Our dog’s life

It is the curse of the dog-lover that the life span of “man’s best friend” is so much shorter than man’s.

This weekend we said goodbye to our best girl, Bella, after an 18 month battle with cancer. A golden retriever/Australian shepherd cross, she was a tri-coloured, easygoing and cheerful dynamo who came into being 11 years ago after an exuberant canine Romeo jumped his neighbour’s fence one day and left that gentleman with the eight resultant puppies to re-home.

There were only two pups left when we arrived. The first, shy and retiring, shrank from our inspection. The second wiggled into my hands, licked my nose, and then turned her head to look at my husband, Steve – and two kindred spirits recognized each other. It was love at first sight. $250 later we were the proud owners of a pup with one of the most loving personalities I’ve ever witnessed in a dog. Rarely has my money been so well spent.

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Bella’s introduction to our family was a shriek of “OH MY GOD, ARE YOU SERIOUS?” as our five kids, ages three to 13, crowded around the window as Steve got out of the car with his little bundle of joy.

Highly intelligent, Bella trained quickly and never chewed anything in the house, naturally treating all human possessions as off limits. The kids routinely left their snacks on the coffee table and the couch, and not once did Bella touch any of it, or even look at it. She was gentle with the kids and a protective companion, always ready for games or just hanging out.

Spa day

While Bella was intended as a “family dog” it became apparent very quickly that she had chosen Steve as her alpha and he was her whole world. She certainly paid attention to the rest of us lesser humans, but no matter what we were doing, the sound of Steve’s footsteps when he came up the driveway sent her bolting out of the room to be with her Daddy.

 

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Raised in farm country, Steve pretty much only comes in the house to eat and sleep, so Bella spent most of her time outside. At night he would sit at his campfire with whatever friends had dropped in and Bella would be there, chasing rabbits and Frisbees before eventually curling up at his feet in front of the fire. She came in when Daddy came in.

For years we rented a cottage for our summer holiday and Bella was first in the car. Strangely for her breed, she did not take to water. She chased sticks on the beach, but throw it into Lake Erie and she looked at you like you’d tossed it in front of a moving train. She followed Steve into the water almost up to her shoulders but then paced back and forth if he went out deeper. Other than swimming she was up for anything and was the only one still wide awake and raring to go on the ride home.

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The best-mannered dog I ever had, she never barked, growled or snapped at any of us, but she would raise her hackles and bark if anyone came to our door or into our backyard. One night some police officers with a K9 chased a suspect through our back yard while Steve and Bella were quietly sitting in the dark, star-gazing. She launched herself at the police dog, her guttural roar every bit as aggressive as the German Shepherd’s. She wasn’t really a guard dog, but she had no fear about giving both the cop and the K9 the business – how dare they intrude on Daddy Time.

Eighteen months ago we noticed a large rubbery mass growing inside her right cheek. After the operation to remove it the vet told us it would eventually return and she had about a year, and he was right almost to the very day. A second operation removed the new mass but post-op examination revealed a large tumour on her liver. Further surgery on her mouth in light of this discovery would only get Bella few extra months that would likely be filled with pain, which Steve refused to put her through. He felt it was better for her to enjoy as much as possible what healthy time she had left.

Bella continued to eat and play, but by April she was visibly thinner. By the end of May she was a walking skeleton with a new tumour, this one in her jaw, not on her cheek. Yet, incredibly, Bella was still happy; still eating; still spending every minute with Daddy.

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The vet told us in June that while incredible she was still alive and pain-free, she now had only a month or two left. Over the last eight weeks her walk slowed, the happy skip disappeared, and she spent most of the day sleeping in our bedroom in the cool, dark basement. I knew her time was up, but Steve was not ready to say goodbye. He had been feeding her a cancer fighting diet since her diagnosis, preparing her meals himself, desperate for a miracle that would not come.

Five days ago Bella started having trouble climbing stairs. The tumour suddenly doubled in size until it was the size of a softball, pulling her face askew. Then she fell and couldn’t get up and we knew we couldn’t ask her to fight any more. The call was made.

Bella’s last morning was filled with visits from our kids, tummy rubs and a sun nap in the back yard with Daddy. She had turkey stew for breakfast, well mashed because we could see, for the first time, she was having trouble swallowing. At 1:30 p.m. Steve took down her leash and she mustered a trot, tail still wagging, and walked with him to our van. He had to lift her in.

In the vet’s backyard, under the shade of a tree, my husband laid his head on Bella’s, telling her what a good girl she was over and over as the vet gave her an anesthetic, followed swiftly by three syringes of a heart-stopping drug. In less than two minutes it was over. Bella was gone.

