Archive for December, 2008

A White Christmas

December 25, 2008

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We live in a micro-climate, from coast to thirty kilometers inland, buffering the continent with an oasis in winter for the people of the interior and those in the East.

After they retired, my aunt and uncle made a yearly excursion Out West for the cruelest months. They could walk without fear of slipping on ice. They could sit, warmly wrapped, in any of the technicolor parks still grassy green to watch the non-migratory ducks and geese gabble their news to each other and scold their spouses and their young. In Ottawa, the park benches were buried in white; the windchill was untenable; and what was there to see? A desaturated landscape, blurred of all its detail by the omnipresent snow.

In January, it was always in bad taste to phone up a colleague in Ottawa and tell them the tulips were coming up, but we loved to do it with sadistic glee. In Ottawa, the Tulip Festival occurs in May.

Last week, a cold front made its way in, turning down the temperature to a chilly minus fifteen degrees Celcius. That’s cold. Even the Fraser River froze over.

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But the streets were dry and the driving was reasonable. Philosophically, these dips in temperature rarely last long. One just wraps up with an extra sweater, turns on the gas fireplace for an hour or so to pump in a little more heat, and waits it through.

I think it was Sunday that the first flakes began to fall, not frankly, straightforwardly. No, they began under cover of night, like an army of white aliens creeping in when you might least expect it.

The weather advisory had forecast snow. Pandering to typical West Coast wimpyness, the Weather Channel was displaying details on a poppy red background. It announced ten to fifteen centimeters of snow.That’s four inches, for any of you who are still operating on Imperial measurements.

For any who had known a real Canadian winter, it was laughable. In Ottawa, they must have been sitting in pubs warming their hearts over a good glass of cool beer and cracking up with laughter. Snow warning? They dealt with that kind of snow day after day for six months of the year.

But Vancouver is not used to this kind of weather. Vancouverites don’t know how to drive in it. Municipalities all round don’t have snow clearing equipment and the budget for snow is miniscule. Their stocks of ice melter are ordered some years and never used. Add to that the changing demographic, where fifty percent of the people living there come from tropical and semi-tropical climes. They have little experience driving in the stuff. It creates chaos. If you can, it’s better to just stay home, and some businesses actually phone their employees and tell them to just  stay there.

On Monday, as is my habit, I stumbled out of bed and made my way to the window. What would the day bring? How should I dress?

There before me was a beautiful, pristine carpet of snow making clean all the grumpy greyness of winter. It was deep enough that I wouldn’t be driving anywhere, despite the fact that I was preparing for a Boxing Day party with an invitation list of thirty.  I decided to stay home and do other preparations. I declared my own “snow day” and had a lazy time of doing little.

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On Tuesday, the temperature had not relented. It was still in the minus ten range. The snow, I had discovered by making my way over to Mrs. Stepford’s house, was light, dry and fluffy. I decided to clear my walkway.

Now you must understand, I have an entrance driveway that goes right around in a semi-circle from the left side of the property, up to the front door and back out the right side. It’s ten feet wide at least.

I got out my snow shovel, booted up and donned my gloves and parka. First I shoveled a path to the sidewalk. It was surprisingly easy. I had discovered the dynamic of the snow pusher.

A year ago when I first went looking for a snow shovel, I learned that the item I was looking for was really called a snow pusher. When I thought that out and tried it, snow pushing was much easier than shoveling and lifting the snow to deposit it somewhere with a lancing motion either in front or behind of me. I simply walked with the pusher before me and it gathered the snow, even a large quantity of snow, to the edge of the driveway and then I lifted it onto the pile at the side.

Once the first swath had been cleared, it was easy to push the snow to the side and accumulate it in a growing wall of white, like building a dike or levee. I found that if I pushed the first shovelful to the inner part of the circle’s edge and the second to the outer one, then I walked half as much. In the end, I had a lovely herring bone pattern appearing on the asphalt that was being revealed by my diligent shoveling.

Where the postie had taken a short cut through the broken fence from the neighbours, I cleared my side of it right down to asphalt so she could navigate easily.

Within fifteen minutes, my parka was tossed onto the front porch. Despite the cold, I was working up a good bit of internal temperature that did me for the duration of my toils.

The worst part was by the road where the snow plow had deposited a dirty sepia pile of road battered snow. It was wet with ice melter and soggy. It was heavier than the pristine snow.

All in all, though, it took me a little less than two hours to do the whole thing.  I thanked myself for a year’s worth of going to the gym, strengthening my arm muscles and my back plus developing a much better aerobic endurance. An hour after I had come inside and wet my whistle with a few cups of hot coffee, I arose from my chair and became ruefully aware that I had, nonetheless, used some muscles that I had not used in a great deal of time. They complained.

The day was cold and sunny. I enjoyed looking out on the long shadows patterning the snow with an echo of the trees above and took some photos. Mid afternoon, Mrs. Stepford and I went shopping, just in case the days ahead continued to play havoc with our Christmas entertainment plans.

The next day, as I repeated my morning window check, I found that the alien white stuff and once again made great inroads. Six inches. Fifteen centimeters lay round about. All the clearing I had done was as if for nought.  Mrs. Stepford called saying “Well, what do you think of that!” and we agreed it was unusual but very beautiful.

Mrs. Stepford who has not been well – the flu, high blood pressure, diabetes, encroaching blindness – feisty and independent, says, “I’m going out there to clear the walks for Mr. Stepford’s homecoming and clear off the driveway so it’s easy to get his car in.”

“Idiot!” I say back to her. We are not too polite to each other sometimes, scrapping like sisters, is more like it. I rattled off all the reasons why it was inadvisable for her to do it herself and persuaded her to get a neighbourhood kid to do it for her. This she did, with the promise that her helper could help me as well.

As it turned out, her helper quit after half an hour, exhausted and teenagerish, unwilling to do more. Youth, these days! It ain’t what it used to be. There was nothing for it. I needed to go out for some necessities, so I set to clearing the walk. Once again, the snow was powdery and light. I’d learned some tricks to saving my energy and the work went well. In two hours, I had cleared the snow; came in for an hour’s rest and then went about my business down at the shopping mall. The only thing I hadn’t done was the second pile of snow plow droppings on the north side of the driveway at roadside.

I tackled that in the late afternoon. If ever it melted and then froze again, it would be impossible to dislodge. It might be weeks before the snow melted sufficiently for me to get my car out. Once again, I donned parka, mitts and boots and headed out with my shovel.

This time the work was quite different. It was a muddied, salt encrusted pile. There was dry powdery stuff underneath, but compacted. The freeze had already set into the pile and the mass was more solid, wetter, like half set concrete.

I could no longer put my shovel underneath the pile and lift. It was semi solid and far too heavy. I had to chip at it with the blade from above, pounding down on it – a movement that jarred my wrist. A slice of the grey mass would tumble to the ground, and then another. When there was sufficient, I lifted it onto yesterday’s mound of snow leavings where it sank in and settled.

This swath, ten foot by four, – just five percent of my total task –  took an hour to chip away, shovel and lift  to the mounting pyramid of snow.

When I finally kicked the snow from my boots at the door, I too, sank in and settled – into the nearest comfy chair and had a good snooze.

The rest of the day was useless. I had used up all my energy. The television played one thing after another – Recreating Eden,  about a successful young landscaper on a  tropical island designing for resorts and the well-heeled. There was a lot of sunshine, clear skies, sandy beaches and wafting palms. Next came the Secret World of Gardens  with climbing vines reaching towards cerulean skies. I had toast and soup for dinner and it warmed me from the inside out.

After a hibernation of several hours, I got back up some energy and cleared out a lot of useless wrapping paper; I gathered my recycling and put it at the roadside at midnight. I never can get up for their eight in the morning deadline.

It was cold out. Sparkling ice crystals floated in the air. It was crisp. I admired my herringbone patterned asphalt. Streetlights cast a peachy glow on the snow between the patterns of tree shadows. Natural night owl that I am, I admired my handiwork again at three and went to bed. Not a new flake had fallen.

The phone rang at nine and I ignored it. My friends know better than to phone before 10. I snuggled under the duvet and thanked the Lord for ducks that were willing to give up their eider down for my comfort in this northern land. It was warm and cozy. I had no will to move from my little warm nest.

By ten, though, my sense of responsibility was calling. I had much to do to tidy the house before guests came. Without looking out the window for once, I got up and dressed ready for the day.  I made my way downstairs  for a cup of coffee. The phone rang and Doreen at the other end of the line in a cheery voice (she’d already been up since six-thirty, I’d wager) says, “well, how do you like them apples?”

“Apples?” said I, not yet really awake.

“Have you seen outside?” she said coyly.

“Outside?”

I’m really slow, maybe a bit stupid in the mornings.

“The snow!” she crows, happily and cascades into a waterfall of laughter.

“What are you going to do today?” she says, with that coy voice that says she already knows.

With the cordless  phone still plastered to my right ear, I walk to the front door and look at my cleared sidewalk with the lovely herringbone pattern. All gone!

There were easily twelve inches or thirty centimeters of white sitting on my cleared sidewalk. You can’t even see the difference between the three foot piles of cleared snow compared to where I had shoveled only yesterday afternoon.  Well, maybe just a little.  There’s a small hill at each side of the roundabout.

“You’re going to have to do it early today,” she warns, assuming a lecturing tone.  “It’s heavier and wetter. If you don’t, when it thaws like they say it will this afternoon, then it’ll be too heavy to move. It’ll crust over. Trust me. I’m from Ontario. I know snow.”

Doreen and I talked for a while, about plans for our day, about what we did yesterday – or rather, about what she and her visiting Mom had done yesterday, since my activity was summed up in a single sentence. I shoveled snow.

I had a cup of coffee to wake me then donned my winter apparel and reacquainted myself with the snow pusher. Indeed the snow was heavier. After an hour, I’d done the quarter of what I’d done the previous day. I resolved to clear the roundabout to my doorway.

As I cleared, I could no longer get behind the shovel and just push the lot before me until I met with yesterdays piles of it. The pile was three feet high and I was adding another foot to it. The roundabout was beginning to look like a moat!

A few nice things happened. As I was lifting a shovelful, the snow compacted together and then a portion fell away just enough to make a crevice in the clump. In the middle of this was the purest of blues, a transparent aquamarine. For any readers who paint, I’d say Magnesium blue was the pigment I would pick for it. It reminded me of the clear glacial lakes in the Rockies or the colour of the submerged part of an iceberg.

Mrs. Stepford came out to clear her walk despite advice to the contrary. She has an independent and sometime foolhardy spirit. You have got to hand it to her. She had a colourful scarf wrapped in a turban like manner around her head to keep the snow off her hair and to keep her ears warm. She looked like a Russian Babushka as she shoveled away and it was so visually pleasing that I went back into the  house to get my camera.

While looking into her yard, I could see her cedar hedge, each of the trees capped with a good packet of snow that stayed just like that in a kind of headdress that reminded me of a gaggle of wimpled nuns.

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After two hours, I’d done half the roundabout and could do no more. I came in and heated up a big bowl of cream of fennel soup of my own creation.  I was surprised to see that it was only two in the afternoon! It felt like I had been working for hours. It was still snowing.

My wet-through jacket is hanging over the heating vent as are my sopped gloves. There’s a lot of melting going on outside despite the temperature still being below zero.

It’s four o’clock now. I’ve written this and I got out my chalks to draw the graceful cherry tree swamped in snow. I’m going out for dinner and I’m headed for a nap before I do.

When I checked the forecast on the television, there’s a poppy red warning for more snow. When I looked outside, there’s a one inch covering over the asphalt.

And it’s still snowing.

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Sugar cookies

December 21, 2008

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It was nearly midnight when Kay pulled out the mixing bowl and carefully cut a quarter pound off a block of butter.

Efficiency“, she thought, as she measured the sugar to cover the butter, then placed it in the microwave for fifteen seconds. The butter melted to perfection, not yet clear, still an opaque buttery yellow but soft enough to save a quarter hour of creaming it with the sugar.  She added the milk, the egg, the teaspoon of vanilla and blended it all into a frothier state.

Next she measured the flour and the baking powder and mixed those in. In no time, she was rolling the dough and placing the cut shapes on to parchment paper on her baking pans.

Now there’s an invention,” she gloated to herself.  Parchment paper saved all the elbow grease of cleaning the pans.There was no one around to listen.

It had been two years since she had done any serious baking, but with a large number of people coming on Boxing Day, she would have to have things for them to nibble on. Store bought stuff was so….  so un-homey, so commercial, so not Christmassy.

Kay settled into a artisanal rhythm  of rolling dough, cutting shapes, arranging them, baking them, pulling them from the oven, cooling them, placing them on a plate to harden, then starting over. It was much like Paschabel’s  Canon. While the baking was going on in the oven, she was already starting on the rolling of dough and cutting of shapes for the next batch. When she pulled them from the oven and that cycle was ending, the next tray was ready for the oven and she started again.

Nonetheless, she could do many of the tasks by rote, and she reflected back to the last time she had spent with her mother baking for Christmas time. Besides the shortbread, they had made plum puddings. Mother’s hands, gnarled with her ninety years of kitchen duty were ugly in some ways – spotted, blue veins popping out above the bones, the white tendons shifting as she manipulated the dough, but in other ways they were so beautiful. There was an elegance to her hands, the way she held things carefully, preciously, as she worked, absorbed in one of the few helpful tasks she could still participate in.

Her mother had been anxious to pass along the tradition of making Christmas pudding. The recipe was only words. It couldn’t demonstrate the necessary techniques, the curious necessity of drying the bread until it was completely hard  and then soaking the bread again in water. It didn’t make sense, but according to her, it was  essential to the process.

The timer rang irritatingly. She ignored it since her hands were sticky with dough and she needed just a few more seconds to complete her task. The timer continued to chime insistently and though it could only have been another ten seconds, by the time Kay opened the oven, the edges of the cookies were browning too rapidly. Two of them were burnt on the bottom. An adjustment would have to be made. Kay would have to answer the annoying signal. It had to be obeyed!

Now Kay had a plateful of two inch rounds. With fondness, she remembered her first Christmas in Europe. She had been living just outside of Paris, studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. At Christmas break, an English student from the International Business School invited her to join three other students driving back to London for a two week school break.  Kay leapt at the chance.

For three days in London, she shared a two-bedroom flat with six other people, some who worked on shift; others who were at school; and with the holidays, there was a daybed in the living room for Kay to sleep on.

On the fourth day, she took the train for Holyhead and then the boat to Dublin to stay with some acquaintances at SeaPoint in Monkstown.

She had met this Irish couple at a side-walk cafe in France; the woman was an artist, as was Kay; they’d given her an invitation to visit at any time.  When Kay called from London, Ellen had sounded enthusiastic. “Yes, please come!”

But Kay was not confident; she was arriving just before Christmas. Studying herself in the mirror, she realized how tenuous her invitaion was. Christmas was for families. She’d have to get a move on to  somewhere else before Christmas arrived. It was one thing to be invited to stay; but to intrude on Christmas day itself without an invitation was some nervy kind of gall!

It was bitterly cold. The air was damp and the cold penetrated. On an early walk out to see the village of Monkstown, Kay had seen a hardy localresident go down to the sea and swim.

“Brrrrr,” Kay shivered. That was just too bizarre, wanting that kind of hardiness; deliberately forcing oneself to suffer so.

Late in the afternoon, preparations were underway for the big day. Kay offered to lend a hand and was assigned decoration of the cookies with some white, green and red icing.

There are moments in life that seem to be suspended in time. Time out of time, Kay liked to explain it.  There were no other demands. The only thing in the world that she had to do that afternoon was this baking. If it took an hour or if it took three, there was no difference.

And so it was that Kay took up her paint brush and began to paint the cookies with pictures.  She carefully covered the cookies with a hard and smooth white icing. When it dried, she took a portion of leftover icing and dyed it in green, another portion in red, another portion in blue, another in yellow, according to the food dyes at her disposal.

With a new paintbrush, she drew a green fir tree on the first cookie. It was simple. A child’s drawing, really. On the next, she drew two fir trees. One after another she decorated the rounds with Christmas images – of snowmen, of baubles in their many variations, of wreathes, of snow covered houses with smoke coming from the chimney, of holly and mistletoe, of Santa Claus.

One of the children came and helped, making her own designs. Another came to inspect them and to pile them up carefully in tins readied for the baking crop.

While other memories of that stay faded away, always, crystal clear, was that time-out-of-time that Kay had spent baking decorated cookies. And twenty years after, Ellen, her Irish hostess, also only remembered the cookies

Kay lifted her last batch of naked cookies out of the oven. Where, she wondered, could she find a recipe for icing? A simple thing like icing, and the formula had escaped her!

It was after one in the morning when Kay finally turned off the oven and stopped for a cup of vanilla hot milk. She selected a burnt offering and tasted it. Aside from the edges done in brown, it was perfect. The vanilla disappeared as a distinct taste, which was as it should be. Then Kay looked at the bare, cookie-cutter trees.

Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow is another day. And she wrapped things up and went to bed. Tomorrow, she would see if she could make some coloured icings for her cookie treasures.

She turned off the oven; checked that the coffee pot was off; left the baking dishes in the sink for the morrow and went to bed.

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Kay meets a man in the produce section

December 14, 2008

The forecast was for snow and indeed, it started to drift down lightly in the morning. Kay pondered her options. If it continued to snow and settled in for good, driving would be impossible.  It was better to go to the grocery now than later, to navigate slippery, white  streets. In this micro-climate, hardly anyone had experience with serious winter driving. It became a zoo out there.

The morning was miserable. When the flakes stopped drifting, the precipitation turned to icy rain, asserting itself with vengeance, steady and unrelenting. At midday, Kay drove to Chipper Foods and parked. She huddled under her umbrella as she unhooked a pay grocery cart and rushed into the store full of sunshiny light, warmth and the decorative commercial joy of Christmas.

A bit dazed by the shift in light, Kay rolled the cart to a little used aisle and stopped to collect her thoughts. As usual, she had written a list and then left it at home on the counter.

Milk, flour, butter, onions, lemons for Mrs. Stepford“. The list was not long.She already  had enough fruit and vegetables. She could survive with everything else she had put in the freezer. It wasn’t such a big list. It was just that she couldn’t do without milk, if things got worse.

Once she was accustomed to the bright light and the warmth, the store was not an unpleasant place to be. Wafts of roasting chickens were coming down the air-conditioning. In the in-store bakery, they had cooked some pies or cakes with cinnamon and there was an over-all yeasty smell that was tempting. The store smelled good.

Kay shed her outdoor haste and ambled through the aisles, pondering over the choices of flour – bleached, unbleached, all-purpose, bread flour, whole grain and 60 percent mixed. She selected an all-purpose unbleached bag of five kilos.

In the dairy section, she picked up a four litre jug of one-percent milk then selected butter for her Christmas baking.

She was fingering and squeezing the onions in the three pound net bags when she became aware that a blue clad figure had passed her twice on the other side of the display bins.  Kay lifted her head and watched as a man strode by, then around the perimeter of four rows of bins and came back again. It was almost as if he was getting his walking exercise in the sunlight, since it was so horridly cold and wet outside. Mr. Blue was not even looking at the vegetables nor the bulk food bins.  He was consciously pacing the joint over and over again.

Kay decided he was harmless and went back to her onions, rejecting those that were too soft and those that had too much black mould formations on the outer skins. It was while she was doing this that she became aware of another troubling matter going on.

“Damn feminists.” she heard someone mutter.

In her peripheral  vision, she saw a man behind her,  hunched over, muttering to himself barely loud enough to be understood. It was loud enough to be a disturbing.  His hair was toussled like a bed-head. By his weathered skin, he was an older man, in his fifties say.  His jacket was nondescript, rumpled. Homeless, perhaps, thought Kay.

She caught a few more of his words – a ranting, almost – about women not doing their housework;  the world going to pot and it continued on in trite phrases of chauvinistic gloom.

Getting uncomfortable, Kay turned to assess her situation. Would she have to call a manager? Have the troubled man taken away?

She took one good look and burst out into hysterical laughter! It was Cecil. Cecil from the theatre. Every time Cecil saw her, he was playing some inane character and Kay fell for it every time.

Cecil’s mischievous eyes lit up and crinkled at the corners with the success of his in-store acting feat, then joined in her infectious laughter. Cecil, the actor, spent more time at home looking after his family than his wife did. She had a nine-to-five job; he had irregular hours and looked after more shopping, cooking, parenting and house organizing than she ever would.

As Cecil flattened down his contrived bed-head, they swapped family doings.  Kay invited Cecil and family for Boxing Day. Cecil caught Kay up on his wife’s struggle for equity in her teaching job that was now in the hands of lawyers.  Kay reported on the latest visiting-artist dinner that Cecil had been unable to attend. They shared some opinions on their mutual friends, then assessed the new moderator of the local Philosophers’ Café.

It was last Thursday evening’s Philosophers’ Café on The Decline of Feminism that had fueled Cecil’s latest  one act produce section play. The walking-wounded that had attended the Cafe had been evidence enough of the sea-change that had occurred in our generation of Feministic progress.  Both men and women had hurtled against the rhetoric and the day to day pitfalls of the women’s lib movement in one way or another and the Café conversations had been a litany of old complaints.

“D’you know,” said Cecil as they wound up their encounter, “that man in blue has been circling the produce for a half an hour now. I’ve been watching.”

“Maybe he’s another actor just waiting for a friend to come in?” offered Kay.

Kay  and Cecil took their leave and went back to their respective shopping tasks. Without her usual deliberate selection process, she lifted the first red-netted bag of onions close to her hand into her cart. She picked up four lemons for Mrs. Stepford then went through the till.

She wheeled the cart out into the gloom of dusky light and heavy rain, loaded her purchases into the trunk, took the cart to the empty cart station and extracted her dollar coin.

When she drove off, shivering in the cold car, rain still pelting in winter fury, Kay was carrying  warmth and sunshine  in her heart.

O, Christmas Tree

December 13, 2008

Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree,

Thou tree most fair and lovely…

How many times have I sung this song in low alto, tears welling up, as a child beside my father in church, around our home Christmas tree or the piano, caroling in the streets, in church basements, at Guides, in the elevators and at every mall in the universe from November First onwards. Countless times, really.

In the weeks preceding Christmas, one musical ensemble after another came to Mother’s senior  residence with carols and favorite Christmas tunes, singing them, leading the aging, nearly deaf and nearly blind, in their favourite tunes, and always there was “O Christmas tree“. Sometimes they came with ukuleles, sometimes with guitars, or violins, or double bass or piano. The back up changed, the tunes remained the same.

I called Mother to hurry, to put on her housecoat, to rise from her bed and come to the common area by the elevator so that she could see and hear the carollers singing a capella, better. Ray, the doctor-patient across the hall wheeled himself into the hall. Nursing aides came to assist the residents closer to the singers. Those who could struggled out into the hallway. Ray hung back, refusing the help of an aide. I asked him if I could be of assistance.

“No, no!” he signalled shakily. With a hand crippled by Parkinson’s Disease, he made jerky shift of his forefinger towards his eyes that were brimming. He was not alone.

He didn’t want to be seen with tears in his eyes – he rathered to stay back and yet he was compelled. Slowly, at his own pace, he  moved forward, to see, to hear, to sing.

Mother paddled forward with her feet, the walker advancing slowly. She too did not want to be too close; but she was eager. Hymns! She chanted them softly to herself as she went to sleep each night. Familiar, comforting, emotionally catching deep in her memory, they took her back so far to the Stella Mission of her childhood in Winnipeg in the nineteen twenties.

With great respect for these residents fragile hearts and souls, I offered no more help to those around, and I concentrated and  succumbed myself to the Christmas music. I dabbed my eyes with a small white handkerchief to keep runnels of salt water from descending my cheeks.

I have a love-hate relationship with Carols. I love the feeling of family and normality that they conjured. I hate the helpless feeling of grief they engender in me that catches  in my jawbone with an ache and the triggering of guilt that they bring that I hadn’t turned out the perfectly innocent and fine Christian soul that my parents had expected me to be. Why oh why did they always get me thinking of failure? My failure.

But this night, I had another grief clenching in my jaw. My cantankerous, sweet, impish, proud, kind, gentle, intelligent, strict, generous and wonderful mother, sat there, dressed in her velvet green dressing gown, ruby-red Indian princess moccasins on her feet trimmed in white rabbits fur,  straining forward in her walker-chair, eagerly like a child, to hear what she could of these songs and sing along within the confines between her ears. She was fading away.  She might or might not make it to Christmas.  That grief  was powerfully conspiring to undo me, when I needed to be strong, to appear unemotional. It wasn’t just for Mother, but for every gentle aged  soul in that hallway who, likewise, knew not whether they would ever hear these ancient songs again and felt that fact so deeply.

