Autumn can be a time of looking backward and also forward and a time to tidy up, reassess and make adjustments. Perhaps we all have a want and need as humans to communicate and the blog has been a good tool for me but from time to time I struggle to make sense of the effort. After all, I have no elevated point of view, no privileged access to knowledge and all of my insights seem to be past tense and unremarkable. I am, after all, very comfortable in my life and I do tend to believe that creativity springs out of discontent. As a consequence, I often find nothing more invigorating to write about than the effects of rusty water on fair hair. (My next topic should I allow myself to continue here.) Continue I shan’t and I am abandoning the few faithful here for the tacky social media realm of Facebook. (Honestly, it’s not as tawdry as you may think and you have complete control over access.) That is where you’ll find me, and who knows, I may yet find the way back to the blog. As they say, “Stay Calm, Be Brave, and Wait for the Signs.” Slainte!
The calendar tells me that one week from today is the First Day of Fall. It’s hard to let go of Summer but there are signs that Summer is letting go of us: acorns and chestnuts on the ground, chilly evenings, hostas full of holes, worn out Annuals and a bounty of tomatoes, zucchini and squash. Garrison Keillor said it’s the only time of the year Christians lock their car doors in the church parking lot for fear they come out after service to discover a whole backseat of donated vegetables. At the farm, where it was a lousy year for tomatoes, bushels of them were brought in to make the annual batch of tomato sauce.
The young farmer with the Italian family set up in the barn and transformed bushels of produce into a profit centre. I did learn this Summer that there has to be a plan for all the food that sprouts up out of the ground. There seems to be a revived interest in preserving the harvest, although I don’t know where there’s room for jars of pickles and peaches or cold cellars in the tiny modern home. Processing the raw materials takes time, dedication and a big freezer.
I’ve wondered if “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” is too banal a topic for modern kids, and how the assignment pressures us to come up with one experience above all others that is worthy of broadcasting. As adults we are hard pressed to remember what we did with the past four months and I suspect most of us are happy enough just to shed the parka and open the windows and enjoy the possibility of merely waltzing in and out, unencumbered. When I was a kid, Summer days meant being in water — most often a tiny inflatable vinyl pool . Now I have a whole lake and never once jumped in.
My first thought is that I wasted the past 120 days, but upon reflection I see that I was a farmer, a meditator, a furniture refinisher, a reader, a knitter, a gardener, a yogi, a planner, baker and cook, a guest at a dozen social events large and small; I attended concerts, theatres and museums, survived the trauma of moving house, bid farewell, bid welcome, and waited. I made decisions about appliances and construction and managed money. I raised several batches of rodents to enjoy peanuts.
I didn’t read as much as I thought I would, nor did I set up the tripod, nor did I work at taking good photographs. I managed the other day to re-organize the makeshift clothes closets but I didn’t find my cool weather shoes and I didn’t get around to shifting the piles of stuff that are still in the way. I failed to conquer new worlds and once or twice I failed to keep my chin up.
Most of my attention is fixed on next Spring when I have a home again and will be able to go to the bookshelf or the pantry and shed the feeling of impermanence that this Summer has imbedded in me. In the meantime, in response to the challenge to identify that which is ordinary and for which we can find something beautiful, here are some things Blue.
Construction news: yesterday excavation began. Today a big hole with some water in it. Can you see why I have those Ole Behin’ Schedule Construction Blues?
It happens infrequently and hits like a hammer. You don’t see it coming and before you realize what’s happening, there you are eyeballs pricking, throat closing and a sob that can’t belong to you erupts from an incomprehensible place.
My husband and several good buddies annually organize a week of golf on Prince Edward Island and have been doing so for years now. The participants may change from year to year, but all are connected by lasting friendships and an enviable loyalty not only to the game of golf but to one another. It was with a sense of satisfaction and pleasurable reminiscence that B poured us a G&T and settled in for a reporting of the week’s events. He saved this remarkable story for the last.
Post-game, gathered for a drink at their favourite course, and in the usual friendly way they were asked by their waitress where they all hailed from and when ‘Markham’ was heard, the girl declared that her co-worker was from there and she’d go and get her. A lovely young woman appeared and a nice conversation evolved. It was discovered that she had been a student, in her young years, of a good teacher friend of ours and B was able to bring her up to date on the whereabouts of Mrs. M. The teacher, it was soon learned, was an especial favourite of Meaghan’s and she went on at some length about the affection she still carried for her. What a happy coincidence! Several common connections were shared as well as the news that Meaghan was good at sports and, in fact, her high school had awarded her the Michelle Birks Award for excellence.