The unconditional love of a dog is one of life’s most precious gifts. Bella was Steve’s first dog and they were inseparable. Now she’s gone where he can’t follow and we are left with her few possessions and a house empty of her presence, the scamper of her feet running for the back door silenced, the memory of Steve’s last words to his baby as he held her face in his hands:

“’Til I see you again.”

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Mommy Magnetism

This is a slightly edited re-post from 2014, when my kids were 16, 15 and 10. Now they are are 20, 19 and 14, one’s away at university and one has a job, the youngest is three years away from college. I think about these days a lot now, as they don’t happen very often anymore. I miss it.

I remember learning about magnets in school, but only understand on an intuitive level how they work.  Metal attracts to metal, and it has something to do with poles and fields (no-one ever accused me of being scientifically-minded).  Now that I am a mother, I have discovered another magnetic effect, an attraction not between metals but between organic materials, manifesting itself on a daily basis in my house.

My kids are magnetically attracted to me.  It’s the only explanation for why I can’t get  more than four feet away from them before I find them trailing behind me.  The trigger for this effect is any attempt on my part for a few minutes of alone time.  I can go unnoticed by them for hours when they are busy with their own activities, a comforting presence in their peripheral vision, but leave the room and all three kids gradually become aware that something in their universe is amiss. One child will eventually start a search.  From my basement bedroom, where I’ve gone with my tea to escape the atmospheric onslaught of music, video games, movies and sibling arguments, I can hear the process unfold:

“Mom?  Mom… (footsteps)… where’s Mom?”

“I don’t know.”

Footsteps down the hall.  “Where’s Mom?”

“I don’t know.  Get out of my room!”

Door slams, followed by more footsteps to the living room, the kitchen, and the bathroom; then they head to the top of the basement steps.

“MOM?  YOU DOWN THERE??”  I don’t answer; it’s not really necessary.  I sip my tea, awaiting the inevitable.  I’ve been down here less than ten minutes.

The footsteps now come down the stairs.  There is a pause, and then my ten year old daughter, Mikaela, appears in my doorway.  A huge smile, tinged with relief, spreads across her face.

“Hi Mommy!”  She comes in and throws herself on my bed.  “Me want cuddle with Mommy,” she says, clambering over the mattress to snuggle under my arm.  My drink sloshes precariously.

“Watch my tea.”

“Sorry.”

She chatters away, wanting to know what I’m drinking, what I’m reading; can she taste my tea; why am I down here.  Looking for some quiet time, I say.  Me too then, she says.   While we snuggle, I listen, waiting for what I know is coming next.  Sure enough, more footsteps now cross my ceiling, heading for the basement stairs.  Seconds later Max, half past 16 and ostensibly beyond caring about my whereabouts, walks in.

“Here you are.  What are you doing?”

“Having quiet time,” says Mikaela.

“Cool.”  Max joins us on the bed and starts talking as fast as only a teenager can, telling me about school, activities and friends in a verbal tsunami of information.

I try to sip my tea as I listen, which is difficult now that there are three on the bed and the mattress is not quite still.  I am trying to get as much of it down as I can before Act III commences.  Then another head appears in my doorway, and quiet time is officially over.

“Hey, why’s everyone down here but me?” says Meredith, 15 and brimming with middle child ostracization issues.  She climbs up on the bed, complaining loudly that there is no room for her, while her siblings protest that they were there first. They push and prod each other, fighting for territory.

“Hey Mom, can we look at our baby box?”

“Ya!  Baby box!”

I put aside my tea, now cold, and pull out the box I have with all my keepsakes of their respective babyhoods.  Birth announcements, ultrasound pictures and first birthday cake candles; Mikaela’s Spiderman pajamas, Meredith’s first shoes.  There are several pacifiers, or “nukkies” as we call them, and there is spirited discussion over which ones belong to which kid.

The four of us sit on the bed, sifting through memories, my quiet time forsaken for this precious time with my babies.  I don’t mind; all too soon every day will be quiet time.  We go through the entire box while I tell them yet again the stories of their births.  Eventually, there is a fourth, heavier tread on the stairs and ten seconds later my husband appears in the doorway.

“There you are!  I was looking for you.”

Day trip to Dundas a Christmas treat

Inside chocolateThe Christmas season always bring nostalgia.  Suddenly feeling more strongly the coldness of their internet connections, people start yearning for old fashioned family dinners, walks through snow-laden dells and the smell of cider and pine.  This condition lasts exactly three weeks and then disappears with a suddenness suggesting mass hypnosis, but for a short time everyone is pleasant, less rushed, and enjoying yet again the story of Rudoph’s triumph over schoolyard bullying.