That was two years ago. Mother  came home for Christmas, a frail suffering body, frightened of the pain, aching to be home, to stay home, in the house she had worked so hard to obtain in her lifetime. But she couldn’t stay. And after a fall, she rapidly declined. In January, she was gone.

Tonight, I was putting up the family Christmas tree for the first time since then. Last Christmas I escaped to distant family. I couldn’t face the changes that had come about in the year that followed. I barely can now. But I have my own home now. It’s my first Christmas in it and I’m decorating. I’m celebrating Christmas with a Boxing Day Open House and I want a decorated tree.

I unpacked the box filled with bottle brush branches that I’ve inherited. The instructions are gone. With sheer logic, I figured that the longest four branches went on the bottom and progressively in series of four shorter and shorter branches, they fitted into the broomstick pole that came with it.  I seriously think it’s on its last legs. Essential splinters of wood have come away from some of these insertion holes and some branches barely hold on. It’s a Charlie Brown tree; there are hardly enough branches to make it look decent.

When I started to put lights on, there were ten different strings only two of which worked, but so difficult to apply to the branches that I ended up taking them off.  Then I discovered a strange net-like web of lights of more recent manufacture. It was almost like a giant fish-net blanket with twinkle light s at each juncture of the net. I plastered this onto the tree to try it on for size.
Lit up, it didn’t look too bad, but when the lights were off, the mass of wires were so evident it looked horrible. I’m running out of time. I can’t spend six days decorating this thing. I discovered that I don’t like doing it. It’s fussy and frustrating.

I left the network twinkle lights on, hoping that the baubles and tinsel might sufficiently camouflage them.  After hours of struggling with the tree, I gave up. It will be what it will be.

In the process, I’ve let some things go – ornaments that have lost their colour, strings of lights that refuse to do their illumination job; three amateur wreaths made of osier and pine cones wrapped with red tartan ribbon.  It’s renewal time. Out with the old. I’ll figure out what’s needed next year. Maybe a potted tree. This is a small house with little space for a medium sized tree, much less a big one. Maybe a tree that has its lights incorporated right into the branches. Forget the lines of lights and all the replacement bulbs.

I’m moving on. I’m letting go. I’m letting be.

O, Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!

The new roof

December 4, 2008

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I slept past the bz-bz-bz-bz of my alarm – over twenty minutes of it. When I finally got up and shut the maddening thing off, I thought that a few minutes of resurfacing from deep sleep would be in order and I crawled back in between the warm sheets, turned on the light so that I wouldn’t go back to sleep and lay there for another half hour. I don’t do that often, but I was up late last night getting ready for a dinner I was having here tomorrow, and I kept on thinking about the things I had to do. There was no time like the present; just a little scrub of the downstairs bathroom sink; a little vacuuming of high traffic routes in the house; wiping down the little spills in the fridge that have been ignored in the name of art (I’d rather be painting); and the collecting of recycling for the morning’s pick-up.

I heard the trucks arrive and decided it was time to move. My Lord! It was eight thirty already! The roofers were not only here,; they were beginning to move in. A medium sized flat-bed construction truck was parked in the driveway. A truck to haul wastage was backed into the corner by the fence where I usually park my car. A whole gaggle of young men were milling around like ganders with roofing products in their arms or on their shoulders. There were fourteen of them in all, most of them under twenty-five. Only the boss was older.

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There seems to be a dress code amongst these guys – black jeans, black hoodies pulled up over the pate this early on a December morning, with baseball caps underneath in case of sunshine breaking through. Most of them were wearing harnesses. The slope on my roof is considered so steep that the quote was accordingly increased by a few thousands. Now that’s steep!

It means that the workers have to be attached and two-by-fours  have to be nailed into the roof for them to brace their feet on while they wrench up the previous layers of roofing.

Bang, bang, bang BANG; Bang, bang, bang, BANG.

The first motif of the fugue begins. Each individual has a different rhythm. The second voice starts.

bangbangbangbangbangbang with a rapid even tone joined by a hard hitter.

BANG, BANG hiatus BANG BANG.

Were they doing different tasks? Soon all the fellows on the roof were either levering the former, moss-riddled shingles off or banging away in a lusty, vigourous cacophonic symphony of hammering. Nothing so musical as Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith but nonetheless percussive.

I went outside and got my instructions from the boss. I was to stay inside so as not to be knocked over by debris falling from the roof. When the compressor stopped, then and then only could I exit from the house. This would occur at ten o’clock, twelve and two.

I took many photographs to record the proceedings – the silhouettes of the men wrenching tile, the lithe fellows climbing the ladder holding on with single hand as they blithely carted fity to ninety pounds of materials to the top, the pail of nails for the automatic nailgun curled in rounds like ammunition.

It was only a short while into the project that the boss came to see me with a long face, if such can be said about a thick-set stocky man measuring five foot four. He had known that there were two layers of roof shingles, but they had discovered even a third. It was a layer of cedar shakes. The shakes gone, it revealed that they were only nailed to strapping – a typical old-style method of roofing – and there was no plywood underneath. I would have to pay for sheeting the roof in plywood. There would be more wastage to haul; The bill rose by a few thousands. I was relatively philosophical about it.

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My career had been in property management. I’d worked with many roofing inspectors over the duration and  almost always, there was a risk of finding unknown conditions lurking underneath the surface. The roof was now half off. There was no going back. There was only one choice    – bring on the plywood. It would take almost another day. He would have to pay the crew…. Normally, he would have to double the cost of labour and materials for the company administration and profit….  His words hung in the air and trailed off into nothingness. What else, I wondered, could he throw at me?

I acquiesced. He gave an order for someone to pick up the plywood.

After taking several more photos, I went back in the house and began to calculate. Was he being exorbitant? Was he assuming he was talking to an innocent homeowner who knew nothing? This company came with a recommendation from several friends and neighbours, but they were less knowledgeable than I.

I looked up the closest lumber yard on the computer. Retail price on a four by eight sheet of three-quarter plywood cost $12.39. The house was nine hundred useable square feet on each level. Allowing for the slope, not doing any complicated calculations, a generous estimate would be fifteen hundred. Divide that by the thirty two square feet of the standard plywood sheet; multiply that by the price of it. That came to about six hundred dollars.

Then I considered the crew of twelve who were crawling like nimble ants over the upper epidermis of my house. At the current, still high rate of twenty dollars an hour (despite the economic crash, the effects of which had not reached our local economy still fueled by the Olympic dream) could cost two thousand for an eight hour day. No, the contractor was not far out in his rapid calculation. I could just pay up and shut up.

I continued on with my daily chores. Later, I went out again, took more pictures. The stripped roof revealed a rolled edge. I had wondered about its construction, and there it was, harmoniously curved by means of long strapping made from one by twos.

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I went off grocery shopping and stayed out for a coffeehouse coffee. When I came back, much of the back roof was done.

When I came to review progress, one of the lads yelled out, “Watch your language! Customer coming!” at which I had to chuckle.  Barely a word was said while I walked about, took more pictures of the progress.

In the back yard, large abstract pieces of cut plywood were strewn about. The plywood sheathing was well under way; the torch-on vapour barrier was applied; the shingles covered them. I could see the effect my choice of Castle Grey Duroid was going to make in the end. It looked good.

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They are still banging away out there. Dusk is falling. The young lad who is shovelling debris into the junk bin is doing a fine job of cleaning up. Two workers are cooperatively nailing shingle to the rounded edge. One on a ladder is reaching up from above ensuring the soffit remains properly fixed below the roofing edge; holding the roof shingle absolutely parallel to the roof edge while the other nimble fellow reaches down from the top to power-nail the shingle to the strapping.

The sounds are diminishing. There’s a chorus of masculine voices charrying back and forth as they consider then determine how to close off the roof for the night. The sky is clear. With luck there is no danger of moisture entering, save a heavy dew. Roof top tarps are coming out. Materials and tools are being packed back into the truck. There are still the phtt-phtt sounds of the automatic nailer, rumbles, as materials are being moved along the roof; a bit of pounding and scraping; but they are almost finished for the day.