This was the happy news that caused the shock and the involuntary man-busting collapse. John Birks, the father of Michelle, was one of the friends at the table. And Michelle, his daughter, was a star rugby player, the best all-time leading scorer for her university, and she died horribly suddenly at school not so many years ago. Bil cried, John cried, Al cried, Meaghan cried, Stan cried, Steve cried and Daria cried. I cried in that unanticipated way that comes like a whallop to the mid-section when I heard the tale. When we emailed Mrs. M a picture of Meaghan in PEI and this story, Mrs. M cried.
Woven into this tale is love and respect and kindness for our fellow humans. Our friend wrote back saying that as a teacher you can never be sure if you’ve made an impression. She believed that the math lesson or the reading class may be forgotten but the small acts of caring were what mattered. Meaghan’s own father had died when she was in grade ten, of the malaria he picked up visiting Meaghan’s twin sister in Africa. We all carry a burden of injury and tuck the hurt of it into a place that we think is safe. And without warning, and prompted by something that I can’t name, our emotions are bared and we feel bereaved and at the same time enriched. And for a few minutes in an unlikely and unpredictable setting, a beautiful thing happens and we are grateful for the witnessing.
It’s more than a year now that I signed on at the farm as a volunteer labourer. I have proved myself to be reliable and responsible, representing my age group with aplomb. There is only six weeks at most left of the farming season and I can’t quite believe I have put in five months of what amounts to some pretty hard labour. I might say it has been character building, but in honesty I think my character was built before I began; I merely found a way to exploit it. My hope is that my reliable presence in the field every week indicates an affection and interest that goes beyond mere romanticism. Growing food, particularly on a farm lacking in irrigation and machinery for the most part, is a big, fat miracle. The major crop at Elmgrove Farm is garlic and 50,000 heads of the stuff have already been pulled out of the ground. It has hung in the barn for three weeks to cure and now needs to be readied for market — by hand, and soon.
The farm grows several types of garlic originating in China, Yugoslavia, France, Israel, Italy, Korea, Persia, Poland, Russia, Canada, Sicily and Ukraine. They each have characteristic flavours and strengths and some varieties are easier to harvest and clean than others. Sicilians, a carton of them above, are the most difficult — their stems are soft which makes pulling them out of the ground a bit of a trick, and they don’t easily peel. Assuredly a large scale processor has a machine to tidy them up but we, at an organic farm, tend to every head by hand. These babies all have to be scraped and tagged before they go off to city kitchens. I volunteered to do some homework.
The next time you buy garlic, give thanks for the lowly worker who tidied it up.
If you have been agonizing along with me over the delay in our construction project, there is good news! Tomorrow the wrecking crew moves in! This is the site that greeted me this afternoon:
Where there is a Johnny-on-the-Spot, there is Hope.
To my enormous delight, not only have I discovered a yarn shop in Newmarket but today realized it is twice the size originally thought. I should have taken pictures; even if you have never wielded the needle I feel sure you would want some of the inventory for your mantle, just for the yumminess of it. I swooned; I acquired. Tell me, who could resist a little Noro in their life?
No news is no news. The building site looks like a project that has already worn itself out. It has caused me to feel that way too, and a bit of depression has seeped into my soul. We’ve anticipated a start for almost four months now and I’m here to tell you hope does not spring eternal after all. No one could complain with legitimacy about living in our very nice cottage in this very pretty setting, although it has its limits. The Summer has been packed with social events and enriching experiences but I am missing having a Home. I am not much good at temporary.
While we wait for the gas company to neutralize the property, this is as much activity as there’s been. What’s under the siding? More siding. The top layer is being re-purposed by the builder’s brother. The kitchen has already been removed and installed as a DIY by one of the construction crew and someone is taking the furnace and air conditioning units and interior doors. That is all good, but the place remains rooted. The big trees that came down will be milled, the intention being the wood will clad at least one ceiling.
This weekend we are meeting with the builder to talk about materials for the roof and exterior walls. B and I have worked out a blue & green scheme in our imaginations and hope the response is not horror. The same builder recoiled at our choice of red for the cottage, and for months referred to it disparagingly as “orange”. Once it was installed he fell in love with it, so we’re hoping for at least a grudging vote of confidence. We know his preference would be a nice taupe with white trim.
