The Best Gift

I remember them with nostalgia -- those Christmases when we were kids, just as the 1950's were slowly turning into the 1960's.  No computers, no internet, no Skype, no mobile communications.

Ma Bell reigned supreme and long distance calls were something our parents made only on very rare, special occasions or in cases of emergency.  The postman was the most anticipated visitor of the day because he brought handfuls of Christmas cards from friends and family  from the beginning of December right through to New Year's.  A parcel was a special event, wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine.  Together, these two entities kept us connected  to our loved ones far away.

My parents opened each card with happy anticipation.  Every one contained a few words of joy from the sender, and very often a letter.  People took the time to tell us how they were and what they were doing.  It was their gift to us.  In return, my parents would sit for hours at the big walnut dining room table, writing their own good wishes and reporting on our progress.  I licked two and three cent stamps to stick on stacks of cheerful greetings before I slid out on the ice and snow to the closest street corner and listened to them plop down to the bottom of the mailbox.

Some cards were even more special than others.  One came from the Bowes-Lyons, a couple my parents befriended in their younger years, who lived on Canada's west coast.  Their card was special because, my mom told me, they were cousins to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mum.  Of course, my little eyes popped when I saw that card.  It was the closest we would ever come to royalty.

Another card came from a gentleman who always drew an original pen and ink sketch on the front of his card.  I can't remember now who he was or where he lived, but his artistry stays with me.  He would sketch a modern Christmas scene and always hide a baby Jesus somewhere in the picture.  Every year I wanted to be the first to spot it.  It was nothing short of a work of art.

Today, some of our greetings come via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter, but are no less special because every sender takes the time to think about us and wish us well.  And our time, it seems, is becoming not only our most precious commodity but also our greatest gift to others.

So to all of you dear readers, thank you for taking the time to read my little stories.  You make me strive to improve my writing skills and story development.  I think of you when I'm staring at a blank screen, wondering what will appear on it when I'm done, and whether you will enjoy reading it.  And of course, it's such a pleasure to hear from you too.

From our family to yours, we wish you a lovely, cozy Christmas, a bright, cheerful New Year, and love in abundance. 

Jean, George and Waldo

Bums 'R' Us

I have to admit I've given very little thought to the human posterior -- especially my own-- until now.

There are times, every now and then, that most people do consider their rear ends, like when it doesn't quite fit in our favourite pair of pants, or when we sit down on something hard, soft, cold or hot.  We might notice a jiggling sensation back there when we jog.  Certainly, that "pins and needles" feeling can sometimes set in if we sit on concrete for any length of time.

But generally speaking, the hind quarters are  innocuous body parts, a favourite subject of British bathroom humour and ranking rather low in the ratings of human anatomy.  Let's face it.  Our brains are fascinating and complex. Our hearts and lungs keep us alive, for heaven's sakes. Our eyes are both windows on the world, and windows into our souls. Our legs take us everywhere we want to go and our arms bring that which is far away closer to us.

But our bums?  They're just there. They are gluteus, and they are maximus. They need very little attention.

So I was shocked at just how pleasant a heated car seat could be.

You see, our old car bit the dust after seven years and we upgraded to one with a heated seat feature.  Ha, I scoffed.  Like my rump needs some fancy option like that.  I've lived this long without a bum warmer.  I likely won't ever use it.

And then one frosty morning I pushed that little button on the dash.  The one with a picture of a car seat, and squiggly lines radiating up from it.  In seconds, a heavenly warmth suffused my entire lower back and tush, and began radiating down my thighs.  I could feel my whole body relax.  Even my feet and toes, normally blocks of ice in cold weather, began feeling toasty and comfy. This was beyond hedonistic. This was awesome.

Obviously, I'm now a believer.  Heated car seats have to be one of the best inventions ever. And to think of all those winters, freezing my butt off in a cold, stiff bucket seat waiting for the dash vents to deliver a trickle of warmth , first to my face, then much later to everything else.


Sweet Mysteries of Life

Do you ever wonder where the birds go when it rains?

