Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Life of Celebration

I've been busy baking many pies this week, so instead of writing something new, I am sharing a post from the archives--first published 5 years ago as part of a series of posts about the time in our lives when our children were growing up and we were house parents to a group of 12 men with disabilities. This is about our Christmases then...


Brenda and I sipped our Saturday morning coffee recently, sitting back in comfortable armchairs in the sunshine that streamed through the windows of our spacious back room. She was thinking back to her childhood and the impact it had on her, her ten years of growing up at Maplewood Lodge.

She said, "I was always surrounded by adults who listened to me and made me feel as if what I had to say was actually interesting."


"And we celebrated everything!"

Yes, we did celebrate. We celebrated St. Patrick's day by giving prizes to the person who wore the greatest number of green items of clothing or we had Irish stew and mashed potatoes tinted green; we made the same special heart shaped cookies each year at Valentines; we had parties with old fashioned games like Pass the Parcel, and Blind Man's Bluff and Musical Chairs--all played by our children and the men we cared for. Every occasion was duly feted, including 16 birthdays a year, for which I baked and decorated all of the cakes. Our surroundings were humble in terms of furnishings, but those things are so unimportant really when it comes to the enjoyment of life.

The fun, as a parcel is tossed from hand to hand, with layers of paper torn off in the interval when the music stops was intense! Many times the " paper ripper" would have to be urged to stop ripping when the music started again and pass on the parcel that grew ever more tantalizingly small and close to the inner surprise with every layer. Hands held onto that parcel tightly before letting go, willing the music to stop before it passed on. It makes me laugh even now to think of it.

Christmas was the crowning Celebration of Celebrations and preparations began in late October with the baking of the Christmas cakes--a rich concoction from an English recipe, into which after baking for hours in brown paper lined tins, I would poke holes with skewers and pour in brandy, wrapping afterwards in brandy soaked tea towels and putting them somewhere cool to ripen. Sometime in early December the cake would be unwrapped and brushed with sieved apricot jam with which to adhere a layer of almond icing. This would be left to harden for a day or so and then came the layer of royal icing.

I once bumped into Mr. McKenzie, the administrator of Pine Ridge when I was there for a meeting one November and he asked me how things were. I said that I was very busy baking for Christmas. He asked why I was baking and not just buying. I tried to explain that Christmas was home made. It made it more special somehow and each year the same special treats issued from the kitchen and were carefully stored out in the cold breezeway: rocky road fudge; shortbread; sugar cookies decorated by the children; mince pies, and many other delicacies.

We began a tradition of having a big Christmas open house in December, to which a stream of 80 or so people would come: family members, staff from Pine Ridge and friends of the men who lived at Maplewood. We would have large bowls of cold salads, plates of turkey, English trifle and all of the baking would be out for the occasion. We would always spend time after eating, singing some carols.

Christmas shopping and wrapping was a huge undertaking for our large household. It was unthinkable that there would be inequity in the quantity of presents. We recognized that we owed our living to the people we had moved in to support and on Christmas Eve, after they went to bed, I crept into their side of the house and laid piles of presents to add to those from their families, beneath the lights that twinkled magically on the tree. Everyone cooperated by going to bed early that night of the year as if by some unspoken agreement, and there was a hushed anticipation over the whole house. There was at least one true believer in Santa Claus amongst the men, which added to the magic.

In the silence of Christmas Eve, I was often the last person up, padding around the kitchen making last minute preparations for Christmas Day. The wind would blow and snow swirl across the lonely fields ourside, and the sense of waiting was tangible in the air, just as it must have been on the night of Jesus' birth.

I went to bed late on Christmas nights, having stuffed a large turkey and put it in the oven to cook overnight.

We would put one present on the children's beds for them to open when they woke up but then the day of waiting began for them! They enjoy telling now what torture they went through, but it is with laughter.

After a quick breakfast we would all go and join the men around their tree. Some would have gone home for Christmas, but there were usually about 7 who hadn't. The names on the presents would be read out by Paul with a Santa hat on; on his hands and knees by the tree. One person in particular, would never open any of his presents, but would sit while his pile accumulated beside him, until there were no more presents under the tree. Then, and only then, would he begin to open them.

