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Friday, June 26, 2015

The Sunday dinner challenge

The Accidental Farmwife
A challenge to your family from mine
By Diana Fisher

I’ve mentioned the miracle of Sunday dinner before but it continues to work its wonders with my family so I’m mentioning it again. Just in case you missed it the first time.
My Dad got sick and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just a few weeks before I got married in 2007. I moved onto the farm in August and we started our Sunday family dinners shortly after that. I can’t exactly remember the reason but it was wonderful to have family together on the weekends at our place. It was one day of the week that everyone could count on to get together and see each other and spend time with Dad. It was much easier on Mom that way too, so she didn’t have to worry about keeping her house ready for visitors when she was busy taking care of Dad every day.
When he was given his terminal diagnosis on September 11th, and went through various bouts with chemo haze and mental fog due to all the pain medication, Sunday dinner became something he looked forward to. Almost as much as his daily marathons of Corner Gas, and his afternoon nap. The girls would laugh and tease each other at the dinner table and he would just sit there and smile at them, forgetting his pain for a moment.
As we said our final goodbyes to Dad just four months later, the Farmer and I decided that we would continue Sunday dinners for the family. And truly, sometimes I think it’s the only way we would see each other. Because lives get busy and it is often difficult to schedule a get-together other than for special holidays and celebrations. We have dinner for about 20 people, on average, every single Sunday. The only time we cancel is if we are out of town for some reason. On those weeks I’m always afraid someone is going to show up just out of habit and no one will be there to greet them but the dog.
It’s like Thanksgiving dinner, every week. It’s no wonder I’ve gained 25 pounds since we married. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. People ask if it’s a lot of work and yes, it is. But it’s worth it.
The Farmer does most of the cooking (of the meat, anyway). He loves to cook so he does it up big. You don’t have to have a smorgasbord every Sunday. People bring dishes to add to the table and you could arrange for that as well. Or just have everyone pitch in and order pizza, or Chinese. Make a big pot of spaghetti or a pan of lasagna. It doesn’t have to be gourmet. The point is you are together.
When people are eating and drinking together, they relax and feel welcome, no matter what they are going through at the time. That’s another thing the Farmer has established: on Sundays there are no serious confrontations or grudges revisited. The white peace flag is up and the farm is a sanctuary where no one passes judgment or voices disapproval. Save that for Monday.
Sunday dinners are not just for immediate family. We occasionally have honorary or extended family members at the table. That’s a good thing, because if it was just the usual suspects every week, eventually we would start arguing and throwing food, I’m sure. Having the occasional special guest keeps us on our toes and exhibiting our best behaviour.
In recent years my Uncle Pat has joined us for several dinners at the farm. At first it was just Easter, Thanksgiving and special birthdays. Then he and his lovely Christiane started showing up to join us just on a regular summer Sunday, when they could enjoy the farm and the pool. Pat’s big, booming voice broke out in laughter and song and he seemed to really enjoy his visits when he was able to join us. Pat had a few health problems and he died fairly suddenly last week, at the age of 68. His wife has requested that we host a celebration of his life on the farm, because he loved it there.
If your home isn’t big enough to welcome the entire family for a weekly or even monthly drop-in, look around and see which family member does have a house big enough and see if maybe you can offer to potluck the food and do the set-up and clean-up. It is worth the effort, I promise you.

Photo: Patrick Cullen whose career spanned 40 years in voice, film and stage passed away unexpectedly. He will be remembered with an Irish wake by family and friends later this summer on the Fisher farm in Oxford Mills. 
RIP Patrick -July 29th, 1947 - June 23, 2015 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Welcome to the season of the chicken