It's a question I've mulled over for years.  Bring on the wind and rain, and I'll be peering into hedges, peeking under fallen leaves, but never seeing a single bird.  Birders say they seek shelter in trees, or under eaves in urban areas.  But I still can't see them.

Naturally, it's this type of mystery that intrigues me.   And birds aren't the only thing.  I wonder what happens to worms when the ground freezes, why mould grows in my cheese keeper and how exactly does frost make those pretty designs on window panes.

And here's a biggie -- I stand at the precipice of Table Rock in Niagara Falls and wonder where all the water comes from.  The amazing thing is, it never stops flowing.  The sheer volume of water dropping over that ledge both baffles and hypnotizes me.

Naturally, there are explanations for everything, but you know what? It's just so much more amusing to marvel at the mystery than try to solve it.

So I found it particularly satisfying to watch Tim and Richard Smucker on a TV commercial recently trying to figure out how Grandpa Smucker got all those strawberries to fit into a jam jar.  The purity of Richard's  childish curiosity is heartwarming and refreshing.  His brother Tim's reassurance -- "You'll figure it out" -- is the perfect response.  He seems to infer that it's not critical to solve the puzzle immediately, but to just enjoy the magic.

Curiosity and inquiring minds.  Fascinating stuff.  Now, if I could just spot those birds.

The Dirt on Dancing

Line dancing is harder than it looks, believe me.

Each morning, at fitness class, our instructor Cissy begins the session with a couple of line dances.  She says it's a good way to warm up before our aerobic workout and a good mental exercise to stimulate our brain and improve our memory. 

She's right -- but there's just one problem.  My mental hardware was manufactured back in the 1950's and sometimes my hard drive freezes up at the most inopportune moments.  Plainly stated, I can easily lose my focus.

Line dancing has been popular for many years and for many reasons.  It provides a healthy physical activity for all ages and body types.  It encourages us to memorize a sequence of steps, facing a different wall for each sequence.  It doesn't require a partner -- and best of all, it heightens our feeling of well-being by listening and moving to some good old country tunes, as well as many modern pop songs. 

On top of all that, our instructor is excellent. You might say that Cissy is the line-dancing queen of our county.  She's been teaching it for years and makes it  seem as smooth as butter and just as appealing.

But here's the rub.  The trick in line dancing is keeping one's focus.  While you're dancing, you can't be thinking about what you're going to make for supper tonight, or whether hubby will remember to bring home milk this afternoon, like you told him to.  Two seconds into these random thoughts and you're facing the wrong wall. 

Right from the get-go, we ladies must pay attention, concentrate and think quickly. I rivet my eyes on Cissy's feet, straining to engrave her words on the  blackboard of my mind.

"Vine right and touch, vine left and touch, four steps forward and shimmy on the spot," Cissy instructs.  A few more moves and she declares, "And that's the dance."  I scratch my head.  Sounds simple.  The music starts -- and bingo.  My mind has drifted to the supper question. I'm vining left, missing the next beat and wind up shimmying when every one else is facing the other way.  Darn.

There is a glimmer of hope for me, though.  My classmate Rose says that in line-dancing, it's okay to fake it if you don't get it.  I'm so relieved I feel like hugging her.  Thanks, Rose.

If all else fails, I'll just try to sashay in the same general direction as everyone else and hope no one notices.

Maybe we could call it "the novice two-step."

Time to Rhyme

Perhaps you remember it. 

Grade four, English composition as it was known then.  The curriculum included a section on poetry -- the rhyming kind -- the kind that has a delightful rhythm as well as those wonderful words that sound the same, like "blue" and "true", and "come" and "some".  I loved those words and the way you could string them together to tell a little story.  It  became something I really liked to do. 

My earliest introduction to such poetry, without a doubt, occurred one Christmas Eve. I listened to Clement C. Moore's "T'was The Night Before Christmas" which was first published under a different title on December 23, 1823, and read to children all over the world for almost two hundred years. Later, it became a joy to study classic poets like Robert Frost and William Blake in English classes.  Since then, I've gotten a big kick out of scribbling lines that rhyme, and making up little poems for people who inspired me and events that moved me. 

