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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Life lessons from Grandma

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

Fergus loves the dog park

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

My how school has changed

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

Back to school again

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

The Farmwife Tribe is worldwide

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

A warm welcome to our International students

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


Trying to maintain my alpha status

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