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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Life lessons from Grandma

I had the chance to hold a newborn baby girl the other day. I looked down at her squishy little face and thought, imagine if she lives to 102 like my grandmother did? That would bring us to the year 2119. What will life be like then? How far will we advance - and in what ways will we be forced to go ‘back to basics’?
My grandmother Victoria was born in Gracefield, Quebec in 1915. She was one of three sisters. The girls went to a school run by nuns but Vicky was not destined for the convent. She married an Irishman and had five kids. (I say Irishman because his name was Irish – Cullen. I always thought of my grandmother as Irish too – but was recently reminded she wasn’t.)
My mother was the only girl, among four brothers. Vicky kept her daughter close, particularly when times were tough. There wasn’t much money to be had, but my mother learned how to cook a nutritious, satisfying meal out of very little. She certainly learned the value of a dollar. Eventually Vicky left her husband and chose to raise her kids on her own. That couldn’t have been easy, with English as her second language, in Ottawa in the 1950’s.
Vicky always had a way with food – and she loved to feed people. She worked in the cafeteria at Carleton University for a time, as a caterer, and a server at the Chateau Laurier. She had an extremely strong work ethic and didn’t let language barriers or any other obstacles stand in her way. I seem to have inherited her uber-optimistic personality, waking up after a negative experience with the attitude, “Today is another day. The slate is wiped clean. The possibilities are endless.”
My grandmother was one of the first people to teach me about a sustainable lifestyle. Living in a little renovated schoolhouse near Gracefield, Quebec, she kept a healthy garden, chopped wood to heat her house and traded goods for milk and eggs at farms down the road. Her boyfriend brought home venison during hunting season and Grandma turned it into the most amazing tortière (French Canadian meat pie). To this day I have not tasted one to match it. Every time I asked her what spice she used she gave me a different answer.
During blueberry season Grandma would take a few tin buckets to the rocky hillside and disappear for the morning. She brought back enough berries for everyone to enjoy fresh, and she put some away for the winter too. Her raspberry preserves were my favourite, though. A spoonful of that sugary concoction with a blob of fresh cream on top was a dessert fit for the Chateau Laurier dining room, served on a chipped china plate beside a wood stove at Grandma’s house. Grandma’s homemade strawberry wine was also a hit, and anyone who had a nip could be found a short time later having a nap in front of that same wood stove.
Grandma had a song for every occasion. She passed this on to my mother, who raised us with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” and put us to bed with Brahms’ lullaby (lyrics customized for the listener). Raising my own three girls, I found myself inventing songs for brushing teeth, putting toys away, washing dishes and eating lunch, among other daily activities. Now I watch as my daughter Anastasia makes up songs for her little Leti. The tradition continues.
Perhaps because she spent so much time out-of-doors, doing physical work, Grandma Vicky was strong and healthy well into her 90’s. When she fell and broke her hip, the doctors were amazed at how healthy the rest of her was. She was one of the youngest patients in the physio rehabilitation program at the Elizabeth Bruyère Centre.
Grandma finally passed away on September 11th. Even after a stroke, her heart was very strong. I think she would still be here today if not for a conscious decision to leave. She decided 102 years was enough. Time for a rest.
When we cleaned out grandma’s room we saw that she still enjoyed a good love story, the occasional chocolate bar, and one alcoholic drink (for medicinal purposes of course) nearly every day. We will celebrate her life on Thanksgiving weekend and raise a glass of her favourite beer, and we might even try a few bars of one of her favourite French Canadian pub songs. Her lessons to us are: don’t take life too seriously; let hard work be your exercise; spend more time appreciating than wanting; and an awkward silence can always be filled with laughter or song.

Fergus loves the dog park

Fergus and I attended a very special grand opening this past weekend. The ribbon has been cut on the local off-leash dog park. I wasn’t sure we were going at first. The Ferg has not yet completed basic training (he starts this week) and he doesn’t walk well on a leash. I had no idea what he would do if let off it, around strange dogs.
We followed the directional signs through The Ferguson Forest Centre to the new dog park. Fergus didn’t need any signs. He could smell the way. Dozens of dogs were already there, lining up to form a parade behind some bagpipers and municipal officials. He started to whimper and whine in the back seat as I pulled into a spot. So many smells. So many dogs. Let me ouuuuut…
As we passed the bagpipers tuning up, Fergus shot one of them a worried look. He wasn’t sure why the man was squeezing and torturing the bag that way but it clearly hurt, as evidenced by the mournful sound leaking out of it. Then he turned and saw the dogs. This brood of beasts was behind the bouquet of scents and odours that had been assailing him since our arrival. He cheerfully approached a lounging pug and tried to introduce himself by sniffing his tail. The smaller, more mature dog gave Fergus a look of disgust as if to say, calm down, little punk. Ferg got the message and moved along. Pulling as hard as he could on his leash, he bumped noses with one dog after another until he had met most of the group. A nervous Shepherd-mix shot out from the shade when Fergus got close, and snapped at his nose. Fergus ducked his head and skulked away. Fine, be that way.
A woman with an adult Golden Retriever came over to meet Fergus. “Is he a Golden?” she asked. I nodded. She appeared unconvinced. “His legs are a little long, and his hair is kinda short…” I explained that he was at that gangly stage, just six months old. Ferg assessed her tone and gave me a look. What does she mean, mom? What’s wrong with my legs? I scratched his ears and let him away from the woman.
I was surprised that the parade actually worked and Fergus was willing to march along with the crowd. I guess he just wanted to follow the other dogs – and the smell of grilled meat might have been leading them in the right direction, as a barbecue was set up at the dog park entrance.
Once everyone had assembled, some dignitaries spoke about the idea behind the park, the groundswell of community and corporate support, and the tireless efforts of volunteers to make it happen. The park is about four and a half acres of wide open space leading into a forest on a hill. It’s doggy heaven. They even have bins for your dog waste, buckets for dog water and benches for humans to sit on. Donors have planted trees that will provide shade in the coming years. Each tree bears a plaque in remembrance of that donor’s four-legged friend.
While these speeches were happening, the canines were growing restless. The occasional insult and retort rang out. Fergus’ head whipped around as if he understood what they were barking. Come here and say that to my face he replied, as he locked eyes with a grumpy Wolfhound panting in the shade of a cedar. Some of the smaller dogs started to pick fights with the bigger breeds, as they do. It’s a good thing the park includes a segregated area for those that suffer from small-dog complex.
Once inside the gates and off leash, however, I witnessed something I had only read about in books. Having never been to a dog park before, I’ve never seen strange dogs interacting off leash. The quarreling stopped, as dogs big and small bounded across the green grass side by side. Occasionally you would hear one put another in his place, but those conversations were over after one quick bark or growl.
I kept Fergus on leash just to be safe, but I let him trot along and introduce himself to everyone. I’m looking forward to the day when I feel he has had sufficient training to come when I call and heed my commands. Then we can return to the dog park for some off-leash fun and he can revel in the joy of his own language.