The Farmer has been away on a business trip this week so I’m in charge of the chickens. I don’t like chickens. You reach down into their fluffy puddle of bodies to extract the feeding trough that they are standing in, and they peck your hands. They scream excitedly when I step into the pen and rush over to peck at my ankles. I forgot socks and couldn’t pull rubber boots on over my bare feet so I just had my rubber sandals on. Ankles were exposed and they got sufficiently pecked.
No, it doesn’t hurt when they peck me. It’s just rather uncomfortable. The Farmer thinks I’m a wimp but really. Standing in a chicken-poop dampened pile of hay, getting swarmed by mosquitoes and pecked by tiny yellow birds is not my idea of fun. Not to mention what it does to my hair. I give up trying to smooth out my frizzy hair. I will spend the rest of the summer with an unholy halo of fuzz for a hairstyle.
Now the turkeys, on the other hand, are so docile and polite it’s actually quite pleasant to tend to them. I swear one of them cooed a thank you when I spread fresh straw over their soggy pen floor. Before I could even get the straw off the end of my pitchfork they were on it, settling in and preening their feathers. They need the dry straw to keep their downy feathers nice and dry. Otherwise they look like they have been dumped in a water bucket and hung upside down to dry.
I watched as they fussed and claimed nests in the new pile of straw. “Oh, this is nice. Come feel this, Clara. Don’t shove. This is my spot. Oh it feels nice. Just wiggle on down into that straw and see how good it feels on your feathers. There. Isn’t this lovely?” They cooed and softly chuckled to each other in a little feathery chorus.
I like to do nice things for the turkeys. They’re so appreciative. Even when I’m filling their feeders, they just come and stand beside me and make soft, polite comments. Croo. Brrrrr. Gobble.
The chickens are equally thrilled when they get new bedding but until they get a bit bigger and their heat lamps are removed I have to be really careful about that. Don’t want to hit the heat lamp with a piece of straw or it’ll be a hot time in the old barn tonight.
I can say one nice thing about the chickens, though. I suspect they might be slightly more intelligent than the turkeys. When the automatic water troughs failed last year one chicken, either self-appointed or elected we don’t know, went out as a sentry into the dark night. From the back porch where we were socializing and digesting our Sunday dinner, we could hear one clear, frantic chirp-song louder than the others. Amanda happened to be out in the barnyard investigating, and followed the sound to the chicken, who then led her to the dry water troughs.
I have been spending a bit of time watching How to Hypnotize your Chicken on YouTube. The problem is I don’t think it works with meat birds, who tend to be more aggressive than laying hens or show birds. Maybe I will try it on my turkeys when they are a bit bigger. They are, after all, the more trusting and gullible of the birds.
I can see it now. Market Day arrives, the Farmer goes to the barn to wrestle all the flapping, kicking and thrashing 30-lb turkeys into cages and finds them neatly lined up on the straw, sound asleep. The gentle way to go. Maybe I will start a trend. Like freezing your fresh lobsters before you boil them. Hypnotize your poultry before they go to the processing plant. Happy animals are delicious animals. I usually tell them they are going on vacation, in soothing, comforting tones, and pet their feathers through the cages until they calm down. Hypnosis might be even better. Not sure what the people at the processing plant are going to think, though.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Just call me "Grandma"

