go to London University so she went in September,” says David, who resigned from the Kenyan government in 1963 in order to join his wife. “I had a friend in England who said, ‘Dave, if you’re going to leave Kenya, leave the whole of Africa because it’s going to be a ball of fire. And when you go to  England, don’t stay there too long.’ So that was in the back of my mind. We were teaching in England. In 1964, we applied to go to Hong Kong, the United States or Canada.”
Someone in the staff room suggested they go to Nova Scotia because it was closer so if they didn’t like Canada, they could return. Back then, you applied directly to the principal and the Mehtas applied to ten schools in Nova Scotia.  
“They all sent us a letter but Pugwash sent us a telegram so we thought their need was greater than anybody else’s,” David explains. 
They couldn’t have arrived at a better time  than early August. 
“The principal, Bob O’Connell, met us at the airport and we stayed with Howard and Frankie Elliot,” David recalls. “You couldn’t meet better people than those. Within two or three days, we knew the whole of Pugwash. People were so wonderful. We come from big places, London, Kenya, but we suddenly forgot the big places. This was heaven.”
Both David and Bala started out teaching in Pugwash but in 1967, David transferred to Tatamagouche where he was the industrial arts teacher for 22 years. Bala taught Grade Primary at Cyrus Eaton Elementary. 
I ask David why he thinks they fit in so well and so quickly. 
“If you know your job and you know how to mix with people,” he answers. “No matter where you go you are accepted. If we weren’t good teachers, we would have had a problem.”
Bala adds, “We felt so much at home straight away. We didn’t miss our family or our life in London. Everyone was so friendly. We had no problem adjusting.”
Not even to winter. According to David, they were used to cold and snow.
“We were in the northern part of India and in Nairobi, Kenya, there is cold weather. In England, we got used to the snow.”
“Oh, the first winter we had in London was the worst,” Bala interjects. “It snowed like anything. There were no trains going, no buses.”
“We enjoyed winter [here] because we enjoyed skiing and snowshoeing,” David says. 
What made a lasting impression on them, however, and what they cherish most, is the sense of being part of a family in the Pugwash community. 
Says David, “You could knock on the door and ask for a cup of coffee.”
That reminded him of what it was like in their community in Kenya: the welcome at any time, the offer of a cup of coffee, the insistence to stay for lunch.
“You become part of the community because you take part,” David insists. “You have Christmas, we celebrate Christmas, we are happy to. We have our own Festival of the Lights [Diwali] that we celebrate but we did not just stick to our own traditions, we stuck to the local traditions. Christmas, Thanksgiving. That way we were part of it.” 
They were familiar with Christmas because there are a lot of Christians in Kenya as a result of Catholic missionaries from Ireland . As well, Kenya was a British colony. The Mehtas were exposed to British, African, Indian and  Muslim cultures even before leaving Kenya. 
The Mehtas built their home in 1969 and their son, Anil, was born in 1970; he now teaches biochemistry at a university in Atlanta, Georgia. While they visit him frequently and have returned to Kenya several times, they’ve never wanted to move away from Pugwash.
“We had moved so much, from Nairobi to Mumbasa [India] then to London, when we came here, we didn’t feel like moving anywhere else,” says Bala, who is an accomplished painter of birds, sunsets and landscapes. “We made very good friends here.”
In 2014, they’ll mark 50 years since a telegram convinced them to come to Pugwash but they celebrated 50 years of marriage last April. When I ask them their secret of longevity, big smiles split their faces. Sweet, gentle smiles. 
“Give and take,” David answers. “No one is in charge. Be happy. Enjoy one another. Share everything.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Nova Scotia writer and River John resident  Sheree Fitch posted a tribute to the five young fishermen lost at sea here...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

When It Comes To Dementia, Ignorance Is Not Bliss

My commentary in today's Nova Scotian, the newsmagazine insert in the Sunday Herald.
Please read it and try to remember this: dementia does not equal aggression. We must stop fearing this disease if we are to provide the compassionate care people with Alzheimer's, and those who care for them, deserve. Having dementia does not take away our humanness.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Morning Routine

Every morning, my alarm goes off at 5 am and it takes two hits on the snooze button before I'm awake enough to untangle my body from dog and cat and human limbs, plus heavy quilts, and get out of bed. I make a large mug of chai tea and get on my yoga mat.
Archie the kitten shows up to play fetch while I'm going yoga. It's okay while I'm lying or sitting on the mat -- he brings his catnip mouse to me, drops it next to my hand and I throw it away -- but if I'm in a standing posture, he runs back with the mouse and jumps on my leg, wrapping his four clawed feet around my calf.
At 6:45, after (much-needed) meditation (to calm myself from doing yoga and playing fetch), I make coffee and feed the dogs. They get a "home-cooked" meal -- cup of meat, banana mashed up, a poached egg, veggies, supplement, yogurt for stomach health, and to keep farts away -- so it takes a few moments to put it all together.
This, too, is a kind of meditation.
I have two dogs, an almost-ten year old and an 18 month old. Stella, the old girl, gets fed first. Always. And I have never missed feeding her a meal; if I'm not here, my husband feeds her. Yet every morning, when she hears the last note on the microwave indicating her egg is poached (it's the first thing I do in this ritual), she climbs off the dog couch where she has been lying since 7:00 the night before and stands next to the island, waiting. As if her close supervision will make sure she receives her breakfast.
It's the same every single morning. Stand. Wait. Stare. While I assemble and serve.
She even races me to the stand in the laundry room where the dog dish goes. She wants to be standing there watiting for me, making sure. Ready.
Next, I feed the younger dog, Abby. The entire time I am assembling her breakfast, Stella stands, waits and stares. It is almost impossible to shoo her away. If I send her back to the couch, she backs up a few steps. Yes, I should assert myself as the leader of the pack but this goes on every morning. Abby lies on the couch until she is called. With her training, I knew what I was doing; not so many mistakes to try and correct -- and she's not a dominant dog like Stella.
Every morning, I say to Stella, "When have you ever received a second breakfast? When? Ever?"
Stella just stands and waits and stares.
There is the chance, the slim chance, I will drop something on the floor.
(Well, an egg did roll off the counter the other morning. Dogs make great floor cleaners, if you don't mind your slippers sticking to slobber, but the shell was all cracked up in the splattered egg so no score there.)
Ten hours later, we do the same ritual all over again at suppertime.
God also serves those who stand and wait.
In a dog's spiritual world, that makes me the Great Resource Provider. We worship at the alter of the dish at seven and five, daily.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Love, War and An Egg Salad Sandwich

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, February 6, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

“By the way, that egg sandwich you made for me on Monday was awesome,” my husband said to me a couple of years ago.
 Of course it was. Not because of how I made but because I made it anyway. 
Let me explain:
I’d come home the Friday before with my head all wrapped up in a good meeting with a writing mentor while Dwayne had been to the doctor and learned his bronchitis had become walking pneumonia. We were on different clouds, 9 and black, and what was going on in each other’s lives was so different, so opposite on the scale of good and bad that we started to nit and pick and ended up resentful the whole weekend. 
I was nagging because he wasn’t slowing down and taking care of himself, and he was annoyed because he was feeling like crap and his wife was nagging. 
On Sunday night, I was putting his lunch together when he asked, “What are you boiling eggs for?”
I said, “For lunch,” and let him believe it was my lunch since if I told him they were for his, he’d say, “Don’t worry about my lunch,” then end up buying it. 
Giving him foods that will nourish and energize him throughout a long, busy day is my way of taking care of someone who doesn’t accept that he needs, and deserves, to be taken care of as well.
This is what makes a marriage good: Taking care. Cherishing. Making a sandwich with love. 
What makes a marriage last is that you do it no matter what.
On the same day that he complimented my sandwich, I’d come across the following quote from James A. Baldwin: ‘Love does not begin and end the way we think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.’
After I read it out loud from my notebook, I looked at Dwayne and said, “How does this relate to an egg sandwich, you’re wondering!” and he laughed because he was.
Making my husband’s lunch as usual meant I was not letting the battle we were engaged in all  weekend change the way I treated him. No matter what was going on, I continued to take care. To cherish. There was no tit-for-tat, no game-playing, no holding back.  And it was this, the idea of not holding back, that made me appreciate how important trust is. 
Having freedom and trust in any relationship, whether as friends, siblings or partners, is a wonderful feeling. It’s that feeling deep in your bones that ‘If I fall, you will catch me.’ It’s knowing that no matter what you say or do, at least one person cares, will take you in, will watch your back. Being that sure of someone makes it possible to take on the rest of the world every day. It makes it possible to put together someone’s lunch even when things get a little rough.
This is how love becomes a growing up.
“And that’s why I made you an egg sandwich that was as awesome as usual,” I told my husband.
And he laughed again because he thought he was simply eating a really good sandwich that his wife made him because she loves him.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Two Minutes of Fame

The email was a surprise -- "Would you be interested in being a community correspondent for CTV Morning Live?"
The sender said she was from Collingwood Corner so she must have discovered me through the newspaper. 
I said yes, figured out how to work Skype on my tablet and made my debut this morning with Cyril Lunney. It's just two minutes and Cyril gets a day's notice of the two items I want to talk about. This morning, I highlighted this Saturday's potluck and auction in support of the Cumberland County Exhibition, and the weekly Friday night jam at the Capitol Theatre in Oxford. Great to be able to boost our community events. 

I do it from my office upstairs so that the dogs and cats don't bother me -- or my set-up: the tablet is duct-taped to a music stand in order to get it at the right height and angle! 
When I was done, I hollered down to my mother (the photographer) and my husband, "Did I embarrass myself or am I allowed downstairs again?"
I didn't tell anyone but my friend and co-worker Jane that I was doing this but I remembered to smile and speak slowly and I remembered all my lines. A successful and not-so-nervewracking debut. 

Hard to take a good photo of someone when they're talking!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Conversation With...Stevely Mitchell

First published in the January 30, 2013 issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Mattinson.

There was a time when there were as many lights on the River Philip in January than in homes along the road. But that was the good ol’ days  when men fished smelt from the river on the coldest of days and the darkest of nights.
Stevely Mitchell’s earliest memory of smelt fishing comes from his childhood in the 1950’s.
“I used to go down to Pauley’s store, which is where Sunrise is now in Port Howe, and see the sets on the ice. I remember seeing lanterns going everywhere. There were five or six nets right there and coming up the river there were more sets.”
A neighbour and his son, who was Stevely’s age, invited him to go fishing with them.
“I remember going to Ray Dixon’s and going down on the river to watch them pull up the net and put the smelts on the ice.”
Smelt season opens in mid-October, when the smelts come up the river, and runs through to the end of February. (They don’t spawn until spring.)
“You fish smelts through the ice with bag nets,” Stevely explains. “They used to fish open water but then started fishing under the ice. That was the most popular. The fish in January and February, those are the fish people want.”
On a page in my notebook, Stevely draws a picture of the bag net and explains how it works. 
“The depth of the bag was ten or twelve feet. These are the headlines on the front. That’s the opening to the bag. Back here, there was an opening and we kept that tied off. This was a trap,” he points to a spot just behind the main opening of the net bag, “so the smelts, once they swam in, couldn’t get back out. When you pulled the net up, you forced all the smelts down there and untied that and dumped them on the ice. Sometimes we’d have so much fish in the net, we couldn’t even get it pulled up through the ice.”
He begins drawing a second diagram . 
“We cut a long slit in the ice, about 16 inches wide and 36 feet long. We drove long poles right into the river bottom, put another pole across them, so when the net was open in the water, this is what the net would look like.” 
His picture shows a fish’s eye view of the opening of the net, gaping wide beneath the ice. The net had to be pulled up and turned around every six hours, every time the tide changed. 
“If you happened to miss the tide, you’d come down and your net would be inside out and all your fish would be gone.”
He started fishing smelts in the seventies and eighties; it provided extra money during the winter. 
“It was worthwhile,” he says of the cold, hard work. “You couldn’t make a living at it but you could make money at it. There was one winter, Charlie Weeks, Sonny Pollard, Ray Dixon and I fished two nets and it was nothing to see four, five thousand pounds in a net. The last few times I fished, if you saw four or five pounds...But I think the smelts have come back.”
Stevely bought his first licence back in the 1970s.