My how school has changed

As we launched another school year last week I was thinking, my Dad (a former high school science teacher) wouldn’t have fared too well in today’s era of cell phones, iPods and fidget spinners. How, among all of these accepted distractions, does a teacher catch and keep the attention of his students?
My husband, a retired professor, once said he thought he was going to have to start giving out prizes like on the Ellen show. College and post-secondary is a whole different scenario, I’m sure, with adult students assuming the right to bear phones and watch full-length movies on laptops during class. Surely in high school there is still a chance to gain control of the classroom?
I know the challenge to make lessons interesting has always been there. It seems teachers need more than just a passion for their subject in order to keep the interest of their students. In the 80s, when I was attending high school, my favourite teachers were those who made lessons come alive. My English Lit teacher had us act out the Shakespeare instead of just trying to understand how the quality of mercy is not strained. My geography teacher supplemented the lesson plan with readings from National Geographic and my history teacher used film to enhance what we were reading in our textbooks.
I’m not sure who decided it was necessary to allow students the use of cell phones in the classroom. I don’t think they were doing anyone a favour by making this concession. I hear there are some brave, trail-blazing teachers out there insisting the phones stay in the lockers during class. But for the most part it’s a valuable item that the student has the right to carry at all times. Parents say they need to be able to reach their kids at all times.
We did just fine without an immediate connection to our parents during school. If they needed us they sent a message through the main office. Can you imagine.
Even some employers are realizing how distracting cell phones can be during meetings. Many insist that employees check their phones at the door before they enter the conference room. It’s like gangsters at a mafia meeting: check your gun at the door. And I hear some adults are even bringing fidget spinners to work. They say it helps them focus. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be giving a presentation as the audience plays with little spinning toys on the conference table.
The other thing that has changed about school – and this breaks my heart a bit – is that there is no more traditional library. There’s a resource room, or a learning commons, with a dozen computers and one single wall of books. It makes sense, I guess, to encourage students to research online where they will find the most up to date information. The learning commons also takes up considerably less room than a traditional library. But I miss the books.
When I was a little girl, I used to walk over from Kemptville Public to North Grenville District High School to wait until my father finished work. I did that waiting in the library. One day I discovered the Nancy Drew detective novels and from then on, there was no turning back. I started at number one and read my way through all one hundred tomes. The librarian reported this accomplishment to my father and suggested I be tested to see if I qualified for enriched learning programs due to my obviously high IQ. I remember my Dad laughed and said, “She doesn’t have a high IQ! She just loves to read!”
Well those afternoons in the library fostered a lifetime love of reading and learning. I suppose you could argue that a kid waiting in today’s high school library could do the same sort of learning by sitting at a computer – but it just isn’t the same as with books.
There’s nothing like a library full of actual books – row upon row of stories and characters to choose from. I feel sorry for kids who grow up without a real library in their schools – and I hope they get a library card so they can borrow from the public library.
I know today’s schools are designed to adapt to the changing needs of our youth and their myriad learning styles. Progress is a good thing – particularly when it recognizes that not every person learns or works the same way. But I honestly think the cell phones have got to go. At least until break time.

Back to school again

On the day of school orientation I advised our Norwegian houseguest that the ‘bus’ would be leaving at approximately 7:30am. The Farmer came downstairs as we were spreading liverwurst on toast at about 7:05, used a shoehorn to put his shoes on and pulled on a dress jacket. Mina shot me a look of alarm.
“Are we still leaving at 7:30?!” she whispered.
I reminded my husband that he didn’t have to leave just yet – and he assured us he had other things to do before hitting the road. The whole incident reminded me so much of my father. Dad used to give us an exit time – and then saunter out the door half an hour before that to back the car out of the garage and sit in the driveway. Mom would emerge from the bathroom, head in a towel, to gasp, “is he in the CAR?!” We were never late for ANYTHING if Dad was at the wheel. In most cases we were at least 20 minutes early.
I didn’t inherit that gene.
The school year started for public schools in Ontario after Dad’s birthday this year. In fact, his 76th birthday fell on the Labour Day holiday. He would have been pleased to have one more day of summer vacation before having to don a suit and head to the science lab and classroom. He did not enjoy the years when school started before his birthday. Sometimes he didn’t even show up.
For a few years now I’ve watched many of my friends seeing their kids off to university for the first time. I remember when my eldest flew the nest. It’s a time of transition for the whole family. Mom and Dad have to learn to let go, and the other siblings left behind have to discover a whole new way of being, on their own. Every time I hear of a young man or woman going off to school, I think of it as an extremely positive thing. It’s such a huge accomplishment, for the whole family. The student has earned entry into the institution through hard work and achievements. The family has found a way to finance the whole deal. And finally, Mom and Dad, you have given your child the confidence and independence they need to take this next step. Good for all of you.
When I was nineteen, in 1987, I was nowhere near ready to go to university. I had been accepted into Carleton U’s honours journalism program, and Grandma said I could stay with her, because I just couldn’t picture myself in residence. Before I had to make a move, however, another option came along and within weeks I found myself married and waitressing in Ottawa. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had had the guts to stick to my original plan and go to school instead of hooking up with a man 13 years my senior and becoming a wife instead. But then again, there isn’t much value in wondering ‘what if.’ My impulsive nature and rash decisions led to a fairly entertaining if not very peaceful 13 year marriage, and three beautiful daughters (and one granddaughter). I wouldn’t change the past if it meant not having them.
The beginning of a new school year brings back so many memories for me, both as a nervous student and an anxious mother. I remember the first day of grade 6, when I was informed by another student that my homemade yellow t-shirt did not ‘go’ with my homemade brown skirt. My mother assured me that yes, it did, and proved it to me on a colour wheel from her interior design class. Still, I was bothered. Kids can be mean to each other. Teens have to grow a thick skin in order to be resistant to bullies.
I remember my just-turned-4-year-old in 1997 asking me if she could go to school like her older sisters, and having to make that difficult decision. She did very well, although her first teacher report advised that I “send more snacks” because my little one was a nervous eater and liked to explore the other lunch bags in the locker room. Maybe I should have had more store-bought snacks at home. I was a stay-at-home mom so there were really no packaged snacks at home and my girls had a kind of fascination with them as a result.
Being a parent can be a white-knuckle ride at any stage of the game. But as you send your kids off to school, whether it is kindergarten, university or anywhere in between, say a quick prayer over their heads and know that your love has equipped them with the tools they need to succeed.

The Farmwife Tribe is worldwide

During this season of outdoor farmers’ markets, county fairs and trade shows, I meet a lot of people. Some of them are readers of the column who want to meet me in person because they have been reading my life for the past ten years in my Farmwife blog and columns. Others are accidental farmwives themselves and they stop by to compare notes and meet one of their tribe.
Accidental farmwives, or women not born into the farming life, tend to be very interesting people. Some of us (myself included) come into the world of farming through marriage. Perhaps one of the best-known accidental farmwives is Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman. She lets readers into her life through her television show on The Food Network, her books, a blog, gorgeous photography and hilarious recipes that involve step-by-step commentary from the funniest farmwife I know. She has also homeschooled her children and she is a caregiver of wild mustangs on her Oklahoma ranch.
Others, like Kate Humble in the UK, feel compelled to enter the farming life for other reasons. Kate rescued a plot of municipal land before it was sold off to a condo corporation. Next she began rescuing animals (including “the world’s ugliest pigs”) and learning more about the various agricultural uses of her property. Now she has a teaching farm, a boutique, a café and she produces pear cider that is sold at the neighbourhood pub. You can read more about her and order a copy of her book, at Humble by Nature.
Another UK farmwife, Bobbi Mothersdale, has published a daily journal of a year in her farming life. It’s a great introduction to the trials, triumphs and seasonal routine on an East Yorkshire farm. Her book Hens, Hooves, Woollies and Wellies is available for purchase online.
If you do a quick search on the Internet you are bound to find some accidental farmwives in your area. Now, the “real” farmwives (who know what they are doing because they have been doing it since they were kids and are multi-generation farmers) have a wealth of information to share, but the accidental ones tend to share it in a more honest, blow-by-blow kind of way because every day, every week, every season brings a new experience. I highly recommend you check out some of their blogs, columns and books if you are considering becoming a farmwife yourself.
Nurse loves Farmer is a blog set in the Canadian Prairies. Sarah Schultz is also an avid photographer and cook (skills many farmwives seem to have, excepting yours truly. I can cook, but it usually involves grilling lean meat or fish and tossing a salad. Done. As for photography, my photos usually turn out blurry or with headless subjects). Schultz is a self-proclaimed “agvocate”, voicing her perspective on genetically modified foods, herbicides, and raising healthy kids on the farm.
Farmer Elaine Froese uses her background in conflict resolution to assist Canadian farmwives in their growth as “farminists.”
Canadian freelance writer and photographer Billi J. Miller has met a few female farmers who are opposed to being called “farmwives”. The term doesn’t bother me in the slightest, as in my mind it has always meant being married to the farm, as well as to the Farmer. I don’t split hairs over titles.
I am inspired by the farmwives (real or accidental) who have managed to produce something unique and special from their property’s bounty. Sheepskin rugs, alpaca wool socks, sweaters and mittens, goat milk soaps and essential oils, fermented tea kombucha, raw honey and jam are just a few of the highly-prized items I have seen farmwives produce. I would like to think I would be inspired to create something from the land too, if I worked from home fulltime. We have plenty of mature nut trees on our property. Maybe I could make some sort of low-sugar, preservative-free nut butter to sell. If I were handy and crafty at all. Keep in mind I can barely manage a minimal vegetable garden. Then again there is that time the Farmer tried to identify the strange nut tree growing next to the barn by licking the sap coming from its casing. He couldn’t feel his tongue for the next twenty-four hours. I suspect it has medicinal properties, as many of the native plants do here on the farm. Maybe someday I will take the time to research them.
For now I will continue to write stories of life on the farm, with our beef cattle, our chickens, cats, and one loyal pup named Fergus. Thanks for reading.

