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Sunday, December 22, 2019

To the woman in the shelter this Christmas

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If you celebrate the holiday, you likely spend the first few moments after waking on Christmas morning basking in the glow of your memories and traditions. But what if, after consciousness fully returns, you suddenly remember that you are waking up in a women’s shelter? Maybe your children are tucked safely into bed beside you, or lying on spare mattresses on the floor. They likely didn’t sleep well. You didn’t either. Your wee ones are a bit frightened, uncomfortable and stressed. You are worried that one of them is coming down with a cold. You are worried about many things. What will Christmas morning feel like to you?

Most moms who have had to take their children to a shelter any time of year will express a feeling of guilt, and possibly shame. Maybe you think you are ruining Christmas for your kids, because they won’t have the usual decorations, celebrations, food and gifts that they normally have at home this time of year. Likely you are hoping that your children are too young to remember this Christmas. Next year will be better, and this year and every year before it will fade into a distant, cloudy history.

But maybe Christmas hasn’t been that fun the last few years, anyway. If you are in a Violence Against Women (VAW) shelter, you are likely there because your situation developed to a point where you just couldn’t take it anymore. You made a very brave and very difficult decision to leave your home with very little other than the layers of clothing on your backs during this brutal season. You left everything else behind. You probably didn’t have control over your money – if you were making any money to begin with. You likely put this decision off for months, and maybe years, because you didn’t have the financial support for a new beginning. Your poverty kept you trapped in your situation. But then something happened that made you realize you just had to leave. The women’s shelter was your last resort. What will Christmas be like for you and your kids this year?

Hopefully, the shelter has connections with a local church, charity or The Salvation Army, so your children will receive a gift on Christmas morning. Depending on your own individual situation, maybe it will be one of the better Christmases in their memory, because they will feel safe for the first time in years. The environment will be calm and cozy, they will be warm and well-fed and you will be able to focus your energies on spending time together rather than just surviving.

But what about you, the woman in the shelter? What is Christmas going to be like for you? My hope for you is that this time of year, rather than feeling like a loss or a failure, you will realize the incredible thing you have just done. You are amazing, powerful and wise. You have done the right thing. Give yourself the gift of Hope. Make a commitment to yourself to make the right decisions for you and your family now, so that you will have a good future. You have already taken the first step. Good for you. That took a great deal of courage and strength.

You are likely emotionally and physically exhausted, because it is difficult to sleep in a new bed, when you are surrounded by strangers and thoughts of an uncertain future. This is your time to meditate on 2020 and what it will mean for you. First, you need to make sure you are safe. Make use of the resources available to you through the shelter to ensure you and your children can get up and go to school or work each morning without worrying about dealing with anyone who is harmful, controlling, abusive or manipulative. This is your life. You get to choose who you let into it now.
Surround yourself with positive people who believe in and support your decisions. You have the right to avoid or eliminate interactions with people who represent an unhealthy relationship for you and your kids.

I will be filling a bag with new socks, underwear, pajamas, toiletries, and a few things for you and the kids, so you will have something that is completely new on Christmas morning. I will be thinking of you. You can do this. I believe in you.
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Cree Autumn 2009

I was once working on a documentary film with the Crees of Northern Quebec. We travelled to Waskaganish to film the fall goose hunt. Because I’m a talkative sort, I got chatting with one of the elders one morning while we were “enjoying” porridge with moose broth (it’s a thing) in front of the fire at the riverside hunt camp. I told him I live on 200 acres, with a mile of creek, and the geese come in hordes to settle on the water at sunset. My description of the Farmer’s happy hunting ground piqued his interest. A few weeks later, Gordon Blacksmith and his hunting party arrived at our farm.
There were 15 of them in total, in several large Ford pickup trucks, but they weren’t all here to hunt. The men consulted with my husband about the biggest flock sighting in the area, and made plans for the next morning’s pre-dawn hunt. The women unloaded bags and asked about where to do Christmas shopping.

A few young people clambered out of the cab of one truck. And then a very old couple were helped down out of the seats they had been in for the past 12 hours. The white-haired gentleman was introduced as Johnny. His partner Annie hobbled over to me on swollen feet and handed me a soft package wrapped in brown paper. It smelled of smoke. I unwrapped a pair of soft moosehide moccasins, hand sewn and beaded. I was told she had made them herself. What an incredible gift.  I thanked her, and led the way into the house, knowing they would be hungry and tired.

I started calculating beds and bodies, wondering where I would scatter them around the house. It turns out I didn’t need to worry – they headed for the largest bedroom at the end of the hall and laid sleeping bags side by side across the floor. Johnny set his up on the couch in the back room. That’s where I found him sitting, staring at my Gustav Klimt collage of nudes and cherubs. He had a twinkle in his eye.

We had lasagna and salad and garlic bread for dinner and everyone turned in early, exhausted from their day of travel. Most of them didn’t speak English. Gordon translated their soft Cree mumblings for us.

The next morning, the hunters left before the rest of us awoke. My husband took them to the St. Lawrence River, where they hunted and had a hot shore lunch and a nap. At the end of the day, the women started preparing things for the goose cleaning. They asked me to lend pots of hot water and old towels. I gathered the required items and watched from a distance as they headed to the shed, chattering to themselves and shaking their heads.

“The women want to know if you clean your own geese,” my husband reported, snickering. “I told them you don’t clean geese. But they noticed I did the cooking last night so now they are wondering what it is exactly that you do around here.” He ducked in time before I smacked him.

My attempt at baking bannock did not impress old Johnny. He attempted to eat it but it was too tough. Dipping it in his tea didn’t help, as it disintegrated in soggy clumps. He laughed and whispered something to Annie, who giggled like a girl.

The hunters went out every morning and approached the landowners wherever they found large flocks of geese. In most cases, the farmers were very happy to have someone ridding them of the geese that were tamping down their fields and eating their corn. At the end of the week, Gordon and his friends had harvested 80 birds. They packed the cleaned meat into 12 coolers they had brought for the occasion, and prepared to head home. A feast was already being prepared in the community hall, where all of the bounty would be shared.

Before they left, I watched as the youngest hunter stood on the porch and squinted at the sky. He put his hands to his mouth and made a call that mimicked the sound of a goose call perfectly. And then, the flock that was flying past turned as if they had left someone behind, and flew straight over us. We stood in complete silence as they rushed over our heads; the only sound was the beating of their wings.


