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Sunday, August 21, 2016

For the love of books: the region's biggest book fair is on Aug 26-28

My love of books started with Nancy Drew. As a primary school student I would head to the high school in the afternoon to wait for my dad, who taught there. After visiting the cafeteria for a still-warm chocolate chip cookie I would follow the strange maze of half-staircases and cavernous hallways to end up at one of the most modern rooms in the old building: the library.
There was plenty of natural light flowing into the library because of all the windows but the books were kept in the centre of the room, away from the light. If you stood in the centre of the bookcases you were surrounded by a dusty, musty smell that has been filed in my memory among my favourite perfumes and aromas. Dusty books are right up there with Guerlain perfume from Paris and fresh baked bread.
Every day I would sit on the floor in between the bookcases, facing a row of about 100 Nancy Drew books. I began at the beginning. Volume 1, The Secret of the Old Clock. Carolyn Keene brought girl-detective Nancy Drew to life, describing everything from what she ate to how she dressed, what she thought and felt and saw. I was mesmerized. And I read my way through that book, and another, and another, until I had finished the whole series.
When I didn’t understand a word, I went to the librarian, Mrs. Scott. Her nickname was Dusty but she was anything else. Wavy red hair and energy to spare, she bustled me over to the dictionary and had me look each mysterious word up in turn. I still do that today when I meet a new word.
After finishing the final Nancy Drew book in that original series of 100, I asked Mrs. Scott (her real name was Ramona) if there were any other similar books she would recommend. Books with strong female characters I could emulate in my imagination.
“You’ve finished all the Nancy Drew books.” She seemed a little bewildered and doubtful.
“Well…yeah…unless you’ve got more somewhere,” I answered.
When my dad came to collect me that afternoon Mrs. Scott notified him that I, at age ten, had read all the intermediate level Nancy Drew books. The next thing I knew, I was sitting alone in a stuffy office in the back of the library, taking a test to determine my I.Q. The librarian had suggested I be enrolled in classes for ‘enriched’ students from now on, because I was clearly brilliant. I failed the test miserably.
“I told you she isn’t enriched,” scoffed my dad. “She just loves books.” And that was the end of that.
After working my way through the books in the high school library, I got permission to walk to the town library after school.  Sometimes I walked and read at the same time. I knew the path between the public school and high school and college where my mom worked so well, I never tripped. Sometimes I was late for piano lessons, however, because I would walk right by the house with my nose in the book, missing the address altogether and having to double back. I preferred the afternoons I was free to head to the college campus where I would climb a tree and sit there, reading, obscured from the view of the college students passing on the pathway beneath by the thick tapestry of leaves.
Yes, I was a bookworm. I still am. It’s my guilty pleasure, my stress relief and my escape as well as my inspiration and my challenge.
This weekend, North Grenville will once again host the region’s largest book fair. It’s in a huge warehouse at the Ferguson Forest Centre. Money raised at the fair goes to the Kemptville Youth Centre, to help them pay their annual utilities bills.
The books are conveniently categorized so you can find your favourite themes easily. I always head straight for the Canadian female writers. Elizabeth Hay, Camilla Gibb, Alice Munro…but they have tens of thousands of titles every year and they sell for a buck or two so you can afford to venture off into unknown territory if you’re intrigued by something new.

So grab a big tote bag and head to the book fair this weekend, fellow book lovers. You can indulge this guilty pleasure, at least, knowing you are simultaneously doing something awesome for a very good cause in the community. Dibs on the Nancy Drew.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Keep doin' the rural wave