Twenty-six days. That’s how long I had to keep this secret. The little mama-to-be wanted to wait until her first trimester was almost over to tell everyone but now the word is out.  I’m going to be a grandma!
Anastasia was quite insistent that our annual Mother’s Day brunch would be held at her house this year. Normally we do Merrickville and this year we thought a picnic might be nice but rain was in the forecast so Suzy Homemaker jumped on the opportunity to have it at her little bungalow. Her band of hunting dogs had to be banished to the outside to fit all the people in.
When we were all assembled, Annie handed me, her mother-in-law, her grandma and her aunt a card. I opened mine and saw it said “Happy Mother’s Day, Grandma.” I looked at Annie, who was peering at me with those big brown eyes that got her the nickname Tweety Bird when she was a baby.
“You gave me the wrong card, honey,” I whispered, giggling. I don’t know how many times I have bought a card because of the beautiful design on the cover or script inside, only later to notice that the greeting on the front was slightly off.
“No, I didn’t,” Annie said with a little smirk.
“Ohhhhhh!!!!!!” I didn’t even open the card. So happy. No words. Just scooped her up off the floor with a big hug.
Now, Annie and her hubby Andrew are young, so it isn’t like they have been trying for ages or anything, but they have been married nearly three years. And they did raise that litter of lab pups last winter. I guess that helped them to imagine introducing a baby into their busy lives.
I’m looking forward to helping with this new baby; the first grandchild on both sides of our family.
It won’t have a typical upbringing for a 2015 baby, according to its parents. Neither one of them is on Facebook or any other form of social media. They do own cell phones but they do not cease breathing or functioning normally if they accidentally leave their phone at home for the day. Their favourite activity is hunting. When they aren’t hunting they are chopping wood, or swimming in the river with their dogs, or helping someone to build or move something. They are on a baseball league and they rarely miss Sunday dinner with the family. I think they have their priorities straight.
I’m a young grandma, but not quite as young as my mother was when I had my first child. It’s great – I should still have the energy and strength to look after a wee one, so I can help my daughter out whenever she needs it. I’m looking forward to being the go-to person for babysitting, living just ten minutes away. Of course, I’ll share with the other grandparents, and I’ll try not to make a pest of myself.
The topic of discussion lately has been the gender of the new baby. We went shopping on the weekend, the little mama and I, and wandered into a baby store. It will be so much easier when we know the sex. Baby clothes are the icing on the delicious fat baby cake. I can’t wait to start buying them. But even though I know that any girl born to those two will be raised knowing how to drive a tractor, hit a baseball and shoot a gun, I still have trouble justifying dressing her in plaid and denim at the beginning. And if it’s a boy, I don’t want the frilly dresses I’m eyeing to be left unused in the closet. So I have to be patient again. For at least another twenty-six days.
Next month the parents-to-be are looking forward to a gender-revealing ultrasound. We never had such a thing when I was pregnant. I was allowed one ultrasound per pregnancy and my doctor said if we were meant to know the sex, there would be a window on the mama’s belly.
Excuse me while I go and google “gender reveal parties” on Pinterest. This baby is due December 31st. Just ike its mama, who didn’t arrive until January 11 – and Daddy was born January 12. I guess we know what we are doing this coming holiday season. Watching and waiting for a very special gift to arrive.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Throwback to 2009 when the Fisher Farm became a Cree hunt camp for a weekend