A warm welcome to our International students

This week the Farmer and I are preparing our spare rooms for two special guests on the farm. We will have two international students staying with us for the school year. In the past we have hosted students both short and long term from China, Spain, Colombia and Brazil. This year our students are coming all the way from Norway and Nigeria. We are one of dozens of host families in Leeds Grenville.
Mina is a 17-year-old from a small town called Nittedal, which is 30 minutes from Oslo by train. She likes arts and crafts, outdoor activities, family gatherings and trips to the cottage. She is looking forward to experiencing what it is to be Canadian, and she hopes to see a game of hockey. I think we can help her out there. I’m happy to see she didn’t list a lot of computer activity on her list of favourite things because what is the point of visiting a new country if you never leave the computer room? Mina will not be overly shocked by a Canadian winter, coming from Norway where winters can be quite severe. Maybe she will enjoy skating on the Rideau Canal.
Rebecca is coming to Canada from Nigeria. I don’t have a lot of information on her yet, except that her real name is Oghenetga. I will have to get some help on that pronunciation. Of course with all of the turmoil being caused by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram in her home country, we are wondering what her life has been like. Our town councilor Frank Onasanya also hails from Nigeria and he says he can tell by Rebecca’s family name “Idimi” that she likely comes from the West of the country. Most of the attacks by Boko Haram have reportedly been in the North-east, but you can never get the full story from a news report. We look forward to learning more about Rebecca and her life in Nigeria when she arrives this week.
Part of the challenge when you are hosting international students is getting them out of the house and into some truly Canadian experiences. Particularly during the long, cold winter months, students are apt to stay in their rooms streaming video and chatting with friends and family back home. We want them to get out and make new friends and do the things that local kids do while they are here.
I remember some of the international students that came to North Grenville in the 1980s. It seems like they were here for longer than just the school year; they made such an impression. Vivi from Sweden was this tall, vivacious blonde who laughingly refused to adopt the North American custom of wearing a sports bra while playing volleyball. Spectator attendance rose significantly when Vivi was on the court. She had such a positive, effervescent spirit and a beaming smile.
There was a little French girl named Claude from Belgium who rocked the small town of Kemptville with her fashion sense. She was quiet and perhaps a bit homesick as I think her English wasn’t very advanced and it left her feeling a bit left out. She made a small circle of good friends during her stay, however, and will be remembered for her smooth moves on the dance floor (along with her awesome collection of boots and mini-skirts).
Carlos from Mexico came to stay one year and very quickly became another member of the Bryson family. Tall, dark and handsome, he was athletic, smart and very popular with all of us.
My memories of the international students from my youth are what make me want to host students today. Of course whether you are hosting students from another country or dealing with your own teenagers, it can be a challenge to get them away from the screens and into real life. But that is, after all, what they came here for. To experience another culture, in all of its flavours and colours.
I am still in touch with some of our past international guests on social media. It is my hope that we will remain connected in the future, so I can see where they go in life. And who knows? Maybe someday the Farmer and I will visit some of them in their natural habitat.


Trying to maintain my alpha status

The Farmer has surpassed me as the Alpha in this pack. How did it happen? I am the one who gets up in the wee hours of the morning to let the Ferg out for his morning constitutional. I am the one who feeds, bathes and plays with the dog. It is me who….wait a minute. I’ve been trained by a puppy. He has me scheduled and ordered me to do his bidding with a simple whine. The Farmer doesn’t respond to such prompts. He is deaf in one ear.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened but at some point the Farmer managed to usurp the title of Leader of the Pack. Fergus has decided that his word trumps mine, every time.
“Bed time, Fergus.” Dog ignores woman, looks at man, curls up on man’s feet in front of TV.
“Get off that couch, Fergus.” Dog just rolls his eyes at me. The Farmer shows up at the door and dog bolts off of couch and onto floor, begins innocently licking his paw as if he were there all along.
I have read “Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis. I know how this works. Mama’s got to get her alpha groove back.
Dog trainers say you have to exert your authority and maintain it, from the beginning. I thought I did all the right things but I must have slipped up at some point. Perhaps I got down on the floor and let the puppy slobber all over me too much. The Farmer doesn’t do that. I decided to do some research.
Dog experts on the Web say you must first train a pup to sit, come and stay. You can use dog treats to reinforce this. You have to teach them their name and to follow alongside you on a leash. You’re not supposed to let the dog run ahead and pull you on a walk. Hmm. Clearly we have some retraining to do.
Even when walking through a doorway in a house you are supposed to make the dog come back and follow you. He is not supposed to lead in any circumstances. Humans first in all cases. And if he jumps up from excitement when you come home, you are supposed to ignore his bad behavior until he is calm. You aren’t supposed to yell at him to get down. That one is going to be the most difficult to teach, I think. Mostly because it drives me nuts when he jumps up on me.
At least we have managed to keep Fergus off our bed. He tries, but has yet to succeed in launching himself up onto the bed when we are lounging. I realize I have only a short window of opportunity to reclaim my alpha status and get him trained to stay off any of our special furniture before he is suddenly big enough to get up there.
If we aren’t careful, we could wake up to realize one day that we have lost one third of our king-sized bed to a large, hairy mutt. I have heard stories from other dog owners about slobber on their pillow and sleep interrupted by canine snoring. I have enough trouble getting a good night’s sleep. I’m going to avoid this catastrophe at all costs.
Fergus, a Golden Retriever, is very smart. So at least we have that going for us. I swear he has already learned that scratching on the door is neither allowed nor necessary. He literally knocks on the door once to be let back into the house. From the inside, he just sits at the door quietly until we notice and let him out. If we are distracted, he whines. I might have even suggested he use his voice once or twice when he tried to scratch the door. In some way, he understands me.
The other thing we are learning about Goldens is they really like to be in the same room with their people. We barricade him from the room where we are eating or cooking, but he sits just outside the gate. When allowed in, it’s the people he wants to see, more than the food.
It’s a good thing I ‘gave up’ on my vegetable garden because I clearly need to spend less time weeding ungrateful plants and more time training the dog.

Wasn't that a party?