One day when George and I were doing a little shoreline fishing, I watched him quietly tying weights on his line, baiting his hook and casting into a lake that was framed by the early beauty of a summer day.  It was an idyllic moment and excellent fodder for a simple little rhyme.  I give you, then

The Angler's Companion                                                     
He flicks his line into the lake,
(It seems to suit him well),
And settles back into his seat
To watch the waters swell.

The rumpled brim of fishing hat,
The tackle box of gear
Are all the tools he needs to make
The worries disappear.

And I with book and pad and pen
Look out across the pond,
At trees and marsh and lily pads
And everything beyond.

The sun is therapeutic
And the crickets sing to me,
And sometimes deep inside I wish
A poet I could be.

Or possibly a painter
With brush and easel too.
I'd capture all the beauty of
The greens and whites and blues.

But maybe there is value
Just in drinking in this scene,
Of living in this moment
And in feeling this serene.

And looking up from written word
I see him check his line.
He mirrors all my thoughts about
This day that is so fine.

Contented with the here and now
We fish and read and write.
An angler and a thinker
Side by side from dawn 'til night. 

"And a Little Child Shall Lead Them ..."

There's something wholesome about the process of making a pie.  Something Norman Rockwell-ish.  The simplicity of the crust -- just lard, flour and a bit of liquid -- the delicious filling, the pungent aroma while it's baking.

And every time I make a pie, I think about my daughter, Jen.

She was just nine years old when she marched home from Girl Guides one day and announced that she intended to make a pie to earn her baking badge and she needed my help.  My shoulders slumped.

A pie, I thought dejectedly.  Why a pie?  How could I tell her I was lousy at making pastry?  In fact, I didn't have a clue.  As a young wife, eager to impress my husband, I baked him a pie that he later, with gentle affection, referred to as a hockey puck.  My pastry skills were nil.  I was a spectacular failure at pies.  He told me to stick to cookies.

My sister-in-law was a pastry expert.  Her pies were heavenly.  Her crusts were flaky and tender.  She told me it was the simplest thing in the world to make.  I hung my head.  I couldn't do it right.

"You're on your own, Jen," I finally blurted out.  "I have no idea how to make decent pastry."

Jen was unfazed.  She always did love a challenge.  I learned early on to never tell her something  can't be done.  She would often parrot her dad's line, "If they can put a man on the moon, they can (you fill in the blank)..."

So out came the Crisco and the flour.  Her little hands flew into the bowl.  She barely touched the pastry mixture before rolling it expertly, plopping it in the pie pan, adding the filling, and adjusting the top crust.

"See Mom?  It's simple.  Just don't handle it much," she said with Martha Stewart confidence.

And you know what?  It was the most delicious pie we had ever eaten.  Her dad beamed.  Jen grinned.  I was amazed.

Today, my pie making skills have vastly improved.  Every time I roll out the pastry I hear her voice.  That little voice.

"You can do it, Mom, it's easy."

Spot On

If you're like me, you notice little things about people -- like habits and mannerisms and nuances.  It's always been something that amuses me.

One of the things I've noticed lately is how we humans embrace and protect our own personal spaces.  Take for example my exercise class. 

Three times a week, a group of about 15 genial ladies gather in a local church hall to stretch and tone -- or as my brother says, "stretch and moan!"  We come from all walks of life, and our fitness levels are pretty much all over the map.  But the main thing is, we like the workout and each other, so we show up faithfully.

Our fitness instructor mentioned it in class.  She said, "Do you ever notice how each of you claim your own spots and take the same places week after week?"  It was true.  A petite blonde with a terrific figure was always in front of me.  A high school acquaintance occupied the spot to my right.  A new friend with a knack for line dancing was always on my left.  And I took the middle.

All around me, the same ladies claimed the same spaces.  If one of us changed positions, we were all thrown off.  It just wasn't the same.