Feed the birds

I am no ornithologist. I’m not even a twitcher. But I do love to watch birds. When we first put up the feeder at the farm, we received regular visitations by a band of the usual suspects – blue jays. Those greedy monsters gobbled up all of the feed and bullied any smaller bird – humble wren and chubby chickadee alike – so that they had the entire store for themselves. I went through birdseed like crazy and decided I might actually give it up after the first season.

The next year I was working from home so I had a chance to watch the birds more carefully. I observed as the smaller birds hung out in the massive cedar beside the house, waiting for the jays to leave. When the coast was clear, the chickadees literally hopped down the length of porch rail and up onto the feeder, where they filled their beaks with sunflower seeds. I was surprised, because I assumed the smaller birds would prefer the smaller grains of wild seed to the larger seeds. I was very wrong. At the end of the week, a pile of wet, mushy golden seed was left at the bottom of the feeder, desired by no one. I decided to switch to a feeder menu of pure black-oiled sunflower seeds, and that is where the fun began.

I began to notice different birds at the feeder each week. I inherited birdwatching books from an old friend and set up with my binoculars and cup of tea by the window. I learned what to call each new pair and group of chattering, fluttering birdfeeder guests. We had a chime of wrens, a host of sparrows, a flight of barn swallows. This last group had introduced themselves earlier in the year when they dive-bombed us in the swimming pool, gathering sips of water.

One of the most amazing things I have ever seen – not in my own backyard but while sitting by the water – is a murmuration of starlings. These summer visitors from Arizona form a cloud overhead before swaying in a fluctuating, wavy dance that just takes your breath away. It’s a truly amazing thing to watch and it sounds beautiful too – the chorus of beating wings. If you haven’t seen a murmuration, search it online and watch a video. 

Each season we seem to have new visitors to our feeders – so I added another on the back stoop where I can observe while at the kitchen sink. Last year a couple of ruby-throated grosbeaks arrived: she with her subtle markings on a mousy brown coat, he with his dapper outfit of black, white and the romantic splash of blood red on his chest. We get hummingbirds at the wildflowers beside the deck every summer, and we are honoured with a visit from a pair of cardinals at least once every winter. Their red coats flashing against the snow always get a gasp out of anyone who sees them – and they are said to represent a visitation by a loved one recently departed.

Birds are often the subject of romantic imagery and prose. And if you watch them long enough, you begin to learn their different personalities. I can see why birdwatching might become addictive for some people, prompting them to spend all kinds of time and money on the pursuit of rare breeds. I’m just happy to see them enjoying the feed I put out for them, to help feather their nests for new babies and to fatten them up for winter.

It’s time to put bricks of suet out now, to energize the birds who are flying south. They need that rocket fuel to get them through the several thousand miles they will cover to Florida. Soon the main visitor to my feeder will be the woodpecker, who pulls seeds out of the gap in the side of the feeder and then hides them in a crack he has made in our wood siding.

Each weekend morning in the winter, the woodpecker ensures I do not sleep too late. He has chosen the siding right outside my bedroom for his store of winter food. The rat-a-tat-tat of his pecking rouses me from sleep slowly, with dreams of hammering and tap dancing before I open my eyes and realize it’s just that feathered jerk again.

I don’t know much about birds, but it sure is lovely to have them around. And all I have to do is lug a 25lb bag of seed through the door every week or so – a small price to pay for so much beauty.
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“I’m gonna pop some tags…only got twenty dollars in my pocket…”

I just went through my closet and put my summer things away. Anything I didn’t wear last season got put into an old pillowcase for donation. It will go straight to the Salvation Army, where they can likely just hang the clothes and sell them right away to support their programs and services.
Sometimes, if the clothes are more high-end and I want to recoup some of the cost I put into them, I bring them to the local consignment store, To Be Continued. Anything I bring in that sells puts ‘points’ on my account. It’s always a nice surprise to see I have something to redeem when I get to the cash. Many times I check out with new purchases that cost me nothing. If the clothes I bring in don’t sell, I donate them to charity.

I did have a few old t-shirts and stained jeans that I don’t imagine anyone wearing again. Those are going in the donation bin in the Food Basics parking lot. I learned that even if you can’t wear the clothes again, the charity that rents the bin will get cash for recycling the fabric. Your old clothes, towels and bed sheets might end up as the stuffing for a couch pillow or dog bed. I just recently discovered you can also stuff boxer’s heavy bags with old clothing – so I will be donating mine to my son-in-law for his new gym (which is set to open later this year on Maley Street…).

I have found some pretty amazing things at our local thrift stores. I buy dresses one size up, then bring them to my seamstress, Michelle Rodgers on Townline Road, for a fitting. I save an average of $100 per dress or suit this way – and in most cases I couldn’t afford to buy those designer duds retail.
I found a soft, slouchy sweater that goes with everything casual and feels like a cloud. A red leather jacket that just needed the zipper repaired. A tweed car coat for long road trips and weekend workout clothes (my outfit for dancing around the house while I vacuum).

It’s always nice to have an extra pair of jeans – you need jeans for everyday that are so comfortable they feel like sweat pants, jeans for work and going out on the town, jeans for skinny days and jeans for days when you might have overdone it a bit at the buffet table. You need skinny jeans that fit inside your boots and wide leg jeans that go well with heels. But who wants to spend $100 on a new pair? I have found some pretty great jeans at our local second-hand stores, and the cooler weather of fall makes me want to go back and see what else has come in lately.

Which brings me to my great idea: what if someone designed a program where you could notify customers when something comes in that they have been looking for? Many retailers are having to up their game to compete with online shopping. I’m still all about shopping and supporting local when possible – and I love the idea of passing clothing along instead of buying new. It’s better for the environment as well as my bank account. But this is a way I can see second-hand stores evolving. Create a database of customers and their sizes as well as items on their wish list.

More than once I have discovered a treasure trove of recently donated clothing – an entire seasonal wardrobe of coordinating outfits – that fit perfectly. Clearly someone my size had just dropped them off. If we had a customer notification program in effect, I would know about these clothes the moment they came in, and the likelihood of a sale just increased dramatically.

I could also just post on social media when I’m looking for something in particular. I see people doing this on swap-and-sell sites and I think it’s a great way to find what you want in terms of clothing and even furniture, without paying retail. It’s great to know you are also helping someone to sell the things they no longer need – reducing the amount of stuff that goes into a landfill.

