Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Frosty Morning

Everything is frozen solid. 
Hard, deep, fast cold came in.
With it grew this little forest of frost trees.
A white woods in miniature, floating on a field of ice.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Resolve to Resist

Jane's husband Gerry arrived at tea time this morning with tea and Timbits.
Jane handed me the sweet, little box full of those sweet, little donut holes -- oooh, chocolate -- and I said, "No, thanks."
If the last few years have been about saying "Yes", 2015 is the year of saying "No". It's the year of resistance.
Not resistance to resolve but resistance to those things that break my resolve to be more productive and ten pounds lighter.
1) Watch less television. By this I mean, cut out those time-waster moments when you turn the telly on simply because it's there and you are between tasks or avoiding tasks. I'm going to try to fill those moments with a walk and by leaving a book on the table in the living room to reach for instead of the remote.
2) Eat less sugar. By this I mean, no sweet snacks. My husband has a sweet tooth and can eat anything; he has a metabolism that prevents him from putting on weight no matter what he eats (jerk). I also have a sweet tooth but chocolate gives me pimples which makes it easier to resist but cookies, man, I love cookies.
Ultimately, these two resolutions are about improving two things: My writing production and my health. Especially since I will be sitting and writing even more in 2015, the Writer's Butt I've developed needs to be kept under control.  Thankfully, I already have a major daily water habit; I get more than enough hot lemon water during a day.
2015: It's all about writing, walking and watering.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Cake Finale

I tended to my friend Shelagh's Christmas cake as best I could for the month left to me after I'd neglected it for three weeks.
(Read about that in my Field Notes column of November 26, )
The grand unveiling was Christmas Eve and I am pleased (and relieved) to say the cake turned out: dark and moist and fruitfully strong in taste. Not having Shelagh's grandmother's fruitcake -- the original amazing creation -- to compare it to, we think Shelagh's, with a little help from me (and I mean a little), is quite delicious.


"The more you eat, the better it tastes," my husband declared as he noshed piece number three. After the first few slices, I realized I was cutting it wrong and it looked a lot better after I figured out what Shelagh meant by 'fingers'. Not having sprinkled it with brandy for long enough (I know, I know), it was likely a bit more crumbly than Shelagh would like but the crumbs were delicious too.
A few hours later, I presented my in-laws, who grew up eating Christmas cake made by my husband's grandmother,with a plateful of slices and they declared it delicious and familiar. Nothing like living up to the example set by both Nan and Gran. I suspect my father-in-law had a few pieces for breakfast.
So, Shelagh, dearest, I declare myself redeemed and delighted and hopefully will be on the receiving end of another small chunk of your Nan's Christmas cake next year. After all, I still have most of the sherry leftover.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Homemade Christmas

May your heart and your day be full of light, hope and peace.
May you be comforted by the joy of the season.
May you be blessed by small moments of love.
Merry Christmas.

All I Want For Christmas Is Electricity

First published in The Oxford Journal on Tuesday, December 23, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the county,
Not a creature was stirring which so pleased the Mounties.
The work boots were placed by the back door with care,
In hopes that by morning, they would still be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of Apples danced in their heads.
And my wife in her jammies and I in my briefs
Had just settled in to watch the Habs and the Leafs,
When out on the lawn there appeared a tall ladder,
I leaped out of my chair to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash
Pulled back the curtain and peered through the glass.
The moon shining down on the fresh foot of snow
Reminded me the forecast was calling for more.
Then what did my wondering eyes spy at that time
But a man in a red coveralls about to climb
Up over my eaves and onto the shingles;
The fear of a lawsuit made my toes start to tingle.
Parked beneath him was the most wondrous machine,
All white with bright lights like I’d never seen.
He wasn’t alone, there were eight workers with him,
Standing around holding cups full of Tim’s.
I whistled and shouted and called out a few names,
“Now, dash it, you morons, I’ll have none of your games.”
But all I heard in response was their answering reply,
“Now dash away, dash away, hurry up, fly!”
Up to the housetop the big man did scurry,
And I in my briefs to the second floor hurried.
And then in a twinkling I heard on the roof,
The clomping and tromping of two great big hoofs.
I was running downstairs when my wife gave a shout
And I dashed to the living room to see what was about.
We were turning around when we heard a big crash
And in our fireplace sitting all warm in the ash
Was an unwelcome visitor in our abode: 
The big man himself, NS Power’s CEO.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
Although he was now tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of papers he had flung over his back
While another crash in the chimney brought down a huge pack.
His eyes, how they twinkled, and his face was quite merry
As he stood in our living room and said, “Happy Christmas, Larry.
I come bearing gifts, as your electricity king,
Rebates and discounts and other great things.
Incandescent lights that are full of mercury,
(But no solar panels that could save you money).
I have many more lights to string ‘round your tree
For with these gifts for you come gifts for me.
A year-end bonus that will buy me a new sleigh,
And a winter vacation far, far away.”
Then he stopped all his talking and went straight to work
Filling our stockings with a self-satisfied smirk,
Then laying a certain finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
Back down the ladder he went; to his team gave a whistle,
They jumped into the truck and drove off like a pistol,
But we heard him exclaim as they drove down the pike,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a rate hike.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sing Out Loud

These fine figures stand on the "front porch" of Lorneville United Church along the Amherst Shore. The first time I saw them, on the first Sunday of Advent, my spirit lifted. A celebration of Christmas music! Such an unusual decoration to see outside a church but this caroling couple is a delight.
This is the season, both the secular and the spiritual, the having and the giving, the celebrating and the contemplating.
Inside the church is a lovely, traditional nativity scene sitting evocatively on a table; it invites quiet reflection and acknowledgement of the significance of the holy day in the Christian faith.
But outside is the an invitation to gather together, lift our voices and sing with gladness and in celebration of hope, joy, peace and love.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Best Christmas Ever

Ten years ago
my father was into his third year after a diagnosis with Alzheimer's and we were still caring for him at home; my divorce was not yet final but I had hired a lawyer;
and my nephew, the long-awaited and much-anticipated first grandchild born in September, was having open-heart surgery on December 21 to try and repair the arteries going in and out of his heart.
When I submitted an essay about those days around Christmas 2004 to the Globe and Mail's "Facts & Arguments" section, the editor emailed me back within an hour.
"I want to publish this," she wrote. "I am crying as I type this!"
Ten years ago
seems so long ago.
So much has happened:
ny nephew is ten now and he has five siblings;
my father is dead and we don't live in Cobourg, ON, any longer.
At the time, Christmas seemed so fraught; first, George's surgery -- he was only three months old -- and then the following year, Dad was in a nursing home, Mum was in Atlanta with her grandchildren and I was home alone.
And yet I look back at those anxious, sad, heartbreaking times and think,
"They were the best Christmases ever."
They taught me more about living and living and letting go than anything else could ever.