I've noticed a similar territorialism in churches.  Certain families and individuals occupied the same pews week after week.  Rarely did anyone change spots.  In fact, it isn't done.

Even the parking lot at the grocery store is not exempt.  Every week I nose the car into the same spot in the same area right beside the cart corral. There's a method in my madness, though.  That way I don't have to remember where I parked the car! 

As a species, we humans seem to gravitate toward the familiar.  We buy the same groceries, prepare the same dishes, watch the same TV shows and call the same friends on the phone.  We check the same websites, read the same papers, follow the same rituals, and think about the same things.

So what would happen if we messed with the status quo?  How would others take it if we changed things up a bit?  I decided to try it.

One morning I took up a different position at fitness class near the window, rather than in the middle.  "Wait a minute!", one of the other ladies exclaimed.  "You're in the wrong spot.  You're supposed to be in front of me!  I knew something was different!"

I smiled and returned to my "default setting", much like a computer program.  And you know what?  Maybe that's what's happening.  We've gotten comfortable with our "settings" and so we just return to them every time.

Just so you know ... as you read this, you're in my spot.

A Day on the Bay

We both agree.  There's nothing like a beautiful day out on Lake Erie. 

And being "boat people", my husband George and I like to take advantage of any sunny, calm weather to get out on the water and relax, doing what we do best -- he fishing, me reading my book.

It starts like this:

He:   "Pretty nice day out there."
Me:  "Yup."
He:  "Could be a good day on the lake."
Me:  "Yup."
He:  "Did ya' wanna go fishin', did ya?"
Me:  "Yup."

End of discussion.  I pack the lunch.  He packs the rod and tackle box.  We start the car.  Heaven, here we come.

It's a short, scenic drive to the small picturesque village where the boat is docked. The main street leads directly downhill toward the marina, revealing a breath-taking vista of the lake and distant Long Point stretching out on the horizon like a beckoning, crooked finger.

It is this first glimpse of the water that tells us everything we need to know -- wind direction, water conditions, activity in and out of the harbour.  It is also the heady drug of anticipation that fuels our optimism and heightens our sense of adventure.

Out on the bay, I recline in the sunshine on the bench seat, book propped up on my chest, legs thrown over the seat back, feet hanging off the edge.  George, meanwhile, pulls up a folding chair and drops his line in the inky blackness of the water.  He baits and casts and reels.  We both revel in the quiet beauty of our surroundings.

Overhead, gulls swoop lazily.  Clouds billow and disperse.  Sunlight produces diamonds sparkling on the surface of the water.  All is quiet, except for the sporadic sound of another boat in the distance and the rhythmic slap of water against the pontoons.

If you believe in a spiritual energy field generated by "Mother Nature", on days like this, you just want to heed that call, and "come to Mama".

Waldo, On The Edge

All the obvious signs were there.  Our dog, Waldo, was having a nervous breakdown.

He was shaking in periodic spasms.  He was cowering behind my husband George.  He was even following me into the bathroom, looking woefully up at me with worried eyes.

"Waldo, what is it with you?", I implored.  In response, he huddled up closer to my legs and tried to make himself look as small as possible.

The cause of his distress was a large Labrador-Dalmatian cross named Odin, a dog our son brought home for us to babysit while he was out of town for the day.
Odin is a handsome canine, blonde and strong, standing seven hands high and weighing close to 100 pounds.  His clear brown eyes bore holes through your soul with his one and only request -- "Pay attention to me!"  He is quiet, intelligent and polite -- quite likely the perfect dog for someone with a large home and a large property for him to run.

Waldo, as you may already know, is our lovable but feckless Tibetan terrier cross who bears the psychological and physical scars of being attacked early in life, and later being rescued from the pound by George's love of animals, especially dogs.  Waldo has a tough time with anxiety over a host of things -- other dogs, separation from us, crowds of people, and little children who want to poke him.

Waldo can be a meathead at times, but he can also be a cunning manipulator when the mood strikes him. He carries his 38 pound frame on nine inch legs.  To put it plainly, in the world of dogs, Waldo makes do as best he can. 