We had so much fun at our farm wedding ten years ago that we have repeated the outdoor celebration each year since. This year the Farmer announced that he quits. He no longer wants to go to all that effort for one night of partying.
“I’m getting too old for this. It’s been ten years!” he declared.
“But it’s your tenth anniversary!” said Paulina, who has always been the biggest fan of the farm party. It also falls on the same week as her birthday each year – and she does love to dance under the stars. After a bit of discussion, I decided to let the kids plan the party, one last time. And then I tried really hard not to do any of the work myself. The Farmer was a little more successful in that area.
The night before the party, a keg arrived. We have never had beer on draft at our party before and it was certainly taking things up a notch, with former bartenders as the party organizers. During set up of said beer keg, however, a tiny black washer ring fell and disappeared through the wooden floorboards of the porch. We couldn’t hook up the keg without it. The Farmer went to the shed to find a suitable substitute, but failed. The owner of the “kegerator” said he would go home and get a new one. Everyone groaned. It was the end of a long day, we were all hot and tired and in need of a cold beer. Farmwife to the rescue. I limbo’d and squatted my way around the house under the porch and miraculously found the washer ring lying in a nest of vines. “That’s why he married young,” I joked, as my knees creaked.
The tent had also arrived the night before the party, but perhaps just to make us nervous, the party organizers decided to leave it until the day of the party and go out with friends instead. The Farmer shook his head.
The day of the party, I had to be away from home until about 3 in the afternoon. I received a few texts during the time I was away, about the location of different items, so I knew the ‘kids’ were busy setting up the big event. On the drive home I was pleasantly surprised to see road signs en route declaring “Fisher Farm Party This Way!” because I was imagining a last minute scramble to get things done.
I arrived home to a complete party scene. Paper lanterns lined the driveway. A long dining tent was set up on the front lawn over tables set with linens and candles. Next to that was a circle of lawn chairs around a fire pit. Club music was coming from the barn, which had been set up like a stage with lighting, speakers and equipment. The kids had successfully organized their own farm party. The Farmer had successfully spent the better part of the afternoon watching “Twelve O’Clock High” in the living room.
Every year we get a few surprise guests and this year was no exception. It was great to see an old friend who had moved away in Grade 6 and another whom I had been keeping in touch with on Facebook for several years. Local musician George Buys played and sang as the sun set on an absolutely perfect evening and the Farmer grilled up three dozen burgers and sausages. The dining room table groaned with salads and snacks and our resident baker, Amy, brought cupcakes. I also had an ice cream cake for Paulina’s birthday but had left it to thaw on the table in the basement. When I finally remembered it, I discovered the cats were having a party of their own, in the puddles of melted ice cream that were dripping off the table onto the cement floor. Paulina said the melted cake made a perfect lunch treat after party cleanup the next day.
I don’t think the Farmer and I will be hosting another farm party in honour of our wedding anniversary. It’s been ten years and it’s time to pass the torch on to the next generation. Next year we will be hosting a wedding reception for Paulina and Carey. The year after that, perhaps another wedding or engagement party, or a baby shower…it may be the end of the annual farm party, but I’m sure our home will be the venue for many more family celebrations to come.

Fergus hates his Halti

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” ~ Proverbs 22:6, NKJV.

It’s more than just a bible verse, and I am hoping it applies to puppies as well as to children. We had a large, rather untrainable dog before who, although lovable, was a going concern. If let outside without a lead, Cody would dash off to parts unknown. We are hoping that Fergus’ electronic collar is effectively teaching him his boundaries so that he won’t run away if left untended. The funny thing is, we never had to use these techniques with our dogs when I was growing up. We just told them to stay and they stayed. We never had one injured on the road, and none of them ran away. They visited the neighbours occasionally, sure. But they always came home.
Cody was terrible at walking on the leash. He would pull me so hard that he would choke himself and have to stop to catch his breath. I tried stopping and rewarding him with treats, along with a number of different commands to get him to stop pulling, but it never worked. I felt it would be unfair to introduce a choke collar at his advanced age, so I just put up with his shenanigans. It took all my strength to hold onto the leash. It was quite a workout. I couldn’t walk Cody much during the winter, because more than once when he tugged me along the ice I lost my footing and landed on my face, in the middle of the road.
Fergus is getting big, strong and brave and he too loves to pull on his leash. It’s time to nip this situation in the proverbial bud. I have been doing my research online and in the dog owning community and I think I have a solution. It’s called the Halti. Basically it’s shaped much like a horse halter, with which I am very familiar. You slip one loop up over his ears and the other around his muzzle. The lead attaches to a ring under his chin. If he pulls on the lead, it tightens the loop around his muzzle, which makes him slow down. I’ve seen the Halti in action and it basically turns a wild, human-tugging, zig-zagging beast into a well-behaved canine sauntering along directly beside his master. This is our goal. The only problem is that Fergus hates his Halti.
I’ve tried putting the Halti on him every day for a short period of time so that he can get used to it. We’ve had it two weeks now with very little improvement. He used to spend a great deal of time trying to scratch it off his face but now he is resigned to just lying there, chin in the grass. He won’t get up and he won’t walk with the Halti on. So I turned to the Internet for help.
It seems I have been going about this all wrong. I watched a video on the dog halter and the trainer advises you introduce the device gradually, with copious amounts of treats. First you coax the dog to put his muzzle through the halter, and reward each time with a treat. Then you pull the halter up over his head as he puts his muzzle through the halter. Now you introduce the instruction “get dressed.” Again, more treats. Finally you buckle the halter on him and reward with – you guessed it – still more treats.
I think that woman handed out approximately 52 treats during the course of the two-minute video. Clearly I will be stocking up. I am wondering if there is such a thing as a treat card, like a coffee card where you get a stamp each time you buy a pack and your tenth one is free? Because if there isn’t, perhaps there should be.
We went back to the pet store today, Fergus and I, to ensure the halter I bought him has been properly fitted to his five-month-old head. The clerk witnessed his paralysis after the halter was on, and declared he was acting out in protest. We headed to the drive-thru on the way home, and Fergus was introduced to Tim Horton’s plain Timbits. I had to show him there is an upside to what he seems to perceive as an extremely humiliating experience.

A gardener I am not

After ten years of marriage I have decided it is time to come clean. I have made a confession to the Farmer. For many years I have been doing something just to make him happy – because I thought it was part of what he expected in a farmwife. However, despite my feigned enthusiasm and efforts, I have not enjoyed or excelled at this activity. No, it isn’t cooking – I have never pretended to relish spending time in the kitchen, so he had no illusions there. It’s gardening. I don’t like it.
I once inherited a perennial garden. It came with the house that I bought in the suburbs. What first appeared to be a huge responsibility turned out to be a joy and a retreat from the stresses of daily life. The plants took their turn each season coming into flower and I collected any seeds they dropped to replant for the following year. But there was no weeding involved. The plants were established so tightly together that weeds had no chance to grow. Occasionally I had to divide a plant and give half away to a friend, replenish the soil or relocate something that wasn’t flourishing in its current location. I borrowed gardening books from the library, learned the Latin names for the plants and studied their habits. But I didn’t have to hoe grass under the soil or pull out a single dandelion.
I even worked with a landscaper one summer, putting my newfound knowledge of perennial flowerbeds to good use. But in 2007, when I married the Farmer and he said he always had a vegetable garden, I bit off a little more than I could chew. I spoke too soon. I wanted to impress him so I said I would take on the role of chief gardener – all I needed him to do was turn over the soil each spring and add the occasional heap of well-composted manure.  I would handle the rest, I said. It sounded like a good, manageable arrangement. I would show him that I planned to be a hands-on farmwife. Then we went through our first season.
I don’t know if it is the manure or the soil in which the garden is planted but I just can’t control the weeds. Drought has taken out entire plantings one year, and flood has washed seeds away the next. This year we have a puppy who loves to race in circles in freshly planted soil. My garden didn’t stand a chance. The grass, however, is flourishing.
In order to keep the grass at bay (for really that’s all there is in my garden) I have to be out there every couple of days, painted in sunscreen and doused in bug spray, hoe and trowel in hand. Over the Canada Day weekend I was too busy to garden and missed a few days. By the time I got out there again a nasty band of beetles had taken over my potato plants. They ate the leaves down to the stems and laid fresh eggs on the stalks. I had to pick them off one by one – a messy, smelly business. Bugs eradicated, I moved my marigolds closer to the row of potatoes. Their scent is supposed to ward off pests.
Next I set to pulling out clumps of grass that has grown as tall as my onions. After completing three rows, I straightened out my aching back and surveyed the plot. I have two purple cabbages, six heads of lettuce, one cucumber plant, one tomato plant and a row of potatoes. Next to this I planted a pumpkin patch. It is truly the only thing that is thriving in my garden. My granddaughter Leti will be thrilled come Halloween. And the pumpkin vines will serve another purpose this year – they can block out the sun that makes the weeds grow between the vegetables. The Farmer doesn’t appreciate my pumpkins – he isn’t a fan of pumpkin pie and doesn’t understand why I planted them.
Well, next year I think I’m going to turn the garden into a wildflower bed for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. I will spend my time and money at the Farmers’ Market instead of suffering over my own vegetable garden. I love the smell of sun-warmed tomatoes and onions but I can appreciate vegetables harvested by others even more.
It feels good to admit that a gardener I am not. Maybe next year when we sell our cattle the Farmer will reclaim his role as chief gardener. We shall see.