Here's the column from December 21, 2007, as it appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper:

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Can You Eat This?"

Stella in 2013

Just finished a 1,600-word first draft of an essay about this dog, my Stella, our "Guts". An online literary journal is looking for submissions to an anthology on the theme of food and I immediately thought of my dogs. Instead of writing a poignant piece about feeding my father when he was in the nursing and giving the editors another serious piece, I decided to answer the age-old question, "Is your dog food-oriented?".

I've been cooking food for my dogs for twelve years. They live longer on home-cooked meals. I spend more time in the morning preparing breakfast for the dogs than I do making my own.
I call Stella "my seven o'clock and my five o'clock" because those are her feeding times and there is no more penetrating gaze that from a dog who knows it's a quarter past breakfast.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

In Conversation With...Terry and Teresa MacDonald

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, December 17, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

When the rest of us are trying to figure out what to do with the leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner, the MacDonald family of South Pugwash is beginning the huge task of decorating their property for their annual Christmas toy drive.
“It takes weeks to do all this,” Terry MacDonald says with a wave towards his front yard.
According to Terry, he got his love of lights from his father while growing up in Wentworth. when he got together with his wife, Teresa, “We didn’t do a lot at first but we kept getting bigger. My dad would give me an extra set of lights or two.”
The scale of their decorating changed once they moved to a smaller property on Route Six east of Pugwash.
“Once we started here, we had kids asking us if we lived in Santa’s workshop,” Teresa says of their 30,000 lights extravaganza. “As the years went by, with doing our lights, we had so much traffic and kids in the yard, Terry said he’d like to do something where we get toys for kids. We started that about eight years ago and it’s grown every year. Last year, obviously, was one of our biggest years and this year is down from that but that doesn’t matter as long as there are toys.”
They couldn’t resist the inflatables when they came on the market and they now have 28 which don’t fit in the yard all at the same time. 
Early on, Terry says, someone suggested he take donations to cover his costs. 
“I said, better than that, why don’t I take donations to give to children?”
So he set up a large box at the edge of their driveway to accept donations of toys. 
“We put the box out about five years ago. Before that, the toy donations were mostly from us and the family and friends of the kids.”

Alisha (MacDonald) Reade and her daughter Emma.
Every inch of their front yard, home and gazebo are covered with Christmas decorations but for Terry and Teresa, two inflatables are extra-special. 
“One is a helicopter which we as a family bought Terry and the other is an airplane that Adrian bought his father,” says Teresa.
It was thanks to their two children, Adrian, and his older sister Alisha (Reade), that Terry and Teresa have not missed a year with their display. 
In 2012, Terry and Teresa went to northern Ontario to work. Instead of coming home for Christmas, and to put up the lights, they’d decided to wait and return home in mid-January for the birth of Alisha’s second child.
But that Christmas, Adrian and a very pregnant Alisha thought of the children who benefit from the toy donations so they assembled as many of their father’s displays as they could handle. 
“Adrian took pictures on his phone and sent them to us to show what they’d done,” says Terry. “I asked if they did my archways and he said, ‘Dad, I’ll put lights out but I can’t do all you do’.”
The family was together for the birth of Alisha’s daughter, Anna, on January 17, with no knowlegde it would be their last celebration as a whole family. 
On January 30, 2013, the day after Terry and Teresa returned to Ontario, Adrian was killed in a traffic accident.
He had pulled over on Route 6 in Linden to help another motorist caught by icy roads when another vehicle lost control on the slippery asphalt and hit him. 
In that moment, everything changed for the family.
Now, Teresa says, “It’s bittersweet every time we put up the lights.” 
“I built a lot of the decorations myself,” Terry says, “and Adrian was always sitting with me and helping me make the reindeer and get them tied up on the house so it didn’t seem right to be out there without him,” he admits. “That’s when we sat back and thought about what he did when we were gone.”
For them, it’s about the legacy of their son’s life: Helping others. 
“When your 21-year-old son and 24-year-old daughter can take it all upon themselves to continue the tradition, how could we not?” says Teresa. “How could we not do it when the kids were always so proud of what we did? They were always into helping us. And Adrian gave his life. He stopped to help strangers. There were eight or ten people there that day and he’s the one who was killed.”
Although keeping the display going doesn’t heal their grief at all, it does allow the family to focus on their belief that Adrian would want them to carry on this tradition no matter how hard it is to carry on without him.
“People think we have to get over it,” Teresa says. “It’s very hard. We try to put on a good front for people but as soon as we walk back inside our house, our real faces are back on.”
Consider for a moment what else is going on here. This couple, working away in northern Ontario when their son was killed because they were struggling financially here, have covered their small property in Christmas lights and inflatables for nearly a decade. 
Teresa has not yet returned to work, her grief deep and abiding, the reason for the loss of their son inexplicable, his absence inescapable.
Yet they don’t complain; there is not one mention from them about the cost of the lights. 
Terry would put up more lights if he had more time, more room and less heartache.
Aside from the circumstances surrounding Adrian’s death, what truly upsets Teresa is listening to other people complain about the cost of Christmas gifts. 
“I get so angry when people go on about their kids and having to buy for them,” she says as the second Christmas without her son approaches. “You know what, I get to put a tree on a grave. People say ‘My child wants this, my child wants that’. I’d buy him the world, I’d buy both of my kids the world but I can’t. I got to buy a headstone and a hole in the ground. People just don’t get it.”
After our conversation, the family was heading to the cemetery to place a Christmas tree on their son and brother’s grave. Adrian’s six-year-old niece, Emma, made salt dough ornaments to hang on the tree. 
But even the dread she feels about that unwanted outing doesn’t distract Teresa from the MacDonald family’s Christmas mission.
“I just want everyone to know how appreciative we are. We couldn’t do this without the support of our community,” she says. “We put up lights and give a few toys but we couldn’t do what we do without everyone else. Strangers come, our community helps, our families help, our friends help. All we do is ask them to do it. We put up a Facebook page and let people know the lights are going up, bring a toy, have some hot chocolate. Like I said, last year was bigger than this year but that’s okay; we’re still going to help out a lot of kids. That’s the whole point of it," Teresa adds. 
"And if people want to call it the Adrian MacDonald Toy Drive, they certainly can because at least his name is not forgotten.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Merry Chiselmas