Now, Odin and Waldo have met before this and have gotten along quite well, with Odin ignoring Waldo, and Waldo studiously dodging Odin.  But this time was different.  Waldo was clearly unstrung. 

Usually, Waldo is able to discriminate between animals that belong in our house, and those that do not.  To his credit, he grudgingly accepts the former, and actively defends us against the latter.  This includes cats, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks and random dogs he meets during walks on our street.  So his behaviour during Odin's visit was puzzling.

Until we realized that just the day before, on his regular twice daily stroll, Waldo was attacked by a big, blonde Collie-type dog who got away from his owner and dashed down the sidewalk after Waldo, snarling and leaping, teeth bared, snorting his rage at our poor little dog.  It took us a few minutes to corral Waldo and calm him down, while the other dog's owner rushed out of his garage to harness his dog.   No harm was done, except for Waldo's shattered nerves.
So I guess Odin was an unhappy reminder of constant danger lurking around every corner in Waldo's world, something he will quite likely never forget.

I just checked on him -- he's hiding in the bedroom.  Looks to me like he may need tranquilizers.

Muskrat Love

The weirdness of it struck me immediately.

My boss sauntered up to the reception desk where I worked and said he was leaving for the day.  He was going out this  evening -- attending a charity event which was billed as a "Wildlife and Game Dinner." 

And what was on the menu, I casually inquired, fully expecting him to say deer, or moose, or even rabbit.  His answer was shocking.


I locked eyes with him.  He was straight-faced and dead serious.  Muskrat.  No.  Couldn't be.  Yes, he meant it.  I couldn't have been more surprised than if he had said dog meat.

But wait a minute.  My mind was racing.  Is muskrat meat even edible?  Surely it couldn't be.  I understand how peoples around the world eat wild game, but muskrat?  Aren't they some type of natural vermin?  After all, they do belong to the rat family, don't they?

And how does one go about rounding up enough muskrats to serve a banquet hall full of sportsmen?  Do they wade out into marshes and shoot them?  Lure them into little cages with bits of bread?

Obviously it was a lot to ponder.  I began to wonder about how it would taste, and could anyone get past the revolting image of a rat on one's plate to actually put a forkful in one's mouth.  It was enough to make even the most die-hard meat-eaters cringe.

The concept did, however, make good fodder for poetry.  And here is what I wrote:

Muskrat, muskrat
On my plate,
Who would have thought
This would be your fate.

Tailess, headless
Fur gone too.
A creepy way
For me to meet you.

As you silently wandered
Through swamp and glen,
Did you ever once think
You'd be food for men?

And why would gentlemen
With much to choose
Opt for rodent tenderloin
In lieu of classier food?

Survival of the fittest?
Hawk versus dove?
There's only one answer --
Must be "muskrat love."

Move over Captain and Tenille.  There's a new kid on the block.

The Mouse in the House

It may have been my Scottish roots (on my mother's side) -- or perhaps it was an introduction by a beloved high school English teacher.  Whatever the spark, I've always been drawn to the great muse of Scotland, Robert Burns, and his poem "To a Mouse", one he penned in 1785.

It is at once mysterious and plainly simple --  mysterious because it is couched in old Gallic  language, and simple because it is man's apology to mouse on turning up its nest with his plough.

Not ever, not once ever, did I actually think I would come face to face with said mouse in a similar situation, until now.

Here's how it happened.

Each year, when we leave home and hearth for an extended period, the mouse population on our street holds its annual meeting declaring our place is available for shelter and comfort.  I'm sure legions of hard-working mice take note, but only one is successful at penetrating our fortress.  And he comes back every year.

This year he left his -- ahem -- "calling cards" in my food pantry. Mounds of tiny, black balls covered  our tins of soup and tuna.  The shelves were strewn with mouse feces.   It was a mess.