So if you’re a medium, sized-8 woman out there and you have some fall and winter items to recycle, let me know! Maybe we can do business.

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Maybe my clutter sparks joy

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I went to a friend’s house the other day and noticed that, as per usual, every flat surface in the house was covered. In the kitchen, the counter tops were littered with spice and vitamin bottles, cook books, containers of utensils and baskets of gadgets. Knick knacks and tchotchke filled the shelves in the living room. I went into the bathroom and saw that every piece of makeup she owned – every eyeliner, lipstick and mascara – was lined up on display right beside the sink.

I’m not sure why she lives like that. Maybe she doesn’t have enough storage, or maybe she just likes everything out where she can see it. It wasn’t messy – everything appeared to have its place. But something tells me Marie Kondo wouldn’t last ten minutes in that house.

I think I fall somewhere in between my friend and the KonMari decluttering expert. I find comfort in a few simple things: books, family photos, things that were gifted to me, a few pieces of furniture that have been in my family since I was little. The rest I can let go, quite happily – and I have, many times over.

I get some sort of satisfaction out of the seasonal act of sorting clothing and getting rid of things. I don’t throw them out, however. When I decide to give something up, it’s going to the local thrift shop or at least the donation bin where, if it can’t be worn again due to the red wine stains, it can at least stuff a dog bed.

The Farmer does not share my joy of giving things up. He has an attic full of things he will never willingly part with. When we married and I moved in to the farmhouse, I decided to clean out a junk drawer. Big mistake. When I showed my new husband how I had cleaned out some of his cabinets, he said, “Great but where’s my stuff??” Then he proceeded to rush out to the burn barrel (which thankfully was not on fire yet) and rescue bags from the heap.

Moments later he found what he was looking for: a rectangular patch of fabric that had been folded over and loosely hand-sewn down one side. “It’s a glasses case my daughter made me when she was 7,” he explained, tucking it safely into the pocket of his coat. I don’t know where he ended up putting it, but it’s likely safe from my next urge to purge.

I can’t say the same for his hole-y socks, his busted up running shoes or the Henley shirt with the hole in the belly where he slipped with the knife while cutting meat one day. I think it’s safe to say all the joy has gone out of those things and the spark has long ago fizzled out. But just to be safe, I smuggled them to the donation bin when he wasn’t looking.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The desk.

My mother has sold her house. After several years of thinking about it, she is finally moving to a smaller place where she won’t have to worry about keeping a large lawn mowed and a long driveway plowed. Her new place will still have plenty of room for entertaining and a spare bedroom for guests. And best of all, she has a new screened-in porch for sitting year round in comfort. Half indoors, half out. There she can curl up in a comfy chair and watch the seasons come and go as she loses all track of time in a good book. She will have the time to do this now, because she will have less house and yard maintenance to eat up her free time on the weekend.

The house Mom is vacating was my home from age 16 to when I left at 19. Three years is not a long time to gain a lifetime of memories, and yet I am feeling a bit weird about the house leaving our family. This is where we lived when I graduated high school, and moved out to be married. It’s where I went when that first marriage ended, and where I returned to when I moved back from living overseas. It has always been a place of calm. A safe retreat from the harsh storms of life.
I feel a bit unhinged to realize I will never again sit quietly in the living room where I shared my last long talk with my father before he died. He was napping on the couch after a particularly gruesome round of chemo, and when he awoke he told me about his dream – driving a big truck through the desert. “It’s always Arizona in my dreams,” he explained. He also dreamed of multi-coloured, patchwork-patterned race cars, gangs of dancers in competition, and packs of friendly dogs. “Those must be good drugs you’re on, Dad,” we joked. We realized later he was describing his kind of perfect Heaven. His presence remained so strong in that house, even after Mom redecorated, and his favourite chair disappeared.

Maybe this is why, on the day we helped Mom to pack up the last of her things, I claimed Dad’s desk. He had that small, sturdy piece of wood when he was in university and it moved with him to Kemptville when he married Mom in 1965. He sat at it and wrote lesson plans as a young teacher in their apartment above Anderson’s Ladies Wear on Prescott Street. After I was born, the desk moved to the front room of their first house on George Street – with a view of the huge King Crimson maple tree that my grandfather planted on the front lawn.

In 1980 we had Norenberg Construction build us our dream house on 4 acres on Johnston Road – a sprawling split-level house with a family room, a fire place and a living room we weren’t allowed to sit in unless we had company. The desk had its own room in that house – a den with a window facing west so you could see who was coming up the drive.

When we moved to Beach Road, the desk went downstairs. Every evening during the school year Dad marked papers at that desk after dinner. Sometimes the papers were mine, or my sister’s. We listened as he mumbled and grunted to himself, wondering what mistakes we had made in our work.
As soon as he walked in the door after work each day, Dad sat at the desk and wrote in a ledger. He showed me how he wrote down what he spent every day, and where he kept the receipts. After he died, we learned he had given money to several of his students over the years to buy a first car, or to sign up for hockey. He also helped me many times, when as a single mom I couldn’t afford to repair my car or pay my utility bill. I wanted to pay him back but he wouldn’t let me. “Don’t lend what you can’t afford to give,” he always said. I guess he had to be careful with his money, to ensure there would still be enough when the need arose.

I took the desk home with me today. I’m not sure where I will put it, but the smooth, dark wood polished with my father’s hands will have a place of honour for many years to come.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Banned from my own porch by yellow stripey things

I love my back porch. The Farmer built a trellis roof so vines can grow overhead to provide shade. I sit out there in the afternoon on the porch swing, enjoying a book in the last rays of sunlight. That is, I do that most summers. Not this year. This year I have been banned from the porch by yellow stripey things.
I do not know the difference between the various yellow stripey things. I can’t tell a hornet from a wasp from a yellow jacket. Obviously, I know the fatter and fluffier they are, the better. We like bumble bees. They are basically flying pandas.  I am happy to see these bees returning to my wildflowers and perennials, because I know they are important for pollination. It’s their grouchy, skinny little cousins I don’t like.
We occasionally have what I thought were wasps living in the vines that cover the western side of the house. They can be a problem, particularly at Thanksgiving when we have close to 40 people sitting on long tables on the lawn, attempting to eat their turkey and cranberries. Then the wasps can become a little too interested in anything with a fruit base, from pie to wine. The food doesn’t last long however, so the wasps move on to other pursuits.
We have also had wasps living in nests they build under our star ornament. This farm décor was popular about a decade ago, designed to resemble the stars that hobos used to paint on the side of farmhouses during the Great Depression, to indicate a generous handout within. The wasps tend to find my wall star very hospitable indeed. Every year we have to spray another nest to repel the flying beasts. But other than that, the wasps usually keep to themselves.
Things are different this year. 2019 is shaping up to be the Year of the Wasp. I have the wounds to prove it. I hadn’t even noticed wasps before I headed out to pull weeds from my garden, halfway through August. I was happily tugging away at weeds that were threatening to choke out my sedum and hostas – my flowerbed had been neglected all summer. Suddenly, a little cloud of wasps rose up from the dirt. I had uncovered a nest. I felt a sting on my leg, my hip, my hand and my elbow. I swatted and ran for the house, calling the dog to follow me. I was thinking about jumping in the pool but I wanted to make sure the pup was safe, so I pulled him into the house with me. I ran upstairs, continuing to swat and swear all the way. The Farmer popped his head out of the kitchen where he was in the midst of preparing Sunday dinner for a dozen people.
“What the…?” He asked, wiping his hands with a dishtowel and following me up the stairs.
As I stripped off my shorts and shirt and dropped them on the floor I noticed more wasps rising from the clothing. “Ah! They won’t stop stinging me!!” I screamed as I hopped into the shower, under a cold blast of water. The Farmer flailed around the bathroom, swatting at flying pests as I attempted to soothe my wasp stings under the spray.
For the next two days my 7 wasp stings throbbed in pain. I used Benadryl and cold compresses to quiet the agony. Then the itching began. I haven’t itched like that since the sand ant episode in Taiwan. I scratched in my sleep and woke up raw. I had to choose my clothing to make sure I wasn’t irritating any of my bites. I couldn’t wear pants or even a wrist watch.
Finally, after 2 weeks, my stings subsided to a dull mosquito-level itch. And then, I noticed a wasp in the kitchen. I tried to swat it, but it escaped. I thought it had gone out onto the porch, so I closed the door. About half an hour later, I felt something in my hair. Panicked, I swatted at it, and got sting #8, on the back of my hand. I have scars all over my body from these wasp stings. And yet the swarming jerks continue to pursue me, whether I am walking the dog or taking a lunchtime stroll at work.
Perhaps I have enough of their venom coursing through my veins now, they think I am one of their own. I’ve had it. I’m ready for fall.


I'll have another dozen

I call myself The Accidental Farmwife because when I married the Farmer we were not cohabitating under the same roof, and I truly didn’t not know what I was signing up for. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into – this life of waking up in the middle of the night to check on pregnant ewes, sitting on a pile of less-than-clean hay to bottle feed hungry baby lambs, putting every resource and effort into making a sick animal healthy only to see it succumb to a mysterious disease or hopeless injury. Granted, I didn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting: the Farmer handled that. Mostly he let me ‘dabble’ in the farm life but the truth is, once introduced to the animals, I felt their dependence on me for their wellbeing and quality of life. I was hooked.
Farming for us is a hobby – we both have other jobs – but at times it has threatened to completely take over our lives. During lambing and calving season, for example, our day jobs had to take a bit of a back seat while we dealt with matters at hand – assisting with difficult births and keeping watch over new arrivals to ensure they made it through the first few days of feeding and bonding with their mothers.
I didn’t know what I had signed up for – and yet it has been a perfect life for me. I slowly introduced my favourite things to the Farmer, which include good food, good music, travelling and a good book. We balanced our farm lives with all of those things and our marriage is a strong mix of both. He still has his hunting and fishing. I didn’t mess with that. It’s important to have your own interests, along with those you share and discover together.
I call myself The Accidental Farmwife – but when you think of it, every marriage is a bit of a surprise. You go into a union with your own set of expectations, and you have to be open about these or you might be in for a shock. Marriage doesn’t really change people, so it’s a good idea to know the person you are joining your life with, before you say I do. Part of this is taken care of, for the most part, if you marry someone who had a similar kind of upbringing to your own. What are their traditions? What do they most hold dear? The Farmer and I both love big family gatherings so that is something we look forward to each and every weekend when we host our growing brood for Sunday dinner. We have some differences, too, but these have never worried us or forced us to make uncomfortable choices.
For example, if I really want to go somewhere or do something that isn’t really his bag, the Farmer feels comfortable telling me that he will go for a short time but he might want to excuse himself after an hour. The same goes with his hunting and fishing. I’ll go along, if invited, if it involves a nice screened-in porch, bottle of wine and good book for me. Just don’t ask me to bait any hooks.
A wise woman once told me that every ten years or so, you become a different person in one way or another. If that is true, then every decade you are also married to a different person. Life throws us curveballs – sometimes our bodies have surprises in store for us that will force us to put our plans aside for a while as we deal with sickness. Our families have emergencies that need our attention – we lose loved ones – or our careers take a sudden turn. We think we know how to do life, until the plot twists. If we are lucky, we can ride these waves together. We need to put the less important distractions aside and focus on the important things in life in order to support each other through the difficult times. That is what makes the good times so much richer.
This year the Farmer and I are celebrating our 12th anniversary quietly, at home. He fell off his ladder last week, while building our cottage, and broke several ribs. He is recovering quickly, but we won’t be going out dancing to celebrate this year. I guess he thought it was time to exercise the “in sickness and in health” option.  Ah well. I think I’ll keep him.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Chrysanthemums are here and so are your chickens

There is still a month to go before autumn officially arrives but one sign of the season is already here: the fall chrysanthemum.  Baskets of this popular flower in all the reds, burgundies and golds of fall are on display in grocery stores and nurseries. The sight of these flowers accompanies a growing chill in the air, and memories ride in on their heady scent.
I bought a basket of fall chrysanthemums for the front step of my little bungalow on Cambridge Court in Kemptville twenty-six years ago, as I organized things before heading to the Grace Hospital in Ottawa to give birth to my third child. My mother and sister were coming to look after my other two daughters, I knew other visitors would be coming to see the new baby upon our return from the hospital and I wanted the house to look nice. The tiny female who came into the world that week is a powerful force: my end-of-summer, setting sun, full moon in the night sky Leo the Lioness. Buckets of joyous full-bloom chrysanthemums celebrate her birthday every year.
Twelve years ago I bought huge potted arrangements of chrysanthemums in every colour for our garden wedding. They stood on either side of the homemade wooden altar as the backdrop to our vows, where I promised not to take over the kitchen and the Farmer promised not to take over the couch. After dinner we moved the biggest pots of flowers I have ever seen off the dance floor to make room so I could dance with my father, who was battling cancer. I didn’t know then that it would be our very last dance. But perhaps he did. Maybe that is why, after walking me down the aisle and giving a short speech at dinner he went home and changed out of his suit and had a short nap to regain his strength. When I think of that day I hear Chantal Kreviazuk singing, “Feels like home to me…feels like I’m all the way back where I belong…” I can feel his hand on the small of my back, guiding me around the floor.
 For the first ten years of our marriage I bought pots of chrysanthemums to decorate the farm for our annual end-of-summer party. Every year at the end of August the Farmer would build a dance floor out of 2 by 4’s and plywood and lay it down in the yard in front of the barn. Our musician friends set up lights and speakers and we were treated to performances by many of our daughters’ talented friends as we danced under the stars and chatted by the bonfire. On our record year I think we had 80 people in attendance. Many of them pitched tents so they could sleep over and enjoy a swim and brunch the next day. It was our own little Woodstock. We have been too busy to host our farm party in recent years but something tells me they will make a return in the near future.
Chrysanthemums are hardy, so they are usually still in full bloom by October, when we host about 40 family members for Thanksgiving. I hollow out small pumpkins and stuff them with fresh-cut bouquets as centrepieces for the half dozen tables we will set up around the yard. We haul the sunroom furniture out onto the back porch and our guests stay long into the evening, sipping coffee as the sun sets. We no longer need bug repellent in the evening; just a warm blanket to ward off the autumn chill.
Right about the time I am filling the car with chrysanthemums, the Farmer is filling his trailer with crates of fat, clucking chickens. By the time this column is in print (August 22), we will have a few dozen meat birds for sale. We need some for our own freezers, as we host close to 20 people for family dinner every Sunday, but we will have some available if you want to taste the farm-fresh difference.
I’m off to the store now to see what kind of chrysanthemums are on the market this year. I will choose burgundy-wine for me and golden yellow for the Farmer. At the end of the season I will choose a few plants to transfer to the flowerbed. If we get a good growing season they will come back next year, three times as big.


The house(s) the Farmer built

My husband loves to build things. He said that if he had known that an engineer can do more than just drive a train, he would have studied structural engineering in college.
As a kid, he and his brothers built the usual things: a go-cart, a tree fort, and even a Sea Flea for zooming up the river at the cottage. He built his first house after university and a work stint in Manitoba. He and a buddy bought the land together and they each invested in the build. My husband (who was neither a husband nor a Farmer at the time) chose the house plans: a sprawling bungalow with a 12-pitch roof.
“We built the biggest house in Chatham,” he remembers. It was quite an undertaking for a first build, and not without its challenges. But it seems the man thrives on challenges.
The next build was actually a reno, on a stone century house near Oxford Station, in 1990. Then he built another bungalow (with a more reasonable roof this time) on Smith Road. Finally he set his sights on a farm. He started scouting for properties, dreaming of one day owning and fixing up a red brick Canadiana farmhouse. He ended up buying 200 acres on O’Neill Road, and building a house from two sets of designs put together. During the ice storm. Like I said – a challenge does not deter this man.
While raising little girls, he built life-size dollhouses that they could walk into. The play house in our yard is a perfect tiny replica of a farmhouse with shingles and window boxes and a little front porch. It is wired for electricity and has a little kitchen complete with child-sized cabinets inside. Stairs lead up to a tiny loft for sleeping. It has now been taken over by a family of groundhogs and is slowly disintegrating into the earth, our very own art installation.
Since we have been married he has built a split-level home on Jig Street near Bishop’s Mills and he fixed up an old farmhouse (but not red brick) around the corner. Then he heard someone was getting rid of a pile of cedar logs after cleaning up their forest. He started researching log cabins.
He got the logs for a great price – but the catch was he had to pull them out of the bush himself. That winter he would spend the better part of a day collecting just two or three logs at a time. The tractor got stuck in the snow and the logs were extremely heavy to move, snapping the chains, but he did it with patience and persistence, all by himself.
Once he got the logs to the build site, I had to come and see for myself how he was managing to do this solo. I made a video of him putting a chain around the log and over a tree branch, tied to the back of his truck. With this pulley system he raised, swung and lowered the logs onto the scaffolding and then reached up to tip them into place on the wall.
That cabin was a real work of art with a hand-hewn fireplace mantle, huge ceiling beams and contrasting shades of wood on the door sills. He sold it for a tidy profit, and started looking for another lot.
This time the Farmer is building on Bass Lake near Lombardy. The plans came out of some sort of small-house book, but considering the three-story structure is built into the hillside with a walk-out basement, it’s quite a tall building. I guess the man temporarily forgot that he is afraid of heights. Once again he has a 12-pitch roof to climb whenever he needs to pulley a piece of wood into place. He had the wood for this cottage dropped off on the front field of the farm – a massive pyramid of logs in all sizes. He dragged them one at a time into the barn where his new toy, a 16-foot sawmill, turned the logs into mountains of boards. That’s what kept him busy while he was awaiting building permits last year.
I posted a photo of the almost-finished cottage the other day. People don’t believe me when I say he built it himself but truly, no one else has helped to this point. He’s decided he is going to hire a professional to finish the roof, however. That is one challenge he is not up for.

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Living the Low-Tech Life

The other day I saw something that made me travel back in my mind to a simpler time. I was driving down a residential street in a quiet Ottawa neighbourhood when something caught my eye. Just as I pulled up to a stoplight, two young girls sprang to action on their front lawn next to the intersection. They leaped like gazelles, twerked and twisted and tapped and jumped to the music that was blaring from a cordless speaker on their front step. They were performing for passers-by, and having the time of their lives. Their driving audience honked encouragement before continuing through traffic. I was one of those girls, approximately 40 years ago.
My dance troupe was made up of my sister and the kids next door when we lived on George Street in Kemptville. We put on front yard ‘shows’ for passing cars back in the ‘70s. We thought our choreography was pretty advanced, and I guess we convinced a few of our teachers too because by Grade 6 we were leading the school through morning exercises to “Heart of Glass” by Blondie. In the days before cable TV I remember working to choreograph even more intricate dancercize routines at my friend Stephanie’s house in Merrickville. That must have been in the days before boys as well. I don’t recall ever having an audience other than our parents, however. They were subjected to regular performances.
In elementary school, life was about ABBA and Elvis on vinyl (“Don’t Cry Daddy” made my sister cry, so I played it often as I could), a well-used library card (I read all 64 Nancy Drew books before Grade 5) and games of Kick the Can as the sun set and the streetlights came on. We didn’t have video games or electronics but I don’t recall ever being bored. Today’s parent has quite a challenge on their hands, balancing the introduction to electronics that is essential to success in the modern world with controlling screen time so that it doesn’t affect their child’s vision, over-stimulate their brain and stifle their blooming imagination.
When I was a stay-at-home mom raising 3 kids of my own, I didn’t have the money for electronics but the girls didn’t seem to be very interested in them anyway. After dinner most nights I turned the music up and switched the lights on in the living room so my little trio of dancers could see their reflections in the big picture window. We boogied and waltzed to our eclectic CD collection, probably entertaining our own local traffic in the process.
I remember a neighbour saying that her son was addicted to video games. That same parent years later informed me that their son’s penchant for video games had helped him to develop heightened reflexes, leading to a career as an air traffic controller.
Today’s kids are so tuned in and switched on, it’s actually fascinating to see them unplugged and discovering fun on their own, completely unfettered by a screen. Outside of sports, it seems the only time we really see kids using their imagination to have fun is when they are somewhere that WiFi may not be readily accessible.
I realize it isn’t just young people who are seemingly preoccupied with screens these days. I stare at a screen all day at work so I have to make a conscious effort to reduce my screen time when I get home. When I feel I have had my fill of social media for the day I pick up a ball and throw it for the dog or sit down on the couch with a good book. The real kind, with actual paper pages.
A few weeks ago I left my phone at work and was without it all weekend at the cottage. I read books and floated around the lake, enjoying a kind of mental clarity that comes from meditation and being in nature. I wouldn’t say that I am addicted to social media, but I do use it quite a bit. I think of it as my down-time, flipping through videos for entertainment, reading news articles to keep me up to date on current affairs. But I have learned to put my phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ and log out of my social media accounts for the bulk of the day, to avoid falling into the rabbit hole. Because sometimes living your best life involves living a low-tech life.
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Tips from a lazy dog owner (both the dog and I are equally lazy)

When my husband retired from teaching and went into real estate fulltime, we decided to get him a dog. He wanted a Golden Retriever, because he knew a few people with that breed and he had always wanted one. He said he could imagine himself driving out to list and show houses, his pooch riding shotgun. I did a bit of research and discovered that, while Goldens are known to be affectionate and loyal, sometimes they can leave a bit to be desired in the intelligence department. The key was to train them up from a pup – so that meant we should probably get one from a breeder as opposed to adopting an older dog from a shelter.
Well it turns out that Goldens are pretty popular, so they are rarely found in a shelter anyway. I signed up with the Golden Rescue network but again, most of their dogs were adults – with special needs and not-so-great habits. Some weren’t fond of children, while others did not do well with other dogs. We went ahead and found a breeder near Arnprior, and in May 2017, a little red runt named Fergus came home with us.
This was meant to be my husband’s dog, but who are we kidding? I have done the bulk of the care, feeding and training of this fella since he arrived. When Ferg was tiny, he slept in his crate at the end of our bed. It was I who scooped him up out of his bed in the middle of the night at the first sound of a whimper, running him outside and plunking him into the grass with a “Miso; Unko.” I read in a puppy training book that if you teach the dog those Japanese terms (likely spelled incorrectly) when he relieves himself, pretty soon you will have him going on command – and no one will be the wiser (unless they speak Japanese). I ran him outside a few times a night for the first several weeks of his residency at the farm.
Puppies sleep a great deal, but as summer wound into fall and the days got cooler Ferg soon revealed his true nature. He gave up napping altogether and switched to high energy activities like running full out after a ball, and destroying every toy he could find. He wasn’t a bad dog; he just had to try to destroy every chew toy he was presented. Eventually the hard rubber ‘chuckit’ balls were the only things he couldn’t (or didn’t) destroy. And that’s a good thing, because those balls are his life. On Ferg’s hierarchy of needs, the chuckit ball is on the very top.
Mina from Norway came to live with us when Ferg was just 4 months old. It was Mina who taught Ferg that after you catch the ball, you must return it to the human if you want it to be thrown again. Over the winter, As Ferg grew out of his puppy stage and began to show he needed exercise after a long day in the house, I developed a lazy habit. I opened the door to the porch, put the ball in the pitching arm, and chucked it out into the backyard. Ferg leapt off the porch and bounded through the snow, sniffing for the ball. Nine times out of ten, he found it. And while he was looking, he was getting a lot of exercise. I was in the house, sipping my coffee and watching with fascination from the window as he left zigzag tunnels through the snow around the yard.
Now another year and a half later, Ferg is still a naturally lean dog who prefers to eat his meals after a good round of chuckit ball. I’m quite proud of my lazy self for inventing this game, because it means I can exercise the dog in any weather, even when I’m busy making dinner, doing the dishes or folding laundry. Ferg taps on the door, I open it and chuck the ball. Repeat. When Ferg has had enough and needs a break, he still brings the ball to me but when I go to pick it up where he has dropped it at my feet, he swoops down and snatches it away from my hand.
I take credit for inventing this game that has saved me from trying to find time to walk a dog – but maybe it’s the dog who trained me to throw the ball. I thing Golden Retrievers are actually quite smart, after all. Mine might actually be brilliant.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Have squirrel will travel

Paulina was late for Sunday dinner. That is not exactly an uncommon occurrence, but it was strange this time because we had just heard from her and she said she was on her way. Half an hour after we had all eaten, she finally showed up, with a small shoebox under her arm. I could see some fabric poking out from under the lid.
‘There you are! I saved you something to eat….whatcha got there?”
She carefully placed the box on the kitchen island and slowly lifted the lid. Two baby red squirrels lay curled around each other in the t-shirt. They were pretty cute, but I wasn’t sure why she had decided to box and bring baby rodents into my kitchen.
“I got into my car after my workout and these guys rolled out from under the passenger seat!” She was quite concerned about the little fellas.
We decided the mama must have found a way into the car, and decided it was a great, safe place to put her twins. Paulina had been driving all over the countryside all weekend, covering events for the newspaper. The squirrels had likely been with her the whole time. I don’t know how long baby squirrels can go without food and water but I was pretty sure they needed to be fed often.
“Uh, you should probably take those babies back into the car before the cat smells them, or they will be gone in about ten seconds. And when you go home, put them outside to see if the mom will collect them.”
That was the plan but it kind of fell through as soon as the sun went down and there was no sign of Mrs. Squirrel. Paulina had roommates that night.
The Farmer and another friend advised her to feed the squirrels warm milk through an eye dropper. The surrogate squirrel-mother got to work, feeding her charges through the night. The next day I Googled “how to care for orphaned squirrels” and was enlightened.
I texted Paulina. “Gah! No cow’s millk! And apparently you have to massage newborn squirrels to make them urinate…”
The next text came back with something like, “No way.” I think she put them back outside then, with a note for their mother. But we also left several voice and email messages for the local wild animal sanctuary. They eventually got back to Paulina, who had once again taken the animals into the house to protect them from marauding skunks and raccoons.
Speaking of raccoons, the Farmer was busy trying to repair the damage done by one or more raccoons to his father’s cottage on the Rideau. Unfortunately, after cleaning up the ceiling tiles, cardboard and carpet that the raccoon had destroyed, he accidentally locked said beastie in the building. The men went back a few days later to see a cottage that looked like it had been the site of a thorough trashing by a rather angry rodent. Everything that could be eaten had been. Everything that could be shredded had been. The racoon had even busted a window to let himself out, when he ran out of snacks and things to break.
Back to the squirrels. Paulina had been really hoping that their mother would claim them. She placed the box outside several times (with a hot water bottle in a sock to keep the babies warm and cozy) and although the mama squirrel did approach, she had no inclination to peer inside the box or reclaim her babies.
My mother had long been waging war against small rodents on her property, ever since a chipmunk built a small village of tunnels under her garage that caused the entire floor to collapse. She decided to go along with Paulina for the ride to the sanctuary, however, because although she was not really interested in the saving of the orphans (“we have plenty of squirrels already…”) she was interested in the animal shelter.
When she sat down in Paulina’s car, two more babies fell out of the glove compartment and rolled out onto her sandaled feet. She screamed and recoiled in horror.
Paulina was laughing so hard she had to pull over for a moment to compose herself. And then she scooped the new babies up and added them to the others in the shoebox, because her grandmother was in no shape to assist.
I hope Mama squirrel is enjoying her newfound freedom. Her babies are off to start their own colonies on the north side of the river.

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

A memorable Father's Day on the farm

When I think about Father’s Day on the farm of course I remember all of the fabulous Sunday dinners, grilled to perfection by the man himself, the Farmer. Friends and family gather along our 16-foot picnic table on the porch he built. He is the centre of our home and he pulls the family together every weekend over a warm meal cooked with love. So of course we like to make a big deal out of celebrating him. He is usually feted with some good books (second hand is fine; he isn’t picky – and they come with recommendations), red wine, Timmies cards and the occasional cigar, which he enjoys in intervals, while riding his lawn tractor.
My last Father’s Day with my own Dad was in 2007. At the time we didn’t even know he was sick. It wasn’t until August of that year that he decided his back pain was actually worth a trip to the hospital. It turned out to be pancreatic cancer, and an aortic aneurysm. In September we learned he was terminal. This is when I married the Farmer, and our weekly Sunday dinners began soon afterward. That winter, my family circled around my father, spending as much time with him as possible. Although it sucks to lose a parent so early in life (he was just 66), we were blessed with the knowledge that the end was coming soon – so that we focused on the important conversations and left no love unsaid.
Elsewhere on the farm, we have animal fathers – but just a few. One year we brought a new ram to join our flock. He was a bit different from the rest of our pure-white Dorset and Rideau family. As the Farmer backed the truck into the barnyard, he gathered an audience of curious 4-legged onlookers. He opened the back window, pulled down the hatch and out popped a floppy-eared Blackface ram. You could almost hear the communal gasp of surprise. The females actually took off in a wave of white fluff and the other ram stamped his hoof in challenge. They weren’t sure of what to think about this animal who appeared to be like them, but wearing some sort of face mask.
The new ram signalled his unwillingness to fight by lowering his eyes and trotting off after the females. After a few minutes of chasing the girls in circles and trying in vain to make new friends, our poor little Philip (I wanted to name him Floppy but the Farmer said that might give him a complex) retreated to a shady corner of the barnyard and lay down to sleep away his stress.
This routine continued for several days. Then finally, one day I looked out the window and there was Philip, lying in the shade of a huge boulder, with two females on either side of him (but Gracie was his favourite). He looked quite pleased with himself. And later that season when the Farmer tied a colourful piece of chalk around Phil’s neck, the funny-looking floppy-eared ram happily marked a number of females as his mates.
The following spring, we watched to see what kind of lambs the ewes would have. The first few, sired by Rambo, King of the barnyard, had the usual bleach-white fleece and curls. Then, one morning, a little black-faced lamb appeared. The rest of the ewes and a few older lambs approached carefully to check him out. But perhaps the most interesting reaction was that of his father, Phillip.
The black-faced ram was just meandering out of the barnyard to see what all the bleating was about when he spotted the lamb. The first little lamb he had seen in this new place, who looked exactly like him. His gait changed then, to more of a strut, as he went over to sniff and poke and check this lamb over from floppy black ears to wiggly black tail.
From then on, Phillip seemed to have a bit higher stature on the farm. He had done his job, sired a few lambs, and made his mark on the flock. It was Father’s Day on the farm for Phillip.
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Sunday, May 12, 2019

A wife of noble character, who can find?

A wife of noble character, who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Proverbs 31:10

My mother-in-law passed away last month. She had suffered with Dementia. When we heard, we hopped in the car for a drive into the city to see my father-in-law, Wally. He was sitting on the couch at his daughter’s house, and he was exhausted. I went and sat beside him.
“I’m sorry you lost your girl, Wally,” I said, patting him on the knee.
“Well, we knew she was sick two years ago,” he explained. “The Dementia got worse, day by day. And I lost her, day by day.”
At first, it was kind of cute, the way Lorna would forget things: her purse, her bowling schedule, how many glasses of Cuvee Speciale she had had…and then it began to take us by surprise. Soon she was forgetting recipes she had practiced for over fifty years. Each Sunday she asked, “whose baby is that?” or “Which of my sons are you married to?”
Lorna wasn’t sure what was happening, but she learned to cope. She would just smile and nod and pretend that she knew who was addressing her. But if you were a relatively new acquaintance, from the past five years or so, your name would escape her. The disease took hold and the decline came quickly these past few months.
Lorna met Wally in the early 1950’s. He was sitting on her mother’s living room couch one day when she came home from school. Her brother Bill had brought him home. Lorna took one look at the handsome man with the big grin and flashing eyes, walked into the kitchen and told her sister Dot: “See that man in the living room? That’s the man I’m going to marry.”
Wally and Lorna were married for nearly 7 decades. They raised 5 children together. Wally worked in metals at the National Research Council and while Lorna worked at a bank for a time, her domain was the kitchen. The aroma of her baking attracted neighbourhood kids to the kitchen door, where they were allowed “two cookies each” from the jar she kept there. Each day at lunch her children ran the few blocks home, where Lorna had covered the dining room table with open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on her fresh baked bread.  Every Thursday she made dinner for the extended family. Her recipes were handed down through the generations, to her children and grandchildren.
When it was time to sit down with the pastor and put a celebration of life together for Lorna, Wally had some strong ideas. His wife was not overly religious, he said, but she did like to attend church regularly. We got out the Bible and started choosing psalms and prayers of remembrance. Suddenly it hit me: “Lorna was a Proverbs 31 wife,” I said, explaining the verse about the Wife of Noble Character, who was known for her strong work ethic, integrity, charity, strength and love of family. We decided to include that verse in the service readings.
Wally surprised his sons by producing a long list of music he wanted played at Lorna’s celebration, including the original Deep Purple: “when the deep purple falls, over sleepy garden walls…” I thought that was perfect, because Lorna loved the colour purple. Her favourite song Stardust also mentions the colour purple in the first line. We made sure there was a touch of purple among the simple garden flowers at her ceremony, and those of us who didn’t wear purple clothes pinned on a purple ribbon or butterfly in her memory.
Wally led the readings with a memorable tribute to his beloved “Lorn.” He barely looked at his notes but rather he scanned our faces as he spoke about his love for his wife. His kids got up and took their turns then, adding a few laughs here and there, as Lorna would want.
Finally it was time for the pastor to read Proverbs 31. It was the perfect summary of Lorna’s life. And when she got to verse 22, the pastor looked up and smiled, “she was clothed in fine linen…and purple.”
Maybe Lorna had a hand in planning her own celebration of life. It was a simple, honest and straightforward service – much like Lorna herself. And as I looked around the room at four generations of Fishers and Patersons, I wondered if Lorna had pictured something like this family legacy on that day, decades earlier, when she first spotted Wally sitting on her mother’s couch.
Just look at what you have made, Lorna. Well done, thy good and faithful servant, indeed.
In memory of Lorna June Paterson Fisher.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Farmers are the Kings and Queens of upcycling

I hate to spend money. My husband might spit out his coffee reading that line (if he read my column, which he doesn’t), because he has seen my Visa bill. So let me clarify: I hate spending too much money for something. I do enjoy a good retail therapy session – but it has to be filled with amazing deals, great finds and super sale prices or I will have buyer’s remorse, and likely return what I bought.
My parents raised us to be thrifty, and I have worked hard for my money since I was a young girl. I know the value of a dollar, as they say. I was also a single mom going without luxuries in order to pay the utility bill and put food on the table. That is when I discovered thrift shops, second-hand stores, and consignment. We have all of these stores in Kemptville, and my closet is full of the treasures I have found on their racks, at a fraction of the original price. I am happy to know that I am reducing the amount of clothing going to a landfill, by buying second hand. And you find things that were made to last – wool suits, leather jackets, silky blouses and designer dresses – for the price you would pay for a trendy new top from a big box store (which might actually fall apart after 3 washes – the top; not the store).
When I married the Farmer and moved in, I used to laugh at all of the examples of things that had been put to good use for a second time: a rusted out farm implement became an art installation in the garden; broken deep freezers were turned into feed storage bins; and an old bedframe, complete with springs, was attached to the side of the house so the vines could grow on it. But my Farmer learned how to upcycle from his uncle, when he spent summers on the family dairy farm near Winchester. That uncle was raised in the 30’s, during the time when nothing was wasted or thrown away if it had an ounce of use left in it.
Yes, you can go to the farm store and buy nifty, new-fangled items with which to store and serve your animal feed – or you can make your own from things you have around the house. Old ice cream containers make great scoops for corn and sweet feed. Those rubber nipples for feeding lambs fit right over the end of a soda bottle. An old kiddie pool makes a great pen for baby chicks, and the upturned lid to a garbage can makes a great field dish for sweet feed when you are trying to attract a cow.
I’m even learning to save and recycle seasonal décor: the decorative pine cones, ribbon, foam sponge and pot from my Christmas garden arrangements have been put away until next December, when I will walk around the property collecting the red dogwood, emerald pine and white birch branches to create my own display. Those two pieces were worth $50 last year.
We need porch shades to reduce the sun in the back of the house in the summer. It gets really hot at dinner time and the setting rays blind whomever decides to sit in the spot that is directly in their path. I found a page of exterior shades on Amazon, and showed the Farmer. They ranged in price from $17 to $267.
“I just took the old porch apart at the cottage site,” he announced. “I’ll bring the blinds home from there.” Well, that’s a good idea too. The cottage itself, when it is finished, will be a hotbed of recycled items. I doubt there will be anything new in there at all. From appliances and rugs to furniture and décor, it will all be coming from our basement – the family catch-all for unwanted things.
My Word of 2019 is “Less.” It stands for a lot of different things: less eating and drinking, less worrying, less spending. The next time I go to spend money on a non-consumable something I think I need, I’m going to put my single mom hat back on and think like the Farmer: “Do I really need it? Can I find something else I already have to serve this purpose?”
I found an old leaky cooler today and upcycled it into a recycling bin for our empties. I’m starting to get the hang of this.

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