This is a first: to gain a new creative hobby out of an interview.
My conversation with Springhill carver, Faron Young, ended with me asking him if he'd help me with a Christmas project for my mantel. I just wanted a recommendation for a good chisel; he told me to bring my wood discs over. He showed me how to hold the wood and the chisel -- and encouraged me to loosen my death grip on the tool -- then sent me home with a fine chisel with which to finish carving the letters.
I couldn't resist trying my hand at a heart so now y'all know what ornament will come with every gift I send! Birthday hearts and Christmas hearts and spring hearts and fall hearts. 
The most interesting thing, however, was Faron's explanation that the heart of a tree, the strong core right in the centre, is the hardest wood. After a tree has been chopped down and cut up, the heart dries out and cracks.
Check your woodpile; you'll see I'm right.
So carvers avoid the heart since it's not as easy to push a chisel through; carving wood, at least, is cut from the log around the heart. Yet the cracking makes me wonder if no one keeps the heart of a tree.

Faron's diagram.
How many tree hearts are lying around, discarded, unwanted? Broken hearts.
Of course this is a metaphor I love. The strong core that holds us up, the strong heart at the core that keeps us going, and how easy it is to break that heart. And it's a wonderful new idea to add to my essay-in-progress on the anatomy of trees.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

This Week's Conversation

Terry MacDonald with his daughter Alisha Reade and granddaughter Emma.
The MacDonald family graciously allowed me to interview them about their nine-year Christmas extravaganza at their home in South Pugwash, a light and decoration display that includes a toy donation box. After the tragic death of their 21-year-old son Adrian less than two years ago, they considered stopping but realized Adrian would not want children to miss out on toys at Christmas.
Their heartbreaking story of perseverance in the face of unimaginable grief is in tomorrow's Oxford Journal.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The 4H Pledge

The Linden 4H club held its second meeting of the new season this afternoon. The Linden hall was filled. With the Oxford club going on hiatus for an indefinite period, the number of members in Linden has swelled from 14 to 26.
The first thing I must do as a new member? Memorize the pledge: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands for larger service and my health to better living for my club, my community and my country". Each meeting opens with members standing and reciting this pledge and even though the banner hangs behind the president and vice-president at their table, it's worth knowing by heart.
My place as the "embedded journalist member" remains shifty. After today's meeting, I felt as if my role is more journalist than member; can I really serve the reading public, and the future of 4H, best by participating as a member rather than by observing and reporting on what the real, young members are doing? I'm not so sure.
What I am sure of, considering the upheaval at the Chronicle-Herald newspaper and the possibility this column may not run an entire year, is that I am whole-heartedly committed to do this Year In 4H whether there is a column or not. Already I know of other ways to present the story of 4H doing what I do best -- telling other people's stories -- and what better example can I set for young people than to be working hard using my skills? Using my head, my heart, my hands and my health for this club, this community and this province.
As I told my husband when I returned home, "Guess what, honey? Figure out what you have to offer because next year, we're going to be leaders."

Friday, December 12, 2014

Dear Santa, I Hope I've Been Nice

I really hope there is a new pair of Bog boots under the Christmas tree for me. I love these red boots and my Bogs get worn every day, even in the summer, but that heavy wear takes its toll. These boots aren't made of real rubber so they eventually wear out and crack at the point where my toes bend as I walk the fields or kneel in the garden. As festive as the red is, the duct tape just doesn't cut it for keeping the water out.
It's been raining since Wednesday evening and 100 mm of rain makes our river valley land very, very soggy.
(Can you imagine if all this rain had been snow? We'd be stranded in our homes or at work for days.)
This picture reminds me of something else: The make-do principle of country people. The rest of boots are in perfectly good shape so why not simply wrap duct tape around the holes and carry on? It's the same principle as darning socks and patching knees. You  make do with what you have instead of buying something new. Our Buy New! Buy Now! culture mocks that country attitude but it's an admirable one and there's nothing wrong with a little make-do in everyone's life to appreciate when something brand new comes along.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Christmas In Long-Term Care

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, December 10, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Members of Pic'N'Grin entertain residents of East Cumberland Lodge recently.