Pests take over our farm retreat

Our four-month-old Golden Retriever pup has a bee sting on his eyelid. For an animal that yelps every time he is accidentally nudged, he is enduring this latest assault without comment. We were on the way to the vet anyway, to get a shot. Seems he will have to be on Benadryl for a day or two until the swelling goes down.
I didn’t see the bee or wasp that stung Fergus, but I’m sure he deserved it. He just can’t leave them alone. He follows them, stamps on them and then tries to eat them. He has also been seen flying through the air in attempt to catch one in his mouth. He has been warned.
I’m happy to see the honey bees back on the farm. For a few years all we saw were yellow jackets. We still have those, but they aren’t as plentiful as they used to be. The bumblebees hover over the flowers surrounding the pool, and have no interest in provoking man or beast – unless provoked.
I wish the same could be said for the mosquitoes. I know I said I wasn’t going to complain about anything this year, because look where complaining about last year’s drought got us. Flood. Torrential downpour. Ninety days of rain. And a great season for breeding mosquitoes.
We often say we don’t need to go away to vacation because everything we need is right here. A great view of the sunset, a pool to cool off in, comfy chairs on the porch. But it seems I am going to have to invest in some sort of mosquito deterrent if we are going to enjoy our outdoor surroundings after sundown. I heard something on the radio about creating a mosquito-free zone around your house. I’m going to look into it before our annual farm party in August. We want our guests to enjoy themselves outside on the dance floor under the stars, beside the campfire. If this mosquito situation continues all our guests will be in the house. And what is the point of a farm party if you are inside? That’s just a house party. We can have one of those in the winter.
While I’m researching how to get rid of mosquitoes, the Farmer says he also needs to find a way to scare off a family of snakes. They have nested beneath his new log cabin and they are his least favourite thing ever. I told him I’m pretty sure if he makes a lot of noise the snake will go away. I’m not sure, actually. Our neighbour has a snake living under her porch that actually emerges to greet people coming to the front door. And the snake appearance at the cabin happened while the radio was playing, full blast. So it obviously isn’t put off by music. In fact it seems to like classic rock.
Knock on wood, we seem to have effectively dealt with the skunks and raccoons this year. I am giving Fergus some credit for their absence. Normally we lose some of our chickens to the marauding pests. This year I think Fergus has properly marked his territory and they don’t want to run into him. Ten points for the pup.
On the subject of chickens, we will have several dozen to sell come the end of the month. You know where to find me if you want to reserve some birds. I will be happy to see them go; they are the biggest pests of all when you are trying to fill their feeders. They don’t even wait until you have successfully figured out how to get the 40lb feed bag open before they start pecking your ankles. I check on them once in a while but to be honest I haven’t gone in there to feed them in over a month. The Farmer can have that job. He has tougher ankles.
I’m really surprised we haven’t seen any poison parsnip on our property. Maybe the cattle have eaten it, or maybe it hasn’t found the right conditions to thrive here as it does just about everywhere else. It’s a good thing, too, because you can be sure if we had some of the toxic week, Fergus would find it and get himself into trouble.
For now he only has to worry about insects and the occasional misplaced piece of lawn furniture or farm equipment. He hates when they aren’t in the same place they were the day before, and spends a few minutes barking out a warning. Fergus the Farm Guardian is on the job. Bees, bugs and buckets beware.

email: dianafisher

Fergus has a shocking barnyard experience

When Fergus first arrived on the farm he was quite overwhelmed. All of the sights, sounds and smells filled his senses and he spent many long hours sitting on the front porch, surveying his new kingdom. Occasionally he would summon the nerve to hop down the big set of stairs that his little legs could barely reach, so that he could lie on the cool green grass and nap. That was when he was nine weeks old.
Over the next month, Fergus’ legs grew so that he could leap up and down any set of stairs with ease if not grace. He began chasing the birds that had scared him by swooping down and dive bombing him when he had first arrived on the scene. He followed his nose down a groundhog hole under the playhouse and discovered the joy of running laps in the loose soil of my vegetable garden. Finally, after weeks of sitting on the back deck studying the cattle in the meadow, Fergus decided to wriggle under the fence to the barnyard.
On his first attempt he was scolded for eating the garbage ash around the burn barrel. He immediately understood that he was not to go into the barnyard again, after a sharp tap on the butt and a stern tone of voice from his master. However, the attraction was too great. The next time I caught him tip toeing deeper into the barnyard and peering around the corner of the shed toward the big barn.
“Fergus!” I shouted. He turned and looked at me, then turned back and ran as fast as he could toward the manure pile. I had just dumped the kitty litter there and realized, with horror, that he thought he could smell a potential midday snack. Over the next week we caught Fergus in the barnyard several times a day, sampling other disgusting delicacies. He developed a digestive issue.
I was up two and three times a night, changing the puppy pad at the end of his bed. Fergus needed a bath in the morning, as he had soiled his fur. The vet did a test on his feces and called me with the results. “We found something strange in Fergus’ poop,” she announced, “so we sent it off to someone who looks at this sort of thing all day long.” I can only imagine a few jobs worse than that.
“It seems Fergus has a rare parasite that is usually only found in earthworms!” she declared. “Is it possible that he has been eating mud?”
I had to laugh. Mud? Try mud, manure, cat litter, garden soil…anything that is smelly and on the ground at Ferg level. The vet assured me that the parasite would harmlessly work its way through the puppy’s system. She also prescribed something for the loose bowel problem. Then I looked at the bigger picture. We had to find a way to keep Fergus out of the barnyard.
We have inherited the invisible fencing collar that my daughter used with her hunting dogs. The first morning I walked the perimeter of the property with him on a leash beside me. Every time the collar beeped I told him “no no no” the way I always do when he is leaving his boundary. I made sure the system was set to encompass his established toilet area, the front and back porch and plenty of yard. But he could no longer access the chicken shed, my vegetable garden, or his beloved barnyard.
I adjusted the collar to Fergus’ scrawny little puppy neck, and set him free. Within five minutes he was under the fence and trotting happily into the barnyard. Just then, the collar started to beep. He stopped, turned and looked at me, wide eyed.
“Come, Fergus!” I called, holding the gate open to the house yard. He turned to go farther into the barnyard, and then suddenly started hopping around and yelping as if he had been stung by a bee. He yipped and yelped and covered the fifteen feet between us in about three leaps, landing in my arms. He shivered and whimpered like a European football star who had just had his ear flicked during a match.
I set the collar a little lower in intensity, realizing it had been dialed up to control Annie’s high-strung German Pointer, Skor. Surely a little Golden Retriever doesn’t need more than a subtle reminder of his boundaries.
Now Fergus turns tail and runs back to the house whenever he reaches the outskirts of his property and his collar begins to beep. He is a smart dog and is determined never to let his collar sting him again.


A big moment for a young man and his lady on the farm

He’s been preparing for this moment for months. Just as he does before a championship match, the professional fighter plans ahead by marking the date and moving backwards on the calendar. Sometimes he has weight to lose to drop him into the next class. He often has skills to work on, muscle to build, reflexes to sharpen. In this case our young man planned ahead by making two very important lunch dates: one with his girlfriend’s mother, and one with her father.
Perhaps the discipline of martial arts training has leaked over into other aspects of his life. I believe this is what is supposed to happen, if you’re doing it right. In any case, many people might be surprised to hear that he treated me to a meal at one of his favourite Thai restaurants, so that he could ask for my approval. He wanted to know he had my support before asking for my daughter’s hand in marriage.
The young man takes his time. He doesn’t just blurt things out. Perhaps this is one of the things she loves about him. She too is a thinker. When he took me for lunch, I asked him where we should sit and he chose a chair directly opposite a poster of a Muay Thai fighter. “I’m sitting here,” he announced. “For strength!” I was pretty sure I knew what he had summoned me for, and I was happy to give my blessing.
Her father probably gave him a bit more of a challenge. I’m sure he too is very approving of this young man for his daughter but he isn’t about to ‘let her go’ without a test or two. Always discreet and polite, the young man just said that dinner with the old man went well.
He was turning 28, and we usually celebrate birthdays as a family on the farm. So he orchestrated a bit of an ‘Inception’ moment, where I suggested that she invite his family to the farm dinner as a birthday surprise for him. Unbeknownst to her, they had already been invited by him, and accepted. His brother, sister, mother and three close friends came from Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto to help fill our kitchen while he popped the question. Any concern that I might have had about my daughter finding out about this day beforehand melted away when I saw how excited she was to be surprising him. He gave an adequate performance of surprise, and then led everyone into the kitchen.
The Farmer took the young man aside as everyone gathered, whispering, “I’ll bet you’re more nervous now than you were for your toughest opponent in the ring!”
The twenty of us lined the kitchen, and our hero stood in the middle. He is a civil engineer by trade but he is also a great speaker.  Dressed in a crisp white shirt and walking shorts, he paced the floor as he addressed us. He thanked us for coming, and for sharing his birthday this way. My eldest daughter smiled, familiar with our family tradition of giving a wee ‘speech’ on the occasion of your birthday. And then he was done. And still standing there. The room was silent. All you could hear was the puppy, whining in his crate, likely protesting his exclusion from the gathering.
She stared at him, and her eyes glazed over. I wondered what she was thinking, watching him run his fingers through his hair and shift his weight back and forth. (Later she told me she had had a horrific thought that maybe he was going to announce he was terminally ill. But that soon passed and she realized what he was doing.)
She knew this day was coming, but she didn’t know he would be ‘taking a knee’ on this date. They had discussed marriage and looked at rings together. He chose wisely. The vintage style round diamond on a rose and white gold band suits our designer daughter to a tee. There were tears all around as she kissed and hugged him and pulled him to his feet. Someone asked her to confirm her answer, a resounding “Yes.” We popped two bottles of pink champagne and gave everyone a glass for a toast.
There is no rush to set a date. They live together and are saving for a home. She is in no hurry. She has been waiting for this moment her whole life - since she was a little girl, dressed in a gold floor-length gown, watching Belle dance with her man on “Beauty and the Beast.”
It was an honour to have the farm chosen as the venue for this live proposal celebration.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The gathering place

The Accidental Farmwife
Our farm is a gathering place
By Diana Fisher
The farm is a retreat for city people. It’s a place to try out your new rubber boots, go for a hike in the forest and get back to nature by feeding a cow an apple. At our farm on any given Sunday you can fill your belly with home cooked food and nourish your soul with good conversation and the love of family and friends.

When we first started hosting family dinners on Sunday we made it sort of a command performance for our girls. It was a “be there or be square” kind of a thing. They had to have a really good reason not to attend. As they got older and had work commitments we occasionally had to excuse one or another of them but at they also started to bring boyfriends home around the same time. Our gathering grew in number. Our musical daughter brought starving musicians home to dinner. Well, they likely weren’t starving but they did appreciate a good home cooked meal. And to be honest, most of them were pretty thin. And vegetarian. And you know what they say – “don’t feed the musicians” – we joked that they kept coming back for the free food but we were the real winners in that deal. Many Sunday sunsets were accompanied by acoustic guitar singalongs on the back porch, with multiple harmonies.

I remember thinking we were really lucky that our family wanted to spend each Sunday with us. The Farmer is a creative, experimental cook and other guests bring special contributions to the meal. No one leaves hungry. But I think it is far more than the food and good company that motivates family members young and old to make the trek out to the O’Neill Road at the end of each week and the start of the next. I think it’s the farm.

If we lived in a small bungalow on a street in town, there wouldn’t be the same draw. The farm has an appeal all of its own. People don’t just come to see us and to eat our food. They come to see the farm. They come to smell the honeysuckle on the fresh, sweet air. They come to hear the geese honking their way up the creek at dusk. They come to watch the cattle return to the barnyard, single file on a crooked diagonal path across the pasture, mooing in unison.

I do believe we get a bigger crowd when they know the baby will be here. But like everything else on the farm, she brings you down to earth, demands your undivided attention and helps you to appreciate the simple things in life.

The Farmer and I were married on the farm ten summers ago, and we host a big farm party every year, in addition to our weekly dinners that average 18 guests and our Easter and Thanksgiving gatherings that top out around 43. We have accumulated the trappings of hospitality that make these events easier. He built a three-season room that accommodates a sixteen-seater picnic table made by his uncle Bob. We have been gifted serving trays and utensils, extra place settings, dishes, glasses and mugs as well as chafing dishes (I didn’t even know that was a warming plate before I met this man). We have the extra folding tables and chairs, eight table cloths, 24 cloth napkins and cutlery for 45.
But still I don’t think it’s the fact that we are set up for this sort of thing that makes people gravitate to the farm for their special occasions. This weekend we celebrated the lives of two very special women on the farm. My uncle came from Florida and his late wife’s family came from Calgary, Quebec and Toronto to celebrate her life in a memorial service. He wanted to have it on the farm because he knew it would be comfortable, casual and meaningful. He knew this because he had attended a memorial service for his brother on our farm two years ago.

We also celebrated my mother-in-law’s birthday on the farm this weekend. We had about ten people more than we expected but we were able to accommodate them with a bit of shifting and adjusting. Lorna’s short term memory is deteriorating and the crowds confuse her but she seemed to understand what was going on and appreciated the festivities. She even had a piece of cake, which she is allowing herself to do a lot more often these days.

She understands that life is too short to pass up cake on a special occasion. Or to miss another gathering at the farm. 

A full house on the farm

My daughter Anastasia needed a place to stay between houses. We agreed that she should move in to the farm for a week. That was great news, because it meant I would get to see my granddaughter quite a bit. Unfortunately it also meant I would be seeing and hearing more of Annie’s German Pointer, Skor.

Skor is a beautiful dog. He is a sweet, energetic and fun-loving three year old. But he has a bad case of nerves. He is constantly jumping up on things including people, the furniture, parked cars and the door to the house. Within a few hours of being at the farm, Skor had scratched the front door beyond repair, busted a doorway through the wooden lattice work under the porch and formed a path through the three-foot-tall flowers in the front bed. Annie said she would repair whatever Skor wrecked. It’s a good thing she is only staying a week because I don’t think she could afford any more damage.

Our pup Fergus loves having Skor and his considerably better behaved brother Rupert the Yellow Lab on the farm. Rupert puts up with Fergus bobbing up and down under his chin, nipping at his jowls and his ears. The bigger dog even teases the pup and engages him in play. Fergus is in heaven.
One day Annie needed someone to watch the baby. Of course I volunteered. Leti and I were having a great day together, splashing in the pool and playing with her Barbie and pony collection. Then I noticed Fergus was missing. He had wriggled under the snow fence that I had strapped to the bottom of the barnyard fence. He was standing on the rock pile on the cattle side of the fence, challenging a groundhog he had discovered within. I called him to come back but he ignored me. I picked up my 18-month-old granddaughter and started toward him. He’s a smart dog, and he knows he isn’t supposed to be in the barnyard, where he could be harmed by a bull or over-protective cow. I approached him carefully. The trick is to catch up to him before he notices and starts running in the opposite direction. That’s when I saw the coyote.

Not much bigger than Fergus, the young coyote was bounding along the fencerow toward my little dog. He appeared to want to play, but my instincts told me to get Fergus out of there. I picked up the pace, Leti bouncing and giggling along on my hip. I waved my free arm at the coyote and made as much noise as possible, hooting and hollering. Leti helped. That seemed to scare him, because he turned tail and ran back in the direction from which he had come. Then I bent down and scooped up my gangly and awkward Golden Retriever pup. A dog on one hip and a toddler on the other, I turned and headed back to the house. It must have been quite a picture. Fergus was all wiggly and squirmy in my arms. He wanted to be released so he could go back to investigating groundhog hill. Leti kept trying to reach around and stick her fingers in Fergus’ mouth. I tried to keep them separate while walking as fast as physically possible, back out of the barnyard and across the lawn to the house.
It’s possible that the coyote thought Fergus was one of his kind and just wanted to play, but I wasn’t taking any chances. For the next two days my back ached from the effort of carrying nearly fifty pounds of human and fur baby while running across a rocky pasture.

