Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Flushed with pride

Ive been thinking about this curious thing since the wedding the other day...The bride and groom were booked into the Royal Suite at the hotel, where the bridal party got into their fancy clothes and the makeup lady did her magic. I noticed a plaque on the wall with photographs of Queen Elizabeth and her prince, commemorating their stay in these very rooms a few years ago. Oh my, I thought out loud, Ive just been sitting on the same loo that the queens bum has perched upon... gives a whole new meaning to "sitting on the throne'. Well, I was corrected by one of the guests in the know, apparently its correct form for each hotel on the royal itinerary to provide a brand spanking new toilet seat never before sat upon. And after they leave it's destroyed, no doubt with some sort of serious pomp and ceremony, so if you see one on ebay with a claim to royal rump affiliation, its a fake.

Imagine this , in eighty years of state visits all over the world how many perfectly good high end barely used toilet seats have met their demise in incinerators contributing untold toxins and global warming gases to the environment, just for the sake of her dignified derrierre! Really, who does she think she is? Well Her Royal Haughtiness of course, who doesnt give a flying fanny for the foolish waste of taxpayers money or the affront to millions of poor sods worldwide who dont have so much as a pot to pee in.

"There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life."
- Frank Zappa

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A chapter opened and a chapter closed

Here is the acrylic painting wedding gift I was working on for a couple of weeks before Christmas. This is the beautiful young woman my son married yesterday. We have just returned from their wedding in Fredericton, a happy bright respite from the grey of winter, to telephone news of the passing of my husband Jim's father. Kind of a roller coaster couple of days from top of the loop to a sudden grounding. Jim is good at finding blessings in all situations and points out that both of his parents got to spend their entire lives in dignity in their own home. His mom died in late november in her dining room rocking chair.
Its an odd thing to be juggling two sets of emotions from each end of the happy/sad spectrum at the same time. Like holding two books, one open at page one and one with the back cover closing....
Jim, Mom & Pops Walsh , family home in PA. Watercolor 2001.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas tree hunting

One of the best things about living in a rural area is our annual Christmas tree hunt...(why is it that the first 10 perfect trees we find are all spruce, that smell like cat pee when they warm up in the house?) But perseverance paid off today, and we got lots of exercise following deer and moose trails which eventually led us to the loveliest fir tree. And we got to use the great wooden tobogan that we scored for a dollar at a last summer's yard sale.
Finding a tree in the woods brings back memory pictures of trudging along with my mum, dad, and older brother, getting tired and wondering why they were all such perfectionists, (I liked the scraggly ones) but I wouldnt have missed it for anything.
My own kids now in their 20's must have similar warm memories of their dad hooking up the Belgian team and going by sleigh to the deep woods for a campfire and christmas tree search. The kids are grown now and on their own and will adopt their own traditions, but these two old fogeys will hold to the natural tree tradition as long as one of us can wield a bucksaw.

Monday, December 15, 2008

THE BARN - A Christmas Memory

Every November , as the malls seem to shout at me in a blur of red and green obligations I have the odd feeling come over me of having come from another planet, or at least another time zone. I am coerced into this yearly treadmill of buying more and more in a hopeless quest to satisfy all expectations. I feel downright cranky. I find myself hunching down in my jacket to hold it all at bay.
I am stuck in a time warp longing for Christmas the way it used to be , with naivete’ and simplicity, the way that of course is gone forever.

Christmas Eve of 1958 still glows in my memory as brightly as the bold colored paper chains that festooned our wild fir tree. I was eight years old and had always been frightened of the dark but I was determined to slip outside that night, for my desire for magic would overcome any rising fears.

The suspense had been building for days. I had come across an amazing short story in a library book that had fired my imagination so that I had thought of little else. It went like this: The lowly animals that had witnessed the birth of the Holy Child were forever after given the power of human speech on Christmas Eve. And the story hinted that only children, the pure in heart, could hear them. Of course it was true, I never doubted the tale for a moment, except maybe the pure in heart part. I wasn’t entirely sure I qualified there, or even what it meant. Maddening in its lack of details, I had read the scant pages over and over searching for clues. What time was this supposed to happen? And was there a time limit, say dawn? Would the cows speak to the horses or just to their own kind? What would they say? I knew somehow that there would be no idle chit chat of the weather or the quality of the hay that year. There would be reverent murmuring concerning the wonder of the Christ child appearing amongst their distant ancestors, and I was going to be there to eavesdrop.

The barn was not ours. We were a family of British immigrants who had settled in rural Canning, Nova Scotia in the spring of 1957. My new school was a nightmare. I was the center of unwanted attention and taunts each time I ventured to speak in my crisp English accent. Self concious and painfully shy, my salvation came in the discovery of the farm. It was directly across the road from our rented home, a rambling farmhouse with a truly enormous red barn housing both beef and dairy cows, pigs and work horses.

For days I had hung around the edges of the pastures, hunkered down under the bushes watching the newborn calves and longing to touch their soft black and white patches. My trail was becoming noticeable. The elderly farmer spoke to me suddenly but warmly,
“What’s your name?”
“Kathryn,” I whispered.
“I got a sick one in a stall. Bloated. Needs to be walked.”
He turned abruptly towards the barn and I followed, and he handed me a rope with a calf on the other end. A blatting unhappy creature with a hugely distended belly. I kept her moving for hours it seemed, the dangerous gas subsided and she survived and recovered. Mr Roscoe grinned at me and said “You done good.” And I shone.

A whole new world opened up to me of birthings and dyings, of haymaking in the endless days of summer, the daily cycles of feeding and milking and the delight and mystery of the cream separator. Its physics were beyond me, it was simply pure magic that caused separate streams of milk and cream to pour from the spouts as I cranked the handle round and round.
I had become his shadow. I learned to chew the end of a stalk of timothy in companionable silence and to spit like an exclamation point. At nine I could reach the brake with my toes, and so he taught me to drive his battered old tractor, a delicious secret I could never dare divulge to my parents.

I turned up for breakfast daily before the crack of dawn. Breathless from running uphill and scared in the dark, I would burst into the warm kitchen, compose myself, and place my egg on the counter. A strange ritual that my mother insisted upon. The Roscoes had dozens of chickens. They sold eggs. They had eggs galore. But my mother would not be indebted to anyone so each day I repaid one egg. My dear mother never knew of the secret perversion of proper table manners I took such delight in. Mr Roscoe would scoop out our soft boiled eggs, plop mine onto my plate for me, and provide toast for dipping into the glorious mess. At home we ate eggs properly ensconced in silver egg cups, spooning out dainty bits with tiny teaspoons.. “Properly” was a word I had grown up with.

“You know, you can call me Britt,” he once said to me at at breakfast. “And you know her name is May,” indicating his plump apron clad wife with a nod of his head. May couldn’t say “th”, and she called me Cassie.
But I couldn’t do it. Although this lovely couple filled the role of grandparents in my life, I had just too much British reserve. The idea of dropping the Mr and Mrs was just too startling and if my parents had caught wind of me adopting such deplorable manners I’d never hear the end of it.
Mr Roscoe bought me a pony. They said it was for the grandchildren but I knew better. It was me he took in his funny old car with the rounded fenders and smoky smelling velvet upholstery to find the horse. We travelled every back road of the Annapolis Valley only to settle on Bessie. She was old and cantankerous and frequently laid her ears back and I loved her fiercely. There was never a saddle and the bridle was mostly baler twine but I never questioned any of it. I had my heart’s desire, a pony to love and the intoxicating freedom of tearing though the hayfields at a fast gallop, my fingers entwined in her mane and our ponytails flying behind us. My mother never knew of the times the old pony had stumbled and I had come flying off, the wind knocked out of me and a fresh round of bruises to hide.

It took so very long that Christmas Eve for the family to settle down . I must have dozed off, for suddenly it was very late and the light no longer showed through the crack under my parents door. I pulled on my clothes over my pyjamas and tiptoed down the stairs with my heart beating loudly, hoping I wasn’t too late. The dash across the road and up the driveway to the barn was terrifying through the shadows of the maples in the stark moonlight. I never thought of my footprints in the new snow and do not know to this day if they were noticed.
I eased the barn door open carefully. Toby, the border collie met me wriggling with happiness and I whispered thanks to her for keeping quiet. The warmth and familiar odors of the barn wrapped me like a comforting blanket and my racing heart slowed. Enough moonlight shone through the dusty windows to outline the backs of the cows, old Bessie, and the profiles of the work horses. I stroked each face in turn, speaking soundlessly to each animal in my thoughts. I knew without a doubt that they could understand me that way because I had read Black Beauty. Merrylegs, Ginger, and Beauty all understood the unvoiced word. Cows however were not in their circle. Cows I was not so sure about.