It was this frame of mind that sent my daughter, Mikaela, and I to Dundas, a small town just shy of 25,000 souls with a popular shopping district showcasing local artists and boutique stores. A 25 minute drive from Oakville, the road signs are easy to follow and take you right to King Street, which is lined with buildings showcasing original 19th century architecture.  Parking is sufficient and, wonderfully, free on weekends.

The first thing we saw was a horse-drawn wagon offering rides through town.  I love these things, even though they entail nothing but sitting, shivering, on a rock hard bench for fifteen minutes while the horses plod resolutely along their route at a brisk 6 kilometers per hour.  But they’re just so Christmassy, the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves beating a magic cadence that never fails to lift my spirits. I was ready to jump on, but for some indescribable reason my otherwise horse-loving pre-teen didn’t want a ride (yet more proof she’s smarter than me).

Horses

Our first stop was the chocolatier, delightfully named Beanermunkey Chocolates (the combined childhood nicknames of the owner’s sons).  A mouth-watering array of artisanal chocolates made on-site are provocatively displayed on artistically arranged trays and baskets.  The kitchen viewing window allows patrons to watch the chocolatiers at work.  I purchased some chocolate-dipped peanut butter cups, candy cane bark, peanut brittle and a small bag of chocolate dipped sour keys. I reluctantly left, after partaking of my free sample of their “Madagascar vanilla bean confection, with a white chocolate ganache centre dipped in Belgian white chocolate and finished with a dark chocolate design.”  It took less time to eat it than to say it.

 

We next visited several clothing stores, offering goods of a quality not seen in any of Ontario’s ubiquitous chain stores in years.  There are also many gift stores, cafes, shoe stores, a bridal boutique, medical facilities and several banks.  Everything you need for day to day living is here.

For lunch we went to The Winchester Arms, a British pub with beautiful decor, red oak beams and deep green upholstery, with a bar trimmed with brass and glass.  The place was packed with regulars and cheerfully noisy.  The menu was extensive and I longed to try the chicken pot pie, bangers and mash or fish and chips, but I knew if I ate a lunch that heavy I wouldn’t make it back to the car, so I settled for chicken wings and garlic cheese toast.  Mikaela had chicken fingers and fries, and a Dad’s root beer which is bottled like real beer, making for an amusing photo-op.

Bottle

(Read the label, people – it’s root beer)

After lunch we strolled the street, passing some carollers and stopping at the Carnagie Gallery showcasing  paintings, photographs, pottery and jewellery of local artists, then turned in at the Body Sense Boutique and Spa where we purchased some natural soap and a “bath tea” for soothing sore muscles, a gift for my mother.

Our last stop was The Keeping Room, a veritable play land for kitchen store junkies. Every single surface is covered with casseroles, muffin pans, wine glasses and serving dishes, and every other imaginable utensil to make cooking fun.  They even have food-themed socks.  I could easily spend my entire paycheque there, but I responsibly selected some ballerina and Eiffel Tower-shaped cookie cutters and a batter measure, and three pairs of socks.

On our way back to the car we stopped at Village Bakery Dundas and bought half a dozen shortbreads and six intricately decorated sugar cookies, which explains why they cost $27.00.  Eating our Santa heads we drove back to Oakville.  We will definitely be returning.

From Toronto: take the QEW west to Hwy 6 North.  Follow Hwy 6 to York Road; turn left.  Follow York Road to Regional Road 8.  Turn right on Road 8 and follow to King Street West.

Dinner Party

Peas mashed on the table,
Potatoes combed through her hair.
Juice running over and down
The sides of her chair.

Bib stained by the carrots
She ate yesterday at noon.
Washed twice; it’ll never come out
And she’ll just smear more in with her spoon.

Beets were the big mistake,
Turning her fingers purple with dye,
Which she then rubbed all over her face
Before sticking herself in the eye.

There’s parsnips on my ceiling
Flung up by a chubby hand,
And sweet potato on my walls –
I guess she prefers fresh, not canned.

My kitchen has been trashed
By a toddler food fight of one.
How can such a tiny child
Wreak so much havoc before she’s done?!

Winter brings the blahs

This time of year I don’t go out much – kind of a buzzkill for a supposed travel blog.  I have never really been interested in spending time outside in winter, at least as an adult.  I’m not into winter sports at all, and my asthma is aggravated by cold air, so even a walk on a sunny day doesn’t hold a lot of allure for me.  I am in a state of semi-hibernation for 8 to 12 weeks until my senses detect the first warming of the winds in spring.

