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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Wishing you the warmth of a hug this Christmas

Winter is feeling extra Canadian this year. Our waterproof, chill-proof boots and coats are being tested, and we find ourselves searching for that extra-warm pair of mittens and favourite toque. The snow is piling up in an insulating shield around the barn, keeping the cows cozy inside. Unfortunately the ground frost has frozen the water to the barn.
As in the winter of 2015, we have to string lengths of heavy-duty garden hose together reaching from the house to half-barrels placed just over the barnyard fence. There the cows will shove and jostle for position so they can get their 5 to 7 gallons per day. The water barrels have to be filled several times, until the beasts’ thirst is quenched. This has to be done twice a day until, hopefully, the water fountain in the barn thaws out.
If my father were still alive, he would be out in the garage, revving up his Yamaha, in anticipation of snowmobile trails opening. The smell of diesel fuel and the sound of the sleds ripping down the trail always bring back vivid memories of Dad in his puffy suit and helmet. Skiers are no doubt hitting the trails and slopes over the holidays, enjoying every cumulative inch of the fluffy white stuff. Even the bitter cold is welcomed by those who rely on it to finish up the ice on their backyard skating rinks. A truly Canadian winter is here, just in time for Christmas.
This weekend we will gather with our family to celebrate another year of blessings. We will also be comforting those in our extended family who have lost a loved one just over a week ago. Suddenly I am back in that hospital room, losing my own father all over again. At times the pain is as fresh as it was in 2008 – and tears so easily take me by surprise. But the loss has taken on a dull shade now, and the happy memories rise up to the top. Dad’s spirit will be with us as we gather for Christmas and watch our newest family member open her gifts.
I bumped into an acquaintance recently in a store. She lost her husband this year – and though neither of them were close friends of mine, because we have both lost someone dear, we have that in common. She showed me the book of photographs she was working on for her family, and her eyes filled up with tears. As I gave her a hug, I remembered someone saying the hugger shouldn’t determine the length of the hug. It should go on until the recipient lets go. And so we hugged there, for nearly a minute, in the Walmart photo lab. It’s a simple thing but the transfer of energy is quite amazing. You can almost feel the serotonin rushing through your body. I’m going to take the time to give out and receive a few more hugs than usual this Christmas. It’s the gift that gives back – and it doesn’t cost a dime.
As 2017 looms on the snow-squall horizon, my new book project waits in the wings. It has been waiting for several years, for this moment. Now that I am between fulltime gigs, I need to focus on getting the thoughts and memories of my three years in Asia up on the computer screen. I sit at my desk in the den and look out at the snow-covered pasture, free of distractions. Chickadees and jays flutter at the bird feeder.  I try to remember the sounds and smells of Taipei – the clatter of a traffic jam, the hum of the subway, the sing-song language, the sweet scent of barbecued pork, the pungent odour of fermented tofu. The beer fridge behind me goes through its crashing cacophony and disturbs my train of thought. The furnace echoes with a clunk and a bang. The cats chase each other, playing hockey with a fallen tree ornament. I will go through some old photographs to help me focus. Memories line themselves up and ask to be turned into stories. It’s as good a time as any, to get this writing done.
Wishing you and your family plenty of time to focus on the things that you enjoy most. The heat of a wood stove, meals made with love, and the occasional squeeze of a bear hug. Merry Christmas, from the Fisher Farm.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Tracing our roots to the home children of Eastern Ontario

We have tried tracing the roots of our blended family, to limited success. I mean, we know where we started and the journeys taken to get us where we are. But the meat of the stories, the memories and the tales, are not there. Not yet. I would like to get some more meaningful details to fill in the gaps.
There are websites that you can subscribe to that help you to trace your family history. One of the biggest is run by the Mormons – The Church of Latter Day Saints. They have records on family history like you wouldn’t believe. It’s pretty freaky to plug your great-grandfather’s name into the system and see him pop up on a ship’s registry, bringing him here from overseas. To start your family in Canada.
If you aren’t fully committed to writing your family history and you’re just curious about where your roots are planted, you can wait until one of those genealogy sites has a ‘free weekend’, which they do about twice a year. You will get a few details to get you started on building your family tree.
One of the best ways to get a rich family history recorded, of course, is to interview your elders. We European Canadians don’t have a traditional storytelling custom but perhaps we should. Wouldn’t it be cool to know why you love Spanish music or seafood – even though you live in a land-locked section of the Canadian Shield. Your roots might be in the Mediterranean – maybe your ancestors lived by the ocean.
On my side of the family tree, we know there is a County Cullen in Ireland, and there is a Leeson Street in Dublin. I’ve never been, but I’d love to see the Isle of Man where my grandmother’s family comes from.
The Fisher side of the family started with two home children. If your family started in Canada from the United Kingdom between 1869 and the late 1930’s, there is a good chance your branch of the family tree began with a home child.
The Home Children migration scheme, founded by Annie MacPherson in 1869, sent over 100,000 children to Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. In many cases the children were orphaned or born to poor families who could not afford to feed them. In some instances the children were in reform school, having been accused of such crimes as stealing bread, likely to feed their starving families. MacPherson worked with the poor and witnessed what amounted to child slavery in the matchbox industry of London.
There was a labour shortage in the colonies, and too many children in care of the state, so off they went. MacPherson honestly believed she was sending the children to a better fate, in lands of opportunity. Most of them never saw their families again. They endured the overseas voyage, landing in an unknown place, and were taken in by complete strangers. Most home children were given work on small farms. A great deal of them were given lodging in the barns, with the animals. Not many found a bed of their own in the farmhouse, where three square meals a day were served.
You can find a wealth of information online about the home children. It’s a history unimaginable to most of us – having to give your child up because you have no food for him – and then learning he has been sent overseas to labour on a farm. Many of these children were as young as 7 or 8 years old.
The distribution centres for these home children were in Belleville and Galt, Ontario and Knowlton in the Eastern Townships. There is a strong likelihood that many of our local families can trace their roots back to these children.
In the case of my husband’s family, their story in Canada began with a little boy from the UK who landed on a dock in the Maritimes. He was taken in by a farming family and spent his next few years in North Augusta – just about a fifteen minute drive through the countryside from our farm.
Filling in the gaps of his story will be difficult, as not everything was kept on record during those years. But it’s a valuable story to pass down through the generations, so we will try. Then our children and grandchildren will know where their independence, strength and fortitude comes from.

Home boy ploughing Dr. Barnardo's industrial farm, Russell, Manitoba, circa 1900

Friday, December 9, 2016

There are angels among us

My Christmas tree decorating tradition is to select a favourite schmaltzy seasonal movie (this year it was Notting Hill), pour a glass of wine (if it’s after 5pm – a cup of hazelnut coffee if it isn’t) and unpack all my memories of holidays past. Well, the happy memories, anyway. The rest can stay packed.
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to have a perfect holiday with family, friends, love and light…but the truth is Christmas is just another square on the calendar. As you walk through a crowded shopping mall or sing carols in church, have a look around. Christmas isn’t bright for everyone this year.
I remember the Christmas when it became increasingly obvious that my first marriage was coming to a crashing end. That was not a good one in the memory book. Or the year I couldn’t afford to come home from Asia for the holidays. I spent that Christmas Eve alone, under a potted banana tree strung with fairy lights. I spoke to my family over a choppy Skype connection and told myself it would be different next year.
When your kids are little, Christmas is all about creating magic for them. As they grow up it can become increasingly expensive to make those dreams come true. But the holiday is truly special when your kids are old enough to ‘get’ Christmas. They no longer have an extensive, expensive wish list. They just want to get dressed up, crowd themselves into an overheated living room stuffed with family and friends, eat comfort food and open simple tokens of love and appreciation for each other. It isn’t about the presents anymore. It’s about sharing memories and laughing together. Looking back on the year that was and forward to the year that will be. I know I am blessed to be surrounded by my family at Christmas because of the years when I wasn’t. It’s truly the only gift I wish for, year after year.
When my daughters were small, my mother started buying them an angel to put on the tree each year. They have taken most of their angels with them to their own homes now, and some of the more delicate ones have broken over the years but I still have about a dozen to hang on the tree. So as I decorate, run some of my holiday memories through my head and sniffle at a sappy Christmas movie, I am surrounded by angels.
I have a crystal star in a crushed blue box that hasn’t been discarded because it bears my father’s handwriting. I miss my Dad. He would love his great-granddaughter Leti so much. When she does something that elicits applause she stops and looks at us with his expression on her face. “Oh I like the raised eyebrow,” someone noticed recently. It isn’t fair that he only lived to 66 and didn’t get to watch his grandchildren grow up and become good people. He would have laughed when I turned 40 and he would have poked at the extra roll around my waist, the bags under my eyes and the silver in my hair. Yep. I miss that too. The strange way he had of telling me he loved me.
And now begins the phase where we see Christmas through the eyes of a child again. As I decorate the tree I put the breakable ornaments up high and the ones that are meant to be handled down at granddaughter height. I fill a basket with the stuffed Christmas characters I have collected over the years: an insane-looking snowman, a sock puppet, a sad penguin, a monkey and a gingerbread man with no nose. These will sit under the tree for Leti to play with when she visits. She is one this year, so her mom and dad will be setting their own holiday customs.
This year I will be carrying on the tradition started by my mother. I will be giving Leti an angel to hang on the tree. Someday she will have dozens of them to decorate her own home with. One for every year of her life. Then she too will be surrounded by angels.

As we roll down the hill toward December 25th, remember to put the brakes on. Slow down, look around and file some of those special moments away in your memories. All the best to you and yours this Christmas. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

With the snow comes the spirit of Christmas

I know Environment Canada was forecasting just 2 to 4 centimetres when we went to bed Sunday night so waking up to more like 20 was probably a bit of a downer for many commuters. But waking up to a perfect blanket of freshly fallen snow is my very favourite part of this season. Especially when it was just grass and mud the day before.
The cows even seem to be enjoying the snow. They meandered single file behind their leader Big Betty and followed the tractor lane all the way to the back of the pasture. I realized later they were following the footprints of the deer hunters. Muzzle loader season started today. I’m told that’s sort of an old-fashioned style of gun that is allowed for this week of hunting. Orange jackets make such a picture against the white background, like a cardinal in the snow. You can tell I don’t have to drive far today, otherwise I would be a bit less appreciative of the wintry scene.
North Grenville is really starting to get into the Christmas spirit. On Friday night I was part of the judging panel for The Spirit of Christmas light competition in Oxford Mills. That involved bundling up and climbing onto a hay wagon to sit on a bale of hay. We wandered through the streets of the village and picked out our favourites. I love the swirling disco lights that are so popular this year but I’ve got to say – I’m a sucker for a barn with floodlights on it. Fresh greenery on window sills, lanterns and dashes of red ribbons for accent really spell out Christmas in the country for me.
Saturday we celebrated my granddaughter’s first birthday. She knows what sugar tastes like now. She also seems to be getting the gist of opening gifts. By the end of December she’s going to think this is what we do every weekend. Saturday evening we had two more parties to attend, with relatives. My 93-year-old grandmother just had her shoulder replaced but insisted she was still hosting her annual drop-in, and baked enough treats for about 100 people. We are lucky the snow held off at least until after we finished driving all over the National Capital Region.
As I drove in to town to the Kemptville Christmas Farmers’ Market on Sunday, it was impressive to see brown paper bags sitting at the end of so many driveways, ready for pickup by Salvation Army volunteers. The cans of food inside will go a long way to help feed local families over the winter. I know it seems like you are being asked to give to charity at every stop over the holidays but it’s such a hard time of year for so many – every little bit helps. I keep my change in my pockets this time of year so I have something to drop in the kettle every time I pass.
The North Grenville Municipal Centre was a bustling place Sunday afternoon as shoppers crowded in to see what farmers sell in the off-season. By shopping there you are supporting a local farmer or artisan, and you are getting something that is truly unique, handmade and special. I saw wood carvings, healing crystals, hand-knit scarves, mittens and sweaters and enough baked goods, jams and candy to fill your pantry and freezers until next spring.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to stop at my table and say hi. It’s always nice to meet the people who read this column every week. We will be at the municipal centre again this Sunday so if you still need to strike some items off your Christmas list, make a point of dropping by.
We also have some turkeys left so if you haven’t found one yet and you are starting to panic, contact me to pick one up for your Christmas dinner.
If you had time to stop and read this column during the pressure that we impose on ourselves this season, good for you. Remember to keep it simple, give the gift of time to the ones you love, and take lots of pictures. It is very easy to get caught up in the commercialism and think that you need to buy gifts to make the holidays special but that isn’t it at all. Christmas is time to gather together and breathe a collective thank you for all of our blessings.

The confident cats think they won

Before I tell you this week’s story, allow me to right a wrong. Sometimes when you have to edit for length, you leave out crucial parts. You don't always realize they are integral to the story until later. Like when three people tell you they are upset that you weren't more sympathetic towards the cows when their babies were taken to market. Oops. Here’s the thing. Most people who have been reading this column for years know that I have a deep concern and affection for all the animals on the farm. I like to be there when big things are happening like their babies are being taken away – because I can calm them. And feed them apples afterwards, like I did that day. But cows bawling for a time after separation from their young is just part of life on the farm. It also happens when one loses a calf. I talk to them, give them a rub if they will let me, and let them know I understand. I have been faulted for caring too deeply for the animals, giving them names and writing stories about them. I’m sorry if I upset some of you by ending my column with “Those cows bawled all night.” It was edited for length and I left the part out about the apples and consolation. Don’t worry – I am neither cold nor heartless and every animal on this farm is well cared for. Right down to the last ankle-pecking chicken.
This past week we had a houseguest while my daughter was in Costa Rica. Vitor the Great stayed with us once again and his presence filled the farmhouse, much to the cats’ chagrin. Vitor is a Rottweiler-Shepherd mix and he is a city dog. He is accustomed to being inside except for when his owner takes him for runs in the park beside their house, three times a day. On the farm, Vitor gets to run around the yard unsupervised. He doesn’t even consider wandering down the lane to freedom and won’t venture out of the range of light after dark. He can chase squirrels and terrorize cats to his heart’s content. Only he knows that he would never hurt them if he caught one – he has an older cat at home and just loves to wrestle with him every day. But my cats don’t know that, so they spent the twelve days he was here hiding under furniture. Every morning they scoped out the situation, peeking and sniffing around corners. If the coast was clear they would pussyfoot down the hall and up the stairs as fast as they could go, to take refuge under a bed or in an open closet for the day. Vitor occasionally would catch a glimpse of a passing tail and take off after them, digging his claws into the hardwood for traction. My floors will never be the same.
During the day as I did my writing assignments at the computer Vitor would bring one toy after another and place them at my feet. When all of his toys – the tug-of-war ropes, fetching balls, Frisbee and soccer ball were amassed, I would take a break and go outside with him for some exercise. He napped in his crate all afternoon and slept soundly all night. He is a very well-trained dog, but I didn’t realize how much energy he has when I watched him last because that was July and he was outside most of the time. These are all good things to consider and I remind the Farmer to think about that when he is campaigning for a new farm dog. A new golden retriever pup is a lot more work than our beloved geriatric Cody was for the last ten years of his 17-year life.
It didn’t take the cats long to reclaim their territory after Vitor went home. They were back up on the couch and tucked onto the kitchen chairs under the table just a few hours later. They are back to their old selves, confidently leaping onto my bed and padding into the kitchen to demand food. No more wild eyes and peering around corners. Once again they rule the roost. I wonder if they think they somehow forced Vitor out. Yessir, Sheila thinks, as she struts down the hall and sniffs the spot where Vitor’s crate once stood. I got rid of him and that’s that.
The next thing to invade their territory will be a Christmas tree.

Note: if you bought a copy of The Accidental Farmwife that contains a type-set error, please return it to your point of purchase and it will be replaced – or email me.