“That was when you could still walk in and buy one. For anything. Lobster, smelt. I think at that time, you could still get a lobster licence for 25 cents. But in the eighties, they froze all the licences so anything after that had to be bought from another fisherman. I fished with Ray for a few years, I fished with Earl Chase and then I fished for myself. Later on, after Ray passed away, I got Ray’s licence.”
According to Stevely, there are still a lot of licences for the river but nobody uses them. 
“The way it works, there are certain sets on the river; you couldn’t just go and set anywhere. If someone had licensed a set, you couldn’t set there, it was theirs. They’re generally spaced 200 yards apart. At one time, from the bridge up, someone had a set licence. Now a lot of those are gone. They haven’t been fished in years.”
I ask Stevely what a ‘set’ is.
“What we refer to as a set is just a location on the river. A certain point, like say off this point here,” Stevely gestures towards the river down below his home, “there’d be a set there. There were different names for sets. The Johnson set, which Ray Dixon owned at one time, I own it now. The Church set because it was out off the church. There was Green Point set, Gray Rock set. There was what they called The Cove. I own that one now. They are all different sets. If you asked someone where they were fishing, they told you a set and you knew it.”
There is a record of the sets on the River Philip. The Department of Fisheries has them marked on a grid.
Stevely hasn’t fished for smelts in years because of poor ice conditions. 
“For years, the weather seemed to be fairly steady. I’ve seen us cut the ice out in early December and be cutting over a foot of ice. That would stay in the river until the season closed at the end of February. The last few years, we haven’t had ice conditions like that. That’s the reason I haven’t fished in the last four or five years. It would freeze, we’d get a couple of inches of ice then we would get snow on top of it. The snow would sink the ice. Then it would rain. That doesn’t make strong ice.”
Stevely says a decline in the number of smelts in the river in the nineties meant it wasn’t worth putting a net in but he says this winter, there is more ice on the river than there has been for years. 
 “I plan to put a set in. If it wasn’t so cold, I’d be down there right now. We used to fish in weather like this but now, I don’t really have to do it.”

Saturday, February 09, 2013

In Honour of Today's Blizzard...

Last fall, the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia put out a call to writers for their pieces on writing in winter. My submission about my first winter here is one of the selections in the January/February issue and it seems just write to share it this weekend, in honour of the first nor'easter of the season.

A Writer’s Prayer to the Snow God
Sara Jewell

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
Make sure it snows, for goodness’ sake.”

It’s January 2, 2008, my first winter in Nova Scotia, and this is a place
where prayers get answered. Either that or I’m dead. Yes, surely it is that for
I must have died and gone to heaven.
Having succumbed to the genetically implanted impulse to rearrange the
living room once the Christmas tree is gone, my big blue reading chair is now
positioned in front of the picture window, all the better to view the trees and
birds and arrival of the mail truck (you never know when there could be an
acceptance letter sitting inside the mailbox). As a reward for doing a morning
of free writing on the opening pages of my memoir, I am sitting in the chair
with a cup of hazelnut-flavoured coffee, reading a murder mystery set in
Quebec in the winter, listening to jazz music and watching the snow fall in
big, white flakes. It’s our fourth storm in a week.
This is my writing quirk: I need precipitation in order to write. Rainy
days: amazing. The darker it is outside, the more alluring my yellow-painted
office becomes. Snowy days: awesome. No way to open any doors. Taking the
caution to stay off the roads seriously. Office becomes infused by a magical
Coffee. Jazz. A novel. Chickadees. Lots and lots of pure white snow.
Where else could I be but in writing heaven?

Friday, February 08, 2013

Once It Starts Snowing in Nova Scotia...

Blizzard warning!
There's a Nor'easter heading our way so we're stocking up on wine, chocolate and books.
Okay, my mother and I are. Apparently, my husband thinks wood, water and gas for the generator are essentials, too. Oh, and chocolate. He agrees with the chocolate. And the wine.
So we're good.
Let it snow. We're ready.