Around our tree the presents beckoned, but we had church yet! Paul would take the children to church while I prepared the Christmas dinner. On his way home he would stop and pick up our very dear, elderly friend, Miss MacDonald, my beloved "Aunt Agnes." Aunt Agnes never married because her first beau died in the First World War and she left the second love of her life behind on the mission field in Africa, when malaria forced her to return to Canada. One year after Christmas I asked her what she had done for Christmas and was crushed to hear that she had spent it alone. I had imagined that she would be in demand at many Christmas tables. I vowed that as long as she lived she would never spend another alone.

Eventually the children, Paul and Aunt Agnes would arrive back from church and sometimes Paul's family would join us too. By this time the children would be getting phone calls from their friends, asking what they got for Christmas. "We don't know yet!" they would say, to the disbelief of their friends.

We didn't intentionally spread the day out like this but there was just so much to be done! Eventually all the presents were opened and dinner was served. The best of all times came then, when the afternoon twilight would deepen and the Christmas lights would twinkle in each room. Boxes of chocolates were opened and snacks laid out; turkey sandwiches made for the evening meal, and a happy quietness settled over all of us in the house. Sated and tired we snoozed intermittently and had another chocolate or two, grateful for the blessings of Christmas.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Traditions Held Dear

Did you know that the word "tradition" comes from the Latin "tradere"; to transmit, or give for safekeeping? Thank you Wikepedia for that information! 

This, of all times of the year is bound up in tradition. Who can't look back on their childhood and remember, not just that there were Christmases, but the particular way in which it was done; the little rituals that you could count on?

When our children were growing up, they knew that they would have one gift on their bed, along with a Christmas stocking when they woke up on Christmas morning. I think we hoped (vainly) that this would buy us a few more minutes in bed! 

As new families form they make their own traditions based on thier values. One young mom with two preschoolers has begun a tradition of sharing their family Christmas with friends who would otherwise be alone. How true to the spirit of Christmas to shift the focus from giving things, to giving the gift of welcome. 

And sometimes we hold onto traditions that don't seem to make sense because they matter to someone. A coworker told me that his teen aged children insist that their Christmas tree be cut from the lot up north where they have cut them for years. He ruefully shook his head with a smile, knowing that he would have to make the trip this weekend even though it would be much easier to put up an artificial tree or cheaper to buy a real one locally.

But it isn't that rituals and traditions can't be adapted or changed. This year two other friends and I have renegotiated our Christmas traditions to better suit our circumstances. The fact that there were "negotiations," speaks to their importance to us.

Today we celebrated St. Nicholas' Day with our six grandchildren. They call it, "Dutch Christmas"; a way of including part of our heritage in our celebrations. I made sugar cookie dough and the children rolled it out and cut out cookies with the same cookie cutters their parents used when they were children. Each year they decorate them with greater skill; more sugar lands on the cookies and less on the floor! 


It all had to be fit in today between hockey games and a Christmas play rehearsal, a window of a few hours in the afternoon of a busy day. Sue, our daughter-in-law, collapsed into a chair when she arrived. "The children have been looking forward to this for weeks," she said, "But I just kept telling myself, "If I can just get through Saturday!"

"Well, it's almost over!" I said.

That was when a little voice from the next room said, "But I don't want it to be over." 

And if I needed to know, I knew then it was worth it; the making of dough at midnight after a week of caroling and parties; to have "kept safe" for another year, something precious to the heart of a child.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy to be "Here"

Exactly one week ago today Paul and I heaved a joint sigh of relief and relaxed as we have not been able to for four months--the four months that our house has been on the market.

It was July 23, in the hot and verdant Ontario summer, when the "For Sale" sign went up on the front lawn of our beloved house. I wrote about the emotional turmoil of that, here.

A big part of what prompted our decision to sell was that maintaining the acre our house sits on was getting hard for Paul. He was living with chronic joint pain, and as we anticipated our retirement next year, it felt like time to downsize. But we prayed throughout the process for God to guide--and we are still here.