The Kemptville Farmer’s Market is more than just an opportunity for me to sell some books and unload a truckload of zucchini. It’s my social time. I get to visit with people I haven’t seen in years, catch up with close friends and meet loyal readers of this column for the first time. Many thanks to everyone who takes the time to stop by and say hi.
Sometimes I get really good suggestions for columns too. Last week a woman said she would like me to write about the disappearance of the rural wave. Many farmers still do it – it’s a hard habit to break.
When you’re on the road headed to market and you pass another pickup truck, you put two fingers to your temple and give a quick salute. Some of you just raise your hand slightly from the steering wheel. The light effort is symbolic of the casual nature of the wave. It may also be a sign that you are a bit low on energy, as you have been working hard on your farm. Your laidback nature is indicative of your lifestyle. You take your time and live in the moment, aware of your surroundings. The weather determines your daily activities. You’re on farm time. You probably drive a bit slower than city folk as well. What’s your hurry? That kind of wave. That is how it is done. And it seems to be a lost art.
I grew up in the country outside the bustling metropolis of Kemptville when it boasted a population of about 4,000. There were no subdivisions to speak of, and we knew just about everyone in town and the surrounding hamlets. We didn’t live on a farm but we certainly knew how to do the rural wave. It was a comforting gesture. It said, “I know you. We are neighbours. Go safely.” My father in his Chevy Silverado rarely missed the opportunity to wave as he passed someone he knew.
I still get to do the rural wave a few times a week, because I live near a single-lane bridge. If two vehicles are approaching this bridge from either side, you have to decide who will go first. Now let me tell you, it’s a sure sign that you aren’t from around here if you speed up to get across the bridge before the other approaching vehicle gets there. The neighbourly thing to do is to decrease your speed and pull over slightly. When you are close enough to the bridge you decide who is closest and let them go first, obviously. If you both reach the bridge at exactly the same time, it is common courtesy to let the other person go first. Pull over, signal to the ditch and that will indicate to the other person you are letting them go. Sometimes the courtesy volleys back and forth a few times before the final concession is made.
“You go first.” (beckons the other driver with a flick of the wrist)
“No, by all means, you go first.” (a come-along motion)
“Oh all right then, thank you very much.” (driver proceeds across bridge, deploys the rural wave).
I have to admit I don’t recognize half the vehicles or drivers that I used to. We have grown in population and I’ve lost track of who owns what farm. Other than at the single lane bridge crossing, there are only a handful of people I wave to when I pass them on the road. These are family members, and lifelong friends like, for example, Jim Perry. Being a truck dealer he is always in a different set of wheels but I’m pretty recognizable in Dora the Explorer so he usually recognizes me and waves first. As the descendant of a multi-generation farm family, the rural wave is a habit he likely won’t be breaking soon. And yet I’m sure when he recognizes and waves at some people, they probably give him a confused look.
“What? Is my headlight out? Should I pull over?” the uninitiated can be bewildered by the wave. It is probably best to reserve it for those who know its purpose.
But for those you recognize, wave away. You might get a text a short time later, asking you what’s going on, but you can explain you are just being neighbourly. We’re from the country and we like it that way.


Monday, August 8, 2016

Talkin' turkey on the farm

I was heading out to the compost pile early one morning when I felt I was being followed. The cows were already out in the field so it wasn’t one of them. I turned around and no one was behind me – but when I looked down I saw four turkeys standing at my feet. They had followed me across the barnyard to the compost heap and were curiously examining what I was depositing.
“Hey! How did you guys get out?!” They looked up at me and warbled in a perfect chorus. I have no idea how they do that. It’s like they communicate telepathically within seconds and decide they are all going to speak at once. They do it all the time and it freaks me right out.
The Farmer thought the turkeys might like their free range area expanded a bit so he cordoned off a sheltered area in the stable with snow fencing. Then he slid both the back wall and the front wall of the stable open so the breeze can pass through. It’s quite comfy in there, and about ten degrees cooler than outside. We put the turkeys back in their pen for safekeeping at night – we don’t want anyone escaping to wander the yard where they might get picked off by a predator. And it has become apparent that they are quite capable of escaping their snow fencing.
I walked back to the stable, the turkeys in tow. They shuffled along behind me, stopping occasionally to nibble grit and weeds on the ground. Examining the snow fence, I could not clearly see their exit route. There were no gaps in the fence and the bottom had been pinned down to the dirt floor. They must have jumped up and flown over the top. And the Farmer said turkeys with their pin feathers removed cannot fly.
Then I noticed a problem. Their feeders were empty. I dragged a 40k bag of feed off the pile and hauled it into the fenced area. The turkeys followed me in, gullibly. They commented in unison about the new development. They were getting fed. I wonder if they took any credit for collecting me from the barnyard and willing me to do their bidding.
Turkeys don’t eat much but we have a few more birds this year so they are going through the feed pretty quickly. Not as quickly as the cows though – I think our dozen  head and their babes  are halfway through their winter hay already due to the lack of rain and no grass growing on the meadow.
The turkeys have it easy. They seem quite content, and I would like to think they have made it past the age of being targets for raccoons and skunks. I could be wrong there, but fingers are crossed.
I surveyed their domain. The double horse stall had been turned into a turkey pen, and they are quite cosy in there. Turkey poop lines every flat surface – again, a sign that they are able to fly at least a few feet in the air, up to roost. I knocked some of the dung off, shoveled it up, and spread some fresh, dry hay across the spongy floor. Immediately several turkeys appeared on either side of me. They climbed up onto the piles of hay even before I could release it from my fork. I gently pushed them aside with my foot so I could spread the hay out.
“Oh, you like that, huh?” The birds nestled down into the dry hay, preening, cooing and clucking. The brushing action of the hay must feel good under their sweaty feathers in this heat. It dries them off and fluffs them up.
By the time I finished dressing their pen the birds were all shiny and white again. And the four who had escaped to go and find me looked quite pleased with themselves, snuggled together on a fresh pile of hay in the corner.
As I turned to walk away I said “goodbye – have a nice day, birdies…” and they all responded by warbling the same three notes together, simultaneously. I wish they would stop that. Freaks me right out.