Snowflakes, spiral trees, wreaths and strings of coloured lights sparkle in the night around East Cumberland Lodge in Pugwash. 
I must say I’m partial to the Santa Pig with the rein-pigs pulling a sleigh in the centre of the roundabout by the front doors.
ECL held its 13th annual “Sparkle of Lights” fund raiser last week, an important event for residents and staff, families, friends and volunteers. 
“We are owned by the County but we are a registered Canadian charity,” ECL’s administrator, Joe Gauthier, explained to me over the phone. “We  have a set budget determined by the Department of Health and there are certain items we are funded well for but there are other items for which we have to make up the difference.”
Joe said while some things are not essential, they certainly benefit people.  The Sparkle of Lights event helps raise funds for “extras” like a palliative apartment for families spending final days with a loved one, an Internet cafe, a new electric piano, and furnishings. 
“This year, we’re replacing the furniture in the front part of the Lodge,” Joe said. “There used to be half a dozen comfy upholstered chairs; they’ve been very well-used over the past five or six years, to the point they are worn. Plus we have the house cat! That furniture needs to be replaced.”
Some of this year’s funds will also be used to install an entertainment unit in the Donkin rec room. Joe explained that this will allow movie afternoons for the residents to be held in a larger area that’s more private and will keep the sound of the television from disturbing someone in a nearby room.
Joe laughed when I said we needed to mention those responsible for the work of putting up all the outdoor displays. 
“That would be the boys in maintenance, Roger, Jim and Bill,” he explained. “They do the outside and the team in Housekeeping does the inside. The recreation staff work with the residents on decorating the trees.”
In the past 13 years, the Sparkle of Lights campaign has raised $130,000 for non-budgeted renovations, replacements and activities at ECL.
 The annual event also marks the beginning of the Christmas season for the Lodge.  
“For a long-term care centre, it’s one of the key ways of remembering people who were here, both for the staff and for the family members,” Joe told me. 
It’s most gratifying to see on the list of donors those who do it “just because”.
In the busy-ness of getting ready for Christmas, the general public may forget about people living in long-term care but for the staff at ECL, it’s an extension of their own homes, and hearts. 
“Many of our residents become like family to us,” said Joe who calls his staff “phenomenal”. 
A longtime tradition at East Cumberland Lodge sees each staff member draw a name of a resident for whom they buy a gift. This is particularly meaningful for those who don’t have family nearly or those with a limited income.
“We have wonderful CCAs and they know the little things that are special to someone and what would bring the greatest joy to them,” Joe said. “It doesn’t take much.”
I asked Joe if he thinks Christmas is difficult for nursing home residents.
“Christmas in a lot of ways is becoming generational,” he said. “The people that are here are of a generation when it meant so much more. They remember when there wasn’t enough money, there wasn’t much advertising. You got your hard rock candy or your orange and that was it but it was when all the family came home. Now they’re at an age when they’ve lost much of their family so the co-residents and the visitors and staff have become family. That gives them the warmth and joy over the holidays of having people close. We believe Christmas is here whether a person is faith-oriented or not,” Joe added. “Christmas is truly about being humanitarian and helping others.”

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Candy Artisans Extraordinaire

The Gingerbread Journal and a very detailed Tuscan villa by David Rickards.

Becka and Nick, of Good Thyme Farm, created this wonderful barn. Looks delish!

Norene Smiley of the Chatterbox Cafe went wild with candy.

Me, Jen, Anne, Becka and Nick.

All the gingerbread houses were amazing. What fun this was and we can't wait to do it next year.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Gingerbread Journal

Here's a sneak peak at the "Gingerbread Journal" Jane and I created for Saturday's Gingerbread Silent Auction at the Christmas Market in Pugwash. 9 am - 1 pm.
Come out to the high school and check out all the gingerbread houses - but of course bid vigourously on ours! Nothing says Christmas like a gingerbread version of the Oxford Journal building.

There's Charlie the editor hard at work inside his gingerbread office.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

In Conversation With...Faron & Joyce Young

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, December 3, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

“I’m working on one right now and I can send you a picture of him,” Faron Young speaks into the phone at his home in Springhill. “It’s a nice one.”
But the woman on the other end of the line has something specific in mind, as a Christmas gift for her husband, so Faron gestures to me to follow him down to the basement. 
He leads me past the laundry room and into a larger room with a kitchenette which is covered in small bottles of paint and containers of paint brushes. Alongside this work space is a wide set of shelves covered in brightly-painted carvings. 
As Faron continues to converse with the woman on the phone, he plucks several Santas off  the shelves and sets them aside. 
Although retired from the armed forces where he worked as an aero engine tech (mechanic) for the Buffalo search-and-rescue planes, carving is not a hobby for Faron; he’s been doing most of his adult life.
“When we were stationed in Summerside, in 1986, I started making boats, that was the first thing,” Faron explains once we’ve returned to the living room. “I did boats and clocks then I started doing birds.”
He kept his early carvings, they’re there on a smaller separate shelf, and they include the first duck he carved.
“I keep that because when I go to a show and people say, ‘I can’t make that,’ I say, ‘Yeah, you probably can’t make this but you can make this’,” he tells them and shows them that first duck.
“We have some really ugly handmade ornaments from the early days,” his wife Joyce adds, joining us with tea and fresh blueberry muffins. “When the girls are here [they have two grown daughters], he tells them they can’t put those up but they say ‘Oh, yes, we can’. It’s so much fun to see them.”
Being in the military, the family moved around the country. Their daughters were born in PEI and the family lived in Ontario as well as BC. Faron retired while stationed in Comox and they returned to Belleville, near the Trenton air base where Faron had worked for five years, so that Joyce could return to her job as a high school teacher until her own retirement.
The first Santa Faron ever carved was for Joyce. 
“He’s not too bad,” Faron says. “When I was in Ontario, I was doing a lot of ducks and birds and doing a lot of competitions. If you’re in a competition and you’re doing a duck or a bird, everything has to be correct. The wing grouping and the feathers. The judges will actually count the number of feathers in the wing and the number of barbs. So you’re concentrating the whole time. When I started with the Santas, it was just like sitting back and relaxing,” he explains. “If you make a cut, it’s just another wrinkle or hair.”
Faron says his interest in carving came from his grandfathers when he was growing up in Newfoundland. When he was ten, his family moved to a mining town in northeastern Quebec. 
And that is how Joyce Weatherbee of Springhill, Nova Scotia, came to meet open-pit miner Faron Young of Schefferville, Quebec. 
When Joyce graduated from teachers’ college, there were no jobs in Nova Scotia so she accepted a position with the Eastern Quebec Regional School Board and was posted to Schefferville.
“I actually taught Faron’s brother and sister,” she laughs (Faron is the oldest of six). “It was a small town, half-English and half-French, and everyone hung around with each other.”
In the late seventies, the Quebec government closed down the mines and the town’s population scattered. Faron joined the armed forces at the age of 21 and a year later, Joyce and Faron married. They’ll celebrate 35 years together next June.
Serendipity seems to be the hallmark of their relationship. During a trip to Nova Scotia in 2007 for a daughter’s graduation from Dalhousie University, they were visiting Joyce’s family in Springhill when an opportunity presented itself that Joyce could not ignore. 
“Faron wanted to get out of Ontario because of his asthma so we knew we were going to move east,” Joyce says. “We hadn’t planned on Springhill but we saw this house. I lived in the other end of town growing up but my grandparents lived out here and we’d drive by and I always liked this house. One morning, I said, ‘Does anyone want to go for a walk?’ and Faron said yes so we parked the truck uptown and walked around this way and here was a For Sale By Owner sign and the owner in the driveway.”
Eight years along, Faron now has his own workshop next door where his tools and raw materials and shavings can be spread out. Joyce paints the carvings in the basement of the house.

They work year-round but rarely in January and February since they’re worn out by Christmas. 
“We get a lot of last minute calls before Christmas,” Joyce says.
After years of carving Santas big and small, one stands out as this couple’s favourite.
“We are probably best known for doing the Stick Santa but I like doing the Cypress Santa,” he says. “The wood comes out of Louisiana, mostly, and it’s a tree root. You carve what you see into it. There’s no pattern. I have the roots set up in my shop and one day, I’ll look up and there’s nothing. Another day I’ll look up and he’s looking right at me. I’ll do a couple little sketch marks on it and he’ll stay. I like doing those.”
Sometimes he simply has to turn a root for the Santa to reveal himself. 
“I had one, I had it sketched to be drawn one way and one day when I put it back another way, there was a totally different face looking at me,” Faron says. “The beard was already in there; it wasn’t until I laid it down this way that the head was tilted and here was the beard just flowing naturally.”
 Joyce wouldn’t let Faron sell that particular Santa so the carving stands on one of the steps leading up to the living room.
“They are so unique,” she says of the root carvings. “Some of the Santas he does are very similar but those Cypress Santas are unique.”
As Faron said, however, his Stick Santas are the most popular. They are carved out of alder branches, many of which he and Joyce still gather when they are in Newfoundland to visit his family. When someone buys a Stick Santa at a market or festival, Faron tells a story. 
“Most of my carvings are European-based and so are my wood spirits. You carve the wood green and as the wood dries and cracks, that’s a spirit coming into your household. It’s supposed to bring you good luck, health and fortune.”

Joyce holds the very first Santa Faron carved.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Come Bid On Your Very Own Oxford Journal

My friend, colleague and accomplice Jane is printing tiny newspapers to be stacked next to the gingerbread version of The Oxford Journal building we are creating for Saturday's Gingerbread Silent Auction. All the news that's fit to eat! We'll have a marshmallow snowman reading one of the papers but we haven't decided yet if we're going to make him look like our boss, owner and publisher Paul Marchant. If enough Christmas cheer is consumed during the construction phase later this week, that might just happen.

Monday, December 01, 2014

A Sneak Peak At Santa

"In Conversation With..." this week tells the story of how those rough pieces of tree root on the left become transformed into a one-of-a-kind Santa like the one on the right. I spent a lovely afternoon speaking with a Springhill carver and his wife and their story is in this week's Oxford Journal.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Just A Few More

Until I moved to this property in rural Nova Scotia, I had never hung Christmas lights outside. Imagine -- 37 years without even a single strand of coloured lights strung around a shrub. I've spent the last eight years totally making up for it.
First it was lights strung along the roof of the chicken coop, and it was so nice to look out from the house or drive down the road and see that glowing oasis of Christmas lights shining in the country darkness. It makes the hens feel festive too; they lay more green-shelled eggs.
Now all three decks are colourized as well as my mother's balcony by simply adding one more string of lights.
But I've always had my eye on other places beyond the house that could be decorated; getting an extension cord to reach some of the spots (or a ladder, in the case of the pole under the osprey nest) was the challenge.
I am absolutely delighted with my inspired addition for this year: a star with a lovely tail of lights that we can see from the house. It's neat to look out and see this star shining way down by the mailbox.
"We can do the same thing with the trees on the other side of the front yard," I declared at supper time.
It's just a few more strings of coloured lights. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Year In 4H: Column 2

My year in 4H is being followed by the Chronicle-Herald with a column appearing every other month. Here is the link to the second column in my series:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happiness Is...A Dandelion In November

I arrived home from work on Tuesday evening to see this lovely little friend greeting me on the kitchen island. My husband found it over on the lot next door and brought it inside.
"We should feed it to Rosie," I said.
Rosie is our rabbit and I'm quite sure would appreciate this tasty memory of the summertime.
Funny that the day before, Jane Purdy had dropped by the Journal office with two small jars of her dandelion jelly for me.
That song, "It's a marshmallow world in the winter," has been playing on repeat in my brain thanks to a TV commercial so I'm taking poetic license and singing instead, "It's a dandelion world in November".
I don't mind winter but it's lovely to have a bit of sunshine shining in the kitchen this time of year.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How To Kill A Christmas Cake

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, November 29, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Freshly baked. Now comes months of sherry sprinkling.