As a child I don’t remember ever being cold.  But then I was wearing a skidoo suit, which every child  under the age of 13 wore from November to March.  This was before tween fashion and Baby Gap.  Back then children were dressed for utility, and since we spent all day walking, playing, rolling and falling in snow, we all had ski-doo suits.  Now only people actually driving a ski-doo wear them – I assume.  I actually haven’t seen anyone on a ski-doo in over 20 years.  That’s what happens when you move to the city.

This time of year I think about my childhood a lot, brought on by a mixture of the usual bummed out feeling one gets when the holiday season is over, and the contemplation that another 12 months of god knows what stretches before me.  My birthday, my dad’s birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary all take place during the last week of January, so it bring a lot of reminiscing.  After the holidays nothing much happens around here until the sap starts to run in spring, and the cold, dark days create a perfect atmosphere for brooding.  It’s at this time of year I always feel an overwhelming urge to go home.

I grew up in Midland, Ontario, population 10,000, a little town carved out of the Canadian forest a hundred years earlier when a Georgian Bay location, grain shipping and the railroad made it an attractive spot for early settlers.  When the first subdivision was built in 1970, it was simply one long street cut through this bush, so all houses on both sides backed onto the woods.  My parents bought one of the first houses on this street.  They sold it a few years later and bought a bigger one up the street, but it never really grew on them and they eventually sold it and bought a nicer house with a pool right across the street.

My house
My house

No sidewalks or city parks where I grew up.  We walked to school down a woodland path, with squirrels, grasshoppers and rabbits bounding out of our way every morning.  The trees eventually gave way to a large meadow that boasted three acres of buttercups, wild berry bushes, and what we called “wheat grass” swaying in the breeze.  My friends and I would make nests in the long grass and pretend we were birds.  We took picnic lunches with us and stayed all day, invisible to anyone walking by on the path.  There was an old stone foundation, the early settlement house once attached to it long gone, where teenagers would go to smoke and smash beer bottles – at least, this was our surmise.  We never actually saw anyone, but the bottom of the ruin was littered with butts, broken glass, and for some reason, spent shotgun shells – we did occasionally hear the faint roar of a gun during hunting season.  If you bypassed the meadow and continued down the path you would reach a swamp, where we spent hours catching tadpoles.

So many memories of my childhood took place in that bush.  As the last generation of children still allowed to play unsupervised, we were outside morning, noon and night, only going home to eat and sleep.  We built tree houses at a height and of a structural integrity that would give today’s parents heart failure and probably earn them a visit from Children’s Services.  We spent hours wading in the swamp with nets, catching small fish, frogs and tadpoles, leaving our shoes on the shore with no thought of contracting possible injury or illness.  We picked wild apples off the trees and buckets of wild raspberries and blackberries, no pesticides to worry about.  The ghostly tang of those berries is still on my tongue, forever spoiling any chance of enjoying the bland berries sold at today’s supermarkets.  We even had a Kissing Tree, a huge sprawling maple with branches that bent to the ground, perfect for climbing.  Courting couples for years had carved their initials in that tree.  My boyfriend climbed so high to carve our initials that the branch he was standing on broke and he fell 10 feet before becoming caught by the lower branches.

No rules, no supervision, a glorious freedom to explore and learn that today’s children rarely experience.  There was the occasional mischief of course.  One day we decided it would be great fun to hide behind an embankment and throw acorns at passing cars – until one stopped and the driver got out, sending us running into the swamp in a blind panic to hide.  My friend Sharon got stuck in the mud and lost her shoes – I never found out how she explained that one to her mother.  Another day one of the boys found an old jean jacket and decided to see if it would burn.  Well it did – spectacularly.  He picked it up and ran down the path with it, intending to throw it into the swamp.  However the flames falling off the jacket ignited the leaves that had been on the ground drying for decades.  The resultant bush fire brought the fire department, which doused the small flames and marched said boy off to his father.  We didn’t see him again for two weeks.

Once we started Grade 9, we walked up our street to the high school, no more woodland path.  The picnics and swamp expeditions ended, replaced by purposeful loitering and a lot of flirting under the street lamp on my corner, where we would sit literally for hours until our mothers called us home.  The Kissing Tree was forgotten – real kisses now, from that same boy who, after twenty years apart, is now my husband.  He swears he had no idea jean jackets were that flammable.

We have a collective passel of five children, ages 11 to 19.  None of them have ever seen a swamp, or climbed a tree.  They couldn’t build a box, let alone a tree fort.  We both feel they have missed out on something important, a connection to nature and life experience they never had a chance to explore.  They get a small taste of it on family vacations to Muskoka, but it’s a drive-by experience only.