In the four months of having a lock box on our front door; a sign in our foyer saying, "please remove your shoes;" and visiting real estate agents' cards on our hall table; I learned a lot that I am grateful for. I wrote with a groan in July about "the ruthless tidiness of it all." Keeping the house clean and tidy without lapsing was something I didn't manage to do perfectly I'm afraid, so I had a few quite rapid and breathless cleaning sessions for surprise showings; but here are six things useful things I learned.

1) Clearing the house of clutter makes cleaning much easier and I will maintain a clutter free house forever. I'm not sure yet what to do with the boxes of things we packed away and haven't missed, but I'm not unpacking them!
2) It is possible to hide a lot of things that you need to use on regularly and just get them out when you need them. I discovered all kinds of flattish oblong zippered containers for underneath furniture and lots of clever ways to store jewelry other small things. The local Solutions--Your Organized Living Store became a favourite destination when staging our home.
3) Keeping surfaces clutter free is soothing to the eye and soul. 
4) A house can be an "anchor" of sorts to people. Several people from our cell group, and the writers group that meets here, said, only half jokingly, "You didn't ask us," when we put our house up for sale, and some of our grandchildren were not impressed. 
5) People have interesting reasons for not liking a house. More than one family said that they loved the house but considered the fact that it is opposite a cemetery unlucky, or bad feng shui.  I find the old cemetery peaceful and see it as an asset. There is a practice called, Memento Mori, which is Latin for "remember that you have to die," which I recommend in this age of youth culture and denial. As a child in an English village I walked to school through a cemetery and played there with friends afterwards, the past and present co-existing naturally. I find that a cemetery makes me more aware of the brevity of life and also causes me to cherish greatly the gift of still being able to make a difference in the world. 
6) What is perfect for us, is not so perfect for other people. Our home has been built and shaped over the years around our lifestyle. It is perfect for gatherings and has many spaces in which to close a door and be alone, but it doesn't have many bedrooms or all of the shiny new elements that buyers look for now, including ourselves when we were looking at other houses. We can now see our home through more realistic eyes, and yet appreciate its perfect utility for us. 

Recently Paul went online and did some research on a statin drug he was taking to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart. He learned that the joint pain he was living with could be a side effect of the drug. He decided to stop taking them and within 3 days, he was pain free. The drug he was taking to manage his pain came with a risk of heart attack--the thing he was taking the statin drugs to avoid--a potentially deadly cycle! 

Having eliminated one of our main reasons for wanting to move; and realizing that we could happily stay put; we counted down the last few weeks of the real estate contract and celebrated at the end of it.

It was with joy that I watched Paul haul in the box from the garage with our artificial Christmas tree and put it up for another Christmas here, when we thought we would be celebrating it elsewhere this year.

Our Sale of the Century is indefinitely postponed!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Connections

There are times imprinted in memory because of the seasons in our lives in which they occurred, although memory can also be a fragile faculty.

At the monthly meeting of the writers group that meets in our home, November's topic was Memories/Remembrance. Everyone came at the topic uniquely. We met on November 11, Remembrance Day, and one person, instead of writing, brought memorabilia of generations of her family at war and spoke of her hopes and fears now that a son-in-law has enlisted. We passed around her fascinating items and photos. 

I shared the story of my father's two months overseas during the war, right at the end, and I brought out one of my own treasures, a rifle oiler from World War 1, a gift from my nephew John in 2011. You can link to my post about the rifle oiler, with photos of it, here.

Magda shared a story about her family's history, starting in Holland during World War 11 and then continuing into their first decade or so in Ontario after emigrating in the 1950's. They were hard years fraught with disappointments and losses. Her memories of childhood were of the difficulty of adjusting to a new country and culture under harsh conditions. It was as she read with pride of her father and recounted his many jobs, that I listened even more intently. One of them was as the janitor at Ardills Department Store and Ski Shop in Aurora. 

"I worked at Ardills!" I said.

"When?" asked Magda.

"1969," I said.

Magda nodded with a smile, "He would have been there then."