Thursday, July 28, 2016

Country mouse in the big city

When you think of the heart of the city, you might bring to mind the Byward Market. Well, that is where I drive to work now, as evening news producer/ writer at CFRA News/Talk Radio. I don’t have to deal with rush hour because it’s a smooth mid-afternoon drive in and a cruise home just before midnight. It takes less than an hour one way, and I use that time wisely. I listen to the news and when I’m all caught up with that, I car-dance.
The Market is a bustling beehive of activity at any time of day, it seems. The heat from the pavement causes the scent of warm tomatoes, donuts and flowers to waft through the air. You can hear live music coming from the street corner where a busker dressed like a geisha girl is playing an antique Japanese string instrument. Yesterday it was someone singing old French Canadian pub tunes while playing a guitar, a tambourine and a bass drum. You never know what you are going to get.
I look out the studio window onto George Street, and I am reminded of when I lived in Taipei. I was then situated one city block from town hall. My roommate, Sylvia from Singapore, placed two brass turtles on stacks of books looking out the window onto the busy intersection below. The turtles were part of a feng shuei action, to divert any negative energy that might be emanating from the people and vehicles in the intersection.
I don’t feel that George Street requires any feng shuei correction. Most of the people I see outside seem to be in an extremely good mood. They don’t appear to be in a hurry to get anywhere. I think most pedestrians and motorists passing through the market have a pretty relaxed agenda. Except, of course, for the dozens of people I see every day who are obviously playing the highly addictive “Pokemon Go” on their mobile phones. They have their noses in their phones and if they don’t watch out they may get hit by a passing vehicle.
I usually bring my dinner to work from home, to save money and calories. The Beavertails donut kiosk and the Lois and Frima homemade ice cream stand are right outside my office, however, should I need a snack. I can also get fresh sushi, Chinese bubble tea, a Three Amigos cookie, and myriad other delights. I can pick up fresh fish at the Lapointe fish market and bring it home for the next day’s lunch. I bought myself a sterling silver ring made out of an antique spoon for ten bucks. It’s like being a tourist every day.
I have to admit, though, the first two weeks of walking across the market to my parking lot after dark I was a bit spooked. Ottawa has its fair share of people on the streets who can be a bit intimidating when they approach you for spare change at night. But for the most part I feel pretty safe on the market. And I’m out of there before 11pm.
On the other end of my commute is the farm. I wake up when I wake up. No alarm clock required. I go for a jog, then fall into the pool to cool down. I weed the garden, then take a shower, dress, do some laundry and tidy up the house. The rest of the morning might be spent making some meals for the Farmer so he doesn’t starve while I’m at work. Then we enjoy a leisurely, substantial lunch together before I drive in to the city.
It isn’t your typical farmwife life but what is, really? I have my weekends off for social activities, family dinner and the Kemptville Farmers’ Market.
The other day at work I used the sayings “a man on a galloping horse would never notice” and “I’ll have it done in two shakes of a lamb’s tail” so I think they are on to me. The country mouse is in the house.
When I get back from my morning walk I like to let the turkeys out of their pens to roam around for the day. Sometimes I get a bit of turkey poop on my shoes. Let’s just hope I remember to change shoes before I head to work, or it will be more than my colloquialisms that let everyone know I live on a farm.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A man on a galloping horse would never notice