Soon they will spread their wings and leave the nest and we are thinking about what we will do with ourselves once they’re gone.  We would like to leave the city and live in the country again, or another small town.  Someplace that reminds us of the home that now exists only in our memories.  The woods are gone, the path paved over.  Houses stand as headstones on the graveyard of our meadow, long ago buried by an expansion to the original subdivision.  Some unknown plant assassin even cut down The Kissing Tree.

It is said that as one nears the end of their life, the urge to return home grows strong.  We are not quite 50 but already feeling the pull.  But what do you do if home is no longer there?

You brood, wistfully.  And wait for spring.

Age is just a number – except when it’s a really big one

Another holiday season is over and a new year has begun. In 18 days I am turning 48 and all I can say is…someone, somewhere, must have made a serious clerical error.

48 – already? Birthdays are now less something to anticipate and more a milestone to be regarded with ever-increasing anxiety and panic. When my mom was 48 I was 26, an employed university graduate and engaged. My youngest child is currently 11 – when she is 26, I will be…oh my god…SIXTY-THREE.

It’s disconcerting to realize I am almost 50 years old and other than three replications of my DNA eating me out of house and home, I have almost nothing to show for my sojourn on this earth. Raising the kids is fun (did I say that out loud?) but these days I have little else to give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I own nothing, have built nothing, and have created nothing beyond my embryonic writing forays.

I spend my days at a tedious job offering no fulfilment whatsoever and my evenings taking care of my family, reading or watching TV. I am by nature a solitary loner who regards others’ attempts to engage me with annoyance and mild suspicion, so the fact that I rarely go out or talk to other humans doesn’t really bother me. My only friend and I largely communicate through an ongoing Words With Friends game – I haven’t seen her in person in three years. Yet it is disconcerting to realize that if I died tomorrow, the only evidence of my death would be the lack of activity on my Facebook page and an empty chair at my desk that would be filled with another breathing sack of mostly water within a week. Statistically speaking, I likely have at least another productive 20 years left but I’m already feeling a burning desire to leave some tangible evidence of my existence behind. A published book; perhaps a star named after me; heck, even a clay handprint with my name on it would do at this point. Anything that says “I was here” before I’m not.

Enter the mid-life crisis, a state of being that occurs when you are suddenly hit with the hammer blow of realization that you are going to die; that you are now old enough (technically) to die any day. The total productive years you have remaining are now less than the years you’ve already lived. This sends some people into a tailspin of frenzied, radical life change that non-sufferers often view with disdain, as if they aren’t mature enough to control some urge of temporary insanity. They don’t realize the souls of these people are being crushed by feelings of regret and longing, their behaviour driven by the deafening ticking of their lifespan clock invisibly suspended in front of their face each waking moment (so I’ve been told). People have affairs, change careers, buy sports cars. One guy I know left his wife for a mail order bride from the Phillipines. He’s at least 65, she looks to be around 22. He says they’re in love, and who am I to judge when I’m considering quitting a steady job with benefits to write a cookbook?

People don’t expect to die in their 20s or 30s. Even dying in your 40s from natural causes is pretty rare. But 50? I am now old enough for potential heart failure, liver failure, kidney failure, strokes…my factory parts are reaching the end of their warranty. This new awareness of my impending doom makes me notice things previously ignored. I am re-evaluating my diet, sleep habits and physical activity level with an eye to avoiding future infirmities. I’m hyper-focused on every single ache and pain, blowing it up into a quality of life denouement in my imagination. Pain and stiffness in my hands – arthritis? A muscle twinge in my chest – blocked arteries? A new weakness in certain muscles – ALS? My focus is shifting from what I want to achieve in my ever-dwindling future to the circumstances under which I will eventually check out of this terrestrial hotel. Having sat in a chair in a cubical for eight hours a day five days a week since 1992, I now have stiffness and pain in my hips that makes it difficult to immediately straighten fully when I get off the couch. Visions of walkers and eventual hip replacement surgery have me considering a career change to something more physically demanding, like a dog walker or landscaper. Anything that will keep me moving before I seize up like an unoiled engine is up for consideration.

So I bought a blender to make smoothies, increased my fruit and veggie intake and stopped eating fast food. Other than that I don’t have the resources to change much; there will be no return to school for a journalism or English degree in my future. I am writing every day now though. I have also started yoga and pilates, albeit slowly; my hips are still keeping a hopeful eye out for that walker.

Happy Birthday Meredith

Meredith Rose

Sixteen years ago this day
You first lit up the room with your smile,
Ten pounds, pink and white, with wavy blond hair,
Sparkling eyes you could see for a mile.

From the very first day you were your own boss
Hardly sleeping, throwing toys, food and clothes,
Stealing Cranberry from your big sister,
Punching poor Shelby in the nose.