The Farmer was less than enthusiastic when he learned we would have houseguests – some of them with four legs. We kept the dogs in the basement or out on the porch when the Farmer was around – no use in poking the bear.

On their second night with us, the baby wasn’t feeling well. Fever kept her up most of the night and so no one got more than a couple hours sleep. In the morning, Skor tested our bedroom door and found it to be unlocked. He bounded up onto the bed and licked the Farmer right across the face. That day my husband packed up his fishing equipment and took off to the lake with a few of his closest two-legged friends. The only full house he wants to see in the next week is in a card game.

The magical power of Dad

Fathers, do not underestimate your power. You have the ability to influence a young life without saying a word. Your child will be watching your every move – studying your facial expressions and second guessing everything you say, searching for hidden meaning. You are the number one man in your child’s life at the beginning and although someone may someday take your place, those formative years are extremely important.

Your son will shape his own identity in large part by studying yours. He will try on your expressions, your habits and mannerisms to see which ones fit and which do not. Some things he will consciously try to mimic and other things will just happen organically, as a magical product of genetics. He may walk like you, but will he share your weaknesses as well as your strengths?  Your relationship will heavily influence whether your son matures into a man of character or whether he struggles with personal failings all his life. There will of course be myriad other factors shaping your son’s future, but they don’t diminish the power of your influence.

You can’t determine every aspect of your child’s future by your own behavior. But it is extremely important to watch not only what you model in front of your child, but also what comes out of your mouth.

The relationship between a father and daughter is a particularly special and powerful one. The way you relate to her will help her to define her feeling of self-worth. Now if that isn’t a heavy load to bear, I don’t know what is. I remember carefully examining everything my father said to me in terms of my looks, my dress, my intelligence and my talent. He helped me to grow into a confident, self-assured young woman, but he also provided a very realistic perspective on where my challenges lie. A high school science teacher for over thirty years, he told me, “you are smart in ways that will get you nowhere in the world.” That was when I won top marks for English. I took it as a compliment but I got the message. He just didn’t put the same value on writing ability as he did on math or science.
He also treated my sister differently than he treated me. I’ll never forget looking out the window and seeing him teaching her something about the car. They were huddled together out there, under the open hood. When I asked him later why he didn’t show me too, he said something like, “well Cathy likes to learn how to do things on her own.” That one left me puzzled for a while.

Dad didn’t say it often, but I knew he loved me. I knew this because he looked forward to the time we spent together after school and seemed disappointed when my part-time job wouldn’t allow me to do that anymore. He joked about my boyfriends but I always knew he cared. He teased me regularly about my hairstyles and wardrobe choices but in reality he was saying “I see you.” That is all that really mattered. My mother, sister and I were never left wishing he told us he loved us. He did that every day, by making us laugh, and giving us his time and attention. My mom said Dad told her “I love you” on their wedding day and “If it changes,” he said, “I’ll let you know.” He was a man who chose his words carefully.

A Dad not only has the power to change the way his daughter sees herself – he can also shape her choice in a future male partner. It is only natural that we will choose someone who seems familiar. Someone who reminds us of Dad. We do this without even knowing it and often don’t realize it until something happens that makes the similarity obvious. What kind of man will your daughter be choosing for herself, even subconsciously? Are you teaching her that men are strong but sensitive, kind and generous? Or will she be drawn to someone who reminds her of you but isn’t necessarily the best choice in a life partner?

On this Father’s Day, as the daughter of a man who made me feel treasured, loved and cherished (without words), I ask you to carefully consider the influence you are having on your child’s life. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

We have entered the Golden age on the farm

(photo of Fergus by Paulina Hrebacka)
The Farmer and I have entered a new era. After ten years of marriage, at the ages of 61 and 49, we have welcomed a new baby into our lives. He is a Golden Retriever and we have decided, after much debate, to name him Fergus.
The Farmer wanted to name him Red. He is a red type rather than the English blond type of Golden, but I argued that “Red” is simply a colour and not a name. I wanted to name him Finn, but perhaps that is more fitting of an Irish setter. Goldens come from Scotland. We were watching Outlander on Netflix one night when the name came to me. He will be known as Fergus the Red. Fergie for short.
We have received a great deal of advice on how to train this puppy. Some say you should crate the dog beside your bed so you can get up in the night to put him outside. This will speed up house training. However, I was reminded that if you allow the pup to sleep in your room as a pup, he will think it is his room going forward. I don’t want to be sharing my room with a huge dog that is dreaming loudly about chasing rabbits and snoring in his sleep. When I mentioned this to my husband he said, “Well, you could always go sleep in the other room!”
Fergus was tucked into his pet carrier on the first night. This was settled into the larger crate which will from now on be his safe place for naps and bed time and anytime he wants to get away from us, our visitors and our house cats. (Although we haven’t seen much of said house cats since Fergus arrived.)
I left the door to the carrier open so that Fergus could use the puppy pads in the larger crate if need be. And there was a need, the first night. The second night, I awoke a couple times in the night and brought him outside to relieve himself in the long grass that I have designated as his toilet area. His crate pad stayed dry.
The first full day at home, Fergus roamed around and explored every corner in the house. He discovered that although he can wedge himself under or between many different pieces of furniture, he cannot always extricate himself. He is very quiet, and doesn’t know his name yet so I spent a few minutes looking for him before finally discovering him stuck uncomfortably in a tight space under the spare bed. I decided to block the exits so he has to stay in the room with me.
I also used up about half a bottle of enzyme spray to eradicate pup accident odours. We are starting to learn each other’s language so hopefully in the next week or so we will go through a day without an indoor mess. It’s hard to know when he is planning a pee when he spends the majority of each day with his nose to the ground, sniffing. Always sniffing.
The other thing Fergus loves to do is chew. He has a variety of chew toys in different strengths so that he can exercise his needle-sharp teeth. Unfortunately he likes toes and fingers the best. I have the marks to prove it. But for the most part our tiny Golden Retriever wants to please us. It is obvious that he is looking for instruction, so we just have to figure out how to tell him what we expect, and to reinforce it.
This is all new to me so, of course, I am reading. I’m learning how to train our pup so that he can soon go off on road trips with the Farmer / Real Estate Agent. It wasn’t our intention to buy a puppy. We have both always owned rescue dogs from shelters. But despite contacting all area shelters and registering with Golden Rescue, we were unable to find a retriever that way, so we had to place an order for one of a spring litter.
Fergus is the Farmer’s “retirement dog”, although that man may never really retire. He has always wanted a Golden, so I suppose he deserves one. It’s plenty of work, training and cleaning up after this little creature but I realize he will only be little for so long. Thank goodness he sleeps a lot, because I am exhausted.