“You realize your tablecloth is a little wrinkly. Want me to run the iron over it quickly for you?”
“Nah. A man on a galloping horse…”
Perhaps it means something that my family uses that expression so often, we don’t even bother to finish it. A man on a galloping horse would be travelling past so quickly, he would not notice that my tablecloth has not been ironed. Besides, the plates and platters will soon cover the wrinkles after dinner is served.
I do not aspire to be the type of farmwife who has everything just so. I am comfortable with a bit of untidiness. I know the foundation is cleaned. I cleaned it myself. I enjoy cleaning the house – it is my stress relief. I tend to do more of a quick pass-over than a thorough scrubbing, however. I tell myself it will do for now. Eventually the Farmer waits until I’m gone away on a girls’ night or something and he cleans the floors the way his mother taught him. He moves the furniture and uses an entire bottle of floor wax. The mop is stiff like a brick when he is finished, and the floors gleam so that you can see your smile reflected back at you. Bless him.
If you happen to notice me scrubbing floors at odd hours of the day, i.e. 2am, stand back. Give me plenty of room. Chances are I am extremely ticked off about something and that is why I am scouring so fervently.
My garden is doing very well this year. That is one area where I am not slacking off. I’m staying on top of the weeds, so they don’t get a chance to choke anything out or to take over the garden altogether. Deep cleaning of the house can wait til winter – I have to keep tabs on the veggies and perennial beds.
Usually while I am outside weeding I take a moment to check on our old sheepdog, Chelsea. I make sure she has clean, dry hay in her house and her water bucket is freshly filled. This morning I stepped around the stable to her yard, out of habit. She is no longer there to greet me. At the age of fifteen, she lay down for the last time. Fifteen is a good, ripe age for a border collie. They don’t typically live past ten or twelve years of age, I am told. Like our old Gordon Setter Cody, who lived to seventeen, I think there is a lot to be said for having a dog spend most of his time outside.
When it was minus thirty or plus thirty we would make sure the dogs were comfortable, either bringing Cody into the house or Chelsea into the stable, but for the most part they preferred to be outside. Their doghouses were well insulated with hay and placed out of the wind and rain or snow. They grew thick coats in the winter and in summer they dug cool holes in the soil under a shady tree.
“We are now dogless,” the Farmer said. I know that bothers him. Especially when he sees a three-foot-long fisher slinking across the road towards our property. We have dozens of turkey chicks happily roaming around the inside of the stable. We would like them to make it all the way to Thanksgiving. A dog would notify us of an intruder. For now we are relying on the cats. Fat lot of help they are.
When we get back from the cottage the next thing I want to do (or to focus my semi-retired Farmer on) is repair our screen doors. Sammy the big male cat has discovered that if he runs full-throttle into the sliding patio door, the screen will rip from its frame, the plexiglass scratch-guard will flip up and – presto! – instant cat door.
The screen doors on our dining porch also need repair – or replacing. They have bubbled and broken in the frost, so that it appears a large clawed animal ripped a hole in them. I pointed them out to the Farmer and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s a superficial wound. And a man on a galloping horse would never notice.”

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Whatever would possess someone to do that? The love of farming.

It was 32 degrees today. The Farmer went out “at the crack of sparrow fart” as my dear father used to say, before it got too hot, to sow a field. I kept thinking it was a bit warm to be expecting seed to grow. And a bit dry. We have been in a semi-drought condition all spring. But what do I know? Do not question the Farmer. I have learned, even if you do point out the obvious, he needs to decide for himself. He smiled, gave me a kiss on the cheek and headed out into the dusty back forty.
A few hours later he was back to fill up his coffee. The man doesn’t eat before noon but at least he hydrates. He also took a jug of lemonade and a bottle of water. Back out into the heat. What was I doing while he was toiling in the summer sun? I ventured out to refill the dog’s water. I checked on my turkeys. I pulled a few weeds in the vegetable garden, took note of the plants that will need to be replaced due to the drought,  and then I decided it was much more comfortable in the farmhouse.
I spent the morning cleaning floors and doing laundry. The first muggy heat of the day took over the sunny side of the house and tried to push its way inside. I pulled the blinds and closed the windows on the east side. The smell of bacon filled the kitchen, for I planned to tempt the Farmer with a BLT at lunch. I heard the ATV pull up at the gate, then the heavy footfall up the steps to the back deck. The patio door slid open and I saw a dirty arm reach in to grab a towel off the hook. Next I heard a splash, and a yelp. Seventy-six degree water is a bit of a shock when your skin is scorched. Good thing he has a strong heart. And good thing no one can see into our backyard. Farmers rarely take the time to don a swimsuit.
I carried a pitcher of Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) to the pool, handed it to him and watched as he drank the whole thing. “Are you hungry?” “Yep.” He’s a man of few words when he’s been using every ounce of energy to get a job done in extreme temperatures. I pointed out that he had a completely black face except for the eyes, and he dunked his head and gave it a scrub a few times.
Probably at least once a season I find myself wondering, whatever would possess someone to do that? Working a field in the sweltering, blistering heat of summer. Plowing a path to the barn in the life-sucking, aching cold wind of a winter blizzard. Well, at this point, he’s committed. He has lives depending on him gaining access to the barn no matter how much snow has fallen. And this season, we have realized our cattle herd is outgrowing the pastures. We needed to turn and re-plant a couple fields so they would be happy with their hay again come winter. That will help them make good milk and grow healthy babies in the spring.
But what possesses a city boy to get himself into this position where animal lives depend on him and he will be forced to get off the cozy couch by the fire or out of the cool shade poolside to go and do some muscle-ripping, sweaty farm work? For my husband, it was a summer spent on his uncle’s farm near Winchester. I believe it was a dairy farm. He got bitten by that bug that makes you see the weather, the seasons, and life a different way. The farming bug. Some people are born into the farming life; others come across it by accident. We need more of the latter because we are swiftly running out of the former. Farm families, like all families, just aren’t having as many kids as they used to. Not every kid raised on a farm wants to farm. So this lessens the chances of the family farm tradition continuing to the next generation.
As I set up my stall at the Kemptville Farmers’ Market it’s awfully nice to see so many first-generation farmers embracing the lifestyle, accepting the hard work and hardship, and sowing the seed.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Letting nature take its course

Dear Dad. I was fine until I saw the meme that started, “Dear Dad.” It pictured an empty bench in a forest setting. It said, “My mind still talks to you. My heart still misses you. And I know in my soul you are at peace.” Then the floodgates opened. I cried for half an hour.

This was our ninth Father’s Day without you. I like to think your energy lingers with us and in some ways your spirit remains. But that gives me mixed feelings because if you are still somehow aware of what we are thinking and doing here in life, then you are aware of the fact that I still break down at the sight of your face. I stare at the photo and I can hear your voice. Sometimes it is all a bit too much, so I pace myself.

I allow one memory at a time. I will sit quietly, as in meditation, and wait for a memory to come forward. Then I will enjoy it as a daydream. I can feel the sinewy muscles of your arm over my shoulder. I hear your teasing, gruff voice. I smell your after shave. I have many photos of you but your face is emblazoned on my brain so I don’t need to look at them often. I take some of them out and arrange them in the gathering room for Father’s Day. They prompt memories and conversations. It almost hurts to put them away again. To put you away.

There is no way to get over the grief of losing a loved one. You must let nature take its course. Time seems to numb the pain but it never really goes away and is easily revived. I don’t think you wanted us to cry for ten years after you died, however. I’m sorry. I’m trying. Most of the time, I remember you with laughter. I speak to you when I need reassurance or extra confidence, before a big meeting or presentation. It might be just that I am reassuring myself but I feel much calmer and stronger after those one-way conversations.
Cathy and Mom make a point of going to your favourite places on Father’s Day. They can’t get to some of those places by boat anymore, because we no longer have your boat. So they drive over, and then they hop the fence to the restricted zone. It’s all very espionage-like. They giggle and reminisce and enjoy your presence. I remember thinking I didn’t want to focus a day on trying to connect with your memory because it would just hurt too damn much. I said I didn’t want to join them when they first asked me, because I could just picture myself crying all day. But now I’m wondering if I’m ready. Maybe on the tenth year I will do more than just take out your photo. Maybe I will join Mom and Cathy at your favourite places. If you are aware of us still, I think it would make you happy to see us together for the sole purpose of remembering you. Why else would we be on a snake-infested island with no boat??

We had twenty people for our Father’s Day dinner tonight. It was a raucous event. We watched the baby in the pool, splashing her own face and loving every minute of it. We mentioned your name and raised a glass to your memory.

After dinner we watched the sun set over the field the Farmer just planted. He managed to cut himself on the only dangerous part of the seeding machine, but says he is bandaged up and ok to go away on his fishing trip tomorrow. Fishing and farming and my husband is a happy man. We planted the two middle fields Dad, because the cattle are rejecting the hay that comes off them and they need a replenishing. A fresh mix of clover and timothy and fescue.

Your family is doing well. Your grandson is an athlete and sometimes we see you in his moves. Your granddaughters are beautiful young women, inside and out. You would be so proud of them. Your great-granddaughter flashes me a crooked smile I think you must have given her before she fell to earth. We miss you very much. And we are letting nature take its course.