Our documentary team travelled to James Bay to capture the spring goose hunt activities on film last April. While we were there, I mentioned to our hosts that the goose hunt took place in the fall in Eastern Ontario. The next thing I knew, a Cree contingent was planning a November trip to Grenville County.
In the last weeks of summer, I attempted to organize this cross-cultural hunting expedition as I would any project, by researching, scheduling, planning and communicating. But I received very little communication from the Cree in return.
They plan their daily activities around hunting and fishing. Their work schedules are normally very accommodating for this purpose. Continuous emails from some woman in Ontario (me) attempting to coordinate a hunting trip, therefore, were going to remain unanswered until the last possible minute.
After receiving no reply to my emails from one potential guest, I decided to try his cell phone. Wireless services arrived in northern Quebec about three years ago and they have been extremely well connected ever since. It took him a while to answer, he explained, because he was busy pulling a moose out of the bush. Well, that’s an excuse you don’t hear every day.
I had suggested the second week of November for the hunt, because there are normally a fair number of geese at that time, as well as an abundance of wild turkey and deer. A letter of permission was acquired from the local Algonquin and Mohawk Indian Chiefs – more of a courtesy than a regulation – and the Ministry of Natural Resources was informed that we would have a visiting delegation of Crees coming to harvest on our property. The Crees informed me that they were only interested in hunting geese. So we planned to take them to the St. Lawrence River. They could comfortably stay at the McIntosh Inn, in Morrisburg.
As the first of November approached, I began to worry. I hadn’t received final confirmation on the number of hunters. Finally, I received an email explaining that the men of the Salt family in Waskaganish, whom I had met last April, were indeed coming to hunt. In addition, they would be bringing their wives, their elderly parents and some children. And, oh yeah – they had decided that they would like to stay at our farm instead of at the Inn.
Well, I had extended the invitation. Back when I thought it would be four or five hunters coming to join my hunter-gatherer’s party. I had been planning this event for weeks, if not months. I could hardly turn back now.
I cancelled the seven rooms I had booked at the Inn, and began hauling boat and camper mattresses out of our basement storage. I farmed all the girls out to relatives for the weekend, and set up our very own hunt camp at the farm. Who would have guessed we can sleep 15??
When I broke the news to my hunter-gatherer, he was more than accommodating. After all, he had signed up to spend the weekend hunting with people who had it in their blood. He was pretty excited.
I rushed home from work on Thursday evening, anxious to arrive home before my guests landed after their 12-hour journey. I finished up making beds and waited. And waited. Finally, by 8 pm, the extended Salt family had successfully GPS-ed their way to the Fisher farm. And they were hungry. After introductions were made I dished out some of the Farmer’s homemade mac-and-cheese and settled down to get acquainted.
Within minutes our guests were conversing enthusiastically in Cree, interspersed with the occasional English word and peals of giggles.
At 3:30 the next morning, the Farmer and I rose to prepare breakfast for the hunters. We went through 5 dozen eggs, 5 pounds of bacon, four loaves of bread and a kilo of coffee this weekend. The bannock that I made myself remained uneaten. I believe the dog is sniffing at it now, and wondering what sin he committed to receive that surprise in his bowl.
The men, including 70-something-year-old Johnny Weistche and 12-year-old Riley Salt, headed out to the St. Lawrence at 5 am. There they met up with my hunter-gatherer’s party, who were very excited to learn goose hunting from the pros.
Unfortunately, with our unseasonably warm fall thus far, the geese were not exactly abundant. The men followed tradition and allowed young Riley to take the first goose, which he did with ease. He performed a perfect goose call with his mouth that was so realistic the local men thought he was using a calling device. The elder Johnny took the second goose, and that was it for the day. The second day was even worse. As the temperature rose to a nice Cree summer day, the geese went elsewhere. But despite driving 12 hours to hunt and then coming up empty handed, we didn’t hear one word of complaint or discouragement from this group. Always positive, often giggling, they just took the day as it came. The men swapped hunting stories and compared notes. They bonded over a shore lunch cooked on an open fire.
On Saturday evening, we stood outside the barn watching the horses as a flock of geese began to approach. Riley did his call a few times, and I watched amazed as the geese made a slight change in direction to fly right over our heads. Again Sunday morning he called geese in from all directions. He is the Vienna Choir boy of goose callers; hopefully he will be able to keep that high pitch when his voice changes.
By the end of the weekend, I got over my insecurity about being a non-conventional wife who rarely cooks, doesn’t know how pluck her own goose and didn’t personally create the wood carvings that decorate my home. I got to know the Cree women fairly well during our short time together, and I admire so many things about their culture. They were very good at taking care of their elders. The families are all very close, and the men take their women, children and parents along with them to hunt camp. Everyone plays a role in the smooth operations of the hunt.
Back in April, I met the grandmother Clymie while she was stitching together a pair of moosehide and beaver fur slippers. This weekend I was presented with my own pair. They are so beautiful I almost don’t want to wear them.
I am looking forward to the spring, when the Salt family promises to return, and the Fisher farm turns into a hunt camp again. The introduction to this fascinating native Canadian culture is worth every bit of effort.

p.s 2015: It wasn't until after they had left that we were told a relative of the Grand Chief Billy Diamond was in our hunting party. Over the next few years we had random visits by Cree hunters who would harvest geese and bring back to their village to share with other residents. Word travels fast when hunting is good. When people we could not identify or communicate with started showing up, we had to put a polite end to the Fisher Farm hunt camp. Here is the link to the documentary film I was working on when we met the Crees: