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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.
Image result for kids dancing

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.