The other day it was 33.5oC and not a time for farm labouring. However, I did volunteer to help harvest the bounty in the fields of Clearwater Farm at some later time. This heritage property, the original farm of Georgina pioneers, was purchased by the Town a couple of years ago to the dismay of many. As it turns out, a chunk of it has been leased to a group who have ambitious plans to farm the land and develop a commercial enterprise around local food. Already in place is a good portion of funding, farmers, cooks and volunteers. The goal is not only to farm the acreage but also to plant an orchard and a grove of nut trees. Nathan, who runs his own farm some miles hence, has produced this beautiful garden, (pesticide free) and intends to bring in some of his pigs to clear the adjoining woodland. It is an exciting plan which seems entirely realistic and probable. As it is, Sutton does not even have a local farmer’s market although the farmland is rich and productive and most of the yield leaves town on the back of a pickup.
One of my frustrations with the teeny tiny kitchen is the lack of storage space — not only for the batterie du cuisine but also raw materials. I like to cook but find it easier not to when I don’t have space to spread out and make a display of it. This is a bit of a chore for someone who arrives home lugging bags of farm produce that requires prompt attention. My next fridge will have a decent sized freezer. For now, anything requiring more than four (the same four) ingredients presents a challenge. It’s driving me nuts that I have to hunt through shopping bags, warehoused around the perimeters, for dry goods and implements. What can you do with four ingredients and an empty jar? Make butter and soda bread! This sort of thing keeps me from idleness.
The better intention for a blog is to write something smart, insightful or inspiring. Whether it’s the heat or dementia setting in, I feel lacking these days. As I started out saying, I seem to miss being planted in a permanent residence surrounded by my books and archives. I’m still getting used to the absence of my cat and old friends. I miss delivery of the morning newspaper. And most of all, I miss being able to ask what the heck this bit of knitting is supposed to look like. If worked correctly it would be a kid’s sweater, size two, but the instructions are poorly described and I am not an intuitive knitter. I am only minutes away from ripping it off the needles — puts me in mind of The Baby Surprise we struggled with so long ago at Mary’s! (If I have it right, that’s the back I’m working up and that bit on the right is a sleeve that gets folded in two……) A bit of an abstraction until the old brain calls Bingo.
I had optimistically thought that by now I’d be broadcasting news of lumber in the air and septic in the earth. Our best laid schemes Gang aft agley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy! Indeed, I have a recollection of something like agreement that when we returned from our vacation we would see neither the old carport nor the old deck, deconstruction having begun in earnest. Not so. Below is the scene that greeted me yesterday, looking for all the world like Dorothy’s house; I peered into the dusk for a stockinged leg.
The reason for the delay in demolishing the doomed cottage is that the contractor suffered some sort of temporary amnesia and forgot to initiate the paperwork that allows the gas company to come in and shut off the gas lines to the street, lest he blow up the neighborhood. There is a hefty fee for so doing and his half-hearted pass of the buck makes him look a bit naive. No excavation or demolition allowed for some time yet (unless the Angel of Merciful Permits actually materializes). This picture is of the dismantled carport which is being re-assembled at the builder’s house as a potting shed. That big piece has to be lifted out of the way by a crane which belongs to the arborist we thought we had secured for tomorrow, but who is now fully engaged cleaning up fallen trees after Sunday’s storm. Patience.
The absence of building news leaves me with only What I Did on my Summer Vacation to write about. Although any excuse for heading for St. Joseph Island is a good one, this year we were to be celebrating the birthdays of my husband’s elderly aunt and her brother. Neither of them, as it turned out, could come to their party as they each languish in hospitals in their respective communities, having suffered broken shoulders. In their absence, a good number of cousins gathered in their name. Because the event coincided with back-to-back Community Nights at the two villages on the island, there was no lodging available and some of us rented private cottages. This proved to be a great luxury with entertainments that a room in a motel couldn’t deliver.
We drove the island end to end and side to side, shopped at Moose Sweats and the Market, broke bread with Vairs & Maguires and also with the clan, bargained for bricks, bellowed out Bil’s song, and crashed the Rains reunion.