My friend Shelagh is quite confident she can make anyone love Christmas cake, especially someone who has never tasted one before.
“This is the one that people who say they don’t like fruitcake haven’t had,” she says of her Nanny’s fruitcake. 
During my visit to Ontario last month, Shelagh handed me a Christmas gift bag containing a chunk of her just-made Christmas cake and a small jam jar full of sherry but she forgot to tell me how to combine the two.
Given her tone on the phone when I made a follow-up call the other day, taking care of Nanny’s cake is a great responsibility.
“You should be adding the sherry every couple of weeks and since it’s now the end of the November that means two seconds after you hang up the phone,” she snipped at me. 
I was smart enough not to say out loud, ‘It’s just a Christmas cake’ because for Shelagh, this is a family tradition she alone carries on. 
“It probably came from Nanny’s mother but I always think of it as Nanny’s,” she said. “Mine isn’t as good as Mum’s and Mum’s wasn’t as good as Nanny’s. It probably has something to do with not letting it age long enough. Thanksgiving was always the rule. Plus I keep mine in the fridge but Mum kept hers in a cold cellar.”
“It was only two weeks after Thanksgiving that you made yours,” said the person who paid no attention to the bag of cake and sherry sitting on a shelf in her house for a month. “It should be fine.”
YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND, you Christmas cake cretin. Maybe you don’t even deserve to have this cake, even one that small.”
Okay, Shelagh didn’t really say that but the long sigh oozing through the phone suggested I wasn’t taking this Christmas cake seriously. 
“I can do this,” I reassured her. “I can. Just tell me what to with the sherry.”  
“You don’t want pools of sherry on top. For a cake that size, no more than a tablespoon. Just sprinkle it over,” she explained. “Since you haven’t done it yet, do it more frequently with a lighter hand. Too much sherry and it becomes a big sludgy mess. It would turn into Christmas pudding.”
She said ‘Christmas pudding’ like it was some vastly inferior dessert. The lip curl was audible.
Since I’ve never eaten Christmas cake but am now fully educated in the care and maintenance of this one, what can I expect when I unwrap it for the final time on Christmas Eve?
“It will be a dark, moist, flavourful cake,” Shelagh said. “Ideally, it gets to the point where it’s so dark, you can’t see the individual fruit. This is why people think they don’t like Christmas cake, when they think of the individual ingredients.”
Nanny’s recipe uses candied fruit, crystallized ginger, maraschino cherries, dates and raisins.
“But no nuts,” Shelagh said. “People feel very strongly about nuts or no nuts and about light or dark. Then there is the whole icing debacle. I am no nuts and no icing. The cake needs to stand alone.”
This intensity is a side of my friend I’ve never seen before. She doesn’t even get this worked up about books and she’s a librarian.
Her final instructions to me were very clear: “You have to cut it the right way. You have to cut the slices into fingers. That’s the way Nanny did it. And you have to savour it,” Shelagh added. “I’m good about not starting to eat it too soon but once I’ve started, I’ll take it out and hack pieces off.”
Every fall, Shelagh sends cakes to her mother, her father, and her sister in Vancouver. They receive theirs in tins and are likely quite knowledgeable in the proper application of sherry. I get the impression my bag with a small chunk of cake was a trial run and I’ve failed to prove myself worthy enough. 
“I’m really careful about who I give it out to,” Shelagh said. “Not to someone who lets it languish in a bag.”
As soon as I hung up the phone, I unwrapped the small chunk of Nanny’s Christmas cake entrusted to me and picked up a tablespoon. But before attempting my first light sprinkle of sherry, I took a heavy swig to calm my nerves.

The friendship will survive!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Homemade Christmas

My sister has six children so she really wanted us to do homemade Christmas gifts this year.
"No problem," I said since I'd seen a crafty idea I knew I could handle.
No one warned me about glue gun injuries.
I couldn't find glass ornaments big enough to take an adult hand print so I had to paint the large but clear ones I found. Nothing wrong with streaky paint when it's homemade and the recipients are ten and under.
Easy-peasy to paint my hand white and mark five finger snowpeople on the ornaments. Although sitting in their containers drying, they look like skeleton hand ornaments.
The ornaments came in boxes of eight so I'm doing an ornament for the entire family. Cutting out 40 tiny top hats out of black felt wasn't too bad either and it was easy to clip the tiny felt scarves. I worked through the pain it was causing to my carpal tunnelled wrist.
But no one warned me about how hot the glue gets. And when you're working with tiny hats and tiny scarves, there's no way to avoid coming into contact with the hot glue. There's no way to avoid having a very hot, very tiny black hat stuck to the index finger of your left hand.
I said some very un-Christmasy words at that moment.
After I'd rescued my finger and applied emergency first aid, I announced, "If she has any more children, Christmas is cancelled."

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Preview

I'm writing about this in my Field Notes column this week. 
It's a column about Christmas cake, family traditions and a true test of friendship. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Not Another One!

And there there was...another one.
Poor Stella. The old dog just wants to eat, sleep and go outside twice a day to piddle and poop. Is that too much to ask for when you're an old dog? A year after we brought a puppy home, I brought a kitten home. So it's been two years since wee Archie became the other boy in the house.
There are times, when two cats and two dogs are sitting on the mat in the foyer/mudroom (we still don't know what to call it) and I'm having to dole out treats to each of them, making sure Fern doesn't eat Archie's treats and Stella doesn't eat Archie's treats, that I wonder how on earth we ended up with so many pets.
It's a good thing we don't have a barn because I know someone who wants to re-home her donkeys.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Still Our Puppy

It's been three years since Abby joined our family. The cuteness in this photo still works with us but she has a possessive streak in her that can make her aggressive, even violent. We've taken steps to understand and correct that, with certain vitamin supplements and an herbal remedy that Stella herself was fed in her early, manic days in our Alzheimer-infused household.
That treatment worked; there have been no further Abby-induced fights since we began her supplements but Abby is a dog and like all dogs, whose moods are harder to read than humans, who can't express their feelings in words, we still watch for warning signs in Abby.
Just this morning, as Abby began to eat her breakfast, Fern the cat came to have a drink of water out of the dish and Abby growled at her. So I backed her off her food dish and made her wait and watch as Fern had her drink. It's those moments you need to be present for and deal with immediately. Abby gets away with A LOT because she is cute -- and really, she is; she never outgrew that face in the photo -- and she does not have a mind of her own like Stella does, which I so appreciate; perhaps it's because she has slept with us since she was a puppy but Abby is more in tune with us, but also more attached. We still debate about letting her sleep with us. I know I'd sleep better, and we'd assert our dominance better, but we're soft humans, we give in to the cuteness. 
They are two very different dogs, this little and big, this brindle and fawn, this Abby and Stella. Yet both of them have an aggressive streak that has made my life miserable more often than not. There is something I'm meant to learn about dogs, about myself, and I haven't figured it out yet.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

In Conversation With...Chesley Atkinson

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, November 19, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Chesley Atkinson shows off the French medal.