First day of school; no wallflower, you
Made friends with every kid there by noon.
Dragging Madeline round the playground,
Taking charge of every game, craft and tune.

You grew to a lovely young lady
A great daughter, big sister and friend,
A small spot of trouble, you came through like a champ
Like I always knew you would in the end.

Now here you are, so close to grown up
Your new confidence and strength does impress,
New school and friends, even a new boyfriend
A strapping redhead named Alex, no less.

Whatever you do with your future,
Whatever riches life may carry for you,
Remember, to me, you’ll always be
My baby, my sweet Dithy-boo.

Cottage holiday a big part of Canadian summer

Sunrise
Sunrise

Last night the sky was pink; tonight it’s lavender. Overhead, a wisp of cloud hovers that so closely resembles a seagull’s wing it could be a painting. I know if I rush for my camera it will be gone, so I simply watch it hang, suspended, the wind stretching it to eventual dismemberment. My husband floats under that wing, adrift in his canoe with his fishing rod, hoping to hook the granddaddy of all the baby perch he threw back this morning. I am sipping tea in a Muskoka chair on the dock, scribbling furiously in the waning light as the ducks begin to bed down for the night.

Lake Simcoe sunset
Lake Simcoe sunset

Huddled round the horseshoe of the GTA, an hour’s drive from the US border (along with the majority of Canadians), it is easy to forget nature’s place in our lives. Gone are the days when every child carried a pocket knife and played in the woods after school; building tree forts; catching tadpoles in the swamp; eating wild blackberries for lunch. This was my childhood. Today almost every tree I climbed is gone. I have no idea what happened to my pocketknife. It was my grandfather’s, and my dad gave it to me…if I did that with one my kids today I’d likely get arrested. Or they would, and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. My kids are 17, 15 and 11 and have never climbed a tree, or lay on their backs in a meadow for an entire afternoon imagining shapes in the clouds.

These days your average Canadian doesn’t know how to start a fire without lighter fluid, or catch a fish without $200 worth of equipment. These skills still exist in the more northern communities, but in Ontario at least we are all so comatose after 13+ years of institutionalized education, followed by decades of cubical dwelling, that many of us have no idea how we would live without fridges, air conditioners and indoor plumbing. The velvet blanket of darkness has become something to be afraid of, to be pushed back with the electric buzz of streetlights, putting up a wall between us and the natural world; hiding the stars. Head north to cottage country, however, and nature returns with a vengeance.

Dusk
Dusk

My family recently spent a week at a cottage on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, and the first thing you notice are the spiders hanging in every nook and cranny, inside and out. The mornings began with sweeping all the cobwebs off the outdoor furniture, which magically re-appear overnight. There are spiders everywhere; on chairs, under tables, in the window frames. One ambitious arachnid the size of a quarter spun a web measuring 8 feet x 5 feet between two of the porch pillars. The breeze billowed this web in and out, with the eight-legged architect of this engineering marvel proudly riding the sway.

The best part of a trip to cottage country is watching the kids put down their electronic gizmos. Our two girls spent all of one day trying to feed bugs to a frog they caught. They built their new pet his very own private Eco-Hilton in a bucket with rocks, dirt and a lily pad and popped him in. The next morning, realizing Froggy had not eaten the bugs, or indeed even moved since his benevolent imprisonment, they reluctantly acknowledged he wasn’t happy and released him back into the lake, where he dove under a lily and disappeared with one strong kick.

Frog paradise
Frog paradise

Another day they paddled around the lake in our canoe and a wakeboard. They were scared to stand up at first, both of them sitting on the board and paddling with the canoe paddles. “Look mom; we invented canoe surfing!” They eventually managed to stand up and proudly rode the tiny waves through the reeds.

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Swimming at dusk is also great fun as the ducks come to join them, swimming less than two feet away from their heads, occasionally going underwater to pull at the reeds, their little tails waving above the waterline. You can’t do that at the zoo.

The cottage we stayed at, built in 1919, is a private home on private land. In 1890 a certain Sir Byron Walker and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Walker, settled here, and the original cottage is still standing. Over the years they deeded pieces of the property to their children, and then their grandchildren. Today it encompasses a few miles of private shoreline with 15 cottages on it, all owned by Sir Byron’s descendants. They all know each other, of course, and they don’t rent them out, so the two elderly aunts next door were quite alarmed when they saw my husband, shirtless, with torn jeans, a ponytail and a biker mustache, walking down their private road. Even after he explained who he was (the owner’s business partner and guest) they watched him from behind their fence all week, even putting a gate up to block him from walking down “their” path.