“Barbie, don’t you know this is Christmas Eve? Don’t you know that you can speak now?” I willed the silent questions towards a spot between her horns. The jersey chewed her cud, meditating, and blinked her large eyes. At the end of the row of cow stanchions I blew my breath into Bessie’s nostrils. “ This is a Holy Night, you know, girl”. The pony snorted softly and said nothing discernable. I tried speaking out loud. I sang the first two verses of Silent Night. I didn’t know any more of it. I hummed O Holy Night. I didn’t know any of the words. My promptings were having no effect at all. The cud chewing and digestive rumblings of the cows were the only response forthcoming.

I retreated to an empty calf pen and covered myself with straw. Toby, grinning in a ray of moonlight, wriggled in beside me and I pulled her close and waited…and waited in the quiet darkness, my mind busily reviewing the library book for further clues. Suddenly it came to me! Cows, horses, pigs, hens, a dog, numerous cats and kittens all sheltered within this barn, but there was no donkey.
Was the donkey the missing crucial ingredient? I pictured the little animal in the Christmas story book. A grey donkey with the cross of Christ described in the black lines along it’s back and across it’s shoulders. Of course! If this barn had a donkey he would be well aware of his blessed heritage. The other creatures would know to look to him for leadership and the stage would be set for the unfolding miracle of reverent conversation.

With a curious mixture of disappointment yet satisfaction with my own explanation, I crawled out of my warm nest, kissed Toby goodbye, and ran like a deer through the snow, downhill this time, and to my bed, shedding bits of straw up the staircase and along the hall.

More than fifty years have passed and I’m blessed with a family of my own, a seaside farm and a many years of horses and ponies. Our barn is ancient but solid, its’ timbers put together carefully with wooden pegs. A place of calm focus away from the holiday frenzy of the shopping mall . And across the field stands the venerable old barn of my next door neighbors. Inside, in the light from a dusty window a small grey donkey looks up from his hay. A small grey donkey marked forever with the cross of Christ in memory of a stable long ago.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas musings

I am of two minds about Christmas. The child part of me loves the memories of anticipation, the mystery and awe of the son of God turning up in a humble dirty stable, my solitary childhood visits to the barn on Christmas Eve contemplating the old story among the cud chewing cows. In those years, at the end of the 50's, Christmas did not beat us about the head and ears with constant advertising for this and that must have...what tv? The lumpy stocking at the end of the bed held the promise of tangerines and comic books to savor before the dawn. Before we were en masse emasculated by the forces of pc we cheerily and innocently wished each other Merry Christmas! We looked forward to that one special gift that stood out among the socks and mitts, a doll perhaps, or skates or a wooden toboggan. And as underwhelming as it was by todays standards, we were SO happy !
The adult part of me feels that Christmas has been hijacked and made tawdry and burdensome. I counter every rote Happy Holidays with a hearty Merry Christmas, feeling my preservation efforts to be a drop in the ocean. I avoid the malls as much as I can.
There is a nativity scene on our buffet that gives me the same quiet pleasure of recognition every year, as I unwrap each character from its crumpled newspaper. Each face is sculpted and painted to project calm and peace. Even the harried inkeeper has an expression that reads "Ahhh yes" ... In my travels to and from the kitchen the little grouping reminds me to slow down and savor their oasis of peace and serenity, and keep Christmas in my heart and home.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Loss and blessing

One of our dearest neighbors is a lady in her 80's who sadly lost her home and almost all her possessions recently in a house fire. A lady of sharp wit, and outrageous sense of humor who loves telling a naughty joke and always laughs louder than her recipient.
It speaks of St Martins as a good place to live in that the community of 400 rallied to put on a wonderful benefit for her last night. Joyce was warmly embraced by young and old wellwishers as we got together over home cooking and coffee for a silent auction of donated goods and local musical entertainment. People even donated some beautiful dolls as her prized collection had mostly been lost in the fire. Over $5000. was raised for her immediate needs. Sometimes it takes a tragedy for a person to know how much they are treasured by their friends and neighbors. Joyce is just that, a village treasure.