Addressed to Chesley Atkinson of Pugwash, the letter begins, “Monsieur,” and continues in French. It is from the Ambassade de France au Canada, Phillipe Zeller.
In translation, it says, “You have been awarded the rank of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour.”
The 95-year-old World War Two veteran is one of five local veterans who have received the French medal in recognition of their role in liberating France from the Germans.
Or “clearing their country of them,” as Chesley puts it. 
“They would never have got the Germans out of there by themselves. Never, never, never,” he says.
Chesley signed up for the war in July 1940 just before his 20th birthday. He and his friends knew they would be going overseas where the fight was taking place.
“We had to face that, knowing we were going,” he says.
It would be several years before Chesley set foot on European soil. In the years following basic training in the fall of 1940, Chesley trained as a mechanic, driver and fitter for tanks. Although he signed up with C Company of the Halifax Rifles, by the time they landed in England, they’d been switched to an armoured tank corps.
Chesley has a couple of books at hand: a reference book of war tanks with dog-eared pages marking the tanks on which he worked; and a book about the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade including a map of the route his regiment took through France and Belgium into Germany.
In that book, on the first page of the chapter on France, is a handwritten note: “This date is not right. I spent my birthday, 22nd July in France and we had been in battle for two weeks then.”
When he landed at Courseulles-sur-Mer, west of Dieppe, Corporal Atkinson was about to mark his 25th birthday. 
“We had no problem getting landed in France and when we got there, we were supposed to have five days of rest. But [after three days] at nine o’clock at night, they told us to pull out. I had to leave with the half-track and a driver.”
He opens his book of tanks to a photo of his vehicle. 
“The tanks weighed 32 tonnes. The half-track weighed 12 tonnes. The half-tracks were used for transporting infantry,” he says.
The half-track looks like a truck in front but instead of back wheels, there are tank tracks.
“The tanks used to run over land mines all the time and they would blow the track half off or the sides or the assemblies,” he says.
As a fitter, Chesley’s job was to fix the parts that broke down or were damaged most often: the tracks and the clutches. And his job meant that where the tanks were, that’s where he had to be.
“We were all night long, stop and start, stop and start,” he says of pulling out. “Our infantry was coming with us. They followed us on foot with a hundred pounds of weight on them. I used to load them into the half-track, as many as we could fit in.
“We went through cleared fields and bushes and woods. Tanks would shove down quite a tree but we had awful times trying to follow it.
“I was standing up in the half-track guiding. Billy Ball from Montreal was our driver, an older fellow. There was just the two of us in the half-track. The doctor had one [with a driver and an assistant]. He was behind us. We broke through the woods in the morning into a great big hayfield. We could see woods again way over farther. We could see stacks of hay all over the place. 
“Every single one of those hay stacks had a German machine gun underneath.
“They opened up on us. And not only that, there were two great big German 88s and they started firing and mortars started to come, one right after the other. Holy oh mackerel Moses.
“We were going pretty slow. There were shells landing and Billy was driving the old half-track and she would shake. I said, ‘Billy, we have to keep going, we have to follow the command tank’. We kept going and we got to the edge of the woods on the far side. We had three tanks of our own and three tanks of the Polish army and three tanks of the British army. Of course the infantry was there too. I said to Billy, ‘Every time somebody moves, they shoot them’. One thing about the Germans, they never fired at a Red Cross vehicle. The Red Cross were loading injured men. 
“I knew the Germans fired three mortars but they didn’t fire the second ones in the same place. When we got pretty near to the edge of the woods, they had fired three. One of them was within six feet of our vehicle. We slacked off a bit and the doctor’s half-track pulled out around us and pulled right in front of us and behind the tank that was trying to get to the woods. All of sudden, he’d just got in front of us and a mortar landed fair in the middle of the half-track. Holy oh mackerel Moses. There were bodies flying in all directions.
“Billy jammed on the brake and I said, ‘Back up, back up quick’ and we backed up about six feet and another mortar landed right where we had been about two seconds before. Off flew the right front wheel and part of the radiator and part of the engine and the hood. It drove us back. Nothing hit us hard but it gave us an awful shaking up.”
“We jumped out and I said ‘Get in these holes, get down in there, Billy.’ The hole [from the mortar] was about three feet deep and six feet across. We jumped in it and was it ever hot, almost as if you’d jumped on top of the stove. Billy said, ‘Oh, Ches, I can’t stand this, it’s terrible hot,’ and I said, ‘You’d better get your head down in case they do fire again.’ We stayed there for five or six minutes. I thought the pants were going to burn right off me. Talk about hot. But that calmed her down. Our infantry had made it to the edge of the woods and they found out where the two mortar outfits were. They killed seven and got nine prisoners.”
The day stretched through the night as Chesley and Billy, who barely had a scratch on him, waited with the injured for ambulances. 
“We got clear of them all, the injured, by 12 o’clock that night,” says Chesley. “Billy said, ‘What are we going to do?’ Everybody was gone, you see, it was just him and I. So I said, ‘We have nothing to eat, no water, we have no idea where we are, don’t know where the roads are.’ The next morning, we decided we could hear the guns going off way off in the distance so I said, ‘Billy, what do you say we just take our rifle and start walking. Surely to God, there must be a road somewhere we can sit down by and get some kind of vehicle coming or going.”
Carrying their kit bags and armed with their rifles, they walked away from the scene of their first battle and found a road. Two days later, they were able to flag down a supply truck.
They went three days without food or water before being reunited with their regiment.
“When you’re hungry and thirsty, especially when you’re thirsty, your tongue is as big as your fist and you can’t swallow,” Chesley remembers. 
Was he injured?
“I tell ya, I’m still finding pieces in me now,” he says. “When the exploding shells landed, and they landed damn close to us a lot of the time, they blew quite a hole and everything within forty or fifty yards was hit with sand and dirt, if nothing bigger hit you. I was lucky [because] I got hit damn close two or three times. Here awhile ago, I felt something coming through on the top of my nose. Right here, on the side of my head, there’s something coming through there now. I got digging at another spot one day and something came out about the size of the head of a match. That’s what it looked like. When I got the pinchers and squeezed, it broke up like a little wee rock.”
He touches the white scar on his head. 
“There was one up here on the top of my forehead, that was the worse one I ever got. It was probably an inch and a half long. It wasn’t really deep. I got Billy to fix it up for me.”
More than a year later, in September 1945, the war ended but Chesley didn’t make it home until November. 
“I had lots of time in, I could have come back as soon as the war was over, but we had to sign a paper saying we would wait until the married fellows got home first,” he explains.
It didn’t take him long to join the ranks of the married fellows, however, when he met a woman named Gladys shortly after returning to Pugwash. 
For the next 41 years, Chesley helped Gladys raise three children and worked as the Pugwash harbour master and wharf manager for 41 years.
“I’m soon at the end of my trail,” Chesley admits while sitting in the living room of his home on Freedom Lane, “but I’m damn lucky to be as good as I am.”
Monsieur, we’re all damn lucky you were as good as you once were.