Luckily, I must have anticipated such an invasion, and had most of our foodstuffs sealed in containers.  But  a couple of boxes of granola bars were opened, and shockingly, the foil wrappers were neatly stacked in the cardboard packaging, completely empty.  My mouse had dined at his leisure on tasty granola.

There was nothing left but to clean up the mess.  So one day, when I moved a tin of stewed tomatoes in the corner of the pantry, I uncovered him, crouched on his back legs, front paws up, alerted to danger.

He literally froze, staring wide-eyed at me.  His nose quivered.  His ears twitched. His eyes were pools of black glass.  His grey and white coat was shiny.  He was portly in a dignified way, most likely due to the excellent buffet he had regularly enjoyed at my expense. 

I froze too.  We both knew we were caught off guard.  And it was then that I began to mentally recite Burns' words:

    "Wee sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
    Och, what a panic's in thy breastie,"

Of course this little drama had a predictable ending.  I called my husband George, who swept the little creature up in his bare hands, and flung him outside, over the hedge and back to his buddies.  I'm sure he was relieved.  The mouse, that is, not George.

I know I was relieved too.  I'm not a big fan of killing things.  But thanks to Mr. Burns, I clearly understood how "the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley."

Ahhh, Robbie, you rakish rogue.  You always had a way with words. 

I Rode The Rocket

I never thought I'd say this, but here it is.  For a rare moment, it was kind of fun to be a subway rat.

An invitation to lunch with friends in downtown Toronto put me squarely in the sights of Toronto's subway system -- a labyrinth of grey, cement tunnels severed by rail tracks and permeated by an unidentifiable dank odour. (Think Phantom of the Opera-type gloom. All that was missing was the mist.)

And yet, I was excited to be in this new environment -- new for me because I live in small town Ontario and rarely venture into the city.  If one were to take all the people on one subway car, and dump them on my tree-lined street, it would seem like human apocalypse.  That's how quiet my home town is.

So naturally, it was with heightened senses that I did what the TTC tells all Torontonians to do -- "Ride the Rocket".  And it did not disappoint.

A surprisingly kind ticket taker changed my ten dollar bill into coins and instructed me to drop three bucks into the glass jar thingy on the counter, then explained I could simply do the same thing on the return trip back.  I skipped down the stairway and stood on the platform where millions of commuters had stood before.

There was an eerie sense of quiet among the others standing there.  A young man in khakis and open-necked shirt leaned against the tile wall and read a newspaper.  A college student hefted a backpack to her other shoulder before she checked out the state of her manicured nails.  An elderly woman in a worn "babushka" tucked her wrists up under her chest, effectively clamping her shopping bag in place on her forearm while she gazed wearily down the track.

No one spoke.  No one made eye contact.  All was still until I could feel a rush of wind and a burst of steel as The Rocket barrelled down the track and stopped in front of the platform.  The doors opened.  The people streamed in and out.  The doors closed and we were off.

There's a reason why the TTC calls it "The Rocket".  For those passengers who cannot find an empty seat and are forced to stand, the unexpected jolt of the train moving forward actually "rockets" you a few steps toward the back of the car, while the swift application of the brakes at the next station "rockets" you a few steps toward the front. 

Looking around at my fellow passengers, I was intrigued.  The car was full of people representing every conceivable nationality on earth, every age group, every social and economic stratum.  It was a microcosm of the world, a tiny sampling of global humanity, like a single drop of water in the ocean.  This was worlds away from my own experience where very few people congregate in any one place at any one time.  Life is quieter, traffic congestion non-existent, people more similar to their neighbours, and often more inclined to nod or say hello than pass unacknowledged.

And then the thought struck me.  The people of Syria, Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Israel.  Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Muslims, Jews.  If only they could ride The Rocket -- together, in harmony, as one flowing river of  human commonality, content to pursue their individual and collective purposes -- to work, live, love and laugh without regard to division and prejudice.

And me?  Small town newbie in full blown wonderment.  Fascinated to see how other people live.  Relieved to know I can return to Mayberry.  And maybe, just maybe, understand how the rest of the world works.

Because I rode The Rocket, I get it.