I couldn't remember ever meeting the janitor, which wasn't surprising since he would have most likely been there after closing time, but I wrote a blog post about the women I worked with there after arriving in Canada from England; a homesick 19 year old newlywed; in 1969. The post was entitled, The Ladies of Ardills, and you can read it here.

The women I worked with were each distinct in their personalities. Four of them had grey hair and I thought of them as so much older than myself, which they were by at least 40 years. And now I am at least as old as they must have been!

And then a strange thing happened, a resurrection from the vault of memory! I suddenly "saw" a man in dark blue overalls with a head of abundant fuzzy white hair, that I had completely forgotten until that moment. "I do remember Herman!" I said,  hoping that I hadn't manufactured a man from my imagination. But Madga said that her dad's hair was curly, so I am sure that it really was him I saw in my mind's eye.

Stocking Cap With Long Tail Knitting PatternAnd then in Magda's story, a man named Billy was mentioned; a young man with disabilities who would come by the store to pick up the flyers for the newspaper. Out of my mental archives, a long forgotten short, dark haired man, sprang; wearing a scarf and an over sized black winter coat, unzipped. A long stocking cap with a tail that swung from side to side behind him with every step of his unsteady gait. It was pulled down above a sharp featured but cheerful face. 

"I remember Billy!" I said, amazed at the  emergence of memories that had been lost until that moment.


That year I went through the rite of passage, from girlhood to womanhood, and then to motherhood. I was homesick and lonely and the women of Ardills filled a little of my need for family. I had somehow lost Herman and Billy in my memory bank but thanks to Magda's story they are back.

And I can't help but be amazed at the silken threads of connectivity that so many decades later, brought Herman's daughter Magda and I together, through our mutual love of writing.

Post Script: A photo sent by Magda, of her father.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Prayer for Peace

It was the evening after Remembrance Day and Paul and I had a quiet evening in. He said, "I've got an episode of Inspector George Gently saved on the P.V.R. do you want to watch it?" And I said, "Yes." The episode was called Gently with Honour, and was about top secret psychological warfare experiments on a British military base during the Cold War, with a concurrent back story about a conspiracy of silence during an earlier war.

Ex military himself, Inspector Gently, attended the funeral of a soldier from his old regiment. At the pub after the funeral, where the emphasis was on the brotherhood of the men in attendance, it was apparent that Gently was struggling with something that had happened involving the soldier whose funeral it was. He was chided by his ex superior officer for bringing up events that were past. 

Throughout the episode, which involves a cover up of things gone too far in the more recent past, Gently struggles with his complicity in witnessing a war crime and remaining silent. At the end of the program, Paul turned to me and said, "That made me think of your dad." It was exactly what I had been thinking.

The one story Dad ever told us about "his war," involved witnessing an incident similar to that which George Gently witnessed. In Gently's case it was the beating to death of a surrendering sniper by several of his fellow soldiers, led the one whose funeral he had just attended. The sniper had minutes before shot and killed several of his comrades but had surrendered unarmed, with arms raised. When the beating was over, most of the men seemed dazed and ashamed. 

Dad witnessed the cold blooded shooting of a surrendering young German soldier by a British soldier whose nickname indicated a pattern of brutality. He didn't mention and I didn't ask, if he ever told anyone at the time.

In Gently's case, he decides at the end of the episode to report the incident; a war crime; and tells his past superior officer, who accepts his decision and says that he himself will be a witness. For Gently it was the only possible way to resolve the dissonance between everything he stood for, and the silence that made him complicit. 

The episode made me think about the terrible burden of a silence carried many years; a moment in time that sickens the soul, seared into memory. High ideals drive men and women to enlist, but they face a reality that no one can prepare them for; one in which the enemy can be less easy to define, as with the lines between honour and dishonour; bravery and cowardice. 

The silence of soldiers needs no explanation, but thinking about Dad's story makes it easy to understand; the scars on the outside are not the only battle wounds. At the end of this week of remembrance it gives me compassion for those who went to war, and a deep commitment to pray for peace--in the world--and for those who have fought and live with painful memories.

Monday, November 10, 2014

In Remembrance

This is just one man's war, but he was our father, and I share this in his memory and in honour of all of the ordinary men and women who served and returned from the war forever changed.


Seventy years ago, in 1944, our father, Chris Cater, was working in a reserved occupation in Lancashire, a traditional recruiting area for the Brigade of Guards. He enlisted in spite of being of being officially prohibited from doing so and his service record shows that he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards at Wolverhampton on May 22nd 1944. He was 23 years old.

Chris was  proud to have been a Guardsman. He was assigned to the King's Company, an elite corp. because they were short one man and he was 6 feet tall.

After training for about 10 months, Chris was sent to Europe for two months; from March 2nd to May 2nd, 1945 when he was wounded by shrapnel.  He returned in 1946 as part of the occupying force; the British Army of the Rhine.

Several key events took place during the two months Chris spent in Europe. He arrived as part of an armoured brigade, just three weeks after the horrific bombing of Dresden by the Allies; which took place in mid February. The Allies took Cologne, in Germany, on March 7th 1945 and on April 30th 1945, Adolph Hitler committed suicide. May 7th, just 5 days after Chris returned to England, saw the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the Allies and May 8th was Victory in Europe Day.

Chris, like many other soldiers did not talk about the war with his family. It was a closed door, behind which were unspoken memories.

He shared the memory of just one day with me towards the end of his life, and although by then it was almost sixty years later, as he told the story, it was as if it happened yesterday.

Chris's memory of Friday, April 13th 1945:
He was in the infantry, the First All Grenadier Regiment of Foot guards and their objective was Zeven, in Germany.

Chris was riding with a convoy of 4 Sherman tanks, motorized infantry. This meant that you either rode on top of a tank, or a half track (half car, half tank with regular wheels on the front for steering and caterpillar tracks on the back to propel the vehicle.)

The wireless operator handed Chris the headset and told him to listen to the German broadcast in which someone was warning them in English, saying, "You'll regret it," an intimidation tactic.

Chris was on the fourth tank. The second tank blew up, hit by an 88mm German gun. All the infantry then quickly got off (and by then were into a heavily wooded area and the tanks were ineffective--they were blind. In open formation they had to go through the woods, "seeing" for the tanks.

They did not see a single living German soldier, but found German horse drawn artillery, all were dead, soldiers and horses. Killed by a bomb blast; there was not a mark on them.

Then, quite a way through the woods, they came under artillery fire and took cover. A guardsman named Douglas (Dougie) Clegg, from Manchester, told Chris that it was Friday the 13th and said that it was their own guns that were firing on them. It lasted about 8-10 minutes. They had evidently been ordered to pull back and the reason that they had been fired on was that they were too far forward.

Chris looked back and saw a guardsman crouched over on a tree trunk. He went back to find out if he was wounded, and where. He saw that he had a shrapnel chest wound, the size of a shilling. Chris lifted him in a fireman's lift, carrying him to a tank that was pulling out. The soldiers on top of the tank lifted him off Chris's shoulder and onto the tank.

Chris suddenly realized as the tanks pulled away that he was in danger of being left behind. He saw a Bren Gun carrier and got into it. He shouted to the driver to get them out of there, but it was stuck because it had stopped on ground that was too high and the tracks weren't engaging with the ground. All of them rocked the carrier until one track engaged, and finally it got them out.

After this, they were on foot in the heavily wooded area attacking the Alpine German troops, the 9th Reserve Jaeger Battalion that had been in a school. They drove them out, including the Volkstern (home guard) and S.S. The Germans were in retreat.

Chris went into the school and found a fine German sniper rifle with wide telescopic sights. He was in a long corridor and on the wall at the end of the corridor was a big picture of Hitler. Chris thought he would try the rifle and shoot at the picture, but then realized that in a confined space, bullets could ricochet. He turned around, and there was an open doorway behind him. He could see the back half of a German vehicle and there was a German helmet, resting on something. He was tempted to shoot at the helmet, but stopped and went to look at it first. When he picked it up, he found that it was supported on the warhead of a bazooka bomb. The Germans that had been there earlier were either dead or had pulled out.

After going through the school and on beyond it, a young German soldier came out from behind a tree with his hands up in surrender. A British soldier, with a Bren machine gun, normally operated from the ground, on his hip, shot the surrendering soldier with the Bren gun, almost cutting him in two. In horror, Chris said, "Why on earth did you do that? He was only a young lad." It was an act of inhumanity Chris never forgot.

Chris returned to Germany on the 26th of February 1946 and stayed until the 5th of December 1946 as part of the British Army of the Rhine, which oversaw prisoners of war. Some became Chris's friends. This sketch was done by one of them.

Just one man's war, but he was our dad.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Leaving Mish

It was Saturday evening; the end of our week in Mish.  That day we emptied out the fridge and freezer and put the kitchen back in good order, giving away all of the food we were amazed that we still had left.

The truck was loaded with everything but the essentials for the morning, as we planned to start out early, drive 264 km along highway 599, to highway 17, and stop in Ignace for breakfast.

We were sitting around the table after supper, when Rebecca showed Joyce the burn on her leg from the exhaust pipe on Jamie's motorbike on the journey to Mish a week earlier. Joyce, a retired nurse, had been checking it all week and it had seemed to be healing well, but on Thursday and Friday, Rebecca had gone swimming with the children, and now the wound looked nasty and the flesh for several inches above it had turned a hot looking pink. 

I panicked; possessed with a sense of urgency that told me Rebecca needed to be on antibiotics.  All of a sudden we seemed so far away from the kind of help we take for granted in the south! I went into another room and checked on the internet, but could only see that the Health Centre was open 9-5, Monday to Friday and it was now about 7.30 p.m. on Saturday. I searched further and the nearest emergency medical help seemed to be in Sioux Lookout--231 km away, with an estimated driving time of 4 hours.

I rejoined the group around the table and shared what I had found. "I'll drive Rebecca to Sioux Lookout," I said to my companions who seemed so calm in comparison to me. Susan said she was sure it only took two and a half hours, and A.J. was willing to drive.

Joyce suggested that we first go to the nurses residences on Sandy Road and see if one of them was on duty. While the others were getting ready to leave I called the police and left a message asking where we could get medication for someone in need of antibiotics.

We drove down the dark road and rounded the bend to where the nurses' residences stood, up on a small hill. I went from door to door, knocking, praying that one would open. A young boy called to his mom, a nurse, who said that she was off duty, but another nurse would be on duty in about half an hour.

Joyce said we should drive down the road to the village and see if anyone was at the Health Centre. Against hope, that's what we did, and to my surprise, the lights were on and the door was opened by a man who invited us in, offered us a place to sit, and said he'd tell the nurse we were there.

A few minutes later, the nurse came out of her office and looked at the three of us with a confused expression. "Did you make an appointment?" she said. As we explained why we were there, she told us that we were very lucky to find her there; she was only there because of another seriously ill patient that she had been treating.

I was so relieved to actually be in her office that I sat silently thanking God as she took down Rebecca's details and carefully assessed the condition of her leg.

Joyce conferred with her, nurse to nurse, discussing the options and agreeing together on antibiotics, which were dispensed right then and there.

We learned the nurse's name; Myrtle Bonnie; and that she was from Brampton, but originally from Ghana. She had come with her husband, also a nurse, wanting to share the light of God's love with the people of Mish as they served them medically. 

By the time we drove back up Sandy Road to the the school, we had a new friend to pray for and I was relieved that Rebecca had already started antibiotics. We had learned from Myrtle that pregnant women from the reserve have to leave their families six weeks before the birth of their babies for Sioux Lookout, in case of complications at birth. They are reluctant to leave, and Myrtle has the hard job of insisting that she isn't equipped to deal with what might go wrong, so far from medical assistance. How hard that must be for the women, and their families.


The next morning, after a few hours of sleep, our little convoy packed up and wound down Sandy Road for the last time, sad to leave the friends we had made.


We made some stops on our way, at the home of a little girl to whom Susan had promised her pillow, and then at Ten Houses to drop off some last items--and then we were really on our way home.

I know that I wasn't the only one who left with a heart captured forever by the people of the north, and especially Mishkeegogamang.