Sign attached to boulder at beginning of private road.
Sign attached to boulder at beginning of private road.
The trees have eyes...
The trees have eyes…

With the exception of the land cleared for housing, the property remains very much as it was 125 years ago. The only exception is a tennis court, which suddenly appears in a clearing after a short walk through woodland paths.

There's a tennis court in there...really.
There’s a tennis court in there…really.

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Take a walk at dusk and you are likely to see a deer eyeing you cautiously behind a birch tree, and if you are still they will continue on their way, crossing the small dirt road right in front of you. In one secluded glen some park benches have been set up so you can sit quietly and watch the animals, or just enjoy the stillness of a forest afternoon. You can’t hear a single voice, car, or any sound to suggest civilization is just a ten minute drive away.

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The dense forest may hide the animals from our sight, but not our hearing. We can occasionally hear the cracking and snapping of something large moving through the trees, and once we heard the low grunt of a male deer. We’ve seen woodpeckers, ducks, but strangely enough, no squirrels. We know there are racoons as they are leaving nightly deposits on our lawn, no doubt expressing their opinion of the strange dogs in their territory.

This is real Canadian forest, untouched by city planners or landscapers. Almost impenetrable trees and shrubbery, some hundreds of years old, surround the few worn paths, showing lightening damage, chewed bark, dead limbs criss-crossed in illogical patterns, making walking through it slow going. Deer can walk through here silently, but we bumbling humans rustle leaves, crack branches, and trip over rocks, likely making the hidden woodland creatures wonder how our species manages to survive at all.

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Plant a bunch of acorns in a circle and you eventually get this.
Plant a bunch of acorns in a circle and you eventually get this.

Cottage holidays are the city dwelling Canadian’s chance to escape the noise and traffic and remember, if only for a few days, what life in Canada was like before we became so obsessed with money and possessions. And gives us something to dream about; a retirement earned perhaps. But for most, this remains a weekend getaway, or a standard two week vacation sometime in July or August. We always return to the city, to our jobs, commute, smog and stress. And the trees wait silently for our return.

Front yard...
Front yard…
...back yard.
…back yard.

Grand River Pow-wow

All photos below are mine and for non-commercial purposes only. Six Nations does not allow photos of their pow-wow to be used for commercial purposes without their express permission. These photos are not for sale or distribution; I respectfully ask that you do not copy them to your personal hardware or sites.

Driving on the QEW highway, snaking your way through Oakville, Burlington and Hamilton as it horseshoes around Lake Ontario, it is next to impossible to imagine the Canada of 400 years ago. These lands were once home to a great civilization, the First Nations people of Turtle Island (the name used by several indigenous tribes for the continent of North America). My daughter tells me she has learned nothing about First Nations history in high school, and doesn’t remember talking about it in elementary school either. Beyond an assortment of museum exhibits there are few opportunities to see examples of living First Nations culture today. The Grand River Pow-wow is one such opportunity.

Located on the banks of the Grand River 10 minutes outside of Caledonia, Ontario, this weekend the Six Nations of the Grand River is hosting the 35th annual Grand River Campion of Champions Pow-wow (link). Thousands of people drive up to the Six Nations Reserve in Oshweken, Ontario every year to take in a cultural display of native dance, crafts and rituals.

Pow-wow is a word derived from the Narragansett word powwaw, meaning “spiritual leader.” The Narragansett tribe is an Algonquian Native American tribe from Rhode Island. Today the word refers to a specific type of event for First Nations people to meet and dance, sing, socialize, and honor their culture. It is an excellent opportunity to show your children an important part of Canada’s history.

The Grand River Pow-wow started in 1980 and has become a nationally recognized event and a major tourist attraction. With over 400 dancers, 30 food vendors and more than 100 craft booths, it’s a visually dazzling display of First Nations culture. It’s held at the Chiefswood Tent & Trailer Park, on the grounds of the former estate of the Mohawk Poetess E. Pauline Johnson, at the Six Nations of the Grand River Community.

I went to see the dancers and listen to the singing, but quickly discovered the craft booths are amazing. There are relatively little of the usual tourist trade items like hats and t-shirts. Displays of handwoven baskets, soapstone carvings, dried and tanned moose and deer hide, antlers, dreamcatchers, knives, beaded and feathered jewellery catch your eye at every turn. Drums sit next to hatchets and war clubs made with the leg and hoof of a deer.

War bonnet replica
War bonnet replica

The vendors also demonstrate their techniques; one woman was weaving a basket while customers watched the intricate process. Hand carved, hand painted boxes open to display sage burning kits, which First Nations people have used for centuries in purification rituals and sacred ceremonies.