If you have a memory for historical facts, you will recall that Major Kingdom Rains not only settled St. Joseph Island in the early 1800’s, but also lived in Sutton. (In fact, so the story goes, he named Sutton for his home in Wales after winning the right at a card game). I had, three years ago, met the couple in the centre of the photo when they were visiting from Britain, hot on the Major’s trail. Gil, above, is a direct descendant of the Major’s sister. He is a congenial fellow, knowledgeable and just the guy to authenticate a couple of artifacts at Eildon Hall, our museum in Sutton. I was able to fill in some gaps about Rains’ early years on St. Joe, and here we were again, reunited in the name of Rains. On the right is the Major’s last surviving great-grandson.
We visited the museum, cheered on the floats at Richard’s Landing, then Hilton Beach, drove to the Soo for golf shoes (forgotten at home) and while Bil golfed I took pictures. His cousins and their grandkids won First prize one night; Second the other and we felt like locals spotting friends amongst the gathered. I was shocked to witness a huge crowd! Who knew there were so many tucked into cottages on the shoreline? Everyone, it seemed, turned out to participate in one way or the other.
My husband is one of the few who were born on the island and was lucky to spend many of his young Summers here. It is a place that looks pretty much the way it did in the 50’s, and is a perfect receptacle for the kind of memories you keep from childhood. His extended family is large and I am blessed to be accepted into the fold. For me, the only child of an only child who grew up without relatives or mentors, a childhood entangled with so many intimates is exotic. The family is one fascinating aspect; the island itself is the other. Deer are common, although the numbers have diminished after the last two harsh Winters and there is a wide variety of waterfowl and birds. We once saw a bobcat. The place is not wilderness, but untouched in most ways.
The day before we left for home, a new leaf was added to the family tree. We visited in the Soo with the celebrated uncle on one floor while on another, the newest cousin was making his debut. They share a common history — the same but altogether different.
A room with a view. By far, this is the best allocation I have ever been awarded as work space. The last “office” was set up in a basement corner lacking in any kind of embellishment. Here, I have this window, through which I can watch the small pleasures of life — a robin with two demanding plump youngsters; a batch of young black squirrels, raven babies huge and goofy. Except for a spell in early afternoon when they seem to go off for a nap, there is a steady parade of visitors to the yard. There are humans passing by as well — guests from the Briars Inn who use the laneway to get to the summer kitchen, the pool or the golf course. A couple has just halted their walk to take several photos of our place, presumably because they’ve been told it last belonged to Peter Gzowski.
We are enjoying High Summer and although it has been slow to ripen (we are still sleeping under a wool blanket) the days are full-on pleasure and interest. The transition from congested suburb to the slower pace of rural life sits well. The biggest adjustment has been the loss of the corner gourmet grocery, so reliably stocked and only a short walk away. Here, there is one large food chain store which is undeniably well provisioned but I notice stocks a much larger inventory of packaged foods than I’m wanting. Fresh fruit and veg (if I haven’t harvested at the farm) comes from the Chinese grocer even a further distance. There is no cheese shop. I am trying to learn to Eat Local and can already see I may have to let the Freezer into my life. Instead of running to the store every two days, I should be canning, pickling, freezing and storing. Hence, the assortment of new cookbooks.
Kale and chard are available by the truckload and I don’t know what to do with either. S has given me a recipe that she assures will mask the taste. How could they be such trendy vegetables if they taste bad? Maybe, like rhubarb, sugar is wanted.
I can’t turn down the opportunity to say something about Harper Lee and her two well discussed novels. Anyone who allows me a forum will know that I have been pounding away about the flawed Atticus Finch for years. At the very least, the man agreeably decides to cover up a murder, which is a precarious attitude for a lawyer if not an ordinary citizen. What everyone loves and refers to is the movie version, which (as Hollywood does) depicts only one thread that can be pulled from the novel. It has been a few years since I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, but I do know there is a good helping of racism there and more fodder for contemplation than Tom Robinson’s trial. It is a rare day that a book makes headlines and provokes so much discussion, so I’m glad for it and hope sales ensure a good future for booksellers and Harper herself. I also hope everyone reads both and saves the movie until after. Try to think of Atticus less as Gregory Peck than, let’s say…….. Rod Steiger?
Patiently, we wait for construction to begin. Today I am keenly anticipating a meeting with our builder. If we are to be cooking dinner in the new place at Christmas as promised, he has 22 weeks to meet the deadline. Shall we?