I guess this means we should listen to the cats

Our house was not completely flooded. We really have nothing to complain about, in comparison to the hundreds of people in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec who have lost everything in the rain and floods these past few weeks. But we did get some water in the basement.  It wouldn’t have had the chance to cause any damage, if we had only listened to the cats.
Sheila the housecat doesn’t really like people. She pretends to be friendly if she hears cellophane or senses that you may be eating cheese, but she doesn’t really want to be petted. She barely tolerates me. If Sheila’s food bowl is empty and I am busy making something in the kitchen, she winds herself around my legs and gives me a quick bite on the calf. She doesn’t have what you would call a nice disposition.
Still, Sheila has her good qualities. She played surrogate mom to all those kittens I nabbed from the barn and brought into the house to wean and adopt out. When their new families came to pick them up, she followed them to the door one by one and when they left she sat at my feet and complained.
Today, whenever we are sitting watching TV in the evenings she pulls one of her kitten-sized toys out of the basement and sings to it, loudly. This is quite regular behaviour for her, and it goes on for about five minutes. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention when it went on for more like half an hour one night last week. But I was watching the season finale of Outlander and didn’t want to be interrupted.
When I finally got up to see what the heck Sheila was hollering about, I found her sitting at the top of the basement stairs with about six toys around her. They appeared to be wet. I flicked the light on and peered down the stairs. Sure enough, the floor was covered in water. Ugh.
A quick investigation by the Farmer confirmed that the hose used to drain condensation from our furnace was blocking the sensor ball on the sump pump, so it wasn’t able to switch on when the water level got too high. Water had seeped out of the workshop area of the basement to soak the carpet in the next room. The parquet floor in the spare bedroom will likely have to be ripped out and replaced also.
I spent the next few days sopping up wet cat litter and carrying soggy boxes of baby clothes upstairs to be dried and repacked. I will be investing in some waterproof boxes for storage in the future. Maybe some that can float.
The cats’ litter and food had to be moved upstairs to the bathroom for a few days while the water dried up. That gave them free run of the house during the night, which they truly loved. I could hear them ripping up and down the stairs after each other when I was supposed to be asleep.
You would think we had learned our lesson, but, no. A few days later, it happened again. Sheila tried to tell me. I was sitting on the couch reading a book and she attempted, unsuccessfully, to launch herself up into my lap. She almost never does this, and hasn’t tried in years. I laughed when she misjudged the distance to the couch and fell over. Sheila walked away, dejected. She was back a few minutes later with a wet cat toy. That got my attention. The sump had failed again.
I suspect we will be checking that mechanism more often on rainy days, and perhaps investing in a battery-operated backup system. The Farmer is cutting the carpet up into manageable pieces that can be lifted up the basement stairs and out onto the back deck for disposal. It is a mess, and our basement smells a bit like a wet sock, but it’s nothing like what the owners of truly flooded homes are dealing with.
Last year the drought had us using up our hay months ahead of schedule, because nothing was growing in the pasture. This year we are starting the cattle on pasture early, because of the rain. You never know what you are going to get, but from now on I’m paying attention to the animals. They seem to know what’s up.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Here's to you, Mom

Being a mom is one of the best jobs on Earth. It’s very rewarding. It’s also completely thankless sometimes, if that makes any sense. Mom doesn’t usually get a thank you when she wakes up in the middle of the night to change diapers and provide food for her new babe. She will likely get more complaints and protests than gratitude when she makes healthy snacks and lunches for her child. And she probably won’t get many thanks when she drags that kid out of bed for school, church or hockey practice early in the morning, even though they know it is for their own good. But she will keep on doing all of those things, because she is a mom.
It often isn’t until we are moms ourselves, or we lose our moms, that we realize how much they did for us. Probably the best gift you can give your mom (I’m speaking from my own perspective as the mom of 3, step-mom of 2 and grandma of 1) is your time and attention. She doesn’t need you to buy into the commercialism of the event and spend a lot of money on a gift – but if you want to, that’s perfectly fine. What Mom really wants, I’m guessing, is to hear your voice on the phone, see you on Skype or Facetime, or spend time with you on Mother’s Day. We don’t all have those perfect movie script mother-child relationships, so if you can’t imagine sitting across from your Mom for an entire lunch date, why don’t you ask what she wants to do. Maybe it’s going to a movie together, and sharing a laugh. Or go through old photo albums together, tidying up her storage room at the same time. Don’t forget the wine. Your Mom might want to go somewhere with you, or she might just want you to tell her all about what you have been up to lately. Detail by detail. You can sacrifice the time. Think of all she has done for you.
If you don’t have a mom figure in your life, there might be another woman you can honour on Mother’s Day. Maybe a favourite teacher or coach, who was your confidante during difficult times while you were growing up. Or maybe there is a mom in your life who is missing her own children and would love to spend some time with you on Mother’s Day. If you’ve lost your Mom, maybe you can honour her memory by pulling her old recipe box out of storage and making some of her favourite dishes.
Looking for a last-minute gift idea for the mom who has everything? Here are some of my favourites. 1. Book a photo session together. I did this one year and it was quite an experience. The photo shoot itself was moving, because you don’t usually spend that much time hanging on to this person you call Mom. Spending an hour in each other’s embrace, laughing and goofing off for the camera is a memory you will treasure forever. With the photos to match.
2. Buy tickets for an upcoming concert and plan to go together. Make sure it’s music that Mom likes. If she isn’t into loud noises, consider a play or a comedy show. It will give you another experience to share and look forward to.
3. Plan a day trip together. Go for a drive, do some window shopping and include some destinations from your past, with at least one stop for food. Stir up some memories and take the time to chat about the good old days.
4.  Book a spa day together, if you’re into that sort of thing. This can be a mani-pedi and hair experience at a salon, or a massage and soak at the hot springs. The idea is to have some laughs and spend time together with no cell phone distractions.
5. Make a photo book. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend with Mom on Mother’s Day but you want her to know how much you appreciate her, scan or take photos of old photos, and download recent ones onto a USB stick or your phone. Then head to a photo kiosk and print a hard-covered photo book. You can even add text if you want to. It’s a thoughtful gift and doesn’t have to cost much.
Happy Mother’s Day. Enjoy every moment.

The evolution of a hobby farm

The face of a farm is ever-changing. When I first moved onto the farm, the pasture was dotted with fluffy white sheep as far as the eye could see. The Farmer started with a dozen or so sheep in 1998 when he built the farmhouse to accompany his newly purchased 200 acres and barn. Every year he sold the male lambs after weaning and let the females stay to keep the ram busy and build up the herd. Before long, he had a herd of 200 sheep. The farm was quite well suited to sheep farming, but it didn’t start out that way.
A long while ago, The Fisher Farm was a mink farm. Then it was a piggery for years. The feeders and pens were built low to the ground to accommodate the pigs, so the Farmer didn’t have to renovate much to host his sheep. Cattle are another story. We added two Hereford cows to our menagerie in 2008, and slowly started building that herd so we could move out of sheep farming. Sheep are hard on your back. You are in a constant bent-over state, trimming their hooves, shearing them, administering their monthly shots and pulling them out of whatever mess they have managed to entangle themselves in. I also found sheep farming extremely hard on my heart. With lambing season happening at the tail end of winter, a freezing cold barn often meant a high lamb mortality rate. Sheep are also adept at contracting all varieties of disease, named in the most obvious of ways: Stiff Leg Disease; Hard Bag; Foot Rot; Sore Mouth; Bent Leg; Frothy Bloat; and even Fuzzy Lamb Syndrome. Sheep farming was never a very good money maker for us. We did it because we enjoyed it, and as the Farmer says, it kept him busy.
Cattle farming was, for the most part, a much simpler venture. The cows often give birth without any human intervention or help. We have had at least one problem calf each year that requires bottle feeding or other assistance at the start. But other than the first week or so where we have to keep Mom and Babe inside the pen (which used to house sheep and is constantly getting destroyed by cows), cattle farming has been pretty easy.
The cattle test our fences for us every year. If there is a weak section of fence, they will find it. Then we get a call from a neighbour about cows in the road, or in their backyard. That’s how the Farmer knows it is time to reinforce the electric wiring.
Cattle farming has been fairly profitable for us over the past few years, but last year’s drought was a real lesson in what can happen when your meadows don’t replenish themselves. We had to dip into our winter hay storage to feed our herd during the summer. This was expensive. When we factored in how much we were getting for each calf sent to market, we realized they weren’t exactly paying their room and board. It may be time for another step in the evolution of the Fisher Farm.
“I think I’m slowing down a bit,” said the Farmer as we sipped our drinks during the first afternoon patio-sit of the season. “I hate to think of not being the Farmer anymore though…” and by that I knew he was referring to his farming-as-a-hobby to keep him from getting bored in his semi-retirement. How a real estate agent who is building a log cabin and maintaining his own property has time to get bored is beyond me. But I know farming is important to him as it keeps him healthy. With animals depending on you making a trip to the barn each morning and night, you are getting out of the house in all kinds of weather. I really think this is why he is never sick – because he spends so much time out of doors. Then there is the shoveling of their manure and pitching their hay. You save money on a gym membership.
We can rent out the rest of our pasture fields for cash crops, but it would be nice to find something else to occupy the barns, and keep the Farmer busy. I’m thinking about all that woodworking equipment he has in the shed. I know several people who would really appreciate some handmade wood furniture, including yours truly.