Browsing through the displays, you will see things and overhear conversations you’ll not likely experience anywhere else. While I admire a display of moccasins, two men discuss the quality of a knife the purchaser wants to use to skin moose. Another admires the $750 Grey Wolf hide, completely intact down to nose and claws. A man who introduces himself as an archeologist admires a shadow box of arrowheads selling for “$10 an inch.” He asked the vendor where he had dug up his specimens.

“I didn’t – my son makes them,” was the reply. The price is set as it is so the buyer will appreciate the amount of hard work and skill that went into making the piece. The archeologist was flabbergasted to learn there is actually a class you can attend to learn flint napping. When I left he was getting the information from the vendor.

Turning to thoughts of lunch, I checked out the various food vendors. Buffalo burgers sizzled on outdoor grills, wafting a rich aroma much more delectable than hamburger. Corn soup, tacos, and a variety of freshly made fruit drinks made with lemons and strawberries were also available. My husband wolfed down a buffalo burger with cheese and onions followed by a strawberry cream, which was fresh Ontario strawberries blended with cream and ice, topped by whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I tasted both; the drink was fresh and sweet with a slushy-like consistency and the burger was much better than a hamburger; it tasted restaurant made, not the type of burger you usually get at a fair venue.

After lunch I joined hundreds of spectators in the stands to watch the dancers. An elder gave a speech in both English and his native language explaining the significance of the dance in their culture and asking people to please respect the sacredness of the opening ceremony by leaving the cameras down. Of course a bunch of people took pictures anyway; I did not. The dancers paraded in and the elder placed a sacred eagle feather staff in the centre of the parade grounds to open the competition.
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The dances range from high intensity warrior dances to elegant and graceful women’s dances. The costumes, all handmade, are decorated with beads, feathers and bells. For the most part, with the exception of a few pieces handed down through the generations, the traditional outfits of tanned leather decorated with eagle feathers are mostly a thing of the past, probably due to modern day hunting and environmental restrictions as much as simply taking too long to make. They have been replaced with colorful fabrics printed with First Nation designs and symbols and are still decorated with intricate beading. One toddler, parading with her grandfather, was wearing a pair of knee-high moccasins with a beaded representation of Dora the Explorer.

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Watching the performances, with the wailing cries of the singers and the steady beat of the drums resonating through the crowd, it was a little easier to imagine a way of life almost destroyed through European ignorance and hubris. The music strikes an emotional chord, stirring memories long-buried in our DNA of fire, rivers, trees, and a life at one with nature even if you live in a condo in Toronto. My kids thought they were listening to a CD until I pointed out the circle of drummers singing under a canopy at the rear of the dance area.

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At the end of the day we left with an assortment of bags containing dreamcatchers, drums, beaded purses, Native dolls dressed in tanned leather and a CD of flute music by Jason Chamakese, and a new appreciation by my children for a rich culture steeped in traditions honoring the planet and the self. I would have liked to also buy some moccasins and a blanket, but as usual I blew most of my money on the kids.
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The Grand River Pow-wow is held every year on the 4th weekend in July.
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10 Reasons why growing up sucks

Today was the last day of school and, as always, I was totally bummed and more than a little resentful.  There is nothing worse than going to work on the first day that your little darlins get to sleep in, go nowhere and do nothing.  Why were we all in such a hurry to grow up anyway?  We had it made, and we threw it away with both hands.  Just look at what happened to us. 

KIDS

ADULTS

Lay on lawn for entire afternoon looking at clouds

Spend entire afternoon mowing lawn, cleaning up grass and inhaling clouds of gas fumes; never notice clouds

Climb trees and admire the view

Have trees cut down because they are blocking the view

Summers off to play with friends

Summers spent breathing canned air in isolating cubicles; what friends?

Run through sprinklers

Tell kids to get the hell out of the sprinkler, you’re gonna wreck the lawn/get your clothes wet/fall down.

Can’t wait to start dating

Can’t wait to stop dating

Looking forward to being old enough for their first job

Looking forward to being old enough to quit their current job

Get dirty

 

Avoid getting dirty and use enough antibacterial soap to eventually bring about the demise of the human race

Run for fun

Run for the bus. Or train.  Or jog early morning/after dinner because you’re terrified of growing old, losing your health and not being able to run

Invite friends for weekend sleepovers and stay up all night

Invite everyone, including spouse, to leave the house for the weekend so you can sleep

Love dressing themselves; think everything makes them look awesome

Hate dressing ourselves; think everything makes us look fat

 So when your kids start to complain that they’re bored (which will likely be tomorrow around 11:00 a.m.), show them this list.  Or better yet, hand them the lawnmower and then go run through the sprinkler.  In your business suit.