A photo of Corporal Atkinson along with the certificate
of appreciation from the Village of Pugwash.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Cat Stretch

What can I say about this?
This stretch, this stretch of sunshine, this stretch of fur.
This stretch of Fern. 

"Cats can work out mathematically the exact place to sit 
that will cause the most inconvenience."
(Pam Brown)

Sunday, November 16, 2014


We had guests wander up to the apple bar overnight after the snowstorm. My husband has been storing bags of deer apples behind the chicken coop; he could have saved himself the trouble of lugging them back to the woods because the deer are more than willing to hang out there while we're all sleeping.
I know that deer sleep, if ever a prey animal sleeps, because we see their body forms left behind in the grass when we go for a drive on the four-wheeler. Perhaps they rest, that's it, they rest their eyes, they rest their muscles but their ears are always awake, alert, two thick furry antennae listening for warning signs.
There have been signs that they lie down in the field behind the chicken coop.
Do they know they are safe in our yard? Do they know the man who keeps heading out to "get a deer" comes back only with photographic evidence of them? Do they know we are their friends like the chickens know the osprey flying over the pen will not harm them?
Gather in, deer friends, be close, be safe, be the apples of our eyes.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

First Snow

It's not going to last which is what makes the first snow storm of the season -- even before it's officially "winter" -- so special. Some of us wanted to get outside really early this morning to enjoy the new world. Once I was properly awake and no longer being hopped on, that was me too.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Daughter Becomes the Voice of Her POW Dad

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Alice Dionne of Linden wants to share her father’s World War Two story because she has lived with the effect the war had on him. She believes her father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after he returned from the war in 1945, and that he was bitter POWs were not acknowledged as they should have been.
“They might not have made the ultimate sacrifice but given what they lived, that was often worse than being dead,” she says.
Her father, Andrew Darragh, enlisted with the North Nova Highlanders Regiment in 1942 at the age of 18. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he landed at Dieppe and the next day, he and 102 others were captured by German soldiers. He was a prisoner of war for 11 months.
“Over the years, we’d ask questions but he wouldn’t talk about it,” Alice told me. “We only knew about four things: that he never received a [Red Cross] care package, being shot at in the box cars, the forced marches and being in front of a firing squad.”
One evening a year before he died in 2007, Alice’s father told her the story of his war experience and she wrote it down; those notes along with certificates and newspaper articles she has collected are now in a large binder. 

Wanting to share her father’s POW experience, she read out loud the notes she made about his story.   
About his capture: ‘They were in a box car for 28 days. They had a ten gallon drum for a toilet. This was in July during very hot weather. They were shot at. They went down to Bordeaux, France, sat locked in box cars...for 11 days. They were fed once a day, part of a loaf of bread. The box car in front of them was full of sergeants and officers and they escaped by ripping up the floor of the box car. The Germans were furious.’
About life as a POW:  ‘From November 1944 to April 1945. They worked from 6 am to 6 pm along with the German coal miners. He was befriended by two German brothers who told him to sit. Whenever they saw the light coming, they told him to get up and work because it would be the pit boss coming. The only breakfast he would have had is if he had saved something from supper the night before. At night, they would get pumpkin soup, dog meat, and they would get one or two potatoes once a week. There were about 35 Canadian POWs and the Germans volunteered five to go in the mines. Dad was one of them. They had to go down 400 feet and there was hardly enough pit props and the roof was always falling in.’
About the night Andrew Darragh and three others escaped during a forced march (May 1945): ‘Towards the latter part of the war, when it became obvious the Allied troops were coming for the Germans, they marched the POWs out of Falkenau. They marched only at night and slept during the day wherever they could find a spot. They marched probably a week, he thought, then one night some of them just walked away...They were right at the border when they met the Germans who, when they found out they were POWs, let them go. They spent the night in a hay mow...’
The five escapees spent a few days at this farm, unable to eat the milk, pies, eggs and bread because the food made them sick. They listened to the sounds of machine guns and bombs and then a Sherman tank drove up to the farm’s picket fence.
This rescue by the Americans marked the end of the war as well. Alice’s dad was flown back to England and admitted to hospital weighing 100 pounds. He stayed there for ten days and when discharged, he went to stay with an English family Alice believes he met during the year he’d spent in England training for D-Day. After returning to Canada, to Cumberland County, he married Iona Read in 1946. Alice is the oldest of their four children.
“I’d like to have his experience recognized,” she says. “I just feel he suffered so much and we did, too, as a family because he couldn’t keep a job,” which she now attributes to PTSD. “We moved all over the place. I didn’t go to a school for a full year until I was in Grade Nine. I think Mum had a really hard time. If it hadn’t been for her devotion, they may not have stayed together.”
And that’s why Andrew Darragh’s war story didn’t end on May 7, 1945.