(And I guess this explains why he was looking at snowmobiles on Kijiji yesterday...)

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Held Hostage By A Little Old Lady With An iPad

First published in the January 23, 2013 issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Mattinson. 

What started out as a simple walk in the snow down to my in-laws for a quick visit turned into a diabolical abduction. As soon as I sat down in a chair in their living room, I asked a question that would alter the entire fate of my afternoon. 
“Did you ever get your Internet satellite set up?”
 “Oh, yes,” Mary told me. “Here, I’ll just put the kettle on while you show us how this works.”
Into my hands she thrust the iPad she and her husband received for Christmas from one of the grandsons who lives two hours away. My in-laws are in their mid-80s; they won’t even leave messages on answering machines so what on earth will they do with a computer as new age as an iPad? 
The trick is to dangle the right carrot. Promise them greater face time with their newest great-grandchildren (both under the age of two) and they’ll try anything. 
Since the other out-of-town grandson had set up an email account for them, the first step to using the aptly-named program, Facetime, it seemed my in-laws were itchy to learn how it worked.
“You have an email from Beverley,” I said to Mary. I wrote her daughter back to tell her that yes, the email was working, that I had been commandeered to get Facetime running properly, and that although Mary had said she was going to boil water, she continued to look over my shoulder so a cup of tea seemed unlikely.
“Oh, you,” Mary laughed but my broad hint was lost because at that moment, the iPad rang! On the screen popped two buttons so I tapped Accept and there was grandson Peter on the screen with Mary’s face in a small corner box.
It works. Nanny and Grampy can now Facetime. I needed a moment to process that but I was so thirsty, it was hard to think. 
Here’s what I could process: Mary in particular seemed rather excited by the idea of using the iPad. She disappeared for a few minutes to put the kettle on finally (one must keep the hostage hydrated so she can continuing labouring) but soon she was back at my shoulder, asking questions, listening to my instructions, eager to get a handle on all of it. She wasn’t joking around or dismissing it as hard to understand. 
This is not surprising. My mother-in-law is a woman who likes to be connected, especially to family, and who values information. In 65 years, she has watched her rural community shrink to a few long-time residents and church attendance dwindle to a few dedicated members. There are names in the newspaper she doesn’t recognize and the children of children she once knew are moving away. From her family she hears words like “email” and “the web” and “Facebook”, our tools for gathering and sharing information, so she wants to understand, even use these tools – if this is the way to stay connected and in the loop. 
The finger that reaches out to tap the mail icon may be gnarled with arthritis but her mind is in very good shape. 
Everything was set up so thinking I might get some tea and be allowed to leave, I toured Mary around the main display. 
“Tap that icon for email.”
Nanny and Grampy have an email account!
“Tap that icon for Facetime.”
Nanny and  Grampy are going chat with people using a computer!
I didn’t mention the icon on the far right. Good heavens, what if Mary discovers the Internet? The next thing we’ll know, she will be friending us on Facebook or sending us updates from her blog. 
As I snuck one of Donn’s gumdrops for energy, I heard Mary dial the phone.
“I just want to let you know Sara’s fine,” she told my husband. “She’s helping us with the iPad.”
“Help! Help!” I hollered but Mary chuckled and hung up the phone. Who knew a chuckle could sound so ominous?
It was ticking on to four o’clock. If I stayed any longer, I was going to need to eat a meal here. The time to escape was now. 
Luckily, Donn had just had a cataract operation and Mary isn’t as swift on her feet as she used to be (although I wouldn’t put it past her to trip me with her cane) so in a moment when the two of them were distracted, I broke out of my chair, dashed through the kitchen, grabbed my coat and ran out the door, slipping and sliding on the ice and snow but oh so grateful to be free.
Spending several hours helping my in-laws learn to use a computer is one thing but a meal creates a whole new kind of hostage situation.
You know what people in their eighties are like when it comes to feeding people. 

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Snow Day

I can't help it. When it snows, I must walk out in it. Then I must come inside and write. There is nothing nicer than words swirling inside while snowflakes swirl around the windows.